"You're on my back, woman!" Ben hissed at Ashley. "It won't help Halloway if we run over a cliff."
"Sorry, but there's so much blood."
"We're going as quickly as safety will allow."
Villanueva halted their discussion with a firm motion of his arm. He pointed around the next corner. Ashley crept next to him and peered past the curve. Up ahead, the tunnel dumped into a large cavern. "I think I should proceed alone," the SEAL said. "Check out the area."
"No. Not this time," Ashley said firmly. "I want the team together. More eyes to watch backs, and more trigger fingers to protect those backs."
The team proceeded as a group into the cavern, flashlights flared out like the spokes of a wheel. The chamber was similar to the others they had crossed in their journey here. Stalagmites littered the floor; stalactites stabbed downward. Except there was one new feature. Ashley rubbed a snowflake from her eyelash. "Damn. It's snowing in here."
A small flurry of soft flakes fluttered through their light beams.
Linda held a hand out and flakes settled on her palm. "They're not cold or wet."
Ben shouldered his way to Ashley's side, brushing at the sifting of flakes. "This is bad."
"It's not snow. It's gypsum crystals." He pointed his flashlight to the branches of gypsum crystals festooning the ceiling of the chamber like twenty-foot white chandeliers. "They're fragile, delicate structures. Body heat can cause them to weaken and flake away."
Ashley brushed flakes from her shoulders, like dandruff. "I still don't see the danger."
"For this snowfall to be happening now, a lot of body heat had to recently pass through here. More than one injured SEAL."
Ashley's eyes widened with the implication. "We're not alone down here."
The drifting of gypsum crystals thickened as the team crossed the cavern. Lights jittered in every direction, shadows jumping and lunging. Ashley adjusted the handkerchief she had tied over her nose and mouth to keep from inhaling the flakes. She glanced at the others, masked like a bunch of bandits sneaking up on an unsuspecting victim.
Villanueva still had the point, crouching low and darting from cover to cover, before waving them forward with an all-clear sign. No one spoke much, fearful of just what else might be lurking in the next shadow.
Ben marched beside her, pointing his gun forward. He shifted his light to the cavern floor. "Blood trail is thinning," he whispered.
Their evening report to Alpha Base was now an hour past due, but they couldn't halt their search now. It would take half an hour to unwrap the radio's components from their waterproof plastic, assemble the parts, and make their report. Time, like the SEAL's blood trail, was running out.
A frantic hissing from Villanueva drew her attention away from the red trail. The others had frozen in crouched positions. She was the only one still standing. Ben pulled her down beside him. He kept a hold on her hand.
The SEAL, crouched at the base of a huge boulder, held a finger to his lips and motioned her to come forward… quietly. Ashley crept to the point position.
Villanueva pressed his lips to her ear. He spoke in a hurry. "We've reached the other side of this cave. There're two exit points. A large tunnel and small wormhole."
"So? Let's go. Which way does the blood trail go?"
He shook his head. "I can't say for sure. The mud is too chewed up out there to get a clear trail."
"So we just check both," she said, leaning away.
"Wait. That's not why I called you over." He pointed beyond the boulder. "Poke your head around the corner and listen."
Raising an eyebrow, Ashley craned her neck around the boulder. In the rock face before her, she spotted another rough-walled tunnel, like the one that had led them to this cavern. At first she didn't hear anything above her own panting breath. Perhaps her ears weren't as sharp as the SEAL's. As she was turning to ask Villanueva for elaboration, she heard it too. A cracking and crunching, like dry sticks underfoot. And a throaty slurping. A shiver passed through her. It was coming from the tunnel ahead.
She raised her light to flash it into the heart of the tunnel when Villanueva swatted her arm back down.
"No," he hissed. "Whatever's in there doesn't know we're here."
"Maybe it's Halloway," she said earnestly, but even she didn't believe her words.
"Bullshit," the SEAL said.
"Well, what do we do? Just sit here and wait?"
A sharp sneeze retorted from behind them. Ashley whipped around. Khalid shrugged apologetically and pointed to the drifting flakes, his other hand restraining a second outburst.
Turning back to Villanueva, Ashley held her breath. "I can't hear it anymore," she whispered.
The SEAL nodded. He had his eyes closed. "Neither can I."
Shit! Whatever was in that tunnel now knew they were here. There was no further use hiding. She stood up, now holding her pistol in both hands. "Ben, Villanueva. You're both with me. Michaelson, you stay under cover behind the boulder with the others."
