It had been raining for two
days, which made for slow progress along the narrow, rutted road that led
through the jungle to the dig site. The rain wasn’t helping my mood any.
I’d taken a red-eye flight to Cambodia at the request of my old friend,
Samuel Quinn, and was going on thirty hours without sleep.
Quinn’s plea had come to me, his voice thin
and strange, on a bad international phone connection two days before. His
daughter, Althea had gone missing while on a college sponsored archeological
dig in Cambodia. Quinn had been in London at the time, attending a symposium
on paranormal studies. The state department had found him and told him
that Althea had vanished during the night while the college group was camping
near some recently discovered ancient ruins.
The local authorities suspected foul play
because the girl’s clothing had been found cast down a sort of well within
the ruins. Quinn had called and asked if I would come. Why he wanted me
there or what he thought I could do, I couldn’t really explain, but Quinn
and I had been friends a long time.
A couple of phone calls later and I was on
my way to the Atlanta airport. The flight had been a twenty-two hour blur
with stops at Seattle and Tokyo. I’d flown to Japan years earlier and the
flight was just as long and just as boring as I recalled. Quinn had arranged
for ground transportation once I reached Cambodia. When I got to the airport,
only the rain was waiting to greet me.
There had been a seemingly interminable trip
up river and then a gut-jarring ride along the rough jungle roads. Finally
I saw the tents and temporary wooden shacks of the dig. The rain even began
to let up as we reached the site. Quinn came out of one of the tents. He’d
apparently heard the sound of the jeep. He didn’t look good. His skin was
pale, despite the tropical sun and there were deep shadows under his eyes.
He grasped my hand firmly as I got out of the jeep.
“Thanks so much for coming, Charles,” Quinn
said. “I really need a friend around right now.”
“Well you’ve got one. I don’t suppose there’s
been any word?”
He shook his head. He wiped his arm across
his bald forehead. “Nothing. The police here are doing what they can but
Althea seems to have just vanished into the proverbial thin air.”
“What happened exactly?”
“Come into my tent and I’ll tell you about
it.” I followed Quinn into one of the tents. He sat down in a folding chair
and nodded toward another one. I sat. “Professor Stamp, the man in charge
of the dig, is letting me use this tent while I’m here,” he continued.
“The facts are few and pretty grim, Charles. You know Althea was studying
I nodded. My last memory of Althea Quinn
was from her high school graduation four years earlier. I remembered her
as a slender girl with pale blonde hair and equally pale green eyes.
Quinn said, “These ruins were discovered
just recently. Or really, I should say rediscovered. A British professor
named Jerrolds originally found them in the early seventies. Anyway, there
was a lot of trouble in the area around the end of the Viet Nam War and
Jerrolds lost permission to continue his studies here. I think Jerrolds
died before he could get back into Cambodia. The exact location of the
ruins was lost.”
There was something familiar about the name
Jerrolds but I couldn’t place it. I said, “I take it someone stumbled across
the ruins again.”
“Yes, earlier this year. A mapping crew found
them. The British Museum financed a dig and Althea’s archeology professor
managed to wrangle a field trip for his best students.”
“Are the other students still here?”
“No. The authorities thought it best to get
them out of the jungle after Althea…after she disappeared.” Quinn looked
down at his lap. I didn’t say anything. After a few moments he went on.
“I did talk to the professor and Maggie Sloan, the girl that Althea was
sharing a tent with. Maggie said that both she and Althea had gone to bed
that night about eleven. That was the last Maggie saw of her. She supposed
that Althea must have gotten up and gone for a walk or something.”
I said, “Doesn’t sound likely. Althea wouldn't
just go blundering around the jungle at night.”
“No,” Quinn agreed.
“You said something about her clothes being
“Yes, there’s a plaza at the center of these
ruins and there’s a deep hole, sort of like a well there. That’s where
they found her clothes.”
“Any signs of a struggle?”
“Nothing. Just her clothes and her rings
I said, “That’s odd. If she were attacked
you’d think whoever did it would have taken her valuables. Can I have a
look at that well?”
He nodded slowly. Quinn looked years older
than the last time I’d seen him which had only been a few months before.
He said, “Yes, I’m sort of hoping that warped brain of yours might spot
something the locals have missed. Let’s go have a look if you’re not too
tired after your trip.”
“Nah, I’m wired now. Let’s go.”
We followed a rough path through the jungle.
The camp had been set up well away from the crumbling city, and a few minutes
walk brought us to the vine choked walls of Arangkhor. Arangkhor? The name
slipped around the edges of my memory, familiar, yet just out of reach.
In fact the entire walk was giving me an almost overwhelming sense of Deja
Vu, as if I'd been there before.
The vast city loomed up above the jungle,
its conical spires and towers stark against the storm clouds that still
hovered above us. The outer walls looked to be made of sandstone. They
were carved with odd hieroglyphics in some long forgotten language. In
the center of the wall, above the gate, was carved a massive stone face.
It glared down at us as Quinn led me into the city.
I was taken aback by the engineering prowess
of whoever had built the stone buildings and towers. The blocks they had
used were huge, comparable to the stones employed by the Egyptians on their
pyramids. I ran my hand along one rough, sandstone surface as I passed,
noting that there was no space between any of the blocks, and apparently
no concrete had been used, or was indeed necessary to hold them together.
Quinn and I made our way through wide streets
and open plazas. In some places the jungle had completely covered parts
of the city, but in other areas, the streets and structures were amazingly
clear of undergrowth. It was oddly quiet within the city walls, as if the
thick stone somehow muted the sounds from the surrounding jungle.
