The Emerald Tablet is a mysterious green crystalline stone embossed with runes written in a language that pre-dates ancient Phoenician. Scholars at the famed Alexandria library in ancient Egypt translated the runes into Greek, revealing connections between Arab, Greek and Jewish beliefs. Even then, the Tablet was thought to be thousands of years old. Alexander the Great was profoundly changed after possessing the Tablet, believing that it revealed and empowered the god within him. Eventually, the Alexandria library was burned and an incalculable wealth of world knowledge was lost forever. Around 400 AD, the Emerald Tablet was hidden away to protect it from the ongoing revolts and conquests. Great thinkers through the ages, including Sir Isaac Newton, have studied and translated sketches of the Emerald Tablet. Alchemists, like Merlin, believed that its precepts reveal the secret of alchemy, the transformation not of lead into gold, but of man into spirit. Its location remains a secret.
All of the settings referred to in the following story, including King Arthur’s Tintagel, the Parthenon and the ancient Mesoamerican metropolis of Teotihuacan, and all of the animals, including the teratorns with their twenty-foot wingspans, the massive daedon boars, and the giant apes and vampire bats are historically accurate.
It is true, without a lie, certain and most true.
– The Emerald Tablet, First Precept
The first light of day crept through the company jet’s windows and stalked the empty seats, flushing out the shadowy dreams of night that made the imagined become real. The pilot glanced back and seemed about to crack another cynical one-liner, until he saw what I clutched in my hands. He switched on the fasten seatbelt warning. Its perky ding penetrated the cottony pressure in my ears. We started our descent.
I looked out the window at the island below, then back to the satellite photos in front of me. Impossible. This was one of the most remote places on Earth, yet new satellite technology exposed ancient structures, three of them, hidden in the island’s dark jungle. What mysterious people could have built them? When? Why?
Jack had clipped a note to the overview photo of the island. Christa, This is nothing compared to the artifact you’re going to help me find. Your future partner (I hope), Jack. That last bit was particularly intriguing, but I’d vowed to myself not to leave Dad. I couldn’t be half a world away if he reached out for me from the depths of his trauma. Alone, he might sink back down, so deep this time that he’d be past the point of saving. PS, Jack had added, no doubt anticipating my reluctance, It’s worth a fortune, more than enough to help your father. The jet shuddered in a jolt of turbulence. I hoped this was more than another one of Jack’s pipe dreams.
We slid out of the heavens, the long flight across the Pacific and the rising sun behind us. Below, the crimson dawn spilled like blood across the mirror-flat ocean. The island, Jack’s island, sparkled like an emerald that God had dropped and left behind in His hurry to create the rest of the Earth.
The dawn brightened, revealing the dormant volcano’s steep, jungle-choked cliffs. They undulated vertically, with narrow valleys carved by slender waterfalls. A horseshoe-shaped cove hemmed in the island’s only beach. The file Jack had sent explained that it was home to a primitive village, settled by descendants of missionaries shipwrecked and marooned in 1880. A ring of coral, its black patches skulking beneath the surface, had caged in the island and kept out other curious travelers, until now.
That low-lying building on the island’s only flat plateau had to be the first phase of Dream Resort, “the place where your dream comes true.” And that strip barely longer than a suburban driveway must be what they claimed was a runway. I sealed the photos in the plastic bag in my daypack and tugged at the pack’s zipper to close it. It had grown stubborn since my last trip to the far reaches of the globe, but so had I. I couldn’t bring myself to throw away the pack even though I’d switched to teaching history, not challenging it.
The jet’s wheels thumped down. We barreled down the runway gashed through the thick jungle. I squeezed my fingers into the cushy leather armrests and leaned into the aisle to see the drop off into the pounding Pacific coming up way too fast. “This runway isn’t another design flaw on the fix list,” I said. “Is it?”
The pilot whistled the first few measures of the Indiana Jones theme song.
I should have paid more attention to the emergency information I’d ignored on take-off, but in my experience, the cartoonish illustrations of passengers calmly escaping a terrifying death didn’t include one of a foolhardy female historian like me shoving open the door while the jet sank to the bottom of the ocean.
The pilot stopped whistling. “What the hell,” he said.
A man was standing at the jungle’s edge, about a hundred yards ahead of us. The guy wasn’t Jack, too short. He walked out and stopped dead center in the tarmac, turned his back to us and stretched his arms wide. The sun planted his shadow out in front of him like a giant cross. I dug my fingers deeper into the armrest. We sped right at him.
The pilot white-knuckled the yoke. “Damn. I think that’s Emmanuel. He’s got six kids back home.”
“Turn!” I yelled.
“Trees!” he yelled back.
The pilot was right. The runway was barely wider than the jet’s wingspan. Even a swerve could send us careening into the forest. “We’ve got to risk veering off.” My voice came out louder and more panicked than I intended. I cinched my lap belt tighter. “I’m not about to cause a father’s death as my first act in Paradise.”
“If we veer off to save him it could be our last act on Earth.”
A second man crashed through the wall of jungle and sprinted onto the runway, arms pumping, a rifle strapped across his back. I’d seen that intense stride before and that daypack beneath the rifle? It was a carbon copy of the one sitting in my lap. No, it couldn’t be Braydon. It couldn’t be the one man I’d spent the last six months avoiding. He didn’t know I was coming to the island. That was the last thing I wanted was for him to know. This didn’t make sense.
Whoever it was launched himself at the suicidal dad, tackled him to the tarmac and threw his body over him like a shield. The pilot slammed the jet hard right, pitching me against the window in an attempt to avoid hitting the men. My stomach clenched, ready for a sickening body-squashing bump beneath our tires.
Our wing swooped over them. The jet missed hitting them by inches. Now we headed straight for a massive vine-choked tree. The pilot veered left. The jet skidded, brakes fighting the forward momentum. The wheels squealed in protest. The stink of burning rubber seeped into the plane.
The jet skewed up on one side, hesitated, then dropped back down to the ground, still racing forward. Slapping sounds clanged down the wing. I looked out the window to see the wingtip clipping the edge of the jungle. It ripped through a curtain of ivy. We swerved back onto the tarmac, trailing long tendrils of vines in flapping ribbons along with us.
The jet shuddered to a stop, its nose inches from the dropoff at the end of the runway. A wave pounded on the rocks in front of us. Droplets of sea water splashed across the windscreen. The pilot leaned back in his seat. “Welcome to Dream Island, Christa Devlin” he said, “where your dream comes true.”
My heartbeat refused to slow down. I released the air trapped in my lungs and gulped in a deep breath. “Is this the part where I kiss the ground?” I asked, still gripping the armrests.
He twisted around to face me and smiled. “Do you really want me to tell you what to kiss?”
Bringing that bottle of single malt Macallan he gave me last night to my lips was tempting, but I didn’t dare dull my thinking. I flipped open my lap belt buckle and clambered over the seats opposite me to look out the window down the runway behind us. “I’m guessing those aren’t the official Dream Resort greeters who ran in front of the plane.” I pressed my sweaty cheek against the cool Plexiglass. We were about fifty yards away, too far and too sharp an angle for me to be sure if it was Braydon or fear pumping up my imagination. The man with the rifle struggled to keep the suicidal man pinned to the ground. “Who are they?”
