Virgin Territory

Fiction by Iain Pattison  ω  Art by Ryan Atkin

Purple+Scarf+Small

Startled, Elaine grabbed the strap as the helicopter abruptly banked, plunging downwards towards the shimmering sheet of blue. She cursed, the unexpected motion making her stomach lurch violently.

God, she hated flying.

“Survey ship’s about four miles away. Just over there. Due South. See.” The pilot jabbed a gloved finger towards the distant shape silhouetted against the horizon.

Screwing up her eyes at the dazzling sunlight bouncing off the vast expanse of cyan, she recognized the familiar outline of Poseidon’s Quest riding up and down on the gentle swell and felt some of her tension ease. Within a minute or two she’d be safely on the landing pad at the rear of the anchored research vessel – free of this rickety, rackety, levitating tin-can.

Even from this far out she could see the ship’s crane swung out over the side, gingerly lowering the mini sub towards the waters of the Indian Ocean. It was nearly 4pm – the last dive of the afternoon; the last of five challenging daily submersions for the robot exploration pod – sending it hundreds of feet below the waves.

The derrick crew would be tired, but she knew they’d still be alert, cautious, taking huge care not to make any mistakes. Fatigue was dangerous and any lapse in concentration could bring the tiny craft – slowly swinging and rotating – smashing against the large ship’s hull like a gleeful wrecking ball.

“I expect you’ll be glad to get back to the action,” the pilot commented, voice crackling on the headset microphone. “I really envy you. Searching for Atlantis. Wow, talk about a larger-than-life adventure. That must be mind blowing.”

She nodded distractedly.

“It would be if we’d found anything,” she agreed. “But so far it’s been nothing but eight months of sweat, tears and frustration. Not a scrap of evidence, not a single artifact. Zip.”

“But you’re definitely on the right track? I heard it’s only a matter of time. On the TV news last night they said your team is going to make a dramatic breakthrough any day now.”

Despite her aerial jitters, and the acid churning in her belly, Elaine allowed herself a wry smile.

She’d heard that announcement too. Read all the upbeat, hyped, attention-grabbing write-ups. But it was just publicity spin, something to keep the media happy and focused on the underwater archaeological expedition.

That was Richard’s doing. The British tycoon wanted headlines and wasn’t averse to putting a very rosy gloss on what was increasingly looking to be a PR disaster. He was paying for all this – to the tune of 2 million dollars a week – and wouldn’t accept that the seabed scans and satellite imaging had come up blank; not so much as a sunken wreck – never mind a lost continent.

“But it’s there,” he’d told her just 48 hours ago at the crisis meeting in London. “Atlantis is down there. I just know it. It’s simply a question of keeping faith. Widen the search area. Look harder. Work harder.”

But they needed more than faith… they needed hard scientific proof. And as the chopper swung over the ship and began to land, Elaine told herself that this Quixotic quest was rapidly turning into what the Brits called “A Mug’s Game.”

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It had all seemed so different back in April when she’d been invited (she preferred to think of it as summoned) to the billionaire’s Oxfordshire stately home. Then she’d been excited,  optimistic and intensely curious.

Richard had been his famous charming, hyperactive, buoyant schoolboy self as he pumped her hand, dragged her inside and gushed: “Dr Zuckerman. I can’t begin to tell you what a real thrill it is to meet you. I’ve heard so much about your work on uncovering the treasures of ancient Troy. I’ve followed your career with huge interest.”

“Call me Elaine,” she’d replied, “and I have to admit I’ve heard a great deal about you too.”

Mostly, she recalled, his exploits trying to kill himself in a series of increasingly dangerous daredevil publicity stunts – the last being going over Niagara Falls in a barrel painted in his company’s distinctive colours.

They’d taken afternoon tea in the house’s huge wood-panelled library, she marvelling at the vast shelves of antique leather-bound books stretching thirty feet to the vaulted ceiling – and awed by how one of the world’s richest men could be so badly dressed.

