The year 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the conclusion of one of my favourite fiction projects, the Stone trilogy.
This set of three fantasy novels – Stone & Sky, Stone & Sea, Stone & Sun – was published by Voyager books, the science fiction and fantasy imprint of HarperCollins, between 1999-2001. Through the course of the trilogy, I took my hero, Victorian explorer Jonah Lightfoot, and his Kansan companion Annie West on a wild adventure across the vertiginous face of a strange world called Stone, also known as Amara. Along the way I brought them into the company of a pair of Neolithic humans called Malya and Gerent, a dragon called Kythe, a Russian tree spirit and a giant whale-woman … plus many characters and creatures from even stranger stables.
So what is Stone? Well, it’s a wall. A very big one. As they traverse it, Jonah and Annie spend a long time clinging to its most precarious ledges before discovering some of the more interesting ways to travel across its surface. The longer they spend in this peculiar tilted realm, the more they ponder on its true nature. What is Stone’s true shape? How is it able to provide access to the fathomless treasure chest of human memory? Does the wall have a bottom? A top? If so, what lies there?
As you may have guessed, the Stone books were my way of letting my imagination run wild. A youthful diet of science fiction classics like Larry Niven’s Ringworld and Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville had left me eager to create a sprawling fantasy playground of my own. The Stone concept also drew heavily on Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series, in particular the way it draws secondary characters from a grab-bag of historical eras. Ultimately, Amara is more parallel world than it is Big Dumb Object, and its connections with our own Earth are manifold and, ultimately, crucial to Jonah’s understanding of it most secret workings.
You can read synopses and reviews of all three novels at the relevant pages on this website. The original paperback editions are all currently out of print, but those of you with a keen nose will no doubt track down used editions. I do hope to republish the Stone trilogy at some point in the future, but be warned, it’s likely to be the very distant future. In anticipation of what will be a very long-term project – and inspired by this anniverary – I’ve dug the original manuscripts and noodled with them a little, to see if there’s merit in revising the text to create a Special Edition, as I did with my first novel, Dragoncharm.
Here, then, for your delectation and free to read, is the prologue and first two chapters of Stone & Sky, the first book in the series. It’s an extract from my ongoing study into revising the text, and so differs very slightly from the original paperback edition. It’s also yet to enjoy its final copy edit, so forgive me if you stumble over the odd typo!
Stone & Sky
by Graham Edwards
May 12th 1883
Wind moderate from south-west; sky clear and quite free of cloud. The coast of Java is clearly visible to the east as we enter the Straits of Sunda. It is a welcome relief to see the promise of landfall after 184 days at sea.
Responded to a call from Jenkins the mate, on watch. He drew my attention to a discoloration in the water some two miles to the north; he was agitated, leaping from one foot to the other in a manner most uncharacteristic. I suggested that the phenomenon was most likely to be a floating raft of pumice (I understand the formation of such rafts to be a common occurrence in this region, due to the many active volcanoes which sprout from the forests of both Java and Sumatra). However, Jenkins protested that, before he had looked away to call for my attention, he had been faced with the sight of a towering edifice rising from the waves. He described it as resembling ‘an island made of glass’ (these are his precise words). I looked again, and for a moment it seemed there was something there after all, hovering above the sea like a phantom; it seemed to me like a huge, transparent mass, a ghost-island, as it were. Then the mass of pumice near it shifted and the air cleared. We agreed that what we had seen had been a trick of the light; perhaps a strange electrical discharge, again associated with the region’s volcanoes. Jenkins continued his watch until 4.30 and reported no further disturbances.
The lead brought up from thirty-two fathoms deep was unusually warm.
When I looked north I was presented with a most curious sight. At first, what I saw seemed to promise to make sense of what both I and Jenkins had seen earlier, yet ultimately it served only to deepen the mystery. Just like the earlier vision, this latest phenomenon had an air of unreality about it, a spectral quality one might say. It was sheer, that is to say it was partly transparent. I could clearly see the outline of the island of Krakatau or Krakatoa through it. It was indeed very much like a ghost. I am now assured that, though we are less than eight degrees from the equator, what I saw was nothing less than an iceberg. Though I anticipate ridicule at entering such a patent absurdity in this log, I feel obliged to set down all that I believe I saw.
The object – it has already become known among my crew as the ghostberg – appeared to reach to approximately one quarter of the height of the highest peak of Krakatau, that is to say, to between six and seven hundred feet above sea level. Its shape was that of a rough pyramid, with a distinct tendency to lean towards the west.
I followed its progress – it was moving to the west at a rate of approximately one knot – for some fifteen minutes, during which time I was joined by several of my crew, all of whom confirmed the sighting. It should be noted this progress was made against the prevailing wind. Shortly before six o’clock the object had become so sheer as to be practically invisible.
Some members of my crew have expressed fear following our encounter with this strange apparition, however I am informed that ours is not the first vessel to see such a thing. Jenkins has confided to me that some years ago the second mate of the Brilliantine told him a story about a similar sighting, this one in the Indian Ocean. Though I am as susceptible as most to the legends of the sea, I am however inclined to believe that what we saw was indeed some peculiar manifestation of the vulcanism known to infiltrate the region. I have in the past encountered St. Elmo’s Fire, and though this phenomenon was very different, it had something of the former’s electrical quality. I am confident that a rational, scientific explanation will come to light sooner or later.
Lead brought up from thirty fathoms deep; this time it was not warm but hot. There are volcanoes here indeed.
Captain George Tremaine
Chastity (Liverpool), out of Newport, South Wales
The night was warmer than any he had known. The black sand crowding his toes felt as though it were baking his flesh; even the light of the stars seemed to bring with it something of their old, remote heat. All was dark, and green, and splendid.
He lay back in the sand. Behind him climbed the steep mountain slope of Rakata, a sheer wall of tropical vegetation that sang in the wind. The drone of the breeze through the thick leaves was counterpointed by the intermittent cries of parrots, lost deep within the foliage; nearby he could hear the soft scuffle of crabs on the shore. A tropical symphony, the song of Paradise. To the north-east rose the lesser peaks of Danan and Perboewatan, humble in the shadow of their greater sibling. Between them, the three little mountains made the idyll which was the island of Krakatoa.
Across the straits to the east sprawled the coast of Java, from which wafted the scents of a thousand spices; to the north loomed Sumatra. Krakatoa lay between in all its unremarked glory, a tiny island known to sailors the world over for its value as a marker, a buoy denoting the final approach to the fabled Spice Islands, an overlooked haven that offered to weary travellers not rest but one final spur – almost there, it whispered. Just a little further …
‘No further for me,’ whispered Jonah Lightfoot into the warm, spicy breeze. ‘This will suffice, thank you very much.’
He wriggled his shoulders, settling himself more comfortably into the canvas bag that had accompanied him halfway round the world. He knew its contents intimately – half a year on a barque had acquainted him more than sufficiently with the rigours of a travelling life. This bag and its contents had been his only real friend among a crew whose members had regarded him as a curiosity rather than a companion. Only his late father’s long friendship with the short-tempered captain had secured him a berth on the ship in the first place; Jonah had sailed, for the most part, alone.
Still, he had preferred this to the idea of taking a passenger vessel. The money he might have scraped together, but as for the sociability … well, this was not some whimsical grand tour to be shared at the captain’s table – this was a mission. After a week or two of suspicion both captain and crew accepted him as a loner who was at least willing to swab the decks once in a while. He received his share of guarded looks for most of the six months they were at sea, but that was only to be expected.
They will not like my name, he had mused when first he had set foot on board the Caroline. Nor had they.
Jonah did not embark on his voyage to Java because he considered himself a traveller. Quite the opposite, in fact. He was happier sitting in his small parlour, surrounded by maps and globes and imagining his way to the many far-flung places that were so vivid in his mind. What need was there actually to visit these lands when he could see so much of them from the reading room of the British Library, or view their relics in London’s countless museums and galleries? How much faster he could travel, how much further he could roam by staying well and truly at home! Not for Jonah the discomfort of the adventure, the dreadful boredom of the voyage.
‘Why, if one could take a flying machine to these places,’ he would remark to his sister during her increasingly infrequent visits, ‘avoiding the tedium of the sea crossing, perhaps it might be considered worthwhile.’
And Mary would nod and smile and look anxiously at the clock, picking at the hem of her skirt in the manner that instructed her dutiful husband that the sun was low and it would soon be impossible to find a hansom to take them back to Waterloo. And they would rise and apologies would be made, and Mary and her husband would leave, forgoing tea and leaving Jonah on his own again.
All things considered, he found he preferred it that way.
There was an annoying bulge pressing into his shoulder; he delved into the bag and pulled out the offending piece of luggage. It was a book, worn now, its corners scuffed, its pages foxed. He traced his fingers over the title on its spine:
On The Origin of Species
and its author:
It was a first edition. Jonah’s father, Henry Lightfoot, had bought it for him on the day of publication – 24th November 1859. He had been eight years old. He fancied that in years to come, it might become a very valuable item indeed.
This book was where it really began. This was where Jonah’s inquisitive, eight year-old mind had been opened fully to Charles Darwin’s outrageous theory of evolution, and the search for man’s place in the great, unstoppable flow of time. Just now it amused Jonah to consider his life as a mirror of Darwin’s: whereas the author’s voyage on the Beagle had inspired a book, so in turn that same book had inspired Jonah’s voyage on the Caroline.
Why Java? The reason was simple: against all popular belief, Jonah believed Java to be the cradle of mankind. Here, he believed, in the Spice Islands of the East, the mysterious process of Natural Selection had first elevated some ancient ape to the level of primitive man. If anywhere in the world could claim to be the Garden of Eden, this was it.
Now, surrounded by tropical forest and the hot, soothing sounds of the jungle, Jonah did not doubt it in the slightest.
He slept lightly, the rich, nocturnal symphony filling his dreams with light and colour. He woke late and remembered little of the night, except a vague recollection of a song, the words to which he could not recall.
Habit made him draw his father’s pocket watch from the canvas bag. The sun was already high and the Hunter confirmed it was already half past ten. It was May 20th, in the year 1883. Today, Jonah Lightfoot was thirty-two years old.
He usually celebrated his birthday alone, and so the trip across the straits to Krakatoa had seemed a perfect way to remove himself from the bustle of Anjer, the Javanese port in which the Caroline had deposited him. Enchanted though he was by Anjer’s palm-fringed bay, and grateful for the hospitality shown him by the van Dekkers – also friends of his father’s and owners of a luxurious villa overlooking the southern corner of the harbour – Jonah felt hemmed in there. The beauty he had anticipated; the throng he had not.
Covered wagons hauled by steaming buffalo; the shore market smelling of spice and tobacco; the kampongs with their bamboo huts built on stilts, from which arose the squall of babies and the incomprehensible song of their mothers; the pristine white houses of the Europeans. Everyone smiling in Paradise, from Dutch master to native slave, though their smiles were not the same.