The pilot toggled a series of switches on his dashboard and tapped a gauge. “Better question is,” he said, “what in that jungle scared Emmanuel so bad he wanted to get killed being run over by a jet?”
I crossed back to my own seat and looked out that window and scan the wall of jungle. “I don’t see anything chasing them. Let’s get out there. They need help.”
“We’ll need help, too, if my wing or landing gear is damaged.” He wiped the sweat from his brow. “Let them sort out their own fight. That typhoon is hitting this island tomorrow and I don’t plan to be here.”
“So what are those two doing here? I was told that all non-essential personnel were already evacuated back to Hawaii.”
“Only the lucky ones.” He unbuckled and ducked out of the cockpit. “I’m going to check out my plane.” He swung open the jet door and lowered the steps through a wall of hot, sticky air. The breeze off the jungle bore the fragrance of jasmine, the chatter of birds and buzz of insects, and palpable humidity. He turned toward me. “Listen, I’m no more than a bus driver trying to survive his route in the bad part of town. If you’re as smart as they say you are, you’ll get your very lovely ass right over to that Welcome Center, find your rich boyfriend who started this mess, and cocoon together until take-off tomorrow morning.”
“That’s not why I’m here,” I said. At least, not entirely. Was I dreaming to think that Jack wanted me for more than my usually impractical knowledge of arcane history? This could be his undeniably romantic seduction, a way to see if our brief rebound fling could be the beginning of the long-term relationship. That was Jack’s style, exotic, expensive and impulsive. And this was the island of dreams. Jack’s dream was to find the artifact and save his resort from bankruptcy. And mine? All I knew right now was that Jack had promised to fund the care Dad needed, much better than what I could afford on my assistant professor’s salary. “I came to find an artifact,” I said. “I came to find the past.”
He shook his head. “Spoken like a true Ivory Tower historian.” He yanked my roll-aboard suitcase out of the closet and planted it at my feet. “That kind of wide-eyed tommyrot might work in Princeton, but Dream Resort is messing with the future of humanity, not its past.”
I corralled my curls behind my shoulder and slung my lucky pack onto my back. “The future of humanity is its past.”
The pilot slapped at a large fly on his neck. It left behind a bloody streak. ”In that case, we’re doomed.” He scanned the wall of jungle, narrowing his eyes at the sudden flight of a macaw from a tree top and scrambled down the stairs.
I followed him down, maneuvering my suitcase behind me. When my feet hit the tarmac, the rising steam of dawn swirled around my hiking boots and bare legs. I raised my hand over my eyes and squinted into the sun. “Those two men are still struggling with each other. Something’s wrong.”
The pilot looked up from checking his tire. “On this island, if something’s not wrong, something’s wrong.”
Emmanuel flailed, as if desperate to run away. He yelled, a piercing, not quite human screech. The guy with the rifle kept it slung across his back. “They’re not fighting,” I said. “Your friend, Emmanuel, is hurt and the other one is trying to help him.”
The pilot ducked out from under the jet. “I warned Emmanuel that the double overtime for staying one more day wasn’t worth it, even if he does have six kids to feed. I even forgave him the five rounds he owes me at the Base Camp Bar.”
“And the other guy?”
He adjusted his cap to shade his eyes and squinted at the men. “He’s the type of guy I stay away from. You should, too.”
I took a few steps closer to the men. “You know who it is?”
He reached up and yanked the ivy vines off the wing tip. “I flew him in two days ago.”
“Tall, dark blonde, blue eyes?”
He frowned. “I didn’t take note of the color of his eyes,” he said, tossing away a vine and ripping the last tendril off the wingtip, “just that he looked like he’d been forced to kill more people than he wanted to remember. Your boyfriend, Jack, jabbered about this guy being his roommate at Yale. Now he’s some hotshot FBI Agent on a mission to rid the world of evil, which means I stay off his radar. He can handle himself.”
“It’s Braydon Fox,” I said. It was him. Braydon was here, on this island. Jack hadn’t mentioned that pertinent fact. And I thought I might actually have lived through the morning without thinking of Braydon even once. This was not any dream of mine coming true. “He needs our help. Your friend needs our help.”
“Listen, Professor Devlin.” He faced me. “Christa. Don’t trust anybody or anything on this island, not even what you see with your own eyes.”
Emmanuel shouted. I couldn’t make out the words, but it was a scream of pain and terror. His fists and feet thrashed at Braydon. “We can’t just stand here and do nothing.”
“I get hurt and you got no pilot. If you got no pilot, you got no way to get off this island before that storm hits.”
The pilot had a nasty scar on his chin and a skull tattoo on his bicep. “You don’t look like the type who scares easily.”
“I’m not.” He closed his hands into fists. He squinted toward the men. I could see the indecision in his eyes. “Sometimes, fear is a good thing,” he said. “It keeps me from doing something foolish.”
“Not this time,” I said. Emmanuel screamed again and threw a punch to Braydon’s chin. I pivoted and ran toward him.
As I drew closer, I couldn’t see Emanuel’s face, but he was linebacker stocky, with long, jet black hair. Braydon’s muscles flexed as he struggled to contain the man. Although Braydon always looked like he’d just returned from conquering another mountain peak, he was even more tan and fit than I remembered. His hair was longer and blonder than that day six months ago when he walked out of my life.
The pilot caught up to me and passed me, a bright orange box labeled with a red cross in his hand. “Damn Emmanuel. The next round at Base Camp Bar is on him,” he said.
The pilot reached the men, dropped the first aid kit and wrestled with Emmanuel, pinning him to the tarmac. “Emanuel! Calm down so we can bloody save you,” he said.
“Only thing going to save him is getting him off this island,” Braydon said. “You need to emergency evac him to Honolulu.”
“Happy to oblige, if we can get him on my plane.”
Braydon nodded toward the orange box. “You got a sedative in that kit?”
I slid to a stop next to them. “How can I help?” I asked between breaths.
Braydon twisted around. “Christa?” His face, flushed with exertion, paled. “What the hell are you doing here?” Emmanuel grabbed the barrel of Braydon’s rifle. Braydon twisted the gun free and slid it across the tarmac, out of Emmanuel’s reach. Emmanuel’s fist punched toward Braydon’s gut, but Braydon grabbed Emmanuel’s arm in mid-swing. His reflexes were as quick as ever, along with his ability to make me feel like a misguided idiot.
I crouched at his side. “I’m here for the same reason you are,” I said, although that reason just got a lot more confusing. Damn Jack.
Emmanuel’s heavy tread boot kicked out. Braydon caught it inches from my chin. “Stay away,” Braydon said. “Better yet, get right back on that plane to Hawaii.”
That didn’t take long. Braydon tells me to do what’s good for me. I do the opposite. “Too busy saving this guy,” I said. Braydon might not understand me, but he understood that. If anyone within range needed saving, Braydon jumped right in. He was much better at it than me.
