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LONG TREK UP A SMALL MOUNTAIN

 

By
anonymous

 

            Rick Marshall consulted his watch.  Then he glanced down at the crudely lettered map drawn on a dinosaur hide that he held in his left hand.  "Well, son, by my calculations, we've walked about three kilometers from High Bluff."

            "That's about…the same distance as the Mist Marsh is, the opposite way."  Will formed a mental map of the area he and his father had traversed.   He wiped his forehead on the back of his shirt sleeve.   "Is it my imagination, or is it hotter over here?"

            Bare sandstone gleamed red and ochre in the late morning sunlight.  Cavernous mountains rose in jagged peaks along the range that contained their cave, High Bluff.  A deep crevasse, plunging many miles down to a dimly glittering stream, flanked them to the left.   The heavy coriander scent of dinosaur nip–a dark, leathery fern much enjoyed by the local dinosaur population in the Land of the Lost–rose thick in the heating air. 

            "You probably feel hot because we've been walking with these heavy packs," Rick replied.   Will and Rick had left Holly, Will's sister, back in High Bluff along with their pakuni friend, Chaka, while Rick and Will explored and mapped the strange land. They had been thrust into this adventure on a warm summer's day when, rafting along the Colorado River on one of their father's routine expeditions as a forest ranger, a tremendous earthquake opened a time doorway to this land of ferocious beasts, hostile beings, and unknown origin.

            "Hey Dad, are you sure Holly's going to be all right?" Will asked his father.  In truth he'd been thinking about her all morning and worrying about her quite a bit.  He liked to tease her, but hey, that's what older brothers are for.   He wondered at his father's decision to leave Holly back at High Bluff while the men went exploring and camped out overnight.  It was an incredibly dangerous camping trip, for they did not know what they would find, nor did they know if the hostile beings in the land -- the dinosaurs, the Sleestak, or some unknown -- would find them camped out in the jungle.

            "Oh, your sister will be fine," Rick said easily.   "She's growing up, Will.   She's got to learn to stand on her own.  What if something ever happened to me, or to you?  We have to think of these things here in the Land of the Lost."

            "Yeah, I guess you're right, Dad," Will said.  "But Holly is…" he searched for the right word.

            "A girl?" Rick smiled.  "Yes, she is, son, but that just makes her different, not any less than you.  She's grown up quite a bit since coming to the Land of the Lost."

"But she's still annoying."

"I'm sure that you annoy her too.  Remember how she was before we came to the Land of the Lost?"

            "Afraid of everything," Will said.  "Heights, spiders, snakes…"  He remembered vividly catching spiders and leaving them in selected places, like the seat of her bicycle.

            Rick must have remembered that incident too, for he frowned at his eldest child.  "I remember grounding you for certain insect related incidents…"

            Will had to laugh.  "Insect related incidents?"

            Rick laughed too.  "Okay, son.  I do understand wanting to put spiders onto your sister's bike, or leaving a snake in her doll carriage…I remember doing things like that to Aunt Ruthie.  Uncle Jack,  Uncle Tom and I used to be quite the gang…I was the oldest, so I was supposed to know better, but I never stopped them…Jack and Tom were unstoppable, in fact.   Especially Jack.  He was always the wildest of the four of us."

            "Do you miss them?"

            "Miss them?" Rick thought for a moment.  "I suppose I do. I miss Ruthie, and Jack now.   Tom, well…he's been gone, son, since the war.  I think of him often.  He was killed in battle, you know, in Korea….and Jack and I were there too, though Jack was a medic, and I was in the army corps of engineers, building airstrips and the like…but Tom, he was right there, on the front.  Luck of the draw when they drafted us.   We could all have been killed."

            "Do you think…do you think they're looking for us?" Will asked.  They continued to trudge on, trying to walk the land and map it as they went.

            "I don't know."  Rick had in fact been thinking the same thing.  He wondered what was going through his family's minds right now.  His brother, his sister, his late wife's family…surely, someone had realized they were gone by now.   His neighbor was taking care of the kids' horses, Comanche and Wildfire.  Surely when the Marshalls did not return as scheduled from their expedition, someone would raise the alarm.  But what would they find?  He thought of his Park Service colleagues.   Would they discover their raft, smashed?  Their bodies?  He remembered the time doorway portal in Enik's cave, and the view of the Marshalls as they tumbled over the waterfall.  Enik had said that it was possible that the other Marshalls, an alternative version of themselves, had been killed on the rocks as they fell.  A paradox, Enik had intoned in his sonorous voice.   But what if that were the case?  He shuddered to think about it.  In fact, they could be stuck in the Land of the Lost with no one looking for them…and even if they raised the cry that the Marshalls were missing, who would know they had fallen through a time doorway?  The Park Service would take weeks, months to comb the thousands of acres along the river, looking for an injured family, traces of a natural disaster.  Nobody would think of a time doorway, that's for sure.

            They walked along the path for another fifteen minutes in silence, the heat radiating off of the sandstone rock cliffs and baking them as effectively as a kiln.  Rick felt his shirt soaked with sweat where the backpack pressed again the serviceable material.   He shrugged his pack several times to ease the weight but to no avail.  

            "These rocks…" Will said, glancing up at the cliffs.  "They look like out west.   Utah or Arizona or something."

            "I think they're the same type," Rick replied.  "Sandstone, and some other materials.  Soft enough so that winds and rains scour them into these unusual shapes."

            "It's like you can see shapes in the tops," Will said.  "Like making shapes out of clouds.  See, that one looks like a horse….and that one could be a king with a crown…and that one could be a Sleestak…and that could be a pylon."

            Rick stopped suddenly.  "Where do you see a Sleestak and a pylon?"
            Will pointed upwards at the cliff.  "Over there…to the left…see how the rocks glitter?  It makes it look golden, and it's shaped like a pylon…"

            "That's because it is a pylon!" Rick cried.  

            They stopped.  Ahead of them was a small mountain that rose halfway up to its neighbors.  The top was shadowed by the neighboring mountains, but shafts of sunlight lit the tip, and a subtle golden glow glittered with hidden powers.   The vague outline of a pylon could be seen.  Rock formations jutted out from the surrounding hillside near the small mountain's crest, and Rick could now see what Will's sharp young eyes had discerned.   The rocks were carved to resemble two Sleestak, both about double the size of an actual Sleestak, standing guard, one to the right and one to the left of the pylon.

            Rick dropped his pack to the sand and opened it, searching for the map.  He squatted next to a rock and smoothed the map over the top.    Will had already taken several steps towards the base of the cliff.  "Dad! I think there are steps here…big steps, Sleestak or Altrusian sized steps, going up the cliff."
            "Will, wait a moment…let's look around before we fool around.  Help me get the map marked."

            Will reluctantly turned back to his father and knelt beside him.  Using the charcoal that Rick had sharpened into a makeshift pencil, they opened the map and marked it carefully, indicating this new pylon. 

            "What do we call it?" Will asked.

            Rick held the charcoal over the map.  For a moment, he felt strange, an odd buzzing sound filling his ears.  Dreamily, he moved the charcoal over  the map.  His hand traced out a word.   Then the dreamy sensation left.  He had written something over the map.

            "The Temple of Learning?" Will looked up at his father.  "Well yeah, but isn't that kind of far fetched….Dad, are you okay?"

            Rick was still feeling strangely disconnected from reality.  He shook his head sharply, allowing the sights and sounds of the world around them to fill his senses.  He took a deep breath, then released it.  "Yes, son, I'm fine…I…for a moment there, it was strange. It was like someone else was guiding my hand over the map.  I didn't think of that name."

            "You didn't?"

            "No, son, I didn't."

            "Then who did?"

            "I don't know."  Rick rose to his feet and rolled the map back into a tube.  He tucked it into the side pocket of his pack.  "But I think we should investigate that pylon.  But carefully, son." He looked meaningfully at Will.

            "Yeah, I know…don't touch anything…look around before you fool around…everything could be dangerous…don't assume anything…" Will recited the litany of his father's pet phrases by rote.

            Rick looked at him through narrowed eyes, trying to determine if Will was being sarcastic.   But Will had the most innocent look in his bright blue eyes.   Rick decided to ignore any implied sarcasm.  He pointed towards the rocks.  "Those do look like steps, but they were carved for someone much larger than us."

            "Sleestak?"

            "Perhaps.  Enik's people were shorter than the Sleestaks."

            "The Builders?"

