Calum Challenger gazed in awe at the image on the computer screen. Well, to be fair, he gazed in awe at the image on the central one of the ten screens that hung, at different heights, suspended from articulated arms, in front of his work desk. The image was blurred and grainy, but that wasn’t the screen’s fault. His multi-screen, high-definition, hex-core computer system was the best that money could buy – and despite the fact that he was only sixteen he had access to a lot of money. An awful lot of money. No, the image was blurred and grainy because it had been blown up from a photograph taken with a mobile-phone camera at long range while the subject was moving. Even so, he could just about see what it was.
He leaned back in his chair. Five years he’d been waiting for an image like this to turn up. Five years. Now that it was here, captured in colour on his computer screen, he wasn’t sure how he should react.
A cold breeze from the darkened expanse of the warehouse behind him caressed the hairs on the back of his neck. He didn’t turn round. He knew that it was just a random gust of wind through a ventilation grille – the alarm systems would have gone off if anyone had actually broken into the warehouse. He was, as he almost always was these days, alone.
The screen showed a figure against a background of grass, bushes and rocks. Judging by the figure’s shadow, the background was slanted – perhaps a hillside or a slope.
The interesting thing – the thing that had made Calum catch his breath in wonder – was that the figure didn’t look human.
It was difficult to tell its size, with only the heights of the bushes with which to compare it, but Calum got the impression that it was about the size of a large man. It was stooped, with rounded shoulders and bowed arms that dangled in front of it. Its skin seemed to be covered with short red hair, with the exception of pale lines up its spine, down the inside of its forearms and beneath its jaw. He could have been looking at a big, hairy man with a stoop, except that the face was different. A thick ridge of brow pushed out over the eyes, like on a chimpanzee, and the teeth and jaw were pushed out slightly, but a distinct nose projected. Chimpanzees didn’t have noses.
Calum drew a box round the figure’s right hand with a couple of clicks of his trackball, and flicked the section of image inside the box to another of his screens. The result was pixelated almost to the point of incoherence, but he could just make out what looked like a thumb that was nearly as long as, but separate from, the rest of the fingers, and angled so that it could close against them. An opposable thumb – that was another thing that ruled out the possibility that it was a chimpanzee. Calum knew that their thumbs were much shorter than the rest of their fingers, making it easier for them to climb trees. Gorillas had opposable thumbs, but this wasn’t anything like a gorilla. Some Old World monkeys, like mandrills, also had opposable thumbs, but they were all small – the size of a dog – and there was no way they could be mistaken for human. No, this thing was unique.
He ran his fingers through his long hair and interlaced them at the back of his neck. He supposed it could be a man in a mask and a hairy suit – like that 1967 footage taken in California, supposedly showing an ape-like creature locally known as Sasquatch, but which had turned out to be a hoax. That was the problem with these blurry photographs or jerky video clips – they could so easily be hoaxes. And yet . . . its forearms seemed longer in proportion to its upper arms, and to the rest of its body. Reduced to a silhouette, it just didn’t look human. If the creature was a hoax, then it was a very well-constructed one.
The creature. He laughed suddenly, and the laughter echoed back to his ears from the cold brick walls of the warehouse. He was already thinking of it as the creature. Just a few moments ago it had been the figure. Somewhere in his mind, it seemed that he had already made a decision about the photograph’s likely authenticity.
He could sense his heart beating faster than normal.
He felt slightly light-headed. Off in the distance the sound of London traffic drifted through the ventilation grilles, but Calum couldn’t hear it. Mentally, he was listening again to his father’s voice, deep and comforting, echoing over the gulf of time from five years before.
