“You can’t get there from here.”
At the time, Pavlos Apropoulos thought his American friend was joking. Now he wasn’t so sure.
“Try it and see,” Frank had said. “It’s less than 250 kilometers from Athens, and I’ll bet you can’t even get close to it!”
That had been easy enough for Frank to say, sitting in the comfort of Pavlos’s Athens apartment.
Pavlos’s arms felt as if they were about to come off. The branch he was holding on to might tear free at any second, leaving him without any firm support. Yet his feet couldn’t seem to find a purchase.
There was dust everywhere. The canyon was filled with a clay pungence that mixed with the overripe odors of bramble bush and perspiration. He could taste blood from one of the cuts he’d taken on his face, during the panicky scramble down the flaky, slippery talus.
This was the easiest route. He was sure of it.
The branch tore loose just as Pavlos got his right foot settled on an uncertain chunk of partially decomposed granite. For a moment he teetered. The canyon wavering about him in a blur of hazy green thorn bushes and a narrow strip of cloudy sky.
Pavlos threw the cluster of twigs away and grabbed for another hold. But dry leaves came off like chaff in his hands as the ground crumbled beneath him.
The brush that had been so formidable in blocking his earlier descent now broke and parted in front of him like chips flying from an axe. Branches tore and whipped at his arms, which he vainly tried to keep over his face as he fell, running and crashing, down the steep slope.
Somehow, he stayed on his feet, though they skidded on the powdery surface. The shrubbery thickened toward the bottom and the slope flattened, but this slowed him only slightly as the headlong rush sent him splashing across a small rivulet of dirty water to slam, arms outstretched, into the opposite canyon wall.
Fragments of desiccated, ancient rock rained down upon him as he labored to catch his breath in a series of shuddering gasps. The clumps fell in a steady stream—a miniature landslide onto the back of his head.
Pavlos stood still, taking things in order. He wasn’t ready to begin cataloguing the bruises and scrapes he had taken. The thudding of loose gravel on his skull meant no more to his overloaded senses than the chalky, rank odor of dust and sweat which he took in with each ragged breath, or the almost unbearable weight of his backpack.
The landfall subsided at about the same rate as Pavlos’s breathing. Dust settled, leaving a fine white patina on his hair and hunched shoulders. He waited a few moments longer, eyes shut tightly against the floating grit, listening to the fading creakings his passage down the scarp had set off. When finally he looked around, Pavlos shuddered.
In thirty years of mountaineering he had seen many ravines like this, but this was the first time he had ever been in one. There had never been a need, before. There had always been another way… an easier route.
Not this time, though. The place where he had come down was the best he had found in an entire day of searching. It was hideous.
Gnarled trees and thorn bushes covered the sixty-degree slope. Jagged rocks protruded from the starved, parched soil. It was a miracle he had come this far without breaking a leg, or his skull.
More than ever he was convinced he was on the right path. This monument to inaccessibility had to be the place Frank had spoken of.
He checked for cuts and bruises. It was a good thing he had chosen, after carefully examining Frank’s aerial photos, to wear leather for this expedition. It had protected most of his skin, although several unbelievable thorns had pierced his garments and had to be pulled out amid momentary, excruciating pain.
He allowed his pack to slide down and form a seat to rest on. With slow deliberation, he drew out his aid kit and applied disinfectant to the cuts on his face and the backs of his wrists.
Only after his breathing settled, and the spots disappeared from in front of his eyes, did he allow himself a slow, sparing swallow from one of his canteens. He wet a handkerchief and carefully wiped the grit away from his eyes and lips.
Upstream to the right a few dozen meters was the path of ascension he had picked out during his visual scouting, earlier, from the other side. It was the route with marginally fewer obstacles than elsewhere along this face.
He stood, groaning at the stretch of abused muscles, and moved a few feet to examine the route. Then he compared it with the path he would have to take if he turned around, right now, and went home.
Sure enough. As bad as the way down had been, it looked more tempting to someone trapped in the ravine than the hellish slope he would have to climb if he continued forward.
It had been that way all the way here. Every trail, every game path, every natural sloping led one circumspectly
It was the sum that drove Pavlos crazy. It had only been by the most steadfast determination to violate all of the rules of mountaineering that he had been able to get this far. It had taken two days to come just five kilometers from that last hamlet of surly, taciturn herdsmen.