The pilot struggled to pin down the man’s arms. He kicked the medical kit toward me, scuffing it across the pavement. “Get out the hypodermic,” he said. “It’s a sedative.”
I searched through the jumble of bandages and sterile wipes and found a bright yellow cylinder. “Is this it?”
The pilot nodded. “It’s an auto-injector,” he said. “Jab it in Emmanuel’s thigh, orange tip down.”
Emmanuel’s strength was almost superhuman. His terror acted like a drug sending his adrenaline into overdrive. One kick from his flailing legs could break my nose and give me a concussion. He wouldn’t be the only one needing an emergency evac. But the pilot said this guy had six kids at home.
I thumbed the cap off the cylinder and slid out the auto-injector. Emmanuel’s foot broke free from the pilot’s grip and shot into my gut. It forced the air out of my lungs. I reeled backward. Braydon glanced over, his face tight with worry. I scrambled back, straddled Emmanuel’s leg to hold it down, raised my fist above his thigh, and drove in the needle with a sickening jab.
Emmanuel’s screams escalated into howls, then broke into jagged coughs, then incoherent mumbles. I sat back, still trying to catch my breath. Braydon and the pilot hoisted him up, creating a carrying chair for him with their arms.
That’s when I saw Emmanuel’s face. His chin was shifted to the right; his nose pressed to the left. One eye was wide with panic, the other swollen shut. It was all wrong, as if a curious alien had disassembled it and didn’t remember how to put it back together. The queasiness gripping my stomach intensified into full-fledge nausea.
“Forgive me, holy sister,” he pleaded, his guttural, slurred words forced more from his throat than his broken mouth.
I glanced behind me. No holy sister in sight. “It’s okay.” I stood, clutching my stomach. “You’re going to be okay.”
He reached his hands toward me. They were grotesquely twisted, bloody and bruised. His left ring finger and pinky were bent at right angles, away from each other. I stepped back and tried not to throw up. Braydon and the pilot hustled him toward the jet. I jogged to keep pace.
He twisted, reaching for me. “Please, sister,” he begged.
The man was suffering, maybe dying. He had a wife and kids back home, far away, wherever it was. I offered my open palms to him. Our fingertips touched. Like a hawk snatching a mouse, he clamped onto my wrist. His fingers locked like manacles. I couldn’t twist free. He pulled me along. “Save the villagers. Save the children,” he grunted. “For me. For everyone.” Emmanuel’s swollen eye opened wide. It was blood red.
Braydon grabbed the man’s wrist. “Let go, damn it.”
Emmanuel wrenched back his head in agony. “Promise,” he screamed, like a beast’s death rattle. “Promise me, sister.” It was like he was possessed by a demon and dragging me with him to hell.
“I promise,” I said. I’d say anything at this point to give this man some peace. “What did this to you?”
Braydon grabbed Emmanuel’s fingers. He snapped them off my wrist, breaking them back with the sickening crack of bones. I pulled my hands free. Emmanuel’s eye did not close; it glazed over. A putrid breath escaped. A tear fell from his vacant gaze and dribbled down his misshapen cheek.
Braydon and the pilot clambered aboard the jet, jockeying Emmanuel through the narrow door. Braydon came back out and leaped down to the tarmac. He grabbed my shoulders, scrutinizing me as if to make sure I was really there. “Christa, you shouldn’t have come. I told Jack you wouldn’t want to do this.”
“Told him I didn’t want what? Is Jack in trouble?”
“He will be when I get my hands on him. Get on that plane before it’s too late.”
The pilot leaned out to pull the door closed. ”Are you coming or staying, Dr. Devlin?” His gaze shifted to something behind me. I glanced back to see a slender, dark-haired man in starched khaki shirt and shorts emerge from the Welcome Center, waving to draw our attention.
“You might not want me in your life, Braydon, but Jack does,” I said with more confidence than I felt. I shrugged out of Braydon’s grasp. “I didn’t travel all this way to turn tail at the first sign of trouble.”
“No worries,” the pilot said. “You’ll have plenty more.” He swung the door shut.
I shielded my eyes against the rising sun and watched the jet speed down the runway, lifting off the ground inches before running out of island. It climbed and banked toward the eastern horizon as if it were fleeing for its life. Maybe it was. This island was my world now, at least for the next twenty-eight hours. And with Braydon here and clearly unhappy to see me, it just shrunk a whole lot smaller.
The morning light cast Braydon’s face in a golden bronze. The pilot had said that Braydon’s eyes looked like he’d killed more men than he’d wanted to, but that was because Braydon understood the value of life more than anyone I’d met. He was still breathing hard, his khaki shirt, worn soft from the miles, tight across his chest. His sleeves were rolled up, revealing the sculpted muscles that he always tried to downplay. He removed his brimmed hat and swiped his forehead with the back of his hand. He kept his gaze focused on the horizon, but I knew he was thinking, hard, about what to say and what not to say. I knew he felt that tingle we both tried to repress when we were near each other.
“I didn’t see this coming,” he said. “I should have seen this coming.”
Took the words right out of my mouth. “How long have you been here?”
“Way too long and not long enough.”
“Jack didn’t tell me you’d be on the island.”
“Same,” he said. “Jack is full of secrets these days.”
“Is that why he hasn’t talked to me in nearly three weeks?” I wasn’t sure why I wanted to make that point to Braydon.
“You’ll have to ask him that yourself.” He swept up his rifle. “Jack is probably in the Welcome Center.”
We both looked toward the low-slung building. The slender man with the dark hair remained standing just in front of the door. He offered a tentative wave. “What’s going on here, Braydon?”
“That’s what I mean to find out.” He started towards the jungle.
“Wait.” I stopped myself from grabbing his arm. “Look at these photos.” We couldn’t look at each other. If our eyes met, the wall between us would crumble, and we’d built that wall for a reason. I shrugged my pack off my shoulder and retrieved the satellite photos. “Jack sent these to me. This is why I came.”
He hesitated. “I know why you came.”
I held the photos toward him. “I was the one who told Jack about the new technology. It uses lasers to reveal contours that are hidden from the naked eye by the jungle.” I was retreating to safer terrain, the research of esoteric history. “Earlier this year, satellite laser technology discovered ancient Mayan temples completely hidden beneath the jungles of Central America. It will revolutionize archeology.”
He looked at the photos but didn’t take them. “I read about that.” He drew closer to me. “I brought the newspaper clipping to your father,” he said.
Braydon had done that? I’d seen the clipping on Dad’s bedside table. Of course, it seemed obvious now. “Did Dad respond?” I asked.
Braydon shook his head.
I nodded. Dad hadn’t responded to anything since last summer. The effects of the trauma were becoming more entrenched, not diminishing. I no longer held hope that Dad might go on another dig. I only wanted him to dig his way back up from the darkness. It would take something extraordinary to help him now.
