Doctor Evelyn Sterne cast a covert glance at the man seated beside her in the air-conditioned limousine. He was fifty-two years old, just over six feet tall, uncommonly fit for his age, but with a slight roll of fat showing under his chin when he bent his head close to his chest, a habitual gesture. The heavy tinting of the car’s windows concealed the florid cast to his complexion, the result of years of excessive drinking. He was dressed in casual cream pants and an unbleached cotton shirt open at the throat. Quite the contrast from his usual impeccable business suit.
No one seeing him this way who did not recognize his face would guess that he was Maxwell Moore, one of the richest men in the world. He had been in the news so often and on so many magazine covers, it would be difficult to find many individuals who did not know him on sight. The head of Moore Airlines, the founder of the Moore hotel chain and the Moore casinos, not to mention the Moore cruise ships.
He sat with his head turned away from her to look out the side window of the car, and had not spoken in several minutes. In public he was affable, gregarious, charming to a fault, but in private his personality changed completely. He became, not uncivil, but cool and distant, a man immersed in his own thoughts.
There was no doubt in her mind that he was a sociopath. Every indicator pointed to that diagnosis. Even without the subtle cues evident to her training, the conclusion would have been almost automatic. No man could make the kind of wealth Moore had made without a lack of empathy for his fellow human beings. Too many cold, calculated business decisions had to be made along the way, decisions that destroyed the lives of men and women.
She turned to look through the tinted glass on her side of the car. The vast, unvarying mud flat in the center of Dona Ana Park flashed by at high speed. Elsewhere in the park the ground was marshland and harboured countless species of migratory birds, but in this part of the vast wildlife sanctuary, at this time of the year, it was dry, hard mud on which grew a scattering of small green bushes. Somehow Moore had persuaded the Spanish authorities to allow him to build a paved road directly to the excavation site, some sixty miles inland from the coast. The new road was completely smooth. The limousine seemed to float along above it.
She turned from the window to find him watching her. He smiled, flashing perfectly even, laser-whitened teeth.
“Almost there, Evelyn. I want to give you an overview of the excavation site before I take you to the laboratory my men have built for you.”
His voice was smooth, controlled. Everything about him was controlled—until he began to cough. He covered his mouth with the back of his hand, waiting for the spasm to stop, then wiped his lips with a handkerchief.
“Sorry about that,” he said with a rueful smile. “I seem to be coming down with a cold.”
At last the big car pulled off the road to a paved parking area occupied by a dozen other vehicles of various kinds. The Spanish chauffer, who had not spoken a word since she entered the car, got out and opened Moore’s door. Moore walked around and opened her door, extending his hand. She took it and stood still for a moment to overcome the shock of the midday sun. It was at least thirty degrees hotter outside the limousine.
He led her across the dry mud to a low wall that ran in an enormous, irregular circle across the flat ground. The wall only came up to her knees. Moore took her right to the edge, then caught her when she reeled back, chuckling.
“It has that effect on people the first time they see it.”
She stared into a gigantic pit that had been excavated within the wall, which dropped straight down in front of her to a depth of sixty or seventy feet. The entire floor of this pit was occupied by a colourful city built from white, black and red marble. The city was laid out in a series of concentric rings, with roads that radiated from a slightly elevated central area occupied by large temples of snowy white stone.
“I give you the lost city of Atlantis,” Moore said with a theatrical gesture.
“It’s…incredible,” she said, shaking her head in wonder.
“Takes your breath away, doesn’t it? It hit me the same way the first time I saw it.”
On the floor of the pit, men were working. There was still some excavation going on, although most of the city had been liberated from the compacted mud that had covered it. Squinting her eyes against the brightness reflected from the dusty plain, she saw that other men lay stretched out in the roads of the city below, or sat with their backs against the marble buildings and appeared to be asleep. She wondered if it was siesta time in Spain. Electrical cables ran in all directions, like the black vines of some monstrous alien plant that had imposed itself on the ancient streets.
She looked across the pit and saw in the distance, on the far side, a low line of artificial mounds where the soil had been piled. Waves of rising heat made them shimmer. Beside them were numerous woodframe buildings, a parking lot full of vehicles, and a long row of bright blue porta potties. There must have been close to two hundred men in view, either working on the site below or walking around the buildings.
Moore obviously expected her to ask questions.
“Why did you build this wall?”
“It’s what’s called a cofferdam. You’d never know it, standing on this sun-baked clay, but the water table is only a few yards below the surface. That’s why earlier attempts to excavate the city failed—the backers weren’t willing to put up the money needed to build a proper retaining wall for the water. It kept flooding the site. We probably would have failed, too, but I found a company in Germany that makes a liquid you inject into the ground that turns into a gel. It was viscous enough to prevent the wet mud from working its way under the cofferdam. We only need to pump when it rains.”
“It’s incredible,” she repeated. “Who would have believed that Atlantis was hidden all this way inland in southern Spain.”
“This wasn’t always a mud flat,” he said, gazing around with a satisfied smile. “Ten thousand years ago this whole region was an enormous shallow bay open to the Atlantic Ocean, with rings of sand bars in its center. Atlantis was built on top of those rings. Do you know the story of Atlantis?”
“Not very well,” she admitted. “It’s in Plato, isn’t it?”
“That’s right. The earliest ancient mentions we have of the city are in the dialogues of Plato. It was said to be a city built on a series of concentric islands, just beyond the Pillars of Hercules in the Atlantic Ocean. According to Plato, the Atlanteans were a sea-going empire that dominated the coastal cities of the entire Mediterranean. Plato claims the city sank into the sea within the space of a single day. This led scholars to search for Atlantis in the middle of the Atlantic. But they overlooked an important part of Plato’s description.”
He paused, his blue eyes twinkling, waiting for her to ask.
“What was that?”
“Plato said that after Atlantis sank, the bay it had occupied became impassable by ships, because it was blocked by shoals of mud.”
“Is that significant?”
“Significant? It was the key to everything, Doctor. It explained the nature of the disaster that befell the city, although for a long time nobody understood what it meant. The common belief was that Atlantis had been overwhelmed and covered up by a tsunami caused by the earthquake that destroyed it.”
