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THE LOST WORLD
Charles Darwin stood motionless at the mouth of the cave, his serge trousers pooled in a ragged heap around his ankles, as a shrieking pteranodon wheeled and soared in the blue morning sky.
"Good God, man!" said Stanford Rubicon, pushing away the crudely stitched-together palm fronds he had been using as a blanket. "How long have you been standing there like that?"
Kneading the sleep from his eyes, Rubicon clambered over the loose stones to where Darwin stood by the ashes of last night's fire, taking a moment to glance out from the lip of the cave to the steaming jungle below. The sun had risen over the jagged claws of the mountains to the east; it was shaping up to be another beautiful day in hell. The pteranodon, drifting on the rising warmth, cawed at Rubicon and glided out of sight. Darwin's rheumy eyes swiveled in their sockets toward Rubicon, filled with pain and humiliation. He tried to speak but succeeded only in dribbling down his long beard.
"There, there, old chap, don't fret," murmured Rubicon, pulling up Darwin's trousers without fuss or ceremony. "Soon have you mobile again."
Using the makeshift shovel, little more than a piece of curved bark tied with twine to a short stick, Rubicon gathered up a few pieces of their dwindling coal supply. There was only enough for three days, perhaps four, and that was if they didn't use it on their cooking fire. Rubicon blanched at the thought of getting more; the only seam they had found near enough to the surface to be extractable was, unfortunately, only a hundred yards upwind of a tyrannosaur nest. He considered the few black rocks on the shovel, then tipped a third back onto the small pile. Darwin would just have to not exert himself today, while they considered their next move.
Arranged at Darwin's stomach was the unwieldy yet vital furnace that kept him mobile and—though Rubicon was still mystified at the science behind it—alive. Beneath the aged botanist's torn shirt, now more gray than white through lack of starch and washing, copper pipes and iron pistons snaked over his body in a dull metal matrix, bulky with pistons and shunts at his major joints. Darwin must have gotten up to relieve himself in the middle of the night, and the amazing yet grotesque external skeleton that ensured his longevity must have seized up, as it was doing more and more frequently in the past month. Arranging the meager lumps of coal on a bed of kindling and pages torn from the books they had managed to rescue from the wreck that had stranded them there six months ago, Rubicon struck a match and, when he was sure the kindling was catching, shut the little metal door to the furnace. Then he cast around for the oilcan and applied a few drops to the joints of the skeleton, still unable to stop himself from blanching as he saw the pipes that were sunk into the flesh at Darwin's chest and at the base of his neck. The skeleton was the work of the eminent scientist Hermann Einstein, and it not only allowed the old man to move, albeit with a hissing, clanking, jerking motion, but also pumped his heart and did God knew what to his brain. Sometimes Rubicon wondered if he would ever understand the modern world, but looking out into the lush green jungle below, he wished beyond measure that he could see London again, its soaring spires, scientific mysteries, technological puzzles, and all.
As the furnace fired the tiny engines that powered the cage encasing Darwin's emaciated body, the old botanist creaked into life, the metal jaw that was stitched to the bone beneath his bearded chin yawning wide. He flexed his ropelike muscles with an exhalation of steam from his joints and turned his milky eyes on Rubicon.
"Stanford," he said softly. "I fear I cannot endure this purgatory another day."
Rubicon patted him on the shoulder, the ridges of pipes and tubes warm now beneath his hand. He looked out across the jungle. "Not long now, Charles," he said, though without conviction. "Help will come."
FROM THE JOURNAL OF CHARLES DARWIN, AUGUST ??, 1890
It is six months or thereabouts since the HMS Beagle II suffered its most woeful fate on the jagged rocks that lurk in the foaming seas around this lost world. Six months we have been stranded here, hidden from the outside world, barely surviving on our wits and hoping against hope to see the rescue mission that Professor Rubicon most wholeheartedly believes will arrive any day.
I confess that I do not share Rubicon's faith in the power of the Empire to effect such a rescue. We are many thousands of miles from land, in uncharted waters, and within the sphere of influence of the Japanese. We had to steal here in secrecy, avoiding the shipping lanes and telling no one of our progress or destination. It took Rubicon half a lifetime to find his lost world, and now he believes that Britain will simply chance upon it? For all his bluster and rugged enthusiasm, I fear that Rubicon is merely humoring me. He knows that my survival for so long is a miracle in itself, and he wishes merely to jolly me along when he knows full well that we shall both die in this tropical nightmare. In idle moments—and is there any other kind in this place?—I wonder how I shall meet my inevitable death. What creature, I wonder, shall end my life? Will it be the snapping jaws of the tyrannosaurs? The horns of a triceratops? A brace of predatory velociraptors? It would be a fitting end for Charles Darwin, my detractors might say. Natural selection? Evolution? Mammals supplanting the dinosaurs? The old fool was eaten by that which he claimed gave way for the ascent of man!