Michaelson stepped forward. "This is a military matter. You should remain here. It's safer. I'll go with Ben and Villanueva."
"No," she said, checking her pistol. "I want you here. Guarding our rear. And protecting the others. We may need a fast retreat."
She watched the major chew over her decision. Apparently unable to find fault, he nodded. "Be careful."
She cocked her pistol. "Let's go."
Her group crossed to the front of the boulder, gun barrels pointing toward the tunnel opening.
"I say we open fire," the SEAL said quietly. "Blast the tunnel and ask questions later."
"No," Ashley hissed. "There's still a chance Halloway may be in there."
Villanueva raised his assault rifle. "We take the advantage while we've got it."
She shoved his rifle with her shoulder and stepped forward. "Halloway!" she called. "If you're in there, give us some signal!"
The tunnel just stared blankly back at them.
"Satisfied?" The SEAL's contempt dripped from the word as he repositioned. He lowered his head closer to his rifle sights. The cavern exploded with rifle fire as he blasted blindly into the dark eye of the tunnel. The reverberations rocked through the cavern.
Her ears still rang after the SEAL ceased firing. A cloud of rock dust and smoke rolled from the assaulted opening.
Ben narrowed his light beam, trying to dig deeper into the inky blackness, but failed. "Damn."
From the mouth of the tunnel erupted a ululating cry, like a keening hawk, but more guttural and rasping. Ashley winced at the noise. A primordial part of her responded, wanting to cower and flee, but she dropped to one knee and raised her pistol higher.
Then something small bounced out into the main cavern.
"Jesuschristgoddamnmotherfu…" Villanueva swore a stream, backing a step away.
It was Halloway. His head. The decapitated head of the former SEAL bumped to a stop a yard away, eyes staring up, snowflakes settling softly on the eyelashes.
JASON PLOPPED INTO HIS CHAIR IN THE OFFICE, EXPELLING a sigh loud enough to draw his "baby-sitter's" attention. He had been waiting for five minutes already. Five minutes! He was going to be late for his karate practice.
Roland looked up from his papers; his glasses drooped to the tip of his long nose. "Oh, Jason. Are you still here? I thought you had already left for the gym."
"You know I can't." He stressed each syllable.
Jason rolled his eyes. "Dr. Blakely said I was not to leave any of the buildings without a stupid baby-sitter." He scrunched up his face and imitated the nasal quality of Blakely's voice. "It's for my own protection."
"Well, that's just silly. The gym is right next door. Be a good boy and scoot on over there. I've still a huge pile of reports to log and index."
Jason's face brightened. All right! He shoved his chair back with a loud squeak and bolted away. He ran down the hall and out the door, his gym bag bumping against his leg. He sprinted the ten yards to the next building. Lieutenant Brusserman was probably already waiting. Once through the door, Jason was assaulted by the familiar smells of a gymnasium. Sweaty cotton jerseys, varnish on the basketball court's floor, and the tang of disinfectant.
He searched the aerobics area for Lieutenant Brusserman, but saw no sign of him. Jason crossed the gym, heading for the locker room. He stopped to watch a game of one-on-one being played on the basketball court. Jason recognized Major Chan, with whom he had gone boating yesterday.
Signaling a time out, Major Chan crossed over to where Jason stood. He was winded and spoke between gulps of air. "Hi, kid. Listen, the lieutenant called. He won't be able to make it today, but he said to say sorry. He'll see you tomorrow." The major faked a punch at him playfully and then returned to his game.
Jason's heart sank. "But what am I supposed to…" The major was already back in the game, defending a drive to the basket.
Darn it! Now what? He didn't want to go back to Roland's office. He'd be stuck thumbing through those boring magazines about Navy life.
He nudged open the door and slipped outside. A group of white-smocked researchers milled past him, heading toward the dormitories, joking and laughing.
Jason sat on the steps and searched in his gym bag for something to do. His Nintendo Game Boy? He crinkled his nose. No-boring. His hand curled around a Spiderman comic book, but he'd read it.
Sighing, he juggled the contents. A few coins jingled, and a pack of gum fell out of his bag. Frowning, he picked up the package of Juicy Fruit and shoved it into the side compartment of his bag. While doing so, his hand fell upon a hard, round object hidden in the pocket.
He fished it out. Oh, yeah! He fingered the old red firecracker. A cherry bomb. He smiled, remembering how he had traded for it with Billy Sanderson for an X-men comic book. Almost forgot about this little baby. Glancing around him with a mischievous gleam in his eye, he pondered sneaking off and trying it out.