"It's just nonsense. Stories."
"No, go on. Myths often have a kernel of truth. Tell me."
He patted the walls of the cave. "Mimis were spirits that lived in rocks."
She felt a chill crawl down her spine, noticing their stone enclosure.
"The Mimis taught the first Bushman to hunt and paint. They were greatly revered. And fear-"
Just then, Dr. Symski returned, standing at their feet. "What are you all doing?" His voice was both accusatory and embarrassed.
Conscious of their odd position, Ashley scrambled out. "I thought you searched this area."
"We did. Why?"
She pointed to the spot next to Ben. "Go look. Up on the roof."
The doctor crawled next to the Aussie. "My god!" he said when he looked where Ben pointed. "It's amazing. Jesus, what do you think it means?"
"I don't have a clue," she said, her hands on her hips, "but I mean to find out."
Linda, seated on a blanket, watched the crystal lake lap at the rocks along the shore a yard away. The water, clear as a window, teemed with small fish and other marine life. A luncheon basket, prepared by the mess hall cook, was open beside her. Two half-eaten sandwiches sat on a paper plate. Bologna and cheese.
"They look like little monsters," Jason said.
Smiling, Linda glanced over to the boy crouched over her portable Nikon microscope, viewing a water sample taken from the lake. "Those cone-shaped ones are called tintinnids," she said. "The squarish ones are diatoms."
"What are they? Some sort of bugs?"
"Not really. More like plants. They're in a family of organisms called phytoplankton. They take sunlight and convert it to energy the way a plant does."
"But if they need sunlight, like a plant"-Jason swiveled to face her, his face scrunched up with concentration-"how do they survive down here in the dark?"
She tousled his hair. "That's a very good question. I'm not really sure. But I believe there must be an underground current carrying the plankton from the surface waters to this underground lake. The water is very salty. Like diluted seawater."
"What's so important about… these…" He pointed at the microscope. "Bugs?"
As Linda considered the implication herself, she allowed her gaze to drift across the camp. She noticed a flurry of activity among the military personnel by the gorge that split the base. Probably some sort of training exercise.
"Well?" Jason asked, recalling her attention.
She turned back to the boy. "Do you want a science lesson?"
"Sure!" he replied enthusiastically.
"All right, you asked for it." She smiled at him, appreciating his inquisitiveness. "These plankton are the building blocks of life. On solid ground, grass turns sunlight into energy. Then a cow eats the grass. Then we eat the cow. This is the way the sun's energy is passed on to us. In the sea, it is the phytoplankton that turns sunlight into energy. The phytoplankton is then eaten by small creatures, such as jellyfish"-she pointed to the small fish just offshore-"which in turn get eaten by those tiny fish. Then even bigger fish eat the little fish. And so on. So even in the sea, sunlight's energy is passed along. Do you understand?"
"So these plankton thingies are like our grass."
"Exactly. They are the grassy fields from which this ecosystem sprouts."
He nodded. "Neat."
"So we've done step one and determined that the water is alive. Next, after we finish our sandwiches, we have to collect some of the creatures that live in the water. I saw some starfish close to the shore over there and some sponges. Wanna help me get a few?"
"Later, one of the Marines promised to catch us one of those glowing fish too." She was curious about the phosphorescent properties of these large fish. Never having seen anything like them before, she grew excited by the prospect of classifying a new fish species.
"Why don't we start now?" Jason began to rise. "I saw some-"
"Hold it, young man." She pointed at the plate. "You finish your lunch first. You're my responsibility until your mother gets back."
He curled his lip and plopped back down on the blanket. "Oh, all right."
Passing him his sandwich, she took a bite of her own. "Let's hurry up, though. We've got fish to catch!"
"Big ones," he added with a small smile.
"The biggest. We could have them for dinner."
"Glowing fish? Yuck!"
"Hey, buddy, don't knock it. If the lights go out, you can still see what you're eating."
That started him laughing. She grinned, almost forgetting the miles of rock that hung over her head.
Ben watched Ashley bend over and study the altar site. Damn nice curves on that woman. He took off his helmet and wiped a red handkerchief across his damp forehead. It was getting late, and his stomach was growling. Thank god this was the last chamber to investigate.
