Authors: Alex Scarrow
‘Errr … you might be closer to the truth than you think,’ said Liam.
He was leaning over the computer table, studying one of the monitors closely. ‘There’s a whole load of stuff just coming up here on this screen.’
Rashim was on his feet and on the way over. He joined Liam, peered at the screen for a moment. ‘I think she just jettisoned several gigabytes of data.’
Maddy hurried over to join them. ‘OhMyGod … what is it? What does it say?’
On one of the monitors, text was scrolling upwards as computer-Bob transferred the captured data Becks had hurled across the dungeon. Maddy scanned the scrolling lines: solid blocks of seemingly random letters and numbers.
‘It’s not yet more bleedin’ code, is it?’ asked Liam.
‘Hmmm, I am not sure. It looks entirely random to me,’ said Rashim. ‘Not code. Just digital junk. Corrupted data, I suspect.’
‘Digital vomit.’ Maddy curled her lips with barely concealed disappointment. ‘For a moment there I was kind of hoping we’d finally get a big fat answer to everything.’
‘Nothing’s ever that easy for us.’ Liam sighed.
The captured data stopped scrolling up the screen.
‘I guess that’s all of it, then.’
Sal pushed between them to get a look.
Maddy was less than impressed. ‘Corrupted data, that’s all we’ve got. That’s the “revelation” she spits out for us.’ She shook her head and sighed. ‘Great.’
‘Except that bit,’ said Sal. She planted a finger on the screen in the middle of a dense block of random characters.
Rashim squinted dismissively. ‘Sal, statistically speaking, random letters at some point will spell a word. It is tempting to
read something into …’ He looked closer. ‘I can’t make anything out, though.’
Maddy squinted too. ‘y-e-o-d-f-k-l-p-t-h-e-w-i-n?’ She cocked a brow. ‘
‘No. The letters to the right.’ Sal moved her finger along. ‘See?
… k-l-p-t-h-e-w-i-n-d-t-a-l-k-e-r-s-s-k-b …
‘I make out three words. “The”…“wind”…“talkers”.’ Rashim shrugged. ‘Does that mean anything to any of you?’
Liam shook his head.
Sal made a face. ‘Not really.’
Maddy was about to say likewise. Three random words. Big deal. But then she stopped herself.
. The phrase was vaguely familiar. She’d definitely heard that term before. Somewhere. From someone. And not so long ago.
Then, like a slap, it hit her.
Adam Lewis wiped sweat from his forehead, pushing the damp coil of a greasy dreadlock out of his face. His back was aching from the weight of his backpack. He eased off the shoulder straps, lowered the pack to his feet and straightened up.
The track zigzagging up the steep mountainside was narrow – in places barely wide enough for a single llama. Barely wide enough for a goat. He turned his back to the vine-covered rock and looked out over the jungle. An undulating velvet green quilt, carrying pockets of morning mist like milky pools on a low-tide beach.
He squinted at the morning sun, still hanging low in the sky, casting rays of light and shadow across the curves and dips of the landscape below. He could see a single twist of smoke curling up from a clearing down in the jungle, by the glinting thread of the river. He could see several small smudges of neon orange: the one-man vinyl tents of their camp.
Adam grinned at the spectacular vista.
To him it looked just like an alien landscape. It reminded him of the Rebel Alliance’s jungle homeworld, Yavin 4. He wondered how much cooler this view would be with the faint, ghostly image of the Death Star hanging like a Sword of Damocles in the blue sky.
‘Awesome,’ he whispered. He pulled out his camera and took
several snaps. Their guide had said early morning was the best time to get pictures like these. The low-angled sunlight, the velvet carpet of jungle, the combed-out strands of blue-grey mist.
Professor Brian’s field trip had been an incredible experience for him thus far. An experience that beat the hell out of backpacking in Bali. Or serving cocktails to drunken fellow gap-year students in some remote Mediterranean beach bar.
This was life-changing.
They’d done several days on an archaeological dig at Machu Picchu, pulling artefacts out of the damp dirt. A flight up to Honduras then several more days paddling up the Río Coco in canoes, stopping at a couple of small villages along the way. The locals had swarmed out to greet their pale-faced visitors with an overwhelming generosity. Adam had felt just like every other western tourist must feel: like some stoic Victorian-era jungle explorer stumbling across some previously undiscovered tribe. Except for the fact that many of them were wearing tattered old Nike baseball caps.
A trip of a lifetime.
An expensive one, though. Mum and Dad had shelled out for it, but, as Dad had made perfectly clear, it was a loan, not a gift. That was the deal. One way or another he was going to have to figure out a way to pay them back later on this year or next. He figured he could earn some easy money writing some C++ library routines for that small gaming company that had approached him. What were they called? Electronic Art or something?
