Warning: The following excerpt contains spoilers if you haven’t read Abyss of Chaos. If you don’t mind spoilers, or you’ve already read Abyss–knock yourself out!
(The following is copyrighted material.)
Wednesday, 11:30 pm (EST)
The smell of linseed oil filled his nose as he slowly withdrew the relic from the worn silk bag.
He held it up for inspection. The dark varnish gleamed in the candlelight, the color of blackened blood. Inlaid on the back was a burgundy cross with a mother-of-pearl rose nestled in its center.
Rain lashed down on the roof and Aliyah Khoury drew closer at his side. Shadows danced over her exotic features.
“There’s a note,” she whispered.
Max Sinclair sat on the floor of his godfather’s living room, surrounded by partially packed boxes and a lifetime of bittersweet memories. The relic, an ornamented wooden plank, about the length of his forearm, lay in his lap.
Unfolding the brittle paper, he brought it close to the candle, carefully, so as not to drip wax, and the ache in his chest intensified to find Phineas’ familiar scrawl.
Repudia rerum naturam. Reconcilia rerum naturam. Sacrifica se.
Litera me pavit, nec quid sit litera novi. In libris vixi, nec sum studiosior inde. Exedi Musas, nee adhuc tamen ipse profeci.
P.S. Inveni Fragum Murem.
He flipped the page over but his hopes were quickly dashed to find it blank. A shrill beep came from the fuse box in the basement and the power came back on, along with practically every light bulb in the house. The television sprang to life at least four decibels too loud, but still not as loud as the storm raging outside. Max set the candle back in its holder as something tired and heavy settled over his spirits.
“Rithmomachia,” he said, and another peal of thunder rattled the house. His fingers traced the cross on the back of the board as he admired its exquisite craftsmanship. “We used to play it in our family. It’s a game—the ‘lost’ treasure of the Dark Ages.”
He turned the board over to reveal the grid where stones were placed during a match. It resembled a rectangular version of a more popular game called Othello. The game was only considered “lost” because it had fallen from popularity over the last six hundred or so years. Phineas’ Rithmomachia board was among the finest Max had ever seen, and the oldest.
“But what about the note?” she asked. “‘You can translate this, yes?”
Max nodded that he could, but withheld it, and Aliyah’s expression grew concerned.
“He entrusted this to you, Maxwell.”
Max nodded again and, feeling restless, climbed to his feet to cross the room, careful not to tip any of the piles of his godfather’s books and other belongings that they’d sorted.
“Phineas entrusted lots of things to me,” he said. “Look where it got him.”
Looking around at the condition of his godfather’s home, and the sad, half-packed boxes, Max wondered how others went about reconciling the irreconcilable. His godfather, the esteemed archeologist, Dr. Phineas Monroe, was killed defending a three thousand year old relic from Shifta bandits. The Holy, golden chest containing the sacred Ten Commandments God gave Moses at Mt. Sinai, the fabled Ark of the Covenant, was potentially the most impactful find in the history of archeology. If they’d ever revealed it to anyone, that is. Because, though they’d found it, they had, of necessity, been required to hide it again.
Max had left Phineas during a fire fight, just for a second, in order to save Aliyah’s life. But that critical second had been enough. All of his skill as a fourth degree black belt in Aikido hadn’t been enough to save him. They’d had to leave him there, buried somewhere in the Mountains of Asmara, not far from Aksum, Ethiopia, where they’d found the Ark. They’d had to leave him, a father to Max for the better portion of his life, some fourteen years.
“If we never return, it’ll be too soon,” he muttered, too softly for Aliyah to hear.
Dusty books comprised the lion share of their piles. Books with titles so long that he used to tease Phineas that the author had used up all his words on the cover, leaving little room for the book to offer anything of interest inside. Roma Britannica and the Cultural Memory of Egypt: Lord Arundel and the Obelisk of Domitian, or Artful Ambiguities in the Old English “Book-Moth” Riddle, in Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation. His godfather’s erudite interests had a way of making even a half hour in his company interminable when he decided you needed to learn something. Yet, a lifetime with the old man hadn’t been nearly long enough.
