Ben spoke up first. "If it weren't for those trapped men, I'd scrap this right now. But they've been waiting long enough. I'm going."
Eyes turned to Ashley. "This changes everything. I need time to think this through," she said. "We're now a rescue mission."
"No," Blakely said. "I consider it a joint mission. The first objective remains the same as the previous team's-to explore this system for clues to the origin of the cave dwellers. But since your team will be following in the footsteps of the first, I'm hoping both objectives can be achieved simultaneously."
Blakely pointed a finger at Ashley. "That's why I picked you to be the leader here. Do you still want to command this team?"
Ashley frowned. "You should have warned us earlier. I don't like being lied to."
"I never lied to you. It was merely a sin of omission. I too had no choice. I was under orders. The fate of the original team is still under tight wraps. Their families haven't even been told yet."
Ben snorted and mumbled under his breath.
Blakely ignored him. "Professor Carter?"
She found her thoughts drifting to Jason, who was safe back at the base under the care of Blakely's assistant, Roland. Should she take the risk? She had other responsibilities besides her career. She remained silent.
"I'll still go," Khalid said. "This is too important."
"Me too," said Linda. "We might need everyone's expertise to find the other team."
Ashley too could not stomach abandoning the other team. She turned to Blakely. "Fine. You still have a team! But if we don't have complete honesty from here-"
Blakely nodded, his voice serious. "You have my word." He stepped back and waved her forward. "Remember, we'll be in contact regularly to map your progress in case of any mishaps. Otherwise, the decisions from here are yours. Everything from how often to set up camp to the number of days you choose to explore before returning. Your word is law."
The eyes of the others fixed on her. The magnitude of the search threatened to overwhelm her. "Well," said Ashley, "we're never going to get anywhere just sitting here. Let's head out. Halloway, take the lead. Everyone else follow, and we'll meet up in the next cave."
The team checked their gear and collected their packs, strapping them over their shoulders. Ashley watched the others fumble with their transport sleds.
Halloway wasn't waiting around for any further discussion. He adjusted his helmet and dove down the chute on his board. The others waited in line to follow.
Satisfied that they were finally under way, Ashley pulled on her gloves and strapped the Velcro bands. She reached for her pack and slipped it over her shoulder. As Blakely stepped beside her, she faced the doctor as the others slipped into the wormhole. With ice in her voice, she said, "Take good care of my son."
"Of course. Roland will make sure the boy is at the radio each morning so you can check yourself."
She nodded, noting the others had by now all entered the wormhole. Kneeling down, she positioned the skateboard under her body. She lit her helmet's carbide lamp and grabbed the walls on either side to propel herself into the tube. Shoving off, she entered the chute.
Damn thing still looked like a sewer drain.
ASHLEY PUSHED HER BOARD INTO HER PACK AND crossed over to the group clustered by a grove of stalagmites. Beams of hand lanterns and helmet lamps criss-crossed the blackness like fireflies in a jar. The cavern was about the size of a football stadium, infinitely smaller than Alpha Cavern's Grand Canyon scale.
A firm breeze, balmy and moist, blew through the cavern. Linda held a handkerchief up, and it flapped like a flag in the breeze.
"Caverns breathe in and out," Ben was explaining to Linda as Ashley walked up. "A response to changes in barometric pressure. I've even flown a kite in a cavern in Belize."
Linda lowered her arm. "I love this wind. It's so… so refreshing."
"All right, team," Ashley said as she stepped next to Ben. "The next kilometer of this system has already been mapped, so we can proceed at a fast clip."
Ben raised a hand. "I'd like to make a suggestion."
Ashley nodded. "By all means, I want everyone to feel free to offer input and suggestions. We are a team."
"Before we get to the unexplored areas ahead, I think we should buddy up. Caving involves more climbing up and down than walking on flat surfaces. In pairs, we can assist each other over the rough spots."
"Sounds good," Ashley said. "I think-"
Ben continued, "Also, by buddying up, we can conserve our batteries by having each pair only keep a single lamp lit. In this darkness, even a single light casts a big spot." He grinned at her. "After a day down here, too much light hurts the eyes. Trust me."
She nodded. Turning to the rest of the team, she pointed a thumb at Ben. "Let's do it, then. Everyone pick a partner."
