June 10, 2000
The Moroccan Coast
Nina Kirov stood at the top of the ancient stairway, eyes sweeping the nearly stagnant green waters of the lagoon, thinking she had never seen a coast more barren than this isolated stretch of Moroccan shoreline. Nothing stirred in the oppressive, ovenlike heat. The only sign of human settlement was the cluster of putty-colored, barrel-roofed tombs that overlooked the lagoon like seaside condominiums for the departed. Centuries of sand drifting through the arched portals had mingled with the dust of the dead. Nina grinned with the delight of a child seeing presents under the Christmas tree. To a marine archaeologist, these bleak surroundings were more beautiful than the white sands and palm trees of a tropical paradise. The very awfulness of the mournful place would have protected it from her biggest fear: site contamination.
Nina vowed to thank Dr. Knox again for persuading her to join the expedition. She had refused the initial invitation, telling the caller from the University of Pennsylvania's re-spected anthropology department that it would be a waste of time. Every inch of Moroccan coastline must have been explored with a fine-tooth comb by now. Even if someone did discover an underwater site, it would have been buried under tons of concrete by the Romans, who invented waterfront renewal. As much as Nina admired their engineering skills, she considered the Romans Johnny-come-lately spoilers in the grand scheme of history.
She knew her refusal had more to do with sour grapes than archaeology. Nina was trying to dig herself out from under a mountain of paperwork generated by a shipwreck project off the coast of Cyprus in waters claimed by the Turks. Preliminary surveys suggested the wreck was of ancient Greek origin, triggering conflicting claims between these old enemies. With national honor at stake, the F-16s from Ankara and Athens were warming up their engines when Nina dove on the wreck and identified it as a Syrian merchantman. This brought the Syrians into the mess, but it defused the potential for a bloody encounter. As the owner, president, and sole employee of her marine archaeological consultancy firm, Mari-Time Research, all the paperwork ended up in Nina's lap.
A few minutes after she told the university she was too busy to accept the invitation, Stanton Knox called.
"My hearing must be going bad, Dr. Kirov," he said in the dry nasal tones she had heard a hundred times issuing from behind his lectern. "I actually thought I heard someone tell me you were not interested in our Moroccan expedition, and of course that can't be true."
Months had passed since she had talked to her old mentor. She smiled, picturing the snowy shock of hair, the near manic gleam behind the wire-rimmed spectacles, and the roue's mustache that curled up at the ends over a puckish mouth.
Nina tried to blunt the inevitable charm offensive she knew was coming.
"With all due respect, Professor Knox, I doubt if there's a stretch of the North African coast that hasn't been overbuilt by the Romans or discovered by somebody else."
"Brava! I'm glad to see that you recall the first three lessons of Archaeology 101, Dr. Kirov."
Nina chuckled at the ease with which Knox donned his professorial robe. She was in her thirties, owner of a successful consulting business, and held almost as many degrees as Knox did. Yet she still felt like a student within his aura. "How could I ever forget? Skepticism, skepticism, and more skepticism."
"Correct," he said with obvious joy. "The three snarling dogs of skepticism who will rip you to pieces unless you present them with a dinner of hard evidence. You'd be surprised at how often my preaching falls on deaf ears." He sighed theatrically, and his tone became more businesslike. "Well, I understand your concern, Dr. Kirov. Ordinarily I would agree with you about site contamination, but this location is on the Atlantic coast well beyond the Pillars of Melkarth, away from Roman influence."
Interesting. Knox used the Phoenician name for the western end of the Mediterranean where Gibraltar bends low to kiss Tangier. The Greeks and Romans called it the Pillars of Herakles. Nina knew from bitter classroom experience that when it came to names, Knox was as precise as a brain surgeon.
"Well, I'm terribly busy -- "
"Dr. Kirov, I might as well admit it," Knox interjected. "I need your help. Badly. I'm up to my neck in land archaeologists who are so timid they wear galoshes in the bathtub. We really need to get somebody into the water. It's a small expedition, about a dozen people, and you'd be the only diver."