            "Perhaps."  Rick walked towards the base of the mountain.   Again, the odd, dreamy sensation filled him.  Will watched as his father slowed down, walking so slowly he was shuffling. 

            "Dad?  Dad!"

            Rick shook his head.  He looked around.  He was about halfway to the base of the rocks.  Will was still by the rock where they had spread out the map.   "Yes, son?"

            "Dad, what's the matter? You looked like you were walking through water or something.  Slow motion, like in the movies."

            "That feeling came over me again…like when I wrote on the map," Rick said slowly.  "Will, there is something strange here.  Look at your arms." Rick held out his right arm and pointed to it.   The tiny hairs on it were standing straight up.  He felt prickling at the base of his neck, and he could see Will's hair, already tightly curled from the humidity, kink and curl even more.  His own hair felt the same. 

            "It's like being out in a lightning storm," Will said.

            "Electricity, or some type of power," Rick confirmed.  "Come on.  Let's store our packs behind those boulders.   Take your knife, your canteen and some crystals.  I have my knife.  Let's move slowly."

            "Okay." Will did as his father instructed.  Rick tossed his pack over to Will. Will stashed their packs behind the boulders and came quickly to his father's side.

            "Do you hear it?" Rick asked his son.

            "Hear what..?"  Will strained to listen.  "I don't hear anything at all."

            "I know," Rick replied.  "That's what I mean."

            They halted at the base of the cliff by the gigantic stone stairs.   It was as if they had walked into a completely sound proof room.  One minute they could hear the wind, the rustle of dinosaur nip in the wind, the creaking of trees on the other side of the crevasse, and the far-off bellows and hoots of dinosaurs in the valley jungle.   Then, stepping through the sand to walk towards the base of the cliffs, the sounds were abruptly cut off.  The only sound was the sound of the beating of their hearts as the blood coursed through their veins.

            "Dad?" Will waited for his father's instructions or explanation of the phenomena.

            Rick had none.  "Come on Will," he said softly.  "Let's go on up the cliff and investigate that pylon.  But be careful.  I have the feeling…"

            "That someone is watching us?" Will looked up at the stones resembling Sleestaks.  He swallowed.  "So do I."

            Rick went first, keeping the pace slow as they climbed the small mountain.  It was difficult climbing.  Every once in a while, they paused, listening.  The eerie stillness remained.  Not a breath of wind stirred on the hillside, although they could see trees swaying and the ferns moving below them.   From up on the cliff, they had a stunning view of the crevasse, and Rick again wondered how deep it really was.  He could see a tiny river like a glittering blue thread running through it, deep and far below.   They had tried once to raft out of the Land on another river, finding only that the river came up once again underneath the tunnels of their enemy, the Sleestak.   There was no escape on the river.

            "Dad? Are you ready to move on?"
            Will was standing on the rocks above him.  How had his son moved so fast, and so far ahead?

Rick shook his head.  "Yes, son, I'll be right there.  Don't get too far ahead of me."

            "But you said that you needed to rest," Will replied, "and you've been leaning on that rock for fifteen minutes."

            Rick looked up.  Will stood above him.   It was funny how the shadows made his shirt look emerald green…

            "Dad?"  It was Will's voice, this time coming from behind him.  "Dad?"
            Rick turned around.  Now he saw Will standing a few steps below him.   Will wore his usual chambray shirt and brown jeans and the gold chain his mother had given to him on his birthday right before she died.   "Will?" Rick was baffled.  "Son, is that you?" He looked up the mountain, but there was no one else on the rocks above him.

            "Of course it's me," Will said, equally puzzled.  "Why wouldn't it be?"

            "Because I just saw you, on the rocks ahead," Rick replied.  He pointed up the trail to where he had seen the image of his son.  "But it wasn't really you.  Will had on a green shirt…"

            "Dad, I've been standing down here waiting to see if we should move forward since you stopped," Will replied.  "I saw you stop and rest.  I didn't seen anyone else."

            "It must have been my imagination," Rick replied.  "Let's go on."

            He began climbing again.  The rocks grew steeper.  In some sections, he had to scale what had been one step to the builders in three human sized steps, using chunks missing from the rocks for footholds.  His palms were scraped raw from the rocks, and the knees of Will's jeans were white with sandstone dust.  They rested about halfway up and passed the water canteen between them.

            "It doesn't look like we've gone anywhere," Will complained.

            Rick looked down the mountain.  He expected to see that they were about halfway up to the peak.  Instead, he was looking down perhaps twenty feet to the sandy valley floor.  Waves of heat shimmered up in columns from the sand.   Sweat dripped down their faces.  Even without the packs, it was slow going, and very hot.   He sat with his back against the sandstone wall in a bit of shade created by the mountain.   A slow, easy kind of peace suffused his limbs.  He closed his eyes.

            "Dad!" Will shook his shoulder.  "Dad, wake up!"

            Rick shook his head groggily.  "Oh, I'm sorry, son," he said.  "I must have dozed off for a few moments."

            "Not for a few moments, but for hours!" Will said.  He pointed at the sky.  The sun had moved far to the west and was slowly sinking.   "We must have both fallen asleep."

            "There is something strange about this mountain," Rick declared.  "Ever since we've gotten nearby, time has seemed to slow down.  I  saw an image of you that wasn't real.  Someone -- or something -- in the Land of the Lost does not want us investigating this mountain."

            "And that must mean only one thing," Will said.

            "What, son?"

            "That we HAVE to," Will replied with assurance.  "Because you know that if the land doesn't want us to investigate, it's probably something important…"

            Will stood and brushed the sand and dirt off of his jeans.  "Dad, come on.  We've got to get to the top.  Besides," he grinned and held out a hand to help his father rise.  "We'll have a spectacular view from the top, and that will really help us with this map."

            Rick smiled and took Will's hand.  He hauled himself to his feet and brushed off his serviceable twill pants.  Will was becoming a surprisingly strong adult.  Well, maybe it wasn't surprising after all.  Will had had to face some pretty tough circumstances, Rick reflected as they began climbing the rock steps again.  First, when Elizabeth died, Will was only eight years old.  He'd had to deal with the loss of his mother pretty early on.  Then having his whole life turned upside down by being dumped through a time doorway into this hostile land and having to grow up pretty quickly at the age of seventeen…Rick remembered his own sheltered childhood on 4th Street in Indiana, his teenage years at Filmore High.  Aside from the usual pranks and mischief he'd engaged in with his brothers Jack and Tom, and sometimes even with his sister, Ruth, it had been a mundane, middle America idyllic childhood. Until Korea, of course, but everyone his age had to deal with that–and the generation before his had dealt with Flanders Field and the Pacific Theater of World War II.   Nothing at all like what Will and Holly had faced, but perhaps similar in that it transcended the normal growing-up process and forced men and women to become stronger than who they thought they were.  His two children had grown in spiritual grace and understanding, overcoming not just this hostile environment but their own emotional and psychological limitations to rise to new challenges.  He was pretty damn proud of his kids.

            He halted and grabbed the back of Will's shirt to make him stop.  "What?" Will asked.

            Rick said, "Sshh.  Listen.  Do you hear that?"

            The silence pressed against them.  Then they both heard it.  "That was a car horn," Will said.  The car horn bleated again.  Then came the wail and siren of a police car.

            "There must be a time doorway open," Rick said tersely.  "Come on, Will.  We've got to get to the top of this mountain."

            They redoubled their climbing efforts.   The higher they climbed, the steeper and rockier the path became.   Now small pebbles and rocks were dislodged with every step, and sometimes the boulders shifted precariously as their weight touched the step.  Rick kept his head down and watched where he placed his feet.  A wrong step could unleash an avalanche and possibly bury the path that could take them safely back down to the foot of the mountain.

            After about fifteen minutes of climbing at the redoubled pace, Rick had to stop and catch his breath.  "Will, wait a minute please."  Will kept climbing.  Rick looked up.  Will was on a small rocky outcropping.  He was walking straight towards the edge.   The drop down was incredibly steep, since they were about two thirds up the small mountain.

            "WILL!" Rick shouted.   He scrambled up the last few steps to the ledge and with a swiftness which surprised even himself, he lunged forward, caught the back of Will's shirt, and hauled his son off the edge of the cliff.

            Will fell backwards and hit the rough stone wall of the mountain.  "Ow!  Dad, why did you do that?"

            "What do you mean, why did I do that?" Rick demanded.  "Son, you were about to walk off the edge of a cliff."

