Professor Alec Bernard adjusted his battered, ten year-old sunglasses as he glanced up at the cloudless azure sky. He was grateful for the crumpled Tilley hat he wore as protection against the relentless onslaught of the southern-equatorial sun that hung suspended above him like a giant molten pearl.
The fifty-something professor from Wyoming licked his parched, cracked lips, then used the back of his hand to wipe away a small river of sweat from his furrowed brow. At times, it had seemed to him as if the furnace-like heat was a living thing—a voracious parasite feeding on a hapless host.
Here, on the plateau the Khoikhoi called the land of thirst, it was winter, but the temperature had already reached more than one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. It was one of the many paradoxes of the Great Karoo—a place near the southern rim of Africa where it was either too hot or too cold, and always too dry.
Reluctantly, Alec stopped digging and took a rare break from the endless hours of work that had consumed his days for the past three weeks. He dropped his shovel, bent down and picked up his half-full canteen, carefully unscrewed the cap, then took several measured sips of the lukewarm water.
As he sipped the precious liquid, his grey-blue eyes roamed over the vast and desolate landscape, marveling at the stark beauty of his private hunting grounds. Earlier, as he and his promising young Graduate Assistant, Donald, had hiked in from their base camp, they’d watched the sun rise over the snow-capped Swartberg Mountains. They ringed the high desert plateau like a massive natural garland.
It was hard for him to put into words the gamut of conflicting emotions he experienced whenever he worked in a place like this; a place where his wrinkled face had become chronically red and cracked from the sun and wind, where his body had accumulated a myriad of small, perennially infected sores. The sores were the result of his skin being repeatedly pierced by thorns, cut by barbed wire, and bruised by falls onto sharp rocks. The emotions were the result of his ongoing love-affair with the distant past.
Satisfied he’d allowed himself enough of a break to stave off dehydration, he carefully screwed the cap back on the canteen.
He was about to resume digging, when something odd happened.
He heard his name whispered—
Startled, he turned, expecting to see his Graduate Assistant.
But Donald was nowhere in sight.
“Must be the heat,” he muttered as he returned to the task before him. With practiced precision he sifted a few more inches of the loose rock and dusty topsoil with his shovel.
Then, he heard his name whispered again.
“Alec. Come to me—”
At first, he thought it was Donald playing a practical joke on him, something the capricious young man was well-known for. He looked up and scanned the immediate area around him, then realized the guttural voice had come from inside his head.
He sat down, took several deep breaths, hoping the infusion of oxygen would banish the uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“Better relax a few minutes,” he told himself as he watched a large scorpion make its way across the rock-strewn ground. It stalked a grasshopper twice its size. With lightning-fast speed, the small predator pounced upon the unsuspecting insect and pierced it with its venomous stinger. The grasshopper writhed in agony, then shuddered and died. The deadly carnivore disappeared inside a tiny crevice and dragged its afternoon meal with it.
Suddenly exhausted, Alec leaned back against a huge boulder, adjusted his Tilley so that it provided a measure of shade for his face, and closed his eyes.
Immediately, a boyhood memory filled his mind.
He sat on his father’s lap and listened to one of his dad’s endless stories. On this occasion, his father told a tale from the Old Testament. It was about a man—what was his name? Joshua. Apparently, Joshua had commanded the sun to stand still and it obeyed. For three days! Alec asked his dad if the account was true. His father, a dedicated churchgoer, replied, “That’s a good question, son. According to Pastor Corwin, it is.”
“What do you think?” he’d pressed.
His father frowned, then answered, “I honestly don’t know.”
It dawned on him years later that his father’s lack of faith in the veracity of the Bible had sown within him the seeds of an antagonistic skepticism about anything related to God.
“Professor, come here! I’ve found something extraordinary.”
Alec’s eyes snapped opened.
He blinked repeatedly as his eyes adjusted to the sudden glare of sunlight. He heard a loud screeching sound above him and looked up. A huge bird circled overhead. At first, he thought it was a gigantic blue crane soaring on the invisible currents of heated air like a glider as it searched for any signs of food hidden among the thorny veldt spread out below. As he looked closer, he realized it wasn’t a crane—it was a vulture. One of the largest he’d ever seen.
“Professor, where are you?”
He stood up and brushed the dust from his shorts, grabbed his shovel and canteen, then walked around the huge boulder that had hidden him from view.
His assistant waved and shouted, “Professor—over here!”
He made his way toward Donald, mindful of the prickly bracken that dotted the landscape and careful to avoid the small boulders that were his nemesis. When he reached the younger man, he asked, “Okay, what’s all the excitement about? You were shouting loud enough to wake the dead.”