Everyone so busy!
Java was the right place, Jonah knew it as soon as he smelt its richly perfumed air; but he had been here a week now and today, just today, he wanted to get away from the hubbub.
Across the bay the answer loomed. A few brief enquiries revealed that a group of native fishermen regularly made the crossing to Krakatoa to cut hardwood. It proved easy enough to secure a place in their proa and now here he was on his own desert island, a full year further from his birth. His watch told him the fishermen would be back in three or four hours; the sun just laughed and told him not to worry – soon, it said. Forget the hours, just enjoy the time.
Jonah snapped the watch shut and dropped it back into the bag before strolling down to the shore to wash in the warm, eastern sea.
I would look like a cork to anyone watching, he thought as he bobbed amid the waves. One soaked in Claret, of course. His thick red hair was testament to his mother’s Scottish ancestry; his pale skin was already glowing pink beneath the late morning sun. The rest of his slowly plumping body was hidden underwater – he had already begun to reacquire the weight he had shed on the voyage. Not that anyone would be watching, of course. Like Defoe’s Crusoe he was a castaway, though by choice, and for a short time only.
The current carried him swiftly away from the pile of clothes he had left on the beach, but Jonah was not concerned. He had already decided that he would swim as far as the nearby headland, regain the shore at its tip, where a cluster of palm trees bowed low over the water, and stroll back along the sand. There were any amount of exotic fruits which might sustain him until the fishermen returned; perhaps he would seek out some shade and doze for a while, read a little Darwin …
The sea was warm and buoyant; never had Jonah felt so alone. And never so content.
He rounded a fallen tree. Its brilliant green fronds were awry, some of them sticking up towards the sky in a startled fashion. Cocoa nuts ascended the shore, pushed by the waves, only to roll back into the water once more. A single parrot was perched on the trunk of the tree, watching Jonah’s progress with silent amazement. It blinked, then swivelled its head towards the beach. Jonah followed its gaze and stopped dead in the water. No sooner had he stopped than he sank. He blew out a spray of water and kicked out, sculling with his arms in an effort to regain his composure.
Leaning against the base of the fallen palm was a woman. Until now she had been shielded from view by the tree’s considerable foliage, but now Jonah could see her quite clearly. The sun beat down on him, penetrating the thick hatch of his hair; its rays turned the glossy leaves of the forest wall to emeralds. For the briefest moment, in this Paradise, he fancied he had stumbled upon Eve.
She was turned a little away from him, bent forward as though regarding something on the sand. Her hair was long and dark – black perhaps, or very nearly so – and her skin was heavily tanned. A small collection of objects lay in the sand beside her: several small bags, a wooden box, some clothing. She, like him, was naked.
Jonah felt himself turn even pinker. He backtracked against the current, hoping to retreat behind the tree, but his splashing and spluttering had already attracted the woman’s attention. She looked up, evidently startled but not, Jonah thought, scared. He found himself looking straight into her eyes, found himself held by them, and although they were separated by the best part of fifty yards, he felt close enough to reach out and touch her. Apparently unashamed by her nudity, the woman started rummaging in the box.
An air of unreality had descended upon Jonah. He looked up, half expecting to see some shimmering veil thrown across the heavens; he saw only the pure cobalt of the sky, the wide eye of the sun. He glanced back the way he had come. His own belongings were a dark speck on the distant sand, at least half a mile in the opposite direction. Reason urged him to go back for them, to clothe himself at least. Surely no English gentleman could possibly enter the company of a lady in such a state of undress.
The woman brushed her hair away from where it had fallen over her face, an unconscious, childish gesture. Her body was a lean shape cut from the wall of greenery ascending behind her. The scene was somehow primeval.
Paradise, marvelled Jonah. A wave splashed his chin and before he knew it he was swimming towards the shore. Horror mingled with excitement, but something drove him on until his feet scraped against a coarse shelf of sand. Waist deep, he waded through the surf, stopping at a point where the water was just deep enough for him to be able to retain his dignity.
I hope the tide is not going out, he thought.
The woman had returned her attention to the wooden box, her face creased by a frown of concentration. Jonah tried to place her country of origin and found he could not, although he guessed the dark colour of her skin was a product of direct sun rather than original race.
When she lifted her eyes and spoke, Jonah’s question was answered; her accent indicated she was from somewhere in North America. The United States.
‘You going to stand there all day?’ Her teeth shone white in the sunlight. Jonah spread his arms and shrugged.
‘I’m afraid you may consider me indecent – you see, I’m not wearing any clothes.’
She copied his gesture, revealing her breasts. Jonah looked sharply away. ‘No clothes on me either. Come on, Englishman. I won’t bite.’
Jonah loitered in the surf while the strange woman waited on the sand. She laughed, a rich, primitve sound. The sun was beginning to burn his shoulders – now he had another reason to retrieve his clothes. Yet he could not tear himself away. He located the horizon and scanned it. Sails pierced the sky many miles distant; green mountains surged above the lush Java coast.
‘Won’t you just stop dithering?’ she said at last. ‘I’ll look the other way if you like. Got a wrap you could use.’
There came a squawk from the fallen tree. The parrot that had been preening itself there suddenly exploded into a whirring, feathered firework. It swooped low over Jonah’s head, so close that he felt the draught from its wings, then wheeled in the air and headed out into the blue distance. With its departure Jonah felt the last of his reticence ebb away and, gritting his teeth, stepped forward out of the waves.
She kept her eyes fixed upon his as he approached. When her gaze wandered briefly down his body he was surprised to find he was not embarrassed. Everything about this encounter felt right – the utter loneliness of the location, the wall of trees that was its backdrop, the enclosing heat of the sun and yes, even their nudity.
Later on during that extraordinary day Jonah found time to reflect that this was the moment when he started to cross over into a world that was wholly new. Baptised by the waters of the Sunda Straits, he emerged reborn into what seemed Paradise, although later he would come to regard it as the very gate of Hell. He walked over black sand with water dripping from his body, towards the American woman who regarded him with innocent fascination. When he reached her he stopped, hesitated, then bowed extravagantly.
‘Jonah Lightfoot,’ he announced. ‘At your service, madam.’
The woman nodded. ‘Pleased to meet you, Jonah. My name’s Anne West, but everybody calls me Annie.’
‘Might that category include me?’
She looked around. ‘Looks like you and me is everybody, Jonah. Guess you might as well. Want this?’ She held up a long strip of dark red towelling. ‘I know how you English types get shy.’
Again Jonah consulted his internal workings and found this was not the case. ‘No, thank you. I think I’ll just sit here and steam, if that’s acceptable to you.’
Annie nodded and Jonah sat down beside her.
There was a pause, after which they both started speaking at the same time. A shared laugh rounded out the moment, after which they both relaxed. Jonah plucked a flake of bark from the sand and tossed it into the foam, then lay back to gaze up into the sky.
‘May I inquire what brings you so far East, Annie?’
‘Indeed you may inquire, Jonah, my man,’ laughed Annie, mimicking his accent faultlessly. ‘Though by my reckoning I’ve been headed west.’
Jonah frowned. She settled back on one elbow. A halo of sunlight surrounded her mane of dark hair. Again he was struck by the primitive nature of their situation: they might have been brought together from anywhere, from any time. Paradise. The thought was like a sigh.
‘I started from San Francisco, you see. Joined a ship of naturalists, or so they reckoned themselves. Following some route or other. They were good enough company for a year but I persuaded them to change course as far as Java and took my leave at Anjer.’ Her eyes grew distant. ‘A couple of them wanted more than just my company towards the end.’
‘Oh,’ said Jonah.
‘Anyway, there’s a lot here for a girl to see, so I said to myself, “Annie, if you don’t set your feet down sooner or later there’ll be nothing to take home again at the end of it all.” So here I am.’
‘May I ask what it is that you do plan to take home?’
Another smile, a different one this time. A little girl smile, shy and secret, full of pride. ‘You really want to see?’ She was excited now, and Jonah could not help but smile back. He watched as she lifted the lid of the wooden box. The sun bounced off its contents with sudden ferocity and for an instant he was blinded. Is it gold? he thought stupidly. Then his vision cleared.
Inside the box were hundreds of small, oblong tiles. Each one measured perhaps one inch by three-fifths of an inch; Jonah guessed they were made from ivory. The box itself was dark hardwood, probably mahogany, lined with silk; it opened on smooth, brass hinges. Along one side, occupying one third of the width of the interior, was an elaborate set of trays and drawers. A porcelain cup rested in a recess in the uppermost tray and from it came the pungent aroma of turpentine. A small palette lay beside the cup, on which were spread a range of pigments, mostly blues and greens and translucent cerulean mixtures of the two. A pile of paint-soaked rags completed the ensemble.
Jonah drank in the incredible richness of the box’s interior – it seemed to him like a temple whose exterior is plain unadorned stucco yet within which lies the most astonishing array of mosaics and jewels. The smell of the turpentine mingled with the spice drifting from Java and for a moment he felt light-headed; it was not without reluctance that he allowed this feeling to pass.
‘You’re a painter!’
‘A damn good one, too.’
Jonah scanned the inside of the box for evidence of a canvas, or perhaps a small board on which Annie was working. ‘What ..?’ he began, but before he could complete the question she was pointing to one of the tiles, separated from the others on a tiny, wooden plinth. Brass clasps held it in place. On its upper surface, painted with the most extraordinary delicacy, was a miniature rendition of the view across the straits.
He stared at the little painting, enthralled. The Javanese coast floated in the distance, a mass of faded green protruding from the ocean like the haunch of some subterranean god. The sky flowed above it like liquid; the sun admitted white fire from a distant realm. Exquisite, fragile, a small and perfect splinter cut from the reality that surrounded them, the painting shone as if with its own, internal light. Jonah knew this was an illusion, just the kick of the sun off the oil she had spread so artfully across the tile’s smooth ivory, but as illusions went it was flawless.
‘It’s beautiful,’ he said.
‘Thank you. It’s nearly finished.’
Jonah looked again at the rest of the tiles which between them filled two-thirds of the box. They were divided into two groups by a removable wooden slat. Those in the larger group were plain; each of those below – these numbered about thirty, he guessed – bore a miniature painting. Most were seascapes; some featured black masts and ropes in the foreground; three showed a high mountain range peaked with snow; two more were of a busy sea port. They were all beautiful.
‘These are of the Rockies,’ Annie indicated the mountain views. ‘The port scenes I did just before we left San Francisco. I didn’t do much painting until we were well on the way – I was trying to get away from the United States, not remember it.’ She sighed. ‘But those views seemed so lovely at the time. I just couldn’t ignore them.’
