"Linda!" Khalid called. He had wandered off and knelt by the edge of the pond. "Here's another shell." He reached into the water, immersing his arm almost to his shoulder. "I can't reach… wait, no… there… I got it." He pulled his drenched arm out, his hand clasped around a shell larger than the first one. He straightened up, holding the shell above his head like a trophy.


Ben shook his head. Showing off big-time, he thought. He opened his mouth to make a comment when suddenly, from the shell, a flurry of thrashing tentacles sprouted. Linda gasped.

The tentacles latched onto Khalid's arm.

Khalid tried to shove the squid off his arm, but it clung tenaciously. Tears welled at the corner of his eyes, and he grimaced with pain. "The damned thing is biting me." Rivulets of blood could be seen beginning to trail down his arm. Groaning, Khalid swung his arm, cracking the shell against the rock wall beside him-to no avail.

Ben pulled a knife from his belt. "Hold still!"

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Khalid froze, then a spasm of agony contorted his face. "Just get the thing off," he said between clenched teeth.

Ben slipped the blade between tentacle and skin. It was a tight fit. The creature's appendages clamped tightly to the flesh of Khalid's arm. Ben sawed through the meat of one tentacle, and greenish black ooze spurted from the amputated end. The thing tightened its other appendages, eliciting a groan from Khalid.

The monster's strength was fierce. If it constricts much more, Ben thought, it'll crush bone. He cautiously worked the knife under a second tentacle and cut. This time the thing twitched and loosened. After slicing through two more appendages, the creature released Khalid's arm, dropped to the cave floor, wobbled, and sucked its remaining tentacles back into its shell.

Khalid dropped to his knees with a low moan, a hand clasped over the wound, blood seeping between his fingers.

Ben kept an eye on the shell, black ooze dripping from its opening. With a scowl, he swung a boot and kicked the shell in a high arc over the pond. With a splash, the creature sank from view.

Ashley yelled at him, "Why the hell did you do that? We could have studied it. My god, it's an extinct species."

Ben pointed to Khalid's bloody arm. "Extinct, my ass."

"He'll live," Major Villanueva said.

Ashley watched him apply the bandage to Khalid's arm with a piece of waterproof tape. The SEAL, with his advanced training as a field medic, had taken over as soon as they had arrived back at camp. After cleaning the wound, he treated Khalid with topical and systemic antibiotics.

"Can he continue on with us?" she asked.

Villanueva shrugged one shoulder. "Nothing more than a deep puncture to the muscle of the forearm and some bruising. He'll be fine."

She nodded and turned away. Good. She'd hate to lose a team member before they had reached uncharted territory. As she passed the campstove, Halloway offered her a bowl of lukewarm chili and beans in a tin pan. She accepted it with a curt word of thanks and settled onto her air mattress with the pan balanced in her lap.

Ben had already scraped his bowl clean and looked greedily toward her plate. "So how's Khalid's arm?" he asked.

"Fine. They shot him full of antibiotics and painkillers."

Ben set down his plate. "That was one bloody weird creature."

She shrugged and spoke around a mouthful of beans. "I was talking to Linda. She said their main food source was a type of prehistoric lobster, and these waters are teeming with crustaceans of various types. So I suppose, in this isolated environment, the squid survived on similar food."

"Makes you wonder."

"About what?"

He nodded across the camp, where Michaelson had disassembled his rifle into small metal parts and inspected and cleaned each item. "What else has survived down here?"

That night, Ben had the dream again. He was walking through the cavern of his childhood nightmares, full of columns that sprouted fruit-bearing limbs. Light suffused from all directions, and as he wandered through the grove, something seemed to be drawing him forward, calling to him.

"Hello," he hollered into the empty cavern. "Who's there?"

Drawn toward the north side of the cavern, he tried to follow the song of the invisible sirens, but the trees crowded closer, blocking his passage. Unable to squeeze between the columns any farther, he could only peer past the trunks.

The north face of the cavern glowed with a soft light, except for a single black hole in the wall. A small cave, like the dwellings found near Alpha Base.

"Is anyone there?" he called, his face pressed between two trunks.

No answer. He waited, pushing against the trunks as if he could shift the rocky columns. As he watched, someone crawled from the small cave, on wrinkled hands and gnarled knees. The old man stood into the light, dark face painted with yellow and red stripes, dressed in a loincloth. The figure waved him forward.

