Michaelson shook his head. "I was doing reconnaissance. Looking for ways to hasten our passage, avoid needless delays."
"That's bullshit, Dennis."
He stopped at her words, his back taut.
"Dennis," she said, "I know why you're down here. I know about your brother."
"So Blakely told you."
"It doesn't matter who told me," she said. "What matters is that your drive to find Harry is hurting this mission."
He tensed even more. "I don't see that."
"I know. That's why I'm bringing it up. Someone needs to tell you. You're thinking with your gut, not your head. You're racing past clues-like the dented cup, for instance. You're flying ahead of the rest of the team. Alone. Which is risky enough to yourself, but now you've put another team member in harm's way."
He tensed his shoulders and lowered his voice. "But I have to find my brother."
Ashley placed a consoling hand on his shoulder; he flinched from her touch. "We'll find him. But we work as a team."
He stood silently for several heartbeats, then took an awkward step forward, breaking the moment, clearing his throat. "We're almost to the river. It's just up ahead."
Shaking her head, Ashley followed Michaelson around the next boulder. The path became more difficult as they approached the roaring river. The last yards to the river were blocked by a cluster of cave pearls, forcing them to crawl.
Covered in mud, they finally reached the river's edge. Below, black water churned between steep banks. Its spray, rich with salt, stung their eyes.
Ashley wiped mud off her forehead with a damp handkerchief and leaned close to Michaelson, yelling directly in his ear, trying to outshout the river below. "He wouldn't have tried to cross this river alone."
Michaelson nodded. "Maybe Ben and Villanueva are having better luck," he hollered. "Why don't we-"
A scream pierced the roar of the river, echoing through the cavern.
Stunned, Michaelson and Ashley stared at each other.
"What the hell?" she hollered. "It sounded like it came from across the river!"
Michaelson tried to bore his light through the river's mist. "It could just be an echo."
"I don't like this. Let's get everybody back together." She turned to trace their route back when a second scream erupted. It cut off abruptly. "We'd better hurry."
Michaelson stood, his light fixed on the darkness beyond the river.
Ashley grit her teeth. She yanked on his arm. "Now, soldier. We're out of here."
Ben scratched behind his left ear. What was taking Ashley and Michaelson's team so long? He and Villanueva had completed their leg of the search fifteen minutes ago. The SEAL had set an intense pace. Ben had always considered himself to be in decent shape, but as he struggled to keep up with Villanueva, he felt like someone's arthritic grandmother. His contribution to the search consisted mostly of him yelling for the SEAL to slow down. Still, for all their effort, they found no sign of Halloway, arriving back at the wormhole with no new information for Linda and Khalid.
Ben glanced toward Villanueva. The SEAL paced back and forth, one hand on a holstered pistol. That man was wired as tight as a kangaroo in heat. It obviously tortured him to have to wait for the others to return.
Ben too was becoming concerned. They should have been back by now. He struck the rock he had been examining with his flashlight. He should have gone with her. He knew more about caves than Michaelson. What if she disappeared like Halloway?
Linda called from where she crouched by a cave pearl the size of a beachball. "Ben, come see this."
Ben crossed to her, squatted on his haunches beside her. "What?"
"Shine your light inside. The details are clearer here in this smaller stone."
"Linda, is this really the right time for this?" he grumbled, but did as she asked.
An escalating excitement hurried her words. "Look at the orbital ridges. They bulge too thickly. And the auditory orifices. They're too low on the skull." She turned to Ben, her eyes shining. "It's not human. Or I should say, not modern man. The size of the brain case does suggest an advanced hominid, but there's too much distortion for me to recognize the species. Ashley needs to see this. She'd know."
Linda suddenly looked around, voicing Ben's own concern. "What's taking them so long to get back?"
A sudden scream echoed through the cavern. Both Ben and Linda jumped up. Linda sidled closer to him. Ben's heart had climbed into his throat and was caught there. Ashley!
Villanueva already had his pistol raised and stood frozen, his flashlight beam acting as a gunsight. Khalid crossed to Linda, and like a small moon pulled into a different orbit, Linda drifted from Ben into Khalid's shadow.
A second scream. Ben stepped over to Villanueva. "We need to go after them," Ben said. "They're in trouble."