Knox's reputation as a skilled fly fisherman was not undeserved. He dangled the Phoenician connection under her nose, set the hook with his sympathetic appeal for help, then reeled her in with the suggestion that as the only diver she would get sole credit for any underwater finds.
Nina could practically see the professor's pink nose twitching with glee. She shuffled the folders on her desk. "I've got a ton of paperwork to finish..."
Knox cut her off at the pass. "I'm well aware of your Cyprus job," he said. "Congratulations, by the way, for averting a crisis between NATO partners. I've taken care of everything. I have two highly competent teaching fellows who would love to gain experience in dealing with the red tape that is such a substantial part of archaeology these days. This is a preliminary survey. We'll only be a week or ten days. And by then my trusted young Myrmidons will have dotted all the I's and crossed all the T's. You don't have to decide this minute. I'll fax you some material. Take a peek at it and get back to me."
"How long do you need, Dr. Knox?"
"An hour would do. Cheerio."
Nina put the phone down and laughed out loud. An hour.
Almost immediately, paper began to spew from the fax machine like lava from an erupting volcano. It was the project proposal Knox submitted with his funding request. He wanted money to survey an area for Greco-Roman or possibly other ruins. The standard Knox sales pitch, a tantalizing mix of facts and possibilities, designed to make his project stand out in bold relief from all the others competing for funds.
Nina breezed through the proposal with a practiced eye and shifted her attention to the map. The survey locus was between the mouth of the Draa River and the western Sahara on the Moroccan coastal plain that stretched from Tangier to Essaouria. Tapping her teeth with the tip of her ballpoint pen, she studied an enlarged section of the area. The coastal indentation looked as if the cartographer had hiccupped while drawing the shoreline. Noting the site's proximity to the Canary Islands, she leaned back in her chair and thought how she needed to get out into the field before she went insane. She picked up the telephone and dialed.
Knox answered in mid-ring. "We leave next week."
Now, as Nina surveyed the lagoon, the lines and squiggles on a map translated themselves into physical features. The basin was roughly circular, embraced by two pincers of blasted brick-red rock. Beyond the entrance were shallows that at low tide revealed rippling mud flats. Thousands of years ago the lagoon opened directly onto the ocean. Its naturally sheltered waters would have attracted ancient mariners who commonly anchored on either side of a headland to wait for good weather or daylight. Nearby was a dry riverbed, what the locals called a wadi. Another good sign. Settlements often grew near a river.
From the lagoon a narrow, sandy path led through the dunes and eventually terminated at the ruins of a small Greek temple. The harbor would have been too tight for Roman ships and their massive jetties. She guessed the Greeks used the inlet as a temporary anchorage. The steep shoreline would have discouraged hauling goods inland. She had checked the old maps, and this site was miles from any known ancient settlement. Even today, the nearest village, a sleepy Berber encampment, was ten miles away over a rutted sand road.
Nina shielded her eyes from the sun and stared over the water at a ship anchored offshore. The vessel's hull was painted from waterline to superstructure in turquoise green. She squinted, just making out the letters NUMA, the acronym for the National Underwater & Marine Agency, emblazoned on the hull amidships. She idly wondered what a vessel belonging to a U.S. government agency was doing off a remote shoreline in Morocco. Then she picked up a large mesh bag and descended a dozen worn stone steps to where the water gently lapped the bottom stair.
As she removed her UPenn baseball cap, sunlight glinted off braids the color of ripe wheat woven together behind her head. She slipped out of an oversized T-shirt. The floral bikini she wore underneath revealed a strong, long-legged body nearly six feet tall.
Nina inherited her first name, her golden hair, her slightly roundish face, and a peasant stamina that could put male counterparts to shame from her great-grandmother, a sturdy farm worker who found true love in a Ukrainian cotton field with a Tsarist soldier. From Nina's Georgian mother came the bold, almost Asian eyes of stormy gray, high haughty cheekbones, and lush mouth. By the time the family emigrated to the United States, the genetic airbrush had slimmed the Kirov female silhouette, narrowing thick waists and wide hips, leaving a pleasing width and a healthy bustline.