‘And these?’ Jonah pointed to a pair of tiles half in shadow. Both showed the same location, but at different times of day. The first was of a sunset or sunrise, he could not tell which, over a primitive, rocky terrain. The second showed the same landscape at midday, shadowless and bald. A lizard scurried across the foreground, its scales glistening in the sun, it motion trapped by the brilliant green pigment she had chosen for it. The place looked old. It also looked familiar.
‘Galapagos,’ answered Annie with a shudder. ‘That place put me off painting for a while. I’m only just starting up again now.’
She carried on talking but Jonah was not listening. Galapagos! Of course! He had not really registered her earlier comment about travelling with a group of naturalists, or rather the relevance of her words had not sunk in. What had she said: that they were ‘following some route or other’?
‘Darwin!’ he said, rocking forward on his knees and showering sand across her clothes, which were piled neatly beside the box. ‘You were following Darwin!’ Annie nodded, clearly amused at his outburst apparent.
‘They were following him,’ she said. ‘I was just going along for the ride. They picked up his trail in the Panama Bay. Tahiti was so beautiful.’
Jonah let out a long, whistling breath. It was all too much. The aroma of the spices wafting across the straits, the heat of the sun, this extraordinary encounter. Now this.
‘Charles Darwin is …’ he started to say.
A sound erupted behind them like shutters banging against a hundred windows, a clattering that filled the air suddenly and completely. Annie dropped the box; the tiles rattled, their own, small sound quite lost in the cacophony. They whirled round together, Annie’s long hair sliding over Jonah’s bare shoulder.
It was as if the forest had come alive. A cloud of green expanded out of the foliage as though each individual leaf had taken on a life of its own and hurled itself into flight. Then the reality broke through: it was a cloud not of leaves but of parrots, thousands of parrots bursting from the jungle in a single flock. Jonah and Annie watched in astonishment as the sky turned green, as the slapping of wings was joined by the parrots’ cackling voices: ‘Kara-kat! Kara-kat!’ Jonah did not believe the local tales that the island on which they had landed was named after these characteristic cries – there were any amount of these birds spread across both Java and Sumatra; they did not belong to Krakatoa alone. However, indigenous or not, something had clearly unsettled them and now they were leaving home in their thousands, if not tens of thousands. The cloud of birds trailed upwards and outwards, crossing in front of the sun and dipping towards the mainland, a wide thread of green in the clear blue sky.
Slowly the calls of the parrots faded, leaving only the rhythm of the ocean on the hot, black sand. Jonah and Annie shared a frown, neither of them entirely happy with this strangely ominous event. There was an awkward silence.
‘I should get my clothes,’ Jonah suggested.
‘No,’ said Annie at once. ‘We should stay together.’
‘Is something wrong?’
‘I don’t know. Yes, I think so.’
Jonah was growing uneasy. The air felt damp and cloying, as if a thunderstorm were about to break, though the sky was still breathtakingly clear. He saw his sudden fear reflected in her face.
Annie leaned forward and closed the box, lifting her eyes as she did so to the distant horizon. Jonah stared at her naked back, suddenly appalled by his own nudity. He tilted his body forward, crossing his arms in his lap in an effort to regain some kind of modesty. He shivered.
‘Did you come on a proa?’ Annie asked, her frown deepening. She was paying him no attention whatsoever.
‘The men who brought me are coming back this afternoon. And you …?’
‘A lot of fishermen come to Krakatoa.’ She did not appear to have heard his reply. Her eyes were everywhere, now on the jungle, now raised to the sky. ‘There’s always boats between here and Anjer.’
‘The Zeeland leaves today,’ Jonah babbled. ‘It’s a mail packet, Dutch, if I remember rightly. It will sail quite close to us, I think.’ Annie shook her head, her gaze keen. Jonah could see her nostrils quivering, the dryness of her lips. ‘Can you see any boats coming near?’
‘I can see … I don’t know. I don’t think so.’ She glanced at him, clearly afraid. ‘I thought I saw something in the bay, close by. It was —’ she gestured vaguely with her left hand, ‘— big, towering, like an island.’ She shuddered and started to gather her clothes together. ‘Come on, let’s go and get your things. I don’t think we should stay on the beach.’
As they stood she held the strip of towelling out to him again. This time he took it gratefully, wrapping around his waist like a kilt. It amazed him how this simple act restored his sense of propriety; it did not still his fear however.
The day seemed to freeze.
In that long, held second, Jonah knew something was dreadfully wrong.
He looked back up the beach. What he saw caused him to back away, sent him stumbling over the wooden box and sprawling in the sand beneath Annie’s shadow. He stared up at her, eyes bulging, and pointed stupidly.
A red, flickering tongue had launched itself out from the jungle and across the sand, splitting open the beach. As they watched, the crack grew wider and deeper, spraying steam and gobbets of fire from its glowing depths. A line of trees erupted into flame like gigantic sulphur matches. The ground rattled; Jonah’s teeth were rattling too; his ears felt heavy and his eyes seemed to be loosening in their sockets.
Annie raised her hands to her ears.
An invisible battering ram hurled her backwards like a doll.
Across the entire expanse of the beach the sand levitated. Jonah heard a brief, dull thump, and then he was struck deaf.
He fought against the black sand scouring his face, the idea that Annie had been injured galvanising him into action. To be here at all was awful enough, but to be here alone was too dreadful a prospect. His fingers touched flesh and he grabbed what turned out to be Annie’s wrist. Terrified, he pulled her close, seeking out her face in the sudden, painful fog. She seemed unhurt, though she was gasping for breath; she was mouthing silent words, her face contorted, and only when she was close enough for him to feel her breath on his cheek did he realise that she was screaming at him. Still he heard nothing, nothing at all.
‘I can’t hear you!’ he bellowed. His cry was a rich, inaudible vibration inside his head. She pounded at her own ears, shaking her head violently.
They were grappling with each other in a blinding whirlwind of black sand, yelling hopelessly at each other as the shore collapsed beneath them. Fresh red flames exploded close by and they were thrown towards the sea. Hot water splashed across their searching feet. The whole world shook.
Paradise Lost, thought Jonah in panic, then he looked up, and understood.
High above the broken shore, above the vast swathe of forest, above even the green peak of Rakata, there rose a great, black column of smoke and ash. As he watched, a crescent-shaped piece of rock from the summit of the mountain was blown skywards; at least thirty hardwood trees were rooted to it. It flew vertically until it was lost from view in the spreading cloud of ash. More chunks of mountainside followed it, none smaller than a house. Light flashed on and off inside the cloud that was assembling itself in the heavens. The cloud widened into a colossal dome, a rain of yellow particles clustered around its outer edge, ready to fall upon the sea. The dome’s shadow slithered with crushing speed down the mountain, eager to consume the island that had spawned it, keen to journey beyond its birthing ground, hungry for the mainland.
The noise was immense, the noise was the entire world, yet neither Jonah nor Annie could hear anything at all; Jonah was convinced, if only briefly, that the gates of Hell had opened on this lonely beach, the God had finally caught up with him, had judged him for his sins and found him guilty.
A sand-caked hand grabbed his head and drew it roughly round. Annie stared at him and carefully mouthed three silent syllables that showed that she too had understood their peril.
‘Vol … kay … no!’ she mimed, dragging him into the sea. Soon they were waist-deep. Jonah looked up the beach for his clothes and saw only a rain of ash, a dense yellow mist like a sulphurous curtain. The cloud leaked across the sky, still attached to Krakatoa by its thick, black root. Lumps of the mountain were being launched steadily up into its belly; smaller pieces were beginning to return to earth, crashing into the jungle like meteorites.
We’re dead, thought Jonah, casting wildly around him for some means of escape. Painted into a corner.
Annie turned from him and, holding the box out in front of her like a child’s flotation aid, kicked off from the bottom and began to swim out to sea. Jonah was surprised to see that the box floated – he had imagined the ivory tiles and tubes of paint would have weighed it down beyond the buoyancy of the wood – but he had little time to marvel. The beach was gone; there was no choice but to abandon himself to the waves and pursue her into the darkening ocean.
The sea bed shelved downwards with alarming speed; equally alarming was the growing ferocity of the waves. No sooner had Jonah thrown himself headlong than a pulse of energy – a massive shock wave that moved through the water like a heartbeat – thumped him ten yards beyond the point where Annie was kicking her way out of a deep trough. He tried to turn, swallowed a mouthful of hot, salty water and gagged. The horizon was lost; the sky was alive with spray. This was no sanctuary – if anything it was worse. Annie disappeared briefly then she too was thrown forward. Her shoulder crashed into the small of Jonah’s back and he reached for her, grabbing the box, sharing its fragile buoyancy. Yet another swell lifted them practically clear of the water altogether and tossed them like driftwood entirely out of their depth.
Barely thirty seconds had passed since the eruption had begun, yet already the island was invisible behind an expanding wall of black and yellow ash. Mountain-sized fists punched out from this advancing mass, propelling jagged rocks and searing clouds of gas and dust into the atmosphere. With every second the concussions grew more powerful, pumping new, raw energy into the frightful vanguard.
We are already lost, Jonah realised as the wall of ash flowed towards them over a boiling sea. There is nowhere to go. Even our bones will be turned to powder.
Miraculously the box continued to support their combined weight. Then the first tendrils of the curtain overtook them. The already-dark sky grew black and smouldering ash started to rain down. The water hissed angrily beneath the volcanic downpour.
They ducked under the waves, holding their breaths for as long as they could before gasping their way to the surface again. The hellish shower was accompanied by a searing wind that burned their faces and shoulders. Again and again they ducked, rotating their bodies whenever they surfaced so as to present the backs of their heads to the gale. Jonah felt blisters rising on his neck and winced at the sting of salt water against wounded flesh.
Each time they emerged into ever more turbulent air. Breathing was painful. Close by, yet barely visible, floated a vast sheet of pumice, an agglomeration of small, porous rock particles that bobbed on the waves like corks ejected from a million bottles of champagne. The darkness deepened and swallowed the raft up.
They broke the surface together, and their eyes met. All Jonah could see now were her eyes; then the great shadow in the sky fell across them like dark lids. Annie was gone, all light was gone and he was alone in the burning ocean. The volcano, hidden behind its cataclysmic shroud, was a looming presence in his mind, a monster come to pluck his soul and Annie’s from the skin of the world.
Here I die, he thought in the void. Somewhere unseen, thunder roared and the monster toppled towards him …
Annie’s eyes suddenly shone out again like twin beacons cutting through the doom. It seemed to Jonah that they reflected a miraculous spark of daylight; the light was strong and blue, the colour of summer sky.
She was looking past him. Jonah realised that what he could see in her eyes was a reflection not of the sky but of some huge object close by. Behind him. He turned to see what it was that Annie had already seen.