Or shall I, as I almost did last night, merely wind down, let my furnace go cold through lack of fuel, and quietly switch off as Professor Einstein's marvelous exoskeleton—surely both blessing and curse!—draws night's veil over my eyes for the final time?
I am, as I have opined before, too old for this. I was a young man, barely in my twenties, when I voyaged to the Galápagos. Now I am approaching my ninety-second birthday, and only Einstein's technology keeps me moving and living. I should never have let Rubicon talk me into this foolish venture. But the Professor of Adventure can be a persuasive chap, and even if he hadn't plied me with brandy in the Empirical Geographic Club that cold January evening, I confess I would probably still have agreed to his madcap scheme. To think, a lost world where the dinosaurs still roam! The Cretaceous period, frozen in time, trapped in amber like the flies I found in the Galápagos! If I had one wish before dying, it would be to see my darling Emma again. How she would thrill to my stories. I do hope the children are taking good care of her.
Darwin closed the notebook and placed his pencil in the elasticized strap that held it together. They had salvaged little from the wreckage of the Beagle II, and had taken only what they could carry through the warren of labyrinthine tunnels that led from the stony beach to the interior of the extinct volcano that hid the lost world behind its soaring, jagged peaks. If they had known that a seaquake would cause a landslide that blocked their return to the shore they might have taken more supplies, or not ventured deep into the catacombs at all. But, as Darwin had already noted, Rubicon had a persuasive nature. The Professor of Adventure! The toast of London! And he had doomed them all.
Of the six survivors of the wreck, only Darwin and Rubicon remained. The majority of the crew of the Beagle II had been lost in the storm-tossed waves that crushed the ship as though it were merely a child's toy in an overfilled bathtub. Rubicon had grasped Darwin's collar and struck out for the dark shore with strong strokes. The morning that rose over the uncharted island had revealed the flotsam of the wreckage drifting toward the beach, and four others alive: two seamen, the first mate, and the cabin boy. One of the sailors had died beneath the landslide as they ran through the black tunnels to the salvation of the jungles within the caldera of this unnamed volcano. The first mate had been torn apart by two battling spinosauri as the dwindling party looked on in horror and amazement at their first sightings of the impossible lizards that still ruled this unknown corner of the Earth. The cabin boy had fallen to his death from the high crags, trying to climb toward the freedom he believed must be over the horizon. He called horribly for his mother all the way down to the far jungle below, where Rubicon later found his bones picked clean by predators. The final crewman had lasted until just the previous month, when hunger and madness possessed his brittle mind and he stripped naked and ran screaming into the towering flora, never to be seen again. His final, distant screams, choked by whichever beast had taken him in the shadows of the jungle, haunted Darwin still.
Rubicon approached the rock where Darwin sat in melancholy reflection, wiping himself dry with a piece of the first mate's old coat. The professor was fastidiously clean, even in this abandoned hell, and he washed every morning in the cascade of water that ran from subterranean sources into a waterfall thirty feet below the lip of the cave. Rubicon was convinced that the salt waterfall must come from the outside sea, and he had formulated plans to follow the underground river through the impassable cliffs. But Darwin was not up to the journey and besides, Rubicon had not yet worked out how to pass through the raging torrent without drowning. Darwin wondered how long it would be before Rubicon abandoned him and sought freedom alone.
As Rubicon buttoned up the thick black cotton jumpsuit he always wore on his adventures and finger-combed his beard into a manageable style, picking out ticks and fleas and crushing them beneath his square fingernails, he nodded to the distant peaks.
"I think I shall go and light the beacons again today."
Darwin nodded. Rubicon had spent days climbing as high as he could at each compass point of the caldera, assembling piles of dampened wood that smoked blackly and, he hoped, would attract the attention of passing ships or dirigibles. Not that they had seen even a hint of an airship since their incarceration; this corner of the Pacific was Japanese waters, but it seemed even they didn't pass over at all. At first the survivors had been afraid of attracting the attention of the Edo regime, or the breakaway Californian Meiji, but now they did not care. To be rescued by anyone, even enemies of the British Empire, would be preferable to this. The government in London could at least try to parlay with the Japanese for their release, even if they were arrested on suspicion of spying; the dinosaurs would not enter into any kind of dialogue with Whitehall, Darwin thought wryly, even if the authorities knew where to find them.
"If you think it will do any good, Stanford," said Darwin.
"I do," said Rubicon. "When men like us give up hope, Charles, then the very Empire is lost. I shall be back before dark."
