Everyone was staring now at Ben. "Of course," he said, pulling out a roll of toilet paper from his pack, "this is right bloody important too."
Ashley smiled, and Linda suppressed a giggle. Ben did have his moments; she had to give him that.
"What about water?" Khalid asked, standing up from where he had been hunched over the radio. "Dehydration is a major danger, isn't it?"
"Sort of. But most major cavern systems have abundant pools of potable water. Just conserve your canteen between watering holes."
Ashley gritted her teeth. Radios, guns, batteries, water. Lack of any of them could incapacitate the mission. Too many variables for her tastes.
The remainder of their pack contents was then explained. Freeze-dried food in tinfoil packets, electrolyte replacement fluid, collapsed air mattresses for sleeping, a first-aid kit, a small box of toiletries, and coiled on top of it all a thick spool of rope. Besides the backpack, each member had a lightweight climbing harness with a chalk bag to dry one's hands, and a helmet with a carbide lamp.
Ben's pack contained additional climbing equipment: carabiners, quick draws, and anchoring bolts. The need for this equipment was obvious to Ashley. Major Michaelson's pack, however, frightened her. It contained four more pistols, a collapsed rifle, and boxes and boxes of seal-cloth-wrapped ammunition.
If that wasn't enough, the team had finally been introduced to the two other members of their expedition-Major Skip Halloway and Major Pedro Villanueva. The insignia of an eagle gripping a trident on their shoulders advertised their expertise. Navy SEALs, the elite. They wore weapons at their waists, and each hefted a double pack. A heavy load, but they looked like muscled machines, workhorses with weapons.
Ben nudged her. "Bloody lot of firepower we're dragging with us."
She nodded. "I don't like it."
"I heard about those SEALs. Never go anywhere without a wicked arsenal."
Ashley chewed her lower lip. "Why do you think-"
Blakely interrupted, "From here, Professor Carter will be in charge. Her word is my word."
Ashley noticed a smirk from the redheaded Seal, Skip Halloway. He elbowed his buddy, whose expression remained stoic. Black-haired and black-eyed, Pedro Villanueva was as difficult to read as a slab of marble.
She sighed. Great, two more macho men to keep under her thumb. She noticed she wasn't the only one checking out the newcomers. Khalid's face was clouded with an especially dour expression as he studied the SEALs. His lips then curled up at the corners in an unpleasant manner. He turned away to whisper something in Linda's ear. She smiled, covering a laugh with a small hand.
"So," Ben said, "are you ready to lead this ragtag band of adventurers into the heart of the world?"
"Right now I'm just hoping there's no mutiny."
Ashley crossed toward the small opening in the south wall of the cavern. She eyed the tiny tunnel. Called a wormhole, it looked more like a sewer drain to her. The black entrance stood only two and a half feet high. She crouched and shined her hand lantern down the tube. With a backpack on, she estimated, it would be nearly impossible even to crawl through these holes.
To answer this riddle, the final piece of their equipment was introduced. Blakely handed her a wheeled plastic board.
"A skateboard?" Ashley spun a wheel across her palm.
"I prefer to call them transport sleds," Blakely said.
"Specifically designed for these chutes. Here, let me show you." He picked up another of the seven fluorescent-colored boards. He slapped the surface of the board with the flat of his hand. "We already devised aluminum motorized sleds, but they are too bulky to carry. These, on the other hand, are high-impact plastic, both the board and the wheels. The ball bearings are composed of a corrosion-resistant titanium. Perfect for the terrain and the dampness. Just release this latch. Like so. And the board expands to the length of your upper torso, supporting chest and pelvis, and allowing the rider to ride belly down, using gloved hands and feet for propulsion and braking."
"Sort of like a surfboard," Ben said, "but on land."
"Well, yes, I guess that analogy is accurate. Once through a chute, the board can be collapsed back to its original size and stored in a pack. Each board has been fitted to the individual. Names are stenciled on the back of each. And each is a different color to make it easier to tell them apart."
Ashley practiced releasing and collapsing the board. Easy, and mercifully lightweight. All this preparation just to slide through these tubes.
"Dr. Blakely," asked Linda, "where did these worm-holes come from? Are they lava tubes?"