‘You know, Calum, the original human species in northern Europe and central Asia was the Neanderthal. They were slow-moving creatures: large heads, bulbous foreheads and covered in hair. They were organized in clans, often living in caves, and had the intelligence to make fire and use tools. However, out of central Africa, at a time of particularly low sea levels, came Homo sapiens – “thinking man” – our direct ancestors. They were descended from tree-dwelling apes and were smaller, more agile, intelligent and inventive. There was probably a time when the Neanderthals and Homo sapiens made room for each other, but,as the sapiens culture expanded,battles must have been fought for land and food and gradually the Neanderthals were driven to more mountainous and inhospitable regions and eventually, or so it’s believed, made extinct. Remember the stories I told you about how American settlers treated Native American Indians? Or how Canadian settlers treated the Inuit, or Australians the Aborigines, or New Zealanders the Maori? The list goes on. It’s a similar pattern. It’s the spread of the dominant culture and the destruction of the weaker. But what interests me, Calum – and your mother, probably rightly, thinks I’m crazy – is the possibility that Neanderthal man may have continued to live and breed in small bands in extremely isolated locations surviving in some form even up to the present day. Wouldn’t that be something? To find a Neanderthal and come face to face with a living descendant of the original inhabitants of Western Europe?’
That had been the last thing that his father had said to him. Apart from ‘Goodbye’.
Breathing heavily, Gecko stood on top of the three-storey building and looked out across the rooftops of London.
The wind ruffled his hair. Down on the streets, where the ordinary people went about their business, it was warm and damp, but up here, where the wind scoured the city unobstructed, it was cool and fresh. And he could see the sky above and all around him.
His right foot throbbed where he had landed hard from his last jump, and he could feel a burn on his back where he had forward-rolled over a gravelled tarmac roof twenty minutes before, but they were minor distractions: badges of valour in the great game that was free-running.
He knew exactly where he was, but he still took a moment to orient himself. Making assumptions about what was on the roofs around him was a quick way to injury, or even death. He’d seen it happen before, to friends of his. Other free-runners. Things could suddenly appear – air-conditioning vents, pipes, piles of bricks stored somewhere out of the way, even pigeon coops, rabbit hutches or stretches of urban garden. If you jumped across a gap between two buildings expecting there to be a flat roof on which you could roll, only to find that someone had started building themselves an attic, you could find your day seriously ruined.
His sharp eyes scanned the gap in front of him. Everything looked the same as he remembered. The gap was about three metres across – an alley between this building and the next one. He had a feeling that the building on which he stood was an old fire station converted into an upmarket wine bar – the balustrade round the edge of the roof was ornate, sculpted from stone rather than moulded from concrete – but he didn’t particularly care what was going on at street level. He just cared about the roofs, and the roof of the building on the other side of the gap was about a metre lower than this one. If he rolled left when he hit it, then he’d go through a skylight and plunge inside the building; if he rolled right, then he’d impale himself on a rusted pipe that had probably once been part of a ventilation system. In between the skylight and the pipe was a stretch of flat tarmac about a metre and a half wide and four metres long. He could hit the roof about fifteen centimetres in and roll, to absorb some of his momentum, then come out of the roll running, and vault across the low chimney that blocked his path. He knew that on the other side of the chimney there was a sloping section of tiles down which he could slide. At the bottom was a gutter. If he spun right and ran along the edge of the gutter, he would be in a perfect position to leap across the next gap and grab on to the fire escape of the five-storey building next door.
He paced five steps backwards, paused, took a deep breath and ran towards the edge of the roof.
As Calum remembered his father, pictured his face and heard his voice, he felt the old, familiar feeling of helpless grief well up within him. His chest tightened, and his breath caught in his throat. He could feel the tears behind his eyes, but he forced it all away, pushed it into the locked area at the back of his mind, which he kept for all the memories from that time.
To distract himself, he checked the source of the photograph again, just to be sure he knew where and when it had been taken. It was one of a bunch of images uploaded to a photo-sharing site by someone who claimed to be backpacking in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. Calum had found it by accident; or, rather, his automated internet search-bot applications had found it for him and flagged it up for his interest. Look at this! the caption said. Never seen anything like it! One of the locals LOL?
