"You won't be joining us?" Ashley asked.
"No, I'm meeting with the base captain to iron out the last few details."
After Blakely left, they proceeded to the mess hall. A few Navy personnel raised an eyebrow or two as they passed. One young gentleman stared at Ashley for longer than she liked, until a stern glare sent him scurrying. As a whole, though, the Navy crew seemed unfazed by the newcomers. She guessed that as a base of operation for the National Science Foundation, they had become accustomed to an influx of new faces.
Ashley balanced a tray laden with two apples, a thick sandwich of luncheon meats, and a pint of milk. Jason had tried to fill his tray with pudding and cookies until she pointed for him to return the treats. "Lunch first. Then you can have a chocolate pudding and one cookie."
Jason moped his way to the table with the smallest sandwich he could find, his eye still straying to the dessert bar.
Ben joined them at their table. Major Michaelson, Khalid, and Linda took a neighboring table.
"We're almost there," Ben whispered in her ear as he sat. "At the threshold of a new world. How are you holding up, Captain?"
Whether from his words or his ticklish breath, a shiver traveled down her back. "Fine," she said. "Just wound up tight. Anxious to tackle the caves."
"Me too." With a big smile, he held out a hand, fingers trembling. "I get the shakes until I get started."
She couldn't tell if he was joking with her. He was so hard to read. "To be this close…" She shrugged. "It's nerve-wracking."
"I know how you feel," Ben said with a nod. "I've been caving for two decades. This is my first chance to scoop booty on a new system."
"Scoop booty? What's that?"
"Sheesh, Mom!" Jason said, seated beside her, appalled. He spoke around a mouthful of sandwich. "It's a caving guy's word. It means to be the first to discover new stuff."
"Oh… I see," she said, smiling at her son's attempt to impress her.
"Ben and I talked. He's told me all about-what'd you call it again?-oh, yeah… the virgin's passage."
"What?" She turned to Ben. "What the hell have you been telling my son?"
"Virgin passages," Ben said, straining to hold back his laughter. "Passages never walked by man. That sort of thing."
"Oh," she said, suddenly chagrined. "I thought-"
He interrupted with a sloppy grin. "I know what you thought."
She bristled. "So you think you're the next Neil Armstrong?"
She shook her head at his ignorance. "The first man who stepped on the moon. 'One giant step for mankind.' "
Ben's eyes brightened. "Exactly! To be the first human to see something new. Like no other thrill."
She remembered the hidden Anasazi tomb she had discovered, pulse racing, breath shallow, as she tipped over the final stone to reveal the inner sanctum of the high priest. The musty smell of the ancient chamber. The sun on her neck. To be the first to view a secret hidden for centuries. And now to do the same on a secret hidden for millennia. What would she find there? Her ears rang with her thudding heartbeat. Yes, she understood Ben's excitement.
"So are you ready to scoop some booty?" he asked.
She smiled into his laughing eyes. "Hell, yes. I hope there's still time later to explore those cliff dwellings. I'd even skip lunch for a chance to get at them today." Taking a hearty bite of her sandwich, she found the bread moist and the meat rubbery. "Especially this lunch."
Ben just kept smiling at her. "Don't like military fare?"
She smirked at him. "I'm going back for some pudding and a cookie."
"Mom!" Jason cried. "No fair!"
Jason's finger dabbed up every stray cookie crumb from his dessert plate. Then he sucked on his finger, savoring the hint of chocolate. "Can't I have one more cookie?" he begged his mother.
"You've already had two. That's enough. Why don't you go to the restroom and wash up?"
Jason mumbled something under his breath and shoved his chair back. "Fine."
Ben piped up as Jason passed, "How about a game of pool after you're done?"
Jason's tight features softened. He eyed his mother. "Can I?"
"Sure. Now scoot. We load up shortly."
"Be with you in a minute, Ben," Jason said, darting from the mess hall into the restroom across the hall. The bathroom was empty. Jason popped into the middle stall and fumbled with his belt.
As he sat down, he heard the door swing open, the noise from the hallway intruding until the door swung shut again. Someone whistled a tuneless melody as he approached the bank of toilet stalls and entered the cubicle on Jason's right. Still whistling, the man dropped his pack on the floor of the stall. Right beside Jason.