He sat down on a protruding dried root-stump of a tree. It creaked beneath his weight.
This field trip was an optional part of his palaeolinguistics course. Actually, Dad had suggested it was little more than a
‘loosely related jolly’ than actually being in any way educationally beneficial. What it was, though, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Something he’d probably never get round to doing on his own.
Character-building stuff. The beer-swilling morons he shared digs with back in Norwich wouldn’t appreciate that, of course. His pictures of Machu Picchu, Honduras, the Río Coco, the villages, would probably leave them perplexed. Or just bored.
Adam, mate … you got yourself three grand into debt just to take pictures of moss-covered stones? Dude, you need to get a life.
A lot of money, that. Three thousand pounds. Perhaps his knuckle-dragging flatmates were right: three grand might have been better spent in Ibiza, getting drunk and badly sunburnt with some of it left over to cover the living costs for next term.
He shook his head and once again sucked in the incredible view before him. No, this
money well spent. OK, they hadn’t discovered any long-lost tribes or hoards of hidden treasure, or any hitherto-undiscovered species of slimy jungle fungus, but Professor Brian’s students had experienced firsthand an actual dig site.
And, of course, the breath-taking majesty of the Cusco mountains, the fragile beauty of a rainforest.
He was just putting his camera back into his backpack when he felt the root-stump wobble unsteadily beneath his shifting weight. He quickly stood up. The stump’s gnarled root ends had pulled free of the loose, dry soil, and now it see-sawed uncertainly, dirt crumbling and cascading down the steep slope on to the zigzagging trail below. With a tired creak, it slowly began to sway outward, and then, carried further by its own weight, it toppled lazily over the side of the narrow track. Roots trailing behind it, yanked out of the dirt.
The stump bounced and rolled down the sheer slope, finally smacking into a rocky outcrop by the edge of the trail below and spinning out into open air. It ended up crashing through the upper branches of the jungle canopy below, scaring a flock of white-fronted birds into the sky and startling the ecosystem beneath into a momentary chorus of cheeps and whistles and hoots, which eventually subsided and returned to the normal soothing music of rainforest life.
‘Crap.’ Adam whistled.
Nice one, genius
. He could have so very easily sailed over the side with that heavy boulder of desiccated wood.
The stump’s bulk and gnarled roots had wrenched away and taken with them a thick curtain of vines that had grown accustomed to its presence and become interwoven with it. This curtain now pulled away, Adam found himself staring at the mouth of a previously completely concealed cave.
Adam gaped at the dark entrance for a moment.
Uh … Mission Control to Adam, if you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking – Don’t!
Duh … don’t wander in, idiot! ‘Things’ live in caves.
‘Relax. I’m just going to have a peek.’
Adam … FYI, some of the dumbest mistakes known to man probably began with the words ‘I’m just gonna …’
‘Just a peek.’ He stepped carefully round the edge of the crumbly bite out of the track towards the cave entrance. Several vines and creepers still made a pretence of trying to hide the entrance. He brushed them aside.
‘Yoo-hoo!’ he cooed self-consciously. His voice echoed and reverberated around inside. He heard nothing growling back at him. Encouraging.
‘There you go … nothing’s home.’
Mission Control had nothing to say at this time.
Adam took a step inside. The cave appeared to open up within a yard or so of the entrance. A natural jagged fissure, worn by time, the elements and restless geology. The vine-filtered light from the entrance was enough to push the darkness a dozen yards back. All the same, he decided to pull a torch from his backpack.
He rummaged and found it: a pencil-torch gaffer-taped to a grubby sports sweat-band. He wore it when he cycled home from university at night, fancying that, with it strapped to the left side of his mushroom-head cycle helmet, he looked just a little bit like one of the colonial marines in
. He pulled the sweat-band over his dreads until it settled on the rough moon surface of his pimply forehead.
‘Hellooo? Anyone home?’ he called out, wondering what kind of response he was expecting by saying that. He snapped the torch on. The cave’s ragged contours sent shadows dancing across the rocky surface like sidewinder snakes scurrying for cover as he turned his head and panned the thin beam of light around.
‘Whoa … big-ass cave.’
From the roof, rust-coloured stalactites hung like shark’s teeth, vines like shreds of rancid seal meat between them. The floor of the cave was an uneven surface of emergent stalagmite humps and worn-away drip pools. A weave-work of dried creepers and desiccated roots snaked across the barren rock floor in a long-forgotten search for nutrition.
