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When Olivia becomes a volunteer at St. John’s hospital for NODA (No One Dies Alone), her first patient is Viktor Erikson, an elderly man whose hand she is to hold until, hopefully, a family member arrives.
In the last hours of his life, Viktor asks Olivia to read aloud the ancient leather-bound book he carries with him always, The Ethics of Immortality. As Olivia begins reading the story of Viktor and Morgana Erikson—who sail the seas, find adventure, and plan to live together forever—she assumes that it is a fictionalized account of her patient’s ancestors. After all, how could the same Viktor be alive in both 1839 and now in 2053?
But the deeper Olivia delves into the story, the more she begins to question. Could this be the same Viktor? Is Morgana coming to save him? And did they really discover the water of life?
First two chapters preview
What is Insensible Loss?
Medical: the amount of water lost on a daily basis from the lungs, skin, and respiratory tract; the exact amount cannot be measured.
Wilderness survival: unawareness that water loss is actually occurring; loss during high-intensity action simply breathed away, evaporated, and never realized.
CHAPTER ONE: NODA
Olivia age 25
“No one dies alone in this hospital,” the doctor explained.
“What happened to him?” Olivia asked.
“He was flown in six hours ago from the city—struck by a vehicle and thrown several yards, or so I’m told. We did what we could for him in the ER, but we are not optimistic. The best we can do is keep him comfortable.”
“Did he have anything with him? I.D.?” she asked.
“Here are his personals.” He handed her a clear plastic bag. “There’s a book in there. It looks like a really old family Bible from the leather binding. Might have a lineage or a name in it.”
Removing it from the bag, she noticed that the soft leather in her hands felt like warm butter to the touch. Its pages, thin and worn, made it look ancient yet well cared for. Setting it down on a clean counter, Olivia put on a pair of purple latex gloves to handle it.
“Good call,” the doctor said. “Wouldn’t want to spoil it.”
Looking through the pages, she asked, “Any relatives? Anything in the computer for contact?”
“The computer is working on it, and the police are searching, but they might not find anyone in time.”
“There is little I can do,” she said.
“It’s good just to be with him. Let him know he is not alone,” he said with reassurance.
Olivia entered his room. After her two years of serving in a hospital post–nursing school, she was accustomed to the beeps and whirs from the monitors. At first glance, he looked like nothing more than a lumpy pile of laundry on a bed needing to be folded and put away. Only his left eye, cheek, and mouth were exposed from the layers of gauze and wrap. He seemed stable enough breathing with an oxygen tube under his nose. The rise and fall of his chest was steady.
Olivia moved a comfortable chair to his bedside. She dug a little under the tightly tucked bedding to find his hand. From the liver spots, wrinkles, and veins, she could tell he was not a young man. Taking his his hand in hers, she could also tell he was not a man of hard labor. “You are not alone,” she said to him softly. “You are not alone.”
Volunteering was a way to network with the staff at the hospital during the application process. Volunteering for No One Dies Alone, or NODA, provided a different perspective in care. As a nurse, there were so many checklists and rounds to fill her days that it was rare she spent long periods of time with the sick and injured. She had faced two types of people supporting loved ones. The first were willows, who swayed with any suggestion by the staff; they had bendable wills and few questions. Then there were the opposite, who always knew better, demanded details, and hovered over the patient like protective geese, honking warnings and commands. NODA introduced her to something more intimate. She needed to find a way to make a connection with the person through the layers of gauze, bandages, and tape. She tried to be a beacon one could find in the fog of drugs. As rewarding as this effort was, she still needed the full-time position.
“You are not alone,” she repeated.
His eyelids began to flutter. “Morgana?” he gurgled.
With her free hand, Olivia pressed the call button.
“Morgana? Is that you?” he asked.
“My name is Olivia. You are in St. John’s Hospital in the state of New York. It is June 27, 2053. Do you know your name?”
“Morgana, read me the book one more time,” he said.
Olivia opened the book to look for an inscription or autograph. The title read “The Ethics of Immortality interpreted and transcribed by Autor Widmor.” On the inside of the front cover lay two faint handwritten names, “Viktor Erikson” and “Morgana Erikson.” Her voice was calm and hopeful. “What is your name, honey? That would be so helpful for us,” she said.
“My name?” he started, his voice raspy and weak. “My name is Viktor Erikson. I was born to a family of fishermen on the fjords of Sweden.”
“Your name is Viktor Erikson? This is your book?” She asked. She held the book up so he could see it. “Morgana Erikson is the other name here—is she your wife? Is she your contact?”
“Morgana?” he asked.
She added, “You don’t sound Swedish. Have you been in this country long?” Taking a pen and paper from the desk beside his bed, she noted his words and the time. Behind her, she could hear another person.
“Morgana?” he muttered. “Read me the book one more time, Morgana.”
