Authors: Kevin Anderson
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General
Kevin J. Anderson
Xitaclan ruins, Yucatan, Mexico Friday, 5:45 p.m.
Even after days of hard excavation, they had barely scratched the surface of the ancient city. But Cassandra Rubicon had already seen enough to know that the ruins held unimagin-able secrets about the birth of the Maya empire. At the far western edge of the Yucatan, where the limestone plateau butted up against volcanic highlands and steamy jungles, the lost city had been hidden by nature for more than a thousand years. The native helpers had called the place Xitaclan, their voices tinged with awe and fear.
Cassandra rolled the word over in her mouth, revel-ing in the images it evoked of ancient sacrifices, pomp and splendor, blood priests wearing ornaments of jade and green quetzal feathers. Xitaclan.
In the late afternoon, she alone worked inside the Pyramid of Kukulkan, shining her flashlight ahead as she crept deeper, exploring. This place was absolutely alive with secrets. In the chalky bitterness of the air, she could taste the mysteries waiting for her to discover them.
Shining her flashlight ahead, Cassandra ran a dusty hand through perspiration-dampened cinnamon hair—the color of cinnamon bark, freshly peeled from the trees, her father always insisted, not the faded reddish-tan powder found on grocery-store spice racks. The color of her eyes hung midway between green and brown, like rich copper-bearing ore.
Outside, her partners in the University of California expedition kept themselves busy with the external excava-tions, mapping the overall layout of the city, with its cere-monial plaza, temples, and monolithic limestone obelisks—stelae—carved with fearsome images of mythi-cal feathered serpents.
They had found a vine-overgrown "ball court" arena, where the ancient Maya had played their bloody sport in which the losers—or winners, depending on some historical interpretations—were sacri-ficed to the gods.
An archaeological treasure trove, Xitaclan provided far too many ruins even for a large, well-financed crew to explore in anything less than a year. But Cassandra and her four young companions would do their best, for as long as their meager university funding held out.
Numerous moss-covered stelae towered at strategic astronomical points throughout the jungle, while others had toppled; all of them, though, contained rich and exciting glyphs. Christopher Porte, their team's epigrapher, delighted in attempting to translate them, transcrib-ing them into the battered record book he kept in his pack at all times.
The showpiece of Xitaclan, though, was the magnif-icent stair-stepped Pyramid of Kukulkan that loomed over the center of the city. Though overgrown with weeds and underbrush, it was still beautifully pre-served. Its architecture rivaled the great ziggurats at Chichen Itza, Tikal, and Teotihuacan—but this one stood untouched. The locals' paralyzing superstitions had protected it from prying eyes. Until now.
Topping the pyramid's highest platform stood the many-pillared "Temple of the Feathered Serpent," with its amazing carvings and ornate friezes depicting calen-dars, myths, history. Cassandra had named the temple herself after noting the dense motifs that showed the wise god Kukulkan and his feathered reptilian companions or guardians—a common symbol of power in the Maya mythos.
The intricate bas-reliefs added a new richness to the Quetzalcoatl/Kukulkan legends of the early Central American peoples.
Her team had also found an unfathomably deep cis-tern behind the pyramid, a natural limestone sinkhole filled with oily black water in whose murky depths Cassandra suspected hid many artifacts, relics . . . and quite probably the bones of sacrificial victims. Such limestone wells, or cenotes, were common in Maya cities of the Yucatan—but this one at Xitaclan had never been ransacked by treasure seekers or explored by archaeologists.
Her team planned to break out the diving equipment within a week, and she herself would descend into the depths—but for now they still had too much initial cata-loguing to complete. More breathtaking discoveries, more work—but too little time, and too little money.
For now, she concentrated on exploring inside the pyramid.
If her team didn't do an overwhelming job here on their first visit, someone else in the competitive archaeo-logical community would no doubt return with a larger expedition, better funding, and superior equipment. It could completely overshadow Cassandra's work.
The crews of native workers recruited by her team's local guide—Fernando Victorio Aguilar, a self-styled adventurer and "expediter"—had worked for days already, hacking and chopping at the underbrush, removing mahogany and ceiba trees, slashing ferns with their machetes, uprooting creepers to remove the shroud of time and nature from around Xitaclan.
As soon as they saw the carvings of feathered ser-pents, though, the native workers had retreated in ter-ror. They whispered to each other fearfully and refused to come closer to the site or to help with cleaning the ruins, even when she offered to increase their meager payment. Finally they fled. And then Aguilar ran off, abandoning her team in the deep jungle.
In her work, Cassandra had always respected native traditions and beliefs—it came with the territory—but her excitement at these discoveries had grown so intense that she found such superstitions frustrating, and her impatience flared up.
The archaeologists continued working on their own. They had supplies for a few weeks and a transmitter to call for help, should they need it. For now, she and the four others enjoyed their solitude.
Today, Kelly Rowan, the team's second archaeologist (and, as of recently, the man with whom she shared her tent) was spending the last hours of daylight on the out-side steps of the pyramid, studying the Maya hieroglyph-ics.
Christopher Porte bent beside him with his battered sketchpad, excitedly trying to translate the chiseled glyphs as Kelly used brushes and fine tools to remove debris from the designs.
Cait Barron, the team's historian and photographer, took advantage of the late afternoon light to work on one of her watercolors. Quiet and highly professional, Cait did her official work with the cameras and logbooks in a no-nonsense way. She took rolls of archival photos rapidly and efficiently—but once finished, she preferred using her paints to recreate the spirit of the place.
