The speechless passengers sat in the bus, fascinated by the absence of humanity. Having seen the streets of Istanbul the day before, where pedestrians jostled for space, the barren streets of Athens left them in shock. At 9:00 a.m. on a Friday morning, one would expect to see throngs of people going to work not empty sidewalks as if a curfew was in effect.
The tour bus inched along, hemmed in by other buses, streams of yellow cabs, and motorbikes. No passenger cars were in sight, seemingly banned from public view. Behind plate glass windows, brutalized by dirt and graffiti, the stores were empty. Some stores had padlocks - others had chains, locking the doors to keep out looters who would find nothing to steal. Unemployment riots had left burnt out shells of tall buildings and repairs or demolition didn't seem within sight. Large trees along the route looked listless as if it felt the city's pain.
The bus stopped in full view of a transit station where a train waited, its engineer at the front staring straight ahead. The doors were open to empty cars - the platform naked except for empty benches. There was no pushing or shoving of passengers, no one running to catch the train before the doors closed, and no movement of the train.
The tour guide, blessed with a voice suited to speeches, rose from his seat at the front of the bus and started his spiel.
"The population of Greece is 11.5 million, and 4 million of them work for the government. With a bankrupt government, their pay cheques have disappeared, and you can see the effect this has had on the economy," as he waved his arm at the passing scene. "Before the crisis, there were no sailors, now everyone is trying to get a job as a sailor. As you can see, there are many motorcycle shops because no one can afford a car. If you want to travel in Greece, you have to go by bus or taxi. Now there are 17,000 taxis in Athens alone." The yellow cabs pressing against the bus seemed to verify his account.
From the business area, they drove around the edge of a Marina. In and out of half-circles sheltered by trees as if to hide the moored yachts. The guide was quick to point out that the yachts were mostly of British Registry, possibly hinting that most Greeks were poor and could never afford such toys. Graffiti seemed to cover every blank wall that could be reached by stretched hands. After ten minutes, the bus stopped at the site of the first modern Olympics, sitting stark and alone, where tourists were forbidden to enter. Tour buses lined the street, where passengers snapped photos of the venue, went to washrooms and bought fridge magnets from street vendors.
The next stop was the Parliament buildings and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Here the guard changed every hour - a display tourists found fascinating. By then it was time for lunch, and the bus dropped them off at an outdoor restaurant shaded by grape vines. After lunch, it was off to the Acropolis to spend the afternoon wandering around the ruins.
Looking up, one could see the Acropolis, as it overshadowed the city of Athens. One could imagine the Gods watching from this ancient citadel, thinking of new ways to perplex mankind. The summit is the home of ancient temples and outdoor theatres, a hike of almost 500 ft. At the bottom of the climb, the guide leads them to a small grove. Timeworn stones scattered about provide seating for the weary. One tree provides shade and the tourists rush for the few cooler spots. As the guide hands out entrance tickets, everyone makes good use of their water bottles. They are given two hours to explore the surroundings and return to the grove. The tourists break off into small groups. Borders and Hill find themselves at the back of the pack, as other tour groups mix in, and it becomes an elbow to elbow crush through the turnstiles.
Borders notices Panama is far ahead, seemingly in a rush to get to the top as if the ruins were on the verge of disappearing. His two cameras swing about his neck, back and forth, banging each side of his chest. The heat and exertion have turned his face bright red. He rushes up the stone steps, made more dangerous by the shoving crowds and the absence of handrails. Borders and Hill follow the herd, finally reaching the steep steps. They are more dangerous than earlier imagined. Uneven, cracked, and set at angles to each other, it is a wonder no one falls.
Finally, they reached the top - bodies soaked in sweat. They look at decayed walls and pillars baked in the sun, an area strewn with stone debris cast aside from broken buildings, caused by age and past wars. A few tall cranes are visible, seemingly doing repairs on the Parthenon or Temple of Venus. There are no workmen in sight. The rate of decay is probably faster than the rate of repair.
