"Can I buy you another?" he asked, stressing his Aussie accent. That always won a lady's attention.
She lifted her left eyebrow. "They're free," she said. "It's a hosted bar."
His roguish smile swelled. "In that case, how about two?"
She just stared at him with green eyes.
He thrust out a hand. "Ben Brust. From Sydney."
"I could've guessed from your accent," she said with a ghost of a smile. "But the drawl sounds more like western Australia than the New South Wales territory."
"Well," he said, lowering his arm and stumbling for cover, "I actually was raised on my daddy's sheep station outside Perth. Western Australia. But most people don't know Sydney from-"
"I thought so." Collecting her drink, she began to turn away. "The meeting should be starting soon."
Before she left, he begged for at least one bone. "And you are?"
"Ashley Carter." She slipped past him.
Ben watched her walk away. No professor's stroll, that. He swallowed the dregs of his beer while appreciating her exit.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
ASHLEY CROSSED TO THE YOUNG SPANISH GENTLEMAN, who checked her identification. Nodding, he opened the door. The room was lined with some fifty seats, only a quarter occupied. An usher guided her to a reserved seat in the front row, then vanished. Shivering in the light skirt and jacket she wore, she wished they'd turn up the thermostat.
Now that she was seated, her mind began sifting over the events of the past weeks; her old anxieties wormed to the surface. One, especially.
She hated leaving her son alone in the hotel room upstairs. He had seemed so quiet this evening, not his usual boisterous self. Her fingers tightened on her purse.
And this mission. A letter with airplane tickets had arrived in the mail with instructions to be prompt. "Everything else has been taken care of," the letter had stated. No other details.
A man sat down in the seat next to her. "Well, hi, there."
She glanced over. It was the Australian fellow again. Goddamn it. Couldn't she get a moment of peace? The empty canyons of her New Mexico home had never seemed so appealing.
"Let me try this again…" He held out a hand. "Benjamin Brust."
Not wanting to insult him, she gave his hand one shake. Now go away, she thought.
He smiled at her, white teeth against a ruddy background, his cheekbones hard, sun wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. Full lips. "So what do you know about all this?" he asked.
Ashley shrugged, trying to discourage conversation, and turned away.
"So many secrets," Ben mumbled.
She nodded. "Perhaps shortly we'll have a few answers."
He remained quiet. Still, she sensed his presence at her shoulder. His cologne was musky and rich; his breathing, deep and even.
She shifted. The auditorium was almost full. Now it was getting warm in here. She wished they would fix the thermostat.
"Do you trust him?" he asked in a whisper.
"No," she answered, looking straight ahead. She knew who he was talking about. "Not at all."
From a doorway, Blakely watched the auditorium fill. His team was gathered in the five front seats. He signaled his assistant, Roland, across the room.
Roland nodded and raised a microphone to his lips. "Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats. We're ready to begin."
After a few more moments of bustling and last-minute arrivals, the doors to the auditorium were closed and the lights dimmed slightly. Blakely climbed the dais and stood behind the lighted podium. He dabbed his forehead with a handkerchief. He knew his speech by heart, words carefully crafted.
Blakely tapped the microphone, testing it. His tapping also signaled the murmuring crowd to hush. "First, thank you all for joining us." He paused. "I know it has been a hardship to leave your regular lives behind so abruptly.
But in a few moments, I'm sure you will be convinced that the disruption was well worth it."
He picked up a remote control for the slide projector and pressed a button. A photograph of a snowcapped mountain with a plume of dirty smoke appeared on the screen. "Mount Erebus on Ross Island just off the coast of Antarctica. One of three volcanic cones on this continent. At the base of this volcano is the U.S. research station, McMurdo. My home for the past five years."
He clicked the button to zero in on a group of low metal buildings clinging to the surface of a gray glacier. A satellite array sprouted like a bizarre spider from the rooftops. "I have been conducting geothermal studies for the past ten years on some hot rifts still active deep under the cone and under the neighboring Ross Sea. NASA assisted with this research. Their third shuttle, six years ago, made radio scans of the earth's crust, looking for oil fields and other such pockets. I commissioned a scan of Mount Erebus and found some amazing things."
He tapped the button, and a cross-sectional diagram of the crust under the volcanic cone appeared on screen. A murmur arose from the crowd. "As you can see, an intricate cavern system was discovered below Erebus, spreading hundreds of miles."