            "No I wasn't," Will said.  His eyes were slightly unfocused and his voice, dreamy.  "I saw a better path, an easier path off to the side that would take us directly to the top.  I…"  Suddenly his eyes snapped back into focus.  He turned and looked towards the path he had been traveling.  He blanched.  "Oh no.  I was walking off the cliff.  I swear, Dad, it didn't look like a cliff…I saw a path, smoother than the one we're walking on now, and it seemed like the best way…"

            Rick felt a tingle of anger, and fear, and he let go of Will's shirt.  "It's okay, son," he said.  "There's something on this mountain that is making us hallucinate.  I had that same dreamy feeling at the base of the mountain.  Then I saw you when you weren't there.  And I bet that car horn was a hallucination, too.  In fact, just seconds before it happened, I was thinking about my childhood…about how it was so different from yours.  I was thinking about 4th Street in Indianapolis, where I grew up.  And I remember…" Suddenly Rick snapped his fingers and his face lit up.  "Yes!  That was it!  I was thinking of how different my childhood was from yours.  I remembered how, during my youth, there were still wagons for the milkman and the coal man even though most people had cars, and I remembered how strange it seemed when the horse drawn wagons left after World War II and there were these big trucks.  That was the horn that we heard.  I remember the first time I heard that horn.  It was the milkman's truck.  The milkman liked to bleat it loudly at us kids when we walked to school, to make the girls jump.  We weren't used to it, you see.   And the police siren…I was thinking of your mother…" Rick's voice trailed off.   He was remembering the accident that had claimed Elizabeth's life.

            "Dad, something on this mountain is taking our thoughts, and making them into illusions," Will said.  "Like the time the Sleestaks made us see Mother."

            "And that something may also kill us if we're not careful," Rick said.  "My thoughts tends to wander while we're hiking.  I think of all sorts of strange things…"

            "So do mine," Will replied.  "Like when we were climbing these rocks.  The going was getting tougher.  I kept thinking, 'Gee, I wonder when the path will level off?' And then it did, so I followed it…"

            "Whatever this pylon is at the top of the mountain, it must be pretty special to want us to keep away," Rick said.

            "That is, if it is doing it intentionally," Will replied.  "I mean, maybe we think it's hostile, but maybe it's just being it, you know?"

            Once again, Rick was struck by how much his children had grown during their Land of the Lost experience.  "You know son, you could be right," Rick replied, nodding his head in agreement.   "After all, we are the intruders here.  The crystals, for example, are merely tools, yet by touching the wrong ones I got shocked and nearly died.   We could interpret that as the crystals being hostile, or we could simply say that I was the intruder, not using them properly…"

            "We should continue," Will said.  He pointed towards the west, where the sun had dipped lower towards the horizon.   "We've got maybe three, three and a half hours of daylight left."

            Rick agreed. "But we should climb together," he said.  "Don't go off ahead.  And let's talk with one another so that we keep checking to make sure the other hasn't gone off into dream land."

            "Good idea, Dad," Will said.

            Carefully, they walked off of the ledge and back to the path.  Rick looked up.  The golden pylon was now more clearly visible, and the        rocks that Will thought were fancifully carved by the wind into Sleestak shapes were definitely statues, large stone statues more in keeping with the appearance of an Altrusian than of a Sleestak.  Rick pointed.  "What do you see?" he asked Will.

            "I see the pylon. It's closer."  Will raised a hand to his eyes to shade them even further.  "And I see two of those rock outcroppings…oh boy, they are statues, aren't they!  And they look like Enik, so they must be of Altrusian origin, rather than Sleestak."

            "Good thinking son.  What do you estimate our climbing time to be?"

            "Maybe another fifteen, twenty minutes, if we don't get sidetracked with those illusions again…"

            "I think so too," Rick replied.  "Let's stay very close, and keep talking.  Let's talk about something that we know would be ridiculous to appear in the Land of the Lost."

            "Baseball," Will said instantly.  "If I hear the crack of a bat and the roar of the crowd at Wrigley Field, I'll know I'm hallucinating."

            So they talked baseball.  Will recited all of Willie May's stats.  Rick recited the 1973 starting lineup of the Red Sox, the Marshall family's favorite team.   Will began reciting the rules of the game, starting with scoring practices.  They kept their minds focused on the sport and continue climbing, slower and steadier. 

            "We're almost to the top," Will panted.  They could see clearly the golden shimmer of the pylon and the large status with the protruding, orb-like eyes.  Now that they were closer, they could see that the statues had once been painted in bright, jewel like colors, but sand and wind had sanded the colors off, leaving only a faint, tantalizing glimpse of what was.  Will could see the tannish-green of Altrusian skin on the left statue and the faint shimmer of ochre paint on the tunic on the right statues.  The statue on the left was a bit damaged, with the point on the skull sheared off, giving the head an almost human appearance.

            Suddenly they both heard a man shout, "Play ball!"

            Rick and Will burst out laughing as the illusion chimed in right on cue.  They ignored it and continued to climb side by side until they reached the top. The last few feet were difficult for the eroded steps were smooth and slick.  Will hauled himself up to the top, then dropped to his knees and leaned over the edge, giving his father the support he needed so he could clamor over the edge.

            "Oh wow," was all Will could murmur as the two sat, side by side, and gazed upon the scene.

            A ruined courtyard encircle the whole top of the small mountain.  Broken columns lay in shattered ruins and heaps at the far side of the mountain.  A deep, trapezoid-shaped indentation in front of the pylon was rimmed with dark green crystals that still sparkled with hidden depths.  Stagnant water pooled inside the trapezoid, indicating that it had once been a beautiful reflecting pool.  The guardian statues  flanked the top of the path, once the entrance to the grove.  At their feet, one either side, was a pylon-shaped slab of obsidian, carved with symbols resembling letters.   A few twisted and stunted trees grew next to the columns.  Orchids bloomed among the fallen pillars, providing a ghostly glimpse at what once must have been a splendid garden.

            "Dad…what is it?"

            Rick slowly stood, and Will rose to his feet.   He surveyed the area.   The statues, the gardens, the reflecting pool and the broken pillars…not even an insect chirped in the stillness.    He walked over to the guardian statue on the right, bent down, and traced the letters with his fingers.

            "I don't know, son…" Rick said.  "But whatever it was, this place was obviously very special to Enik's people.  And beautiful."  He admired the carving and the fine workmanship on the statues, then walked back to Will.  "Shall we look at the ruins together before we go into the pylon?"

            "Sure!" 

            Will and his father walked in a counterclockwise circle, starting with the right guardian statue, then examining the broken columns and pillars and the beautiful orange, purple, and yellow orchids that cascaded over the edges.   From the far side they could look over the edge of the mountain and down into the valley, and they spent a few minutes there, discussing points to put on the map.  They could actually see little green specks moving in the jungle far away.  Dinosaurs.  From on top of the small mountain, they looked like ants. Will bent over to touch one of the beautiful orchids.  As he pulled the flower closer to him, a stinging pain coursed through his index finger.

            "Hey!"  He pulled his hand away just in time.  A long thin spike like a needle protruded from his index finger.

            "Let me see that Will." Rick bent over to look closely at the injury.  "It's swelling.  How does it feel?"

            "Like a bee sting." Will held his hand steady while Rick pulled out the thorn. "Whoever heard of an orchid with a thorn?"

            "Probably a protective mechanism against the dinosaurs," Rick replied.  "Damn, I think part of it broke off in your finger."

            "It feels better." Will flexed his hand.  There was a red mark on the tip of his finger where the thorn had entered it, and the area was a bit swollen, but it felt better now that Rick had removed the thorn.

            "Okay then?"

            "Yes.  Let's keep looking around."

            They finished examining the ruins.  There was more of the unusual writing and flecks of paint on the columns that hinted at beautiful decorations and colors.  Crystals were impressed into the tops of some of the columns into an intricate, stylized design mimicking leaves and flowers.  Rick wondered at the skill of the Altrusian artisans and their high level of culture.  How could they have degenerated into the Sleestak?  No wonder Enik was so upset and driven to warn his people…

            They had come around full circle and now stood in front of the reflecting pond in front of the pylon.  The water was dirty brown and a skim of greenish brown algae grew on the surface.  Weeds thrust through cracks in the decorative edging.  Something about the reflecting pool attracted Rick and he peered closer into its depths.  Was it his imagination or did something flicker below the surface…?  He shook his head. No.  He would not give in to these illusions again.

