43,281 years later…
The range rover rocked from side to side as Tom guided it over the last remaining boulders and onto the smoother slabs of rock that lead up to the canyon’s rim, silhouetted against the deep orange of sunrise. He had been driving for three hours now, but it felt like many more. The road, if it could be described as that, had been tougher than he had expected, even after Sarah’s rather colourful description of it on the satellite phone last night.
The range rover’s clock showed the time as 6:14am when he finally arrived at the camp. The single large tent and the jeep beside it, barely twenty metres from the sheer drop of the canyon wall, cast long black shadows across the rock. Sarah was already up and sitting by the small gas stove near the tent’s door. She waved.
Tom parked next to jeep and stepped out. He took in a lungful of the dry chill morning air, perfumed by the delicious scent of bacon. He walked over to Sarah. “Just in time – haven’t eaten since midnight!”
She looked round and smiled. “Yeah, we wouldn’t want that gut of yours to start getting smaller, would we?”
Tom patted his belly. “Nope.” He smiled as he noticed a pot of baked beans starting to bubble on the ring next to the bacon, and a large crusty loaf on the small table next to it. He sat down on the floor next to Sarah.
There was a deep voice from behind. “God, you’re here early.”
Tom turned round. Andrew was emerging from the tent. “Well, Sarah piqued my curiosity last night by refusing to give away any details. What is it you’ve both found?”
Andrew sat down, groaning as he did so. It was obvious that he spent most of his life behind a desk nowadays, and not out in the field. He grabbed a plate, grinning crookedly. “After breakfast.”
Tom sat on a flimsy worn canvas chair next to Sarah as she brought up images on the screen of her laptop PC, which was perched on a rickety plastic table just inside the tent’s doorway. Already the heat of the morning sun had warmed the tent to an uncomfortable level. He wiped his brow with his sleeve as he listened to Sarah’s commentary.
Sarah pointed at the screen. “And this one just came in yesterday. It’s a satellite radar image of the entire canyon floor to a depth of three metres.”
It took Tom a few seconds to understand what he was seeing. “Is all that... bones?”
Sarah nodded vigorously. “Yes! It blows our original estimate of how many of the animal’s skeletons are down there right out of the water. Instead of only hundreds there are many thousands, perhaps tens of thousands.”
Tom leaned back in his chair, which rocked unsteadily on the uneven ground. “Incredible.” He looked at Sarah. “We must write this up and get a report to Oxford as soon as we can. This will secure all the funding we want.”
Sarah laughed with excitement. “It will. And we’ll need it. We still have no firm idea why all those bones are there, and getting down to the canyon floor is difficult – almost impossible. We need a helicopter.”
“Do you have any idea yet what animals the bones are from?”
Sarah shook her head as she brought up some photographs on the screen. “No, although we are now certain that at least some of the animals are from a previously unknown species.” She pointed at a telephoto image taken from the canyon’s edge. “There are very few examples of intact bones exposed on the surface, but this femur is particularly interesting. It’s a metre in length, and twenty centimetres thick!”
“That suggests a very heavy animal.”
“Yes. There is nothing alive today that comes close.”
Tom felt elated. “This find is incredible. It’s hard to take in, really. I wonder why all those skeletons are down there? Could the animals simply have fallen in?”
“That was a plausible theory until we discovered just how many were down there. Now the number is far too great for that. We’re now considering the possibility that local tribes threw the bones in after they’d finished with the carcass, or even that the animals threw themselves in.”
Tom frowned. “Really? Why would they do that?”
Sarah shrugged. “Perhaps due to old age? Maybe an instinct kicked in that made them head in this direction?”
“Like the legend of the elephants’ graveyard?” Tom said with a sly smile.
She narrowed her eyes. “We need to be open-minded, Tom. This find is very unusual.”
“I know, just kidding!”
Andrew poked his head round the tent’s opening. “Right, it’s time you came and helped at the cave.”
Tom looked up. “The cave?”
“Yep. And it’s an hour’s walk, so we should get going if we’re to be back before the heat of the day really kicks in!”
The walk to the cave site had been across relatively flat and smooth rock which had made the going easy. And now Andrew was standing on the edge of the canyon, pointing to a ledge about a metre down. “That ledge slopes downwards a few metres. The cave’s just at the end of it, see?”
Tom peered down, ignoring the slight dizziness he felt as he momentarily contemplated the sheer drop to the canyon’s floor hundreds of metres below. He could just see the cave’s entrance; an uneven crack in the side of the canyon wall. Andrew had talked quite excitedly during the walk about scuff marks, scratches and grooves on the ledge and rock wall leading down to the cave. They were the reason he was so interesting in the cave; it seemed that at some point the cave had been occupied. Tom could clearly see the marks. “I see what you mean. It does appear that someone has been down there.” He crouched down and looked more closely at the marks at the edge of the canyon. “A lot of the marks look worn, and very old. But some look almost new.”
“Indeed.” Andrew said, crouching down next to Tom. He picked up something small and grey. “And many of the grooves contain these.”
Tom looked, squinting in the bright sunlight. “Is that a bone fragment?”
Andrew nodded. “I’m not sure why. It’s as though all the grooves and scratches were done with bone tools, for some reason. It’s not something I’ve come across before.”
“And this groove is definitely very recent.” Tom said, pointing. He pulled out a bone fragment and looked at Andrew. “Do any of the locals use bone tools in such a way?”
“No.” Andrew replied, looking around. “And they rarely, if ever, venture this far north. There’s nothing for them here – nothing grows and their animals can’t graze.”
“Then perhaps there’s something in the cave?”
