London September 22nd 1997
“Impossible. The board can’t postpone the programme at this stage.”
“But I just need a holiday.”
“The trouble with you, Edward, is you’ve never been a good liar. Even complete strangers know when you’re not telling the truth. Since I’ve known you forty-five years, you haven’t a hope in hell. So, what have you got up your sleeve?”
The Professor’s attempt at an ingenuous expression was thwarted by the smile that was tugging at the corners of his mouth. So he dropped into his lap with a thump the hands that he had been about to spread in an ‘I don’t know what you mean’ gesture. Instead he nodded in acknowledgement and said: “Something. I just can’t tell you what. Not yet. But more than as a director to a director, as one very old good friend to another, I tell you the Royal Geographical Society will be the first to know.” He picked up his coffee mug again from Sir Arthur Tennyson’s desk. “Indeed I’ll be approaching you for funding.”
“Funding for what?” Tennyson’s eyebrows required more of his hairdresser’s time these days than his balding head; they flew so low they were almost performing aerobatics when he spoke. Yet they could not disguise the gleam in his eyes as he probed his sometime bridge partner.
Sutch put down the mug again, pulled his chair closer to the desk and leaned forward on his leather-patched elbows. Then, all the jollity in his expression slid into sudden, unexpected earnestness. “Arthur, I would tell you if I could, but I fear that even you, my dearest old friend, would be hard pushed not to think me a fool and a dreamer. But I believe I am on the verge of discovering something unique and, in the process, fulfilling the dream of forty years.” He leaned back again. “Look, I don’t want to waste the Society’s time or funds. Heaven knows the days are tough enough. But I repeat; you will be the first to know. If I find what I’m looking for I’ll want the best man with me to photograph it – capture it for the glory of the Royal Geographical Society and its archives.”
“You mean young Bolton. He won’t come cheap.”
“Believe me, if my little jaunt goes well, he’ll be paying me for the privilege of taking photographs. I’ll need him to sign a confidentiality agreement.”
“He’s freelance; that’s not something I think we can insist on if we want him on board.”
Sutch waved a dismissive hand as if shooing away a fly. “Oh come on, Arthur, use your clout.”
The director leaned back and sighed. “I’ll do what I can, but it’s one thing keeping one person quiet. This sabbatical you’re taking – God knows you could just take a holiday and disappear – will make people suspicious, particularly the press.”
Sutch paled. “The press!”
“Edward, you always did underestimate your standing in the scientific establishment.”
Sutch rubbed his face. “Oh dear. You’re probably right. It’s an old-fashioned sense of duty that makes me follow the right procedure. Ok, I’ll just slip away. Arthur, I really need you to keep any hounds off my scent. It’s one of the reasons I’m having to be so Machiavellian with you, my oldest friend. It’s called plausible deniability.”
“You set up the Shoals of Capricorn Programme, for heaven’s sake. The Mascarene Ridge has been on our agenda a long time. You know how important it is.”
“That’s why I don’t like just disappearing. But it’s not important compared with this.” Sutch slapped his hand on the arm of the chair. “Every member of that team is more than qualified to start without me.”
Sir Arthur Tennyson knew that if Professor Edward Sutch was starting to lose his temper – or what passed for his version of it – then the matter in hand was of enormous importance to the academic world. He had never known his colleague and friend to display anything more than pique – with the honourable exception of his opinions about daughter’s marriage – but he could fulminate with the best when discussing the impact of overfishing. This ‘matter’ had to be of significance for the scientific community. He’d not seen Edward slap the arm of a chair in a long time. “Very well, in the face of such passion,” he grinned, “or should I say Sutch’s passion, I’ll do what I can, but it won’t be easy. As you say, members of the Society will start sniffing around. If they catch a whiff of you behaving out of the ordinary, it will be as if they’ve seen someone standing with a theodolite in some virgin part of the Valley of the Kings. You know what they’re like. And that means the press will come running.”
“Arthur, I repeat, I need you to keep them off my back.”
“I will, Edward, I will.” Tennyson gave the side of his nose a theatrical tap. “I don’t know who our mole is, but someone around here does more digging than your daughter. How is she by the way? Haven’t seen her in a while. Is she back in the land of the living?”
