Silent for several breaths, he weighed her resolve. "Did you pack a fishing pole?" he finally asked.
"You'll need it if you want to collect specimens during this trip."
"Right," she said with a smile. "So you won't mention this to anyone?" She wiped at her eyes.
Ben released her and picked up a flat stone. He skimmed it across the smooth lake surface. "Mention what?"
The more life changes, the more it stays the same, Ashley thought, staring at her plate. Before her, cheese bubbled and white pasta floated in a steaming marinara sauce. Waves of garlic assaulted her nose. Lasagna again. Ashley smiled, remembering the last lasagna dinner, when Blakely first proposed this mission. The food was the same, but not the surroundings. Linen, bone china, crystal chandelier, mahogany dining table. Not her trailer's kitchenette. She speared a forkful of the pasta.
"Professor Carter," Blakely said. "I've arranged a research associate, Dr. Harold Symski, to guide you on a tour of the north wall. He'll be calling on you around eight o'clock tomorrow morning."
With a hand held up, she swallowed her mouthful. "Since I only have the one day, I would rather start earlier. Say around six o'clock."
Blakely smiled. "I'll let Dr. Symski know."
Ben cleared his throat and wiped a dribble of cheese from his chin. "I'd like to go and check them out too."
"Fine with me," Blakely said. "Is that all right with you, Professor Carter?"
Ashley pictured Ben crawling beside her into a cramped cave, his body pressing against hers. "As long as he doesn't get in the way."
He raised his hands in feigned innocence. "Who, me?"
Blakely addressed the rest of the group. "Any others?"
Jason raised a tentative hand. "I'd like to go."
"I don't think that would be wise," Blakely said sternly. "There are many rockfalls and pits in that area. It's safer here."
Jason turned toward Ashley. "But Mom, I-
Linda interrupted. "He can come with me to research the lake. The section I'll be surveying lies within the boundaries of the camp." She turned to the boy. "Would you mind helping me, Jason?"
Ashley looked down at her blushing son. "Is that okay with you, honey?"
He nodded, his voice squeaking a bit. "Sure. I'd like that."
Linda smiled. "Then it's settled. Jason and I will be doing research."
Ben, seated on Jason's far side, nudged him with an elbow. "Way to go, champ," he whispered, but purposefully loud enough for Ashley to hear. "Now we both have dates."
Jason covered a smile with a small hand.
Ashley rolled her eyes. Men.
Lights out. From his window, Khalid watched the lamps wink out as the camp was put to bed, fake sunset in the darkened cave. The importance of circadian rhythms in a darkened environment had been explained earlier by Blakely. Peak performance required tuning the environment to a regular diurnal pattern of darkness and light.
This worked well with his plans. Shadows wove a fine cloak.
Soon only a scattering of bulbs were still lit. Except for the searchlight by the elevator. Its shaft of light stabbed the ceiling, circling in slow ovals around the stalactites, black fingers pointing down.
He glanced at his watch. Ten o'clock. Time to go to work. He left his room and slipped out the dormitory's entrance. The "night" was still warm, almost balmy, moisture thick in the air. Nothing like the dry nights at home. Desert sands remained hot well into the chilly night. Stars spread across the sky like the fires of Allah's jihad.
Passing through the residential half of the camp, winding among an acre of khaki tents, Khalid seldom strayed from the shadows. Yet he kept his gait casual in case any eyes spied him. On the far side of the camp, across a deep gorge, were the research labs and military headquarters. His destination, the elevator, was located within that distant encampment.
His only obstacle: the bridge over the chasm. On the way from the elevator earlier today, he had noted it was guarded. That one guard was of no concern to him.
Khalid continued across the sleeping camp. After edging around a final Quonset hut, he spied the bridge, made of wood and metal, lighted with lamps on the corners. One corner's light had burned out. A single uniformed man leaned against a light pole, a rifle over his shoulder. A quick survey indicated the area was clear.
Checking his pocket, Khalid stepped into the island of light by the bridge and strolled toward the black gorge. The guard took note of his approach, pushed off the post, and unslung his rifle. Khalid crossed to the chasm's edge, a good yard from the bridge. Leaning over, he peered into the darkness, the chasm's bottom remaining a black mystery.
The guard, a young wheat-haired farm-boy type, called to him, "Careful, there. Those edges crumble away easily."
"I'll be careful. Just wanted a look." Khalid reached into his jacket's breast pocket, noting the guard didn't even raise an eyebrow at such a threatening move.