* * *
Beneath the baking sun, Rubicon clambered swiftly up the eastern wall of the volcano, keen to reach the heights where the cooling breeze would dry the sweat pearling on his forehead. This was the least onerous of the climbs, apart from the final stretch of forty feet or so, which was a perilous vertical face with scant handholds, and he liked to tackle the eastern side first to limber up. That, and the unyielding sea beyond stretched toward the Americas; if there was any hope of rescue, it might well come from that direction. The Spaniards plied the waters between Mexico and the Californian Meiji, and the occasional airship from the British-controlled Eastern Seaboard sometimes shuttled between New York or Boston and the Spanish territories. But six months had passed with no sign of life elsewhere in the world; Rubicon tried to maintain a jolly, hopeful facade for Darwin but his own optimism was fading fast. If they were to die in this hellish lost land, he hoped that Darwin went first. He couldn't bear the thought of the old botanist slowly winding down, trapped by his steam-driven exoskeleton and forced to watch, immobile, as death approached—either on the lingering tiptoes of starvation or with the snapping teeth of one of the beasts that roamed the island.
This lost world had been everything that Rubicon had dreamed of, everything he had devoted the last ten years to finding. But his ambition to bring the rude beasts from before the dawn of time to display in triumph at the London Zoo was dashed, as surely as he would be on the rocks below if he lost his footing negotiating the last segment of his climb. He allowed himself the fantasy of imagining that their mission had been a success, and that they had returned to London with the Beagle II's hold groaning with breeding pairs of triceratops, pteranodons, ankylosauri, and even tyrannosaurs. He would have been the toast of the Empire. He briefly wondered what was being said of Darwin and himself now, how many column inches were being devoted in the London papers to their lost mission. Six months had passed … perhaps their names were barely mentioned anymore. The great explorers, missing in terra incognita. Presumed dead.
Rubicon hauled himself up onto the thin crest of the volcano's lip, barely three feet wide before it plunged in a sheer, unscalable cliff to the angry surf that crashed on the jagged rocks far below. There was no way of descending and no beach or footing there if they did. Rubicon slung off his back the sticks and vines he had bound together with twine and assembled them in the ring of rocks he had prepared there many months ago, when he had first started lighting the bonfires. Matches saved from the wreckage were kept in a leather wallet beneath the largest rock of the makeshift fireplace; only a dozen were left here now. He lit one and shielded it with his hand, holding it to the dry moss at the base of the small beacon and blowing it gently until the flames fanned out and the kindling caught.
The greenery burned reluctantly, sending thick black smoke pirouetting into the unbroken blue sky. Rubicon nodded with satisfaction. Three more beacons to light, then perhaps he might scoot by that tyrannosaur nest and see if he could scavenge a few lumps of coal for Darwin's furnace. Dusk was the safest time, when the beasts had eaten and lolled with full bellies around their nest—though "safety" in this place was a relative concept. He took a few sips of water from his canteen and prepared for the descent, scanning the horizon one last time with his hand shielding his eyes.
There was a ship.
Rubicon swore and rubbed his eyes. Surely it was a breaching whale, perhaps, or piece of driftwood. It was so very distant, merely a speck on the glittering blue waves. But as he peered and squinted he was sure he could make out an almost invisible thread of exhaust steam. It was a ship. And it was heading for the island, coming up from the south and the east.
Rubicon gathered up all the kindling and leaves he had and thrust them onto the bonfire, then turned and let himself over the edge. Slowly, slowly, he commanded. It would not do for you to fall to your death just as salvation is at hand.
* * *
Darwin had been napping, and at the insistent calls from the unseen Rubicon he awoke sharply and stretched, his exoskeleton creaking and hissing at the joints. "Stanford?"
Darwin peered out beyond the lip of the cave. He could see the pillars of smoke from the eastern and southern walls of their prison, but not from the other walls. Had something terrible occurred to stop Rubicon lighting the other beacons? The professor, his face red from exertion, appeared over the ledge, clambering madly into the cave.
"Stanford? Are you quite well?"
"A ship, Charles! A ship! We are saved!"
Darwin pursed his lips. "You are quite sure? Not a mirage, or—?"
"Quite sure!" said Rubicon happily. "I saw it from the east and then again from the south. It is closing in at a fair lick."
"British?" said Darwin, not daring to hope.
"I cannot tell," said Rubicon, shaking his head. "But it could be the Flying Dutchman itself for all that I care! Come on. I calculate it is heading for the place where the Beagle II was lost. We must make our way there at once."
Darwin frowned. "But the tunnels collapsed. And is that not close to the nest of those tyrannosaurs…?"
Rubicon was filling his knapsack with their remaining dried meat and lumps of coal. "Pack just what you can carry," he said. "We must away directly."
Darwin nodded and tucked his journal into his own leather satchel. That was all he required: his notes, drawings, and observations of the fantastical flora and fauna on this lost island. Could it really be true? Was rescue really at hand?
Darwin staggered as the ground beneath his feet shook violently. He looked at Rubicon, who frowned and stared out to the jungle as another tremor rattled the cave.
"An earthquake?" asked Darwin.
Then there was another tremor, and another, and a column of smoke and dust rose from the mountainous caldera between the eastern and southern beacons. Rubicon shook his head. "No. A bombardment. They're shelling the rock face."
Copyright © 2014 by David Barnett