THE SCOTTISH ORKNEYS, THE PRESENT
JODIE MICHAELSON was steaming with anger. Earlier in the evening, she and the three remaining contestants of the Outcasts TV show had had to walk in their heavy boots on a thick rope stretched out along a three-foot-high berm made of piled rocks. The stunt had been billed as the "Viking Trial by Fire." Rows of torches blazed away on either side of the rope, adding drama and risk, although the line of fire was actually six feet away. The cameras shot from a low side angle, making the walk seem much more dangerous than it was.
What wasn't phony was the way the producers had schemed to bring the contestants to near violence.
Outcasts was the latest offering in the "reality" shows that had popped up like mushrooms after the success of Survivor and Fear Factor. It was an accelerated combination of both formats, with the shouting matches of Jerry Springer thrown in.
The format was simple. Ten participants had to pass a gamut of tests over the course of three weeks. Those who failed, or were voted off by the others, had to leave the island.
The winner would make a million dollars, with bonus points, which seemed to be based on how nasty the contestants could be to one another.
The show was considered even more cutthroat than its predecessors, and the producers played tricks to ratchet up the tension. Where other shows were highly competitive, Outcasts was openly combative.
The show's format had been based in part on the Outward Bound survival course, where a participant must live off the land. Unlike the other survival shows, which tended to be set on tropical isles with turquoise waters and swaying palm trees, Outcasts was filmed in the Scottish Orkneys. The contestants had landed in a tacky replica of a Viking ship, to an audience of seabirds.
The island was two miles long and a mile wide. It was mostly rock that had been tortured into knobs and fissures aeons ago by some cataclysm, with a few stands of scraggly trees here and there and a beach of coarse sand where most of the action was filmed. The weather was mild, except at night, and the skin-covered huts were tolerable.
The speck of rock was so insignificant that the locals referred to it as the "Wee Island." This had prompted a hilarious exchange between the producer, Sy Paris, and his assistant, Randy Andleman.
Paris was in one of his typical raves. "We can't film an adventure show on a place called 'Wee Island,' for godsakes. We've got to call it something else." His face lit up. "We'll call it 'Skull Island.'_"
"It doesn't look like a skull," Andleman said. "It looks like an overdone fried egg."
"Close enough," Paris had said, before dashing off.
Jodie, who had witnessed the exchange, elicited a smile from Andleman when she said, "I think it rather resembles the skull of a dumb TV series producer."
The tests were basically the kind of gross-out stunts, such as ripping live crabs apart and eating them or diving into a tank full of eels, that were guaranteed to make the viewer gag and watch the next installment, to see how bad things would get. Some of the contestants seemed to have been chosen for their aggressiveness and general meanness.
The climax would come when the last two contestants spent the night hunting each other using nightscopes and paint-ball guns, a stunt that was based on the short story "The Most Dangerous Game." The survivor was awarded another million dollars.
Jodie was a physical fitness teacher from Orange County, California. She had a killer body in a bikini, although her curves were wasted under her down-filled clothes. She had long, blond hair and a quick intelligence that she had hid to get on the program. Every contestant was typecast, but Jodie refused to play the bimbo role the producers had assigned to her.
In the last quiz for points and demerits, she and the others had been asked whether a conch was a fish, a mollusk or a car. As the show's stereotype blonde, she was supposed to say "Car."
Jeezus, she'd never live something like that down when she got back to civilization.
Since the quiz debacle, the producers had been making strong hints that she should go. She'd given them their chance to oust her when a cinder got in her eye and she'd failed the fire walk. The remaining members of the tribe had gathered around the fire with grave looks on their faces, and Sy Paris had dramatically intoned the order to leave the clan and make her entry into Valhalla. Jeezus.
As she headed away from the campfire now, she fumed at herself for failing the test. But there was still a bounce to her step. After only a few weeks with these lunatics, she was glad to be off the island. It was a rugged, beautiful setting, but she had grown weary of the backbiting, the manipulation and general sneakiness in which a contestant had to indulge for the dubious honor of being hunted down like a rabid dog.
Beyond the "Gate to Valhalla," an arbor made of plastic whalebones, was a large house trailer that was the quarters for the production crew. While the clan members slept in skin tents and ate bugs, the crew enjoyed heat, comfortable cots and gourmet meals. Once a contestant was thrown out of the game, he or she spent the night in the trailer until a helicopter picked him or her up the next morning.
"Tough luck," said Andleman, who met her at the door. Andleman was a sweetheart, the complete opposite of his hard-driving boss.
"Yeah, real tough. Hot showers. Hot meals. Cell phones."
"Hell, we've got all that right here."
She glanced around at the comfortable accommodations. "So I noticed."
"That's your bunk over there," he said. "Make yourself a drink from the bar, and there's some terrific pat in the fridge that'll help you decompress. I've got to go give Sy a hand. Knock yourself out."
"Thanks, I will."
She went over to the bar and made herself a tall Beefeater martini, straight up. The pat was as delicious as advertised. She was looking forward to going home. The ex-contestants always made the rounds of the TV talk shows to rake over the people they'd left behind. Easy money. She stretched out in a comfortable chair. After a few minutes, the alcohol put her to sleep.
She awoke with a start. In her sleep, she had heard high-pitched screams like the sound of seabirds flocking or children in a playground, against a background of yells and shouts.
She got up, went to the door and listened. She wondered if Sy had come up with yet another means of humiliation. Maybe he had the others doing a wild savage dance around the fire.
She walked briskly along the path that led to the beach. The noise grew louder, more frantic. Something was dreadfully wrong. These were screams of fright and pain rather than excitement. She picked up her pace and burst through the Gate to Valhalla. What she saw looked like a scene from a Hieronymus Bosch depiction of Hell.
The cast and crew were under attack by hideous creatures that seemed half man, half animal. The savage attackers were snarling, pulling their victims down and tearing at them with claws and teeth.
She saw Sy fall, then Randy. She recognized several bodies that were lying bloody and mauled on the beach.
In the flickering light from the fire, Jodie saw that the attackers had long, filthy white hair down to their shoulders. The faces were like nothing she had ever seen. Ghastly, twisted masks.
One creature clutched a severed arm which he was raising to his mouth. Jodie couldn't help herself, she screamed . . . and the other creatures broke off their ungodly feast and looked at her with burning eyes that glowed a luminous red.
She wanted to vomit, but they were coming toward her in a crouching lope.
She ran for her life.
Her first thought was the trailer, but she had enough presence of mind to know she'd be trapped there.
She ran for the high rocky ground, the creatures snuffing behind her like bloodhounds. In the dark, she lost her footing and fell into a fissure, but unknown to her the accident saved her life. Her pursuers lost her scent.
Jodie had cracked her head in the fall. She regained consciousness once, and thought she heard harsh voices and gunshots. Then she passed out again.
She was still lying unconscious in the fissure the next morning when the helicopter arrived. By the time the crew had scoured the island and finally found Jodie, they had come to a startling discovery.
Everyone else had vanished.
Excerpted from LOST CITY © Copyright 2004 by Clive Cussler with Paul Kemprecos. Reprinted with permission by Putnam, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. All rights reserved.