I pointed to the images. “These photos reveal structures overgrown with centuries of jungle, on this island,” I said. I quickly slipped the overview photo to the bottom. I didn’t want Braydon to see Jack’s note. I showed him the close-up of the first structure. “This looks like a classic medieval castle.” I flipped to the next photo. “This one has the same contours as a Mesoamerican pyramid.” The last close-up was the most perplexing. “And this has similar features to the Parthenon temple in Athens.” I wasn’t sure if Jack recruited me as a sucker or a searcher. “These photos hint at secrets that could change lives. Are these structures real?”
“You know, I had a good grip on reality,” he faced me, “before I met you.”
I’d forgotten how when Braydon looked into my eyes, the world around us faded. “Is that why you wanted me to leave as soon as you saw me?”
“That’s one reason.” For a moment, he looked like he was going to embrace me, tight. Instead, he checked his rifle and slung it over his shoulder. “Secrets that have been hidden for centuries aren’t revealed just because Jack wants it to happen.”
“But secrets are being revealed. Jack’s family has owned this island for generations,” I said. “His father only sent someone to check on the villagers every once in a while. Then I tell Jack about the new satellite laser photography.” I gestured to the spanking new building at the far end of the runway. “And now Jack has plowed his fortune into this place hoping it will grow into something that will change the world. If he fails, he’ll never be able to live up to his father. He won’t be able to live with himself.”
“You can’t save everybody, Christa.”
“Wow. This island does change people. Six months ago, you insisted that we had to use, how had you put it, our God-given gifts, to do what we could to right the wrongs in this world.” We’d drunk too much champagne that night. Braydon tended to be practical, not philosophical, and didn’t often reveal his emotions.
“And you said you were never going to go on another quest for some powerful lost artifact. You said you had to take care of your father.”
I actually I swore that I wasn’t going to end up like Dad. A life sacrificed to quests, each one more dangerous, forsaking family, abandoning any normalcy, for what? To finally face the terror that drove him mad. I was glad Braydon didn’t throw those words back at me. After that night, I knew that Braydon could see right through me. In his view, I was hiding and using Dad as an excuse. “Maybe I’m here to do just that. If this artifact is as important as Jack claims, it could be what brings Dad back to me.”
Braydon clasped my hand. “It’s dangerous, Christa, more dangerous than anything you’ve faced before.”
Braydon? Scared? “What happened to that man, Emmanuel?” A cold shiver ran down my spine as the wretched face flashed in my mind.
Braydon took a step back and looked past me. I glanced back to see the man in khaki shorts. He was jogging toward us from the lodge. “That’s what I’m going to find out. Stay here, Christa, inside the Welcome Center.” He drew closer as if to kiss me, but he let me go and hefted the machete out of the leather sheath belted around his hips. “Don’t trust anything here, not even your own eyes.” He pivoted, ran across the runway and slashed his way into the jungle.
It was the same warning the pilot gave me. “Is that the new Dreamcorp slogan?” I called after him.
“Welcome,” a nasal voice called from behind, “to Dream Island.” The man in the starched safari get-up approaching from the Welcome Center offered his hand. “I’m Gordon Cascabel, Director of Public Relations.” Cascabel was my height, lanky, effeminate in the way he pursed his thin lips. Sweat beaded and dripped from his forehead. His breaths were short. His bird-like eyes lit on the photos in my hand, then turned toward the jet in the distance. “No need to worry about that man we evacuated. We have the best medical people in Hawaii on call for situations just like this. He’ll be fine, just fine.”
“You didn’t see his face,” I said, “but he’s not the one I’m worried about right now.” I stuffed the photos back into my pack and started toward the jungle that had swallowed Braydon whole.
Cascabel latched onto my arm. “I’ve never met a man as capable as Braydon Fox,” he said, “and I’ve personally brought a security team to the island. They are, even now, patrolling the jungle.”
I did not find that reassuring. “A security team? To protect against what?”
“We have a valuable investment here, and the island is all but abandoned due to the storm,” he said. “And, well, there are other reasons, too. It was necessary. The only way you’ll understand is if you see for yourself.” He pivoted and paced towards my suitcase, lifted the handle decisively and pulled it towards the Welcome Center. ”May I remind you that we’ve brought you here to find the artifact, and we have precious little time to find it?”
Despite my growing dislike for this man, I hurried to Cascabel’s side and tried to position myself to see his face while we walked, to see if he would look me in the eye. “That injured man said, Save the villagers. Save the children. What was he talking about?”
“That poor man was delirious.” Cascabel continued walking, now at a quicker pace. “You know as well as I do how people are desperate to believe in something. It’s what makes my job possible.”
“Mine, too,” I said.
His smile thinned his lips even more. He gestured toward the building as we approached it. “You might think those columns supporting the portico are century-old tree trunks,” he said, “but Dreamcorp handcrafted them by recycling plastic bottles harvested from the massive trash heap that floated around the Pacific.” He pointed to the brightly colored birds winging around the roof. “That tree canopy is so realistic that macaws are nesting in the branches.” A frameless glass wall formed a nearly indistinguishable border between the outside world and the lobby. “Hard to resist, isn’t it?”
“Like the forbidden fruit,” I said, “except plastic.”
He stopped before the Welcome Center doors and admired them as if they were the pearly gates. “Come in, out of the heat. Come see where your dreams come true.”
Clearly, Cascabel hadn’t seen my dreams, with mythological monsters trying to kill me and Braydon trying to save me but ending up dead. The worst part was, it always felt so real that I wasn’t sure if it was a crazy dream or my uncanny and unwanted “gift” of precognition. “I’m never sure which comes first,” I said, “belief or reality.”
“All your questions will be answered,” he said. “All I ask is that you keep an open mind.”
“That, Mr. Cascabel, is exactly what gets me into trouble, every time.”
Leon Lathe stood within the shadows of the cave, the toes of his army boots on the edge of the shallow, wide pit. Conviction, not compassion, tightened his gut. He kicked a fist-sized stone over the rim. It bounced down, skittering off the nearest skull. It clattered into a rib cage where a man’s heart had once beaten. “Do you believe in destiny, Justice?”
Justice tugged at his leash. The dog paced back and forth, clearly unsettled, but did not whimper. Perhaps the cave reminded the Doberman of the dark basements, the blood and brutality of his dog fighting days. The dog’s former owner had kicked Justice out onto the street after the dog was gravely wounded. Leon had received the same treatment from the Corps. Leon petted Justice in his favorite spot, just behind his cropped ear. “This fight, this one we face now, will at last be worthy of us.”
He raised his hand to the engraved pendant that Sarah had given to him that last Father’s Day before she left for Afghanistan, before evil ripped apart his family and so grossly violated her humanity that the trauma left her in a coma. The new ache in his head throbbed. It was a pain he would gladly bear. The pain told him that the nanobots were working, rewiring his brain.
He hadn’t come to this island for the money. From the moment he learned about the nanotechnology program they were developing here he knew it was his path to salvation. He had to understand these tiny machines, experience the program, this way to link minds. With it, he would reach Sarah’s damaged psyche.
With each passing day, he was losing his mental image of her as a happy, intelligent young woman, leaving home to right the wrongs caused, although she’d never admit it to him, by military aggression, by people like him. He only saw her in the hospital bed, shrinking away, sinking into the blackness. He had to prepare himself to hurt others, even kill to redeem his past sins. This was his last chance to raise Sarah out of the dark well of her consciousness and bring her home.