One look at his friend’s black expression, and Sir Arthur cursed himself, knowing he had touched on the old wound of the son-in-law again, even before Sutch responded with: “To adapt an old saying, ‘there is a great deal to be said for being among the dead’”.
Time to move on, thought the director. “Can’t you give me anything to work on? I mean, for all I know you’ve discovered the head of the Colossus of Rhodes. You don’t think holiday-makers would perhaps notice your flotilla?”
Sutch came out from under his cloud again. “That’s the point, Arthur. This is just a recce I’m doing; confirmation, some notes, a few photos – it’ll be like an SAS operation; lowest possible profile. Once it’s done I’ll approach you and the other members of the Society to organise the heavy artillery.”
Sir Arthur smiled. “This must be big news, old friend.”
“Possibly; possibly not. I’m hoping to find out.”
As Edward Sutch prepared to leave the director’s office, Sir Arthur put a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, Edward, but at your age many men are reflecting on the colour of their whisky in the firelight.”
“And I was, Arthur, I was. And maybe it looked a bit too much like fossilised amber.” He looked thoughtful, and then turned to his friend. “You know, as a man of science I never thought I’d be saying this, but I guess fate took a hand.”
Somewhere over the Southern Indian Ocean – September 30th 1997
“Big bitch, ain’t she?” The Antipodean voice crackled through the headphones.
“I assume you mean the ocean, not the plane,” said Sutch, trying to show wit in adversity. He had sailed, swum and dived in most of the seven seas, but flying thousands of feet above them had always made him uneasy, even in huge commercial airliners, never mind the Airfix kit in which he was now trapped, his hands gripping the edge of the seat between his knees.
Dirk looked across at him and laughed, his bluff Aussie features folding up into myriad sun-baked lines, and said:
“Aww, this is a smooth one for down in these latitudes.”
“Really?” Sutch was seeking reassurance; when Dirk then turned serious for a moment he wished he hadn’t.
The Aussie gestured out of the window. “She makes me nervous too; the sea. Been flying tourists into the Outback for a few years now; this is the furthest I’ve flown over water for a long time, perhaps ever. Forgotten how anxious it can make you on a grey day like this; snarling waters below you. The Indian Ocean, eh? Wonder how many tourists know it can look like this. There ain’t much solid between here and the Antarctic. I tell ya, Prof, even with the extra long-range and wing-tip tanks, and the stainless steel auxiliary ferry tanks I put in where the back seats used to be, this baby will be close to the limit of its juice by the time we get refuelled.”
Sutch had been trying to force his fingers loose from the seat-edge, but that last word sent them into further lock-down. “Refuelled?” He tried his best to sound calm. “You didn’t mention anything about running out of fuel. Where exactly are we supposed to find…”
Dirk waved his hand in the general direction of the horizon. “Aww, somewhere in the French Southern and Antarctic Territories.”
“Somewhere? Is this a wind-up, Dirk?”
The Aussie winked at his passenger. “Don’t worry, Prof, this isn’t somewhere I’d wanna ditch.” He patted the steering column. “And this is a Cessna C206. She’s a strong bird. You can let some blood back in those knuckles.” He laughed, and once he had relaxed a bit, Sutch could not help but join in.
After a few minutes silence and more stomach lurching, Dirk said:
“Ok, Prof, I’m very flattered that you sought me out for this trip and curious as to why you offered double the usual fee. You gonna enlighten me?”
Sutch paused; felt awkward. “It really is very hush-hush, Dirk.”
“Aw, c’mon Doc, I can keep a secret. You’ve known me long enough to know that. Besides, where I’m usually working the only ones listening would be black and white and woolly.”
Sutch took a deep breath. “Well, let’s just SAY…!” The last word was shouted in accompaniment to another sudden drop in altitude. “Are you doing this deliberately to frighten an answer out of me?”
“Aw, it’s a little windy up here.”
Sutch came to a decision. “Okay Dirk, you really must keep this to yourself; I can’t emphasise that enough.”
“You got my word, Prof.”