            "What's next?" Will asked.  "Looks like we've got an hour or so left before dusk.  And we still have to set up a camp."

            "Yes, I know." Rick looked at the pylon.  The pylon key was in place.  "We should look inside."

            Will had been hoping his father would suggest that.  "Okay."

            Rick walked to the pylon and stood on tip toe, turning the key.  The familiar hum filled his head as the doorway disappeared into nothingness, revealing the black interior of the pylon.  He stepped through and Will followed.

            "Where's the matrix table?" Will whispered.

            Rick shook his head.  The pylon was black as pitch.  They could not see anything.  He took Will by the sleeve so that they would not be separated.  He stepped forward.

            Suddenly, a greenish light suffused the interior.   A large, crystalline globe appeared high on the wall over their heads and directly in front of them. It glowed and swirled with green mist. 

            A voice called out to them.  "Welcome.  We have scanned your mind as you approached the temple.  What do you wish to learn?"

            "Will!" Rick called.  "Don't listen to it.  Don't think…!"  He tried backing out of the pylon.  With a growing sense of panic he realized that the door had slid closed behind them.  Everywhere was blackness except for the glowing green globe.

            "Dad!" Will cried.  A circling halo of lights had appeared around Will.  The lights swirled in a double helix pattern.  Will's form began to shimmer.  "Dad! Help!"

            "Will! Hang on!"  Rick tried to approach the glowing globe but he could not move.  It was as if his feet were bound to the floor.  

            The voice inquired again, "What do you wish to learn?"

            "Let go of my son!" Rick cried.

            "Command not recognized," the voice stated in the same unemotional tone.  "Learning Program One commencing.…"

            Will's body disappeared.

 

*   *   *

 

            For a second or two, Will was suspended between two worlds.  He saw his father's face illuminated by the green glow from the globe on the wall.  Overlapping this image was a brighter image of High Bluff.   For an instant he thought he would be transported back to his father, but then he was rushing headlong towards High Bluff as if he were inside a car traveling ninety miles an hour.  He raised his arms in front of his face as if to shield himself from the crash.

            Then just as suddenly as it had begun he was standing in the middle of the family's cave.  His younger sister Holly was sitting on the edge of her cot sewing a dress she was making out of an animal hide.  Her back was to the entrance to the cave.  Will was sorely tempted to yell "Boo" or something else to make her scream.  But he remembered that he had left his father in the Temple of Learning three kilometers away, and for all he knew, Dad could be in trouble.  He needed Holly's help him to make sure their father was all right.

            "Holly?" he called.

            She still jumped and gave a little scream.  "Will Marshall! Look what you made me do!"  She held up the index finger of her left hand.  She'd pricked it with her sewing needle when he'd called our her name.  "What are you doing back so soon?  Where's Daddy?"

            "It's a long story," he said.  "I've got to take a few more supplies and hike back to where I left Daddy.  Can I borrow your pack?"

            "Sure," she said.  "But where is Daddy?"

            "We found a new pylon," Will said.

            "A new pylon!" Holly leaped to her feet.  "Where? I'm coming too."

            "No you're not!" Will snapped.  "This pylon is dangerous.  Daddy and I got separated somehow.  Weird things happened as we approached it.   It pulled me out and transported me over here…I'm not sure how."

            "I bet Enik would know."

            "Probably, but we don't have time to go over to the Lost City for a visit," Will said.  "Look, Holly, I can't explain, but the pylon lead us into all sorts of traps as we got closer to it…well, I don't want you to get hurt…"

            "I won't get hurt.  I want to help, Will.  I can!  I'm not the baby you think I am…"

            Will stopped.  He looked at his younger sister.   He thought of his conversation with his father on the way towards the small mountain.  Holly had matured since they had come to the land.  She'd worked hard to overcome her fear of heights.   She didn't scream or cry so much at the things she used to; bugs, spiders, mice, and snakes.  Heck, Will thought, once you've seen a stinking dinosaur carcass you've seen the grossest thing there is.   Maybe Holly was right.  Maybe she could help. But he'd be really angry with her if she turned into a baby again just when he needed her help.

            "Okay.  Grab your pack.  And some crystals!" he called as she scrambled to pull her backpack out from under her cot where she had stored it.  "And a full canteen!  We'll hike back to the small mountain together.  But you've got to do exactly what I tell you to do, all right?"

            "Right!"

            Together, the brother and sister team left High Bluff.

           

 

*    *   *

 

            As soon as Will dematerialized, Rick could move.  He rushed forward to the green globe and pounded it with his fists.  "Where is my son?" he roared.  "What have you done with him?"

            "You have entered the temple of learning.  What do you wish to learn?"

            "I wish to learn how to get my son back!  Release him."

            "To be released from this temple, one must complete a cycle of learning.  If you do not wish to learn, leave this place."  Rick whirled around as the familiar hum of opening pylon doors filled his ears.  The doors had materialized again.  By the sunlight that penetrated the darkness inside the pylon, he could make out the green globe, and the crystal matrix table, not on a pillar in the center of the pylon, but high on the wall, next to the globe. 

            "I'm not leaving until I get my son back," he muttered through clenched teeth, walking to the matrix table and studying the rapidly blinking lights.   "Enough of this.  Release Will!"

 

 

*   *   *

 

            Will couldn't shake the feeling that something was off about this whole hike.  He glanced down at his watch.  It had taken his father and him three hours of hiking to reach the small mountain that morning; now he and Holly had reached it in less than an hour.  And it wasn't as hot as it had been when he and his dad had walked there that morning.  Granted, the sun had shifted in the sky, so perhaps the light was reflecting and refracting differently off of the rocks.   But why would the distance change?

            And as for Holly…he was ready to throttle her, right there at the base of the mountain.  He had never been so angry at her.  First, her shoelace broke; they had to stop while she fixed it.  Then, she began whining that her pack was too heavy.  Will discovered that she'd put in all sorts of useless items; her jacket, an extra bedroll, and a loaf of smilax cake that she had baked last night.   Worst of all, she'd taken her damn makeup case with her!  The perfume alone could attract a whole herd of dinosaurs…

            "Now why the heck did you bring that?" he demanded of her. "I told you what to pack. Now you've just loaded yourself down with useless junk."

            "Well, you never know what we might need."

"We won't need your makeup case, that's for sure!"

"You never know.  We could need something in it.  And we might get hungry.  But the pack is too heavy for me."

"I can't carry your pack and mine.   You've got to just buck up and carry what you've brought."

            "But Will, I'm tired…"

            "So am I.  I've hiked double what you've hiked today but do you hear me complaining?  Come on, we've got to get back and help Dad."

            "You don't even know Daddy is in trouble.  Maybe the lights only took you away and didn't hurt Daddy.  My feet hurt."

            "Maybe they took Daddy someplace else.  He could have been transported anywhere.  Maybe even into the Lost City! He could be surrounded by Sleestak even now!"          

            "You don't know that. I'm hot."

            "Will you be quiet and start walking?"  His finger was aching again.  He looked down.  The tip was swollen and red.

            "I can't climb that mountain!" She pointed to the small mountain.  "What if we get to the top and I'm too scared to come down?"

            "You'll come down all right!" 

            "You're so mean to me, Will.  Why don't you ever understand me?"

            "I am not mean to you!  You are infuriating!" A surge of anger welled up inside of him, fueled by fear and frustration, and the energy spit forth at her in his words as hot and fiery as if it were a flame. "Why couldn't I have had a baby brother instead of you?  At least a boy would be brave and wouldn't complain about being tired.  You're useless!"  He strode forward double time, leaving her to trot behind him to catch up.

            "Will, you don't mean that, do you?"  Holly looked at him with tears in her eyes.

            He whirled around.  "You bet I mean that!" he roared.   "I've had it with you.  With your screaming at every little sound, your fear of heights and your stupid girlie things.   You're useless, do you know that?   I don't care what Daddy said about you making progress here.  You did a couple of brave things over these past few months, but you're still a big baby.  A little brother wouldn't be like this."

            "Oh Will," Holly sighed. A single tear dropped from the corner of her right eye and rolled down her cheek.  She sniffled.  "Okay, then. I'll go."

            A whirl of white lights swirled and descended on Holly.  A noise like a rushing freight train clattering upon metal tracks sounded.  Will watched in astonishment as the lights encircled Holly and her form shimmered and vanished.

