Authors: Alex Scarrow
‘Mr Pineda, is it?’ Liam leaned over the choppy gap between the pier and the boat: a scruffy-looking fifty-foot-long vessel made of wood and ringed by old, bald rubber tyres slung over the side to protect the paint-chipped gunwale. An old mint-green canvas awning stretched along most of the length of the deck, shading the weather-worn planking. Halfway down, a wheelhouse, little more than a toilet-cubicle-sized shack of loose wooden slats and a viewing shutter propped open by a small straight branch from a tree.
Pineda!’ Tall and whippet-thin, skin so dark that the whites of his eyes seemed almost luminous. ‘This me
, man. This
Liam was stumped by his Creole accent. ‘Sorry. This is …?’
‘Me lanch!’ He slapped a hand on the side of his boat. ‘Me
‘Uh.’ Maddy was equally bemused.
Adam stepped in. ‘It’s his launch. His boat.’
Pineda nodded his head, a threadbare and faded captain’s cap, one size too big, wobbling uncertainly on top of his wiry coils of hair. ‘She me river lanch.
‘Named it after your wife.’ Maddy nodded approvingly. ‘That’s really sweet.’
Pineda’s already round eyes widened further with a look of
mock horror. ‘Naww! Not after m’ lady. No more. She gawn!’ Pineda hawked and spat venomously over the side into the cocoa-brown river. ‘Gawn ’way! She fly off with ’nother man!’ He crossed lean muscular arms across his chest. ‘Good ’n’ gone. Me beauty here, she now name after m’ ma.’ He grinned: a dazzling smile of big bright crooked tombstone teeth. ‘An’ didn’t need no new paint … she still
Introductions were made under the watchful gaze of a growing gathering of the curious that congregated on the pier: skin-and-bones river fishermen and their boys in tatters of colourful clothing, many sitting cross-legged on tyre bumpers like a penny-theatre audience. They watched as they knitted repairs to holes and tears in their fishing nets, studying proceedings intently, regarding the odd-looking
and chattering among themselves. Special attention, though, was directed towards the extremely large, towering and muscular
, Bob. Clearly none of them had ever seen a human this size before.
Pineda helped them load their supplies aboard: several boxes of canned beans, bags of rice and flour, and a dozen jerry cans of drinking water. He stowed them in the shallow hold beneath the planking deck. As he emerged from the hatchway, the midday rain arrived with the suddenness and intensity of a power shower being switched on.
Adam had warned them about that. It came almost as regular as clockwork, the noon monsoon. For half an hour, sometimes for an hour, an intense deluge that brought every activity to a standstill until it passed. Grey lances of rain speared down from a thunder-heavy sky and dashed the river all around them. The awning above them drummed deafeningly and they had to shout to each other to be heard.
So where’s our guide?
’ Maddy yelled into Adam’s ear.
‘He should be here by now!’ Adam looked around. Their audience had hurried for cover with the first stings of rain. The pier was a vacant space now, rain-slick planks of wood and hummocks of rain-soaked netting. ‘I told that fisheries bloke that we needed him to be here by midday!’
As if on cue they spotted someone jogging along the quayside towards them, a knapsack slung over his shoulder and a twisted and battered brolly held over his head.
Liam was standing out in the rain at the prow of the launch, whooping at the intensity of it. He stopped when he saw the little man approaching. ‘Hey! Is that our guide?’ he called back, his words almost completely lost in the drumming roar beneath the awning.
The man – and he
little – finally pulled up beside the boat. ‘
Son ustedes los que viajan por el Coco?
’ he shouted from the pier.
Adam shouted back. ‘Do you speak English?’
The man nodded. ‘You are the ones who want travel down the Coco?’
‘Yes!’ Adam leaned over the side and offered the guide a hand to help him aboard. The man ignored it and jumped effortlessly, frog-like, off the pier and on to the deck beside him. Then he grasped Adam’s hand and shook it vigorously.
‘Billy!’ he crowed with a shrill voice. ‘You call me Billy!’
Adam beckoned for him to follow under the awning and, finally out of the rain, he shook Liam’s and Maddy’s hands. He did a double-take before allowing his small delicate hand to be enveloped by Bob’s gorilla paw.
short. Just spare change over five foot, and a squat frame came with it. Narrow shoulders with too large a head perched precariously and top-heavy on them. A moon-round face with long black hair silvering at the sides and pulled back into a ponytail.
He grinned goodnaturedly at them, still panting from his run. ‘Please to be make your acquaintances.’