According to the date/time stamp, the image had been taken two days ago. With a couple of clicks of his trackball, Calum called up a particular and rather unusual piece of software that automatically checked the metadata of any photograph to see if there was a GPS tag attached. Many mobile phones had GPS chips that could locate the phone to within a couple of metres, and that data was often embedded in photographs. A window of the latitude and longitude digits appeared on the screen. He copied the figures and flicked them over to a third hanging screen – one with Google Maps running continuously. The rotating globe in the window suddenly expanded, as if Calum was plummeting from orbit towards the surface of the Earth. Within moments he was gazing at a picture of what looked like a dark green crinkled lettuce leaf sprinkled with mayonnaise, but which was probably ice-capped mountains seen from above. A label told him what he was looking at: Caucasus Mountains, Georgia.
Georgia – the former Russian republic, now a fully fledged country in its own right. Well, that matched the place where the backpackers claimed they were located. And, of course, if there were examples of the missing evolutionary link between apes and men still living somewhere in the world, a remote mountain range on the border between Europe and Asia was more likely than, say, a shopping centre in Essex – although, based on some of the TV programmes he’d watched recently, perhaps man-apes in Essex weren’t as far-fetched as people might think.
On a whim, he copied the name of the girl who had posted the photograph online, and he flung it across to a fourth suspended screen. There it was immediately pasted into a specialized search program that he’d had written a few years before. The program took any name fed into it and cross-referenced that name with a whole range of databases – census information, school and university records, registers of births, deaths and marriages – along with social-networking sites and then parsed the information to provide a description of that person’s life in accessible form. Within thirty seconds, Calum was reading an essay about the girl who had taken the photograph, which contained information that even she had probably forgotten about.
Various pictures of the girl were scattered through the text, showing her at different ages. He skipped over them. What she looked like wasn’t important: the fact that she was real was. All he wanted to know was that she had no hidden reasons for being in the Caucasus Mountains – like faking a sighting of a creature that looked like nothing known on Earth. He was gratified to find out that not only was she real, but she had been talking about her backpacking trip well in advance, and she had no interest in practical jokes, hoaxes or unknown creatures. She was taking a gap year before studying engineering at Warwick University. As far as he could tell, she was genuine.
His fingers hovered over the keyboard. Should he upload it to the website? It was speculative, certainly, but then what part of looking for evidence of previously undiscovered creatures still living in the world wasn’t?
Before his brain had made a firm decision, his fingers hit the keyboard, starting up the app that would upload the photograph to his website. He quickly typed in a caption for the photograph: Possible image of missing link in foothills of Caucasus Mountains. Is this the fabled Almast? The app automatically linked the word Almast to the description already held on the website’s database: the thousand words or so that he’d written two years ago about the Almast:
The Almast is a supposedly man-like creature reputed to inhabit the mountainous regions of central Asia and southern Mongolia in small, hidden tribes. Although the Almast is not currently recognized or catalogued by science, there are numerous local stories and legends about it, dating back nearly seven hundred years. Almasti (the plural) are typically described as human-like and bipedal, about 150 cm tall and covered with reddish-brown hair. It is said that they have protruding brows, flat noses and weak chins. The descriptions are very similar to those of Neanderthal man. Is the Almast a lingering remnant of Neanderthal man, still alive in the modern day?
He gazed at the photograph again. Neanderthal? Or maybe one of the earlier forms of man, the ones that came before Homo sapiens – Australopithecus afarensis, Australopithecus sediba or Homo erectus?
He needed real evidence. He needed something he could hold in his hand.
A fifth screen – the one that he kept perpetually displaying his website, The Lost Worlds – flashed as the information on it updated. He swung his chair round so that he could see it. He kept an eye on it throughout the day in case someone uploaded a new photograph, or took part in one of the discussion forums that he moderated (or, to be honest, often left to moderate themselves). As he watched, the home page changed to display the new image – the one of the possible Almast. His caption ran beneath it.