Olivia turned to see the doctor. “He said his name is Viktor Erikson of Sweden. He keeps asking for Morgana.” She handed the doctor the scribbled note.
“I’ll notify the detective.”
“He keeps asking for Morgana to read the book,” Olivia said.
“Well, read him the book, I guess,” he said.
Olivia watched the doctor exit the room in his brisk pace. She then looked down to the canonical gospel of Viktor Erikson and began to read aloud.
The Ethics of Immortality
interpreted and transcribed by Autor Widmor
CHAPTER TWO: SAVANNAH
Viktor age 20
Morgana age 17
The Savannah shipping yard of 1839 was awash in a deluge of new commerce now that the rail line connected the seaport to the city. Flags from warring nations fluttered above vessels unloading ballast, taking on cargo, and making the turn back out to sea.
One man did not care for king cotton, the slave trade, or spices. He was William Durand, the captain of the Ponthieva. The last provisions loaded, he needed only the two passengers that commissioned this expedition to board.
“Late in the morning to be setting sail, Captain,” Erikson said. He had stood close so others nearby could not hear. His English was good and only carried a hint of the Swedish accent.
“Late indeed,” he spoke low. “Our contractor and his guest are very late. Sail at first light, I told him. Nearly midmorning, and we are last in line to catch the tide,” replied Durand.
“Who is this contractor?”
“Someone with gold in his pockets and little sense in the head. He has booked our services, insisting on little detail. Secrecy is the order of the day, Mr. Erikson. He was clear on this one point alone: not to speak of him or the expedition,” he explained in suppressed volume.
Nearly half past ten, a gray-haired gentlemen dressed in social attire useless to the sea approached the dock with a woman on his arm.
“Good morning, Captain Durand,” he called from the bottom of the plank. “Permission to board?”
“Aye,” the captain called back.
The sweltering heat gathered on the brow and soaked the rim of the old man’s collar. He made his way up the plank and over the side with delicate steps and the aid of the woman.
“Captain, allow me to introduce you to my daughter, Morgana.”
“Ma’am,” the captain said. “Now, if you could, please bid farewell to your father, take your leave, and be on your way. We must set sail.”
“Oh no, Captain Durand, you are mistaken. You do not understand the situation. I am joining you and my father on this expedition of science,” she said with a delicate Southern lilt. Her smile, flutter of the eyelids, and slight tilt of the head made for the small gestures of initial flirtation.
“Why the quibble, Captain? Our dealings were for two passengers. I am the first, my daughter the second,” the doctor said.
The captain stepped close. “You said nothing of a woman, Dr. de la Motte, even one as fair and beautiful as your daughter, joining us. It is bad luck to bring a woman to sea. You must know this.”
With a disjointed expression, the doctor replied, “Good Captain, this is a myth, an old wives’ tale. There is no need to cling to this tradition.”
“Like wearing traditional dress in the Georgia heat to board a ship?”
“Captain, good sir, I have traveled the globe with my father on expeditions. I have seen and done things no other woman has or ever may again. I assure you, I will not bring you bad luck . . . or slow you down.” With a small and smart smile, she added, “You may even find it difficult to keep match with me.”
The captain considered her for the moment. She was everything he disliked in his dealings with the indulgent Southern upper class. Her beauty was apparent; the putty color of her skin, her raven hair, and her ample bosom could stir life into the stricken man. At sea, her life was his duty and her safety his charge against savages and even his own men, if things turned. Durand was a man focused on the mission.
“I will take you on, hold true to the commission, but I must warn you, these are not easy days ahead. You are not passengers—you are part of the expedition, which means you, my dear, will be called on for duty, not be carried.”
“I understand my place very well, Captain Durand, and accept those terms,” she said.
“Mr. Erikson, call the men to deck,” he commanded.
With a whistle blow and a bell ring, twenty-eight men stood at attention before the captain and first mate.
“Men,” the captain’s voice rang true across the deck. “As you know, we are taking on a commission for this next adventure. We are not military nor are we pirates; we are merchants, professionals all true. Has your trust in me has paid well?”
The men cheered, “Aye.”
“Have I ever steered you wrong?”
The men cheered, “Nay.”
“We are taking on a bold new venture south, an expedition of science and exploration. We are taking this man, Dr. de la Motte, and his daughter, Morgana.”
There was a notable grumble from the deck at the suggestion of the fairer sex.
“His daughter,” he repeated, “Ms. Morgana de la Motte.”
Durand gave the men a long hard look they understood well. “We will treat them with the utmost respect. They are under my care and charge, and I will hold accountable any man, any man, who treats them differently.”
There was an acceptance among the men. The captain had done them well in the past. He had saved many of their lives over the years, and they had been witness to the shaping of his legend for finding riches and treasure to return alive for spending.