‘The official we spoke with this morning said you’re able to speak with the Indians along the Río Coco,’ said Maddy.
Billy nodded. ‘I speaks Zambu, Tawahka, Miskito, Creole, Spanish and –’ he shrugged apologetically – ‘also very bad English.’
‘Your English is good,’ said Maddy. ‘Seriously.’ She turned towards Mr Pineda.
‘This is our launch’s
’ Maddy made very sure to emphasize his title. ‘
Pineda suddenly hooted, a high-pitched girlish squawk, as he doubled over with laughter. ‘Me puppysho’ wit’ you, sister. Me the pilot, the
. Me firs’ name is
. Hehehe …’ Pineda giggled and flashed his teeth. ‘That the name me muddah gi’ me.’
She nodded and smiled. ‘Oh I see, you were christened “Captain”.’ She smiled at that.
His mock-serious face suddenly returned. Serious business. ‘Now, sister, you calls me
.’ As an afterthought, he added, ‘Or … Mr Skipper.’
‘Right.’ She nodded. ‘Mr Pineda.’
The pilot turned to the guide. Both men nodded politely at each other and exchanged a few words in Spanish.
‘So, are we good to go?’
Mr Pineda nodded vigorously. ‘Me lanch good ’n’ ready!’ He tugged the loose cap down over his small head. His ears splayed out under the cap’s rim like the open doors of a hansom cab.
‘You know where we
‘Uh?’ She shrugged. She was lost in his accent again. She cupped her ear. ‘Could you say that again?’
Adam nodded. ‘
know where we’re going, Mr Pineda. We
want to head down the Coco River as far as the branch with the Green River.’
Pineda pursed his lips thoughtfully for a moment as if consulting a mental map of the river, then finally he hunched his shoulders. ‘Me the steersman … you me pay-fair.’ He grinned that bright smile. ‘I take me
anywhere you aks me to.’
Maddy understood that. She reached through the open shutter window of the wheelhouse and waggled the helm. ‘So, are we all good to set off then?’
Mr Pineda frowned comically. ‘Hey! That me wheel! Only Captain Pineda touch da wheel. Them me lanch reg-gie-lay-shuns!’
She let go quickly. ‘Sorry!’
Mr Pineda shrugged begrudgingly. ‘That OK … let you off this time.’
The night came more quickly here, it seemed, than elsewhere. At dusk Liam checked the hour on his timepiece. The sun made its bed beyond the irregular horizon of jungle peaks at just after five and left behind it a blood-red stain that finally disappeared by eight.
With the dark, Mr Pineda steered the river launch to the northern side – the Honduran side – of the Río Coco. ‘It safer from the bandits this side, brudder,’ he’d explained to Liam. He threw out a stern anchor and tied a bow line to an overhanging branch from an amate fig tree.
He cooked up a pot of beans on a kerosene burner, mashed them and served them with fried Yojoa fish. And after that, bellies satisfied all round, he boiled some water and made coffee, bitter and strong.
Liam lay on the deck at the prow of the boat, his head rudely cushioned by one of the tyre ‘fenders’. Above him the overhanging leaves of the tree were silhouetted ink-black against the deep blue of a clear night sky. The wooden deck vibrated gently beneath his back as the launch’s diesel engine juddered like an old man muttering to himself. The engine powered a light swinging from a flex in the wheelhouse and a similar one beneath the awning at the rear of the boat.
Liam watched Maddy as she left the others, coffee in hand,
picked her way forward and settled on the vibrating deck beside him.
‘Must be a little bit like being a pirate again.’
He smiled. ‘Aye.’ But only a little. The smell of diesel, the soft judder of the engine dispelled the illusion somewhat. It would feel more like those days when Mr Pineda switched the engine off for the night and he could hear the soothing lap of water against the wooden hull.
They lay back in silence for a while, and watched shooting stars zip across the sky.
‘I’m worried about Sal,’ Maddy said presently.
‘Why? What’s up?’
‘I dunno … she seems so different. She’s changed.’
Liam had sensed the same thing. A subtle shift in her demeanour. He’d thought it was something and nothing but now he wanted to hear what Maddy was thinking.
‘When you were away frolicking on the high seas, busy playing pirates with Rashim, she had a major wobble.’
‘She isn’t coping very well with the idea that she’s not really Sal.’
‘Aye … that was something of a blow for all of us, to be fair.’
seem to have coped with that remarkably well.’ Maddy looked at him. ‘You always seem to shrug everything off. Like nothing really matters. You know, I’m so jealous that you can do that.’