A silver drone floats above the ancient ruins - an all seeing eye focused on the scene below. Its pilot is in Mykonos, in a damaged windmill that overlooks the sea. Computer screens give the room a blue haze. Intense eyes stare at the screens. As the recognition software searches for Borders, a man with a white beard watches, and when the target is found, he makes a decision. He picks up a radio link and speaks distinctly.
"When he return to the steps," he says.
Then he sits back and waits. The drone hovers.
Panama, his camera probably full, begins the return trip down to the meeting place. Borders and Hill follow at a distance. The descent is made more precarious, as those walking down are on the outside, near the edge. There are frequent stops, as some of those in the front have difficult stepping from one stone to another. Panama doesn't seem hampered by slow moving tourists and is near the bottom of the steps. Stalled on the descent, Borders takes the opportunity to gaze over the vista below. His destination, the grove, is crowded with another tour group waiting to start the climb. He watches Panama walk near the spot.
At a distance, Borders watches two jeeps approach. They stop, side by side, near the grove. With no other vehicles in sight, they seem to be out of place. He notices men, in the back seat of each jeep, rise, and lift what appears to be RPG's to their shoulders. One man fires and the rocket snakes its way towards the steps. It weaves right and left, its trail of smoke contrasting the blue sky. It strikes at the lower part of the steps, flinging rocks and tourists over the edge. Immediately, the sound of the explosion is replaced by screams and wails of grief.
Some run up the steps while others, throw caution to the wind and run down. The group in the grove scatters like frightened sheep. Panama dives behind a rock. Soon, he pokes his head up and begins focusing a camera on the terrorists, snapping photos, one after the other. He sees the second rocket fired and followed it with his camera as it heads for the steps to the summit. Borders watches the rocket head in their direction, and he doesn't wait for the impact.
"Jump," he yells to Hill,
They both jump from the steps, landing on the loose stone on the side of the hill. They lose their footing and tumble downward, the sharp stones removing visible skin. As they fall, the rocket impacts the stone stairs sending showers of stone in their direction, followed by small, then larger rocks. Other bodies fall, tumbling in their direction, tossed by the force of the explosion. Some scream, but others will be forever mute. Both men slide, unable to get a foothold, their fingertips digging for a grip.
Borders falls against a huge stone, part of an ancient pillar. He stops while Hill continues his downward slide. Eventually, he slows, finally stopping. Both men catch their breath - the air filtered by the dust in their mouths. Borders looks around and catches a glimpse of the jeeps leaving the scene. Tourists scatter from their path. Wails and cries can still be heard, competing with the sounds of the distant sirens, as emergency vehicles rush to the scene. Both men rise and take short steps down the hillside. Hill slips and falls back on the loose stones, his elbow taking the brunt of the fall. Eventually, they find their way back to the grove.
Their guide, his voice taking on the tone of a demented shepherd counted his flock out loud. Borders and Hill seemed to be the only ones who had suffered any physical trauma. It was obvious the other members of the group were not as near to the blast site.
"Come along," said the guide, "let's hurry to the bus."
"But what about the police?" asked Borders, "won't we be interviewed as witnesses?"
The guide's face turned white.
"This is Greece," he said. "Right now, tourism is our only source of income. Nothing must interfere with the tourist trade. Your ship departs at 6:30 p.m. All tourists must be aboard. Nothing can interfere with the ship's departure."
With everyone on board, the bus left the scene of screams and military vehicles. It wasted no time racing back to the ship, and parking at the edge of the gangway. They were met by staff who hustled them aboard. Borders and Hill were immediately taken to the infirmary, where small brown hands patched up their cut and bruises.
YOU ARE READING
Mediterranean MissionMystery / Thriller
Mason Borders, operative for CSIS, has been given a new mission. He has to track a terrorist on a Mediterranean cruise. The ship will stop at a number of ports along the way. Any of the ports from Barcelona to Istanbul could be the target. While Bor...