It loomed over them like a mountain, yet it seemed as insubstantial as a dream. It wavered, its outer surface rippling, its inner structure shifting strangely – now here, now gone. Waves fought about its base; it was real enough, however insubstantial it might have appeared. It filled their vision, a glowing edifice shining out under the shadow of the volcanic cloud with an ethereal glow. Cold air wafted down from its dripping heights, repelling the ash and soothing their tortured skin. It was huge; it was beautiful; it was impossible.
It was an iceberg.
Jonah’s jaw sank as he watched it solidify before his outraged eyes. Its interior, initially transparent, thickened and clouded until he could see barely more than a few yards into the ice. Behind the blue he fancied he saw something … red? This degree of transparency was unnatural, he supposed, but then the iceberg had no right to be here in the first place. He gaped, uncaring. He had lost all capacity to question; all he could do was marvel.
The iceberg wallowed, throwing of a spray of icy pellets from its flanks and rolling sideways slowly and inexorably. A thin sheet of ice detached itself from somewhere high up on its side and fell, shattering on the ocean surface. Slowly, like a giant turning in its sleep, it righted itself … and grew solid. Jonah sensed rather than saw the unimaginable bulk that lay concealed beneath the waves, felt its pressure against his loosely flailing legs.
Then Annie was moving again, striking out towards this impossible lifeboat, locating a shelf of ice that lay barely two feet above the level of the sea. She tugged at the painting box, tearing it from Jonah’s grasp and tossing it on to the ice. Then she found purchase in some hidden crevice and pulled herself clear of the water, turning deftly as she swung her legs up on to the ledge and landed with a slap. She bent forward, reaching out to Jonah with her hands, which he took gratefully. The sea contracted then struck, spitting him out, projecting him upwards so that he knocked Annie backwards.
They slid the width of the ice shelf in each other’s arms, and only when they struck the sheer wall at its far side, shaking loose a miniature avalanche of crystal shards that struck the ledge with a brittle tinkling sound, did Jonah realise his hearing had returned. A massive explosion went off close by, parting the waters briefly and revealing a view into a canyon of water. Then the ocean closed up again, throwing up thirty-foot waves; as they watched the height of the swell increased yet further.
Despite the strength of the swell, the iceberg hardly moved at all.
They continued to cling to each other, Annie’s painting box sandwiched between them, the only man-made artefact they had brought with them from the island; Jonah’s kilt had been torn away. Though reason screamed at them that this could not be happening, that icebergs simply did not appear from nowhere – and certainly not within eight degrees of the equator – nothing could deny the hard certainty of the ice beneath their clumsily folded legs. For now there was nothing to do but sit here and listen to the steady artillery of the volcano; the questions would have to come later.
Ice pillars rose on either side of the ledge that had become their sanctuary, framing their view of the island. Krakatoa threw its fractured self into the heavens with a series of resounding, low-pitched concussions. The cloud sped out over the water, its black and yellow form illuminated from within by fantastic discharges of electricity. It moved fast at the perimeter to overtake the flock of parrots that was fleeing for the mainland. It consumed them, clogging their feathers before sucking them in and baking them, then spewing them out, charred and lifeless. They fell with the ash and pumice, forming floating rafts that mirrored the spread of the cloud above.
Somewhere on the remains of the beach, a Hunter chimed eleven times, then fell silent forever.
Krakatoa continued to rip itself apart. This was merely the prelude to the symphony it had been composing for the last few thousand years. After such a long wait it could afford to take its time.
The cloud of ash and debris expanded outwards from the shore of the island, completely enclosing the iceberg and its human cargo. Jonah and Annie could see nothing beyond the edge of the berg; there was no way even to tell if it were day or night beyond the impossible shroud of cool air that was their only protection against the searing heat. All they could do was wait.
Jonah watched as Annie opened the painting box and sorted through its contents, dabbing at splashes of linseed oil and turpentine, rearranged scattered tiles.
Distraction, he decided. Like the woman who cleans the house from attic to cellar on the news of her husband’s death.
For were they not dead?
Jonah considered the glowing ice walls of their lifeboat. This does not look like any representation of the afterlife that I have ever encountered.
The particular tile Annie had been working on, the one bearing the painting of the Javanese coast, was held in its place by the little brass clips; now she pulled the clips apart and removed it from its plinth. She held it up in the eerie light and Jonah saw for the first time that there was something on its underside – what looked like an abstract pattern of red lines.
‘May I?’ he ventured, holding out his hand. Annie shrugged and handed the tile over.
‘It’s still a little wet.’
He looked first at the tiny painting on the upper side. It was truly exquisite: a perfect miniature composition possessing a depth of colour he could almost reach into. ‘You’re very talented,’ he said.
Jonah studied the pattern on the tile’s reverse side. It comprised five red lines and looked a little like a sword:
‘Is it Chinese?’
‘It’s a ma-chong tile,’ Annie said. ‘I’ve got a complete set in this box. I’m travelling round the world, and as I go I’m painting a different scene on the back of each tile. I reckon by the time I’ve finished the last tile I’ll be back home again. That’s the symbol for the Red Dragon, by the way.’
‘It’s a game, a little like a card game.’
‘I thought my father had collected most games in his time.’ Jonah turned the tile over and over in wonderment. ‘I have never heard of this one. How many tiles are there altogether?’
‘One hundred and forty-four.’
Jonah’s jaw dropped as he stared first into the box, then at Annie, with new respect. She returned his stare with the open-eyed honesty he was beginning to find appealing. ‘I’ve only done thirty-one so far – I’ve got a long way to go, Jonah Lightfoot.’
‘So, tell me, where exactly is your home?’ Now that they had returned their attention to each other rather than their surroundings Jonah found himself disconcerted all over again by their nudity. His solution was to talk, and Annie seemed grateful for the opportunity.
‘Kansas. My folks were among the first settlers out on the plains. I remember them breaking up the sod – those big old steers, six to a plough.’ She laughed. ‘“Drouthy Kansas” they used to call it, because there was no water. Plenty of grasshoppers, mind you. Folks were heading back east in their droves in the early days, but we stuck it out.’
‘Until you decided to head west. You said earlier that you sailed from San Francisco.’
‘That’s true enough.’ Another laugh, this one tainted with bitterness. ‘It’s a lot harder to run west than east, but I managed it somehow.’
‘What were you running from?’ At first Jonah did not think she was going to answer this. Then she sighed.
‘No one thing. I guess my man was the main reason.’
‘Your … man?’
‘My husband.’ That direct stare again, challenging Jonah. ‘Are you surprised, just because I’ve no wedding band? I lost it on that damn prairie! Lost everything, or so it seemed at the time.’
‘Did your husband die?’
‘No, leastways, not in the way you mean. You heard me mention the grasshoppers, Jonah. Do you have any idea what a plague is really like?’ He shook his head dumbly. ‘Thought not, not many do; not unless they’ve lived in Kansas, that is. It was in ‘74; there were other years but that was the worst. Grasshoppers filled the skies like that volcano filled the sky today, only you knew it was no cloud – you knew it was alive. The noise is like a buzzing in your head you can’t get rid of, no matter how hard you shake it. It’s like the end of the world, Jonah. Just like in the bible, only real.
‘They’re in your hair, crawling over your eyes. The sun’s gone, just a shiny, metal cloud, as far as the eye can see. The corn’s gone in a matter of minutes. A year’s food, a whole year. You go inside and they’re scratching at the roof; you go out and they’re smothering you again. Later, when you think they’ve gone, you find their bodies filling up the wells, you can taste them in the water, Jonah – you can taste them everywhere. It’s hell on earth. They promise you a new world and all you get is grasshoppers and prairie fires and bad men.
‘He took to hitting me, my man. We damn near starved that year, and even though it was the grasshoppers were to blame it was me he hit. I was just sixteen.’ She paused before going on.
‘He breathed one in while they were swarming. He swore he could feel it kicking and squirming in his lungs all the next day. I don’t know if that’s possible but he swore it was true. I think it affected him, you know, in his mind. He changed after that, didn’t look at me again, just looked through me. Hit me so hard in the belly one day I bled, and I mean I bled a lot. Then he got even angrier when I didn’t give him children. Took me seven years to pluck up the courage to leave, and another year to reach the coast. This old Chinese took me in, fed me up – I was scrawny as a lizard when I got off the trail.’ She fingered the catch at the front of the box. ‘He gave me these tiles, made the box for me, set me on my way.’
Jonah thought for a moment that she was going to cry. Her face started to crumple but she checked herself, hitching in a single, deep breath and … again that stare!
The cloud of ash thinned abruptly, revealing the stars. Beyond the confines of the iceberg the world had changed. Night had fallen. Jonah gasped at the sight. All this time he had been suffocating; now he could breathe again.
‘I guess it was the drawing and painting that kept me going …’ Annie was saying, but the words died on her lips.
‘It cannot be night already,’ whispered Jonah. ‘Barely an hour has passed.’
The stars shone, but they were not the hard, bright points they should have been. Instead they were blurs, their trails curving around and around the central Pole Star.
The sky was spinning like a child’s top.
Everything grew suddenly bright as dawn arrived, a silent gunshot. The sun exploded up the arch of the heavens like the catch of some great fisher-god, traveling at incredible speed. Barely two seconds passed before it reached its zenith, whereupon it immediately began its descent into the west.
Clouds whipped past, vague hulks travelling from one horizon to the other in the space of a single breath. The sky flashed orange, the sun winked out and night returned. The stars resumed their dizzying round and then the sun hurtled into view again, moving so fast that it transformed from a disc into a bar of hazy light stretched across the celestial sphere. Darkness again, then another sudden dawn, another sudden dusk, all the time speeding up until day and night were flickering on and off once every second.
‘It like the world just got faster!’ gasped Annie. ‘And here’s us standing still in the middle of it.’
No, we are the ones who have been accelerated, thought Jonah in mute wonder. We have become travellers in time!
A new dust cloud expanded from Krakatoa, a near-black shroud that swelled across then receded as the days raced past. Except for its lowest peak of Perboewatan, where a little vegetation still clung on, the island had become a grey corpse; the trees on the upper slopes lay flat, blasted into submission by the eruptions. The column of smoke remained at the summit of Rakata however. It looked to Jonah like a giant cauliflower reaching miles up into the sky.
A boat flashed into view, anchored off the shore of the island for a few brief eye-blinks before it was gone again. Explorers, thought Jonah, seeking the gates of Hell. Steam spurted from fissures on the mountainside. As the darkness of night flicked on and off the crater was revealed as a vast, glowing pit.
Weeks sprinted by.
There was a brief lull in the volcano’s activity, during which time the sky cleared completely. Then a tremendous black cloud appeared above it as if materialised by some cosmic conjuror. Vast mats of pumice rode the sea before vanishing; more ships came and went. At one point it seemed to Jonah that a ship was sailing right through the iceberg: for a fraction of a second he thought he saw a wall of steel plates, then a churning of machinery and the hot brilliance of a furnace. Then all he could see was Krakatoa again, and he pressed his hands against his chest, trying to reassure himself that he was still alive. He glanced across at Annie: she, like him, was frozen in place, mesmerised.