After twenty minutes or so of chit chat with him trying to convince her that hot air ballooning wasn’t really as frightening or suicidal as she assumed, he got down to business.

“So, Dr Zuckerman,” he began, tone suddenly becoming firmer.

“It’s Elaine.”

“Yes, of course. Elaine. Tell me – how much do you know about Atlantis?”

She’d spluttered, almost spilling her cup of Earl Grey.

“Atlantis?”

“Yes. Atlantis. You know … The Lost Continent?”

Blinking, she’d studied his face to see if this was some bizarre test or that he was joking, recalling that Richard was almost as famous for his wicked sense of humour as his entrepreneurial genius. But he was deadly earnest, eyes shining brightly.

“Well, just what most classical scholars claim,” she replied with a shrug. “That it was an advanced prehistoric civilization, dating back to around 9600 BC. Legend has it that it was destroyed in a single day and night and disappeared beneath the waves never to be seen again.”

“Yes, yes, the general myth is well known but what do you understand more specifically… as a scientist? As an expert in antiquity – an authority in early cities and ancient cultures?”

She made a dismissive face. “That it is a fairy tale, a fable. It never existed. It’s a bedtime story dreamt up by Plato. He described it as the Isle of Atlas. I’m hazy on the exact details but there was some tie-up to Greek gods – and magic. Allegedly, the inhabitants had advanced technology powered by some mysterious energy crystals.”

She added: “Those who are gullible enough to believe the yarn claim the missing kingdom is located somewhere in the far northern Atlantic Ocean. But I’ve heard others put forward notions about it lying anywhere from the Azores to the Bahamas. And that’s not including all the crackpot conspiracy theorists who will tell you it’s everywhere from the North Pole to hidden underneath Central Park.”

“And you don’t buy into it – any of it?” he prompted.

“Sorry. I’m a scientist. I deal in facts. Verifiable facts. I put Atlantis in the same file as The Loch Ness Monster, UFOs and The Abominable Snowman. The one marked Freaky Fantasies.”

At that the tycoon had suddenly laughed, and swung back on his chair. “Freaky Fantasies – I like that. That is so droll, so American,” he chortled.

And, with an exuberant crash, he leapt to his feet.

“But what if I were to tell you that Atlantis really existed. That it isn’t make-believe. What would you say if I told you that I have evidence that proves it; that I know where it is located?”

“I’d say,” Elaine commented, refilling her cup and biting into one of the dainty cucumber sandwiches, “that you obviously had a bad bump on the head when you went over those falls.”

Charcoal+Red+2

Then he’d shown her the relic – had let her examine the intriguing tablet – and her whole world turned upside down.

The carved inscription wasn’t Greek, wasn’t Sanskrit, Latin or Egyptian but some strange hybrid – an ancient Esperanto. It featured many words she recognized, but many she didn’t… and hieroglyphs, lots of them – arrays of small, crude, primitive pictograms.

“It’s a hoax,” she’d declared, unwilling to accept what her eyes were telling her. “It’s impossible. I’m familiar with every known language of the Ancient World and I’ve never seen anything remotely like it before.”

Running a finger thoughtfully over the bumps and dips of the stone, the billionaire nodded.

“That’s what I thought at first,” he confided, “I told myself it had to be a fake. It was too fanciful an idea to countenance. But then I let the lab boys loose on it.”

“And?”

“And they were stunned. Completely bewildered. It passed every test they could throw at it – in fact, every test known to modern science.”

The rock had been carved 10,000 years ago, using tools typical of the period, they’d deduced. The wear on the lettering was consistent with its age, and chemical erosion analysis showed the tablet had been immersed in salt water for millennia – then lain for further centuries in a hot climate, in sand with an acidic PH factor. And there were 23 other indicators to its provenance.

“The results were conclusive. Irrefutable,” he gushed. “It’s genuine. It’s the real deal.”