She gazed down across the roofs of the marble buildings. Near the center of the city a single large rectangular structure stood out from the rest, its white pillars rearing high from the pit floor.
“It doesn’t look destroyed.”
Moore clapped his hands together slowly in obvious delight. His face was gleeful.
“No, it doesn’t, does it? That’s because it wasn’t destroyed by a tsunami. It wasn’t destroyed by the earthquake, either, although there was an earthquake.”
She was carried along by his infectious enthusiasm.
“What did happen to the city?”
“Have you ever heard of the phenomenon known as liquefaction?”
“It’s a condition that occurs during earthquakes when the soil is exactly the right mixture of clay and sand, and has exactly the right saturation of water. Put simply, when the ground shakes, it turns from a solid into a liquid, and any building constructed on its surface sinks just as it would sink into water.”
“You mean, the entire city just sank into the ground?”
“Exactly. The conditions here are ideal for liquefaction.” He stamped his hiking boot on the ground. “It seems dry and solid, doesn’t it? The Atlanteans must have thought so, because they built their city on the circular sand bars in the bay. But when the earthquake hit, those seemingly solid islands turned into liquid, and the entire city just sank below the surface of the shallow water into the soft mud, intact. That’s the most incredible thing about it. The earthquake didn’t even bring down the roofs or the pillars, most of them.”
“What happened to the gulf?”
“That silted up over the passing millennia. It was never very deep. It became the marshlands that surround this mud flat. This is one of the biggest bird sanctuaries in the world, you know. That’s one reason I was able to get permission from the Spanish government to dig here. I promised to take care of their birds.” He glanced at his watch. “Let’s go down to the floor, and I’ll show you the laboratory my people built for you.”
Descending the long flights of groaning metal steps that were bracketed to the inside of the concrete cofferdam was like riding a time machine into the distant past. The fluted pillars and pitched roofs covered with red tiles had seemed small from above, but on the floor of the pit they towered above her. The streets were narrow but surprisingly well paved with large, flat stones.
“Can you imagine what a tourist attraction this will be?” Moore said as he led her along. “We’ll be bigger than Disney World.”
Evelyn visualized hordes of fat American tourists in flowered shirts and Bermuda shorts, parading with their chubby children in tow through these ancient streets, their bloated, paste-white thighs slapping together as they walked. She shuddered at the imagined desecration.
They approached a man who sat with his legs extended, his back resting against one of the buildings. His head was tilted to his chest and he appeared to Evelyn to be asleep. She noticed that he wore some kind of white tunic with a long skirt, with sandals on his feet that lashed up his deeply-tanned calves. Beneath his short blond hair, the skin of his face was brown and had a kind of waxen cast.
Sudden realization made her stumble. She put her hand over her mouth.
“My God, is that man dead?”
Moore looked and laughed. “For about ten thousand years.”
She approached the corpse and examined it more clinically while he stood back and watched her with good humour.
“Is this really an Atlantean?”
“The mud beneath this plain is anaerobic,” he explained. “That means—”
“No oxygen. Organic matter won’t decay,” she finished for him, pressing the cheek of the corpse with her fingertips. “Like a peat bog.”
“When we cleared away the mud, we found people all over the city. Some were inside the houses, others were lying in the streets. They died wherever they were when the earthquake struck and the city sank.”
Preservation in an anaerobic environment explained the darkening of the man’s face, but not the coating that covered it.
“What is that waxy film on his skin?”
“You’ve got a good eye, Doctor. We wanted to leave the bodies where they were excavated, but of course we had to treat them. Once they are exposed to the air, they begin to decompose very quickly. What you’re looking at is the latest innovation in the preservation of dead tissue. The corpse is stripped and placed in a chamber under high pressure, and the preservative permeates the tissues. It immediately halts decomposition. The Russian lab that developed the process guarantees that it will preserve dead flesh for at least a century. They’ve been using it on Catholic saints.”
She straightened and studied the face of the dead man. He was about twenty years old, with the body of an athlete and strong, aquiline features. There was just a hint of cruelty in the curve of his lips and arrogant flare of his nostrils.
“He looks so peaceful.”
“They all look that way. It’s as though they knew they were going to die and prepared themselves for it.”
They continued along, passing other corpses of Atlantean men, women and children, who sat or lay in repose at the sides of the street. All the bodies had been treated with preservative and dressed in their original clothing, after the garments were laundered.
“What’s that big building?” she asked, pointing. “The one with the tall, white pillars.”
“We think that’s the Temple of Poseidon,” he said. “We found a colossal statue of what looks like a sea god inside it. And something else.”
She waited for him to continue, but he fell back into his brooding.
They passed a group of Spanish workmen erecting an Egyptian obelisk with a crane. Probably a prize looted by an Atlantean warship, she thought. Evidently not everything had remained upright during the earthquake. Still, the damage to the city was so slight, it was almost imperceptible.
Moore led her into one of the larger buildings. The interior walls of the main room were covered with bright frescos of pastoral scenes, and on the floor, animal figures were inlaid with tiny coloured tiles. She guessed it must have been the home of a wealthy nobleman. Some of the furniture had been crushed by the mud, but other pieces remained intact.
An entire family—father, mother, and two small boys—sat side by side on a long marble bench with their backs to a wall. The eyes of one of the boys were open and perfectly preserved. They seemed to follow her as she walked by the macabre group. She shivered in spite of herself.
They entered a second room with an operating table and operating lights that hung from the ceiling. A padded chair, like a dentist’s chair, was bolted to the floor. There were leather restraining straps on its arms and front legs. A camera and microphone were positioned to record patient interviews. Scientific instruments and white, sterile cabinets lined the walls of the room. In one corner, near a window opening, a desk and swivel office chair had been placed.
“What do you think of your lab?” Moore asked.
She examined it with her professional eye. “It should be adequate. I may need a few more instruments.”
“Make a list. We’ll get whatever you need by tomorrow afternoon.”
He led her to a slender young woman with blond hair tied behind her head in a ponytail, who stood beside a beefy young man with a square jaw and tiny dark eyes. He looked like a weightlifter, or maybe a college football player.
“Evelyn, these are your assistants, Tina Howard and Carlos Lutz. They are fully qualified for your work, or so I’ve been told. Tina and Carlos, say hello to your new boss, Doctor Evelyn Sterne.”