"Yes and no," said Blakely. "True, this area is honeycombed with lava tubes, some no bigger than a fist and others as large as a man. Lava tubes are usually rough and irregular, as are most of the ordinary tubes around here. But tubes of this diameter"-he pointed at the wormhole-"are exceptions. They're uniform in size and polished to a remarkable smoothness. How and why?" He shrugged. "Yet another mystery to solve."
"How far have you explored up to now?" Ashley asked. Obviously many other chutes had already been studied.
"These wormholes extend from this central cavern like spokes on a wheel. Some just dead-end. But most, like this one, connect to a series of interconnecting caverns that extend deeper and deeper below the surface. Seismic readings suggest this system may extend several hundred miles."
"And you explored no farther?" Ashley raised her eyebrows. "But you've been down here for months."
Blakely just stared at her for several heartbeats, taking off his glasses. He pinched the bridge of his nose. The others stopped what they were doing and turned to them, attracted by the silence.
Ben put down one of the skateboards he had been examining and crossed over to Ashley's side.
Michaelson stepped up. "Tell them," he said, his eyes glued on Blakely. "They deserve to know more."
Blakely lifted a hand up, palm toward the major. "I was just getting to that."
Ashley had a sudden sinking feeling in her gut.
"Professor Carter," Blakely said, "I'm not proud of what I'm about to reveal. But certain expediencies dictated this course. We've had to keep certain secrets."
"No kidding," Ben said.
Ashley hushed him with a glare, then turned an even harsher eye on Blakely. "Go on. What secret?"
"You asked me if we've explored farther. Well, we have." He pointed to the wormhole. "You're not the first team to explore this route. A joint team of five researchers and one Marine entered this chute over four months ago."
Ashley shook her head. "Then why drag all of us here, if it's already been explored?"
"The other team has yet to return."
"What?" Ben said, stepping closer. "You mean they're still down there?"
"Without radios, we had no means of tracking the team. They were scheduled to return after two weeks of exploring. Three weeks passed with no word from them, so we sent in a search party. A cursory search revealed a massive maze of tunnels, shafts, and caverns. No trace of the men was found."
"Why the hell didn't you expand the search?" Ben was red-faced by now.
"Without adequate means of radio contact, the search parties were at risk. They could meet the same fate as the original team. So the search was called off. The team was declared lost."
"Great," Ashley said. "What if we get in trouble? Do you just walk away from us too?"
"This is bullshit," added Ben. "Downright cowardice."
Blakely's fist clenched, a tightness narrowing his eyelids. "That team was under my supervision. I took their loss personally. I could not risk losing any others. We lost the first team because we were excited and proceeded without proper caution. I refused to allow any others to search farther until an adequate communications system could be installed." He shoved a finger toward the radio. "Now it is!"
Ben didn't back down. "Sorry, but I still think a small team-"
Michaelson interrupted. "It was my decision too."
Ashley turned toward the major, who stood by the packs. "Well, then why the hell didn't you do something?"
Michaelson met Ashley's stare squarely. "As head of the Marine contingent here, it was my call whether to proceed blindly or to take Dr. Blakely's advice and wait until he completed his radio net. I chose to proceed cautiously."
"Just like the military," Ben said sourly, a sneer frozen on his lips. "Personnel are just pawns, to be thrown away as needed. Who cares if this other team was comprised of real men with real lives? Just throw them to the wind."
Michaelson, his jaw clenched, spun away on a heel. Ben had an angry frown on his lips. An ugly expression for him, Ashley thought.
Ashley stepped after the major, meaning to confront him further, but Blakley reached and touched her elbow as she tried to pass by the doctor. He whispered in her ear, "The major's brother was on that other team."
Ashley stopped and watched Michaelson taking inventory of his pack, his motions hurried and jerky. "Harry?" she said softly, remembering the major's warm smile as he talked about his kid brother's fascination with vehicles and motors. Maybe she should say something…
But now Ben called to Michaelson's back, "Some camaraderie. Leaving those men to rot. If I were you-"
Ashley held a hand toward Ben. "Enough. It's done. Leave him be." She watched Michaelson pound his gear into his pack and walk away. She turned to Blakely. "Now what?"
Blakely cleared his throat. "The decisions of the past are moot. What we have to decide now is where we go from here. Regardless of what you all decide, the two SEALs and Major Michaelson will be proceeding today, searching for clues about the fate of the previous team. The rest of the team must make a decision. Knowing about the other group, how many of you want to continue with this team?"