Liam wished that it was so. True, the issue of his identity being nothing more than some lab technician’s best guess of how a cocksure young Irish lad would behave and what he would sound like had so far not affected him greatly.
I am who I am
– that was his maxim: five words that, as far as he was concerned, more or less dealt satisfactorily with the matter. Weighing more
heavily on his mind was wondering whether his thoughts were truly his. Whether the decisions he made were his alone, or the product of some lines of programming – digital or genetic.
He had scared himself a little, once, back in the seventeenth century. The way he had calmly rationalized the killing of that Moorish pirate. He imagined that Bob and Becks dispassionately analysed friend and foe, threat levels, viable targets in much the same way. Coldly, clinically, without any compassion.
‘I didn’t tell you about this,’ said Maddy.
Liam looked at her. ‘Didn’t tell me what?’
‘She went looking for herself.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘She went forward in time, to 2025, to New York.’
‘Why? Why then, why there?’
‘She said she had memories of visiting New York with her father that year. I told her that they were just implanted memories. That they weren’t real. Just background story designed to make her believe she’d already lived. She went anyway.’
‘Uh … should you not have stopped her?’
Maddy sighed. ‘I … I could’ve. But I didn’t. See, well … we both thought you’d decided to abandon us. We thought you’d had enough and decided to run off and become a pirate. So, we discussed it and I kind of said to her that maybe we should both do likewise: find places we’d like to live the rest of our lives and just go there.’ She shrugged guiltily. ‘I guess for a while I thought it was game over.’
Liam lifted himself up on to his elbows. ‘Seriously?’
‘Sal chose to go find herself. I think she wanted to know for sure whether her memories were just a bunch of things stitched together, or whether they were the memories of a real girl.’
‘And? What did she find?’ Liam felt the ghost of a hope stir
inside him. A possibility that maybe
life story was a genuine one. Even if it was a
one. ‘Did she come across a
‘She never said.’ Maddy sipped her coffee. ‘I did try asking, but she kinda blew me off. To be honest, I don’t know what she discovered in 2025. She came back, though, obviously. So … I guess maybe she didn’t find what she was looking for. I think she confirmed that there never was, or never will be, a Saleena Vikram. So I guess that’s some sort of closure for her.’
Maddy sighed. ‘Crud, do you have to be so frikkin’ nineteenth-century all the time?
… it means when you’ve
a matter you’ve been worried about.’
‘But she hasn’t
the matter, has she?’
Maddy was a while replying. ‘I don’t think so. She does seem different, somehow.’
‘I think we should talk to her,’ said Liam. ‘Just the three of us … the Three Musketeers. Have us a heart-to-heart when we get back.’
‘I think that would be a good idea.’
Mr Pineda stepped into the wheelhouse and turned off the engine. It rattled, grumbled and coughed like a bad-tempered asthmatic, then fell silent.
‘Jay-zus … finally,’ whispered Liam.
The quiet seemed to have a volume all of its own. Almost deafening. Then into that void the subtle chirrups and stirrings of the jungle cautiously stepped in; the soothing lap and gurgle of river water against
’s worn wooden hull.
A torch flickered around at the other end of the boat as Billy foraged for something; he found what he was after and the torch snapped off. Liam could hear the low murmur of their voices. Adam was talking to Billy. Mr Pineda seemed to be trying to
engage Bob in conversation about something. It was a one-sided conversation. His goodnatured sing-song contrasted with the occasional monosyllabic rumble from Bob.
‘You really think we’ll find an answer in that cave of Adam’s?’
‘I hope so. You know what I think?’
‘I think there are two sides out there. There’s Waldstein, and there’s someone else. We know exactly what Waldstein wants. He wants humanity to wipe itself out in 2070. For whatever reason, good or bad … we don’t know which and we don’t know why. I think it’s safe to say he sent those killer support units because we threatened to stop doing what we were set up to do. Maybe if we could speak to him, he could explain why he wants that, and who knows, we might even agree with him. Then at least we’d be back where we were, working for him, preserving history as it is, but knowing
we’re doing it.’
She smiled wistfully. ‘Just like it was in the good ol’ days.’
‘Aye, that would be nice.’ Liam realized how much he missed the certainty that what they were doing was the
thing: the thing that was saving mankind.
‘But,’ she continued, ‘I think someone else wants something quite different. And this cave, the Voynich Manuscript, the Holy Grail and that note in San Francisco is them trying to get in touch with us, to give us
side of the story.’