He clicked to the next slide. "Closer investigation with sonar and radar revealed a huge cavern separated from the deepest rift by a mere six hundred meters of stone." He guided a pointer to show the network of rifts that led to the massive pocket. "We named this cave Alpha Cavern. Almost five miles in diameter, the cavern floor was plumbed at two miles below the surface of the continent. Almost three times deeper than man has ever stepped foot."
The next picture showed a group of smiling men, faces encrusted in dirt and dust, posing in front of a large raw-edged hole. "After three years of work, we blasted and mined our way into this chamber. It took another year to wire and set up a camp on this chamber's floor." A spot-lighted set of Quonset huts and tents appeared next on the screen. A three-story wooden building protruded from the middle. A second, similar building, a mere skeleton of wooden framing and scaffolding, was under construction. "Alpha Base," he noted. "We worked in secret. Access restricted to those with the proper clearance."
The next slide caused his audience to gasp. Blakely smiled slightly. "Ladies and gentlemen, I present a mystery."
Ashley, who had been rubbing her eyes and yawning, wondering what all this talk of volcanic activity and mining had to do with her, bolted out of her seat. It had to be a hoax. What she saw blew a mile-wide hole in accepted anthropologic theory.
The photograph projected on the screen revealed a spot-lighted section of the cavern wall. Dug into the wall was a network of cliff-dwelling homes, rising several hundred feet up the wall. Unlike the organized Anasazi cliff dwellings she had studied in New Mexico, dwellings with distinct terraces and geometric conformations, these cavern dwellings were more rudimentary, crude, a haphazard series of rough caves.
Blakely continued after the audience's reaction had subsided to a quiet murmur. "Unfortunately, no one was home"-nervous laughter tickled across the room-"but we discovered a few scattered artifacts." He clicked through the next series of slides. One of the slides was the diamond fertility figurine.
Ashley was numb as she settled back into her seat. She raised her hand. "Excuse me, Dr. Blakely."
He acknowledged her with a wave, then paused to sip from a glass of water.
"Has the site been dated?" she asked.
He swallowed, nodding. "We did some cursory radio-carbon dating. As near as we can tell, about five-point-two million years."
"What!" Ashley jumped out of her seat a second time. "That's impossible."
"It's been repeated at several labs," he replied, his smile condescending.
The eyes of the auditorium were now upon her. Some lighting technician even highlighted her with a small spot. She shaded her eyes with a hand. "But the first hominids, the earliest ancestor of modern man, only appeared on the planet four million years ago. And these early hominids did not have the tools or social structure to build anything like this."
He shrugged. "That's why we're here." He clicked for the next slide: a photograph of a tunnel in the base of the wall. "These tunnels leave this colossal chamber in many different directions, connecting to other caverns and tunnels. We believe that down one of these passages lie the answers to the questions raised by Professor Carter. Who built the dwellings? Who made the carvings? Where are they now?"
The audience remained stunned, silent. Ashley sat back down, still in shock.
"I have put together a small team to begin that exploration. To venture deeper into the maze of tunnels and discover what else may lie below. The group will be led by Professor Ashley Carter, an expert in paleoanthropology and archaeology. The others on the team are leaders in their respective fields."
He pointed to a blond-haired woman seated several chairs over from Ashley. "Accompanying the team will be Professor Linda Furstenburg, a biology professor from the University of Vancouver, to study the unique biosphere we've discovered down there. Also a geologist, Khalid Najmon," he said with a nod toward an Arab gentleman seated with his legs crossed to Linda's left. "He, as many of you know, will be assisting us in mapping the riches below Antarctic ice. His findings may alter our view of this continent."
Blakely finished by pointing out the other two men seated in the front row. "All the way from Australia, Benjamin Brust, a world-renowned cave explorer, will be mapping the intricacies of this unique cavern system. And that smartly dressed man in the uniform is Major Michaelson of the U.S. Marines, who, with two other trained military men, will be accompanying the team to aid in logistics and protection."
He waved his arm to encompass the group before him. "Ladies and gentlemen, here is your team." A murmur of applause spattered across the crowd.
Ashley tried to sink deeper into her seat.
After some further details were explained and a handful of questions answered, the meeting ended. Satisfied, Blakely left the podium.