Authors: Jack Du Brull
Geologist-adventurer Philip Mercer finds himself drilling straight into the epicenter of an age-old conspiracy when a reclusive order of Himalayan monks predicts the end of the world — and sets a thermonuclear bomb in an underwater volcano to ensure that it comes to pass…
tanding at the rail of the mail steamer
the watcher spat into the clear sea and cursed his stupidity as the tropical town of Anjer receded behind the ship. The tower of the Fourth Point lighthouse already resembled a spindle on the horizon.
He should have taken his chances ashore on Java Island when the ship made an unscheduled stop on its way from the Dutch Indies capital of Batavia to Padang on the west coast of Sumatra. Now he was trapped in a race across the Sunda Strait with six hundred other souls, and he alone knew what was coming, what the black clouds roiling on the skyline would bring.
Had he stayed on Java, maybe he could have moved far enough inland to survive the coming days. But he had decided to remain with the ship as it dashed to the Sumatran town of Telok Betong at the head of Lampong Bay. Over the past weeks he had cached food and water in the hills overlooking the bay to witness the approaching cataclysm. That was his job — what he’d been sent to the Dutch East Indies to do — to chronicle what he knew was going to be the greatest natural disaster in recorded history.
Ignoring the heat of the tropics, the man traveling under the name Han was dressed for his mountain homeland in wool trousers and a wool shirt. His boots reached almost to his knees and showed tufts where he’d cut away their yak-fur trim. Tucked into the satchel he carried was a simple cloak made of leather and embroidered by his wife many winters ago.
He was shorter than the Europeans aboard the 212-foot ship but taller than the 300 native convicts shackled in the forecastle under guard by 160 Dutch soldiers. He had a compact build, broader across the chest and shoulders than the Chinese laborers the ship had picked up at Anjer. His face was walnut brown and his dark eyes peeked out from pouches of wrinkles that partially obscured their Asian cast.
From a pants pocket he pulled one of his prized possessions, a gold watch on an ornate chain. He had set it this morning against the government clock in Batavia. It was three o’clock. They should reach Telok Betong in four hours.
He was certain they wouldn’t.
The watcher turned from where the island of Java receded in the distance and peered over the port rail. The black clouds continued to build in the west, towering ever higher, flattening on top like an anvil. Even at this range the dark mass dominated the sky, an angry, burning column as evil as anything he had ever seen. It looked as if night had ripped a hole in the daylight and was pouring through. In the two hours since it appeared, the cloud had grown many times higher than Chomolungma, the tallest peak in the watcher’s native Himalaya Mountains. And already it was starting to come down to earth.
He brushed his fingers along the burnished teak railing and felt a layer of fine grit. Not the seedlike granular discharge from the
’s coal-fired boiler, but a powder so light that it vanished in the breeze of the vessel’s six-knot speed.
The ship’s master, Captain T. H. Lindemann, must have had an inkling of what was happening because he soon ordered deckhands up the rigging to set sails on the
’s two masts to augment her single fixed screw. Soon she was making a respectable eight knots, sailing as close to the wind as she could.
Earlier in the summer, the
had been taking sightseers into the Sunda Strait to witness the island that was slowly blowing itself into the atmosphere. And then just a few weeks ago, Lindemann had returned to the island to land a party of scientists, only to be driven back by ash and the burning heat exploding from the earth’s core. At the time, the scientists had assured the captain that the eruption would soon come to a sputtering halt. With more than one hundred active volcanoes in the East Indies to learn from, Lindemann had no reason to doubt their opinion. Now, like the enigmatic watcher clutching the port rail, he felt that the scientists might be wrong. He gave the island a wide berth.
Creeping into the wide mouth of Lampong Bay brought no relief to the ship. Ash continued to rain down, even though the
was forty kilometers from its source. Those crewmen not up in the masts were ordered to sweep the fine powder overboard. Lindemann had his steward, an old Chinese seaman named Ping, constantly wiping at the bridge windows with a dry cloth to keep them clear.
The sea had grown eerily still under the weight of ash, a surging mantle that parted reluctantly at the
’s steel bows and closed immediately at the stern. The layer of ash was at least two feet thick and deepened steadily, like snow in a New England blizzard. Only this snow was pulverized rock that floated and remained warm to the touch long after it had been ejected from within the earth.
The chained prisoners in the forecastle moaned pitiably with each fresh gout of ash and at the increasing rattle of fist-sized pumice stones that peppered the ship’s hull and deck.
At five p.m. it was as if the sky had been swallowed.
No light reached the ship, not the setting sun nor the first blush of the moon that had been near full the night before. There would be no stars. The bizarre atmospheric conditions made transmission on the newly installed wireless telegraph impossible. The
Two hours later they approached the town of Telok Betong. The lookout in the forward masthead could see nothing of the town. Ash had covered it completely and smothered the lights of a population of five thousand. Cautiously Lindemann dropped anchor in six fathoms of water. Nearby lay the side-wheeled
, a small gunboat that regularly patrolled these waters for pirates. Lindemann ordered the
’s sails lowered but had the chief engineer keep a head of steam in her boiler. He waited an hour for the lighters from shore to transfer the Chinese laborers he’d picked up at Anjer.