He looked at the pilot. “Well, that’s always been good enough for me. Satellite images suggest that there may well be drilling opportunities near the Scorpion Archipelago.”
I’m lying already. You found the right man, Tariq.
“You’re shitting me!” Now Dirk looked embarrassed. There was something olde worlde about the Professor and he did not like swearing in front of his venerable passenger. “Sorry. You mean, out there, in the middle of some of the loneliest waters in the world?”
“Needs must, Dirk. The world’s current oil reserves won’t last forever.”
“Yeah, but how …?”
“Precisely what I’m taking the first step towards finding out. Don’t forget, the archipelago was possibly once a much larger landmass and the area may be unsuitable from a geothermal point of view. But I’m an oceanographer, not a geologist. I’m just having a preliminary look at the suitability of the area from a logistical point of view. When I return I’ll be checking to see whether there could be adverse effects on marine life. Of course they’d have to use floating platforms and they also want to know if I think it’s feasible.” He looked across at Dirk. “Personally I think our planet’s been exploited and plundered almost beyond the point of sustainability. I see this as a jolly good chance to stick two fingers up at the oil companies; firstly by taking their obscenely high pay-out for doing the work,” he patted his co-conspirator on the shoulder, “and then telling them there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell.”
“Good on yer, Prof.” Dirk nodded in the direction of the horizon. “Much as the vastness of the sea frightens me sometimes, I wouldn’t want to see signs of a permanent human presence out here.” He didn’t see the change of expression in Sutch’s eyes, though he would have struggled to interpret it. Likewise, it was lucky he missed the previous look of shame in those same eyes; as Sir Arthur Tennyson had said, everyone knew when Edward Sutch was lying. Dirk grinned. “I could’ve lied for you.” Sutch felt himself redden. “You could’ve just paid me the money, stayed in Perth for a couple of days and I’d’ve told them we made the flight.”
Sutch laughed, relieved. “A nice thought. I know an excellent bar there, though thanks to your hollow legs I’m not sure I would remember how to find it. But I have to provide reports and some photographs. I also need to check the feasibility of landing a float plane like this near enough to get equipment onto the islands, and if any of them are suitable staging posts for an oil operation.”
Already Sutch knew that, if he were to go ahead with a preliminary covert expedition, he would not want planes moored up in full view of satellites. Small boats could at least be hidden in coves. But a boat trip, even from the Kerguelen Islands, would eat into valuable time, so he might yet have to turn to Dirk. But the big Aussie was a man he could trust. Of course Pete knew how to fly – an essential pre-requisite for the would-be playboy – and he would have a job arguing the need for an additional pilot past Jane. She would see it as another snub; a lack of trust.
Dirk frowned. “Remember what I told you back in Oz? If we have to land this little girl today, we’re gonna be eating up a lot of fuel. But hey, what am I worrying about. If we do have to bring it down short of the refuelling points we’ve got a radio.”
Sutch grimaced, and not simply at the thought of this rattling Cessna coming down and tossing around on the ocean. He really did not want anyone knowing his whereabouts. But there was no choice. It seemed they would have to refuel. Then he decided that he was being a bit paranoid and perhaps even arrogant. He doubted anyone outside his field of expertise had ever heard of him.
“We’ll see, Dirk. If we can get away without a landing and you can bring her in low enough that I can take a couple of decent photographs, that might do.”
“I think we’ll find out soon enough.” Sutch followed Dirk’s gaze to the horizon.
Just visible, there they were nevertheless; the outriders of a civilisation, perhaps. Ahead, still small in the distance, probably about half a nautical mile apart, were two jagged towers of rock, which looked as if the land between them had been sliced away like a loaf of bread. The gateway to the Scorpion Archipelago.
Sutch didn’t know this area well; in the latter part of his career his work had been based in busier parts of the high seas, mapping waters where shipping lines often still relied on marine charts from over a hundred years ago. Through financial necessity he had indeed, from time to time, worked with the oil companies. As a man of science he had a practical mind, which recognised that security for his family had to share an uncomfortable bed with altruism. But now, he was heading towards some of the most isolated and pitiless latitudes on the planet, with very few commercial shipping lanes and flight-paths. This was a tribal priestess of a sea; wild, beautiful and untouched.
