My first thought, when I scrambled to my feet, was that I had done it again! If there was any trouble around I was always falling into it head first. To be more exact, feet first!
I had stepped backwards too close to a scraggy-looking bush, and pitched straight into the opening it covered. One minute I was standing in the hot sun, and the next tumbling helplessly into a chilled darkness. First there was the sickening drop, then I bounced off one surface and shot into space to bounce off something else.
I was blinded by the shower of dirt and stones travelling down with me. I was jolted and bruised and my grasping hands found nothing to slow my fall. I felt as if I was sliding and bouncing off a series of polished mirrors.
At last I catapulted on to a pile of rubble and slithered to a stop. A few more stones dropped down beside me. My descent was over! I was in a very large cave, dimly lit by the shaft I had pitched down. The high pile of rubble directly beneath it had broken my fall.
"Mike," echoed my father's voice. "You all right?"
"I'm okay, Dad," I yelled back. "I'm in a sort of cave. You'll need a fairly long rope though to get me out."
"It'll take a couple of hours. Have to walk back to the camp. I'll throw the water bag down. Thank goodness you're not hurt."
I moved back as a shower of more dirt and stones and the water bag bounced off the top of the rubble.
"Got it," I yelled.
Silence. I heard the restless flutter of bats--or at least I hoped they were only bats. The place smelt musty, and now that my eyes were becoming used to the dimness I noticed a couple of darker hollows in the corners, that could lead somewhere else.
I made myself comfortable with my back against the rubble. I was in for a long wait. I rubbed my bruised shoulders and shivered. It was cold down here.
I had been spending my school holidays with Dad--a welcome change from boarding school or relatives. Dave was an archaeologist and an authority on lost languages. I had joined him on this small expedition. There was grim old Miss Smith the anthropologist, and Dad's friend Ted Tait, who really was a physicist, but his hobby was archaeology. He was on holidays too.
Dad and Ted had become interested in finding out why the ancient caravan routes curved around this area instead of cutting through it.
"Just those hints in the old records that the whole area had to be avoided," Dad had mused.
Dad, lanky and sun burnt, with close-cropped gray hair, alternated between moods of extreme absentmindedness and intense enthusiasms.
"May have been volcanic and unstable," Miss Smith had suggested.
"Hostile tribes," put in Ted. He was a lot younger than Dad, blockily built with dark hair and horn-rimmed glasses.
So the upshot of Dad's curiosity was this expedition to the middle of nowhere halfway between Egypt and Libya. We set up camp in the lonely eroded hills that silted up in desert further to the south, and vanished into the shimmering distance everywhere else. It was horrible country to move in. We took the four-wheel drives in as far as possible; then we walked.
There were shallow ravines, and loose shale and only the occasional solitary stunted bush clinging to bare rock. We toiled and scrambled up and down the sliding rocks, getting hotter and hotter as we went on.
For some inexplicable reason, Dad and Ted were surveying how high we were above sea level. We had reached what we thought might be the highest point around. It was nearly noon, and the heat caused a shimmering haze that blurred the tents of our camp in the distance.
I was, as usual, trying to be helpful. "It's a bit higher over here, Dad," I had suggested.
I was carrying the surveying tripod, and backing up to the little rise marked by the stunted bush, when suddenly, the bush had given way, and down I had plunged, zigzagging and sliding my way into the hillside.
I fidgeted around. The tripod stuck out of the pile of rubble like a broken spider. It didn't look as if it had survived the descent as well as I had.
I had a drink from the water bag. I was getting hungry. I wondered how the time was going. The cave was still lit by the soft filtered light from the shaft. I got up and walked around, wincing from the pain in my leg. The area I was in was vaguely squarish.Under the loose rubble and odd boulders the ground felt flat, almost too flat and even for a natural formation. There was the sound of a clink, and a few more loose stones fell down.
"Dad," I yelled.
"Stand clear," a voice echoed.
Hammering noises, and a few more small stones and a shower of dust. A knotted rope came snaking down with a shovel tied to it. I heard Dad clearly.
"Come and have a look at this."
More hammering, and another shower of dust.
First down were the legs and khaki clad bottom of Smithy. She scaled down the knotted rope like a young girl. She slithered off the rubble and blinked at me.
"There you are, Michael."
She felt around in her deep pocket and handed me a packet of chocolate. Then taking a torch from her belt, she started shuffling around, peering closely at the sides of the cave.
"What's happening?" I asked through a mouthful of chocolate.
Dad and Ted didn't appear to be coming down. I heard their raised voices echoing down the shaft, punctuated by more cascades of dirt and stones.
"The shaft is man-made, and constructed in a very peculiar manner, with very peculiar material." Her voice echoed from the dark opening into which she had vanished.
I hurried down the winding black tunnel after her bobbing light. It had stopped at a silted-up pile of rubble. She gave a sharp intake of breath as the torch beam poked and probed across rounded boulders and jagged shale, and the curved edge of something. It looked like the smooth polished fragment of a broken pillar.
"Tell you what, Mike," and for a change Smithy sounded almost genial. "You've stumbled into what could be a temple or a tomb."