Marshall has constructed the outline of this last book in the series and intends on bringing it through drafting and editing during the last half of 2015 and the first half of 2016.
A shallow cave they’d converted for use as their campsite was down some fifty meters from the highly eroded edge of an extinct volcano, keeping them out of the windblown dust, secure and protected from the elements. Subject to the weather, an Indonesian Park Service helicopter was scheduled to pluck them from their nest in the morning, the first leg on the journey home.
Sitting at a field table under the cave overhang serving as a front porch, the two were dirty, smelly, and drawn past their tolerance levels for each other.
“I just didn’t send it,” Linda said.
In Alex’s view, she never did anything you asked her to do. She might do it in her own sweet time, or she might not. She was just sitting there smiling, a dirty-faced, spoiled little mole, eyes wide-open like she was about to eat a big piece of birthday cake. She was a perfect clone of her prune-mouthed mother. “Why? I was counting on you to do it like you said you would. This is the third time we’ve missed reporting. Don’t you think Shalard might be getting pissed off?”
“It’s your job to do the e-mail, not mine,” she said, looking away, lips pursed and tight, teeth showing.
“You know it would have been bloody better if we’d never been thrown together here,” he pressed. “You’re going to cost me a grade in this course.”
“Bugger off,” she said, chewing on a pencil eraser, pretending contemplation.
Their summer vacation, compliments of the Cambridge University Graduate School Program, was six weeks of climbing around the craggy slopes of Mt. Agung, a crusty volcanic rim of eroded gray lava and basalts over ten-thousand feet in elevation, thirty-five miles from Bali’s capital of Denpasar. Summer field sessions, collecting rock samples at volcanoes along the Rim of Fire, had been taking place for twenty-five years as part of Professor Ivan Shalard’s pet research project.
The required, mountaintop field experience was a tragic ordeal for them both. They saw their world through narrow slits of selfish, parochial pride, the product of English upper-crust isolation. Volcanology had appeared adventurous and romantic.
Alex ignored her and stood up from the field table, kicking his wooden folding chair in a heap against the side of the rocky overhang. “It doesn’t look good again,” he lamented, observing the clouds forming below and billowing up the mountainside. “We’re never going to get off this piece-of-shit rock. The helicopter won’t come if there’s any bad weather.”
Linda put her pencil down on the table and turned in his direction. “When was the last time you tried to make contact with the satellite?” Her dingy brown hair hung in disarray down her face. A tall skinny girl, she carried a permanent facial expression of amiability, but underneath a manipulative personality lurked, tenacious and grasping like a moray eel. Bright, self-consumed and assured, she could turn warm and reflective in an instant, appearing filled with genuine caring and affection.
“Half an hour ago, when the clouds started to thicken. Nothing worked. I still can’t believe you dropped the radio.”
“It’s not the radio, Mister electronic whiz. You keep missing the satellite.”
“Well, I think it is. All it does is spit static—and the weather’s not my fault. Maybe the helicopter will come in anyway,” he said, changing the subject. “Stout and bangers. I can taste them already.” He smirked, picked up the collapsed chair, and sat back down at the table, thinking about which girlfriend he’d call first.
“Yeah, but I hope this fiasco doesn’t hold up my dissertation,” she snapped, reaching for the stick she always carried around, propped against a boulder next to the field-table. She started tapping on the tabletop. “My parents are going to have a cat if I don’t get my degree with the rest of the class. I can just hear them now, worried about what the Duke and Lady Kathleen will think, arguing about what kind of sickness they could say I caught in Bali—excuses for embarrassment.”
Linda glared at him, slouched in the chair, wearing that stupid baseball hat, fidgeting in his pants pocket for a cigarette. It was his fault they couldn’t communicate. The satellite was his problem, weather or not. What a prig, just like his bloody prince father. She turned her eyes away in disgust.
Alex hadn’t seen her examining him as he lit up and leaned the chair against the cave rock. “Linda, I’m in the same predicament. You know that,” he lied. “My family will have a fit if it takes any more time. They’re already planning the announcements and making it into a reunion…. Even the queen may be coming.”
For a moment, Alex’s mind drifted among images of lofty royalty, and then he abruptly leveled the chair and stood up. “I’m gonna take a leak. Keep trying the radio, and watch the satellite monitor. It should be coming into range soon.”
The only son of Alexander T. Townsend, the Prince of Wales, Alex was short, ferret-looking, quick to mock, and forever carrying an aura of self-proclaimed competence underlain by contempt for anything unassociated with power or wealth. He was prone to blowing off steam in short bursts and recovering quickly, believing he possessed prowess in self-control.