Pavlos reached into his pack for the high altitude photos Frank had given him.
“This is the first one I took from orbit,” Frank had said when he showed Pavlos the first large-scale photo. “I used the cartography telescope in interface with the computer on board the Platform. This locale was flagged in the course of a survey I was doing for the EEC—an attempt to determine population density versus terrain type. This spot gave Fourier Transform that was quite unusual.”
The satellite photo was very clear. It looked like it had been taken from only a few thousand feet in altitude. Pavlos easily recognized the elevation contour markings that lay upon apparently typical Grecian highlands. He had, after all, been teaching map reading and leading expeditions while his young American friend had been scrawling stick figures in crayon on the kitchen wall in his parents’ house in Des Moines.
The photos lay on his dining room table, three stories above the noisy streets of Athens. Outside his apartment door children ran down the hall, screaming in some incoherent game. To him it was all part of the background. He worried over the other lines and squiggles on Frank’s map, reluctant to admit his ignorance to the astronaut, however close they had become during a mission in the Sudan, two years before.
“This is in Thessaly, is it not?” He pointed to the shape of the hillsides, the lay of the sun in the creek beds, wishing to show that expertise meant as much as did fancy technology.
Frank’s eyebrows rose. Impressed, he showed it with typical American ingenuousness. Americans had no second skin, no Mediterranean wall of caution. Pavlos loved them for it.
“Yes, that’s right,” Frank had said. “And here you see how the population density and terrain accessibility profiles rise and fall together nicely everywhere.
He pulled out another photo.
“Here is the city of Thessalonica, with almost a million people. Now weighted
“Yes, yes. I get the point.” Pavlos was pleased. He had managed to get the information out of Frank without asking for it, and picked up an opportunity to mutter with fatherly impatience at the same time. Such minor stylistic victories helped make a pleasure out of a lazy afternoon.
“So what I can’t figure out is why you thought it so important to show this to me at my apartment, and in such secrecy, hmmm?”
Frank sat down.
“Oh, hell. You know this is low-priority stuff, Pav. Ever since you helped us find that capsule in the Sahara, you’ve known that my main job is to experiment with space-borne antimissile systems. When I started getting strange results in my accessibility studies, I just couldn’t get anybody interested.”
“All right.” Pavlos smiled. “Then I am your informal consultant. Now show me these ‘strange results’ of yours.”
Frank pulled a large envelope from his briefcase. He drew the first of several glossy prints from it.
“This is from the same general region, only about thirty kilometers to the southwest of the corner of that large overlay. I want you to take a close look at this area, in particular, before I show you a bigger blowup.” Pavlos bent to peer at the plateau Frank pointed out, bringing over his magnifying glass.
His smile faded as he studied the photo.
“I cannot say for certain, as your lines of probability get in the way… but it appears that this water course loops back upon itself! It makes almost a natural moat around the hilltop.”
Frank nodded. “I’ve tried to use the newer telescope we have on board. It’s tied in to our experimental beam weapons system…” Almost unconsciously, Frank lowered his voice, although he knew that Pavlos’s apartment was secure.
“I could count the number of black fleas on the backside of a dog with that machine. But it’s a bitch and a half getting the thing tuned properly, at this stage. I’m not at all sure I’d be able to devote that kind of time and effort using it on what’s essentially a side project, especially when NASA’s already paranoid over security. At
Pavlos nodded. As a reserve NATO officer who occasionally helped out in expeditions to desolate regions, he had seen examples of amazing photography from space. And he had the feeling they hadn’t ever shown him all they could do.
“So let us see the best you have.” He waved with his right hand as Frank pulled out the fourth photo. “You have me curious about this mystery of yours.”
It showed a plateau in the middle of a set of concentric, parched creek beds, surrounded by rugged, goat-ravaged hills. At the corners of the photo there were signs of humanity, as one would expect everywhere in a land that had been inhabited at high density for four thousand years. In two places there were the ubiquitous shepherd’s shacks for overnight shelter. Goat tracks lay everywhere.