Another lull, fleeting seconds of true daylight interspersed with brooding clouds of black, others of pink and grey. Now Krakatoa was beginning to slump into the sea. It was entirely stripped of its vegetation now. Jonah, who had been methodically counting the flicks of light that indicated the passing days, calculated swiftly: in the outside world it was by now the middle of August.
‘There’s no sound.’ Annie’s voice was loud and unexpected.
As she spoke there was a crash high above them and the iceberg shook. Annie grabbed the painting box, then clutched Jonah’s arm as they were pitched forward. They slid together for several feet across the smooth ice shelf before coming to a halt just short of the water’s edge. The quality of the light changed, seemed to relax somehow, and then the sun slithered to a halt, high in a perfect sky.
They had rejoined the normal flow of time at last.
It was August 26th, a Sunday. It was 1.00pm.
The iceberg rose up beneath them. Jonah’s first, absurd thought was that the sea was getting ready to belch. He began to laugh, a nervous reaction that drew a quizzical look from Annie. What happened next banished their smiles even before they were fully formed.
The prelude was over. It was time for the symphony to begin.
The eruptions that had driven Jonah and Annie from Krakatoa’s shore, that had brought ships full of curious seafarers to mount its slopes and peer into its crater, that had blackened the sky and skinned the ocean with floating rock, they were all mere firecrackers compared to what happened next. The plugs of ancient lava that had kept the island’s three cones sealed shut for untold centuries gave way simultaneously; the sister peaks of Perboewatan, Danan and Rakata disintegrated finally and utterly as they unleashed the fire that had been buried below.
Krakatoa had finished erupting. The time had come for it to explode.
The sound came in a steady rhythm: long, deep inhalations followed by rich, bass thumps. Steam and rock were discharged into an expanding pillar of debris. The pillar rose up and up to what seemed an impossible altitude, its flanks opening out and assuming a shape that made Jonah think of a pine tree. After perhaps forty-five minutes of constant explosions he tried to estimate its size, based on what he knew of Krakatoa’s original dimensions. He thought it was around fifteen miles high.
The sea had become choppy, causing the iceberg to lurch from side to side. With sudden horror Jonah realised that they were no longer sitting on smooth ice but in a steadily deepening pool of water.
‘Quickly!’ he said, drawing Annie away from the sea. A gully had opened in the wall at the back of the ledge and together they clambered up it. Icy water poured down past them, making the going treacherous, but eventually they found their way to a second ledge rather higher than the first and set back into the body of the melting iceberg. Several times during the climb Annie nearly dropped the box, but despite Jonah’s repeated pleas that she be done with it and throw it into the sea she would not let it go.
‘It’s all I have left!’ she shouted over the volcano’s artillery.
After an interminable afternoon beneath the barrage of the volcano, night fell as an evil, cloying blackness alive with the never-ending sound of the explosions. Lightning carved the sky into a nightmare mosaic, drawing red faces in the underbelly of the pillar of cloud; balls of fire drifted over the swollen, pitching ocean, crackling and spitting with pent-up energy; a sticky rain covered them with hot, grey mud that clung to them insistently.
Some inner sense told Jonah they were still under some mysterious protection, some kind of mystical cloak that the iceberg used to shield itself from the rest of the world. Certainly no humans could possibly have remained this close to the volcano and survived. Yet the shield was not perfect — the steadily melting ice was proof of that. What would happen to them when the iceberg finally vanished altogether?
Jonah had no idea what brought them through that long, awful night. The mud remained on their skins long after the rains which brought it departed, cracking as it hardened. Their gradually melting haven bucked beneath them like a restless steed, tipping first one way then the other as waves of mounting intensity began to radiate from Krakatoa’s shores. The regular breathe-thump of the volcano was occasionally interrupted by ripping sounds from closer at hand: slabs of ice detaching themselves and crashing into the sea.
Dawn came, an ominous, dust-filled affair. The iceberg was lifted high on a massive wave and Annie jerked up her head from where it had sagged to her chest. Jonah looked across to the mainland of Java, clearly visible through a deep cleft in the side of the failing iceberg. Ash clouds were devouring it. People are dying over there, he thought. He wondered how long the island could keep this up.
A minute later, his question was answered.
Krakatoa, which for the last nineteen hours had been unloading its guts into the atmosphere, suddenly found that there was nothing left to expel. The mountain no longer had a heart – inside there was a huge void. Its power utterly spent, the mountain simply caved in on itself.
A pulse of sound louder than any sound recorded by human ears swept over the iceberg. It would still be audible when it reached the shores of Australia. The sea fell into a deepening crater along with the collapsing mountain, only to be ejected with renewed vigour. Water rose to form a circular wave that expanded from the vacuum where Krakatoa had once existed. One hundred feet in height, the tidal wave bore down on the Javanese coast at over three hundred miles an hour. Soon, thirty-six thousand people would be dead.
Both sound wave and killing wave rolled through the disintegrating iceberg, leaving it unscathed but all the same causing it to spin. The rotation afforded Jonah a reverse view of the titanic wall of water as it accelerated into the narrow Sunda Straits, gaining speed and rearing high over the already devastated mainland.
The iceberg rocked again. Annie’s head struck the corner of her painting box and she dropped, senseless, at Jonah’s feet. He reached for her, disorientated. Everything was spinning now, and the world had become suffused with red light. Something tickled his upper lip; reaching up to rub it he found his nose was bleeding. He stumbled, fell on his back, stared straight upwards.
The sides of the iceberg had completely melted away, leaving a thin, central spire. He and Annie were lying near its base, on a broad shelf of ice that encircled the spire completely. It towered overhead, a crystal cathedral. It was from inside the spire that the red light was coming.
The spire was sheer, almost transparent, and Jonah gradually began to make out a shape inside it. It was flattened, a red sketch of something that looked both alien and eerily familiar. As he watched the ice melted further, narrowing the spire and revealing more and more of its strange prisoner.
Coils appeared at the base, extending into an elegant spiral form that extended all the way to the top of the spire. Two broad fans extended laterally about halfway up.
Not fans, Jonah thought. Wings!
The iceberg was whirling like a carousel. Something started pulling it towards a whirlpool the size of a small town: the maelstrom that was Krakatoa’s grave. Jonah rolled over and clambered to his knees, leaning over Annie in an instinctive gesture of protection. A steady roaring noise filled his ears, squeezing them as though he had swum to a great depth. Above, the ice spire had all but melted away.
Slowly at first, then with increasing speed, the remains of the iceberg descended into the whirlpool.
Everything grew dark as the water climbed above the level of the ledge. Many years before, Jonah had been put into a trance by a stage hypnotist; he felt now much as he had then, fully aware of what was happening to him yet quite unconcerned that he had relinquished all control. His eyelids drooped and the ocean swallowed him up.
The last thing Jonah saw before the blackness claimed him was the red shape finally breaking free of the ice tower. It appeared to him now to be a winged skeleton, some primaeval ghost which bent its neck towards him even as his own awareness drained away. Its head – if head it was – was long and narrow.
Curious, he thought, drifting. It has no eyes.
The sheets of pumice floating on the tortured ocean were joined by a different sort of debris. Wooden houses, blown flat and buckled beyond recognition drifted amid the wreckage of entire towns. Cattle pitched and rolled, their dead and bloated bodies jostling the remains of the men who had once harnessed them to their ploughs. Through the ranks of men the corpses of tigers carved their way, their pelts as glorious in death as they had been in life.
The tempest caused by the explosion of Krakatoa travelled a little over seven times round the world before finally subsiding; the remnants of the tidal wave, by now reduced to a height of a few inches, were observed on the opposite side of the globe at Cape Horn.
An area of ocean the size of Australia was covered with ash.
Where Krakatoa had once reared high and proud there was now nothing but barren ocean. Something bobbed amid the slowly swirling currents that marked the place where the volcano had been: the tattered remnants of a book written nearly twenty-five years previously by a man called Charles Darwin.
Of Jonah Lightfoot and his newly found companion, no further trace remained.
The sunlight showers through the skeleton of iron and glass, describing a grid on the endless floor. Jonah runs ahead of his father and brother, the book held to his chest. His feet kick up dust, which scintillates in the criss-cross of light beams. His heart thumps against the cover of the book, against the name of his father’s hero; together, Jonah and Darwin run through the Crystal Palace.
‘Wait in the doorway!’ booms the voice of his father. Outside, the sunlight is unbroken yet somehow the world there is darker. The marching shadows of the transept intensify the process of vision until it becomes unbearable. Though he knows this is no cathedral, Jonah, at eight years of age, knows he is in the presence of God.
Throughout his tour of the Palace his every sense has been assailed. His father’s rich prose has conjured for him the myriad sights and smells which once filled this mighty edifice. In the year of Jonah’s birth it opened its doors to the world, and although it is by comparison now but an empty shell, still it is home to the ghost of the Great Exhibition of 1851.
‘This was the Machinery Court, boys. Imagine the Great Hydraulic Press, its chains and girders pressing against that ceiling of glass. Raw metal went into that press; bridges emerged fully-formed at the far end. Traps and tractors, steam vessels and carriages of iron. A crystal fountain, four tons of glass which drew in the sun and cast it out again in a rainbow of colours. I can remember the sight and sound of it as though it were yesterday.
‘And the scents! The Indian Pavilion, an elephant with howdah and battle armour. The spices! My boys, you cannot conceive the rich aroma of the spices brought from the East Indies. The whole world was here, if you can but believe it. Pear wood, fossils from the Americas. The Koh-i-noor. The whole world!’
Hall after hall, empty of exhibits now that the Palace has been dismantled and reassembled at Sydenham. Eight years on it has become a venue for Sunday afternooners, a diversion for visiting dignitaries. A shell filled with the ghosts which justified its creation.
Jonah does not stop. Instead he runs out into the gloom of the afternoon sun. His nostrils are filled with the smells his father has caused to materialise out of the air: pepper and mace, nutmeg and cloves. Phantom smells which bite at his mind. The Origin of Species jabs at his ribs and the sudden pain returns him to the physical world.
‘Stop, Jonah!’ his father’s voice is distant, laboured. He is running. Jonah begins to laugh. ‘Albert, see if you can catch him!’
Jonah’s legs are pumping hard now. Albert is three years his senior and will easily outpace him. What he needs is a goal, something close enough so that he can win the race. He sees the dinosaur.