She couldn’t accept it.  Okay, so it was a clever fake, a clever old fake. But it still defied rational explanation. Surely Richard with his legendary hard nose and business savvy could see this.

“All right, then. Let’s say that it is as old as you claim. Where was it found?” she challenged. “How did it come to light? I haven’t heard anything about any centuries-old language tablet being uncovered. And, trust me, it’s not something that would pass unnoticed.”

He’d smiled mysteriously. “It popped up in the Middle East, about three years ago, on an old Grecian trade route. I won’t go into details. It’s best that you don’t know the circumstances in which I acquired it, but let’s just say that the downfall of a certain dictator helped a little…”

Shaking her head, Elaine wondered who was more crazy – him for buying the counterfeit artifact or her, a serious scientist, for remaining there to listen to more of the madness. But, there were so many questions that intrigued her – nagging, puzzling questions – like what the hell did the carving have to do with Plato’s famous drowned-realm folk tale?

“That part is simple,” he’d explained animatedly. “The language nerds have had a tough time deciphering the syntax and grammar, and some of the hieroglyphs are still a mystery, but the super computers have translated enough to identify that it’s a set of directions. The tablet is a route map to the lost kingdom.”

He pointed excitedly to a pictogram of a mermaid, the classic representation of the fabled sunken domain, then indicated the symbol next to it.

“It says Java,” he said in an awed hush. “The location of Atlantis – lost to mankind for ten millennia – is off the coast of Indonesia. And guess what, Doctor Zuckerman. That’s where you’re headed. Freaky fantasy or not – you’re going to find it for me.”

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Watching the chopper disappearing into the distance, Elaine rubbed her brow. Another headache was coming, a result of all the noise, vibrations and diesel fumes.

“London meeting go well?”

She turned and offered a sour grimace to Neil. Her deputy project leader, grunted knowingly.

“Oh … that bad,” he surmised.

“Worse,” Elaine replied, as they made their way from the swaying helipad and down the narrow gangway to the main deck of the survey ship. “Richard was doing his nut. He’s a man used to getting his way. And he simply refuses to believe he could be wrong.”

“So what do we do?”

“Keep looking,” Elaine concluded with a sigh. “Keep scouring the area for any clue. Keep going until we either find something or he grows bored of the whole escapade and calls it off.”

Neil looked at her as though she was a naïve child. “Call it off? He’s not going to do that any time soon. His whole reputation hangs on us succeeding. Besides, I’ve heard he’s already made plans to turn it into a vast sub-aqua theme park.”

He put on a passable limey accent: “Bring the whole family to the historical holiday of a lifetime … at Atlantis-land. The Underwater Magic Kingdom.”

Despite herself, Elaine smiled.

“C’mon – let’s duck into the control room,” she suggested. “The camera link from the mini-sub should be online by now. Maybe just maybe, this time there’ll be something – anything – that we can point to as progress.”

The interior of the main cabin was eerily dark, the only illumination coming from the radar and the viewing screens. The slouching technicians nodded a greeting for an instant before returning to boredly scrutinizing the grainy images coming from the depths. Visibility wasn’t great – swirling sand and sediment making the water a cloudy, foggy mass of tiny dancing dots.

A shark swam into view, investigating the robot pod for a few seconds, before darting away. Two stray lobsters crawled across the undulating ocean floor.

Then nothing.

It was just the same as every other dive. No roadways or ruins, no temples or toppled statues. No sign of civilization. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

Even the sound of the sonar pinging off the sub to the seabed seemed forlorn and dispirited; as though it knew how futile it all was.

Wherever it lay – fact or fable – Atlantis was obviously nowhere near Java; even if the jewel of the Indian Ocean was the most populated island in the world, sitting in the most densely inhabited region on the planet.  Even if the isle was one of the most ancient sites of human activity.

“There’s no point me waiting around here. I’m going to crash out for a few hours,” Elaine announced with a loud yawn. “The jet lag is kicking in.”

She turned to leave, when there was a noise. A loud buzz. A loud, insistent buzz – the satellite phone.