He sighed as he watched Ashley pull out a measuring tape. "Not again," he cursed under his breath. Since this morning's discovery, he had felt like a third wheel, tagging along behind Ashley and Dr. Symski as they explored. Stopping in each chamber, measuring, scraping, sampling. Boring. He had hoped to spend more private time with Ashley, but with the discovery of the carving, both doctors were like bloodhounds on a scent. Nothing could distract them. Not a joke, not a quip. He was all but invisible.
"So this is where you found the diamond figurine?" Ashley knelt down beside the raised dais of stone. It mushroomed from the floor of one of the chambers. "The pedestal's carved from the base stone. Suggestive that the builders purposefully designed this chamber. All the other chambers have their firepits in this location." She pointed up to the ceiling. "Also this is the only room that doesn't have an oval symbol above the door."
Ben stood on the lip of rock that acted as a doorstep to the chamber. He glanced over the edge to the water far below. The chamber was on the highest level and was located on the section of cliff wall above the lake. Without the scaffolding, it would have been a difficult climb, even for him.
Ashley turned to Dr. Symski, who crouched in the back of the dwelling. "When your researchers found the statue," she asked, "was the figure facing out or in?"
"Well…" He shuffled his feet. "You see, there was this accident. The first man in here knocked it over. We don't know which way it was facing."
She slapped the altar stone. "What other key details did you botch?"
Dr. Symski flushed.
Ben, feeling irritable himself with all this nitpicking, intervened. "What difference does it make? Whether it was facing in or out or lying on its freakin' back?"
Ashley, with narrowed eyes, turned to him. "It makes all the difference in the world. This is the only significant artifact in the dig. It must have once had great importance to the culture here. If it was facing out when it was found, it was probably a warding charm, to keep evil spirits away. If it was facing in, then it probably was a worship tool, used in rituals."
Ben scratched behind his ear; a trickle of sweat ran down from under his helmet. "In the bigger scheme of things, what difference does it make if it was a charm or an idol? How is that going to solve the bigger mystery of where they went?"
She opened her mouth to answer, then shut it with an almost audible snap. "I give up," was all she mumbled as she shoved past him and began climbing down.
Ben immediately regretted his remark. He knew instinctively that he had blown any progress he'd made that day impressing and charming Ashley. "Wait up," he called, climbing down after her. Dr. Symski followed.
"To hell with both of you!" she called out, not even looking back.
It was a quiet ride back to Alpha Base.
"MOM, YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN THE FISH WE CAUGHT." Jason spread his arms as wide as he could reach, almost bumping Linda, who was seated next to him at the dinner table. "It was bigger than this."
"That's some fish," Ashley said.
"It was phosphorescent! That means it glowed."
Ashley noticed he had chosen to sit next to Linda at tonight's dinner table. The two of them must have had a great day together.
"It was blue. With huge teeth."
"Sounds bloody weird, mate," Ben said as he entered the dining room, his hair still damp from a shower. "A real dingoling."
"Hey, Ben!" Jason said, greeting him with a mile-wide smile. "You should have been there."
"Sorry, champ," Ben said. "Had to help your mother." He sat down-a couple seats away from Ashley.
She knew why he chose to sit so far away. She shifted her peas around her plate, admitting that she had been a real bitch this afternoon.
Perhaps she should apologize for her outburst earlier. She opened her mouth to speak when the dining room door swung open and Khalid entered.
"Good evening, everyone," he said as he crossed to sit on the other side of Linda. "Sorry I'm late, but I ran into Dr. Blakely, who asked me to mention he's going to be involved with last-minute arrangements and won't be joining us for dinner."
Ashley noticed someone else was missing. "Has anyone heard from Michaelson?"
"Yes," Linda said, holding up a hand. "Well, actually, not directly. A Marine who helped us fish today told me that Major Michaelson was housing in the military section of the base. Across that gorge."
"Why's he doing that?" Ashley said. "We've got plenty of room here. This building's practically empty."
"I guess he's getting those other two men ready for the trip," Linda said. "Our guards."
Great, she thought, two more gun-toting men along for the ride. But this was no time to grouse. It was the eve of their adventure. Besides, as leader, she should say something. Something dramatic. Something uplifting. Though her mind was blank, she set down her fork, determined to say something.