The dinosaurs are what brought them here on this sun-filled Sunday afternoon. His father has never forgotten the absurd spectacle of twenty-one scientists squeezing into the hollow, concrete Iguanodon in 1853, when he reported on the unusual New Year’s Eve banquet for the Evening Chronicle. As Hawkins, Owen and their guests dined on Pigeon Pie and Braised Woodcock, so Henry Lightfoot scribbled in his notebook, torn between finishing the assignment and returning home to see in the New Year with his sick wife and their two sons. Now, for the first time since his wife’s death, he has taken the opportunity to return to the Palace and view the rest of the dinosaur models which Owen scattered about the grounds. The boys have been looking forward to the trip all week, especially young Jonah, who already has an impressive collection of fossils gathered from the Dorset coast during the previous summer.
It is an Iguanodon towards which Jonah is now flying – not the same, carved-out creature in which Owen and his colleagues dined but one whose back is solid and whole. It rears on its stocky hind legs, an audacious challenge to the popular view of dinosaurs as slow, creeping lizards. At eighteen feet in height it surpasses the shrubbery in which it has been so artfully placed, a shocking incongruity in this gentile Victorian park.
Jonah sees why the sunshine appears so dark: a massive cloud has tracked low over the Palace, killing the cloud-light and now beginning to bite into the face of the sun itself. Cold comes, and with it a sudden shadow which speeds up the flank of the Iguanodon and flees skywards. Skidding, he turns behind the prehistoric beast and hides.
Rain spots the dusty ground as Albert arrives to shelter under the dinosaur, quickly followed by a panting Henry Lightfoot. They both call for Jonah, who stifles his sniggers; he holds his hand to his mouth as he clambers aboard the Iguanodon’s prodigious tail, enjoying the sensation of being soaked.
The rainstorm is brief but intense; the ground turns to mud. The sun starts to burn through the rim of the cloud but not before the single stroke of lightning rips into the ground. The thunder comes simultaneously, inseparable from its electric twin.
The lightning strikes not the dinosaur but an ancient elm some twenty yards distant. Jonah yelps as the tree explodes, showering him with singed bark. In response to his cry, Albert peers round the dinosaur’s over-sized claws and grins. Henry appears not to have heard. Jonah raises a finger to his lips; Albert shrugs and ducks back out of sight.
The elm tips over, its roots groaning as they are pulled like teeth from the earth. One by one they give way and the elm is suddenly pointing not at the sky but at the Palace. The sunlight breaks through and bathes the scene with incandescence. The tree strikes the Iguanodon’s shoulder, driving it first down into the mud and then over on to its side. Jonah feels an initial thrill as he is lifted on the rising tail, then shock and pain as he is thrown clear and lands heavily on the ground. He is dazed and does not see the pitiful, incredulous look on his father’s face as several tons of iron hoop and moulded concrete topple over and crush both him and his eldest son to death.
For a long time nobody comes. Jonah sits there, not comprehending. Then an elderly couple approach him and ask him where his parents are. Jonah looks around, shakes his head as though returning from a trance and points dumbly at the stricken dinosaur. At first they look past it, then the old lady sees a pair of small hands protruding from beneath the beast’s cracked jaws, raises her own hands to either side of her face – now quite drained of its colour – and begins to shriek.
Soon the police come and Jonah finds himself taken first to his own home, then to that of his uncle and aunt, where he will stay for the next ten years. His sister, Mary, is twenty years old and already married; the sudden death of father and brother turn her heart to ice, at least where her relationship with Jonah is concerned, and he sees little of her until the year he decides to go to Java. They touch, briefly at the funeral, but the touch is cold. Jonah finds he is mourning not two deaths but three.
His uncle is sympathetic – it was he who first sparked Henry’s interest in dinosaurs – and attempts to reassure Jonah that he would be happy to die that way himself. Jonah considers it unlikely that the opportunity will present itself to him. His aunt blames first Jonah and then her own husband for the untimely death of her brother. Only the considerable legacy – courtesy of Jonah’s late mother and her immensely rich Norfolk ancestors – sweetens the pill and allows her to bear the presence of either of these irresponsible males in her house. At the earliest opportunity, Jonah moves out and buys himself a small house in Down, near to where Darwin lives.
He takes his grief with him, and though the guilt fades with time …
Patricide! Fratricide! his aunt’s voice rings sometimes still in the dead of the night
… he retains his most vivid memories of that day: the geometry of shadows on the floor of the Palace, the ghost-scent of the Spice Islands, the jab of Darwin’s book against his ribs, the sudden storm.
He grows and learns to put away his memories. His father and brother he puts away too. Their deaths are not something he gets over: he simply finds a place for them to stay, a place he can still visit when he needs to. His fossil collection grows and he turns from dinosaurs to man. The new and controversial vocation of anthropologist takes him around the country in search of prehistory, and he even encounters Darwin himself, though he does not find the courage to speak to him. His mother’s money sustains his physical needs but for Jonah mere sustenance is not enough. Ancient bones call to him from the cliffs and caves, their voices dry and rich with the spice of age. They have secrets to tell and he knows they will confide in him, if only he can decipher their language.
It is the smell of the spice which finally draws him to the East Indies. As the end of the century draws perceptibly nearer Jonah senses a great movement out into the world. Ships consume the spaces between the continents and great bridges span the smaller divides. His perception of mankind changes: instead of individuals he sees migrating tribes moving like glaciers across the surface of the globe, and he knows that if he is to unlock the secrets of the past he too must travel beyond his native land.
As to where his search should take him, there is only one answer: the mysterious east, the Spice Islands of Java and Sumatra, the exotic lands which so captivated his father and which linger still in his own memories, though he has never been there.
The trip proves easy enough to arrange: his father’s journalist contacts secure him a berth on the Caroline and approaching the age of thirty-two Jonah Lightfoot finds himself embarked on an epic quest to the opposite side of the world, with his goal nothing less than the vindication of all that Darwin preaches and the discovery of the true cradle of mankind. His colleagues scoff, for there is little enough evidence of ancient man’s existence in the East Indies, but still Jonah is drawn there.
The scent of the spice spins round him with heady grace, spinning, spinning, pulling him down, down, down …
Jonah opened his eyes. His head seemed filled with fighting muscles, each pulling in a different direction, each aching with fatigue. He struggled to focus, gave up; all he could see was a vague, brown blur.
He breathed in and immediately started to choke. Water streamed out of his mouth and nose and as his sinuses emptied the pressure inside his head ebbed away, the muscles relaxed. Again he took a breath and this time he was rewarded by a sudden flow of warm, dry air. As he inhaled he closed his eyes again, concentrating on the revivifying experience of simply breathing.
The air circulated through his lungs, and for an instant it seemed to Jonah that it was moving of its own accord, that instead of being drawn in it was invading under its own power. The sensation was a peculiar one, but not uncomfortable. Dizziness overtook him.
I am bound to be disorientated. After all, I have just …
There his thoughts stumbled. What had just happened to him? He could remember only snatches: the screaming of a flock of parrots, a rich thumping sound underlying their shrieks, rocks soaring into the night sky like children’s balloons, the colossal wave that had left the iceberg unharmed … the iceberg! He remembered the whirlpool dragging him down into the ocean …
More signals began to arrive from his other senses. A hard surface beneath his body, a thick scent of spice on the air that was flowing so effortlessly in and out of his lungs, a faint scraping sound. Dried blood on his face. Warmth on his skin. Tentatively he flexed his fingers: the ground on which he was lying face-down was firm and pitted with tiny craters; as he moved his right hand across it he felt a deep crack extending beyond his reach. His left hand lingered in a pile of dust.
He tried opening his eyes again. This time he was able to focus on the object lying directly in front of him. He saw dark brown, fine-grained wood and a brass clasp marked with an Oriental symbol. For a moment he could not place this object, then he remembered – everything.
‘Annie!’ he cried, lifting himself up on to his elbows. The painting box slipped below his field of vision as he peered over its lid; what he saw took his breath away.
Jonah’s first impression was that he was inside a huge cave. The floor – black and rough – extended far into a dark haze, turning upwards at both sides until it became a pair of curved walls. The ceiling was a broad arch, dim and distant. A long way ahead he could see a tiny disc of light. Turning his head he saw how the sides of the cave shrank towards the light and realised this was not a cave but a tunnel.
Slowly he clambered to his feet. A thin film of dust sifted off his arms and chest as he did so. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom he saw that he was standing inside a vast, oval corridor – it was easily two hundred yards across – cut from jet black rock. Weird spars spanned its width in a regular mesh. Their presence was unsettling; they were like nothing he had ever seen before.
Strewn to his left and rather closer to hand was a bedraggled line of rags and a length of rope – it looked like washing line; the body of a small monkey lay in a piece of tangled red linen. Further away he could see the top half of a palm tree and what looked like a small boat. More debris littered the floor but his eyes skated across it as he searched, turning a slow one hundred and eighty degrees.
Annie lay directly behind him, not ten yards away, her body white and stark against the black floor. Her dark hair was spread about her head and seemed almost to have merged with the substance of the tunnel. All around her there was slow, steady movement like the swell of an ocean, and Jonah’s first impression was that the floor itself had come alive and was undulating beneath her. Then he discerned individual shapes amid the motion: there were hundreds of creatures crawling slowly around Annie, even over her! Each one was the size of a small dog, many-limbed and clad in a broad, flattened shell. The scraping was the sound of their embossed carapaces colliding and their wavering limbs scraping and feeling. Jonah’s amazement grew as he saw that immediately behind Annie’s prone form the tunnel came to an abrupt end. A sheer, uncompromising wall rose, blanking off the corridor. The entire wall was thronged with the lumbering creatures, which clung to its sheer face in shocking defiance of gravity.
‘Get away from her, you brutes!’ Jonah screamed, launching himself towards Annie. He kicked at the creatures, bruising his bare toes against their resilient shells. One of them slipped beneath his foot as he ran and he felt its underbelly give way on the rock with a soft, wet sound. As he reached her, one of the ungainly monsters crawled up on to her stomach and he kicked it aside; it bounced off the wall with a metallic ring. Ignoring the clumsy probing of countless others, Jonah scooped Annie up – he was relieved to find her body warm against his own – and backtracked, ready to fend off the marauding creatures.
To his surprise they let him go; indeed, it dawned on Jonah that they had really taken little notice of him at all, nor of Annie for that matter. As he stumbled backwards, dragging the warm, exotic air deep into his labouring lungs, it came to him that the creatures might not even have known they were there at all. His feet brushed against something soft, then got hopelessly tangled in the washing line and before he knew it he was sprawled on the ground with Annie lying across his legs. He pulled himself clear, reassured himself that she had not struck her head during the fall, then squatted there, panting, regarding the strange creatures as they performed their stately pavane. With their heavily ridged shells, thick, leathery limbs, and their ponderous manner Jonah found himself thinking of tortoises, although these creatures, slow-moving as they were, were considerably livelier than their terrestrial equivalents.
Testudo nigra, he mused, thinking of Galapagos, thinking of Darwin. Thinking of Annie’s exquisite paintings of volcanic rocks and sun-drenched lizards.
Exhausted, he let his head drop lower and lower until his brow was resting on the ground. He had time to wonder about the wisdom of falling asleep, then darkness took him again.