The skeletons below were further proof that this island hid life-defining secrets. The granite pillar his team had unearthed from beneath centuries of jungle growth was just the beginning. He had recognized the runes carved in the pillar. God had sent him a sign. Another power existed on this island, an ancient, mysterious power. It was a revelation. His life had been building to this time, this place. It was his destiny to connect the pieces of the puzzle and solve the mystery. He would wield this unmatched power like Thor wielded his hammer.
He turned to the woman standing just beyond the reach of the dog’s leash. Justice treated anyone coming within range like a deadly enemy. Many times, the dog was right. But not about Reyna Steele. Only Reyna could look all woman in that camouflage button shirt, baggy army pants cinched around her hips with a canvas utility belt, complete with her commando knife and machete. The team’s only rifle was strapped across her back. She was glistening with perspiration like an Amazon princess, except she was taller and twice the warrior. She had bronze skin, gold-specked eyes and a face that blended the best of several exotic cultures.
She would have been stunningly beautiful if she didn’t emasculate every man she met with a single look. Every man, that is, except for Leon. She turned visibly softer in his presence. He turned visibly harder. Not bad for a beat-up warrior like him, who spent way too many hours running his security company from behind the desk and too few out in the field. Until now.
She planted her hands on her hips, accentuating the curve of her breasts. She was still breathing hard after her hustle through the jungle to meet him. “With all due respect, boss, these poor saps are beyond our help,” she said, gesturing toward the skeletons in the pit. “The team is in the eastern quadrant. When you called me in, we were honing in on one of the beasts.” Her tone edged on accusatory. She didn’t like being pulled away from a kill.
“We’ll hunt a much more challenging quarry now.”
“It doesn’t get much bigger than those beasts.” Reyna slung the rifle off her shoulder and tucked the stock under her arm with the kind of ease another woman might have tucked a loose hair behind her ear. “And now they’re roaming the forest in daylight, not only after dark.”
His team had been hired to provide security for Dreamcorp. First stage was to eliminate the predators, both four-legged and winged, which had killed half a dozen workers. The more Dreamcorp encroached into the island, the more men were carted away like so much chattel. It was all very hush hush. Dreamcorp feared that environmentalists would cause costly delays by demanding the animals’ protection as much as they feared the beasts. It took the company several lives before they acknowledged the problem was more than they could handle. The first deadly attacks were neither fully witnessed nor believed. Survivors babbled of giant winged creatures and boars twice the size of lions. The workers were a suspicious lot to begin with, and these mysterious predators were seen as more ghost and darkness than claw and talon.
Leon knew better. People blamed the supernatural for their fear when all they had to do was look inside themselves. “It wasn’t the beasts that killed these people,” he said, pointing to the pit. The morning sun probed the interior of the cave, illuminating the rounded stone walls. Though well hidden in the jungle part way up the east side of the caldera, the cave was neither large nor deep.
She leaned forward and peered into the pit. “A fight?”
Reyna saw everything with the eyes of a soldier, but at the bottom of the pit, the two rows of skeletons were neat, almost orderly. “A massacre.” He gestured to the stone wall behind the pit. “But no bullet holes,” he said.
“Any signs of blunt force trauma? Any knicks on the bones?”
“Doesn’t look like it,” he said. “I ordered Emmanuel into the pit for a closer look. He panicked and slipped into the skeletons. He went nuts, started screaming and praying. Then he started bashing his hands and his head against the wall. Braydon Fox pulled him out.”
“Fox,” she said. “Guys like that who want to be heroes are nothing but trouble.”
“Fox knocked Emmanuel out and carried him back to Base Camp for an emergency evac.”
“Emergency evac? This pit ain’t that deep, boss.”
“You didn’t see Emmanuel’s face. He probably won’t make it.”
She muttered a curse, then stepped back from the pit. “We’re better off without him,” she said. “One less split of the pot. Speaking of which, that storm coming in is messing with communications. I barely received your radio message calling me to meet you here. I say we call in the boat, the team steals the Dreamcorp technology and we bug out while we can.”
“We’ll acquire the technology,” he said. The skeleton crew on the boat, kept off shore and out of sight, had been getting antsy with the imminent typhoon. They had better not lose their nerve. “But we are not leaving without the artifact. Never underestimate the power of ancient knowledge, Reyna. Modern technology is fleeting. Without wisdom, it is no more than a distraction. But if we can grasp the connection between science and faith,” he closed his fingers, nearly feeling the power’s presence in his fist, “we will be invincible.”
The glass doors of the Welcome Center swished open to an interior lobby that felt more outdoors than in. The turquoise walls and floor flowed seamlessly to the wall of windows at the far end of the room, an invisible barrier to the Pacific beyond. Above, mighty limbs held aloft a ceiling that gave the appearance of a natural tree canopy, yet grabbed the light of the heavens and tossed it down like a blessing. Colorful swallows swooped and wove among its timbered rafters. The fragrance of tropical flowers and a hint of citrus was masterfully synchronized to blend the exotic with the familiar. Maybe they had laced the cooled air with feel-good pheromones, more potent than any welcome cocktail with a paper umbrella. The background music sounded like the opening theme to an epic movie, where good triumphs over impossible odds to save the world. It was a little too dreamy, like Jack. Illusion tended to buckle to reality eventually.
“This Welcome Center is nearly completely operational,” Cascabel said. “And hurricane proof. That glass is the newest technology. It will withstand anything Mother Nature sends our way.”
“And yet you evacuated everyone off the island in anticipation of the typhoon,” I said.
“Well, these next two days will be the beta test, won’t they? Risks must be controlled.” Cascabel gestured dramatically toward the ceiling. “Those tree limbs are actually fashioned out of plastic resin. Those swallows aren’t actually birds, but illusions created by colored flashes of light.”
“Illusion,” I echoed, and hesitated at the door. The floor looked more liquid than solid.
“Step across the threshold,” he said. “It’s perfectly safe.”
I crouched to dip my fingers in the water. The surface felt cool, like it was wet, but it wasn’t. I stood and stepped forward. My foot sank down a bit, as if it would break through a thin sheet of ice, and I nearly stepped back. Cascabel chuckled. I put my full weight forward. The floor shimmied, then steadied.
I wasn’t levitating on water, but standing on transparent tiles, hovering above a shallow, softly lit pool. Beneath my foot, a spotted gold and white koi fish tapped its nose at the scuffed underside of my hiking boot, then flicked its tail and swam away. I watched as it glided toward the nearest seating area. Cushy, earth-toned couches and lounge chairs were arranged in seating groups around natural rock formations anchored in the shallows. An opaque, glass reception desk in the form of a cresting wave lined the eastern wall. Etched in seafoam green letters was the resort’s tagline: “Where Your Dream Comes True.”