            "Hey!  I didn't mean it! Bring her back!  Holly…"

            The lights continued swirling.  In their midst a new form appeared.   The lights scattered.

            There stood a little boy about the age of twelve.  He had the Marshall's curly hair, though his hair was sandy blonde instead of brown, and the same bright blue eyes.  He wore a light blue T-shirt, jeans and sneakers.   He smiled at Will.

            "Hi Will," he said.  "Let's go.  We've got to help Daddy."

            "Who are you?"

            "Thomas," the little boy said, his face puckering into a frown.  "Will, what's wrong? Why don't you remember me?"

            "Thomas?" 

            "Your little brother, Tom, remember?  Like, duh, Will, what's wrong with you?"

            "I don't have a little brother named Thomas.  I have a sister named Holly.  What happened to her?  Bring her back!"

            Tom smiled.  He hefted his pack onto his shoulder and walked forward until he was just a foot away from Will.  Will looked down into the boy's blue eyes.  Unquestionably, he was a Marshall.

            But there was something else about his eyes.  Something odd.  For an instant, it was like a ghostly image on the television screen when the reception isn't coming in strongly.  A white outline and vague form of another set of eyes stared back at him from Thomas's blue eyes.  Large, circular orbs, multifaceted like gems…Altrusian eyes.

            Was he still inside the Temple Pylon?  Will shook his head.  He felt dizzy.  No.  He had transported out of the pylon in a mechanism similar to what they had found inside the Moongiver Pylon.  He had found Holly, walked with her, she'd gotten all whiny on him, and then…

            Thomas.  She had turned into Thomas when he had wished for a little brother instead of a sister.  

"Let's go and save Daddy," Thomas said quietly.

 

*    *    *

 

Where are the skylons when you need them? Rick thought.  He touched crystals gingerly, one by one.   Nothing happened.   The pylon door remained open, so he grew more confident.

            "What do you wish to learn?" the voice from the green globe inquired every time he touched a green crystal.

            "Where is my son?"

            "He is in the learning chamber."

            "Release him!"

            "He will be released when he completes his learning cycle," the voice replied with infuriating detachment.   "Choose your learning program."

            "Go to hell," Rick muttered.

            "Unrecognized command," the voice replied.  "Unable to comply.  What do you wish to learn?"

            He touched blue crystals next.  A blue and red combination made the pylon shudder.  The green globe suddenly threw off a fierce, hot light.  A different voice, recognizably Altrusian, stated, "You have entered the diagnostic module."

            Ah ha, Rick thought.  This sounds promising.  He touched blue and red in groups of two.  The voice repeated its message.  He paused, thinking carefully.  If I were an Altrusian using this, he thought to himself, I would be logical.  I would be careful.  I would…he looked at his own five fingers, slender and mobile, and thought of Enik's cumbersome three digits.  I would have three fingers, Rick thought suddenly.  Multiples of three.  Maybe that's it!

            He touched red, red and blue.  Nothing.  Blue, red, blue.  Nothing.   Then blue, blue, red.

            The inside of the pylon lit up like he had pulled the cord on a 100 watt light bulb.

            He was staring at a large crystal sphere mounted on a metal pole protruding from the pylon wall.  The walls were black and shiny, like obsidian.  The matrix table was different from the ones he had seen in the Lost City.  Instead of being in a stone tray it was in a black metal tray.   He could now clearly see the crystals.  They were cut and faceted with care, like a jeweler's diamonds in a tray.   He carefully took his fingers off the crystals.  The light stayed on.

            "Okay," he breathed.  "I'm onto you, pylon.  Now give me my son back."

 

 

*    *    *

 

            "I don't have a brother," Will said stubbornly.

            They had hiked on for another quarter of an hour.  Thomas kept pace, scrambling over rocks and taking two strides to every one of Will's. 

            "Will, what's wrong with you?" Thomas pleaded.  "This new pylon's affected your brain. Of course you have a brother.  You want one, don't you?"

            "Just shut up."

            How had he caused this mess?  He'd often thought over the years of how a little brother would have been so much more fun than Holly.  No toy tea sets cluttering up the basement, no stupid dolls mixed in with his Hot Wheels in the playroom,  someone to ride bikes with and go down to the pond and catch frogs…

            Thomas turned and smiled at him.

            No!  It was as if Thomas could read his mind.  It was creeping him out. 

            They had reached the base of the small mountain.   Will grabbed Thomas by the shoulder and shook him as the boy started to run ahead and scramble up the mountain.

            "Look, I don't know who you are or how you got here," he said.  "But let's get something straight.  We're here to find Dad.  There's something about this mountain that makes you see illusions, that makes what you think become real…so don't go running on ahead.  We've got to concentrate on finding Dad and making sure he's all right."

            "Yeah, sure.  Let's go."

            Was Thomas being sarcastic?  Will looked down at the boy but Thomas' face was angelic and serene.

            "Sure Will.  You go first."

            Will started to climb.  He followed the hand holds and foot holds that he and his father had focused on.   He kept his mind firmly fixed to one thought: saving his father.  What if the pylon had taken his father to someplace bad, worse than the Land of the Lost?  You couldn't predict a pylon.  Look what it had done to Holly…

            Holly.  He swallowed.  Where was she?  What had become of her?  Was she really gone, or was this just another trick of the pylon?  He couldn't be sure.  When he'd touched Thomas' shoulder, he had sure felt real enough.   But for a moment he had seen something beyond those blue eyes…something alien.   This whole thing wasn't what it seemed, he felt sure, but he didn't know what was happening, so he continued climbing the mountain, determined to stick to the course of action he had undertaken. He just hoped that Holly was okay.  And he hoped that when he found his dad, Rick would have a better idea of how to find Holly, because Will didn't have a clue.

            He had been so busy climbing and thinking that he didn't notice Thomas.  The boy scrambled up the side of the path onto the higher, more jagged rocks, and was now ahead of him. "Hey Thomas, what did I tell you?" Will called out.

            Thomas turned around and stuck his tongue out at Will.  "I can climb better than you can, Will Marshall!"

            "Thomas, get back here…"

            "You think you're so great just 'cause your bigger than me.  But I can do anything you can do!"           Thomas danced out on a flat boulder.  The drop from the side of the mountain was perilously steep.  "Chicken!  Chicken! Bet you won't come out on this boulder after me…"

            "Thomas, this isn't a game.  Get back on the path or so help me…"

            "You're a chicken, you know that? It would be faster if we climbed on these rocks."

            "Thomas, this mountain is dangerous! Look out!"

            Suddenly, Thomas lost his footing.  His feet shot forward and he landed on his back on the rocks, then began to slide down the flat boulder.  With split second timing, Will leaped forward and grabbed the boy by the back of his T-shirt.  He heard the seams rip as the material pulled taunt and the boy's weight was suspended by a thin piece of cotton.  Then he grasped Thomas by the arms and  pulled him sideways over the rocks and back onto the path.

            Thomas started laughing.  "That was fun!"

            Will wanted to haul off and punch his laughing face.  "You idiot!" he swore.  "You could have gotten yourself killed, and me with you, if the rest of the rocks gave way when you fell.  What were you thinking?"

            "Oh come on, Will," Thomas said.  He stood and brushed off his jeans.  "Let's have some fun.  Daddy will be all right.  You're such a chicken, you know that?  I wasn't scared.  Were you?"

            "You bet I was.   What if you'd fallen?  You could have been killed!"

            "All you do is nag," Thomas complained.  "You and Daddy both.  'Thomas, stay on the path' 'Thomas, don't eat that plant' 'Thomas, stop teasing the tryceratops'."  Thomas whirled on the path.  "You're no fun at all."

            "We're lots of fun," Will snapped, "when it's safe to have fun.  You can't be running into danger with every turn."

            Thomas' eyes sparkled.  "Would you rather I be Holly?"  He opened his mouth and Holly's voice issued forth.  "Will, I'm scared.  I can't go on.  It's too hard."

            "Who are you?" Will asked.  "What have you done with my sister?"

            Thomas merely laughed and scrambled up the path.  Will had no choice but to follow.

            Suddenly, the ground started shaking.  "Thomas!" Will cried.  He leaped the last two feet towards his younger brother as the earth began rolling.  Rocks crashed down around them.  He grabbed Thomas by the waist and pulled him behind a large boulder on the side of the path, shielding the boy's head from the bouncing rocks.   The earthquake lasted for several minutes.  

            Dad, Will thought, I hope you're okay.  I hope you're all right in the pylon.