Surfacing from a dreamless sea, Jonah Lightfoot found his mouth filled with the taste of the air. He dragged the tip of his tongue forwards across his upper palate and swallowed the soft residue it removed, shivering involuntarily as it brushed against a sensitive nerve. He had no idea how long he had slept – there was no clue as to how fast time was travelling inside this subterranean tract.
Perhaps it is not travelling at all, he mused as he rose and stretched. The soft scrapings of the tortoids (the name came to him unbidden) were distant and unintrusive; much louder was the insistent growling of his stomach. Annie slept still, or else was in some deeper state of unconsciousness. This second possibility Jonah was not ready to contemplate; for now he was more concerned with determining where exactly they were and, more importantly, how they were to get out.
Hungry and alert, he surveyed the tunnel with what he hoped was an explorer’s eye.
A flattened, irregular cylinder, it had the appearance of volcanic rock. Had they somehow been swept underwater and into some undersea cavern? Its pitted surface was black and glassy, very like the dark rock that abounded on Krakatoa (Had abounded, Jonah corrected himself); the scars and cracks distressing its contours supported this theory very nicely.
Less convenient were the smooth-sided rods which crossed from one side of the space to the other. Perfectly parallel, each was inclined slightly from the horizontal, low on Jonah’s right and rising towards the left. Where their ends met the rock there was a clean, featureless junction. As Jonah stared at them he sensed something radiating from them – not heat exactly but … something. He was reminded of an experiment in electricity he had observed several years before and cautiously held out his hand towards the nearest of the rods, steeling himself for the lightning strike. Nothing happened.
He regarded the light at the end of the tunnel: oval in shape, it was brilliant white with the merest hint of blue. Its edges were blurred by the haze that filled the tunnel.
The end of the tunnel, thought Jonah with relief. Daylight!
The distance looked to be no more than three or four miles. Even carrying Annie, and despite the roughness of the terrain, it would not take him more than a few hours to walk it. But would he need to carry her? Perhaps he should try to wake her instead. He knelt beside her prone form, brushing her hair away from her face and drawing her arm out of the awkward position into which it had fallen. When he bent forward to listen for a heartbeat, however, he realised this would bring his head into close proximity with Annie’s breasts. He compromised, turning his face towards hers and pressed his ear tentatively against her ribcage. Her breathing was shallow but detectable, and her heart seemed almost to boom in the near-silence of the cavernous tunnel. She was alive, of course, as if the warm glow of her flesh had not been enough to tell Jonah this in the first place. He sat up again and relaxed a little, scolding himself for his embarrassment.
He got to his feet and went over to the washing line that had tripped him up earlier. It lay in a sprawl, a comically prosaic sight in this outlandish environment. What he had at first taken to be clothing turned out on closer inspection to be a jumbled collection of sheets, all brightly coloured in reds and greens. Gingerly he lifted the body of the monkey from the knot of linen that had enwrapped it – it felt stiff and strangely unreal, like a sculpture or a piece of taxidermy. He was about to lay it aside when he paused, reminded of his hunger. The monkey’s eyes, dark brown marbles shrouded by matted fur, stared over his shoulder in an accusatory fashion.
‘No matches,’ muttered Jonah. ‘And I have no desire to be eating you raw, my simian friend.’ He placed the body decisively out of sight behind a ridge of broken stone and gathered up the linen. By now, in the warm, dry atmosphere of the cave, it was quite dry, and Jonah was able to tear it into usable strips. After fashioning a crude kilt for himself from the red cloth, he improvised a similar garment for Annie, managing to secure it round her waist without scraping her skin on the rock floor. He wound a strip of the green material about her upper body, unsure whether he was doing this for her benefit or for his; whatever his motive he felt that the whole situation was less unseemly now that the more intimate parts of their bodies were tucked away in an appropriate manner.
This time he carried Annie on his shoulder, with her hair trailing down his back and his arm rested in the crook of her knees. He walked with a slow, steady pace, picking his way through the maze of cracks and ridges and ducking beneath the lowest of the inclined spars. The light ahead was a constant call to action, with its promise of daylight and rescue.
And water, he reminded himself. We will not last more than a day or two in such heat without water.
He trudged on, trying to ignore the insidious doubts which were beginning to crowd into his mind: the conflict between the glow of the light and the conviction that he was deep underground, the unnatural symmetry of the slick-surfaced rods, the absurd tortoids. Them at least he was leaving behind; the scraping sound made by their shells had become so faint as to be barely audible.
He tired much more quickly than he had anticipated. The oval of light was considerably bigger, but he had covered barely half the distance towards it when he realised that he had left Annie’s painting box behind. The realisation struck him like a low punch – he even grunted as he thought of it – and he stopped in his tracks.
The rods were much more densely packed here. They filled the tunnel almost from floor to ceiling, and he had veered over to the left-hand side of the tunnel where they were mostly higher, making it easier for him to duck beneath them. Even so, some sprouted from the floor here; these he was forced to clamber over. He tried to ignore the rods – something about them continued to unsettle him – but without much success. They seemed to crackle whenever he came too near them, and on several occasions he felt the hairs on the backs of his hands and neck stand proud of the skin.
‘Storm coming,’ he laughed without humour, because that was exactly what it felt like.
It was as good a time as any to take a rest, he supposed. Laying down Annie (who had not so much as twitched during the entire trek) he sat and considered the distance he had travelled. Just as there was light ahead there was only blackness behind, a blackness within which rose invisibly the wall on which the tortoids had been swarming, and beneath which the flotsam and jetsam of the eruption had been scattered, including himself and Annie.
And also including the painting box.
It would be madness to go back for it, he reasoned as he rose stiffly to his feet. But drowning the logic of the thought was his recollection of what Annie had said the previous night: ‘It’s all I have left!’
And so it was. He could not leave it behind, it was as simple as that. He took ten steps away from her then turned, suddenly fearful. Would he be able to find her again? After all, the tunnel was big enough to get lost in, and the thicket of rods made it difficult to navigate. His concern was lessened when he saw how stark her body looked against the dark rock: even though she was heavily tanned her skin still seemed to shine in the gloom, and the gaudy fabric in which he had wrapped her sang out even more strongly. He would see her well enough.
Reassured, he began to retrace his steps.
The march back was easier – naturally, he had no burden – but it tired him dreadfully all the same. The urge to urinate came over him when he had gone only a few hundred yards; the relief was tempered by the paucity of the flow and the burning sensation it invoked. When at last he reached the body of the monkey he found himself looking at it with distinct greed, imagining the life-giving water locked away in its flesh, wondering what raw monkey might actually taste like …
He shook the thought away before his stomach rebelled and instead sought out the box. For an awful moment he thought it had gone: the notion that there might be somebody else here was unexpected and horrifying. He crouched, glancing round wildly, convinced that he should not have left Annie alone and at the mercy of whatever predators might be lurking in this subterranean lair.
Do you still think you are underground, Jonah Lightfoot? Do you really believe that?
The scraping of the tortoids was louder again now that he was back near the wall. Jonah ignored it as he searched through the dust and debris. He came upon a small, dead rhinoceros (how had he missed that?) and then he spied the box, exactly where he had left it. He could even see the imprint of his body where he had lain before first waking. Sitting down, he picked the box up and opened it. As far as he could see the contents were intact: the little painted tiles, the brushes and palettes, the tiny containers of turpentine and linseed oil. He closed it and snapped the clasp shut.
Something snuffled at his ankle. Whirling round in shock, heart like thunder in his chest, Jonah stared at it for several long, stupid seconds before crying out and scrabbling backwards on his hands and knees. The tortoid tracked his movements with two luminous eyes that glowed faintly green from within deep sockets set into its horny, black face. Jonah stared back warily, waiting for its next move.
But the next move did not come: the tortoid simply stood there, short and bow-legged, returning Jonah’s gaze.
Jonah studied it, willing his heart to still itself. This particular creature looked a little different to the ones he had seen earlier. It still resembled the giant tortoises Darwin had observed on the many islands of the Galapagos archipelago but this one looked … leaner. The tortoids swarming round Annie had been slow-moving and heavy despite their relatively small size. This individual was considerably bigger than its fellows, though its shell was much smaller in proportion to the rest of its body. Its long, mobile neck and four, thick legs were correspondingly much more visible and for the first time Jonah found himself aware that the species possessed a recognisable face.
Each of its pale green, lidless eyes was bisected by a reptilian, vertical-slit pupil. Directly beneath each eye was a tiny, horizontal slit; he took this pair of apertures to be nostrils. The tortoid’s mouth was wide and seemed to promise considerable mobility, although for the time being it remained resolutely shut. Its shell, an ebony carapace that clad its entire back but stopped some eighteen inches short of the ground, was a lustrous, studded affair. The tortoid was as big as a sheep.
It held his gaze for so long that Jonah became quite unnerved. Outstared by a tortoise? he thought. But it wasn’t a tortoise, was it? In fact, this was no kind of animal he had ever heard of before, let alone seen. Granted there were countless unexplored lands in the world – indeed Java and its thousands of neighbouring islands undoubtedly harboured a treasure of species not yet seen by man – but there was something so insidiously alien about this creature …
Then the tortoid moved and Jonah knew he was very far from home indeed.
It shifted its weight on to first one pair of legs then the other. As it did so it turned so that it presented its broad, shell-encased flank to Jonah’s view. There was a marking high up on its shell, an embossed shape. Jonah recognised it at once. His hands shook as he prised open the box again and located the tile bearing Annie’s most recent painting. Tentatively he turned it over and held it up so that he could compare the symbols. There was no doubt: the mark on the tortoid’s back was the mark of the Red Dragon from the set of ma-chong tiles.
Jonah let out a slow, controlled breath.
Abruptly the tortoid folded up the rear half of its shell with an audible creaking sound and extended twin pairs of long, probing limbs from the space within. Concealed until now, these limbs were as slender and articulate as their siblings were thick and supportive. Jonah felt repulsed: reptiles he could deal with but this was unexpectedly insectile. The legs – or arms or feelers or whatever they were – busied themselves about the tortoid’s hindquarters, clattering against each other and snicking through the air with curt little whistling noises.
Suddenly Jonah did not want to see any more. He clutched the box to his chest and stood up. He stared into the darkness beyond the tortoid, aware that the scraping of its companions had become very loud now. The wall, still thronged with the climbing, lurching things seemed very close. As his eyes adjusted he was able to pick out individual creatures – they had all grown bigger.
But there was more. The boat he had seen when first awakening here now lay hard against the wall, indeed, it lay half in it, as though the wall had suddenly descended on it from above like a guillotine. The broken palm tree that had lain beyond the boat was gone altogether.
The wall is getting nearer!