But in the center, all trace of man and animal disappeared. Puzzled, Pavlos peered closer. “Are those…? No, they cannot be.”
“What are they, Pavlos?”
He rubbed his chin. “I believe those are
“There are no estates here, Pavlos. What else do you see?”
“There are cypress, and some other large trees I cannot identify, and…” He peered closely. “There is a
Frank stood up straight and tapped the photo.
“See these faint lines? I had the computer draw them along curves of
Pavlos sat back in his chair and drummed his fingers on the tabletop. Then he started rummaging through his jacket pocket for a cigarette. Only when he had one lit did he get up and start to pace.
“I see two possibilities,” he began. “The building may be modern, in which case it could have been prefabricated and taken to the peak by helicopter. The question then would be why? And who would do such a thing? How did they keep it secret?”
Pavlos turned to look at Frank. “That is the possibility that interests you, is it not? Things like this make intelligence officers sleep poorly.”
Frank nodded, but said, “I tried to interest my superiors but they didn’t care. They even forbade me to ask the Greek government about it. Our allies are already touchy about the extent we can peer down at them. I’m stuck with following this up on my own.”
Pavlos nodded. “Ah. To be expected from politicians and soldiers, present company excepted. Well, there is a second possibility. If the structure is
Pavlos stopped pacing again, took a deep drag from his cigarette, then waved it at his friend. “I have a feeling I am being
Frank had smiled.
Pavlos put away the photos and shouldered his backpack. Pain resumed at once, spreading from chafed shoulders down his spine and arms. For the ten-thousandth time he wondered what masochism could drive a man who wasn’t in the army to put forty pounds on his back and go places a donkey would refuse.
When he reached the chosen site he took out his machete, looped its thong from his right wrist, and began climbing.
No classic ascent, this. None of the clean exhilaration of a challenge with goldline, harness, and carabiners against a bare rock face. The danger here would not be from a single fall—likely to be broken by shrubbery—but from jagged rocks, nasty thorns, poisonous snakes, and plain agony. Cerebration would not help so much as watchfulness and stoicism.
At first the hillside was steep. The foliage was thick enough to bar his path, but too poorly rooted to use for support. It came free of its roots in his hand, leaving him teetering on the crumbling soil. Finally he hit on the technique of tearing the bushes loose on purpose, opening a path to crawl through.
Soon, however, the slope flattened just enough to give the roots leverage. He found himself again and again forced to take detours… every one of which led him inevitably downward. Finally, he had to lay on his stomach to worm among the burrows and insect nests, shoving upward by brute force.
It was neither a time nor a place for finesse.
He hacked at roots with the short machete. The tough, springy bushes bled a gooey yellow sap that soon coated his hands with a cloying, binding stickiness. Perspiration ran in clammy streams along his sides, under the leather jacket. The sun burned down through a muggy haze. The smell of his own sweat mingled with the evil stench of the thorn shrubs.
Repetition soon became automatic. Reach, pull, hack, hack again, and again, until the plant tears free… keep flat, crawl through the gap, ignoring the jutting rocks and jagged root stumps… reach, pull, set your legs, hack… hack… hack…
Shortness of breath made him regret his lost youth.
He kept his mind on only one idea.
Mercifully, just as he thought he could endure the smell, the ache, the heat, and the confinement no longer, he reached a patch of open rock. It was not more than one meter by two, but he fell across it and rolled out of his pack with a groan of relief.
With trembling fingers he pulled out one of his canteens. He filled his mouth, swished the water around, then spat onto his hands and rubbed them on his pants to dislodge some of the sap.
Pavlos squinted at the painfully bright, hazy sky.
He wondered if Frank was overhead. If he were using the spy telescope, and happened to have a spare moment to look this way, Frank might see him right now.
Pavlos waved languidly at the sky.
There was a small transceiver in his backpack that, Frank promised, would be able to reach the Platform whenever it passed within line of sight. As executive officer of a five-man crew, he would be able to arrange several hours alone with the equipment, while the others slept.
It hurt a little, in a wry fashion, to think of the astronaut whizzing overhead in weightless, air-conditioned comfort, pondering his theories of “accessibility of terrain.” Pavlos knew that inaccessibility was, like the texture of a woman, known only through intimate contact.
