Their animosity had intensified once Blakely had made his discovery of the diamond idol. He watched Sung turn green, coveting all the attention and money that had been flowing his way. Ever since, any cooperation with the military on the base was like pulling an impacted tooth.

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Sung continued, a slight sneer at the corner of his lips, "I thought I already made myself perfectly clear. Those circuit boards are the last in stock. I cannot authorize their release until the backup supply arrives."

"That's bullshit, and you know it. I need those to repair a critical communications board."

Sung shrugged. "Damned unfortunate that your boards short-circuited."

"They wouldn't have if you'd supplied me with new boards instead of those ancient ones you scavenged off old equipment." He leaned his fists on the desk. "I want those new boards. I won't have you jeopardize this team."

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"Then wait until the next shipment. It'll be here in three weeks."

"We've delayed long enough already."

"As CO of this camp, my decision is final." Sung rocked back in his chair.

Blakely had had enough of this bastard. He reached across the desk. Sung slid away, a look of shock on his face. Blakely suppressed a smile. The bastard thought he was being attacked. What a fool! He grabbed the phone on the desk and pulled it to him. What he was going to do was much worse.

Ignoring Sung's objections, he dialed a number and gave a password. He listened as he was connected through a series of operators. Finally, a familiar voice. Blakely answered, "Sir, I'm having trouble with the base commander." He paused. "Yes, sir. That's right. He's right here, sir."

Blakely smiled and passed the phone to Sung. "Your boss."

Sung slowly reached and took the phone. "Hello, this is Commander Sung."

Blakely watched the commander's face drain of color, then refill a bright red. Again Blakely could tell when someone's ass was getting chewed.

"Yes, I'll do it," Sung said, voice high. "Right away, Mr. Secretary. I understand the President's wishes."

SIX

JUST A MINUTE LONGER. THEN IT WILL BE OVER.

Even though Ashley was strapped securely to her seat on the Navy helicopter, she gripped the handhold above her head. A sudden bump and turn of the craft caused her grip to tighten to a white-knuckled clamp. A dull throbbing behind her eyes warned of an impending headache. Just land this damned contraption, she thought. As if in answer, the helicopter dived downward.

Jason whooped as the helicopter tilted toward the icy wall of rock. The slopes of Mount Erebus filled the entire starboard view, seemingly an endless series of snowy cliffs and black chasms climbing to heaven.

Ashley closed her eyes, her stomach in her throat.

Jason tugged on her sleeve. "You gotta see this, Mom!".

She pushed his hand away. "Not right now, honey."

"But you can see the hole! It's freakin' weird."

She groaned, opening an eye. The world was a tilted plate, and the base of Erebus swung into view below them as they circled downward. The area below was festooned with orange tents, like boils on a white butt. A road of gouged mud and slush led out from the tent site to a black mouth in the cliff face of Erebus, large enough to drive a double-decker bus into. Snow blew from the opening as if the gaping mouth were exhaling.

The helicopter righted itself and descended like an elevator to the landing site, ice and snow billowing around them as they touched down.

Blakely yelled above the noise of the rotors inside the transport helicopter. "All right, folks! There's two Snow Cats just outside to transport us to the fissure."

Ben, seated across from her, grinned. "It's all downhill from here."

With her son begging for a window seat in the tight compartment of the wide-treaded Sno-Cat, Ashley had found herself squished between Jason and Ben. Linda, unencumbered by a son, had nabbed the seat next to the driver. The other members followed in a second vehicle.

The tunnel opening loomed ahead. It was originally a natural fissure that sliced deep into the side of Mount Erebus. Explosives and mining equipment had widened the fissure and smoothed a passageway into the volcanic mountain. She held her breath as their vehicle bounced over the lip into the cavernous tunnel, wide enough for two trucks. A regular two-lane highway into the heart of a volcano.

The walls, rough-hewn from blasting and drilling, were lighted by halogen lamps strung along the ceiling. As the Cat ground around a curve, daylight vanished; the lamps remained the only illumination. The driver clicked on the headlights, spearing the darkness ahead.

Though it seemed as if they were traveling on level ground, she knew from the briefing that they were heading at a downward angle; the tunnel, four miles long, would descend almost four thousand feet.

But it was slow progress. Even traveling at a snail's pace, the bumpy roadway kept jarring her into Ben's side. "Sorry," she said, pushing herself off his shoulder.

"No worries. I was sort of enjoying it."

She smirked at him. Did he ever stop?

Linda turned to face them. "Do you mind if I open my window a crack? I'd like to… well… it's kind of stuffy."