Ben stepped immediately toward her. "Howdy, partner."
"Whoa," Ashley said. "Did you happen to notice we have an odd number of people here? As leader, I'll join other pairs as the need arises."
By this time, Linda and Khalid had already matched up, and the two SEALs had their heads bowed together, whispering. The remaining teammates, Michaelson and Ben, stared at each other.
"Shit," the major mumbled.
"Me and my dumb ideas," Ben said with a shake of his head.
Ashley hid a grin as she adjusted her pack. "With that out of the way, let's head on. We've got a lot of ground to cover."
She nodded toward the pair of grumbling men. "Ben and Michaelson will take the point. Let's all pay strict attention to Ben for the next few miles. He's the most experienced in caving, and I want everyone to learn proper spelunking skills and safety precautions. Let's not end up like that other team."
The group shifted backpacks into place and excess hand lanterns were clicked off. The level of light, Ashley noted, did not diminish to any significant degree. She followed Ben and Michaelson. As she walked, she cast her lantern back and forth, the darkness sucking at her light.
Her mind turned to her mission-both missions. She imagined being stranded in this Stygian blackness, watching the last of her batteries drain away while the darkness enveloped her in a cold embrace. She shivered. And what about the cliff builders, those long-lost ancestors of man? How did they survive in this eternal darkness?
She shook herself from this reverie as the team arrived at the next wormhole entrance. She stepped to the front.
Ben had his notebook-sized compass open, a geopositional tool tuned to a radio transmitter at the base that allowed Ben to calibrate not only their precise position in relation to the points of the compass but also the team's depth.
"They call this a map?" Ben said. As guide, he was keeper of the sketchy diagram drawn by the previous searchers. "It's crap. Look." He shoved the paper toward her. "No compass points, no distinct cavern delineations, no depth markers… No wonder the other team got lost!"
"That's why you're here," Ashley said. "You just map our way back home. We're counting on you."
"Well…" he said, stumbling for words, the wind knocked out of his sails. "A child could have done a better job."
"Then that makes you right for the job."
He looked sharply at her, and she gave him her best innocent expression. Seemingly satisfied, he turned away, his compass in hand.
She shook her head. Sometimes he and Jason were frighteningly similar. "If everyone is ready," she said, "let's proceed. I want to be into the new territory by the time we set up camp tonight."
"Just a little farther," Ben called to her from below.
Sucking at her lower lip, she stared down the steep slope before her. It looked more like a mile. Greased with mud, the cliff was slick as ice. Her eyes snaked upward, following her rope. Michaelson was snugged into a crevice several yards above and secured in place with a safety rope. Above him, at the lip of the cliff, hung Villanueva, clinging to a spur of rock and secured with a safety line. It was these two men's jobs to ensure a safe descent for the other teammates.
Ashley took a deep breath and pushed away from the wall as she had been instructed, allowing the rope to brake in the carabiner bars to stop her descent. She scrabbled downward, the toe of her left boot balancing on a protruding stone. Just a little farther.
The stone that had been supporting her suddenly slipped loose and tumbled downward. She plummeted after it, the rope racing between her gloved hands. Ben had schooled them to yell, "Falling!" when this sort of thing happened, but with her breath caught in a fear-constricted grip, all she could do was let out a high-pitched whine.
After a heartbeat, the whistling rope snagged in her carabiner and her descent jerked to a halt. A grunt of protest echoed from above as Michaelson caught her weight.
"Hey, careful up there," Ben yelled. "You damn near gave me a rock facial."
"Sorry," she said to the muddy wall swinging inches from her nose, both hands clamped on the rope.
"C'mon, relax, kid," Ben said. "Just get those feet back on the wall and finish the descent. You're almost on solid ground."
It was the solidness of that ground that concerned her. She had pictured her head slamming into that solid ground as she was falling, but she wasn't about to remain hanging here. There was only one way out of this predicament. Pulling into a squatting position, she got her boots up on the wall and straightened her legs out, pushing from the wall. With a jump, she rappelled down two yards and caught the wall with her boots. Not hesitating this time, she shot outward again and dropped another couple of yards. After two more hops, she felt Ben's arms around her waist.
"There you go," he said in her ear. "Piece of cake."
She settled her legs on the rocky floor, her knees wobbling a bit. "Yeah, no problem."