Calum liked to think that, across the world, people were hunched in front of their computer screens staring in amazement at the image he had put in front of them. In his heart of hearts he knew that probably wasn’t the case. Despite the fact that he had some ten thousand people who logged on to The Lost Worlds on a regular basis, he was enough of a realist to know that they didn’t spend their lives hanging on his every word. Over the course of the next few days, most of the people who were interested in the same subject as he was would check the website out and see the new photograph. There would be some discussion, and perhaps, if he was lucky, someone else might have a snippet of information that they could add – another photograph, or a story they had heard from a friend.
If he was really lucky, then some university researcher would offer to organize an expedition to the Caucasus Mountains to look for the Almasti. The chances of that were slight, however. Cryptozoology – the study of creatures that either shouldn’t exist at all or shouldn’t still exist – was frowned on in academic institutions around the world. No researcher who valued their job or their reputation would ever get involved. Not obviously, anyway. He knew, from the ISP addresses of the computers that connected to his website, that about a third of his regulars were associated in some way with universities or colleges. Perhaps they were students looking for something unusual, something for a laugh, but he liked to think that there was a small core of zoology and palaeontology professors checking him out in their spare time.
And maybe, just maybe, one of them would take the plunge one day and get in touch with him.
Maybe this latest photograph would be the trigger.
‘Now remember: be nice, smile if you can and try not to get too freaked at the way Calum moves around his apartment.’
Natalie Livingstone raised her eyebrows at her mother in what she hoped was appropriately withering teenage scorn. ‘I’m always nice, I always smile and there’s nothing in the world that can freak me out apart from mismatching shoes and handbag.’ She paused, replaying in her head what her mother had said. ‘Why – what’s freaky about the way he moves around his apartment?’
Gillian Livingstone – Professor Gillian Livingstone, Natalie corrected herself in the same way that her mother corrected anyone who introduced her without the honorific – glanced at the rivet-studded metal door that separated the two of them from the apartment of this Calum Challenger boy. ‘You know I’ve been taking an interest in Calum since his parents died, don’t you? Between us, his great-aunt and I try to make sure that he can live the kind of life that he wants. They were my best friends, and I promised them that if anything happened I’d make sure Calum ate properly, got a good education, didn’t spend all his inheritance on a Ferrari Testarossa and didn’t mix in the wrong company.’
Natalie closed her eyes briefly. Parents were so stupid sometimes. She’d heard the story, like, sooo many times before. ‘Yeah, I know. They died in a car crash three years ago. I remember when it happened.’
‘Two.’ A brief spasm of pain crossed her mother’s face. ‘Two years ago.’
‘What I didn’t tell you is that Calum was in the car with them. He was fourteen – a year older than you were. He was . . . injured.’
Natalie had a sudden flash of horrible scarring, like from some gross horror film, and winced. She didn’t like ugly things.
Her mother must have caught her expression. ‘Oh, don’t worry,’ she said drily. ‘He’s not a monster who has to hide away from all human contact. Looking at him, you can’t tell quite how serious the crash was. But when he moves . . .’ She paused. ‘Well, his spine was affected. There was nerve damage.’
‘He has a broken back?’
‘Not quite. It was never actually broken, but the damage to the nerves was so great that his legs are paralysed.’
Natalie thought for a moment. ‘Oh, right. He’s in a wheelchair. That’s OK.’
Her mother shook her head. ‘Actually, no. He’s got a wheelchair – a very good, very expensive one, but he doesn’t like to use it. He says it makes him feel like he’s not on a level with anyone else.’
Natalie tried to imagine what Calum Challenger did without a wheelchair. The only thought that came to mind was just too stupid for words, but she said it anyway. ‘So what does he do – crawl around the apartment or something?’
‘Not quite. It’s difficult to describe. Wait and see.’ She reached out and pressed a series of keys on a security pad by the door. Somewhere behind it, Natalie heard a buzz.