Jason watched, wide-eyed, as a black-haired hand reached down and released the pack's clasp, then fumbled within it. Jason heard a match strike… followed shortly by a long exhalation. He could smell a burning cigarette. Next he heard the unbuckling of a belt, and the whistling continued. As the whistler sat down, the man bumped his pack with his heel, sending it toppling over. A small pile of plastic-wrapped cubes of what looked like gray Play-Doh tumbled into Jason's stall.
A spat of foul foreign words flowed from the neighboring stall. He watched as the man reached to the floor of the stall to collect his pack and straighten it up. Jason raised his feet just in time as an arm swept into his stall and scooped up the cubes. More angry words. He could see the tip of a nose as the man checked to make sure he had all the cubes.
Just then, the door to the men's room swung open again. Another man crossed to the urinals. Jason heard a zipper whisk down, followed by a characteristic splashing. The man at the urinal sighed. Jason listened as his neighbor buckled his pants, then resecured his toppled pack.
His neighbor left the stall.
The man at the urinal spoke. Jason recognized Ben's accent. "Khalid, you're not supposed to smoke in here, mate."
"Ah, these Americans have too many rules. Who knows which to follow and which to ignore? Do you wish a cigarette?"
"Thanks for the offer," Ben retorted. "But right now I've a date to play pool."
The restroom door was shoved open, and Khalid tromped out.
Jason put his feet back on the floor and stood up. While fastening his belt, he looked down. The Egyptian man had missed one of those plastic-wrapped cubes. It had rolled to the far side of the toilet. Jason reached down and picked it up, wondering what to do. It squeezed like firm clay. He knew he should return it to Khalid, but then he would know Jason had been there eavesdropping. He was shoving it into his pocket when his stall door popped open.
"There you are!" Ben stood before him. "Your mom thought maybe you fell in."
Jason grinned. He pushed the cube the rest of the way into his pocket.
"What've you got there, mate? Did you pinch that third cookie?" Ben's smile took the heat from the accusation.
"No," Jason said, with a hiccup of laughter. "It's nothing."
"All right, then. Let's shoot some pool."
Blakely leaned into a gust of wind as he crossed the base. The CO's office was on the far side of the camp, away from the trash dump. If he didn't need this damned equipment so badly, he would have proceeded directly to Alpha Base. But communiqués and requests by Roland failed to sway the obstinate CO. He needed those damned circuit boards; they were essential to the communications net.
He strode up the steps to base headquarters, where a guard checked his identification. Blakely gave him a sour look while waiting. A red U.S. Navy helicopter buzzed them, spraying ice and debris into the guard's cubicle. Frowning, the guard glanced up.
"You're clear, Dr. Blakely."
"Thank you." He proceeded inside. Damned rules. He continued down the corridor after hanging up his parka. The CO's corner office was on the first floor. He strode up to the secretary, a yeoman with black-framed glasses and poor posture.
"I've come to speak to Commander Sung," Blakely said before the secretary could open his mouth.
"Do you have an appointment?"
"Just tell him it's Blakely. He'll see me."
"He's quite busy at the moment."
Blakely shook his head, recognizing bullshit when he smelled it. "Tell him I'm here."
"Just a moment." The secretary punched a button on a board of yellow lights. He turned away as he spoke, but Blakely could discern the words. "Excuse me, sir, but there's a Dr. Blakely wanting to speak to you." A pause as he listened to the phone, then, in an even quieter voice, "I tried that, sir. He's insistent." Another pause, his face reddening. It didn't take much to discern the secretary was on the receiving end of a good dressing-down. The conversation finished with a final, "Yes, sir."
The secretary, beads of sweat on his forehead, turned to face Blakely again. "The commander will see you now. Thank you for your patience."
Blakely felt sorry for the yeoman. He leaned down as he passed around the desk and whispered, "Don't worry, son, everyone knows Sung's an asshole."
The secretary grimaced. "Good luck."
You make your own luck, Blakely thought, as he pushed through the door to the inner office.
Commander Sung sat behind a wide mahogany desk so thickly lacquered it looked wet. Spread out before him were several open files. He pushed one file toward Blakely with a single finger as if repulsed by the touch. "I've read your request, Andrew."
Blakely hated when anyone called him by his first name. Especially a sanctimonious paper pusher like Sung. This was not the first time the two had locked horns. As the head researcher for the National Science Foundation, he was often in deadlock with Sung, the senior Navy officer. Oftentimes, science and the military were at odds on certain subjects-especially the scarce supplies stocked at this remote base.