Max stood in front of the fireplace, arms folded and his back to Aliyah, outwardly pretending to admire the print hanging just above the mantel piece, Picasso’s famous Don Quixote, a favorite of Phineas’ but always a burdensome symbol for Max when he found it in his godfather’s home. The Don dominated the scene from his broken down old horse, and towered over Sancho Panza and all the tiny windmills peppering the countryside.
Sighing, he turned to find Aliyah engrossed in the cable news story blaring from the television. It was the same press conference they’d seen at least twenty times in the last twenty-four hours.
Great. Here we go again.
“Maxwell, we have to go to Washington,” she urged him for the umpteen-billionth time. “We have to tell someone.”
The spectacle on T.V. held his attention as if he were seeing it for the first time.
Two men in flowing robes stood in front of a gleaming golden chest, which they claimed was the Ark of the Covenant. Great golden wings—the wings of angels—stretched across its lid, known as the Mercy Seat, and reflected light as cameras popped and flashed. The King of Saudi Arabia introduced his “Mahdi,” the Holy Redeemer of Islam, and demanded worldwide Islamic conversion. They claimed the end of the world was coming.
Another peal of thunder shook the windows.
“They’ll lock us up in the loony bin,” Max growled. “Besides, nobody walks into the Capitol Building and expects to score face time with a lawmaker. They’re too busy not doing anything.”
“Maxwell, we’re two of three people in the world who know for a fact that the Ark on T.V. is a fake, yes? And if that Ark is a fake, then the Mahdi is a fake—whether the King knows it or not. We have to tell someone—”
“Loony bin,” he said again, shutting off the T.V. “Besides, if it’s the end of the world, I’m pretty sure God can handle it on his own.”
“Allah,” she corrected him.
“Whatever,” he said, tossing the remote to the sofa. “I’ve already hit my monthly quota for radical Islamists. I’m a prodigy cellist, not insane.” He cast around for something to change the subject and, finding Phineas’ note, scooped it up and began to read.
“The first part is nonsense—just complete nonsense,” he said, irritably. “But the second is from something called Symphosius.”
Aliyah folded her arms beneath her breasts and glared at him. Recognizing the look, he hurried right on.
“It’s a famous riddle ‘Litera me pavit, nec quid sit litera novi.’ ‘I have fed upon literature, yet know not a letter. I have lived among books, and I am none the more studious for it. I have devoured the Muses, yet up to the present time I have made no progress. P.S. Find Strawberry Mouse’.” Max paused to plop into the sofa. “Well, I hardly need Maddy to translate Latin.”
Max gazed back at her, admiring her beauty, and marveling again at the fact that she was there at all. The outlandish string of events leading up to Aliyah Khoury, a stunning Iraqi Special Forces Commander, crossing the Atlantic to hear him perform—and ending in the execs cancelling the concert.
“She’s a kid I grew up with,” he said at last. “It’s her childhood nickname; Strawberry Mouse equals Madeline Forrester. Doctor Madeline Forrester, now. Our parents died in the same car crash.” Sensing her mounting questions, he rushed on. He had no intention of getting into the death of his parents.
“We used to take cello lessons together. Her folks and my folks would get together with Phineas and do brainy stuff. She’s become an important astrophysicist at Georgetown University, traipsing around in front of Congress whenever NASA needs to put a pretty face on space, and otherwise carrying on the childhood tradition of Queen Nerd.”
He turned to find Aliyah taking a picture down from the mantel—him and Maddy from when they were eleven, posing with both sets of parents, and Phineas. Silence stretched as Max again crossed the room.
“Phineas and I used to talk about mom and dad like they were still around,” he said, taking the picture from her. Aliyah remained silent as he placed it back on the mantel. “You know, not like, ‘mom made a great breakfast today,’ or anything like that. Just—well, anytime we were heading off on another adventure together, he’d tell me how they ‘wouldn’t approve, but don’t tell them.’ Stuff like that. I guess it was comforting, or something.”
