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Children of the Fifth Sun
By Gareth Worthington
Vesuvian BooksCopyright © 2017 Gareth Worthington
All rights reserved.
Location: Somewhere on the Amazon, South America
Kelly Graham hung suspended in the cloudy, pink water, gently kicking his feet. His left hand and arm were wrapped in a thin yellowish rope that ascended from the dark water below and through the ceiling of scattered light and rippling currents above his head. In his right hand, he held an underwater camera. It was large and cumbersome, but he'd had it for years and wouldn't use anything else — didn't trust anything else.
He pointed it at the white, ghost-like forms gliding around in the distance. They gracefully sliced through the liquid, dancing with each other. He waited patiently and kept very still.
A ghost came closer, intrigued by this hairless ape hanging from his underwater branch. It hovered there, its head cocked to one side as it looked at him. Its eyes were wise and knowing yet playful. It opened its long beak as if it wanted to communicate, to bestow some mystical knowledge.
Click. Kelly gently squeezed the button and captured the almost human curiosity on the animal's face. Click. Another precious second in time preserved on film. The river dolphin lost interest and turned away, flicking its tail once before disappearing into the fuchsia haze.
Kelly exhaled, spilling thousands of bubbles out through his mouth. Had he been holding his breath for that long? He couldn't have been. He looked up and admired the bright, shimmering sun through the rose-colored liquid. Kelly released his tangled hold on the rope, kicked once, and floated upward. As his face broke the surface, he was greeted by the contrasting warm air. With closed eyes, he let the sun begin to dry the skin on his face.
"Where the fuck have you been?" A short, tubby Hispanic man in his mid-twenties glared at Kelly from a little wooden boat, his hand outstretched for his friend to grab. Chris was dressed in blue cargo pants and a grubby, gray t-shirt that may once have been white; his tanned Latin skin juxtaposed by peroxide blonde, crew-cut hair.
"Taking pictures, esé, where'd ya think?" Kelly grinned and grasped his friend's wrist, making an enjoyable slapping sound as his wet hand made contact.
"Could have fooled me. I didn't see any bubbles for like fifteen minutes. I swear, thought you'd been swept away by an undercurrent." Chris's voice strained at the end of his sentence as he heaved Kelly's muscular frame from the water.
"That was the point of our makeshift anchor though, right?" Kelly nodded at the buoy bobbing on the water's surface. "Was a great idea to use that lump of metal and a bit of old rope. I think I'm a genius." Kelly lay panting in the bow of the boat, propped up on his elbows.
"Yeah, but remember there's no genius without us, oh great and wise one." Chris swept Kelly's arms from underneath him and sent him sprawling backward.
Kelly quickly leapt to his feet and grabbed his rotund friend by the shorts, lifting him into the air, his biceps straining under the weight.
"Ah, wedgie! Stop it." Chris wailed, clawing at his shorts as they disappeared between his buttocks.
"For God's sake, can you boys not act like children for more than five minutes?"
The tall, blonde woman stood in a meaningful pose on her little boat, closed fists resting on her hips, her long hair blowing gently to one side in the breeze. With her gray-green tank top, half-thigh camouflage shorts, and military-issue jungle boots, Kelly thought she looked like she had bought her outfit from an Adventurers-R-Us catalogue. The boat stuttered through the water, powered by a loud chugging outboard motor.
"Well, as I live and breathe." Kelly smirked. "Been a while, but I see time hasn't changed anything. You BBC wildlife types are still way too uptight. I could sort that out for you if you like?" Kelly grinned and winked at his long-time rival. His one open, dirty-blue eye flashed in the sunlight.
"I see National Geographic is still in the business of hiring Neanderthals. Have you gone round to a relative of yours and snapped some cave paintings with your ancient camera?" Her hands were cupped together to form a megaphone, ensuring that Kelly would hear the entirety of her clever remark as she drifted downriver.
"Was that Vicky?" Chris asked.
"Yeah, been a while since we saw her, huh?"
"Like five years."
"Exactly. She still wants me, but we're just passing ships on the Amazon." He laughed and shrugged his shoulders. "Come on, Paco, let's go."
"Still?" grumbled Chris. He stumbled to the back of their small boat and pulled at the starter cord of the outboard motor. The engine spluttered into life. The little craft chugged along, leaving a pinkish wake behind it. Chris sat by the outboard, directing them on their meandering path while Kelly remained up front, keeping watch for various obstacles — the odd large river animal or fallen tree.
With his black short-leg wetsuit pulled down to his waist, Kelly plonked down into the lotus position on the bow and grabbed an old guitar that was sitting in the boat. It was a light brown, almost leathery color and badly beaten. He strummed it a few times, twisting the machine heads until satisfied with the tuning. He swept his wet, wavy, chin-length chestnut-brown hair back onto the top of his head so he could see the strings, but it fell back about his unshaven face as soon as he tilted his head forward. He strummed the guitar softly, singing quietly.
He stopped singing and looked around him, making an arc with his eyes from one riverbank, to the sky, the other bank, and then at the river. It was beautiful. He loved the Amazon — peaceful, old, wise, and dangerous.