Still, he knew enough about the region to slap his forehead now in exasperation. Of course! He should have put two and two together and remembered these twin spires, fangs of rock thrust up from the Southeast Indian Ridge by some primeval volcanic activity. Hell’s Gate they may have been to many, but not to a sailor for whom they were a signpost home. Jane’s translation had spoken of a door. Sutch cursed his myopia.
The true size of the stone towers could be gauged by how long it took to draw near them. At last the Cessna buzzed past one of them, reduced to insignificance by its bulk. What had been a mere jag on the horizon had grown to a massive hunk of granite that would dwarf a cathedral and, despite the battering of the seas, would probably outlast Christianity. The plane juddered a touch as warmer air reflecting from the vast, flat side of the slab caused a thermal.
“Well that wouldn’t make much of a staging post for even the craziest expedition,” quipped Dirk, but the humour in his voice was strained. The size of the rock had unnerved both men, making them feel inconsequential and transient, which of course they were.
On they flew, knowing there would be no further physical landmarks till they saw the coastline of the archipelago. Sutch’s palms were still sweating, only now it wasn’t through fear of flying.
The islands themselves were almost lost in the grey swell and swirl of the horizon. Distant white flecks first caught the eye. Just being able to see those breakers from that distance told both men how big the waves were and how steep the land against which they crashed. These were waves hitting a landmass at full speed and height, unbroken by any continental shelf. There would be no landing place, for plane or ship, on such waters. But the Cessna’s easterly approach meant they could tell that the waves were only on one side of the island chain; the south. To the north the waters were calmer.
The two men were so mesmerised by the islands that they became disorientated. Suddenly, as if they were staring at a colour-blind chart, they realised that they could make out details. They were almost there. The glance they exchanged was full of significance.
“This is not a good place, Professor.”
“No.” It took a lot for Sutch to admit that about his first sighting of the promised land.
“It’s like someone’s broken off a little piece of Cape Horn and dropped it here.”
He could be more right than he knows, thought Sutch. What if these were the remains of something much bigger that had simply fallen away, taking anything of significance with it, leaving a now with no past. ‘Discouraged’ didn’t do justice to how he felt at that moment, as he contemplated the logistics and questioned the sense.
The Scorpion Archipelago consisted of nine islands forming a narrowing crescent that curved in on itself at the end, almost like a scorpion’s tail. Nature held sway now and it was hard to imagine it had ever been otherwise; that she had ever relinquished her hold. Only time would tell. ‘Archipelago’ was perhaps a rather grand term for this crescent, which covered an area of about thirty miles in length, the smallest island being the sting in the scorpion’s tail. Nevertheless, it was an impressive, fearful sight, the more so for being dwarfed by the unending sea; a last stand made by a disappearing landmass against overwhelming odds. The southern sides of each island were vertiginous cliff-faces, slicing down to the thrashing and thundering waters of the Southern Ocean, which tried to reclaim its birth-right hammering in anger at these stubborn survivors. The northern faces of the mountains sloped down more gently, smothered by forest. The canopy of trees made it almost impossible to discern anything below, and only at the fringes of the islands was the environment less hostile and secretive, with shelves and lips of shingle and black sand. Here the sea was gentler, but through the calmer waters jagged rocks were visible, stretching out into the ocean. The two men looked at these with resignation.
“Don’t think we’re gonna be landing anything here,” said Dirk. “Are these crazy sons of bitches you call paymasters seriously contemplating drilling out here?”
“Well you know, Dirk, as I said, my recommendation will be no, but the oil companies are getting more reckless.”
“Looks to me like these islands would only be bases for supplies at best. There wouldn’t be any great inducement to spend r&r time here. Think the only way you’d get ashore here is with inflatables through some of those clear channels down there.”
Sutch went silent, finding it hard to come to terms with his disappointment. This was an even more hostile world than he had imagined. The islands weren’t that big, but still, looking for any evidence of a long-gone civilisation would mean…well, he was already tired of the haystack analogy. The forest seemed thick and impenetrable. But then again, one had only to look at Machu Picchu to see just how effectively nature could hide unrecorded history once mankind finished strutting and fretting its hour. Below them now was the natural balance, which man so often saw as chaos.