Twenty minutes later, he returned in an incessant drizzle, scampering under the overhang, stripping off his wet shirt, agitated and excited. Tossing the tarp-rigged cover to the cave-opening aside, he entered and began going through one of the gear lockers.
“What are you doing now?” Linda asked, stretched out on her cot and putting aside the paperback she was reading. “It’s going to rain cats and dogs as usual,” she added. “How about helping me get more dry wood in here and stoke the fire? It’ll be cold again tonight.”
“I found something—ah, here’s what I want.” Alex strapped on a geologist’s tool belt and changed from sneakers to climbing boots. “Come take a look.” He grabbed a rain suit and a coil of nylon rope.
“I’m not interested. All I want to do is go home. Help me with the wood. The downpour will be here any minute.”
“Do it yourself,” Alex exploded, tossed back the tarp, and scurried up the mountain trail. He thrust on the rain parka as he went, slipping up the rocky grade, plying over his righteous frustrations. Adding up the tally, he started justifying in his head: she was a klutz. She’d managed to break most of the equipment. He’d busted the stove, but she’d already trashed the control knob. The bitch let their tea blow away on the second day. The sleeping bags were full of fungus because she hadn’t aired them out—her job. She wouldn’t even go downwind to take a crap. Everyday it rained like hell. The dust and sulfur were tearing up his lungs, and his eyes wouldn’t stop burning. Mornings he had to go five hundred feet down and five hundred feet up, just to fill six, little quart water carriers—his job. The pathetic packaged food was WWII rations; it gave him the constant runs. At least there weren’t any bugs, and it was the last week. It would be good to get back to civilization and no more Linda Jan Berkshire.
The rain came in wind-blown torrents, and the dark clouds cut off most of the sunlight. Gusts tore at her rain suit, and she held on tightly to her hood-strings as she made her way up the trail, trying not to take a fall on the wet rocks. “Alex, where are you?” she yelled for the fourth time. She was almost at the volcano’s rim. It felt like shouting in a closet. The pouring rain absorbed her words. The pelting downpour had beaten the trail dust into flotsam mud, streaming and bubbling along the sides of the trail.
He was purposely ignoring her, her mind snapped out. Why was she bothering, trudging around in the rain and muck? He was probably trying to get out of fixing dinner.
She could barely hear him off the trail to the right. What was he doing over there? There were just big craggy exposures of underlying country rock where time had eroded away the lava, nothing of interest.
She picked her way through the rocks and boulders, using her stick for balance, coming upon him kneeling, scraping, and digging with his pickaxe around the base of a large smooth outcrop that seemed to protrude from the host granite. It was an interesting formation, a sort of big mushroom without a stalk, sticking up about eight feet above ground level, a granitic intrusion probably created by wind and rain erosion.
The rain was abating as she approached, and the clouds were quickly breaking up and dissipating, leaving rays of sunlight glistening off the wet rock facets along the saturated mountainside. “What are you doing? I’m hungry. It’s your turn. I still couldn’t reach anybody. Probably because of the rain—or maybe the satellite’s still out of range.”
“Just button up for a minute and come here.” Alex stood. “Watch and listen.” He tapped the pick at the base of the outcrop and then moved up an inch or so at a time until he was almost at the top.
The rain stopped, and the dark storm clouds were receding down the mountainside, leaving it steaming and the air fresh smelling.
Linda was getting out of her rain suit and wasn’t paying attention to him. “What’s the big deal? Let’s go eat.”
“Didn’t you see it?”
“See what? Let’s go.”
“Just shut up and come over here.”
Linda shrugged and shuffled next to him, peeved, not wanting to have to start another fire herself, open the cans, and make something edible out of the field rations. It was his turn. “What?” she squealed.
“Watch.” Alex repeated the tapping from the base. When he got near the top of the outcrop, the tapping sound stopped, and the tip of the pick seemed to sink into the rock. “Well?” he said, staring her in the face.
“You’re not even curious. You’re such a prig. Watch this.” He put down the pickaxe, jumped up, and took handholds on the smooth rock face. His fingers had disappeared. Look at my hands.”
“How’d you do that?” Linda’s eyes were wide open.
“There’s a lip up there you can’t see.” He dropped back down. “Listen, I came off the trail to take a piss. I was looking around, and the weird shape of this rock got my attention. I noticed the rain wasn’t flowing off its top like you’d expect. From where I was, up there,” Alex pointed, “it looked circular, so I came down and checked it out.”
“When I got here, it didn’t look so unusual, but I couldn’t see the top. I don’t know why, but I threw a rock up to see what would happen. It didn’t roll back down. I walked around it and kept throwing rocks. Nothing came down. So I piled up some boulders and tried to get to the top. That’s when I found the lip. The top of the outcrop isn’t real. It’s invisible—must be a big hole.”