It was a long-standing tradition of Yucatan explorers to capture the detail their eyes saw, to depict something more than simple, two-dimensional photographic plates could. So far Cait had filled three portfolios with beauti-ful paintings that evoked the history of the Maya: dip-tychs pairing images of the ruins as they now appeared and as she imagined the city must have looked during its golden age.
While the team's quiet but frenzied work went on outside, the simmering jungle sounds increased with the fading light. Daytime creatures sought shelter against the darkness, while nocturnal predators awakened and began to search for their meals. Biting flies that swarmed in the day's heat flew off to sleep, while mosquitoes, bloodthirsty in the cooler air of evening, swept out in clouds.
Deep inside the Pyramid of Kukulkan, though, the damp shadows knew no passage of time. Cassandra con-tinued her explorations.
After she and Kelly had worked together to pry open the long-sealed outer door, careful not to damage the masonry or the stone carvings, Cassandra had spent most of her time combing through the rubble inside, cautiously penetrating deeper, picking her way from one intersec-tion to the next. She had spent days working through the chambers and vaults, mapping the incomprehensible pas-sages within the immense stone structure, trying to solve the maze.
She had spent the afternoon inside again, taking only brief breaks to check on Kelly and Christopher, who worked at deciphering the heiroglyphic staircase, and John Forbin, the grad-student architect and engineer who was studying the other half-fallen structures. John's wanderings took him farther into the jungle as he marked the locations of ruins on the wrinkled topo-graphical map he kept with him at all times. Being an engineer, John had no imagination for naming dis-coveries. John relied on simple numerical designations— Temple XI or Stela 17.
Cassandra glanced at her compass-watch and pushed deeper inside the labyrinth, aiming her high-powered flashlight ahead of her like a weapon. The cold shaft of light raked across rough-hewn limestone blocks and the crude support beams.
Stark shadows leaped at her with exaggerated angles every time she shifted the flashlight. She moved cautiously, smelling the moldy air. Something dark skittered into a wide crack in the wall.
Cassandra carried a small microcassette recorder in her hand, as well as a sheet of graph paper on which she kept track of her movements. So far, most tunnels she'd explored had turned into blind alleys that might have been designed to confuse trespassers ... or they could have been sealed treasure chambers. Even more exciting—from an archaeologist's point of view—the dead-ends could be sealed-off burial crypts or storage vaults for collected volumes of ancient writings.
If her team could find an intact Maya codex, one of the gloriously illustrated books written on mulberry-bark paper, it would increase knowledge of the Central American empire a hundredfold. Only four Maya codices were known to exist. Most of the others had been destroyed by Spanish missionaries overzealous in their attempts to squash all beliefs but their own. Xitaclan, though, had been abandoned long before the Conquistadors had arrived in the New World.
Cassandra worked now with dust in her hair and powder smeared under her eyes, across her cheeks. Her arms and legs were bone-tired, stiff and sore from too many nights on an uncomfortable bedroll, her skin inflamed from hundreds of insect bites. It had been too long since she'd had either a cold drink or a warm shower.
But the wonders she had already found were worth all those sacrifices.
Archaeology isn't for wimps, she thought.
Her father always called her beautiful, claiming that she was wasted in the cobwebs of ancient civiliza-tions, but she only laughed at him. Her father was quite a character. It was his own fame as an archaeolo-gist that had driven her into the field in the first place. The great Vladimir Rubicon had gained renown as one of the foremost authorities on Native American cliff dwellings, particularly the once-thriving Anasazi civi-lization, though he had begun his career studying the Maya.
Cassandra wanted to make her own mark in the field, not just continue her father's work. Her original passion had been geology, analyzing the composition of the ter-rain beneath the jungles of Central America—but as she continued her studies, she found she knew as much about the ancient Maya as did Kelly, the team's self-proclaimed archaeological expert.
Together, they had made an impressive pair, able to talk the Board of Regents at UC-San Diego into funding their modest expedition to Mexico. The team would be all students, willing to work for the possible credentials and the right to publish striking new research, without being paid more than a starvation-level stipend. It was the bane of academics everywhere.
Luckily, like a surprise gift, they had been blessed with matching funding from the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, in which the ruins of Xitaclan had been found. With the Mexican money Cassandra had been able to obtain the diving equipment, hire the native workers, and pay Fernando Victorio Aguilar
... for all the help he'd been. She snorted at the thought.
So far, their expedition had been a success, and it seemed they would all share a page in the history books.
Cassandra worked her way deeper into the temple, dictating a description of her path as she went. She ran her fingers over the stone blocks, and her voice rose and fell— fiery with excitement, then whispering in amazement— recording what she observed. The marvelous constructions within constructions inside the Pyramid of Kukulkan reminded her of a Russian doll—one inside another inside another, each one depleting her stock of adjectives.
Suddenly, in the flashlight beam ahead of her, she saw that the inner walls to her left were of a markedly different color. With a flush of excitement, Cassandra realized she had stumbled upon the inner temple. This must be the original structure on whose foundation the Pyramid of Kukulkan had been erected.
The ancient Maya had often built taller, more impres-sive temples atop old ruins, because of their belief that certain places concentrated magic as time went by. The glorious ceremonial center of Xitaclan had been the nexus for rituals in this locality. What had long ago begun as an isolated religious center in the thickest jungle had eventu-ally become a magnet for Maya power.
Until the people had abruptly and mysteriously abandoned it ... leaving it preserved and empty for her to uncover centuries later.
Forcing herself to speak in a slow, analytical voice, Cassandra pressed the microcassette recorder close to her lips. "The stone blocks here are smoother, more carefully cut. They have a glassy finish, like varnish, as if they were vitrified by intense heat." She caught her-self with a smile, realizing she had been studying the stone with a geologist's eye, not an archaeologist's per-spective.