To Sutch, it seemed inevitable that he would need to bring a big team after all. He could not imagine coming here in secret with a small group, not the one he had in mind anyway, and sweeping all nine islands. Even completing a thorough search of just one would be an achievement in the time he had projected, given the apparent density of the forest and the lay of the land.
This moment had turned into something of a paradox. Part of the Professor argued that he should be seeking gentler pursuits at the grand old age of eighty, while another sprite within him, one he knew he would never subdue, insisted that, as he was nearing the end of his broadcast, why not try to sign off the transmission in style. And after all, if he found even one fragment of a broken pot or a human bone it would be a big deal for archaeologists, historians and anthropologists everywhere, not to mention OAPs.
And it was in these last thoughts that he recognised how this bleak place had already managed to eat its way under his skin like a parasite and infect his logical thought processes. He had a sickness. How else could he explain his certainty that he would return?
The need for some inspired guesswork about where to start looking was given added urgency by Dirk’s voice crackling in the headphones: “I tell ya, Doc, we’ve got enough fuel if you land now, but that’s about it. Unless you want to become a permanent addition to the landscape here.”
The islands at the sting end of the scorpion’s tail were precipitous on both sides and possibly too small to be of any importance. A people seeking a new home would need the biggest area available. Also, the waters around the largest of the islands seemed deep and black. Might the land have fallen away to the most dramatic effect there, perhaps taking those very people and their civilisation with it?
“Let’s think big, Dirk. We’ll go for those great lumps over there.”
“The sea’s too rough for a landing on this side, Professor, and I reckon a hundred yards out is about the closest I’d get on the other side. What d’ya mean ‘go for’ anyway?”
Sutch shook his head. “I don’t want you to land, Dirk, just make a couple of passes so I can take some pictures. You know, for the record? And if they do decide on bases out here, I need to show them the best possibilities.” That he was looking for somewhere to base his own small team remained his secret for the moment. He wondered how Dirk would feel about being part of that.
“Hope you’ve got a steady hand with that camera of yours then, Doc; it’s gonna be a bit bumpy.”
Sutch held up what looked like a palm-sized camcorder and pointed to it. “This little chap is gyroscopically controlled. It’s military technology. It doesn’t matter how bumpy the ride, the picture will be good enough.” The Cessna lurched suddenly and Sutch almost dropped the camera. He looked at Dirk and tutted in frustration, mixed with not a little trepidation. “The camera will be good enough; the question is, will the pilot?”
“Sorry Doc, the shape of these islands is playing a few tricks with the air currents. Okay, I’m taking her in.”
They flew past the implacable cliff-face of the largest island. It was black and threatening, creviced and seeming close enough to touch. The Professor flicked on the camera and it started to beep.
“ ’Sit supposed to do that?” Dirk looked across when he got no answer, to see Sutch looking rather sheepish.
“Oh dear. I think I might have forgotten to charge it.”
He looked at Dirk in apology. “It’s okay, we should have enough time left on it.”
Dirk twisted his mouth. “And you had the nerve to criticise the pilot.”
As they passed the end of the cliff face the plane gave a violent lurch once more, a plaything of the prevailing wind. Dirk looped around, banked the Cessna and then came in at no more than fifty feet above the rocky waters on the northern side.
The forest would have been impenetrable to the eye even if they weren’t flying past it in a blur. Sutch knew already that it didn’t matter what pictures he took; his irrational decision to return had been made and the choppy waters below him were those of his own personal Rubicon, though he could not be sure on which bank he stood. He was hoping it didn’t prove to be the Styx instead.
Still, something caught his attention and caused him to squint as they approached the second island, which was about a mile and a half from the first.
“What is it?” Dirk didn’t look at his passenger as he was concentrating on keeping a steady height above the waves, some of which were getting pretty big even on this calmer side. He’d seen air-sea-rescue crews mistime leaps out of helicopters, expecting to drop a hundred feet into stormy seas and having the wind knocked out of them as giant waves climbed to within a few feet of the machine. His question was greeted by silence. “Professor?”