Right now he was being intimate with inaccessibility in a manner that made him think of the Anglo-Saxon expletives he had learned over the years.
One hundred meters, that was all the distance remaining. Pavlos crawled with a sense of dogged martyrdom. He was sure two fingers of his left hand had been sprained, if not broken, by a falling stone from a rockslide he’d set off. The other aches were innumerable.
The ascent became a melding of miserable repetition, he would grab, pull, hack, then use the root as a support as he searched for footholds on the flaky slope.
His mind meanwhile walked a random path among fantasies of what he would find at the top.
A pre-Constantinian hermitage, perhaps… or even a monastery, untouched for fifteen hundred years because nobody ever happened upon it in all of that time.
Or maybe this was one huge tell—a solid ruin from some ancient fortification. It
By the frogs of lower heaven, why not go all the way! This is, perhaps, a covered-up installation of visitors from outer space, who buried one of their starships here when they ran out of tapioca to power it!
Pavlos’s foot slipped and the root he clutched barely held as he scrambled, face buried in the gritty dirt. With a mighty strain, he lifted himself within range of another foothold. It held.
Pavlos hardly noticed when the slope began to flatten.
In fact, he felt a momentary panic when his hand reached out for another root and grabbed, instead, only air and then grass.
The cedars formed a pocket forest at the center of the plateau. The grass surrounding the grove was a subject for speculation. It was thicker and more lustrous than one might expect in this terrain, yet it did not appear to be tended, either. Pavlos saw no sign of a helicopter landing pad.
Not on this side, at least. Who could tell what he would see once the spots cleared from in front of his eyes?
He knew he looked hardly presentable for knocking on someone’s front door. He itched all over. Somehow removing his leather outer garments and tending his wounds had changed the pain from a general background roar that could be ignored to a set of isolated screaming sensations. He had been injured on other expeditions, of course. Often far worse. But never had he felt so
Pavlos took one last swig from his canteen, then hoisted his pack.
“All right,” he mumbled, fighting off dizziness. “This had better be worth it.”
The air was cleaner up here, almost tasty. The smell of the cedars was sweet and pleasant. He entered the grove and almost at once saw the outlines of the building through the trees.
He paused for a moment, struggling not to fall to his knees. It couldn’t be true!
It was pure beam and column construction. Not an arch could be seen. The columns were Doric, or even pre-Doric—chaste, simple, unadorned, but beautiful. Their rounded contours might almost be Minoan.
And the beams resting on the columns! Where a Doric entablature was strictly sectioned into the three horizontal bands, here there was only one, carved in intricate figures that seemed to march upon a protruding lip, like the rim of the door lintel of a Cretan palace.
The structure was obviously designed to stand open to the wind, yet someone after the original builder had chosen to close off the interior in a crude fashion. The openings between the columns were blocked by slabs of white marble, roughly mortared; the flaking remnants of ancient paint still clung in spots.
Pavlos walked forward slowly, silently, as if in fear the sounds of his footsteps would blow it all away. He felt telescoped as he approached—the marble seeming to come to
No graffiti… no carved names and dates. The figures of heroic horses and feathered men in combat using spears and rounded shields, these bore no defacement other than that which Time itself had meted.
The warriors, some plumed, some naked to the waist, were of many types. Pavlos saw some that were clearly Minoan and he felt his heart leap. There were others… Egyptian of the Old Kingdom, for certain, and… Akkadian?
Pavlos approached one of the columns. Gently, he reached out and touched it.
The marble had taken pits and tiny scratches over the centuries. It felt rough, in its underlying smoothness. To him, it had the texture of durability.
The wind sighed through the cedars. It seemed to be speaking to him with the voices of ancient men and women.
“Well, hero. You are here at last.
Pavlos shook his head to clear it. The words had seemed so real.
He turned. Standing at the far end of the row of columns was a woman. She wore a simple garment, bound by a rope belt. Her black hair was braided, though not with great precision.
She smiled, and held out her hand in a gesture of welcome. But as Pavlos felt himself begin to walk—numbly and only partly, it seemed, at his own will— he thought he heard a quiet “clicking” sound, and the sunlight glinted hard into his eyes… reflected bitterly by the golden thimble she wore on her finger.