They said their hellos in subdued voices.
“Evelyn is the best research scientist in her field,” he told them. “We’re damned lucky to get her.”
“Are you the same E. E. Sterne who teaches and does research at Charité University in Berlin?” Tina asked in an awed voice.
Evelyn smiled. “The same.”
“I read your latest book. It was amazing.”
“It’s nice of you to say so.” She brushed a strand of her greying hair behind her ear in an unconscious gesture of modesty.
“When would you like to begin your work, Doctor?” Moore asked.
She looked around the lab. “Why not right away?”
“That’s the spirit. Carlos will bring in the men I want you to examine from where they are being housed here in the pit. I’ll leave you to it. Maybe later after we have dinner in the mess hall, you can give me a preliminary report—nothing complicated, just a verbal assessment.”
“As you wish.”
He hesitated. “Just one more thing, Doctor. These are my people. I don’t want them injured, but I need to know what happened to them. The security of the entire project may depend on it.”
He was gone before she could think how to answer. She glanced at Carlos.
“Well, I guess you’d better bring in the first patient so that I can examine him.”
Carlos nodded and left the lab.
Tina began to cough. Evelyn waited patiently for the young woman to blow her nose on the balled-up Kleenex she pulled from the pocket of her lab coat. Moore’s virus must be making the rounds of the site, she thought.
“I’ve been told there are three of them,” she said after Tina composed herself. “Is that right?”
“Yes, Doctor. Three of the diggers touched the artefact before they could be stopped.”
“The artefact?” This was the first Evelyn had heard about an artefact.
Tina’s eyes widened. “Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. I don’t want to prejudice your examination.”
“It’s fine, Tina,” she said reassuringly. “Tell me what you know about the cause of their condition.”
“We don’t really know anything,” Tina admitted. “They all became the way they are after they touched something that was unearthed in the Temple of Poseidon, so we assume that must have had something to do with it, but other than that, we’re totally baffled. I guess that’s why Mr. Moore sent for you.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, you are the world’s leading expert on aberrant psycho-physiological conditions.”
Evelyn felt a momentary flush at the flattery but tried not to let it show in her expression. If Tina was brown-nosing, she was good at it.
“What kind of artefact are we dealing with?”
The young blond started to speak, then shook her head, making her ponytail dance. “They call it the sarcophagus. You’ll have to see it for yourself, Doctor. I don’t think I can do it justice.”
Evelyn might have been more insistent, but before she could say anything else, Carlos returned with a man in a straitjacket. The patient’s face had not been shaved for several days and his dark hair was disordered. He wore a hospital johnny shirt beneath the straitjacket, and blue foam slippers on his feet.
“Put him in the chair,” she said.
Carlos guided the patient into the chair with the restraining straps. His brown eyes were unfocused and dull. He sat upright on the seat, watching her with disinterest.
“Is the straitjacket necessary?” she asked Carlos.
“Sometimes.” He did not elaborate.
“What’s he on?”
“He was given an injection of Haldol two hours ago,” Carlos said.
“Christ, he won’t even be able to talk,” Evelyn muttered in annoyance.
She found a small flashlight and shone its beam into the man’s eyes, observing the reaction of his pupils. As she feared, he was in happyland. She decided there was nothing to lose by trying to get through to him. If she couldn’t penetrate the fog of the drug, she would try again when the dose wore off.
“What’s his name?”
Carlos shrugged his heavy shoulders under his white coat.
“Manuel Sparks,” Tina said quickly.
She leaned close to his face, and smelled the drug on his breath as it worked its way out of his body through his lungs.
“Manuel, can you hear me?” She waited, but there was no response. She tried again. “Manuel? Do they call you Mani? Can you hear what I’m saying, Mani?”
Again, nothing. She shook her head in annoyance, and laid her hand against his cheek as she turned to look at Tina.
“This man might as well be unconscious.”
At her touch, he let out a shriek of terror. She jerked her fingers away. His eyes were no longer vacant. He stared at her, face twisting and jumping with emotion. He had the look of a man overcome by fear.
“Manuel, my name is Doctor Evelyn Sterne. I’ve been asked by Maxwell Moore to examine you. Do you mind if I examine you?”
His large brown eyes widened and wandered from side to side.
“Don’t you see them?” he whispered with a Spanish accent.
She glanced at her assistants, but both remained stone-faced.
“See what, Manuel?”
“They’re all around us,” he said.
“Who is all around us?”
“The ghosts, the ghosts. Don’t you see them? They’re all around us.”
In spite of herself, she followed his stare and looked over her shoulder. Of course there was nothing.
“The ghosts can’t hurt you, Manuel. Look at me, Manuel. Do you trust me?”
He focused his eyes with difficulty on her face and frowned.
“What? Who are you?”
She repeated her name patiently. He cocked his head to one side as though listening.
“Who is coming, Manuel?”
“The drowned king.”
“Who is the drowned king?”
He hissed at her. “Listen. Don’t you hear it?”
She found herself holding her breath. The sounds of men working came dimly through the open doorway from various points of the ancient city.
“Can’t you hear his footsteps?” Manuel asked.
She shook her head sadly.
“You are lucky. I hear them all the time, even when I’m asleep. He talks to me in my dreams. He says he’s coming to reclaim his throne, and that we will all bow down and worship him. He sounds very angry. He frightens me.”
Suddenly, the man’s slender body shook and his back arched.
“I didn’t say anything, I didn’t say anything,” he shouted, his voice shrill and gurgling in his throat.
He began to cough. Blood spurted from his mouth and splashed red down the front of his straitjacket.
“Oh my God, he bit his own tongue,” Evelyn said. “Quick, Carlos, medicate him.”
While she and Tina held the convulsing workman so that he would not fall out of the chair, Carlos found a syringe, filled it, and coolly injected him.
After the drug began to take effect, she examined her patient’s tongue in his slack mouth and breathed a sigh of relief. The damage was not serious. His tongue would be swollen and painful for weeks, but it would heal.