He studied her features, which remained unchanged.
“What?” he demanded. “You’re like a sphinx. What?”
“Where is she now?”
“Maddy?” asked Max, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. “Why?”
Aliyah’s eyes flitted to Phineas’ missive and Max swallowed the lump growing in his throat. He couldn’t think of a single time he’d followed Phineas off on some crazy thing that didn’t end badly—and that nonsense at the beginning of his note had all the hallmarks of a crazy Phineas thing—but he was startled from his thoughts as another thunderclap shook the house and the power cut out again.
The candle flickered from where he’d left it, on the coffee table. He and Aliyah carefully picked their way through the boxes and piles of his godfather’s things, to the pool of light it offered, and knelt near where they’d left the board.
“Aliyah?” he prompted her again.
“‘Strawberry Mouse.’ Your godfather has asked you to find her, has he not?”
Golden candle glow warmed her earnest features as she studied him openly. Looking down at the game, and then the note, he tried to force away the growing trepidation in his stomach, and found himself wondering if finding Maddy would be enough to distract Aliyah from getting involved in that Ark of the Covenant business again. He wondered, but gave it up on the spot, deciding that it didn’t matter a whit.
Phineas had left something undone, and had asked him to do it.
Your godfather has asked you to find her, has he not? Aliyah’s question dangled in his mind.
“Indeed he has,” replied Max.
Thursday, 4:38 pm (EST)
Dr. Madeline Forrester hastened through the brightly lit corridor in her best business professional, a slim-fitting black vest and pencil skirt combo. She’d come straight from her Senate testimony, with no time to change. George’s voicemail had sounded urgent.
“Good God . . . .” Dr. George Lewis’ voice spilled into the hallway from Madeline’s office.
“That’s what they keep telling me. Despite all evidence to the contrary,” Madeline muttered under the click-clacking of her high heels.
“Oh, good. You’ve got to see this,” George exclaimed, pointing to her computer screen as she came in.
She quickly scanned the condition of her office but didn’t find anything out of place. Her prized collection of hand-carved miniature Leonardo Da Vinci prototypes sat where she’d left them, in perfect order on her antique rosewood desk, and side by side with the latest i-technology. The tall grandfather clock, gifted to her from one Dr. Phineas Monroe, kept time as noisily as ever in the corner, and Madeline found herself wondering again whether she’d ever get used to working under its distraction, despite her sentimental attachment to it.
It wasn’t that she was mistrustful of George, per se. It was just that she hadn’t yet been hazed, despite her university colleagues’ warnings to be on guard.
She rounded her desk and glanced at the screen, but rather than offer her chair back, George remained seated and instead pulled up a second one. She directed a flat stare, willing him to stand, but he just sat, adjusting his pocket protector absently and apparently engrossed in whatever data he had to show her. Sighing, she fished an elastic from her purse and tied her strawberry blonde hair back, then hunched over to scan the report.
3.2 Somalia Border
3.4 Somalia Border
4.2 Somalia Border
4.8 Somalia Border
5.3 Somalia Border
6.2 Somalia Border
“Earthquakes. So what?” she said, puzzled. Earthquakes usually occurred with aftershocks. This is your field—why call me? For a second, Madeline found herself wondering if this was it—the hazing. Her new gig at the Smithsonian gave her some loose authority over him, and she knew it had to chafe for a fifties-something-top-of-his-game seismologist to have to answer to a twenty-six year-old wunderkind physicist. She looked up and removed her glasses. “George, you’ve got to interpret this for me. Theoretical physics it isn’t.”
“No it isn’t,” he agreed. “But this might be.”
Tracing his finger across the mouse pad, he clicked a second window open. This one showed an infrared satellite image of earth, the kind used by seismologists measuring heat differentials beneath the earth’s crust. An intense area of dark red lurked near the Somali border. Along the side of the image, a bar assigned temperatures with color indicators. Slowly, Madeline processed the impossibility of the readout.