“You won’t lose your pants on this trip . . . maybe your life, but what’s that?” The men laughed at the captain’s grim humor. “Mr. Erikson, ready for departure.”
Another whistle tone instructed the men to prepare for launch, weigh anchor, and hoist the sails. The crew of the Ponthieva was quick to take action as the doctor and his daughter watched from the captain’s side. The ship moved into the fast currents and pushed away from the anchored vessels of the Cotton Exchange.
At the turn of the Tybee Island lighthouse, the Ponthieva pointed south, following the coast of Georgia down into Florida.
“We can push and make two hundred miles in a day when needed,” Erikson said at the dinner table, his bandit smile full of confidence having lived one more day.
The doctor set his spoon down from the soup. Still dressed in his social attire, he looked uncomfortable in the heat. “Tell me, Captain, how did you come to command the Ponthieva?”
Durand politely forced a smile. “I would be more interested to discuss our final destination, Doctor, why you were late this morning to board, and why so much mystery in what we are doing. We are heading south, as you asked, but we could better prepare for this expedition of science knowing where the Ponthieva points her jib.”
“Ponthieva? As in the flower?” Morgana inquired.
“Aye, it is,” said the captain.
“More commonly known as the shadow witch?” she asked.
“What a clever name. Your ship is named after a rather beautiful orchid, but there is something deceptively sinister in the name as well.”
“The captain is a complex man, Ms. de la Motte,” Erikson said. “Ma’am, you are looking at the luckiest captain in all the Atlantic. Captain Durand won the Ponthieva in a game of chance in Asia.” Erikson leaned in, capturing her attention. “This is not your average ship . . . it’s an opium clipper.”
“Opium?” She sounded surprised.
“She is fast and shallow, allowing our good captain to get us out of more than a few tight situations,” Erikson explained.
“Don’t let Mr. Erikson excite you. We are not pirates, we do not run opium for the crown, and I am a simple man focused on the expedition you have contracted. We need to know more to make this a success.” The captain’s voice was gruff and sounded like the gnarling of a bone, even in polite conversation.
There was something intriguing to Morgana about the captain’s voice, about the command and the power that particular auditory effect produced. It bellowed from that hard and tough face, bitter like brine, clenched from staring at the sea, watching in wait. The “Yes, Captain” from Erikson was pleasing to her. Behind those deep and penetrating blue eyes was someone she could see herself with, something she could trust, even if it was masked by his devilish charm and smirk. There was something about this Viking she could not explain but wanted to explore.
“Still, an opium clipper, my word, that sounds dangerous,” she said.
“It sounds like the perfect crew and experience we need for this expedition,” the doctor said. “My apologies for being tardy, Captain, and for the secrecy too. We are heading south, past the tip of Florida to Mexico, just north of the Federal Republic of Central America.”
“Revolution,” the captain said. “Cholera. Local savages. The Spanish. What other reasons should I give you not to turn this ship around right now? Mr. St. Clair, could you ask Mr. Han and Mr. Turner to join us for dinner?”
The captain’s third moved quickly from his seat and out the door as instructed.
“I trust you don’t have a problem with blacks or the Chinese, because if you do, there are two more reasons I will turn back to Savannah.”
“I have but one goal, sir. The methods used are irrelevant,” the doctor said.
St. Clair returned to the cabin with the two men, whom the captain asked to join them at the table.
“This is Mr. Han, one of the best navigators I have ever had the pleasure to sail with.” The captain pointed to an Asian man who was of solid build and carried himself confidently. “This”—the captain nodded in the direction of the black man—“is Mr. Turner.” He was bald, lean, and athletic yet gentle. “Our boatswain and carpenter.”
The doctor nodded to each of the men being introduced. The cook served the main meal, a mess of a dish which included some type of bird with vegetables and potatoes served from a single kettle.
“The good doctor was about to explain how important it is for us to travel to the Federal Republic of Central America despite the war, disease, and brutality.”
Han quickly pulled out a small pad and a pencil to make a list of the responsibilities the captain would assign each man. Turner picked up his spoon to eat.
“I have spent my entire life, gentlemen, in the pursuit of knowledge for the improvement of the human life force. It is that thing inside each of us that makes us unique. Revivalists in the north will tell you it is a soul, something that one needs to cultivate with the heavens to protect from hell. I have met men in Europe who tell me that there is a collective responsibility of all human kind; our trust should be in the betterment of each other. Some have tried to explain that there is a magic or mysticism that is a greater power than our understanding which only a select few can command,” he said, studying the reactions on faces of the men. “I will tell you there is nothing outside of our understanding with the proper study and observation.”
“And what do we want to study?” St. Clair politely asked.
“It is the secret discovered and protected by the Maya for centuries of how to stay vital, healthy, and alive. It is the key to life eternal.”