Ben stretched out an arm, struggling to pass between the trunks of stone. "Grandfather!"

With a start, Ben jolted awake, bathed in sweat. He sat up on his air mattress. Only a single lantern illuminated the sleeping camp. Villanueva, who sat on a rock, raised a glance toward him. The SEALs had insisted on posting guards; after the squid incident, no one had argued.

Settling back into bed, Ben rolled over, his back to the light. The dream echoed in his mind, as if bouncing off the rock walls around him. He still felt a vague pull, a drive to continue deeper into the maze. He squeezed his eyelids closed.



Wiping her hands on the seat of her coveralls, she crossed over to Ben. "What did you find?" After three days on this trek into unmapped territory, she was getting used to Ben's continuous chatter. He was always pointing out unusual cave formations to her-dogtooth spars, box-work formations, cave pearls-often scowling when she didn't respond with the correct degree of awe. Coming up behind him, she leaned over his crouched form.

In his hands, he held a tin cup, dented on one side, the handle snapped off. It looked just like the ones they carried with their canteens.

"Yeah, so what?" she said.

"It's not ours."

She knelt at his side, taking the cup. "Are you sure? Maybe someone dropped-"

"No," he said. "It's caked in old silt. Half buried. It's got to be from the first team. I think they camped here for a night. This cavern has potable water." He pointed to a stream that crossed the center of the small cavern. "And look how this area of mud is trampled. I bet if we looked hard enough we would find other debris from their bivouac."

"I think you're right." She sighed. Since the last switchback yesterday, there'd been no signs of the previous explorers. "We should let Michaelson know. He's been nervous as a mare in heat since we lost track of the original team."

Ben snorted his agreement. "This should light a fire under him."

They crossed the cavern, hopping over a small stream that had dug a trough through the center of the cavern, and wove around the many stalagmites clustered across the floor. Ben proceeded ahead, Ashley's helmet light spotted on his backside. She watched as he climbed over a small outcropping, muscles bunching and relaxing, the damp and muddy coveralls clinging tight. She swallowed and pointed her lamp to the left, away from Ben. She wiped a hand across her brow. These damn caves were hot as hell.

Something moved to her left. Startled, she almost lost her grip on a muddy rock. Swinging her light in the direction of the movement, she searched but saw only the usual twisted stalagmites. Nothing was there.

Ben, noticing she had stopped, turned back to her. "Do you need a hand?"

"No. I just thought I saw something moving over there." She nodded across to the left. "But it was nothing. Just shadows moving with my lamp, I guess."

Ben feigned fear, eyes searching rapidly to his right and left. "Or perhaps it was that predatory snail looking for more of Khalid's blood. I can see it now: 'The vampire slugs of Antarctica.'"

She shoved him forward. "Get going."

Within moments, they arrived at the next wormhole, where the remaining team members clustered, slouching on rocks. Linda was examining Khalid's arm. Everyone looked exhausted, except, of course, the two SEALs. Perhaps the team should stop early, she thought, and camp for the night.

Searching for Michaelson, she noted he was missing. Great-did he start his own search already? She had told no one about Michaelson's brother being a member of the lost team. She figured if he wanted to keep it a secret, it was his business. But she had been watching as the lines of worry creasing his forehead had become deeper and more numerous. If he ran off…? She called to Villanueva. "Where's Michaelson?"

He pointed down the chute ahead of him. "Recon."

Damn him, she thought. He couldn't sit still. He always had to be running ahead to check for clues about his brother. "I didn't authorize anyone to proceed ahead on his own."

Halloway shrugged. "You weren't around."

"Well, now I am. And I expect him back up here on the double."

Again she caught a condescending smirk on the soldier's face. "I'll tell him when he gets back."

She shoved a finger hard into Halloway's chest. "Find him now."

A dark cloud descended upon the SEAL's features. Halloway towered over her, like a lion before a mouse.

Ashley cut him off before he could open his mouth. "You have your orders, soldier." She drilled him with her eyes.

Halloway clenched his teeth, then suddenly smiled coldly. "Ready or not, Major Michaelson, here I come." He spun on a heel, and within a heartbeat, he vanished down the hole.

She quietly let out her pent-up breath.

Linda and Khalid stared at her. Villanueva, clearly unimpressed by the exchange, shrugged and went back to sharpening a knife.

Ben clapped her around the shoulders, causing her to jump. "Good job, Captain. Scary sorta bloke, isn't he?"

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