"This place is huge," Quinn said. "Amazing
that it's stayed hidden for so long."
I didn't say anything. We had come out of
one of the city avenues into a wide plaza. And at the center of the plaza
was a ring of statues. The statues sat, cross-legged and facing inward.
In their stone fingers they clasped various objects, skulls, keys, flowers,
wheels, and swords. The statues looked inward to the well Quinn had mentioned.
The well itself looked to be about fifteen
feet across. Its outer lip was wide and set flush with the stone floor
of the plaza. I'm pretty sure my mouth hung open as I gazed at the well.
There was no longer any doubt. I had been
here before, mentally if not physically. Memories came rushing back from
my childhood. Arangkhor. Sir Malcolm Jerrolds... Jon Dark...
Back in the early 1970s, before the cult
of J.R.R. Tolkien had taken hold of the fantasy publishing genre, there
had been a boom in the sales of the works of Tarzan creator, Edgar Rice
Burroughs. Publishing houses like Dell and Daw had rushed into the breech
with ERB pastiches and imitations by authors like John Norman, Burt Akers,
and numerous others. One of the most popular series had been the Jandar
of Callisto novels written By Lin Carter.
The Callisto books seemed to be pastiches
of Burroughs' John Carter of Mars series and were written in a similar
style, right down to the
introductions. In these introductions, Carter, as Burroughs
had done before him, claimed not to be writing fiction but to be relating
true accounts. He claimed that the eight Callisto manuscripts were actually
the work of a man named Jonathan Andrew Dark and that Carter was simply
acting as editor.
The books told the story of Jon Dark,
a civilian helicopter pilot, working for the Red Cross in Vietnam back
in 1969. Dark had suffered engine trouble and been forced to land over
the Cambodian border. Trying to hike out of the jungle he had stumbled
upon an ancient lost city. There he found a strange well, lined with green
jade-like stone. During the night, a beam of intense light thrust up from
the center of the well. Dark slipped on the smooth green stone and slid
into the light.
The light beam turned out to be a teleportation
device of some sort that deposited dark on another world. He eventually
figured out that he was on Callisto, the fifth moon of Jupiter, known to
its inhabitants as Thanator. How the moon, which should have been a lifeless
chunk of frozen rock, could support life, Dark had never learned. Somehow
though, the moon was covered by dense jungle and was peopled by many strange
It was all the stuff of grand adventure and
as a kid I never worried much about the plausibility of the books. My favorite
of the novels had been the sixth, Lankar of Callisto, in which Lin Carter
himself had made the trip to Cambodia, to the ruined city discovered by
professor Malcolm Jerrolds, and traveled along the transferal beam to Callisto.
Many times I had let myself believe that maybe, just maybe, it really was
Now as I walked toward the jade circle, it
seemed that my childhood wishes were being answered. There were the statues,
just as they were in Carter's book. Here was the well, exactly as it had
been described. It simply wasn't possible and yet, there it was. The Gate
Quinn walked slowly around the edge of the
wide expanse of smooth stone that surrounded the well. Something tugged
at my memory again and I reached out and grasped his arm just as his feet
began to slide out from under him.
"Thanks," Quinn said. "This stone is remarkably
"Yeah, and it slopes down toward the well.
If you slide in you'll go all the way to the bottom."
Quinn looked at me. "You know something,
Charles. Don't you? Something you're not telling me."
"Maybe. It's crazy though, Quinn. I have
an idea, but you're going to think it's nuts."
"I'm a professor of paranormal studies, Charles.
I specialize in nuts."
I pointed him toward a slab of stone that
must have once served as a bench. "Have a seat. I want to tell you a story
about a writer named Lin Carter, and a man named Jonathan Dark."
Quinn sat and listened as I told him all
about Carter and Callisto. When I paused for breath, he stood up shaking
his head. "Charles that's crazy. My daughter is missing and you're telling
me fairy tales."
"I know it sounds crazy, Quinn. I feel
like an idiot telling you all this, but look at the facts. How else could
I know all this stuff about Malcolm Jerrolds and Arangkhor?"
"Jerrolds published in several magazines
back in the late seventies about his discoveries."
"Yeah, but Jandar of Callisto came out in
1972, before Jerrolds ever made it to Arangkhor. Yet he found exactly what
Carter described. Hell, until this moment I didn't even know Jerrolds was
a real person. I thought he was just a character Lin Carter made up. But
there's the well, and here are the statues just as the book described them."
"But the dig has been here for weeks. Don't
you think someone would have noticed a searchlight beam coming from the
well? This is the real world, Charles. Things like that just don't happen."
"Quinn, you said it yourself. You've made
your life's work studying things that can't happen. I don't have all the
answers, but this definitely raises the possibility that Carter's books
weren't fiction. If that well really is the Gate Between Worlds, then Althea
may have stumbled into it, just like you almost did. She probably got up
to go to the bathroom or something in the night, saw the beam and came
to investigate. If she stepped onto the lip of the well…"
Quinn slumped back down onto the stone bench.
"So what do we do?"
"We go on searching for Althea just as if
the well didn't exist. We assume she's vanished for purely mundane reasons.
But, at night we need to stay close to this well. Also I'll need you to
help me round up some clothing made entirely from cotton. No synthetic
fibers. Maybe some woven grass sandals too."
"Why do you need that stuff?"
"Because inorganic material won't travel
through the gate. If we run out of possibilities concerning Althea's disappearance,
and if the transferal beam does appear, I'm going after your daughter."
Continued Next Week