While she waited for something to happen, Natalie looked around. Behind her was a large lift – one of those you see in American movies looking like they are only half made, out of wire mesh and metal struts, with those strange wooden doors that split horizontally in the middle and open up and down on some kind of pulley system, rather than side to side. The lift had brought them directly up from the door that led off the street – and ‘street’, Natalie thought, was a polite way of describing the narrow cobbled alley where they had parked. The lobby area where they were now waiting was lined in unpainted brick that was so old the corners were rounded and bits of them were flaking off. This place probably dated back centuries.
Her eye was caught by a movement above the lift. For a moment, she thought it might be a rat, and she was prepared to utter a dramatic ‘Eugh!’ and demand that they left, like, right away, but she recognized it as a camera. A closed-circuit security camera. The movement had been the camera rotating so that it was pointed directly at her.
She turned her back on it, the way she turned her back on anything that didn’t fit into her ideal world.
A few moments later the door opened.
The boy standing in the doorway was not what she had expected. He was tall – taller than her, and she was taller than average – and his nose and jaw were so perfectly formed that his face looked like something from a Greek statue. His hair was collar length and unkempt, but in a ‘can’t be bothered’ way rather than a messy, ‘can’t look after myself’ way. His eyes were a piercing blue, and he was standing strangely, slumped against the door frame with his left arm out of sight, but what she could see of his torso made her think of an inverted triangle – immensely wide shoulders and thick arms, a chest that narrowed down to a thin waist and legs that were much narrower than his arms.
‘Professor Livingstone,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t expecting you.’
Natalie’s mother smiled. ‘Nice to see you too, Calum. I was in London for a conference, and I had some spare time, so I thought I’d come over and see how you are.’
Calum was nodding politely, but his eyes were scanning Natalie’s face. She could almost feel a spot of heat where his gaze touched, and she had to fight hard to maintain a steady, challenging stare back at him.’
‘You brought your personal assistant?’ Calum asked.
‘No, I brought my daughter. Calum Challenger, meet Natalie Livingstone.’
‘I suppose you’d better come in,’ he said. He turned round clumsily, and Natalie saw that the arm that was out of sight behind the door frame was actually reaching up above Calum’s head and holding on to a leather strap that had been screwed into the ceiling. As her eyes grew used to the dim light within the apartment, she saw that there were similar straps – like the ones she’d seen on buses, on the rare occasions she’d had to catch a bus – hanging in a regular pattern all the way across the room.
Just at the moment her mind worked out what they were for, and her lips formed an unplanned ‘You have to be kidding!’, Calum Challenger reached out with his right hand for another of the straps, and begin the process of swinging across the apartment, obviously expecting them to follow.
That, she thought as she watched him move away from them, would explain the arms and the shoulders. His upper-body strength must be amazing.
‘Freaked?’ her mother asked softly.
‘Getting there,’ she replied.
Exhausted, hot and sweating, Gecko swung in from the fire escape through the window into his flat.
It wasn’t the main window, of course. He kept that closed for security reasons – burglary was a common problem in south London. He swung in through the smaller window on the top – the one he kept open for ventilation. It was barely large enough for a cat to get through, let alone a burglar, but he knew that if he came down the fire escape fast enough, grabbed the right metal strut in the right place, swung round and launched himself feet-first at the small opening then he could pass right through, flip in the air and land on his feet in the centre of the living room. There were maybe fifteen people in London who could do that – eight of them were squatting in the three-storey house where he lived, and none of the others were burglars. Trespassers, yes; risk-takers, certainly; but not burglars.
It all went perfectly up until the point at which his feet were supposed to hit the wooden floor of his living room. His speed down the fire escape was perfectly judged; his hands gripped the strut in the right place and didn’t slip, and his body slid right through the open window like a letter through a letter box. His clothes didn’t even touch the window frame.