From the bag Nina took a Nikon digital camera in a custom-built Ikelight plastic housing and checked the strobe light. Next came an air tank and U.S. Divers buoyancy compensator, a black-and-purple Henderson wetsuit, booties, gloves, hood, weight belt, and mask and snorkel. She suited up and on her head attached a Niterider Cyclops light that would keep her hands free, then fastened the quick-release buckles of her BC and snapped on her weight belt. Finally, she strapped a seven-inch Divex titanium knife to her thigh. After clipping a collection bag to a utility hook, she set the time on her latest toy, an Aqualand dive watch with a depth display.
With no dive buddy to check her equipment, Nina went through the routine predive inspection twice. Satisfied with the results, she sat on the stair and worked her feet into her fins, then she slipped off the step before the blistering North African sun cooked her inside the wetsuit. The tepid water seeped between her skin and the neoprene wetsuit and quickly warmed to body temperature. She tested her main and extra regulators, then pushed away from the stairs, turned, and slowly breast-stroked into the pondlike lagoon.
pardThere was virtually no wave motion, and the slimy water was slightly brackish, but even with the surface scum Nina reveled in her freedom. She glided along with gentle fin flutters, pitying the expedition's land archaeologists as they crawled on sore knees wielding trowels and whisk brooms, eyes stinging with sweat-caked dust. Nina could maneuver in comfortable coolness like a plane making an aerial survey.
A low-lying island topped by an anorexic scraggle of stunted pines guarded the entrance. She planned to swim directly toward the island and bisect the lagoon. She would explore each half separately, making a series of parallel runs at right angles to the baseline. The search pattern was similar to that used to find a wreck in the open ocean. Her eyes would take the place of a side-scan sonar or magnetometer. Precision measurements came later. She simply wanted to get a feel for what lay underwater.
Once below the clouded surface, the water was relatively clear, and Nina could see to the bottom, a depth of no more than twenty feet. This meant she could snorkel and conserve air. A series of intersecting straight lines materialized and formed into rectangles created by carefully fitted stone blocks. The stairway had continued down underwater to an old quay. It was a significant discovery because it indicated the lagoon was once a real port and not a temporary anchorage. The bottom was likely to be covered with layers of civilization over a long period of time instead of junk tossed over the side by transient sailors.
Soon she picked out thicker lines and piles of rubble. Building ruins. Bingo! Storage sheds, housing, or headquarters for a dock and harbormaster. Definitely not an overnight anchorage.
Darkness loomed, and she thought she was at the end of the quay. She passed over a large square opening and wondered if it could be a fish tank, what the ancients called a piscina. Far too big. The size of an Olympic swimming pool.
Nina spit out the snorkel, bit down on the regulator mouthpiece, and dove straight down. She moved along one side of the yawning cavity. Coming to a corner, she turned and followed another edge, swimming until she had covered the entire perimeter. It was around one hundred by one hundred fifty feet.
Nina flicked her headlamp on and dove into the opening. The muddy floor was perfectly flat and about eight feet below the quay level. The light's narrow beam picked out broken pottery and debris. Using her knife, she pried potsherds from the mud and put them into the collection bag after carefully marking their positions. She discovered a channel and followed it seaward until it broke out into the lagoon. The opening was easily big enough to allow for the passage of an ancient ship. The space cut into the quay had all the characteristics of an artificial harbor known as a cothon. She discovered several slipways, each big enough to accommodate ships more than fifty feet long, and a true piscina, which confirmed her theory about the cothon.
Leaving the quay, she continued on her baseline course using the land spit to her right as a reference point. She swam between the island and the mainland until she found a submerged mole or breakwater a few yards below the surface, constructed of parallel stone walls filled with rubble. In a drier time it would have connected the mainland and the island.