Once Carlos led Manuel Sparks away, she made a cursory examination of the other two workmen who had touched the mysterious object in the temple. They were even less responsive than Manuel. The last man she looked at began to scream and jerk against his restraints in the chair and had to be medicated. As he was led away, a sense of bafflement overwhelmed her. All three men had been deeply traumatized, that much was obvious. But by what?
She left the lab and made her way toward the Temple of Poseidon. It was easy to locate. It towered above every other structure in the city. Most of the pillars of the buildings alternated between white and black marble, or white and red, but all the extraordinarily tall and slender pillars that supported the roof of the temple were pure snowy white in color.
The Temple of Poseidon occupied the middle of a raised plaza. It was evident to her that the temple had functioned as the heart of the city. All the causeways and bridges that spanned the concentric circular bands of houses pointed toward the temple the way the radiating strands of a spider’s web all point toward the center. Nothing flowed beneath these bridges, of course. They crossed bands of dry mud, where at one time canals of salt water had risen and fallen with the tides. It struck her that Venice would look somewhat like this if all the canals suddenly dried up.
In the rear of the temple, which was one large open space with a dizzyingly high ceiling, sat an enormous statue of a bearded man. His lower body had the form of a merman’s tail. It coiled sinuously around the foot of his black marble throne. The eyes of the statue were made of obsidian and crystal, and eerily life-like. They seemed to stare down upon her, and follow her as she moved from one side of the temple to the other. They reminded her of the dead eyes of the boy in the house that held her laboratory.
As wonderful as this statue was, her attention was arrested by a massive oblong box that rested in the middle of the floor. It was easy to see why they called it the sarcophagus. It had a vaguely Egyptian look about it, but it was not made of stone. It appeared to be tarnished bronze trimmed with gleaming gold. Set flush in the upper surface of the rounded lid, if it was a lid, was a row of seven square crystals. Each was about the size of the palm of her hand. Two on the end of the row were dark, but the other five glowed with an eerie green, as though illuminated from inside. She wondered what was supplying them with power.
Walking closer for a better look, she was stopped by a yellow caution tape that surrounded the object like some kind of police crime scene. When she started to duck under the tape, a rock-faced security guard waved her back. Of course, she thought. They were taking no chances that anyone else would touch “the artefact,” as Tina had called it.
A machine sat beside the bronze sarcophagus, whirring and clicking away. It was like a clockwork mechanism, with little arms that projected toward the side of the case and prodded it with stiff little jerks. She worked her way around and peered at it as closely as she was able to get. It had a modern look that was completely different from the alien lines of the case, and seemed to be computerized. As she watched, its little robot arms pushed what looked like a row of square buttons on the side of the bronze.
Something clicked inside, and one of the five glowing crystals went dark. The technicians monitoring the machine cheered and congratulated each other. Now there were four green lights glowing on the curved top.
She approached a tall man in eyeglasses who appeared to be in charge. After introducing herself, she asked if he had any theory about what the artefact had done to her three patients. He took off his glasses while he spoke to her.
“I really have no idea, Doctor. I wasn’t here when the workmen touched the sarcophagus.”
“Were any of your men present?”
He asked around, but all the technicians shook their heads. They stood together, watching the little robot punch the row of buttons.
“Do you know what’s inside it?” she asked.
He laughed and ran his fingers through his thinning hair.
“To be honest, we don’t. X-rays won’t penetrate it. Nothing will make a mark on it. We’ve blunted high-speed machine drills on that surface. I know it looks like bronze, but it’s some alloy we can’t identify.”
“What is that machine doing?”
“We finally figured out that the sarcophagus is sealed by some kind of combination lock. We’re trying to crack it using a brute force approach. The robot is entering every possible combination of button presses.”
“Is that why one of the crystals just went dark?”
“We believe so. As the correct combination is entered for each crystal, it turns itself off.”
“So you think that when all the crystals go out, the case will open?”
“We hope so, but really, Doctor Sterne, we don’t know anything. That’s what makes this work so exciting. This artefact might as well have come from a different planet, it’s so advanced.”
“How could such a primitive city state have produced such advanced technology?”
“That’s the question, isn’t it? We don’t know that the Atlanteans did produce it. They were great sea traders. Their ships spanned half the globe. Maybe they got it from somewhere else.”
A deep-toned horn, like a ship’s fog horn, sounded three blasts from above to summon everyone to dinner. Evelyn was put in mind of the sounding of the last trump on judgment day, which according to First Corinthians was to come from the heavens just before the dead rose from their graves. Climbing the rickety and shaking flights of metal stairs bracketed to the wall of the cofferdam, she left the ancient classical world and entered the modern world of cell phones, computers, and automobiles.
Dinner was a communal affair. The workmen and the scientists alike ate at long tables in the mess hall, one of the enormous wooden buildings she had seen across the pit on her arrival. She noticed, however, that the workmen, or “diggers” as they were called, did not sit at the same tables as the scientists, even though they were under the same roof.
A place of honour had been reserved for her beside Moore, who sat at the head of one of the tables. They were served without ceremony, a filling meal of roast beef with gravy, mashed potatoes, and green peas. To Evelyn’s surprise, no alcohol was dispensed with the food. Spaniards were accustomed to getting wine with their meals, and most of the labourers were Spanish or Portuguese. Evidently Moore wanted his dig run along the lines of a military operation. Or maybe a better analogy would be a monastic order.
They were served apple pie for desert. Over the pie, Evelyn gave a brief verbal account of the afternoon’s preliminary examination of her three patients. Moore did not look happy, which was understandable since she was able to tell him nothing.
“So they’re all seeing the ghosts of dead Atlanteans,” he said.
“Probably. Only Sparks said he saw them. Rodriguez and Cruz were unresponsive due to their drug dose.”
Moore shook his head as he pondered her words.
“I need to know what that thing in the temple did to them before I let anyone else touch it. Did it release some kind of poison gas? Is there a hallucinogenic mould growing on its surface? Was it a sonic trigger, a vibration? Or was it all psychological?”
“You could experiment by touching an animal to the surface of the case,” she suggested.
“We’ve already tried it with a dog and a goat. There was no effect.”
“None at all?” she asked in surprise.
“Nothing. The animals acted as if nothing had happened.”