Ashley's eyebrows pulled together. Linda's complexion blanched, her lips dry and caked. Probably hadn't liked the helicopter ride either. She could definitely sympathize, but it was damned cold outside. "I don't know. I don't want Jason to catch a chill. Perhaps-

"A little fresh air sounds good," Ben said. He reached and squeezed Ashley's hand. "Jason, do you mind?"

Ashley stared down at Ben's hand. He kept squeezing as though trying to communicate to her. She bit back a retort.

Her son, glued to the tunnel ahead, mouth open, waved a hand at them. "I don't mind."

"Fine," Ashley said, "go ahead, Linda. But Jason, you stay bundled up."

Linda grinned weakly and turned forward once more. A gush of icy wind swirled into the compartment as she lowered her window an inch. With her nose to the window, Linda inhaled deeply, visibly relaxing.

Ben released Ashley's hand. She burrowed deeper into her parka, clutching the hood around her face. She turned to question Ben, but he continued to study Linda, his brow tight with concern.

Resigned, Ashley leaned back and watched the overhead lamps wink by as they passed under them.

Down the white rabbit's hole went Alice.

Blakely sat next to the driver, staring at the taillights of the Sno-Cat up ahead. He had been studying the passing tunnel walls, eyeing the electrical and communications cables. All was in order. As long as the base commander didn't try any last-minute sabotaging of his plans, everything was prepared.

Khalid leaned forward from where he sat in the rear of the Sno-Cat. "How much farther?" he asked.

Blakely glanced over his shoulder to face the geologist. "We'll reach the shaft elevators in about ten minutes. Be at Alpha Base by dinner. So relax. Enjoy the ride."

Khalid nodded, and Blakely watched the Egyptian return to studying the passing lamps and cables, his dark eyes taking in all the details.

Swinging back in his seat, Blakely understood the geologist's edginess. This waiting gnawed at one's nerves.

Ashley stretched muscles cramped by the ride. She glanced back as the second Sno-Cat trundled into the large cavern and discharged its passengers, then returned her attention to the massive elevator-a cage of iron bars.

Jason was exploring around the huge crates that filled the back half of the cave. He looked like a mouse scurrying among a child's spilled toy blocks. "Jason!" she called. "Stay close, hon."

Her son waved his acknowledgment.

Blakely, enlisting Ben's aid, waved toward the elevators. "Help me with these doors."

Ben and Major Michaelson hauled the doors aside so the crew could enter. Jason had wandered over. Ben tousled his hair. "Ready for this, mate?"

Jason grinned as he entered the garage-sized elevator, big enough to park both Sno-Cats. "Oh, yeah. This is so awesome."

Ashley eyed the interior of the elevator. The ceiling and floor were sheets of solid red iron, but the walls were just one-inch-thick iron bars. Like a gigantic birdcage.

"We'll travel about the equivalent of two hundred floors," Blakely said as the doors closed. "Took three years alone to mine out this six-hundred-meter shaft that separates the floor of this rift from the cavern below." He yanked a lever, and Ashley felt the familiar lurching as the elevator dropped with a rumble.

She held Jason's hand. How safe was this contraption? She voiced her concerns.

Blakely smiled. "We've hauled heavy machinery with this elevator. Even several trucks. It'll hold the group of us just fine." He tapped the metal wall of the cage. "This is the lifeline of Alpha Base. It's maintained like an expensive Swiss watch and guarded like the crown jewels."

Ashley noticed Khalid's smile. Amused at her feminine fears, she thought. Just another macho man, fearless in the face of reason. She watched him as he eyed the cage, studying it.

An uncomfortable silence took hold as the team continued their descent. The only illumination came from a single lamp in the ceiling of the cage. It felt like they were suspended in space.

Feeling the need to break the silence, Ashley turned to Blakely. "You know," she said, "something has been bothering me. And I imagine a few of the others too."

"Hmmm?" He seemed lost in reverie.

Ben perked up, pushing off the wall he had been leaning on. The others too were staring at them with interest.

"Let's be honest here," she said. "Are we here to investigate this continent or rape it?"

Blakely's eyebrows arched.

"We all know science doesn't pay"-she waved at the steel cage-"this well. More's at stake than just an archaeological investigation."

"True," Blakely said, taking off his glasses and rubbing at the bridge of his nose, "but let me assure you, first and foremost I am a scientist. To me, the mission has been and always will be a scientific one. That is one of the reasons I chose you to head this team, Professor Carter. I want this mission to remain a scientific venture. But we don't live in a vacuum. This mission does have some significant economic and political ramifications."

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