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Note: This week's chapter is shorter than is usual. I've been dreadfully busy The Theatre (wrist flip), and this is all that could be mustered. Please enjoy.
Steele offers umbrellas, but Jaq and Septimus wave him off, walking to the obelisk. He follows, protecting himself from the rain. The ground here is dry, as if the rain disappears a few inches from the ground. Jaq and Septimus are drenched in seconds, but that’s nothing new.
Around the obelisk are white tents. They have walls, but each has an open side. Inside, there are maps, equipment, charts. Three generators of tremendous size sit a few hundred feet away, wired to all the equipment, and surrounded by a wire fence with lightning-bolt signs hanging on it.
All around the clearing are machine gun emplacements.
As the trio approach, two men in long raincoats and hats run from one of the tents. They run around Jaq and Septimus, and go for Steele.
“Sir!” The first one, taller, has to shout to be heard over the heavy rain. “We’ve been trying to radio.”
“Left my radio in England. What is it?”
“Something’s changed. The obelisk, it’s changed.”
The man—probably a scientist—motions to the towering stone structure, and sees the thing that’s already enthralled Jaq and Septimus.
The obelisk is covered with carvings, running from the base, all the way to the top. Some are ornamental, like lines woven of flowers. Some are the shapes of humans. Some are the shapes of vodyrazum. There are words, too, or something like them.
Every carving has a single thing in common: they are all moving.
The humanoid figures run back and back and forth, and dance, and jump. The vodyrazum braid their tentacles and spin around, the beaks shifting in some silent chant. Even the carvings of flowers are closing and opening, and moving along vines.
“That one just waved at me,” Septimus says.
“When in hell did this start?” Steele asks.
“A couple of hours ago, sir.”
“As in, when we landed?” Septimus turns to see Jaq, but she’s distracted, walking toward the obelisk. A path in the ground goes down, into the base, where there’s a large, rectangular opening. It’s in shadow, but two large lamps are pointed at it.
“No use,” Steele says. “There’s a door, but it’s sealed. We’ve tried opening it, but we don’t have the firepower. And we don’t want to wreck the place.”
Jaq flips on one of the floodlights, shedding light on the opening. It digs into the obelisk about five feet, and ends at double-doors. No handle, of course. Not even a gap for air to move through.
On and around the doors, the carvings continue to dance their merry lives away. One does a flip.
“I swear that one just flipped me off,” Septimus says, laughing a little.
“You’re taking this all in stride,” Jaq says.
“Do you see this?”
Steele is gone, off to chat with his scientists, but Septimus steps up behind her.
The carvings on the doors are disappearing. In a second, they’re all gone. The door has gone totally blank.
“Well,” Jaq says, but can’t come up with anything else to say.
“My vote is, we ignore this particular piece of weird, and work on convincing Steele to give us some of those weapons.”
Just before they leave, the door shifts again. There’s a small cracking sound as a vertical line appears on the door. Then, a horizontal one, meeting with the first. And another.
The letter H.
More lines appear, and some arcs. Before long, a message is spelled out. It’s a simple message that, despite being in the middle of a permanent rainstorm on an island made of fungus, searching for secrets about aquatic brains, runs chills over Jaq’s spine.
The message: “HELLO JAQ”.
“I guess that’s one way to get your attention,” Septimus says.
Jaq fumbles in her pocket, pulls out the telescope. She grips one end with her teeth (easier than using the hand with the broken arm) and extends it, then looks through.
The telescope reveals thin green lines below the carved greeting. They shimmer, just a little, but they’re easy enough to read: “COME ALONE”. Nearby is a square, highlighted in yellow. Green lettering over it says “PUSH”.
She hands off the telescope.
“What do you see?”
Septimus looks through, and shrugs. “Nothing.”
“It’s showing me a message.”
“Kilroy was here?”
“You know that’s a terrible idea, right?”
“You’re still going to do it, right?”
“If I try to stop you?”
Jaq just raises an eyebrow.
“I’m just saying, if you get dead and strand us here, I’m not gonna be happy.” He raises his hands as he steps back.
“I’ll try to not get dead. See what you can learn from Steele.”
“Do we have anything to barter with?”
“Remind him he owes me two grand from a dice game, and that I haven’t forgotten it.”
“Will do.” Septimus half-smiles.
“If I don’t—”
“Shut up. I’ll see you soon.”
Jaq looks through the telescope, finds the highlighted square, then runs her hand over it. You wouldn’t notice from looking at it, but the material is slightly different. Smooth, polished. She takes a deep breath.
“J'ai rarement été si insensé,” she whispers to herself, and presses the square.
Inside the square, a faint green light glows. The surface isn’t stone, polished or otherwise: it’s glass, with a light on the other side.
Around the double-doors, the stone sounds like it’s cracking, as mechanisms deep within the earth grind into place. The doors shift forward. Air pulls through the cracks, making a sharp whistling noise.
Scientists come rushing, led by Steele, who shouts to Septimus.
The doors glide open, toward Jaq. She steps out of the way. Wind beats at her back, whipping her hair and coat. The open tunnel drinks the air down like a person just saved from drowning. It only takes a few seconds, but it feels like minutes are spent staring into the black space beyond.
Once the air settles, Jaq steps forward.
“Jaq!” Steele shouts, distantly. “What are you doing?”
She tries to think of a quip, something witty, something that would be great last words if she dies in here. But the best thing she can come up with is ‘Finding Out’, and she doesn’t come up with that until the doors are already closed.
“What the hell happened?” Steele asks.
“And she listened? Meaning, she actually followed the directions that a magic telescope showed her?”
“You watched it happen.”
Steele is angry, and confused, and wants to explode. But he’s smart enough to know that there’s nothing he can do about it now. The doors are closed again. The scientists are trying to pry them open, but it’s no use, and the glass panel has gone dead again.
“She knows what she’s doing,” Septimus lies, trying to convince himself.
“We’ll find out,” Steele says.
The scientists come away from the door.
“No use, sir. We can’t open it. Whatever she did, we can’t make it happen again.”
A low tone starts to sound in the clearing around the obelisk. Not an alarm, or at least not an important one, but definitely an alert of some kind.
“Proximity alert,” Steele says, pre-empting Septimus’ question. “Means there’s more movement than usual in the jungle. Not to worry. Probably a healer-bird or something like it. The whole clearing has an electric fence around it.” He motions to the jungle.
Septimus looks, and sees it: a high, thin metal fence all around the clearing, except the opening they drove through.
“If it’s nothing to worry about, why the fence, and all the guns?”
“Because healer-birds aren’t the biggest, or scariest, things in this jungle.”
“Great. Very comforting.”
The low sound stop.
“See? It’s fine.”
“When do we start worrying?”
“When the sound you just heard comes back, but a lot higher, and a lot faster.”
Septimus expects that as soon as Steele stops talking, the alarm is going to go off again. Steele seems to expect it, too, because he falls silent for a little while.
After a few seconds, the older man says, “See? It’s fine.”
Only then does the alarm go off. A lot higher, and a lot faster.
The scientists start scattering. Others, wearing more utilitarian clothes, move to the gun emplacements.
“I wish you hadn’t said it was fine,” Septimus says.