Adventurer Raymond Swift stars in......

Trail of the HMS Fortuna

A Far-Flung Epic in 8 Chapters!

by Andrea Tran
About the author

******

Previously: Ray and Annabbelle travel to North Africa where wreckage was found that may belong to the missing airship. Once there, Annabelle demonstrates an uncanny talent, placing herself in a trance and 'reading' the debris. She faints, but not before scrawling a cryptic message...

Episode 6: Trek into the Desert


  RAYMOND SWIFT SAT ALONE by a campfire, studying the lines on the notepad. Half a dozen other fires were dotted around the camp, soldiers silhouetted against them. Night had just fallen and the temperature was dropping fast. The sky had turned a magnificent turquoise, after the dazzling hues of the desert sunset. Ray caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. He looked up. Annabelle was walking towards him, her arms crossed, a British Army jumper over her shoulders. Her left hand was bandaged.

‘All this trouble for that ugly scribble,’ she remarked, bitterly. She sat down next to him. ‘I don’t think Colonel Halley was very impressed with me!’ she laughed.

Ray smiled. ‘Glad to see you’re feeling better. It must have been exhausting for you. The trip. Then this.’ He handed her the notepad. She looked stunning in the flickering orange light. ‘How is your hand?’

She shrugged. ‘The cut wasn’t very deep.’ She looked at the drawing.

‘Any idea of what it could be?’ he asked. Annabelle shook her head, apologetic. ‘I am sorry, Ray. I am certain that metal fragment came from the Fortuna, but... I cannot explain this...thing!’ She frowned at the scribble. ‘Yet, it was the most powerful impression I ever had. It must have something to do with my father...’ Her voice saddened. ‘I wonder if he’s alive...’

Ray put his arm around her, trying to comfort her. She leaned against him.

They stayed silent , looking at the fire.

~~~

‘Asulil Tabrat,’ said a voice behind them.

Ray and Annabelle jumped to their feet, turned around. A small, wrinkled old Berber in a simple white gown and sandals stood there, looking at them. The man had appeared without making the smallest sound.

‘Where did you spring from, old man?’ Ray asked. The Berber shook his head and shrugged, showing he did not understand.

‘What do you think he wants, Ray?’ Annabelle asked nervously.

‘Asulil, Asulil Tabrat,’ the old man repeated. This time he pointed at the notepad in Annabelle’s hand.

‘You... You know what this is?’ she asked, emphatically.

‘Wait! I think he’s speaking in a Tuareg dialect,' Raymond said. He had learned the basics during his African travels. It was an ancient language, still spoken in a vast area of northern Africa. ‘Chek... Am azigh?’ he tried, pointing at him. The other nodded, smiling. ‘Yes, he understands!’ Ray smiled back.

The old man then leaned down, picked up a pebble from the ground. ‘Asulil,' he said, raising it. Then he touched the drawing on Annabelle’s notepad. ‘Tabrat.’

The girl shook her head, frowning.

‘Tabrat means Word, or Letter... But the other?’ Ray reflected. ‘Stone?’ He tried, touching the pebble. The man shook his head, then drew a wide semicircle in the air. ‘Big?... Yattuy?’ Ray asked. The Berber’s dark eyes brightened, his toothless smile widening. ‘He seems to mean a Big Stone,' Ray said.

‘A Rock!’ Annabelle exclaimed, excited. ‘A Rock Letter! Ray, I think I know what this could be...’ She examined the drawing again. ‘Yes! How could I be so blind! This symbol is similar to the Petroglyphs found engraved on the rocks in the Tassili Mountains! I have seen photographs at the Archeological Society Library!’ She turned to Ray. ‘Do you see? A Petroglyph, a Rock Letter!’

‘Tassili mountains? But that’s half a continent away!’ Ray commented. Then he gently took the pebble from the man’s wrinkled hand. This time he mimicked drawing the symbol on the pebble. ‘Asulil Tabrat?’ he asked again. The Berber nodded vigorously, then pointed in the distance, to the west. ‘Talji, Izrai!’

‘What did he say?' asked Annabelle impatiently.

Ray turned to her, puzzled. ‘He says he will show us in the morning!’

~~~

Lieutenant Jean-Luc Morel smiled in the darkness. He had heard enough. Hidden behind some supply crates a few steps from the American’s campfire, he waited for the people to walk to one of the buildings. Then he returned towards the French compound, saluted the legionnaire keeping watch and directed himself towards the wooden shack where their Radio post had been set up. He closed the door behind him, sat down at the transmitter. He put the earphones on. Morel had never operated a similar radio before, but his inexpert fingers seemed to know exactly how to tune on a very specific, unused frequency.

He turned some dials, whispered a few conventional words in the microphone.

After a moment a distant voice, speaking in a cultivated, accented tone became audible in his earphones. It was strangely soothing.