“Indeed.” Andrew said. “This is why I’m glad you’re here. I’ve been waiting for days to get in there, and I couldn’t go on my own. Oxford wouldn’t allow it, and Sarah’s not up for it!”
Tom looked down at the ledge. It was only half a metre wide, and less than that at the cave’s entrance. “I’m not surprised. An old fool like you would never get out.”
Andrew was ignoring him. Already he had unpacked some climbing gear from his backpack; some tricams, hexes and rope. “I’ll set this all up so we both have a safety line to attach to.” He threw Tom a belt and a pair of gloves. “Put these on.”
Ten minutes later they were ready to go down. Andrew went first, groaning as he lowered himself to the ledge. He stood and watched as Tom made a nervous descent, the tremors in his arms and legs obvious.
As he arrived on the ledge, panting and laced in sweat, Andrew patted his shoulder and grinned. “You’d think you’d never done this before!”
Tom frowned. “You know I haven’t.”
Andrew headed towards the cave. “Just don’t look down, and then it’s not much different to walking along a pavement.”
Tom followed him. He could not help but look down. “If this is a pavement that’s a hell of a kerb!”
When they reached the cave they detached their safety lines, wedging them into a crack, and stepped inside the narrow entrance. Andrew grabbed the torch from his belt and turned it on. Tom followed suit. Immediately they could see more of the scratches and grooves on the rough walls. The floor was relatively flat and sloped gently down and to the right, the ceiling rising.
There was a faint scraping noise.
“Did you hear that?” Tom asked.
Andrew nodded. “I heard something. Maybe this place is not entirely stable.” He shone his torch deeper into the cave. “Come on. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be a deep one.”
Tom followed as Andrew led him into the taller chamber beyond. The air became significantly cooler, almost chilly; a welcome relief from the heat outside. Andrew shone his torch up and down the walls. “There are marks everywhere. Some even look like drawings.” He stopped at one. “This looks like some kind of village.”
Tom looked at the drawing etched into the rock. It was crude, but it clearly showed the shapes of domed ‘huts’ clustered around what appeared to be a fire. What looked like symbols or characters were stacked in columns either side of the drawing. “Do you recognise those?”
Andrew shook his head. “It’s obviously some form of writing, but it’s not one I recognise.” He took out his camera from its pouch on his belt and started snapping a few images. The cave filled with momentary floods of light.
Tom shone his torch further down the narrowing passageway, which seemed to go on for at least another ten metres. Something glinted white and then disappeared. There was a faint scraping noise again. “Shit!”
“What?” Andrew said as he reviewed the photos he had just taken on his camera’s screen.
“I thought I saw something move down there.”
Andrew smiled as he continued looking at the screen. “Probably a reflection.”
“I heard that noise again.”
“Okay.” Andrew said, turning off his camera. “Let’s go and take a look.”
Tom followed Andrew as he ventured down the narrowing passageway. Towards the end it was barely a shoulder width, but the ceiling remained high, well above head-height. There was a hole about half a metre in diameter at the end of the passageway on its left side. Andrew squatted down and peered into it. “There’s a small step up, and then what looks like another chamber. Small, though - just a couple of metres across. I’m going in.” He placed his torch in the chamber and then clambered through the opening.
Once Andrew was through Tom followed. He looked up at Andrew, who was now standing. He was shining his torch into one corner and staring, his mouth half open. Tom tried to see what he was looking at but his view was blocked by an outcrop. He got to his feet. “What can you see?” There was no reply, but Tom now saw for himself.
There were two human skeletons, positioned as if crouching, right in the corner.
Andrew turned to Tom. “I think we’ve found who’s been coming down here.”
Tom nodded and stepped forwards. He squatted next to the skeletons. “They’re very old.” He pointed. “Look at the hands and feet. The bones seem almost worn through.”
Andrew joined him. “I guess they died here, but there are no clothes, or weapons or ornaments.” He looked around. “Quite strange.”
Tom thought for a moment. “What’s even stranger is their position. The bones should just be heaped on the ground, not propped up like that. Even the jaw bones are still in place.” He reached out to touch one of the skulls. “I wonder how…”
The skull jerked to the right, moving closer to the other skull.
Tom jumped back.
“Careful!” Andrew said. You’ll knock them down. We want to keep them in good…”
“I never even touched it!”
Andrew positioned his torch on a small outcrop and turned on his camera. “Leave them alone, at least until I get a few shots.” Looking at his camera’s screen he took a few quick photos. He moved closer, crouching down. “Just a few close-ups.” He said, positioning his camera a few inches from the two skulls. “I guess they died together. Male and female, I think. Probably mates.”
Andrew’s camera was knocked from his hand. He fell backwards, grunting as he hit the hard surface of the chamber.
The two skulls were now looking directly at them. Slowly, and with a creaking and scraping noise, the two skeletons got to their feet. They were holding hands.
Tom felt is stomach sink. He scrambled backwards until his back was against the far wall of the chamber. The two skeletons stood in the corner for a few seconds looking first at Andrew, who was still on his back on the floor, and then at him. The taller one’s jaw opened. There was a faint rumble of wind noise. It stepped forwards, reaching out to him with its right hand. Tom stared at the worn bony hand, too terrified to move.
Andrew looked up. “Dear God!” The smaller skeleton looked at him. It held out its hand.
Tom and Andrew looked at each other, and then back at the two skeletons. The skeletons crouched down in front of them, their hands still reaching out.
Tom watched as Andrew, shaking, took the hand of the smaller skeleton. He looked at Tom with a nervous smile. “I think they’re friendly.” He said, his voice trembling. After a moment Tom looked up at the larger skeleton. It was looking at him, waiting. After a few deep breaths, Tom held out his hand.