Adam explored a dozen yards into the dark interior of the cave. It seemed to wind back deeper than he’d at first thought. His nerves got the better of him, however. The cave entrance was far enough behind him now that he was beginning to feel edgy. This was enough solo exploration for him. Far enough in. And darker than he’d like.
A cave. Just a cave. And Adam would have turned to go back out again just then, if the beam of his torch hadn’t rested momentarily on a smooth section of cave wall.
But it did, and what it revealed caused him to catch his breath.
Carefully, he picked his way further towards the back of the cave, approaching the wall, then finally he reached out to touch the cool moist surface of the rock. More to the point, to lightly touch the faint markings of flaking mud paint – a cardinal sin – actually reaching out and touching it.
‘My God,’ he whispered as he studied the symbols painted on the wall.
‘He’s going to be a little – what’s the term I’m looking for? Oh yes,
, isn’t he?’ said Liam. ‘What with you paying him another visit like this, completely out of the blue.’
‘Of course he is,’ replied Maddy.
She had visited Adam Lewis once before. Now that was something else that seemed like it had occurred a lifetime ago. She and Becks had knocked on the door of his bedsit in a shared student digs and asked him to explain himself; to explain how he’d managed to decode that one passage of the Voynich Manuscript.
The passage that had contained the word
The whole mystery had started with the smallest time wave occurring back in 2001. Just the gentlest of ripples that Sal had managed to sense. But then computer-Bob had alerted them to the sudden existence of a minor archived article in a British newspaper called the
. The article had mentioned in its own distinctly low-brow style that Adam Lewis (‘
hacker and computer geek, looking more like a scruffy animal-rights activist than a Microsoft pencil-neck
’) had singlehandedly managed to extract a single legible sentence from the impenetrable gibberish of the legendary Voynich Manuscript.
Not exactly ‘legendary’ in the public eye. For most
readers Maddy suspected that article was the first and last time
they’d ever hear about the medieval document. But among cryptologists, hackers, amateur code-breakers, it was the gold-standard: the One To Be The First To Crack.
Maddy and Becks had gone back to 1994, picking a date a week after the story had broken big in the national newspaper, and found an edgy young man very close to breaking point. A bag of rattling nerves.
Oh yes, he’d decoded a passage that read: ‘
Pandora is the word. The word leads to truth. Fellow traveller, time to come and find it.
’ And that was the bit he’d rather excitedly announced by posting a letter to
. The bit he hadn’t revealed was the sentence that had come just before that …
You must make public the last part of this message, Adam Lewis, and I promise you someone will come and explain everything. When she comes, it is important you tell her this: “Seek Cabot at Kirklees in 1194”. Do not reveal any more of this message to anyone else. The last part now follows. Pandora is the word …
was the bit that had turned him into a jabbering nervous wreck. The inclusion of his name in an ancient medieval document. That had completely messed with his head. He’d ended up hiding away in his grubby bedroom, peeking out of the net curtains, paranoid that someone, somewhere, was coming for him.
Which was true. But instead of men in black suits and dark glasses, or some killer cyborg robot assassin from the future, or whatever else the young man’s feverish paranoid imagination could conjure up and torment him with, it had been Maddy and Becks who’d turned up and politely asked him how he’d managed to break the code when the rest of the world, including several large code-breaking computer systems, had failed to do so. More to the point … was there any more he’d decoded, but not made public?
Maddy had managed to carefully coax the truth out of him, to calmly explain that she wasn’t there to kill him, or take him away and lock him up, that she wasn’t a panic-induced hallucination, wasn’t a manifestation of his subconscious, a delusion conjured up by a mind on the very edge of a nervous breakdown. And finally … she’d calmed him down, won him round and he’d revealed that whole passage to her.
They’d left him, that night in 1994, with a promise that they’d one day return and explain to him
that was going on. Of course, Maddy was pretty sure she wasn’t going to keep that promise. Adam Lewis, for whatever reason, had momentarily become caught up in the affairs of the agency. A hapless innocent, involved in a chain of events designed to ensure some communiqué dating back to biblical times reached its intended recipient in the year 2001. His part – in effect, the courier – was played and he really didn’t need to know anything at all about Waldstein’s little agency, about what their purpose was. She’d always felt guilty that they’d never gone back to this nervous young man, as she’d promised, and explained all to him. But, to be honest, since that night she’d been pretty damned busy keeping this world and this timeline on track.
‘So, explain to me again, Maddy,’ said Liam, ‘nice short words please, explain to me why we’re re-involving this poor fella once more.’