            "Don't be scared, Will," Thomas said, as if reading his mind. "Dad's all right.  It'll stop soon."

 

*     *     *

           

            Damn!  Rick swore under his breath.  A combination of nine crystals, which he felt for sure would have opened the time portal that had taken Will, had instead caused a hard and quick earthquake, a tremor that had shaken the rubble outside and caused a landslide down the small mountain.  He took his hand away from the matrix table.  Another combination?  He was tired, thirsty, and desperately worried about Will.  Where had he gone? What was happening to his son? 

            He rubbed his eyes.  Once again, he touched stones.  Red, blue, red, green, green, green, yellow, blue, red…

            The green globe glowed steadily.  A sound like the metal wheels of a rapidly approaching freight train filled the pylon.  A ring of lights descended from the ceiling in the exact place where Will had been standing.  Ah-ha!  He had found it!  Hoping against hope that it would take him to Will, Rick stepped into the lights and vanished.

            The pylon door slid shut.

 

*    *    *

 

            They had lived through a few tremors and aftershocks in the Land of the Lost.  Holly always whined and complained she felt queasy afterwards.  She hated roller coasters and carnival rides for the same reason.  Will had always teased her about her weak stomach.  Now he knelt on the ground as the aftershocks stopped, leaned over the boulder and heaved.

            Thomas said, "Jeez, you are such a baby.   Even I don't do that." It was the exact same thing Will had said to Holly upon more than one occasion.

            Will rocked back on his heels, feeling dizzy.  He took a deep breath.  He pulled out his canteen and washed out his mouth, then took a sip of the warm water.   "Shut up, Thomas," he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.  As he did so, he noticed that his finger was even more swollen, and an angry red rash had appeared on his arm. He could see the tip of the remaining part of the thorn in his finger.  If he could just pull it out…but he had nothing to use to pull it out.   He would just have to live with the pain.  He only hoped it wasn't poisonous, but he figured that if it was, he'd be dead by now.  Maybe it was just making him sick.

            "I'm going on ahead."

            "No you're not."  This kid was even more annoying than Holly.   Holly he could deal with.  It was easier to coax and cajole her into doing things she thought were impossible for herself than it was to get this kid to stop charging ahead. 

            Thomas had already started climbing again.  The rock scree shifted precariously under foot.  Tiny pebbles bounced down on the path.   Will rose to his feet, grabbing onto the boulders for support.  He winced as his hand closed around the rock and the pain shot up his arm.

            "You know what, Thomas?"

            "What?"

            "I wish Holly were here.  At least she cared about me.   If she saw me get sick, you better believe she would have turned back, trying to play nurse.  She wouldn't have made fun of me."

            Thomas stopped and regarded Will with eyes that suddenly seemed way too old for his twelve-year old face.  "Hmn.  Interesting.  You always teased her when she tried to play nurse."

            "Well, it was annoying sometimes.  But I really don't feel too good now.  I'm tired and my legs hurt from all of this climbing.  And I'm worried sick about Daddy, especially after that earthquake.  What if something happened to the pylon and he's trapped inside?"

            "Oh, come on. Stop being such a worry wart."

            "And that's another thing about Holly," Will said as they started to climb again.  His legs shook with fatigue; he realized he was hungry and thirsty.  He stopped and drank more water.  The water helped.  He felt better.   But his stomach was still queasy.  "She would have been just as worried, even more worried maybe, about Daddy."

            "So?"

            "So?  You're just running around like this is some sort of…big playground.  This is life or death.  This is survival.  This is something scary and unknown.  Daddy could be hurt.  Holly is missing and you're here in her place.  I'm worried sick about her, about Daddy.  And you're off rushing around, making fun of me, giving me lip whenever I ask you to do something.  Holly might be scared of things, but she sticks with me when there's trouble." 

            "Interesting."  Thomas' voice gave Will chills.  It was a decidedly un-childlike voice. It was as cold and emotionless as…as an Altrusian voice.  "But I thought these qualities of Holly were the qualities that you did not like: her caring, her nurturing,  her caution."

            "I don't…I mean, they're annoying, yes, but I don't hate them…I guess I don't…I don't know!"

            Thomas kept on hiking.  "Tell me when you know for sure," he called over his shoulder.

 

*   *   *

 

            For a moment, Rick saw two worlds before his confused eyes.  He saw the interior of the pylon.  He also saw the outline of a cavern, and some strange pillars arranged on a horse-shoe shaped dais.  With a shock of recognition, he noticed Altrusian skulls arranged one on top of each pillar on the dais.  It was just like the Library of Skulls back in the Lost City.  Was he in the Lost City?  No, he couldn't be, because that cavern had been guarded by the Sleestak and had multiple entries.  This cavern had no doors, no windows, and an unusual shaped ceiling.  Rick felt drawn to the cavern.  As he felt drawn to the cavern, it rushed towards him as if he were in a car traveling ninety miles an hour towards the room.  He raised his arms in front of his face out of reaction, but dropped them when he realized he had finished his journey.  He stood in front of the half circle of skulls and addressed them as he had done in the Lost City when confronting a similar library.

            "Where is my son?" he asked them.  "Who are you, and where am I?"

            "Look around before you fool around," the skull nearest to him intoned in what was an eerie copy of his own voice.  Startled, Rick looked at the walls behind the skulls, to each side.  He turned around to look at the far wall.

            "Will!" he cried in horror.

 

*   *   *

 

            Will was feeling sicker and sicker.   Thomas kept charging ahead and every so often, turning around and making fun of him. He sang television commercials, silly rhyming songs,  threw rocks at Will, and teased him relentlessly. Will couldn't keep up with him. He tried scolding Thomas, he tried cajoling him, and finally, he just asked him twice more to stop.  But Thomas ignored him and continued on.  The path seemed to grow longer and longer.

            He longed to see his sister.  Holly, for all of her annoying traits, would never have acted this way around him.  He stopped on the path.

            "Jeez," Will thought, "I wish Holly were here.  She'd turn back to help me.  She would care.  She would…"

            A noise like a freight train clattering on metal tracks filled the path as a ring of white lights descended on Thomas.

 

*   *   *

 

            Behind him, stretched out on the floor of the cavern, was Will.  He looked at first glance to be asleep, but his eyes were open and staring sightlessly at the ceiling. Rick rushed to his son's side and knelt next to him.  He felt for a pulse.  Will was alive but his consciousness was elsewhere. 

 Rick followed Will's gaze up towards the ceiling.  With a shock, he realized where the light was coming from in this sealed chamber with no doors and no windows.   Above them, a trapezoid shaped opening in the ceiling let in murky dull green brown light.   They were in a cavern underneath the reflecting pond, looking up and out. The pylon had transported them into this cave.  There was no way to leave except when and how the pylon chose to release them.

            "Will!  Son, speak to me!"  Rick gently tapped Will on the cheeks, but Will did not reply.

            "He cannot speak," the first skull intoned.  "He is finishing his learning experience.  This is the temple of learning."

            Rick rose to his feet and whirled around to face the skulls.

            "What is this place?" he demanded.

            The third skull from the left said, "This is the temple of learning."

            The fifth skull added, "Those who wish to learn come here to do so. They embark on the meditative walk up the mountainside."

            "Their thoughts are made manifest."  The eighth skull's eye sockets flared crimson.

            "Their deepest needs are exposed," the fourth skull said.

            "They learn what they need to learn for growth."

            Rick looked from one to the other.  From his previous experience in the Lost City's Library of Skulls, he knew the power inherent in this room among the combined intelligence of the Altrusian ancestor skulls.    He glanced back with concern at his son.

            "Are you sure he is not harmed?"

            "He will be returned unharmed," the fifth skull replied.  "His is not Altrusian. His brain wave patterns are not entirely compatible with the pylon's scanning mechanism.  But he will not suffer permanent damage."

            "What is he learning?" Rick asked.

            The skulls did not reply.   Will, stretched out on the floor, began to stir.

 

 

*   *   *

 

            Holly would help me, Will thought.  The noise grew louder and he saw the white circle of lights descend upon the path ahead.  Oh thank God, he thought.  That annoying Thomas will be gone.   He heard with relief his sister's voice calling from ahead on the path,  "Will!  Will, are you all right?"

            "Holly?"

            Oh, how glad he was to see her blonde pigtails and her plaid shirt come into view on the path above him.  "Hey, what the heck are you doing down there?" she asked.  She looked over the edge of the cliff and shuddered.  She moved back.  "We're really high up."