Behind the desk, three big screen televisions broadcast dreamy artist renderings of Dream Resort’s proposed “Dreamworlds.” Two knights in shining armor jousted in Merlinium. In Mythos, Zeus hurled a thunderbolt. Metamorphia’s Mayan-inspired pyramid was made to look vague and ethereal, an artist’s depiction of the afterlife.
“Of course, when we open for business,” said Cascabel, “we’ll have Dreamineers personally greeting each guest.”
He shrugged. “Too Disney, right?” he said. He opened his arms wide as if presenting a magnificent gift. “But walking on water, that’s all Stanley Dren’s idea.”
Dren was the all-powerful wizard behind Dream Resort’s curtain. “And here I thought it was God’s,” I said.
He smiled. “You’d be surprised how many guests won’t know that. That’s why this place is going to make a fortune.”
The floral scent grew stronger. “What’s that fragrance?”
“Specifically engineered to calm our guests,” he said. “Sort of like a dentist using nitrous oxide.”
“You mean it’s a drug.” And I’d been sniffing it.
“No more than an enhanced version of the fragrances a luxury spa might use. Ylang ylang, that sort of thing.” He dabbed his forehead with his turquoise neckerchief, then tied it back around his neck, smoothing down the points against his shirt. ”We found it makes the brain more accepting of the introduction of the Dreambots.”
“You mean the microscopic robots that invade the brain.”
“Invade is rather a harsh word. The Dreambots are the key to enhancing our guests’ experiences. Wait until you see what we’ve done with these nanobots,” he said. He walked ahead of me, gliding over the water like a spirit. “This way.”
I stepped forward, half expecting to sink up to my knees. The illusion was that realistic even though my fingertips had proved it false. The tile wobbled below my foot, sending ripples through the water around me. It wasn’t enough to throw me off-balance, but the floor felt more fluid than solid. “Jack told me that guests don’t get shot up with the Dreambots until the Orientation Tour.” The screech of a monkey filtered through the skylight. It was barely audible against the crescendo of orchestral strings that seemed to sync with my movement.
“Introduced and activated, is how we like to say it,” he said, the silk in his voice hardened into sandpaper. “Would you have grounded the space program? The technology developed here will be used for more applications than even Stanley Dren can imagine at this point. Nanobots can be programmed to cure cancer. A swarm of nanobots working on the molecular level can attack a cancer gene. Nanobots can trick an obese person to think carrot sticks taste like French fries.”
“Dreamcorp isn’t out to cure cancer,” I said.
“This could become the ultimate rejuvenation center, a way to rewire the brain to ease stress and cure depression without drugs,” Cascabel said.
“Your poor rich guests will be very thankful.”
“If it’s successful, Dreamcorp can use the profits to expand it into affordable treatment centers for many mental illnesses.”
“Mind control for the masses.”
Cascabel was sweating again, despite the chill of the conditioned air. He stopped in front of a smoky glass door. “I hope you’ll realize what we have at stake, Doctor Devlin. We need you on our team, not against us. Dream Island is a springboard,” he said, “to our future.”
“Remember, Mr. Cascabel, I’m here to find the past.” The door swished open. It was dark beyond, so black it looked as empty as outer space. Cascabel beckoned me forward. As my eyes adjusted, I felt around with the toe of my hiking boot, landing it on what felt like plush carpet. I shuffled forward, keeping contact with the ground. Pinpricks of stars became visible on what turned out to be a dome overhead. The stars formed constellations, no, twinkling letters. They spelled out, Dream Reality Enhanced Augmentation Machine. D.R.E.A.M. Circular walls came into view, curving around the perimeter and stretching up to the domed ceiling. Soft art deco sconces flickered on. The walls now looked a bit translucent, like a continuous projection screen. The susurrus of a breeze through palm trees blended with the chirrup of crickets. A hint of campfire smoke coiled up from below.
A man approached from the darkness on the far side of the chamber. As he drew closer, his face lit up with a smile that could charm the petals off a rose.
Fake stars above and the engineered scent of a campfire. It shouldn’t surprise me that Jack had orchestrated to meet me here. He didn’t need the drama. He looked more attractive every time I saw him, especially so now, since we hadn’t been together for awhile. How’d he do it? Did he splash on a special blend of pheromones with his aftershave this morning? His hair even looked perfectly disheveled, and highlighted either by the sun or his hairdresser, maybe both. He wore a crisp polo shirt snug enough to hint at his muscles without being showy. His khaki shorts were not only clean, but creased. The turquoise Dreamcorp neckerchief somehow made him look more masculine and self-confident. If part of his secret was a plan to propose a deeper relationship, it wouldn’t be the worst offer to come my way. “So this is the place where dreams come true?” I joked. A blush rose in my cheeks as my apparent IQ plummeted.
Jack hugged his arms around me, pulled me close and kissed me. His lips tasted sweet and faintly like mango. The press of his body was warm and reassuring. He unwrapped his arms, keeping my hands in his and admired me like I was glistening with silk and jewels instead of sweat, and smiled. “I’d say that I’d go to the ends of the earth to be with you,” he said, “but we’re already here.” He kissed me again, then took a step back. “Do you like what we’ve done with it?”
“I admit, Jack, that I’m impressed.” That ylang ylang lobby air had made my brain fuzzy. I should be furious with him.
“Impressed? Now I am truly in Eden.”
Even Eden had its snake. I gestured toward the general direction of the runway, although it seemed like the outdoors where catastrophe was bearing down on the island with hurricane force was in a different world, not a short walk away. “One of your men was terribly injured.” I cringed at the thought of Emmanuel’s face and rubbed my wrists. They were still sore where he had seized me. “You should have seen his face.”
Jack held up his hands to stop me. “I did see it, on the surveillance monitors. I don’t want that to happen again,” he raised a hand and rubbed it across his own cheek and chin, as if checking it, “to anyone. That’s why I need your help, Christa. That’s why we need to find the artifact.”
I’d forgotten how deftly Jack always turned the focus to Jack. “Braydon is out there, alone. He’s in the jungle. He’s after whatever hurt that man.” Braydon was, as Cascabel pointed out, the most capable man I’d ever met, but worry knotted my stomach. I jabbed my finger at Jack. “You should have told me Braydon was on the island. No more secrets, Jack.”
“Only those we’ll uncover together.” He leaned closer to me. “Finding this artifact is going to save us all. It’s not simply going to challenge history, it’s going to change the future.”
“So you said, but you have a tendency to believe that whatever is good for you is good for everyone.”
Jack’s smile returned. “Correction,” he said. “I believe whatever is good for everyone turns out to be good for me.”
“Do you think that the universe is your catalog, that all you have to do is decide the best thing to order?” I wondered, briefly, if I was on his wish list and which one of them, Braydon or Jack, should be on mine.
He cocked his head. “Is that a hypothetical question?”
I wasn’t sure if he was joking. “You haven’t told me what this life-changing artifact is,” I said.
“You wouldn’t have believed me.” Jack offered his most charming smile.
“Or how it will help my father,” I said, although I was more concerned about learning what I could to help Braydon. He was the one in immediate danger.
“But you will believe me,” Jack added.
I glanced at Cascabel. “Let’s say I’ll keep an open mind.”