When he’d left his mountain village Han’s orders had been explicit as to location and time, but vague when it came to the reason for his mission. He’d simply been told to find a place a suitable distance above sea level at the head of Lampong Bay and await what was to occur on the morning of August 27. He was to write down everything he observed in the ancient journal he’d been provided.
Shortly after his arrival in the Dutch East Indies in late July, he’d understood what he was there to witness. Unimaginable death and destruction. The island volcano churning in the middle of Sunda Strait had been erupting since the morning of May 20. That had been his first startling discovery since leaving his homeland. The second shock came when he realized he’d left Tibet a full week
the volcano first rumbled to life. He’d been told by the priests who’d sent him that they guarded a powerful oracle, but he couldn’t understand how the prophecy about an event many thousands of leagues from their home could be so accurate. What was apparent was that they expected an even worse explosion in — he checked his pocket watch — seven hours.
His most strict order from the oracle’s priests forbade him from interfering with the natural development of events. He was a witness only, a watcher prohibited from warning any who were going to be caught up in the inevitable catastrophe. Han had followed that mandate implicitly. But knowing the danger he was facing dispelled his obligation to this mission. It was bad enough they hadn’t fully prepared him for what he’d been asked to observe. Now he feared he was going to become a victim. He’d made his travel arrangements from Batavia to Lampong Bay unaware that the
would take the five-hour detour to Anjer. That delay was going to cost him his life if he didn’t do something.
Han was not a fanatic, like some of the older watchers. He wanted to survive what was coming and the rules be damned. He rationalized his decision by convincing himself that the destruction of the steamship was not preordained. It was possible that the ship would survive even if he said nothing, though he wouldn’t trust luck alone. He had to get a warning to the captain. They had to get away from shore if they were to stand even the slimmest chance.
Han squinted against the flakes of ash drifting from the night sky. He couldn’t communicate with any of the crew. He didn’t speak Dutch. Yet he had been on this ship several times when searching for the best vantage to watch the eruption and had befriended the captain’s steward, Ping. Han’s Cantonese was fluent enough for them to understand each other. He searched for the old seaman and spotted his skinny figure wiping the bridge windows with a filthy rag.
Moving so he stood directly below the steward, Han cleared his throat to catch the man’s attention. Ping ignored him and continued his fruitless work. “Old father,” Han said respectfully, for the steward was many years his senior. “I would not interrupt you if it wasn’t important.”
“You should be below with the other passengers,” Ping said, a little frightened by the mysterious traveler who he recognized had come from Tibet, a land populated by wizards.
“We have spoken over several trips together, but I have not told you the true reason I left my distant homeland. It is time to tell you that I am here to witness what is about to unfold.”
Ping laughed nervously. “About to unfold? Look around you, man. It’s already happened.”
“This is just the beginning.” Han spoke calmly, so Ping wouldn’t think he was as panicked as the natives and laborers huddled in the crowded forecastle. “There will be another explosion, many times what happened today.”
Ping stopped his wiping. The people of the Himalayas were said to have special gifts that allowed them to survive the harsh climate so close to the top of the world. He’d heard some fanciful stories about the mountain dwellers in his youth and had seen such unexplainable wonders in his time since that he had no reason to doubt them. The Tibetan standing so stolidly amid the swirling ash seemed so sure of himself that Ping wouldn’t be surprised if he really did know something kept from normal men. It didn’t hurt that he himself felt that the volcano over the horizon wasn’t finished yet.
Han continued, “Tomorrow morning the mountain will explode again. When it does, it will destroy everything in the Sunda Strait.”
Ping covered his astonishment with a skeptical look. “How do you know?”
“The same way I knew months ago that it would erupt at all. That is why I am here.”
“The volcano has been erupting for months,” Ping said. “Maybe you heard of this and came to see for yourself.”
The watcher reached into his bag, careful to knock ash from its cover so as not to spoil what was nestled inside. The book he held in the corona of the
’s running lights was many decades old. Its once blood-dyed cover had turned black, and the brass clasps that held it together were tarnished to the patina of old iron. “I can show you in this journal that I left my village a week before the first eruption to get here in time.”
Han didn’t add exactly how long ago the oracle had known this eruption was coming. It was bad enough he was trying to save the people on the ship in order to save his own life. He would not give up any more secrets than necessary.
“You may have heard that in my lands the rock speaks to us,” Han said, feeding the steward’s superstitions. “The great mountains told us that one of their brothers in the Indies was angry and that it would speak this weekend. They asked me to come to hear what was said and report back.” On one level, the watcher wasn’t lying, only he didn’t know it. The rocks had spoken to the oracle, only not the way he and the old sailor imagined. “If you do not convince the captain to back away from shore, we will all die and the Himalayas will not know what upset their brother.”