She wondered if Moore realized the ramifications of his experiment. If the sarcophagus did nothing to an animal, the effect must be either tailored specifically to the human physiology, or it must be some kind of psychological contagion based on a shared expectation between the three workmen. Either way, it was a fascinating problem that should provide her with material for her next bestselling book.
“When do you expect the sarcophagus to open?” she asked.
Moore looked across the table at a thin man with wire-frame eyeglasses and greying temples, who, like the others seated nearby, had been listening to their conversation. It was the man she had talked to at the Temple of Poseidon. “You’re the expert on cryptography, Raymond. When do you expect the case to open?”
The thin man adjusted his glasses on his nose and thought for a few seconds. “Within the next week or two. It’s impossible to be more precise, unfortunately, because of the way the lock, if it is a lock, has been designed. As we progress along the crystals, each one becomes more complex to open.”
“This is Raymond Carver, by the way,” Moore said as he chewed his pie. “Raymond, meet Evelyn Sterne.”
“We’ve already met,” Raymond said, but he half-stood and reached across the table to shake her fingertips. “We all know you by reputation.”
A few other scientists at the table nodded in agreement.
“I’ve been thinking about the problem you face,” she said to Carver. “And I wonder, if this artefact really did cause such a debilitating psychological condition in the three men who only touched its outer surface, is it such a wise thing to open it?”
Moore laughed, and Carver smiled in sympathy.
“It’s the problem of Pandora’s Box, isn’t it?” Moore said. “We won’t know what’s inside until we open it.”
“We have considered the dangers,” Carver told her with a more serious expression. “We have a plan in effect to clear the immediate area around the sarcophagus just before the final crystal seal is broken.”
“Why not clear out the entire pit?” she asked.
“Too costly,” Moore answered for Carver. “And unnecessary. We can’t afford to stop the dig. We’re behind schedule as it is, even working day and night. The Spanish government has given us a deadline, and if we fail to meet it there are severe penalties.”
“But don’t worry, Doctor Sterne,” Carver assured her. “We will enclose the sarcophagus in a plastic room and fit it with air sensors to sample whatever may come out of the case. We’ll also install exhaust fans and ducts that will vent the air directly to the surface.”
“Well away from this encampment,” Moore added.
“That’s a comfort, at least,” she said with a slight smile. “Because I must admit to you gentlemen, as of right now I have no idea what happened to the three men under my care.”
“We are all explorers breaking new ground,” Moore said with one of his theatrical hand gestures. “It’s a great time to be alive.”
“You call it the sarcophagus,” she said to Carver. “Do you really think there might be a body inside?”
He laughed and shook his head. “That’s just a nickname we use as a joke.”
“Who knows?” Moore said, his eyes twinkling. “Maybe it’s the tomb of the last king of Atlantis.”
“The drowned king,” she murmured thoughtfully.
The table fell silent.
“What was that you said?” Carver demanded. “I didn’t quite hear you.”
She shook her head apologetically, looking around at the faces of the diners, who were watching her with sudden interest.
“It’s nothing. Just something Manuel Sparks said to me. He spoke the words ‘the drowned king’ when he was babbling.”
“I had a dream about a drowned king,” Carver explained. “In fact, I’ve had the dream several times.”
No one else said anything. She wondered why there was suddenly such an air of discomfort at the table.
“What was the dream about?” she asked to be polite.
“Well, it’s nothing really. I’m under the water, and somehow I can still breathe. Through the murkiness I begin to make out a shape. As it draws nearer I see that it is the naked figure of a man floating upright who wears a gold crown with many points on his head. He is quite obviously dead. The flesh is falling away from his skull, and bones are exposed on his torso and limbs. His eyes are nothing but black sockets. As he drifts nearer and nearer, I see that he is not the normal human size, but gigantic. Bigger than a blue whale. And suddenly I feel very weak and alone, and a kind of terror overcomes me. Then I’m floundering in the water and can’t breathe any longer and I start to drown while the dead king reaches toward me with his enormous bony hands.”
He looked around apologetically, then wiped sweat from his face with a furtive gesture. Suddenly he began to cough and grabbed for a handkerchief in his pocket.
“What a strange dream,” she said.
After a moment of silence, apart from Carver’s coughing fit, Moore spoke.
“Maybe I’d better tell you that a lot of the men have been having the same dream.”
She stared at him in surprise.
“Really? The exact same dream?”
“Near enough. A few details are different, but overall it’s the same dream.”
Other men at the table nodded in confirmation as Carver finally brought his cough under control.
“I wish you had told me about this dream earlier.”
“It didn’t seem important,” Moore said.
“Have you had the dream?”
“A few times. I usually take something to put myself to sleep, so I don’t dream often.”
The table conversation moved on to other matters. Evelyn sat picking at her piece of apple pie. The dream itself might mean nothing. It was not unheard of for groups of people under stressful conditions to share the same dream. But if it was connected with the psychological condition of her patients, it might be important.
The next morning, Evelyn descended to the floor of the pit with an inner determination to extract some useful bit of information from her patients. She had instructed Carlos and Tina to keep their medication to the absolute minimum.
As she made her way along one of the radial streets that pointed at the Temple of Poseidon, she stopped to stare at the corpse of an Atlantean seated with his back to a wall. He was no different from the dozens of other corpses she had passed, except that some comedian had taken a soccer ball and balanced it on top of his head. His eyes were open. They seemed to peer at her from beneath half-lowered lids.
Feeling a flash of righteous anger, she knocked the soccer ball off with her hand. Maybe these people had died thousands of years ago, but they deserved at least a basic level of human respect. She wondered once again what it would be like when this street was filled with popcorn-munching, Coke-sipping tourists. How much respect would they have for the Atlantean dead?
When she entered the laboratory she found Carlos and Tina pressed up against the examination table. Carlos had his hand under the young blonde’s skirt, between her thighs. Neither of them heard her enter.
She backed out quietly and came through the outer room of the house again, this time making sure that her shoes clicked loudly on the tiled floor. Carlos was straightening the straps on the chair. Tina stood in front of a cabinet with a clipboard, taking inventory. Both looked at her with innocent smiles.
“I hope I didn’t miss anything important,” she said lightly.
Tina’s eyes widened. “What? No…what do you mean?”