Cascabel hesitated, then stretched his arms wide. “We call this the Star Dome,” he said. ”Normally, the first group of guests would come here for their pre-adventure show. It is a wonderful multi-media presentation in the round, just wonderful. It hints of what to expect in the Dream Worlds, only a taste, don’t want to spoil the surprise. Like any modern amusement, DREAM combines real stimuli with enhanced imagination to create the perfect illusion.” He planted his hands on his hips and pursed his lips. ”Just a few glitches to work out. Got thunder crashing on the flying bit when it should be synced with Merlin conjuring a lightning bolt in Merlinium. It will be amazing, truly amazing.”
“You need to see the Star Dome’s most recent addition,” Jack said. He moved into the shadows, deeper into the chamber. A spotlight turned on, shining down from the center of the dome roof. Its beam highlighted an eight-foot-tall pillar of granite mounted in the center of the floor. It looked like a stele of sorts, or a marker stone. Lines of markings were carved into its smoothed surface. The spotlight set them off in high relief. The stone pillar was surrounded by a circular brass rail. Jack stood next to it. “The future begins here, Christa.”
I drew closer. The markings were unusual, a kind of glyph that looked oddly familiar, but was not readily recognizable. I had seen them somewhere before. I climbed over the brass rail for a closer look.
Cascabel gasped audibly. “That’s actually not allowed,” he said. “You’re not to go past the railing.”
I barely heard him. The entire Star Dome faded away from my perception. I focused on one thing, the granite pillar. “These aren’t glyphs,” I said, “They’re runes.”
“I knew I hit the mother lode,” Jack said, “the minute we found it.”
“You found this stone on this island?”
“Two days ago,” Jack said. “Our crew was clearing the jungle growth near the castle. It’s Phase One of integrating the first of the three ancient structures into the three Dream Worlds.”
Cascabel hovered outside the railing. “We took great care bringing the pillar here,” he said. “At great expense, I might add. It completes the Star Dome. Don’t you think?”
“Now you understand,” Jack said, “why I couldn’t let any news of this find escape the island.”
I touched the runes with my fingertips. The stone was strangely warm. I followed the lines of the runes and wondered, again, if this could be real or some elaborate ruse. “Have you had a chance to research its origins?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t touch it if I were you,” Cascabel said.
Jack laughed. “Irresistible, isn’t it?” he said. “It’s a mystery who created it, but we’ve researched what it says.”
“It’s a language that exists on only one other artifact known to history,” I said.
Jack pointed at Cascabel. “You see, I told you she was the one for the job.”
“These runes are a language that pre-dates ancient Phoenician,” I said. I leaned back against the railing. I felt weak in the knees. “It is the language written on the Emerald Tablet.” I faced Jack. “Is that what you’ve brought me here to find? The Emerald Tablet?”
Jack crossed his arms over his chest. “That’s the one.”
“We don’t know that for sure,” Cascabel said.
“It has to be,” said Jack. “Granted, Sister Vivianne, she’s the spokesperson for the villagers, plays her cards close to the vest, but who wouldn’t?” Jack grabbed my shoulders. “Christa, the Emerald Tablet is on this island. I know it. And we are going to find it. This place isn’t just my future. It’s our future.”
I was too stunned to even respond to the idea that the Emerald Tablet might be the artifact I’d come here to find. I swung my legs over the brass railing and paced away, then back again. The granite pillar was real enough, spotlighted in the center of the Star Dome. I’d run my fingers over the runes carved into it. They were smooth with age, worn down by centuries of rain. But even though the runes were in the original language of the Emerald Tablet, the Tablet had last been seen centuries ago on a continent half a world away. “Impossible,” I said. “First of all, the Emerald Tablet couldn’t possibly be on this remote island in the middle of the Pacific. The history doesn’t support it. Second, well, it’s simply the oldest and most influential artifact known to humankind.”
Jack shrugged. “It has to be somewhere,” he said. “And the original Emerald Tablet was virtually indestructible, right? Emerald in color, but an unknown material, and not found anywhere else on Earth.” He held up his hands defensively. “Not that I’m buying the theory that some alien race brought it here from their planet. But it begs the question, who did carve the runes into it?”
“Not carved,” I said. “The runes were embossed, somehow raised from a solid surface.”
“The ancient Egyptians knew how to do that?”
I shook my head. “Even the ancient Egyptians didn’t know how the Tablet had been created. They revered the Emerald Tablet, but it pre-dates Egyptian history,” I said.
He stood up straighter, and closed his fingers, grasping for unseen power. “It was one of Alexander the Great’s most prized treasures. Can you imagine? One of the greatest conquerors of all time.”
Until he was murdered, his tomb hidden to protect it from vandals. “After conquering Egypt, Alexander felt it was his destiny to understand the Tablet’s secrets.” Not only its secrets, but how the Tablet revealed the god within him. “Some claim he commanded that the great library of Alexandria be built primarily to showcase the Emerald Tablet, but he wasn’t about to leave it behind when he left to conquer India and Babylonia. He hid the Tablet, but died of fever. It was rumored that the Tablet was found and buried beneath a pyramid, but it hasn’t been seen since Alexander’s death 323 years before Christ was born. Only drawings of it still exist.”
“Drawings that have been passed down through the ages,” Jack said. “Smarter guys than me believed it was real. Even Isaac Newton translated it from the drawings. Some devoted their lives to researching its meaning.”
“Alchemists, you mean,” Cascabel said. “I put my faith in real science.”
I stepped over the railing again to study the runes on the pillar. “But faith is what the Emerald Tablet is all about, Mr. Cascabel,” I said. “Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists will find the roots of their religions in its words. And alchemy is not merely the changing of lead to gold, but the ultimate transformation of man to spirit.” I ran my fingertips over the runes as I recited the translation. “’That which is below is as that which is above, and that which is above is as that which is below.’ But that’s only the first part of the Tablet’s second precept.” I crouched and ran my fingers over the bottom of the pillar. It looked like something else may have been scratched into the granite, but it had been worn off by time and weather.
“The rest of that precept translates to perform the miracles of the one thing,” Jack said.
Miracles. This island was as far removed from known history as it was from any inhabited land. It was impossible that the Emerald Tablet could have found its way to this mysterious island. Or was it? “These other markings scratched into the stone are different. They don’t look like runes,” I said, “but the lettering is too faint to make out.”
“Stanley is sharpening a digitized image of it,” Jack said. “That little mystery, at least, should be solved by the time we finish the Orientation Tour.”
I stood and faced him, planting my hands on my hips. “That was not part of the deal, Jack. I am not going on the Orientation Tour, especially now that I know,” I looked at the pillar, “that this might actually be a clue to the location of the Emerald Tablet.” I still couldn’t grasp that idea.
“I know you’re not crazy about the idea of the Dreambots, Christa.” Jack grabbed my arm and my attention. “But with your background, and your special abilities, we’ll truly know what the Dreambots are capable of.”