            "Are you okay?"

            "Yeah, sure.  Why wouldn't I be?"

            "You disappeared."

            She was puzzled. "No I didn't.  What's wrong?"

            She must not remember disappearing, Will thought.  He swallowed. His stomach heaved again.

            "Holly, I need your help," Will said.  "I'm not feeling too good. Can you help me up the path?"

            "Yeah, sure," she said.  Gingerly, she climbed back down over the rocks.  "What happened?"  She  walked over to his side.   He reached out and grasped her by the shoulder just to make sure she was real. 

 "Did you see a little boy on the path ahead?"

            "Little boy?  Was there someone else here? I didn't see anyone."

            "Never mind."  She felt solid and real.  

            "Will, you're really pale."

            He showed her the bit of thorn still stuck in his finger.  "I got sick after the earthquake and my stomach hasn't settled down yet.  I got pricked by a plant that I touched when I was with Daddy.  He got out the bigger part of the thorn, but there's some left."

            "Oh," Holly replied.  "That's easy enough.  I've got  tweezers in my makeup case."  Together, they sat down on a rock.  The sun beat warm against their backs.   She removed her backpack and took out the little plastic dime store makeup case.   Unzipping the case, she found the tweezers and balanced Will's hand on her knee, holding his finger steady.   With a bit of pressure on the hot and sore finger, she used the tips of the tweezers to extract the thorn.

"Ouch!" Will cried.  But the bit of thorn was gone.   He felt so much better.  His finger was throbbing, but the hot pain was gone.  "Thanks Holly.  I'll never make fun of your stupid makeup case again."

Holly opened the center compartment of her backpack and offered him the hard smilax cake and her canteen.  "Sometimes I feel better if I eat something.  Maybe you're just hungry and thirsty."

            "Thanks."  He gratefully accepted her canteen, since his was almost empty. He drank deeply.  He handed back the canteen when he was finished, and she offered the smilax cake again.  He regarded it with some trepidation.  "Holly, thanks, but I don't think…"

            He watched her.  Again, he had the sensation of looking at an image, while another ghostly image appeared behind her.  Her eyes were funny.  They were like looking at two blue stones, while behind them glowed larger orbs…

            She offered the smilax cake and watched him unblinkingly.  "It really does help."

            She was offering him some comfort and nurturing.   He thought of Thomas, scrambling ahead on the path, making fun of him.  I wouldn't have acted like that, Will thought.  Then another voice whispered in his mind, Oh yeah? When you were twelve?  You would have stopped? No, you would have taken advantage of the situation just as much as Thomas had.  He realized with embarrassment that he would have done the same thing that Thomas had done if he'd had an older brother.  He would have stopped to tease his brother, he would have leaped on ahead, showing off.  He would have been just as much of a brat, taking advantage of the situation when their power was reversed.  He hadn't thought of how much power he had, as the older brother, over his younger sibling.  He was bigger, and stronger, and more experienced.  He needed to learn patience, and acceptance.

            He regarded his sister.  Holly, for all her annoying qualities, was all right.  She was just, well, a girl.  They didn't like a lot of the same things that boys did.  Sometimes they liked the same things, but not always.  She might not like to hike up a strenuous mountain or go catch frogs in a pond, although he knew some girls from school who would do that.  Holly might not be physically brave, but he knew no one else who had her fighting spirit or her big heart.  She might not like to walk across the crevasse on a windy day, but she did do things like stop and make sure he was all right, and try to cook dinner from the weird fruits and vegetables in the Land of the Lost, and sew buttons on his shirt, and comfort him when he was sick…

            He looked at his sister, and he realized he wouldn't trade her for anything in the world.

            However, he would definitely have traded that smilax cake for a loaf of plain old white bread from the grocery store.  Yeah, he would have liked that.

            Suddenly, the smilax cake shimmered.   Holly was holding a bag of Wonder Bread in her hands.   Impossible.

            She smiled at Will.  "Here, Will," she said.  "I hope you feel better."

            A noise like a rushing freight train clattering on metal tracks filled his head.  Will looked up at the sky and saw a ring of white lights descend on him.

            It's an illusion, he thought with relief. It wasn't real.  And I don't have to eat that smilax cake…

 

*   *    *

 

            Will opened his eyes.  He was staring up at a weird ceiling that looked translucent.   Murky greenish brown light suffused a granite cavern.  

            "Son, are you all right?"

            "Dad!"  Will turned and saw his father.  He sat up abruptly.  He looked wildly around the cavern.  "Where are we? How did we get here?"

            "Are you all right?" Rick asked with concern

            "Yeah, I think so."

            "What happened to you?"

            "When the funny lights came down, and the noise like in the Moongiver Pylon started, I found myself back in High Bluff," Will said.  He stood up, as did his father.  He brushed some sand off his jeans.  "I thought I had been transported back there, like what happened in the other pylon, when we went to different worlds."  Rick nodded.  He would have drawn the same conclusion.  "I found Holly in the cave, and we gathered some supplies. We started back here.   I was worried about you.  I thought something had happened to you in the pylon."

            "What made you think that?"

            "I don't know.  Everything happened so fast and was so weird that I really thought something had happened to you.  Maybe that was part of the illusion, to create a sense of urgency."  Will rubbed the back of his head.  He was sore from lying on the stone floor of the cavern.

            "Well, what happened next?" Rick asked.

            Will hesitated.

            "Will?"

            "I…Dad, I didn't mean to.  I swear I didn't," Will pleaded.

            Rick braced himself.  "Okay, what did you do?"

            "I…well, Holly, or the imaginary Holly that the pylon created, she was getting on my nerves.  You know how she gets when we hike.  Her shoelace broke, she whined, she took stupid stuff in her pack…"

            "So you yelled at her?" Rick asked.

            "And more."

            "What did you do?"  When Will didn’t answer, Rick asked again, "Will? What did you do?"

            "I wished that she was a boy."
            Rick whistled.  "And I guess the pylon gave you a brother instead of a sister.   It seems that's the way this thing works.   Whatever you're thinking, it becomes reality.  Thoughts made manifest, the skulls told me, for the purpose of learning."

            "Yeah, well, a baby brother was worse than Holly, but in a different way.  Snotty.  Know-it-all.  Ran ahead of me.  No help at all.  We got stuck in an earthquake…"

            Now it was Rick's turn to look ashamed.  "That was me," he said sheepishly.  "I'm sorry.  You must have felt it down here in the cavern while you were in that trance, and incorporated it into your dream world.   I was trying to get the transportation mechanism to work so I could find you.  I accidentally created the earthquake."

            "Can I ground you for that?" Will asked.

            "I don't think so.  Next?"

            "After the earthquake, I didn't feel good," Will said.  "That bit of thorn that was still stuck in my finger started hurting, and I think I was having some kind of allergic reaction to it.  I got sick and I felt all funny. But the boy wasn't very helpful.  He didn't do…well, he didn't stop to help me.  He just kept running on ahead."

            "Normal," Rick affirmed.

            "Really? Was I like that at twelve?"

            "For the most part.  Always running on ahead. Didn't much care about what was happening to others.  I'd tell you to do something, you'd do the opposite. If I told you to stay away from the fire, you'd put your hand in it just to prove me wrong."

            "Oh God, how did you survive it?"

            "You just do, son.  What happened next?"

            "Well, I realized how stupid I was to wish that Holly was a boy and…I started thinking about her good qualities.  She reappeared.  I realized that she's not so bad.  She's just different, and I guess that's a good thing."

            "Yes.  That's why God made us make and female son.  We balance each other out.  We complement each other."

            Will thought about that for a moment, then nodded.  "I guess you're right. And boy, I was really glad she was there when she had tweezers in that dumb makeup case of hers.  She pulled out the thorn, I felt better, and the next thing I know, I woke up here.."

            Rick turned to address the skulls.  "Did he learn what he set out to learn?"

            "He has," the skulls intoned.   "You have learned what you  have set out to learn.  Do you wish to learn more?"
            "NO!" Rick and Will shouted at once.

            "Very well. Learning program terminating. Enter."  The skulls voice rang out in command.  The white circle of lights appeared, and the rushing noise filled the cavern. 

            "Should we, Dad?"  Will asked. “We could ask the skulls more questions, like how do we use the time doorways…”

            “Enter!” The eighth skull demanded.