Groaning, she told Neil: “I can guess who that is. For Heaven’s sake, what does he expect. I’ve just got back. I know he’s frustrated with us but I can’t perform miracles.”

Aware that everyone was listening in, she said: “I’ll take this in my cabin.”

Safely alone, she dropped angrily into a chair and stabbed the button that activated the microwave video-link phone and its webcam.

Richard’s face appeared on the screen, movements jerky through the time delay.

He had an expression she’d never seen before – a strange mixture of glee, disappointment, smug secrecy and open wonder. It was disconcerting. She wondered vaguely if the stress had finally got to him.

“Hi Elaine,” he said, voice sounding even more fatigued than hers. “I bet you weren’t expecting to hear from me again so soon.”

“No,” she said, popping the ring pull on a Diet Pepsi and taking a swig. “I wasn’t, and I know you’re not going to be pleased but I have to tell you that I don’t have any update. The status of the project is unchanged. Atlantis is not just a lost continent – it’s a lost cause.”

She expected some outburst, at least a curse, but the tycoon nodded as if it was exactly what he’d anticipated – and that he didn’t mind.

“Yes, well … frankly that’s not surprising. Not in the circumstances,” he said, licking his lips both nervously and with excitement.

She stopped in mid slurp, puzzled. “Richard?”

“That’s why I’m phoning. I’ve got some news.” He smiled, sheepishly. “But you’re not going to like it. There’s been a ….development.”

For an instant, Dr Elaine Zuckerman felt more alert, more tense and more worried than she’d ever been in her life.

“What kind of development?” she demanded.

“It’s a breakthrough.” He made a vague wobbling gesture with his hand. “Well, more of a re-evaluation.”

At that moment, if she could have leapt forward, grabbed him by the throat and shaken him, she would have. Instead, she made do with hissing: “What? What are you saying? What am I not going to like? Spit it out.”

He paused, breathed in deeply and said: “The language geeks have finally cracked the code on the tablet. And it’s not what we thought….”

Not, what you thought, she muttered darkly under her breath.

“The inscription is undoubtedly ancient – it does date back to when we calculated but it isn’t directions to Atlantis. In fact, it turns out it doesn’t refer to the bloody place at all.”

“So what does it refer to?” she said through gritted teeth, mentally adding up the man hours, the astronomical costs and the damage to her scientific reputation that the wild goose chase had clocked up.

“Well, this is the funny bit – and it will make you laugh. But it turns out it’s actually a pre-history sales pitch, a sort of early newspaper advertisement.”

An advertisement! An advert! She’d trekked half way across the globe and wasted most of a year for a bloody leaflet!

So what in the name of everything holy was the tablet advertising?

He giggled, then stopped suddenly and frowned. “Well, let’s just say that a certain Seattle company hasn’t exactly been telling the truth about when they first launched.”

 

Moon+Boy

 

“I don’t believe it,” Neil gasped.

“Neither do I, but apparently it’s the truth,” Elaine confirmed minutes later. “And it all makes sense when you put it together – the mermaid picture and the symbol for Java.”

“But the media are going to tear Richard apart when they get wind that the whole quest was based on a monumental mistake. He’ll be ruined; a laughing stock.”

Smiling ruefully, Elaine nodded. “Maybe, maybe not. Something tells me, he’ll turn it round. By the time he’s dropped his 10,000-year-old bombshell no-one will even care about the Atlantis fiasco. It’ll be forgotten.”

She leant across to switch on the TV. The newsflash was due any second. Richard was about to spill the beans…

It was destined to be the story of the decade. Something they’d all be talking about for the rest of their lives. Something that would rewrite the history books.

He was about to tell the world that the artifact actually said: “Drink At Starbucks – best skinny latte in Antiquity.”


Iain Pattison Author of the Quintessentially Quirky Tales humour series. Check out the latest, An Ugly Way To Go, at  amzn.to/1FmPeER

 

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