“The fountain of youth?” Durand asked skeptically.
“Some call it that. Others know it for what it truly is: an elixir of life that, when consumed, can change you to the very bone,” he said.
“Gentlemen,” the captain said, “we should prepare to turn back to Savannah after dinner. It seems that the doctor may need to be dropped off near a sanatorium.”
“You don’t believe me? That is fine. Set aside my purpose, forget the goal of my expedition, discount the decades of study I have spent on the matter, the maps I’ve discovered, and the evidence I have with me. Call the knowledge of this water or fountain a myth, if you must. Instead, consider the gold.”
The eyes of the captain and crew grew large at the idea. Mouths began to water for more than food.
“Ancient, undiscovered treasures from centuries ago in lost cities that I have spent years designing a map to,” he said with precision. “Maps that only I can interpret.” He let the men in the room contemplate this concept. “Why are the Spanish so willing to give up lives by the thousands to march into a jungle infested with disease and overrun by savages? What could they be after? What do they know? What could they be searching for with an army of men?”
Eyes around the table moved from the doctor to the captain for a decision.
“They seek the very thing you want: gold . . . unimaginable treasures.”
“I don’t know. I can imagine a lot of treasure,” Erikson was quick to quip.
“I have the map and the knowledge that will lead you there,” the doctor replied.
In the silence that filled the room, the captain weighed the words of the doctor. “You have commissioned this ship for $500 a man to sail south for an expedition of science with another $1,000 a man for a successful return. For that, you get the fastest ship with a seasoned crew. You still have a deal, doctor,” the captain said. He spoke his intention down the table, “Mr. Han, I need you to chart the safest course down to the Yucatán. Work with the doctor on the maps he has. I want to avoid any major ports if possible. Stay away from those trap islands we found the last time and find a river outlet to lay anchor in so if we need to turn fast, we have a current with us. Mr. Turner, what do you know about Spanish ships?”
“They are formidable. Outnumbered and outgunned by the British, they would be more than a match for us. We would not be able to take on any ship; we would need to outrun them,” Turner explained.
“Fine, my thoughts are the same. Rig for speed and maneuvering. We are going to have an advantage of hiding between islands or in the lee of a cove, not going gun for gun. We will need a few buckboards once we arrive to move heavy gold over soft soils,” the captain instructed. “Mr. St. Clair, by the time we arrive, we should be running shallow. When we bring back the gold, we may need all the space in the hull. Inventory what we can throw over in case we need to make room fast.”
The captain looked to his right. “Ms. de la Motte, what have you to contribute for us?”
“I am here at your pleasure, Captain,” she replied.
“Mr. Erikson, Ms. de la Motte will assist you in the preparation of the expedition materials.”
“How goes the watch, Mr. Erikson?” the captain asked.
“All’s well,” he replied. “It is a beautiful night—clear, calm, familiar waters.”
“Tonight might be the last calm night we see.”
With a tinge of playfulness, Erikson said, “I am looking forward to playing nursemaid to Ms. de la Motte on my duties the rest of the trip.”
“What else is on your mind besides expensive women, cheap whiskey, and pure gold?”
“You just named my three reasons for living, Captain,” Erikson said.
The captain flashed a smile. “You are the only one who can still make me laugh. What is really on your mind?”
“It’s this fountain of youth folly, Captain. Have we become swashbucklers? It is a myth.”
“It’s a straight deal. $500 a man for the trip, $1,000 on success. If we go there for mystic water and come back with dysentery, we are still making more on this trip than facing the North Atlantic in winter with a hull of rocks for ballast and cotton on the ride back.”
“Ancient Mayan gold. It sounds too good to be true, especially from an old man and his daughter. There’s another Spanish treasure nearby, a real treasure; the Atocha site is only three days from here. We can change course and start diving to retrieve real treasure, not promises.”
“The Atocha site? Talk about folly. We could spend a lifetime trying to find her location and another bringing up the treasure. That cannot be the reason you are on the Ponthieva, Mr. Erikson,” the captain replied. “We made an agreement with the good doctor.”
“You made that agreement.”
“And you gave your word to me.”
“That is all I needed to hear, Captain. We are going through with this one hundred percent.”
“If they didn’t have a bounty on your head in Indonesia, we would be still running spices for the British.”
“That admiral’s daughter was worth it.” The warm memory brought back a big smile to Erikson’s face. “Beautiful, classy, and gutsy. Certain women have a way of changing boys into men and some men back into boys.”
“Let’s agree to keep the situation true with Ms. de la Motte. We do not fully understand what lies ahead.”
“Aye, Captain,” Erikson said.
“Still, there is a look she gives,” the captain nearly sighed.
“Men into boys.”
“You’re right, Erikson. Best you and I don’t vie for her attentions. Play it straight.”
“Do I still get to look?”
“We both do.”