‘Good evening, mon ami, I was eagerly expecting some news from you...’

~~~

The tires of the two vehicles, from which most of the air had been let out for better traction, were raising thick clouds of sand, leaving deep tracks on the smooth dunes. They had left Camp Meridian early that morning, and were heading west, following the directions given by Irat, the old Berber. He had turned out to be one of the men attending to the camels of the camp. Upon Ray’s request, Captain Fitzroy had agreed to deploy two Humber Staff cars for the excursion. Colonel Halley had not opposed, but his attitude towards Ray and Annabelle had somewhat hardened. He had decided to stay at the camp.

Ray had only asked for one car, but in that adverse region it was standard procedure to always go out on motorized patrols in pairs, in case one of the two vehicles broke down. The Captain himself was driving the front car, with Irat next to him. Fitzroy was more fluent than Ray in the Tuareg dialect of the area. Ray was driving the other vehicle, with Annabelle in the passenger’s seat, their respective backpacks in the rear. Each car also transported a 2-gallon water drum.

They had been driving for almost an hour and the sun was already fiercely hot, despite their early start. The landscape, from an endless expanse of sand dunes, had gradually changed as sharp rocky outcrops started to appear. They were in a little known region of the desert, hundreds of miles from the trans-Saharian track.

Presently Irat pointed at a rocky edge taller than the rest, that ran parallel to their route. They followed it for a while, then saw a point where huge rocks had crumbled down in ancient eras. The perpendicular cliffs shaped by the landslide created the illusion of two great stone sentinels guarding a gate.

The vehicles were halted in the shadow of one of the giants.

Irat guided them on foot from there.

Half an hour later, the group had climbed into a natural shelter caused by erosion. The harder, more recent strata had resisted the test of time better than the chalky layers below, causing the formation of a deep rock overhang. An ancient path ran underneath it, covered by the stony roof. It was there that they saw the first Petroglyphs engraved on the vertical rock face. They were of different shapes and sizes, perfectly preserved. Annabelle held her breath, astonished.

Irat walked to one side of the wall, pointed at a small symbol hidden among the many. ‘Asulil Tabrat!’ he said, his face wrinkling in a broad, toothless smile.

‘By Jove!’ Captain Fitzroy whispered.

In front of them was engraved an identical copy of Annabelle’s drawing.

~~~

The marks had become more frequent, from there onwards. They seemed to be designed to guide those who knew what symbol to follow among the multitude of different Petroglyphs.

Ray and the others followed the trail through a concealed, low, natural rock arch, and stepped out on a similar sheltered platform on the opposite side of the outcrop. The warm wind was blowing stronger on this side, singing its ancestral song through the ancient reddish rocks.

‘We would never have found this passage without knowing precisely what symbol to follow,’ Ray said. He turned to Annabelle, who was arranging her scarf around mouth and nose, against the wind. ‘So your ugly scribble wasn’t that pointless, huh?’ he said. Her blue eyes smiled back at him.

Soon it was clear that the Petroglyphs were pointing away from the sheltered wall, towards the edge of the cliff. They found one of the familiar circular drawings on the ground, then the markings seemed to disappear. Only the thirty-foot drop to the sands below lay in front of them.

‘What now?’ Captain Fitzroy asked, breathing heavily from the ascent.

Ray tried to look on the cliff face below, but the ledge they were standing on was too deep, protruding like a terrace from the cliff. He stepped away from the edge, then removed his backpack. ‘I think it’s time for a little survey,’ he said. He seemed to put something in his shirt pocket. Then he produced from the backpack a strange contraption. It looked like a segmented metal articulated arm, with small mirrors mounted at the joints. A steel wire ran along the segments, connected to small levers near the handle. A larger mirror was mounted at the far extremity, another near the handle.

Ray kneeled near the edge, then lay prone. He unfolded the metal arm, modelling it so that it followed the rocky profile. Fitzroy and Annabelle gathered behind him, curious. Once satisfied, Ray started regulating the levers with expert fingers, controlling the tilt of the mirrors distributed along the arm. Soon, the mirror near the handle displayed the image of the cliff below them. Carefully rotating the arm by a few degrees left and right, Ray soon found what he was looking for. ‘Just as I thought!’, he said triumphantly. On the mirror, opening in the cliff face, the dark entrance of a cave appeared, surrounded by Petroglyphs.

‘It must be the entrance to a place of worship!’ Annabelle exclaimed.

The loud thud of something falling came suddenly from behind them.

Annabelle, Ray and the Captain turned around. Irat had fallen unconscious on the ground. Four men stood behind the Berber’s body. Three were wearing French legionnaire uniforms and were pointing their guns at them.

The fourth, his hands behind his back, wore an expensive white suit and Panama hat.

‘Most impressive, Mr. Raymond Swift. You surely live up to your fame!’ the elegant man said. ’Now if you could kindly throw your guns away.’

Annabelle and Ray had heard that voice before.


On to Episode 7: And now...Dr. Belarski

Back to Episode 5: The Clue from Beyond


Table of ContentsPulp and Dagger icon

On the Trail of the HMS Fortuna is copyright by Andrea Tran. It may not be copied without permission of the author except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)