They were walking along Earlham Road, early morning. Rain-slicked tarmac clicked beneath their heels, beside them the disgruntled snarl of morning traffic, bumper-to-bumper cars full of bleary-eyed office workers on their way in for another soulless day of clock-watching. An unremarkable, overcast Tuesday morning in an unremarkable city called Norwich.
‘He became involved in the first place, Liam, because he’s the only person in the world who recognized a couple of symbols
from a long-dead language. Incan or Mayan, or Aztec, or something … I can’t remember what he said. But I do remember he told me it was a unique language used by this one remote tribe. He said there was just this one example of the language that he’d discovered. Some painting on the wall of a cave he discovered halfway up a cliff-face.’
Liam nodded. ‘I see …’
Maddy turned to look at him. She laughed. ‘No, you don’t. You do that nodding “I see” thing when you’re confused and don’t want to admit it.’
‘What? No, I don’t.’
‘Yes, you do.’ She smiled. ‘I know you far too well, Liam O’Connor.’
He shrugged. ‘All right, I’m still not sure what we’re doing here.’
‘He discovered this one example of this language … made up of these unique symbols never used anywhere else in, like, the entire history of mankind. Unique symbols, pictograms. The only other place these symbols ever turned up –’
‘– was in that Voynich Manuscript.’
Maddy nodded. ‘And just once, in one single section of the text. Just two of these symbols acting as encryption-identifiers – some sort of, like, start and end markers. And they were, like, specifically designed to attract Adam’s attention.’ She stopped, checking the number of the terraced house to their left. They were nearly there. ‘So, obviously, that meant there was only ever going to be one person likely to be able to decode that particular passage.’
‘What about the rest of it? Do you think there might be more stuff in it?’
Maddy shook her head. ‘The rest doesn’t matter. Those markers were there to point him to the one important bit. The
rest of the Voynich might as well be a medieval cookbook for all we care.’
Liam tapped his temple with a finger. ‘Somebody’s been very clever.’
‘Yes …’ She nodded. ‘Somebody has been.’ Maddy glanced at him. ‘You … perhaps?’ She shrugged. ‘An older, wiser you?’
Or if not, someone who knew them very well
‘And so,’ Liam continued, ‘what’s with that name? The Windtalkers …?’
‘Well, duh!’ She looked at him. ‘That’s the name of the Indian tribe, isn’t it? Well, the name Adam decided to give them.’ She nodded at the front door ahead of them. Number 97. This was the house she and Becks had visited all those months ago – although, from Adam Lewis’s perspective, here they were again, the morning after that visit. Above the front door she could see the grimy net curtain hanging in the small window of Adam’s bedsit. She fancied she caught a faint glimpse of a pale face beyond it, ducking out of view as she looked up.
‘It’s a long shot, Liam. But I’m certain Becks spat that phrase out for a reason. I think she wants to help us, wants us to know but isn’t able to break her code-lock. So she gave us that.’
‘A place to start.’ She pressed a buzzer beside the front door. ‘Who knows? Maybe the answer lies in that cave of Adam’s? Maybe there’s more of that writing daubed on those walls. Maybe the cave itself is some kind of drop-point document?’
Liam grinned. ‘Now that would be a thing.’
She wrinkled her nose. ‘It’s all I’ve got at the moment. Other than that … I’m winging it.’
He looked at her. ‘You know, this might just be a wild goose chase, Maddy. Don’t get your hopes up.’
‘Might be. But it’s all we have.’ She pressed the door buzzer again. ‘You want to know what that message is, don’t you?’
‘Of course I do.’
‘I can’t help thinking this might just be the key to everything. Who knows? It might explain why we were made. Why we were set up to protect a timeline doomed to end in the year 2070. It might –’
The door was wrenched open and a tousle-haired young man stared at them bleary-eyed. ‘Yup?’
‘We’re here to see Adam Lewis.’
His eyes narrowed. ‘Hold on … you came here last night, didn’t you?’
She was surprised he remembered. This one and the other lads had been quite drunk. She nodded. ‘Yes.’
He looked cautiously out of the doorway, up and down the street. ‘Where’s that other girl you were with? The psychotic one?’
Maddy recalled he’d tried his luck with Becks. Big mistake.
‘Don’t worry – she’s got lectures this morning. Just me and my friend here.’
Liam nodded and offered a wave. ‘Morning.’
‘So, is Adam in?’
‘Yeah, sure … the wacko never leaves his room these days.’
‘Can we come in?’
He shrugged. She presumed that was his version of a ‘yes’. He turned and headed barefoot down the uncarpeted floorboards of the hallway. ‘Up the stairs, first on the right,’ he called out over his shoulder as he opened the door to his room and slammed it behind himself.