Cascabel was eyeing me as eagerly as Jack was. I didn’t need to be a mind-reader to know that Jack had told Cascabel about my so-called sixth sense, a “special ability” that was one secret I tried to keep to myself. Of course, that sense did sometimes short circuit. Jack didn’t bring me here in hopes of beginning our future together, unless he was saving it for the ultimate moment, when we found the Emerald Tablet. “I’m not going to find the Emerald Tablet on some robot-enhanced amusement park ride.”
“It’s exactly how we’re going to find it, Christa.” Jack clutched my hand. “What better way to solve a mystery from the past than to travel back in time?”
“A better way? How about research, perseverance and a passion for revealing the human spirit,” I said. “At least until Stanley Dren invents a time machine.”
Cascabel opened his arms wide. “But he has,” he said.
Jack placed his finger on his temple. “The time machine is in our minds, Christa. By traveling deep into the dream center of our brain, the Dreambots open the portal that our fear keeps locked. You’re the one who taught me. The human brain is unique among animals. We can travel in our thoughts back and forward in time.”
“Only to what we think is the past and future,” I said. “It’s dangerous to believe that our perceptions of the past and future are real.” I gestured toward the stone pillar. “Like these runes. If they truly indicate that the Emerald Tablet might have a connection to this island, then what we thought we knew about the past is wrong. That’s why we need artifacts, real evidence.”
Jack smiled. “I love it when those green eyes of yours turn all stormy. Don’t you see? This Orientation Tour is the best way to find that evidence that may reveal the truth about the past, and about ourselves. We know that the Emerald Tablet shows us the path for the spirit to release from the body. That’s exactly what Dreambots do.”
“The Emerald Tablet has the oldest text known to man,” I said. “I don’t see how it could interface with these nanobots. They are not only from different times, but from different worlds.”
“The Dreambots bond with our thoughts,” Jack said, “our spiritual self. Isn’t that the purpose of the Emerald Tablet, to connect with pure thought, or God, or whatever you want to name it? But few people can attain the state of releasing the physical self. It takes a lifetime of practice and meditation.”
“And you think that the Dreambots technology is a shortcut? I don’t know if that’s crazy or terrifying.”
Jack’s face flushed with excitement. “The Emerald Tablet is on this island, Christa. Its ancient wisdom and my Dreambots will release the power of our minds. We are entering a time when we will no longer be limited by our physical self.”
Cascabel looked at his watch. “Speaking of time,” he said. He walked over to the far wall and pressed a series of buttons on what looked like an alarm box. A panel slid open, revealing a palm scanner. Its blue glow washed over Cascabel’s face. He flexed his fingers, swiped his palm against his shirt, then pressed it onto the scanner.
The wall shimmered and brightened next to him. A gurgling sound filled the room. A circle of blue shimmered on the wall. It rippled outward, grew deeper in hue but brighter in light. It looked like a pool of water, ten feet wide, if water could defy gravity and remain vertical. Light refracted from its surface in shades of turquoise. An electric, salty scent wafted from it.
Cascabel stepped back. He looked stiff, like he was being exposed to a poisonous gas and was trying to hold his breath. “It’s time to enter the portal of your dreams,” he said. The line sounded canned, and I remembered it was from the prototype brochure.
“Amazing,” Jack said, his voice barely louder than the gurgle of the portal. He walked toward it, his hand still holding mine, pulling me closer. Shards of blue light flashed across us, like sunshine off a lake at the end of a long summer day. He reached out and poked the blue with his fingertip. The turquoise pooled and skittered around his finger like liquid mercury. It was beautiful and enticing, but I felt that if I stepped through it, I would return a different person, if I returned at all.
The swish of a door opening sounded from behind us. Jack’s hand clamped tighter on mine. We turned together. Light sliced toward us from the lobby. I sensed danger, immediate and intense.
A boy ran in, followed by a girl. Jack’s grip softened and I breathed again, but that feeling that something very bad was about to happen still clenched my gut.
The boy was about fourteen. He had that awkward, post-growth-spurt lankiness. The girl was a couple years younger. They both wore DREAM logo t-shirts, the tweens’ tie-dye version. She wore a denim skort and pink and black high-top sneakers that I immediately envied. His baggy shorts were at risk of falling to his well-worn basketball shoes.
Jack had told me the kids would be here. His sister had run off to an ashram for a week to recover from the latest man to abandon her. Jack told me that bringing his niece and nephew to the island would be a great adventure, and help get their minds off the loss of another maybe-dad. But I wondered if he wanted to see how he’d be with kids, or see how I’d be with kids. First lesson, don’t give in to kids who insist on coming to an island about to be hit by a typhoon.
The boy skidded to a stop a few feet away. The girl fell in behind him, half hiding, her eyes cast down.
“Keith,” Jack said, his lips in a fight between a smile and a frown. “You were supposed to stay in your room.”
“Amelia wanted to meet Professor Devlin.” The boy, Keith, hitched up his shorts. “She is your, like, biggest fan.”
“That’s not true,” Amelia said, stepping forward and glaring at Keith. “I mean, the part about this being my idea.” Her eyes darted to me.
“She reads that stuff you write online for kids,” Keith said. “Don’t get her started. She won’t shut up about all that crap.”
Amelia punched Keith in the arm. “At least I’m trying to learn history from the source,” she said, “not memorizing some stupid text book.” She had practically quoted that out of my latest article. I was glad that my goal of inspiring young potential historians was working, but she reminded me of me at her age and I’d always found myself in trouble.
“Christa,” Jack said, “meet Keith and Amelia, my niece and nephew.”
“Being an adventurer must run in the family,” I said, shaking their hands.
“Adventure is a thirst that should never be fully quenched,” Amelia said. I had written that in an article, too, and I cringed every time I heard it.
“Speaking of thirsty,” Keith said. He moved toward the blue circle. Cascabel reached out and latched onto the boy’s shoulder, anchoring him in place, but Keith seemed mesmerized by the blue light. The blue ripples danced in his eyes and cast watery shadows across his freckled face. “Awesome,” he whispered. “Is this the portal?”
“Not for you, young man,” Cascabel said.
Keith shrugged out Cascabel’s grasp. “This place is supposed to be a family resort,” he said, “which means you’d better make sure kids want to come here.” He turned to Jack and gave him those charming, puppy eyes that must run in the family. “You told us that we were like your beta-testers.”
Jack smiled. “Not this time, kids.”
Cascabel looked pointedly at his watch. “Portal closes in thirty seconds.”
“Let it close,” I said. I turned toward the stone pillar. “My portal to the past is right in front of me.”
“We don’t have time for the old ways, Christa,” Jack said. “We need to find the Emerald Tablet and the Orientation Tour is our first step.”
“Chill guys,” Keith said. “It’s a thrill ride.” He dashed toward the undulating portal.
“Keith, wait!” I lunged for him, but he was too fast. He slipped through the circle with a splashing sound.
Amelia leapt into the circle after him, her black and pink high-top the last of her to be sucked through.
The portal began receding, its perimeter getting smaller.
Cascabel ran to the panel on the wall and started punching buttons on the keypad. “Too late,” he said. “They’re through.”
I drew in a deep breath and plunged in after them.
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