“I found an opening where there shouldn’t be one.”
“Yesterday, that embankment was a wall of solid rock.” Donald pointed in the direction of one of the many low hills, or kopjes, as the few local inhabitants referred to them. Unlike traditional hills, which were rounded at the top, the ones on this plateau were all flat. The odd-looking formations were a result of a unique kind of geologic activity virtually unknown anywhere else.
Alec raised his hand to shield his eyes and squinted.
The scorching afternoon heat radiated off the black earth in shimmering waves. There was also a haze of heated air between him and the spot fifty yards away where his graduate assistant pointed. “You’re certain it wasn’t there yesterday? Openings that size don’t appear in solid rock over night—unless something unusual happened, like an earthquake.”
“Professor,” Donald said in a tone of voice that barely hid his displeasure at being challenged, “yesterday you pointed out that particular cliff to me as an exquisite example of the kind of violent geologic activity this plateau is well-known for. You also reminded me that the dolerite formations at the top are the residual imprint of the massive displacement of the continental shelf. I believe your exact words were, ‘This particular formation brings to mind what Hell might look like on a good day.’”
“U-m-m-m, so I did.”
Half a mile away, a flash of heat lightening struck the earth, accompanied by a loud crack of thunder. At the same time the wind, which had been blowing for the past half hour, stopped.
A loud buzzing sound filled the abrupt silence.
Alec squinted in the direction of the irritating sound. An odd-looking, undulating black cloud was headed toward them at incredible speed. “Run!” he shouted as he suddenly took off in the direction of the newly-created opening.
Donald glanced at the Professor’s fleeing back, then at the strange-looking cloud, and ran. He caught up with his mentor half way to the opening. “Why are we running?” he gasped.
Before the professor could reply, he got his answer.
A huge swarm of the largest, blackest flies he had ever seen overtook them. They were blood flies and they were very hungry. Everywhere one of them found bare skin was a place they could bite, and feed. Like ticks, they used body heat and carbon dioxide signatures to track their prey from great distances. Then, they used a pair of incredibly sharp, miniature pincers to grab hold of your skin. Finally, they drilled their retractable proboscis into your body and sucked out as much blood as their tiny stomachs could hold, swelling to twice their normal size.
Alec and Donald stumbled the last few feet to the opening in the cliff. Incredibly, once they reached the cave entrance, the flies retreated in mass, as if on command. A small remnant remained, still attached to the two men, those few who had become trapped by their own insatiable lust for blood.
Donald brushed the pesky insects from his body. “Whew, that was really weird. I’ve dealt with horseflies before, but I’ve never seen—or experienced—anything like that.”
“Neither have I,” Alec muttered as he stared out at the desert.
“Then why did you yell for us to run?”
Alec pulled his gaze from the sun-drenched plateau and returned Donald’s puzzled look with one of his own. “I—I’m not certain—”
Donald shook his head. “Like I said, Professor, weird, really weird.”
Alec pulled two remaining blood flies from his body and crushed them under his feet, amazed they could inflict such pain. “Look at this,” he said as he bent over and picked up one of several medium-sized pieces of polished black rock scattered around the cave floor. “If I’m not mistaken, this is Cephren/Khafre diorite!”
Donald grabbed the unusual-looking rock out the professor’s hand and walked over to the cave entrance. When the sunlight hit the stone, it exhibited a faint bluish color. “It can’t be!”
“Feldspar iridescence,” Alec muttered over his shoulder, distracted by something else. “A metamorphic signature classic to the ancient quarry used by a number of Egyptian pharaohs. It was located sixty-five kilometers north of Abu Simbal, the site where Ramses II built his tomb along the banks of the Aswan—a remote area along today’s Egyptian/Sudanese border.”
“How the hell did granite quarried by the son of the Pharaoh Cheops over five thousand years ago from a site in the Nubian desert get here?”
Alec ignored the question, pulled a small flashlight from his back pocket, and turned it on as he moved deeper into the cave.
Once, they’d forgotten to bring a flashlight with them. They’d been lost in the utter darkness that fell like a thick, black curtain within minutes of sunset. It had taken them over three hours to find their way back to their camp in the moonless night. If their Khoikhoi guide, Heitsi, hadn’t built a huge fire that could be seen from several miles away, they would have wandered all night. Since that time, he never went anywhere without one.
“If you think that’s unusual, come take a look at this.”
Donald stuck the bluish-black piece of granite in the back pocket of his shorts as he walked over to where the professor stood. “This is incredible!”
“Do you recognize any of the motifs?” Alec whispered.
“I need more light.”
Alec stepped closer to the rear wall of the cave and held the flashlight up higher. Donald stepped in front of him, close enough to the cave wall to touch it.