Coming to the island, she shed her dive gear and walked across thorn-covered slabs of rock to the other side. The island was more than fifty feet wide, almost twice as long, and mostly flat. The trees she had seen from shore barely came up to her chin.
Near the lagoon entrance were piles of stones, probably foundations, and a circle of blocks. It was the perfect spot for a lighthouse or a watchtower, offering a sharp-eyed sentinel a panoramic view of ship traffic. Defenders could be summoned from the mainland whenever a sail was sighted.
Stepping inside the circle, Nina climbed onto a fragmented stair and looked out at the anchored ship she had seen earlier. Again she wondered what would bring an American government vessel to this arid and lonely coast. After a moment she retrieved her scuba equipment. The cooling and weightless environment back in the water was refreshing, and she decided her fishy ancestors had made a big mistake when they crawled from the sea onto dry land.
Nina swam across the lagoon entrance. The other peninsula started low from the land, gradually widening as it rose to a knobby crag. The sheer reddish rocks dropped straight into the water like the ramparts of a fortress. Nina dove until she was at the base of the blank wall, looking for a footpath. Finding none, she continued underwater to the seaward end of the promontory which terminated in a rocky shelf. A perfect defensive position where archers could set up a murderous cross fire to rake the decks of any invader entering the harbor.
A horizontal slab protruded like a Stone Age awning from the rock face near the platform. Beneath the slab was a rectangular opening the size and shape of a doorway. Drifting closer, Nina squinted through her face mask lens and tried to pierce the menacing blackness. She remembered her headlamp and switched it on. The shaft of light fell on a whirl of ghostly movement. She drew back in alarm. Then a laugh bubbled from her regulator. The silver-scaled school of fish that had made the tunnel its home was more startled than she was.
As her pulse returned to normal she recalled Dr. Knox's warning: Don't risk your neck for a nugget of knowledge that would end up in a dusty tome read by a few. With fiendish delight he'd relate in grim detail the fates of scientists who went too far. Furbush was devoured by cannibals. Rozzini was consumed by malaria. O'Neil dropped into a bottomless crevasse.
Nina was convinced Knox made the names up, but she took his point. She was alone, without a lifeline to unreel behind her. Nobody knew where she was. The very element of danger that should have repelled her was seductive in its appeal. She checked her pressure gauge. By snorkeling, she'd used her air supply sparingly and still had time left.
She made a pact with herself to stop just inside the opening and go no farther. The tunnel couldn't be very long. Primitive tools, not diamond drills, had been used to cut through the rock. She shot some pictures of the entrance, then moved forward.
The floor was almost perfectly flat, the walls smooth except for shaggy marine growth.
She went in deeper, forgetting her pact and Knox's sage advice as well. The tunnel was the most beautiful artifact she had ever seen. It was already longer than a similar passageway at the submerged city of Apollonia.
The smooth sides ended abruptly, becoming a rough-sided cave that narrowed and widened, meandering in more or less of a straight line, with smaller passages branching off. Sconces for lamps were set into the carbon-blackened walls. The tunnel borers had extended the natural cave by making an artificial one. Nina marveled at the skill and determination of long dead Bronze Age sandhogs.
The passageway once again became wider and more polished. Nina squeezed over the top of a pile of rubble, encouraged by a greenish glow in the distance. She swam to the light, which became brighter the nearer she came.
In pursuit of knowledge Nina had crawled through piles of bat guano and lairs guarded by bad-tempered scorpions. As wondrous as the tunnel was, she was anxious to be out of it and drew a sigh of relief when the passage ended. She floated up a stairway and through an archway, emerging into an open space surrounded by crumbled foundations.
Nina suspected Dr. Knox had an idea of what she might find in the lagoon, but he couldn't have known the extent of it. Nobody could. Hold on, girl. Order your thoughts. Assess the details. Start acting like a scientist, not like Huckleberry Finn.