"No," said Villanueva. "We stay here."
"Are you crazy? They're being attacked!"
The SEAL's face was stone. "No. The scream was far away. Beyond the river."
"How can you tell for sure? The acoustics in a cave are tricky."
Villanueva continued to study the darkness ahead. "I'm sure."
"I don't care. I'm heading out to check on them."
"If you try to leave, I'll shoot you in the leg." The casualness in which he said those words suggested he was not joking.
"Who the hell do you think you are?"
"I'm the senior ranking officer here. What I say goes."
"This is the designated rendezvous location. If the others are in trouble, they will head here. We'll give them ten minutes."
"Then what? Go look for them?"
"No. We head back up."
"And leave them down here? Like hell I will!"
"Michaelson has the radio. Without him, we have no means of communicating topside. If he's not back in ten minutes, we evacuate."
Ben stared into the black curtain, beyond which he imagined horrible acts being played out. Ashley running, hiding, pursued by slavering creatures. Ashley mauled and bleeding. He held his breath for most of the ten minutes. To hell with the damned SEAL. If she didn't return… he knew how to take care of himself in caves.
Villanueva lowered his arm. The blackness quickly filled the void of his flashlight, greedily reclaiming its lost territory. "Pack up," he said over his shoulder. "We're heading out."
Ben shifted from foot to foot, straining to pierce the darkness.
"Let's go, Mr. Brust." The SEAL pointed with his gun. "Don't make this hard."
Ben had an idea. "Wait. Everyone turn out your lights."
"What?" said Linda, a tremor in her voice. "Are you nuts?"
"Just do it. If there's no sign of their lights, then we'll get the hell out."
Villanueva studied him, squinting warily. "One minute."
Linda snuggled closer to Khalid as they turned their lanterns off.
The camp was swallowed up by darkness.
It took a few seconds for Ben's eyes to adjust to the blindness, the vanquished camp lights still burning dull flares on his retinas. As these last traces faded, one area persisted, off to the left. His dilated pupils strained to focus. A glowing cave pearl. Then the glow shifted to another cave pearl. Closer. The lights were approaching. "Someone's coming," Ben said, his voice booming with relief. "They're on their way back."
Linda said, "Yes, I see it too!"
Villanueva called for lights. The darkness was beaten back by the flaring lanterns. Within minutes, bobbing flashlights could be seen approaching through the darkness. The SEAL still stood with his gun pointed forward. Once the lights were close enough, he yelled, "Stop there! Identify yourselves!"
Ashley's voice came back angrily, "Who the hell do you think it is?"
Then Michaelson's voice: "It's just us, Major. Relax."
Villanueva lowered his gun.
Ashley stomped into camp, followed by Michaelson, who kept glancing toward the river behind him. "Whose bright idea was it to turn your lights off like that?" Ashley asked sourly. "We were using them as a beacon back here. We thought something happened and started racing back. Almost ran myself right over a cliff."
Linda pointed a thumb at Ben.
"Just looking for you," he said, nodding his head toward the SEAL. "After we heard the scream, our mate here was planning on scrambling back topside with our tails between our legs if you didn't show."
Ashley bristled. "What the hell?"
Michaelson interrupted, a hand raised in the air. "He was correct. We had the radio. They didn't."
Ben swallowed. "But to leave you…"
Ashley rubbed her temples thoughtfully, then nodded. "He's right. Next time, listen to him, Ben." She brushed past him, scanning the camp. "Okay, under the circumstances, we need to make a decision whether to continue forward or go back."
Michaelson stepped forward. "I suggest Villanueva and I cross the river to take a closer look while the rest of the camp stays put."
Ashley shook her head. "No. We stick together. We've already seen what happens when we split up."
"Then we evacuate," Michaelson stated bluntly. "I won't risk any more civilians. Halloway knew the risks."
Ashley scowled. "And what if it was one of us out there screaming? Would you be so quick to leave?"
Michaelson remained silent.
"I thought so," she said. "I think Halloway deserves as much support as any of us."
Linda spoke up. "Besides, he might just be injured or unconscious. He's been silent since the first screams. We can't leave without at least looking thoroughly."
Michaelson began to object, but Ashley held up a hand. "Since it's our civilian butts on the line, it should be our decision to continue forward or not."