“This is one of the most extraordinary renderings I have ever seen, or read about.” One of Donald’s hobbies was the study of ancient rock art. When he wasn’t traveling the world hunting for the fossilized remains of dinosaurs, he visited various remote sites around the world to view primitive rock art.
“Don’t keep me in suspense, young man, what are we looking at?”
Donald slipped into his teaching mode as their roles reversed. “There are two broad categories of rock art—engravings, commonly known as petroglyphs, and paintings, more precisely referred to as pictographs. Both have similar themes and images, although engravings tend to show less detail and fewer human figures.”
“I assume the distribution of the two techniques is primarily governed by geology.”
Donald nodded. “Engravings typically occur out in the open and are usually associated with igneous rock, like the dolerite we have here. Paintings, on the other hand, are most often found where there are cave or rock shelters, in outcrops of granite, or in formations of limestone, sandstone, and quartzite. I don’t know of any that have been discovered where the canvas was volcanic rock.”
Alec panned the light over the huge rock art work. A thoughtful look rippled across his weather-beaten face and a sudden chill raced up and down his spine. There was nothing overtly sinister about the ancient rendering, it just felt wrong.
“What makes this unique is not only its size, but the fact that it consists of elements of both engravings and paintings. I don’t know of any place in the world where they’ve ever been found together in a solitary piece of art. We’re looking at something no one has ever discovered before.”
Alec moved the light slightly to the left and his eyes grew wide. “Can you date this work with any degree of accuracy?” he asked, a strange tone in his voice.
“Most South African rock art work I’ve studied dates back about twenty-seven thousand years,” Donald answered, engrossed in the art work. “But all of the work that old is much more primitive than this.”
Alec’s hands trembled.
“Based upon the incredible detail, the intricate complexity, and the astonishing preservation,” Donald continued, “I’d guess this particular rendering is probably only four or five thousand years old. We’ll have to radiocarbon date it to be certain.”
Alec let out the breath he’d been holding. “Then how do you explain this?” he whispered as he focused the flashlight on the most dramatic scene in the rendering.
Donald turned, saw what the Professor had been staring at, and answered haltingly, “Something is very wrong. There’s no way that animal should be in this picture.”
In front of them was a striking, full color, life-size image of the ferocious beast whose bones they’d been searching for in the dust and dirt of the high-desert plateau for the past three weeks. The Tyrannosaurus Rex of its day, it was at one time the largest land-dwelling carnivore on the planet.
“Gorgon,” Donald whispered.
Alec stepped forward to get a better look and stretched forth his hand to touch the rendering, a look of awe on his face.
That was when his flashlight went out.
Darkness engulfed the two men like a thick black cloak.
“Hell of a time for the batteries to go dead,” Alec groused as he shook his flashlight.
Donald gagged and coughed. “What’s that smell?”
Alec choked as a putrid stench filled his nostrils. Then, he again heard the grating, guttural voice that had beckoned to him earlier. “Alec. Come to me—Now!”
“Did you hear that?” he managed, struggling to breathe through his mouth and talk at the same time.
“Hear what?” Donald gasped as he turned and ran for the cave entrance, and the light.
“Don’t leave me here alone, Donald,” Alec yelled after his assistant, his voice cracking.
As the two men stumbled out of the cool darkness of the cave into the blistering heat of the veldt, they were greeted by a tall, thin, muscular black man with deep-set, ebony-black eyes.
“Heitsi, what are you doing here?” a surprised Alec asked after he’d gulped several deep breaths of clean air.
Instead of answering, their Khoikhoi guide stared at the cave entrance. Frowning, he walked past the two men, toward the giant slit in the rock and sniffed the air. When he turned around he had a scowl on his face as he asked, “Have you seen heat lightening today?”
“What about blood flies?”
Dumbfounded, both men looked at one another.
The African raised his arms over his head in a V shape, said something in Khoisan, then turned his back on the cave entrance and strode past the two of them. When he was about fifteen feet away, he stopped and turned. There was a look of barely controlled fear in his eyes. “You have awakened the Unmentionable. It’s no longer safe here—”
With that, he resumed his hasty departure.
Donald looked at the professor. “What the hell was that all about?”
Alec glanced down at the flashlight in his hand. The light was on. Evidently, the batteries were not dead.
When he looked back up, his eyes were riveted to the retreating back of the black man he’d used as his guide for the past five years, wondering the same thing. He’d only heard Heitsi use the word Unmentionable once before—and on that occasion it had frightened him as nothing else in his life ever had.
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Genre – Christian Thriller, Fantasy, Adventure
Rating – PG-13