He pulled out a package of Winstons and tapped out a new cigarette. Popping it into his mouth, he returned the pack to his pocket and pulled a red Bic lighter out. He watched the guard from the corner of his eye as he lit up; the guard's attention was transfixed by the flame.
Khalid extinguished the lighter and dropped it into his side pocket, next to the knife. "Want a smoke?" he called over to the guard.
The guard shrugged. "Thanks, man." He left his post and crossed to where Khalid stood at the edge of the chasm.
Khalid fished out his pack of cigarettes and shook a few out for the guard. "Take a couple."
The guard slipped one to his lips and another into his uniform pocket. "Got a light?"
"Sure." Khalid reached into his pocket and wrapped his fingers around the stiletto, coughing to cover the click of the release as he pressed the button. "Have they ever searched the bottom of the chasm?"
"Nah." The guard glanced at the black crevice. "Too damn deep."
"Good." With the guard's attention diverted, Khalid whipped out the knife and slashed deeply into the Marine's neck, making sure to slice below the larynx to ensure a silent death. No scream, just a wet gurgle.
Stepping back to avoid the spurting arterial blood, he tipped the guard backward into the gorge. For a moment, the guard teetered, arms wheeling as he tried to regain balance, eyes stretched open in horror, a wash of blood flowing down his chest. Then he tumbled into the blackness.
Khalid listened. After a handful of seconds, he heard a distant thud.
Content, he crossed the bridge and slipped into shadows. From here he would need to move quickly and quietly. He proceeded across the base toward the elevator, avoiding pools of light. Thankfully, they were few and far between.
After four minutes, he was at the elevator. The area, well lighted but empty of eyes, was unguarded. The military, isolated so far from the world, was too damned confident with the security of their periphery.
After a minute of study, Khalid crouched and darted for the huge metal box that housed the elevator's motor assembly. He slipped a cube of plastique from his inner jacket pocket and secured it to the assembly in a darkened corner. He paused a moment. No time to be frugal. He took a second cube and positioned it next to the first. That was better. More than enough to leave a crater where the motors now stood. He carefully wired the bomb to ignite with the proper signal from his transceiver. He eyed his handiwork with a thin-lipped smile.
A security blanket. When the time was right, this should cover his escape, ensuring no one followed him back up.
After a final check, he fled into the dark.
SEVEN O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING? MORE LIKE MIDNIGHT.
Ashley shook her head, staring out the windshield as the electric vehicle bumped along. Due to the enclosed space of the caverns and the risk of fouling the air with carbon monoxide, internal-combustion engines had been prohibited, except for a few watercraft.
So the electric golf-cart-like transports, nicknamed "Mules" by the Navy personnel, were the only real means of travel around Alpha Cavern.
Ashley rubbed at the Mule's fogged window. Only the headlamps broke the darkness ahead. Beside her, with both hands firmly gripping the wheel, sat Dr. Symski, a young freckled researcher still new to his degree.
From the back seat, over the buzzing whine of the electric motor, Ben's snores erupted like shotgun blasts. She glanced over her shoulder at him. How could he just fall asleep like that? The trip was a one-hour excursion over rough terrain. An exceptionally large bump jarred her back into a forward position.
Dr. Symski turned one eye toward her. "I can't believe I'm sitting next to the Professor Carter," he said. "I've read your paper on the Gila dwellings. Amazing stuff. And now here you are."
"Thanks," she said. The young researcher had too much enthusiasm for so early in the morning. Her cup of coffee hadn't kicked in yet, and the stench of leaking ozone from the motor's batteries was making her queasy.
"I wish you were here with us from the start. I'm afraid there's nothing new left to explore. We've already searched, cataloged, diagrammed, and explored every square inch. It was all in the papers I sent you last night."
She rubbed at her red eyes. It had taken her until four in the morning to read the reams of data. Two hours of sleep did not make for a pleasant morning. "I wish someone had faxed me those earlier. I would have liked to have gone through them more thoroughly before viewing the site."
"Sorry, but all this is stamped confidential. We were ordered to restrict access until you arrived."
She watched the road ahead as the Mule crawled through the shadows. "More goddamn secrecy," she grumbled.
"I'll show you the main areas when we arrive. A guided tour, if you will."
Hell with that, she thought. "Listen, Dr. Symski, I'm sure your team was very precise, but I'd prefer to do a little exploring on my own. Get a feel for the place. The study of a site involves more than just numbering and cataloging."