            "I don't see as we have much choice, Will," Rick said with a shrug.  He put his hand on Will's shoulder.  "I think they're finished with us." He pointed towards the skulls.  "Now that we know how this place works, we can guard against any more unnecessary illusion.  We can try to come back with Holly in a few days and figure out how that time doorway works.  If it can transport us down into this cavern, perhaps it can transport us home.  It might be just part of the illusion machine, or it could be a real time doorway, but we can’t try it out unless Holly is with us.  C'mon, let’s go."

            Together, they walked into the white swirl of lights.  Darkness enveloped them.  Then it was as if a rushing wind pushed them from below.  They blinked once, and the Marshalls were standing outside of the pylon, next to the murky reflecting pool.  The sun had almost set and shadows rushed from the ruins. The eerie stillness was unbroken.

            "I wonder what really happened to this place?" Will asked.  The destruction seemed even more desolate now that the sun had passed behind the mountain range and the ruined gardens lay in shadows.

            Rick walked to the edge of the cliff and peered down into the valley.  Golden red sunset light flooded the valley, touching the jungle with spots of fire.   Rick mused on what they had learned of the Land so far.  Earthquakes were common, he knew.  Perhaps tremors had ruined the beautiful garden.  Or perhaps the cataclysm that had affected Enik's people accounted for this place as well as the Lost City's degradation.   "We'll never know.  But I think we should leave now, before the pylon latches onto more of our thoughts and starts fooling us with those illusions." 

"Dad, let’s come back here in a few days.  We can talk to the skulls without worrying about the Sleestak like in the Lost City.  We can ask them how to go home –“

            Suddenly, a violent tremor shook the ground.  A loud crack came from directly under the pylon.

            "The whole mountain is giving way!"  Rick cried.  The earth shook harder and the cliff they were standing on began to sway. "Quick, Will, get down the path."

"But the pylon! We'll lose another chance to learn how to get out of here!"

"No time to argue.  Do it!"

            Scrambling over the rolling and buckling earth, Will and Rick made their way to the path.  The guardian statues trembled and shook.  Will slipped and fell down a few steps, but picked himself up and helped Rick down the last few past the guardians.  The earth stopped trembling for a few minutes then began rolling again.   They were almost to the foot of the small mountain when the major tremor hit.  Rocks bounced down the path and the entire mountain shook.  Rick and Will took cover behind a large boulder and Rick leaned protectively over Will to shield him from the falling rocks.   Finally, when it was over, they crept out of their hiding spot.

            The top of the mountain was gone.   The pylon was gone.  It was a jagged mountain peak, a smaller mountain than before, cracked and broken.  Not even a scrap of gold pylon-metal glittered anywhere in sight.  It was as if the mountaintop imploded.

            "Oh no," Will sighed.  "Another pylon, gone!"

            Rick shook his head.  "There's nothing left for us here.  We've only got another hour to make camp before the sun sets completely.  I don't know about you, but I'm hungry and tired."

            "Me too.  I could even eat one of Holly's smilax cakes."

            "That's pushing it."

            "Okay, maybe not smilax cakes.  But maybe one of those mushroom casserole things she makes with potatoes and onions."

            "I'm afraid you'll have to settle for fruits, nuts and a hot potato, but maybe we can ask her to make us a casserole when we get back."

            Hiking away from the mountain was easier than hiking towards it and no further illusions troubled them.  Will and Rick retrieved their gear from behind the boulders and began hiking back towards High Bluff.  They walked for about half a mile, then found a sheltered spot near the cliffs and made camp.  A tiny spring flowed from a crack in the rocks and they both drank greedily, refilling their canteens.  Will left his father for a few minutes to search for firewood, and when he returned with a few very old pieces of wood and some dry dinosaur nip for kindling, Rick had already set up their sleeping bags and their cooking gear.

            "How's your finger?" Rick asked Will.

            "Fine." Will held it up for his father's inspection.  "Do you think Holly is going to believe this story when we tell her?"

            Rick shook his head.  "I wonder what's  happened around High Bluff today. It couldn't have been as exciting as this day was for us.   She's going to be awfully jealous that she wasn't here."

Will started the fire.  As Rick boiled water for the makeshift brew he prepared from indigenous herbs that created a sort of pseudo-coffee, Will pushed two potatoes into the fire to roast for their evening meal. They ate their meager rations of fruit and nuts carried in Rick's pack from High Bluff while the potatoes baked and spoke of  the glorious architecture they had seen on the mountain, the glistening orchids, the weird illusions, and their wonderment at how the pylon had created the illusions.  Will kept thinking of how bad he'd felt when Holly had turned into Thomas, and of how glad he was when she was returned to him.  For the first time that day, he was looking forward to seeing her again when they returned to High Bluff.  He couldn't wait to tell her of his adventures and hear about hers.

When the potatoes were good and hot, Rick pulled them out of the fire and they each took one.  "Needs butter," Will said as he speared it with his camping fork.

            "And a good steak to go with it," Rick muttered.  

            "Dad," Will asked around a mouthful of potato, "If Holly had been a boy, what would she have been named?”

            Rick paused, so startled that he just held his fork halfway away from the potato as he stared at his son.  “What?”

            “I mean, did you and Mom have an alternate name picked out if she had been a boy?"

            "Well, sure," Rick thought carefully for a minute.  "If Holly had been a boy, she would have been called Thomas.  William was our first choice, after my father, but you had that name.   We picked Thomas to honor your uncle who had died."

            "Dad, did you ever tell me this before?"

            "No, you never asked."

            "Did anyone else know that you chose that name? I mean, besides you and Mom."

            Rick shrugged.  "I don't think so," he replied. He continued eating his potato.  "Maybe your mother told Grandma.  I'm not sure."

            "Then how did the pylon know that if I had a younger brother, he would have been called Thomas?  That was what he told me his name was: Thomas.  If it was only picking things from my mind to put into my learning experience, and I didn't know that you had chosen that name…"  Will let his words trail off.  "And how come my finger is better?  I was laying there on the floor of the cavern, but in my imagination–my learning experience–Holly pulled out the thorn.  And when I woke up, it's gone."

"Mind over matter."

"Maybe."

Will continued eating.  Finally, he spoke up and said, "Could Thomas have been real?  Could the pylon have pulled Thomas from an alternate universe?  Another dimension, maybe, where you and Mom had a boy as your second child, and not a girl?"

            Rick thought carefully before answering, "You know something, Will?  I don't think we're ever going to learn the truth.  The pylon is gone, and for all we know, so are the skulls.   We could go to the Lost City, brave being killed by Sleestak or fed to the god of the pit just to find out, but I'd rather not.   So let's pretend that somewhere, somehow, in your subconscious, you heard me and your mother talking about baby names when you were a kid, and you remembered it somewhere deep in your mind where you can't access the information, but the pylon could."

            "Is the pylon really gone?  Or was that last earthquake just an illusion?  Didn't you say something about an earthquake just seconds before the ground shook?"

            Rick turned and looked into the night sky towards the small mountain.  He hadn't thought of that. He turned back to listen more carefully to what Will was saying.

            Will pressed on. "What if in another dimension you and Mom had a baby boy instead of a girl, a boy named Thomas… then there could be a dimension where Mother never died…or we never came to the Land of the Lost…maybe we could find out in some other way…"

            “This was a learning experience," Rick replied, "carefully choreographed by the pylon. It picked up on your thoughts and emotions about Holly as we walked up the mountain and created a scenario where you could learn to appreciate her for her good qualities.  I would never trade you or Holly for anything in the world.  I love you both, dearly for all the unique qualities, both good and bad, that you posses.   I think it's safe just to look at this experience at face value.   It may be as you've said, Will, or it might not be."  They were silent for a moment, each lost in his own thoughts.  Rick looked up and out at the darkening sky and the brightening stars.  Will thought he saw a glimmer of moisture in his father's eye.  But it could just have been the dancing light from the fire. 

"Maybe," Rick continued, his voice a bit hoarse, "it’s not so important to know the truth of this one.  Maybe, what’s really important is to know the truth in our hearts.”

 

 

 

Author's Note:

The action of this story takes place in the episode, "Baby-sitter," following Rick and Will's story line instead of Holly's.  To find out what really happened to Holly that day, see the episode "Baby-sitter."

 

Copyright Notice:

The Land of the Lost and all of its characters are copyright by Kroftt Productions.   The story was written in good faith and for fun and no money was made off of its creation. 

This story is copyright 2000 by Anonymous.