Claustrophobia gripped Jonah, immediate and uncontrollable. It was a feeling he had never before experienced, as alien to his system as this place had become to his eyes. He turned and ran, while the lone tortoid that had separated itself from the pack specifically to awaken him watched his departure with bright, baleful eyes. He ran headlong, his flight a raw animal response to the terror overwhelming him. Oblivious to the battering he was inflicting on his bare feet he ran, hardly flinching when his shoulder crashed into something, ignoring the whine of hot air in his lungs. He reached out and grabbed the obstacle, for the first time touching one of the strange rods with his hand.
There was a flash inside his eyes and a jolt of energy threw him backwards. He heard thunder, felt electricity in his skull, saw rivulets of light stream rapidly across the surface of the rod before hissing and evaporating into the air. Shaking his head to clear it of the unpleasant sensation he saw that the tortoid had followed him. It was staring at him with its wide, green eyes.
Jonah ran, and did not stop running until he reached the spot where he had left Annie. All his trust in this place had gone – he fully expected to find her gone too.
‘Where am I?’ he screamed as he shuddered to a halt before her still-prone form. He continued to clasp the box to his heaving chest, giving it up only when his panic began slowly to subside. As it had for Annie, the painting box with its cargo of ivory tiles had become a talisman, an essential connection to the world he remembered as being his own. A memory chest, he thought fearfully. Without it they had nothing; even the colourful rags in which he had clothed them both were foreign to him, perhaps not of his world at all.
He journeyed on towards the light.
His feet were bleeding from the punishment they had taken during his flight across the broken tunnel floor. Yet a kind of numbness had claimed him, a stupor within which Annie seemed to weigh no more than a child and which had narrowed his vision to a literal tunnel, a tight and cloying space where the only thing that mattered was the light at its end. Blinkered like a horse, he trudged on, ducking instinctively beneath the omnipresent spars, conscious only that he must reach the growing oval of brilliant, blue-white incandescence.
He paused, forging a way into the numbness and willing his vision to expand again. Turning to look behind he saw only shadow, an immense maw that pressed against him, rejecting him.
You do not belong here.
Words from the ether.
The light had turned the skin of the tunnel into a mosaic of glistening highlights, as though the rock – if rock was what it was – were wet, though Jonah knew it to be desert-dry. His eyes watered as he stared ahead, unable to compensate after his hours in the gloom. The blue colour had strengthened and again he thought of daylight, although he fancied he could detect a pattern in the glow, a series of irregular, vertical bands. Shaking his head, unable to focus, he returned his gaze to the floor and stumbled on, aware now of the pain in his feet.
Something touched his face and he bit down on a scream.
Wind! Just wind!
He had felt no such movement of air further back in the tunnel. It was cooler here too, still warm but without the stifling overtones of the deep place he had left behind. This time he closed his eyes as he paused, enjoying the play of the breeze upon his face and through his hair. There was a sound too, a rushing noise like a waterfall, soothing and inviting at the same time: beckoning. To his amazement Jonah saw that he was barely twenty yards from the end of the tunnel.
The end was defined by a ragged lip like the exit from some gigantic cave. Beyond this lip was … nothing but sky. The vertical bands resolved themselves into an array of pure white clouds, as terrestrial in appearance as any he had seen but with one important exception: they striped the reassuringly cobalt sky as though the world outside had been turned entirely on its side.
The rushing noise grew louder as he walked cautiously towards the edge. Ten yards short he could still see nothing but sky. Am I high up on some cliff or mountainside? Yet the whirlpool dragged me down!
Five yards short. Jonah stepped over the last of the rods. His heart raced. Fear and fatigue had left him, replaced by a childish excitement. The feeling that he had gained some incredible altitude grew overpoweringly strong, even though the warmth of the air seemed to contradict this supposition. The lip at the end of the tunnel was rounded, distorted by millions of shining bubble-forms as though the substance from which it was made had started to boil then been frozen again before it could turn to gas. It looked slippery and Jonah decided to lay Annie and the precious box down for fear of dropping her over the edge.
Still there was only sky. He dropped to all fours and crawled the last few yards. The final foot he traversed on his stomach, extending his fingers to the very edge of the tunnel and pulling himself forwards across the unearthly, waxy terrain. He extended his head forwards over the edge, whereupon a powerful stream of air – a vertical, falling wind – flattened his hair against the top of his skull. Jonah looked straight ahead into a huge, blue sky laced with straggling clouds that streamed down from above like brilliant white ribbons thrown clear from some immense waterfall, only it was a fall not of water but of vapour. It looked like the sky was the whole world.
Then he looked down.
If claustrophobia had been a new sensation for Jonah then vertigo was more like an old ghost. It had struck him only once before in his life, when Lily had held him by his ankles over the edge of the hay loft, laughing with an uncontrollable cider laugh and shaking with excitement. A pitchfork had lain directly beneath him and for weeks afterwards he had dreamed of those rusty tines rising up to greet him, to pierce his body and release his spirit. He had never experienced that feeling again since then. Until now.
The tunnel exit was a microscopic perforation in a wall the size of the world. Like an insect peering out from the highest tower of a mighty palace, Jonah looked down … and down … and down.
A sheer grey cliff face dropped away into bottomless mist. Its immensity made it at first seem entirely flat, but as he looked markings became apparent: scratches and grooves; pockmarks and trailing strands of what looked like vegetation. Jonah turned his head slowly to the left, where he saw more of the same: an almost smooth surface extending into … infinity. A perfectly flat plane inclined ten degrees from the vertical; such a cliff would be scaleable by an experienced mountaineer, that is, if a cliff was what it was.
But it is not a cliff, is it?
Nor was it. Geometrically perfect, marked off into regular blocks, each at least a mile across, it was not a cliff but a wall.
Nowhere in the depths of the abyss could he see any hint of the ground, nor was there any horizon visible behind the haze of the sky; this was all there was – this mighty wall of stone and the sky it bordered upon. Jonah could hear a thin, shrieking sound; the falling wind carried the noise down into the abyss, breaking it apart into meaningless splinters. He realised it was the sound of his own voice, screaming.
His arms and legs trembling with shock, he retreated several feet into the tunnel. Sweat poured from his face and chest, fluid he could well do without losing but he could do nothing about his body’s reaction. The screaming he managed to stop; the shaking proved less easy to control and for long minutes he simply crouched there, bent double with his forehead resting on the hard ground.
Slowly he regained a degree of command over his limbs and tentatively approached the tunnel lip once more. Prepared as he was, he was terrified all over again as he eased himself forward and gazed down into the abyss.
He had never understood the urge that took some men high up seemingly unscalable mountainsides with nothing but ropes and metal spikes and their wits to keep them from dashing themselves on the rocks below. But what lay below here? For all he knew, were he to fall from this ledge he might go on falling forever, accelerating until only the force of the air against his body prevented him from falling any faster, bouncing and careering off the cracks and ridges which marked off the miles in their hundreds, thousands, millions …
‘Stop it, Lightfoot!’ he said out loud, his voice hoarse. He repeated the words in a whisper and ran a shaking hand through his sweat-soaked hair and looked again, this time to the right.
The sky was brighter on this side, and behind a thick curtain of cloud there was a circle of white, a glowing sun. Here too the wall ran away into the distance like the very rampart of heaven, except here it was more elaborately marked: a grid of indentations, ledges projecting forwards like huge mantel shelves, their upper surfaces glistening as though wet; several huge, gaping cracks. Further away, flat against the sun, something sprouted from the wall like a bizarre, geometric flower clinging to a cliff. To begin with it seemed a random mass of squares and slopes, but as he squinted into the brightness he began to make out repeating patterns. Its base was an assemblage of thick stanchions rising vertically from the slightly sloping, all-dominating wall. Once these reached an altitude that separated them sufficiently from the wall they fanned out into a series of broad, supporting buttresses. Resting on top of these, cantilevered out over the unimaginable drop, was a castle.
It was the windows that finally locked the scale of the thing into Jonah’s mind. While the lower half of the edifice was unadorned and grimy with weathered trails, the upper parts were studded with relief, both in the form of projecting bastions and ports cut deep into its flanks; there were more than he could count, and it slowly dawned on him that the building was truly colossal. Mediaeval battlements graced its uppermost towers, yet one whole corner of the castle seemed more like a palisade from the American West, replete with wooden spikes and sorry-looking flags. In the vee formed where sloping wall met uprising castle was cradled a forest of tall, straight conifers; the red of their bark shone out strikingly.
Here was a long, straight stairway running up one angular side, joining two spear-like towers. Here was a complex mosaic of pipes and gutters, all of which converged at the apex of a long, black stain running down into the supporting buttresses (Jonah decided that the trails of dirt down the foundations were more likely the result of the castle’s sewage disposal system than the weather). Near the outer edge, set into a mass of stone poised above a seemingly flimsy wooden substructure, was a concentrated pattern of circular windows. Jonah counted twelve or thirteen small apertures arranged symmetrically around a single, larger opening: a vantage point for some ceremony perhaps, or the sight for some mighty weapon.
Edge-lit and glorious, the castle presented itself to Jonah in the rich, low light of the afternoon sun. That it was the afternoon here came to Jonah suddenly as he observed the sun beginning to slide sideways behind the outermost edge of the castle. Extrapolating on this movement he judged that in no more than an hour it would move entirely behind the line of the great, sloping wall altogether, after which night would fall in this weird, sideways world. Just as the sun he knew followed the track of an invisible arch so it seemed did this new one, the only difference being that the horizon here was not horizontal but vertical, with the path of the guardian star consequently tipped on its side.
So it is not a horizon but a vertic, he mused, gazing avidly at the castle and all its festoon of detail. Parts of his mind – hidden, reptilian parts – were already beginning to balk at the impossibility of recent events. Soon he would begin to doubt his sanity, to believe that all this was the landscape of an epic dream, that somewhere close by his real, earthbound body was slowly drowning in the maelstrom that had sucked it down into the warm, eastern ocean. But for now it was enough just to watch, to look out into the minute detail of this vertiginous world and imagine, for a while at least, that this was really happening to him.
Jonah did not hear the soft pad of footsteps approaching him from behind, but he did hear the clunk of the painting box as it was set down on the lip of the tunnel.
‘Annie!’ he cried. He rolled on to his back, overjoyed.
She towered over him, the red and green of her uncouth garments aflame in the light of the sun. Her legs were set wide, her arms held away from her sides, her chest expanding visibly as she breathed in the rich, scented air. Her dark hair moved like a pennant in the wind. For an instant the sunlight was reflected from her eyes directly into his, dazzling him. He frowned, feeling curiously uneasy as he tried to locate the direction of her gaze. He could not, and as his clarity of vision returned he saw why.
Annie’s pupils had gone. Her eyes were featureless, silver mirrors in which he could clearly see both the hard line of the stone from which the world-wall was made and the linear tapestry of the sky. She smiled a thin, inhuman smile and kicked him over the edge.
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