“That’s more like it,” she said quietly. “One thousand Kelvin?” She paused for a moment as her brain made a quick calculation. “Thirteen-hundred degrees Fahrenheit, give or take. George, the hottest place on Earth doesn’t get much hotter than one-hundred and sixty degrees Fahrenheit. Where did you get this?”
“NASA,” he replied with an edge of challenge to his voice. She stared into his flat eyes without speaking. “ESA and RSA are all reporting the same thing Maddy,” he went on. “I’ve even got a call out to China to verify. ‘Tansuo-one’ is coming up next,” he added, referring to a Chinese satellite which would soon add its own snapshot to the amassing pile of evidence. “It’s no glitch, Maddy. OGA is reading some sort of thermal pocket about twenty miles beneath the surface. That’s why I’ve had all these satellites grabbing pictures.”
“I’m not understanding any of this,” she snapped. “Walk me through it.” Sure, her IQ blew most others’ out of the water. Give her a theoretical physics problem and she’d do her best to take Einstein to school. But the physics she knew—and the physics the rest of the world knew, she thought wryly—declared this very improbable. Einstein would’ve agreed.
“I’m not sure I understand it any better.” George leaned back and scratched his chin. “These earthquakes should be way greater. I mean, locals are reporting some dead animals and plant life. But it’s not like they’re talking raging fires . . . o-or . . . or huge tectonic shelves dropping off into the pit of hell! It’s damn weird.”
“Understatement,” she countered, eyeing her chair that George still sat in. “Temperatures to the tune of one thousand kelvin should leave major destruction behind. The earth’s core—some four thousand kelvin—is three or four thousand miles beneath the earth’s crust, leaving us well protected from its intensity. But twenty miles?” Madeline paused as something he’d said earlier belatedly caught her attention. “Rewind: thermal pocket?” She had to be sure she understood him correctly. Seismologists and physicists sometimes didn’t speak the same language, scientifically speaking. “What does that even mean?”
George responded only with raised eyebrows and a shaky smile.
“Screw you, George. The Earth doesn’t just randomly get hot. Not like that it doesn’t. What about these quakes? Where’s the epicenter?” Madeline began mentally connecting the dots. Find the epicenter—start looking for the evidence.
“Aksum,” George replied.
His cell rang and George checked the number, then mouthed, it’s the OGA. Madeline nodded that she’d wait, and George took the call. As he spoke with their Arta Geophysical Observatory liaison overseas, Madeline’s mind tried to process the information he’d given her. He’s jerking my chain, right? But the snippets she caught from his conversation sounded genuine.
She stared at the screen, dumbfounded. The data shouldn’t have been possible. Not without seeing greater environmental disaster than they were seeing. If the earth was not baking, as it should be, then it followed that some matter—or antimatter—was absorbing the energy. Still, if animals and plant life were dying, didn’t that suggest the thermal pocket wasn’t air tight?
There it was, smack in the middle of all that red. What the hell is going on?
Madeline tapped George’s shoulder and gave him a curt signal. He rose, still engrossed in his conversation, and she took her chair and snatched a notepad from the top drawer of her desk. She flipped through pages until she found one blank and then clicked her pen.
And there she was, again, drawn to scientific inquiry like a moth to a flame. Her whole life had been a succession of similar moments of thirsting for knowledge. Similar, but not quite the same as this, she realized. Nothing in her rock star career as a twenty-six year old, tenured professor at Georgetown University had prepared her for anything quite like this—a humbling problem, even when compared to the work she’d done to cement her tenure at such a young age. Yet, everything she’d ever achieved had begun by asking the obvious questions first.
She wrote out the two most pertinent questions she could think of. The big ones.
- 1. What is growing beneath Aksum?
- 2. Where is the energy going?
As she stared at the words she’d written, the enormity of the problem sank in. Energy like that isn’t just a threat to humans. If that thermal pocket fails, it’ll reduce the planet to a lump of space rock.
From behind her, Phineas’ grandfather clock chimed six times. Then six more times. And six more times. Then, it stopped.