“I intended to get here earlier. I had a nightmare that kept me awake, and then I overslept.”
“I bet I know what your nightmare was about,” Carlos said. “It was about the dead giant in the crown under the water.”
“Everyone’s been having the same nightmare,” Tina said. “It’s really weird.”
“Well, let’s get to work. Bring in Mr. Sparks, Carlos.”
The workman’s eyes were clear when Carlos led him into the laboratory.
“Let’s get the jacket off him,” she murmured to Tina.
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” Carlos said.
Evelyn ignored him. She and Tina unbuckled the straps and pulled the straitjacket over the little Spaniard’s head, then led him to the chair and seated him. He looked around as though dazed but offered no resistance when they strapped down his arms and legs.
“Manuel, do you know who I am?” she asked, staring directly into his eyes to hold his attention.
“You are a doctor,” he said.
“That’s right. We met yesterday. My name is Evelyn. Do you mind if I examine you?”
“No, I don’t mind.”
She checked his pupils for dilation and tested his reflexes, then took his blood pressure. It was a little above normal, but not to an alarming degree.
“Manuel, I’d like to ask you some questions, but first I want to give you something to relax.”
He nodded without speaking.
“The Solution-A, Carlos,” she said. The big man went to a cabinet and began preparing a syringe.
Solution-A was a combination of drugs she had developed in Berlin to induce a receptive mental state in patients who were unconsciously repressing memories. No drug could force someone to confront repressed memories, but it was possible to encourage the recall of memories that a patient wanted to remember.
As he was being injected in the arm, the eyes of the workman fixed on something behind Evelyn. She remained silent until the drug began to take effect.
“What are you looking at, Manuel?”
“A ghost,” he mumbled. He was drooling slightly. She gestured for Tina to wipe his mouth.
“What kind of ghost?”
“A man who used to live in this city.”
“What does he want?”
“I don’t know. I think he’s trying to say something.”
“What’s he saying, Manuel? You can hear him if you listen. Tell me what he says.”
“It’s the man who used to live here.”
“You mean the man sitting in the outer room with his family?”
The workman nodded.
“What does he say, Manuel?”
“He say, ‘Let me in, I want to come into you.’”
She glanced at her assistants, but their blank faces were no help. Biting her lip, she thought hard for several seconds.
“You should let him in, Manuel.”
“How…how do I do that?”
“You know how to do it. Just let him come to you.”
Manuel shook his head from side to side, an expression of fear on his sun-browned face. His fingers spread like claws as he twisted his wrists against the straps that held him.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she told him in a soothing, practiced voice. “I won’t let him harm you. Trust me, Manuel. You know you can trust me.”
“I trust you,” he said.
“Let the man in.”
His body began to jerk convulsively in the chair. Carlos stared at Evelyn.
“Do you want me to sedate him?”
“No,” she snapped, more harshly than she intended.
After a few minutes, the convulsions abruptly stopped. A change came over the face of the Spaniard. His eyes became clearer, more intelligent as they looked at her, and the stress lines fell away from his forehead and cheeks.
“Who are you?” Evelyn asked, holding his gaze with hers.
“Xanos Xanothrayos,” he said without hesitation, and also without a Spanish accent.
“Do you live in this house?”
He glanced at the painted walls and the pattern in the tiles on the floor.
“You know you are dead?” she asked in surprise.
“We are all dead,” he said, and smiled in a way that chilled her blood. She tried to keep her face composed.
“What was it that killed you and your family?”
“A demon of the air.”
This response surprised her.
“Wasn’t there an earthquake?”
He shrugged his shoulders, watching her with bright intelligence. She decided to try a more direct approach.
“Xanos, do you know about the artefact that rests in the tall temple at the center of the city?”
“The mechanism,” he said.
“It’s a large, oblong box of metal with glowing crystal panels.”
“Is it dangerous?”
He shook his head.
“What is inside the mechanism, Xanos?”
She asked him to repeat the word, unsure if she had heard him correctly. He said the same thing a second time. This was not at all what she had expected. She pressed onward. The time for analysis would come later.
“Why did Manuel Sparks and the other two men fall ill when they touched the mechanism?”
“It united them with us.”
“United? How did it unite them with you?”
“Their minds are weak. Their minds broke beneath the vastness of eternity. They could not confront the coming of the drowned king.”
“Who is the drowned king, Xanos? What is his significance?”
The face of the workman smiled slowly as his brown eyes stared into hers.
“You will meet him.”
Before she could ask another question, the workman began to shake against his restraining straps. His face flushed and his eyes bulged. Foam came from his mouth.
“Sedate him,” she told Carlos with reluctance.
After Carlos and Tina had led the sedated Manuel Sparks from the house, she walked into the outer room and stood looking at the Atlantean man seated on the bench with his wife and two sons. The son with open eyes stared back at her, but the man’s eyelids remained shut.
Of course they remain shut, she told herself in annoyance. It was no more than a fantasy of Manuel’s sick brain that he had been possessed by a ghost. Such things were superstitious nonsense.
She clenched her hands into fists of frustration. Manuel Sparks was by far the most responsive of her three patients, and Solution-A had taught her next to nothing about his condition.
“Don’t feel discouraged, Doctor. You did everything you could, and we did learn more about the condition of the three diggers.”
“That’s very gracious of you to say, Max, but I can’t help feeling that my mission here has been a complete failure.”
Evelyn sneezed, and quickly drew a Kleenex from the pocket of her khaki shorts. She blew her nose and dabbed at it while Moore watched in amusement.
“So you caught the bug, too?”
“Everyone at the site is coming down with it,” she said. “Thank heaven it doesn’t seem to be a serious virus.”
“Don’t be too sure,” he said, his face suddenly grim. “I’ve got six of my men in the hospital shack on respirators, too sick to move. They had this cold, got over it, then went into some kind of fiendish relapse.”
They stood in the Temple of Poseidon, watching the clockwork decoder click buttons on the side of the sarcophagus through a screen of plastic sheeting. Large-diameter ductwork ran from the plastic enclosure around the sarcophagus and out of the temple. It exited on the mud flat above, away from the encampment and downwind of it.
“How much longer do you think it will be?” she asked.