‘Jay-zus, Maddy.’ He sighed and rubbed his temples. ‘I just about nearly caught up with yer convoluted thinking. And then you throw more notions into the pot. Do you ever give that head of yours a rest?’
‘No. I guess that’s why I’m always crabby.’
Liam laughed. Better that than to say ‘aye’.
‘Anyway, do keep up, Liam. I’m just saying that we need to hear out both sides. We need to talk to Waldstein and we need to know what that message is. Then we can finally decide what it is we should be doing. Whether we’re for, or against, the end of the world happening in 2070.’
Mr Pineda studied Bob with a wary frown. ‘You a big man. VERY big man, brudder. You a army man?’
Bob sensed the pilot was addressing him and put file-sorting on hold for the moment. ‘Clarification: are you asking me whether I am a military unit?’
Mr Pineda nodded. ‘Mil-try man, army man. Yes.’
Bob considered that for a moment. Technically speaking, he was. ‘Yes. I am.’
‘You fight in the big war?’ The pilot pointed across the moonlit river to the jungle on the far side. Nicaragua.
Prototypes of Bob’s particular batch had been tested in several combat zones. Of course, the AI was earlier-generation software, which had been prone to several glitches. There was a notorious incident of a support unit using an earlier version of his AI base code. The incident was referred to by the military as an ‘extreme blue on blue’. A unit undergoing testing in the field had somehow managed to flip friend/foe identifier tags and massacred almost an entire company of US troops as they slept in their beds.
Bob, personally, had seen plenty of combat and not malfunctioned once.
‘I have fought in many combat zones.’
Mr Pineda’s eyes rounded. ‘Many battle? Tell me which.’
For a moment he evaluated whether any information he divulged might present a contamination risk. In this case he decided it could not be significant. The pilot appeared to be mildly intoxicated and, it seemed, for the moment the normal
protocols of zero tolerance on contamination had been suspended. Suspended until Maddy finally decided what their role was going to be.
‘The guerrilla resistance in Washington State against the German invasion of America. The siege of Nottingham,
1194. And the defence of Emperor Caligula’s imperial palace, Rome,
The pilot’s eyes narrowed for a moment as he took that in. Then without warning he exploded with a high-pitched
belly-laugh. ‘Puppysho’! You playin’ wid me!’ He leaned over and slapped a bony hand on the meaty bulge of Bob’s shoulder. ‘I like you, big man! You got funny in you.’
Adam and Billy turned to look at the riverboat pilot rocking backwards and forwards, hooting with laughter.
, your big friend.’ Billy nodded at Bob. ‘He is mercenary? Hired gun?’
As far as Adam understood the set-up of Maddy’s team, that seemed to be a close enough approximation of Bob’s role. ‘Yes, I s’pose in a way that’s what he is. Like their bodyguard.’
‘This is good. There is much … how-say –’ Billy clucked his tongue as he trawled his simple English for the right word – ‘much
along the Coco. The jungle, very dangerous place.’
‘I came here two years ago with some others,’ Adam replied. ‘The Contra war in Nicaragua had recently finished. It didn’t seem so bad then.’
‘Things become much worse now. Many Contra rebels now become bandits. Murder. Steal. Not good.’ Billy reached into his knapsack and pulled out a battered old AK47 with a broken and taped-up wooden stock. ‘Maybe need this.’
‘Jesus. You serious?’
Billy nodded. ‘Also, some Indian tribe … Bad experience with rebels, with
. They not friendly no more.’
That hadn’t been Adam’s experience. The remote riverside villages they’d visited with Professor Brian had welcomed them with open arms.
‘Rebels do many raid, kill Indians. This make Indian no longer trust all
. We must be careful on river.’ Billy nodded towards Bob again. ‘Your big mercenary? What guns does he bring?’
‘Guns? None. No weapons. Well, none that I’m aware of.’
‘No gun?!’ Billy’s face creased with disbelief. ‘No gun? Hired gun have no gun?’
‘I don’t know if he uses one.’ He glanced across the deck at Bob’s broad frame. ‘Mind you, I’ve got a feeling he’s probably good with his hands.’
Billy followed his gaze. He appraised the support unit for a moment. ‘We meet Indian … they be much scared of him. He so big.’
‘He is something of a brute, isn’t he?’
‘But, we meet rebels?’ Billy sucked in his teeth, making a soft whistling sound. ‘Not scare so easy.’ He patted the rust-flecked barrel of his AK. ‘We need guns.’
For the first time since agreeing to come along, Adam felt a cold tickle of uncertainty.