The problem was that someone had put a chair in the centre of the room.
He hit it and his legs crumpled beneath him just as the chair toppled over, pushed by the force of his arrival. He hit the floor, tucking into an automatic roll, but feeling something in his shoulder tear. With luck it was just a few muscle fibres, rather than a tendon.
He came out of the roll in a crouch, hands on the wooden boards and feet braced, ready to push himself away and run. There was nowhere to run. A man stood directly in front of him, legs braced, hands on his hips. Another man was standing by the door to the hall. The closed door.
Both men had crew-cut hair and faces that looked like they had taken some beatings in their time. One of them was black, the other white. They both wore black jeans, T-shirts, leather jackets and sunglasses, even though they were indoors.
‘Are you here to do the cable installation?’ Gecko asked. He could hear the pain and the tiredness in his voice, but he couldn’t help himself.’
The man in front of him smiled. ‘Eduardo Ortiz,’ he said. His voice had a foreign twang – Polish, perhaps. Maybe Russian.
‘My name is Gecko. I have never heard of this “Ortiz”.’
The smiling man in front of Gecko reached out his hand and took Gecko by the hair, pulling him upright. Gecko couldn’t help noticing, in the few moments before the hand vanished from his sight and the pain began, that his knuckles were scarred and his little finger ended halfway.
‘It wasn’t a question. You are Eduardo Ortiz, also known as Gecko. A gecko is an annoying little reptile that can run up walls, yes? I looked it up in a dictionary.’
‘No, really,’ Gecko said through clenched teeth, ‘I told you, I have never heard of him.’
The man twisted Gecko’s head left and right. Gecko’s scalp burned with the pain of the wrenched hair.
‘Apart from us and you, there is nobody here. If this isn’t your place, then what are you doing here?’
‘Burglary?’ Gecko ventured.
The man released Gecko’s hair, pushing him backwards at the same time. Gecko stumbled, but caught himself before he could fall over.
‘Funny you should mention burglary. We hear from friends of ours that you are very good at climbing walls and getting through small gaps.’ He gestured to the tiny window. ‘We would have asked for a demonstration, but we have seen the evidence ourselves. We want you to come and work for us. In a . . . private capacity.’
The man shook his head. ‘Not installing. Taking away. Money, jewellery, passports, iPods, mobile phones . . . anything you can carry.’ He nodded towards the door. ‘People out there take precautions if they think someone can get into their flats or houses. They lock their doors and windows, and they install alarm systems, but if they think it’s impossible then they don’t worry so much. But someone like you, who can get into impossible places . . . well, you would be quite an asset to us.’
‘And who is this “us”?’ Gecko asked.
The man shrugged. ‘We are new to this country. From Eastern Europe, you understand. It is . . . a land of opportunity. We, for instance, have the opportunity to make a lot of money. You have the opportunity to not get your arms and legs broken. Everyone is happy, apart from the people who lose their money and jewellery and mobile phones, but even they can claim on their insurance, so they are happy as well in the end.’
‘Can I . . . think about it?’ Gecko asked.
‘Do not think too hard. Thinking is a dangerous hobby. In Eastern Europe, we are fatalists. We believe that what happens is meant to happen. You are meant to work for us, committing burglaries. It is fate. Accept it.’ He moved towards the door. His silent companion stepped to one side and opened it. ‘We will return tomorrow for your answer, which will be “yes”, but we would rather you came to that conclusion of your own free will than be forced into it here by us.’ He stopped, and pointed a finger at Gecko’s face. Either by accident or design, the way he held his hand made it look like he was miming a gun. ‘Do not talk to the police. Do not talk to your friends. Do not talk to anyone about this. It is between ourselves, yes?’
‘Yes,’ Gecko said quietly, but he was talking to a closing door.
Excerpted from Lost Worlds by Andrew Lane. Copyright © Andrew Lane 2013.
First published 2013 by Macmillan Children’s Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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