“Carver couldn’t be sure. He guessed an hour or two, but it might be five or six hours.”
Without knowing exactly when the last crystal lock on the sarcophagus would click open, there was no recourse except to wait. Moore had ordered a kind of makeshift bleachers built out of raw lumber, and several dozen scientists and technicians sat on it, watching the machine click away to itself through the plastic sheet designed to protect them from whatever might be inside the sarcophagus. Evelyn had observed none of the scientists thought there was any real danger. The plastic barrier and the air venting were only precautions they had taken for the sake of thoroughness.
Around the corner of the plastic chamber she saw her assistant Tina climbing the marble steps of the temple. Her face bore a serious expression. Evelyn stood up.
“Will you excuse me, Max?”
She climbed down the seats of the bleachers and went to meet her.
“Manuel is coherent,” the young woman said with excitement. “He’s talking and he wants to see you.”
Over a week had passed since her experiment with Solution-A. She had given up hope of any progress.
“What do you mean by coherent? Does he know where he is? Does he recognize his own name?”
“Yes, he’s completely rational, except for some of the things he’s saying.”
She glanced back at the bleachers with frustration. It would be just her luck to be stuck in the lab when the sarcophagus finally opened. How would that look in her book? Of course, she could always lie, and claim that she was present at the opening. Readers would never know the difference. This thought decided her.
They hurried through the narrow streets which, aside from the corpses that sat and lay in odd places, were almost deserted. Most of the workmen had gathered at the temple to watch the sarcophagus.
Carlos had Manuel already sitting in the chair when they arrived at the laboratory. He was not restrained. His head turned when he heard them enter.
“Doctor Sterne, I must speak with you,” he said.
“Yes, of course, Manuel, that’s why I’m here. What do you wish to say?”
He started to stand up from the chair, but Carlos caught his shoulders from behind and gently forced him back into the padded seat.
“I woke up today and my mind was clear,” the Spaniard said. “I remember everything, Doctor.”
She pointed for Tina to turn on an audio-video recorder that was focused on the chair.
“Can you tell me what happened when you touched the sarcophagus?”
“It was very strange. When my fingers touched it, suddenly my head was filled with so much information, so many ideas I have never had before, so many ways of looking at the world. It was too much. It was like drowning. I had to shut my eyes and ears, do you know what I mean? Not the eyes and ears outside my head, but the ones inside my brain.”
“I think I understand, Manuel. You were overwhelmed.”
“Yes. But that is not what I need to talk to you about.”
Something was obsessing him, she thought. It would probably be best to get that out of the way before she did an in-depth analysis of his condition.
“What do you need to say, Manuel?”
“When the ghost possessed me, he told me about the danger, but I could not speak of it then.”
“Danger? Are you in danger?”
“We are all in danger from the disease.”
She glanced at Tina and Carlos in surprise. How could this man know about the virus spreading through the crew? He had been next to unresponsive for weeks. Or did he mean something else?
“What disease, Manuel?”
“We all have the disease, Doctor. It came from the bodies when they were dug from the earth. It is a plague. It will kill everyone.”
“I hear what you are saying, Manuel, but the virus that has broken out among the diggers is quite mild. Not much more severe than a common cold.”
“No, that is how it starts, but then when you think it is over, it comes back.”
She stared at him with some perplexity. He was obviously quite sincere, but he was telling her things he had learned from a ghost.
“Did all the people of Atlantis have this plague?”
“Yes, yes, they all had it. That is why they were forced to do what they did.”
She relaxed slightly, now that she knew he was still delusional. She had examined several of the ancient corpses, and none of them showed any sign of advanced disease of any kind. They appeared to have been in perfect health when they died.
“What were they forced to do?” she asked to keep him talking.
He glared at her in anger. “Haven’t you been listening to me? They had to kill themselves so that the plague would not spread across the world and destroy all of humanity.”
“They sacrificed themselves?”
There was no sign in any of the Atlantean corpses of trauma of any kind. They appeared to have merely expired from lack of oxygen where they sat and lay. Oddly enough, none of the corpses exhibited any signs of struggle, which you would expect in those deprived of air. It was one of the unsolved mysteries of the site, just one of many.
“How did they kill themselves?”
“With the sarcophagus. It is a mechanism of death.”
These words disturbed her more than she would have expected. She continued to humour him.
“How does the sarcophagus kill?”
“It summons the drowned king.”
She relaxed and looked at Tina, who shrugged with a smile. Now she knew the man was still delusional, in spite of his apparent coherence.
“Manuel, the drowned king is just a dream. You know that, right? There is no giant corpse floating under the sea with a crown on his head.”
The anger left his face. “No, Doctor,” he said seriously. “It is you and the rest who do not understand. We are all running out of time.”
“What is it that you want me to do?”
“You must talk to Mr. Moore, make him stop the effort to open the sarcophagus.”
“How do you know about that? When the decryptor was attached to the sarcophagus, you were sedated.”
“The ghost showed me what you are doing. He wants it to happen, but I don’t. I have a wife and a son in Madrid. If you don’t do as I say, we are all going to die. We will probably die anyway from the disease, but maybe you will find a cure for that.”
“Manuel, I am an expert on contagious diseases. I have studied them for twenty years. Believe me when I tell you that it is very unlikely a virus could survive buried deep in the earth for ten thousand years, and if it did survive, it would not affect modern man in the same way it affected the Atlanteans.”
“Please, I am begging you, Doctor. Talk to Mr. Moore. Do not let him open the mechanism in the temple.”
This seemed to be getting her nowhere. She glanced at her wristwatch. There might still be time for her to get back to the temple before the sarcophagus unlocked.
“I will do that, Manuel. I promise you. I’m going right to Mr. Moore now, and I will tell him what you said.”
He seemed to collapse into the chair with relief.
“Thank you, Doctor.”
“What do you want me to do with him?” Carlos murmured into her ear.
“Give him a mild sedative to help him sleep,” she murmured back.
As she hurried from the lab and across the floor of the outer room, she felt the eyes of the little Atlantean boy follow her with reproach. She resisted the urge to look back.
Maxwell Moore listened with attention while she related everything Manuel Sparks had told her.
“You were successful after all, Doctor Sterne. Congratulations,” he said when she finished.