“In a moment, Dirk, in a moment.” They flew past the island and Sutch was sure. He was going to film that with maximum zoom on the next sweep. And it would not be the plane causing his hands to shake, for sure. He turned to Dirk and put a hand on his shoulder. “Sorry for being abrupt, Dirk.”
“I want you to make that pass of the second island again. But before we do there’s something I need to tell you as concisely as I can.”
The Aussie’s mouth had opened with incredulity and remained that way for most of the Professor’s brief exposition. When it moved, it was to say: “You’re shittin’ me! Sorry, you’re kiddin’.”
“No, I’m not, and I want you to know, Dirk, that it is a sign of the tremendous trust I have in you that I am telling you this. It’s also a sign that I want you to come back with me. I’m sorry I lied before, but you must understand, I thought you’d think I was losing it.” Sutch turned from looking at the Aussie’s shocked face towards the window. “Talking of coming back, shouldn’t you be turning the plane?”
Dirk realised that in his amazement he had lost track of what he was doing. He started to bring the Cessna around, and then looked, full of doubts, at Sutch. “Come back. To this place?”
“Yes. Not an inviting prospect, is it?”
“’Bout as inviting as spending a night in a sleeping bag on the banks of the Mara River.” Sutch remembered Dirk’s story about a close encounter with a Nile crocodile, but hoped that saying no was not an option for a man for whom flying tourists across the Outback had provided a good living, but never replaced the excitement of supporting expeditions and humanitarian teams. However, it seemed he was wrong. “Aw, dunno, Prof. The here-and-now’s more my thing. No disrespect, but I’ve never understood that need to…” he sought the right words “…commune with the dead; literally or metaphorically digging them up. I guess I just think mankind’s priority should be to help those who, through no fault of their own, seemed about to join them.”
“Well anyway,” continued Sutch, “we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves. But what I saw back there has got me very excited. Bring her in from a bit further out this time, so I can explain what I think we’re looking at.” They dropped to fifty feet. The Professor pointed. “There! You see that bay?”
“You mean that cove there?”
“Precisely. It looks a bit like Lulworth Cove, on the south coast of England. You remember? Where we had that stunning rhubarb crumble that time.” Dirk grinned. The Professor had that old school way of making people feel like they were down home in the most unlikely of circumstances. “Except the geology and oceanography here are all wrong. It’s the currents; they wouldn’t wear the rocks in that way. Nor would those rocks erode in that pattern. To me this looks man-made.”
“No fu…no way. Surely.”
“Someone has built this up; turned it into a harbour.”
“Well we’re coming up on it quickly, so you’d better get that camera ready.”
Sutch switched it on again, having left it off to save the remaining power. As they made the second pass, and he peered through the zoom lens, something else made the hairs stand up on the back of his neck.
…BEFORE THE STORM
He became aware that his eyes were squeezed shut; also, that the room had grown cold, as if the history of the Southern Ocean lived on for this one night far away in the north.
It had been important to remember, but now the excitement was tinged with dread; a fear of what they might find; of what they might not.
Sutch got to his feet. The chill seemed to have invaded his bones. He thought of Candice lying warm in bed and couldn’t wait to join her.
“What are you doing, you foolish old man?” he asked himself out loud as he thought of dragging his eighty year old body from that bed in a few hours time and hauling it across two hemispheres. Pursuing a dream? It seemed the unlikeliest of answers at this late hour.
The clock in the hallway struck eleven. To Edward Sutch it seemed suddenly that he had heard the chimes at midnight.
Mid October 1997
The old man struggled to breathe as he fought his way up the slope. In the oppressive humidity beneath the canopy of trees it would have been a tough climb for a younger man, never mind one in his condition.
He had not expected this, but perhaps should have foreseen it. In panic he glanced back and through an opening in the trees saw them disembarking from their boats far below. He was not scared of them and what they might do to him; it was too late for that, but he needed to find a sanctuary nonetheless; somewhere he could buy himself enough time to scribble a warning – add it to his journal – and hopefully where he could lie undisturbed until the note was found by its intended recipients. He had to find it soon. This was a race against time. After all, he was dying.