Chris looked at his companion. Obviously "Adonis" was admiring his reflection or something. Even at thirty-five years old, Kelly could be so bloody vain. "Okay, Narcissus, we're almost at camp; best stop looking at yourself. We're going to pull in over there." Chris's pointed to a nearby shallow close to the starboard riverbank. He swung the rudder to the left, allowing the boat to glide closer to the bank. He cut the motor and stood, eyeing up the moving land beside him.
Kelly put down his guitar and rose to his feet. Grabbing a thin brown rope beside him, he leapt from the boat onto the soft mud, rolled, and then stood. Bending his knees and bracing like a human anchor, he held onto the rope. The boat stopped suddenly, swinging into the riverbank. It threw Chris forward, causing him to slam his palms into the deck.
"No problem, esé."
"Kelly Graham?" The voice was deep and gravelly, like it belonged to a lifetime smoker.
Kelly dropped the rope and slowly turned his head, squinting as the sun glared behind the huge frame of his questioner. "Well, that depends there, André, doesn't it?"
The huge Shadow Man offered him a blank stare.
Chris sighed, looking on from the boat. "He means André as in the Giant."
"You must be Christopher D'Souza."
"No one has called me Christopher in a long time."
"Forget that, Chris. I still can't believe he didn't watch wrestling as a kid. Look at the size of him." Kelly stood straighter, his forearm resting against his sweaty forehead in an attempt to shield his eyes from the sun. He had a wry grin on his face.
"Are you Kelly Graham or not?"
"Look, pal, if you have to ask me who I am, then quite obviously you are not someone who appreciates my work. Ergo, you're someone of authority who reckons I don't have a permit, blah, blah, blah. Either way, you're annoying me. I'm tired, wet, hungry, and quite honestly I need to take a shit. So, it's been a blast, but you can leave a message with my secretary there on my boat." Kelly gestured to Chris before giving a sarcastic salute to the Shadow Man and marching off in no particular direction.
"That's gotta be him."
Kelly felt a sharp pain in his neck and frantically clasped a hand to it. Everything around him went dark as he tumbled to his knees. The bastard darted me. Of all the fucking nerve. Fuck it's dark ...
Location: Los Angeles, California, USA
"Hmm, are you seein' this?" Jerry was an inch from his screen, and the luminous image bounced off his glasses. He had one hand clasped to his clammy forehead, and the other pressed a cellphone to his left ear.
"Yes, I'm seeing it. It's gotta be wrong. I mean, someone would have noticed it before, right?" The voice on the other end of the line was calm, nonchalant.
"How the frig should I know? But I mean, think about it, the power of the Internet now, it's more than any supercomputer. I mean, we're talking about linking up satellite systems from nations all over the world and pooling data from hundreds of databases. Shit, isn't that what we set out to do?" Jerry was excitable. His voice trembled.
"Dude, it's Google Earth — a public project. We set out to let people say, 'Ooh, there's my house!'"
"Well, we found something else. What do you think we do with it? Do we tell someone? The government?"
"What, like ring up the president and say, 'Hi, erm, so like it's Jerry from Google. Yeah, hi, long time no speak, I know. So, dude, you gotta see what we found on Google Earth today?'"
"Why do you always do voices and characters, man? For Christ's sake, let's just figure this out."
"Look, dumbass, use your head. If we've seen it, it means someone else has, too. Like you said, it's a public project — right?"
"Yeah, I guess you're right."
"David? Hello? David?"CHAPTER 2
Kelly could hear her moaning in pain. He had to find her, but he couldn't see. There was no light. Only her voice — whimpering, sobbing. Kelly flailed in the dark, frantically clutching at the damp air. It was so cold and the stench ... he could smell sulfur.
A light in the distance, a muted speck, flickered like a flame in a light breeze. And her voice — it was louder now. He was getting closer. Kelly's feet picked up pace into a brisk walk. Then he jogged. The sound of his panting echoed around in the dark. He broke into a full-blown sprint. She was sobbing so loud; she was in so much pain.
"I'm coming!" Kelly called into the darkness. "Where are you?" His voice cracked as he tried to catch his breath. Swollen, his voice box filled his throat. He opened his mouth, but no more words would come.
Kelly stopped, his heart pounded in his chest — a hammer against his ribcage. He stared through the pitch down a dimly lit staircase at her tiny body. She was lying crumpled on the oak floorboards. Her crimped black hair was tousled around her head and the burgundy dress she wore was pulled awkwardly above her waist. One pantyhose-covered leg was twisted over the other. He stumbled frantically down the stairs, tripping over his own feet and grasping at the banister for support. Kelly dropped heavily to the floor, smashing his knees into the hard wood. Tears filled his eyes, and his hands trembled. He touched her hair softly, sliding it across her face.
Her broken frame jolted upright, forcing a warped gray face with hollow black sockets inches from Kelly's eyes. "Leave me be!"
* * *
Kelly jerked awake, driving his head into the metal frame of the bunk bed. His vision was sharp, his senses alert. His eyes darted around before falling on the familiar face of a friend.
"Same dream?" Chris was sitting on his haunches with his back to a white wall, forearms resting on his knees, and his head hung low. He raised his eyes to meet Kelly's.