“Yes, perhaps. At least we were able to penetrate the mental barriers erected against us.”
“It’s an interesting fantasy he developed,” Moore mused as they looked down from the bleachers through the plastic sheet at the decryptor, which clicked away with its gears at the buttons on the sarcophagus. “The whole population of Atlantis contracts a deadly plague that its physicians can’t cure, so the city decides to commit mass suicide to prevent the spread of the disease to the rest of the world. It’s very romantic, when you think about it. We can use it in our promotion of the site to tourists. We won’t claim it’s true, of course, but we can play up the ghost angle, and that creepy bit about the drowned king. The public loves anything to do with the supernatural.”
There was a loud click from behind the plastic sheet. The technicians responsible for the decryptor broke into spontaneous applause, which was echoed by applause from the rest of the onlookers.
“Now what?” Evelyn asked.
Before Moore could answer, the curved lid of the sarcophagus slowly began to open.
“If there’s a dead body inside that thing, I’m getting the hell out of here,” Carver quipped to another technician, who laughed.
The lid swung wide. As though moved by a single will, everyone on the bleachers stood up for a better viewing angle. The inside of the sarcophagus was illuminated by a golden glow. Evelyn saw a bewildering mass of gears and spinning wheels and glowing crystals.
“It’s just a machine,” Moore said with disappointment in his voice.
“How can it be running after thousands of years?” she asked. “What’s driving it?”
Carver called out to a man who stood with a meter in his hand. “Is there any radiation?”
“Nothing,” the man said. “It’s clean.”
With a shock of the unexpected, the whirling gears and wheels inside the metal case abruptly stopped turning. There was dead silence for the space of several seconds. Then something—some kind of a wave or energy field that showed in the air as a pale green sphere—expanded from the sarcophagus and passed through the bodies of everyone gathered around it. The sphere continued to expand, becoming fainter and more difficult to see as it enlarged itself. Then it was gone.
“What the hell was that?” Moore demanded.
Carver shook his head with bewilderment. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“I felt it pass through my body,” Evelyn said, a tight feeling in her chest. “It did something to me.”
“I felt it, too,” Moore agreed.
Beneath the legs of the bleachers, the ground trembled.
“Don’t panic, people,” Moore said with a note of authority.
The tremor came again, and again, and again, each spaced apart by several seconds.
“It’s like footsteps,” Evelyn said. “The footsteps of a giant.”
Each ground tremor was a little stronger than the one before it, and they showed no sign of stopping.
“I think it would be a good idea to evacuate the pit,” Moore said, controlling his voice. “Carver, would you sound the alarm?”
Carver nodded and tried to step down from the bleachers, but stumbled and almost fell on his face.
“Are you all right?” Evelyn asked, going to him. Her own legs felt oddly heavy.
“Fine, I guess,” he told her with a rueful smile. “My legs just got stiff from so much sitting.”
That was probably it, she thought. But when she tried to walk around the plastic sheeting to get to the temple steps, her legs felt as if they were made of concrete. It was difficult to bend her knees. She wondered if the expanding energy sphere from the sarcophagus had done something to her nervous system.
Maxwell Moore stood swaying at the foot of the bleachers as though rooted to the spot. She started to go back to help him.
“Don’t wait for me, Doctor,” he called above the rising babble of voices. “Get out of the pit.”
All around her, men and women were having the same difficulty walking. A few just gave up and sat or lay on the marble floor of the temple.
The tremors in the ground were coming closer together now, as though the unseen giant were running toward the pit. Closer, and stronger. An awareness of her personal danger swept through her and drove away every other consideration.
I have to reach the stairs, she thought. I have to get out of this pit.
An air-raid siren began to wail mournfully. The evacuation alarm.
Somehow, she managed to hobble down the temple stairs to the street level. Workmen were sitting in the street with their backs against the walls, or lying flat on their backs, unable to move.
She managed to stumble a hundred yards or so to a small open square before the paralysis in her body brought her to her hands and knees. Looking around, she saw the wall of a house and crawled toward it with the last of her strength. She lowered herself back against the wall in a sitting posture and realized that she was no more than a few feet away from an Atlantean woman, who sat with her back to the same wall.
So this is how it was, Evelyn thought. The anxiety began to drain out of her. She could not move. There was nothing more to do.
Beneath the wail of the siren she heard the dull rumble of the approaching footsteps of the drowned king. The king was running now. His footfalls blurred together into one continuous vibration that she felt through the bones of her hips and all the way up to her chattering teeth.
Where she sat, she had a good view across the square of the metal stairs that led out of the pit on the encampment side. She debated with herself whether to close her eyes while she still retained control over her eyelids, and decided to leave them open. After all, she was a scientist.
Muddy water began to flow along the street. It washed over her ankles and she felt its coolness. It had come from deep in the ground, beneath the lower edge of the cofferdam. Within seconds it was a river of liquid mud that flowed over her extended legs.
So this was how Atlantis sank into the sea, she thought. It was a pity she would never write a book about it.
In front of her, an Egyptian obelisk toppled over and hit the mud with a splash that scattered wet droplets across her face. The mud continued to rise quickly up to her neck as she watched the side of the cofferdam collapse inward, and a massive tidal wave of mud wash over its crumbling upper edge into the pit.
The entire mud flat above had turned to liquid, just as it had so many thousands of years ago. The barracks, the mess hall, the hospital, would all be drawn down into the mud along with Atlantis itself.
The last thing she saw was something she could not be sure about, because the mud was in her eyes—it was a tall shadow, like that of a gigantic human figure standing with its head and shoulders against the clouds as it peered down into the pit.
Then the mud covered her head, cool and soothing against her temples, cool and soothing and peaceful.
Donald Tyson was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has been writing professionally for the past forty years. His short stories have appeared in the anthologies Black Wings II, III, and IV; Searchers After Horror; The Weird Fiction Review 4 and 5; The Madness of Cthulhu; Innsmouth Nightmares; and A Mountain Walked. His novel The Lovecraft Coven was recently published by Hippocampus Press. Presently Donald lives in Cape Breton with his wife, Jenny, their American bulldog, Ares, and their Siamese cat, Hermes.
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Story illustrations by Matthew Johnson.