She sat underwater on a waist-high stone block and pondered her findings. The port was probably a combined military and trading post that kept out foreign traders and guarded commercial shipping. There was a growl in her ear. The dogs of skepticism were hungry for their dinner of solid scientific fact. Before she made her findings definitive, every square foot of the port would have to be explored and evaluated.
She ventured a guess that the port had sunk from a shifting of tectonic plates. Maybe during the big earthquake of A.D. 10. Quakes were not as common here as in the Mediterranean, but it could happen. Growl. I know, I know. No conclusion until all the evidence is in. She watched the bubbles from her exhalations rise to the surface, thinking there might be a quicker way to get to the truth.
Nina had a talent that went beyond the ordinary and the explainable. She had discussed it with only a few close friends, and then in forensic terms comparing herself to an FBI criminal scene profiler who reads a crime scene like an eyewitness. Nothing psychic about it, she had convinced herself. Only a superb command of her subject combined with a photographic memory and a vivid imagination. Something like the way dowsers find water veins with a forked twig.
She discovered her talent accidentally on her first trip to Egypt. She had pressed her hands against one of the huge foundation blocks on the Great Pyramid of Kufu. It was a natural gesture, a tactile attempt to comprehend the enormity of the incredible pile of stones, but something strange and frightening happened. Her every sense was assaulted by images. The pyramid was only half as high, its leveled summit crowded with hundreds of dark men in breechcloths hoisting blocks with a primitive scaffolding. The sweat on their skin gleamed in the sun. She could hear shouts. The squeak of pullies. She yanked her hand away as if the rock had turned red hot.
A voice was saying, "Camel ride, missy?"
She blinked her eyes. The pyramid soared in a point toward the sky again. The dark men were gone. In their place was a camel driver. Grinning broadly, he leaned on the pommel of his saddle. "Camel ride, missy? I give you good price."
"Shukran. Thank you. Not today." The driver nodded sadly and loped off. Nina pulled herself together and went back to the hotel, where she sketched out the block and pulley arrangement. Later she showed it to an engineer friend. He had stared at her drawing, muttering, "Damned ingenious." He asked if he could steal the idea to use on a crane project he had been working on.
Since Giza there had been similar experiences. It wasn't something she could turn on and off at will. If she got a long-distance call from the past every time she picked up an artifact, she'd be in an insane asylum. She had to be drawn to something like an iron filing to a magnet. At a smaller version of the Coliseum, located at an imperial resort outside Rome, the images of pain and terror were so strong, the blood-soaked sand, severed limbs, and cries of the dying so vivid, that she retched. For a while she thought she had lost her mind. She didn't sleep for several nights. Maybe that's why she didn't like the Romans.
This was no Roman amphitheater, she rationalized. Before she talked herself out of it, she swam to the edge of the quay, placed her palms on the fitted stones, and closed her eyes. She could picture the longshoremen hauling amphorae filled with wine or oil, and the slap of sails against wooden masts, but these were only imaginings. She breathed a sigh of relief. Served her right for trying to shortcut the scientific process.
Nina shot a few photographs, disappointed only that she hadn't found a shipwreck. She collected more pottery, found a half-buried stone anchor, and was taking a few last shots when she saw the roundish protuberances rising from where the bottom was sandy.
She swam over and brushed the sand away. The lump was part of a larger object. Intrigued, she got down on her knees and cleared more covering from a large stone nose, part of a huge carved face about eight feet from its blunt chin to the top of the scalp. The nose was flat and wide and the mouth broad, with fleshy lips.
The head was covered by a skullcap or close-fitting helmet. The expression could best be described as a glower. She stopped digging and ran her fingers over the black stone.
The fleshy lips seemed to curl as if in speech.
Touch me. I have much to tell you.
Nina drew back and stared at the impassive face. The features were as before. She listened for the voice. Touch me. Fainter now, lost in the metallic burble of her breath going through the regulator.
Girl, you've been underwater way too long.
She pressed the valve on her BC. Air hissed into the inflatable vest. Heart still pounding, she ascended slowly back to her own world.
Copyright © 1999 By Clive Cussler