"Ah, you're awake." The booming voice of the Shadow Man blasted across the room.
Kelly squinted in pain as the shockwave of sound sliced into his brain. "Damn, I thought it was the sun in my eyes, but you are actually a huge fucker, aren't ya?"
The Shadow Man stood almost seven feet tall, with shoulders that appeared six feet wide. A crisp gray suit clung to his bulk and looked almost ridiculous on his monstrous body. He was African American, and his large, bald head shone in the artificial light. He grinned, revealing two rows of pearly white teeth and a small gap between his incisors.
"Well shit, aren't you a regular Einstein? Are we sure this is the only fool we can get?" He directed the question over his right shoulder to the hazy figure behind him.
"Well, that's kind of the point. We need a fool." Her voice was soft and alluring. Definitely not to be trusted, thought Kelly. "And considering you've lost most of your men down there, Mr. Tremaine, we don't have much choice now, do we?"
"Okay, Okay. Just stop there, lady and big bald ... thing ... Tell me what the fuck is going on. Or I walk." Kelly rubbed his temples in an attempt to ease his aching head.
"And just where would you go, Mr. Graham?" the mystery woman asked. "Your talents underwater are the reason you're here, but I doubt even you could swim back to land." Kelly looked around the room, searching for a window to the outside world. His gaze fell upon a small porthole just next to his bunk. He ran to it and pressed his nose against the glass, peering outward. All he could see was water — a lot of water. A large lake perhaps? No, he was rocking from side to side and could see no land at all. He was at sea.
"What the fuck? Where are we?" Kelly spun on his heels and glared at his subjugators.
"It doesn't matter where we are. You have a job to do. And we are willing to pay you to do it."
"And that's why you drugged me?" Kelly's voice carried more than a little indignity.
"We don't have time to waste on this. We needed to get you here first. We could convince you once you were here ... with substantial compensation."
The woman slid into the room, gliding effortlessly toward Kelly. Her slender frame was shrouded in a long, gray, wrap-around dress, and a patent leather belt cinched her midriff. Kelly looked into her emerald-green eyes, the focal point of her oval, doll-like face. Jet black, shoulder-length hair contrasted with her porcelain skin. She reminded Kelly of her.
"So," the woman began, eyeing Kelly, "what would your price be to help us, hmmm?"
"Look, lady —"
"Freya Nilsson," she interrupted.
"Whatever. Even if I wanted to do whatever it is you want me to do, you couldn't afford me. So why don't you just put me back where you found me, huh?" Kelly marched over to Chris and plonked on the floor like a defiant child.
Chris shifted his head toward his friend. "Mature. Oh, and by the way, I wouldn't mess with these guys. While you were having your beauty sleep, I had a little conversation with our new friends. Turns out, they're with the CIA or something."
Kelly's eyes widened. Chris nodded.
"I assure you, Mr. Graham, we have deep pockets. You will be well-compensated." Ms. Nilsson took a single step toward him.
Kelly studied her. "I'm sure you do."
"I'm sure if you offer him a warm cave and a shiny new clubbing implement, he'll be as giddy as a schoolgirl." Victoria stood in the doorway, leaning against the bulkhead.
"Oh great, it's a fucking party. What are you doing here?" Kelly rolled his eyes, elbowed his friend in the shoulder, and then motioned toward the doorframe.
Chris choked back a laugh. "It's your girlfriend. She's probably here because she wants you."
"Hello to you, too, Chris."
"Hi, Victoria. Long time no see. What's it been, twenty-four hours?"
The Shadow Man tapped at his oversized military watch. "Look, I hate to break up your little reunion, but we got a thing to do here, and we're on a bit of a time schedule, ya know."
"Indeed. Mr. Graham, I must insist." Ms. Nilsson's icy stare cut through Kelly, causing his skin to horripilate.
Kelly glanced at Chris and then Victoria. "Okay, first things first. I don't need your money. I'll hear your request, then decide if I wanna do it. If I do, I will. If I don't, I leave. Deal?"
"Deal. Follow me. I'll explain in the briefing room." Ms. Nilsson turned on a dime and tramped out of the room.
Kelly stood and minced after Ms. Nilsson, swinging his hips mockingly. "I guess we follow her," he called over his shoulder.
Victoria and Chris exchanged a glance and smirked before following suit, marching out the room.
* * *
The group meandered through the narrow white corridors, ducking overhead pipes, stepping over the lips of bulkheads, all the while trying to keep pace with Ms. Nilsson. The maze of passageways was incomprehensible and never-ending. Each hallway looked just like the last.
Eventually, Kelly stepped through a doorway and into a large room. Ms. Nilsson was already sitting herself at the head of a large, rectangular table. The group conformed, each taking a place, waiting expectantly.
Finally Ms. Nilsson spoke. "We need you to collect something for us."
"Okay, what?" Kelly asked. "And from where?"
"From a thousand feet below us," she replied.
Excerpted from Children of the Fifth Sun by Gareth Worthington. Copyright © 2017 Gareth Worthington. Excerpted by permission of Vesuvian Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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