Mount Erebus, Antarctica
BLUE ICE ENCASED THE CONTINENT FROM HORIZON TO horizon, scoured to a gritty shine by gale-force winds ripping shards across the frozen landscape. Nothing lived on the surface, except for grimy patches of yellow lichen, far older than any of the men stationed at McMurdo Base.
Two miles below Mount Erebus, through glacier, permafrost, and granite, Private Peter Wombley wiped sweat from his eyes. He dreamed of the fridge in his bunkroom stocked with a case of Coors. "This place is insane. Damned blizzard up top and hotter than a hooker's snatch down here. "
"If you quit thinkin' about it, it wouldn't be so bad," Lieutenant Brian Flattery replied. He loosened his hand lantern from the transport motorcycle. "Let's go. We've got three more relays to calibrate before the end of this shift. "
Peter grabbed his lantern and clicked it on, spearing the cavern with a blade of light, and followed.
"Hey, watch your step there," Brian said, pointing his light at a crevice in the cavern floor.
Slipping past the black slit, Peter eyed it suspiciously. Since he'd arrived three months ago, he had learned a healthy respect for these honeycombed caverns. He leaned over the edge and pointed his light down the crevice. It seemed to go straight to the bottom of the world. He shivered, wondering if hell had a doorway. "Wait up!"
"I'm going to proceed to the relay," Brian said, pulling a transport sled into position at the lip of the tunnel. "You've got a five-minute break until I return. "
Peter secretly sighed in relief. He hated those "wormholes," as the troop had nicknamed the smooth undulating passages, with diameters so small that a man could barely crawl through them. Only the motorized sleds made transport from cavern to cavern possible through the wormholes.
Like a boy on a toboggan, Brian sprawled belly down on the sled, head pointing toward the mouth of the tunnel. He engaged the throttle, the engine's roar echoing off the walls, doubling and tripling decibel levels. With a final thumbs-up, Brian shoved the throttle forward. The sled shot into the narrow tunnel.
Peter crouched down to watch Brian's departure. The lights faded as the sled roared around a distant curve. After a few moments more, even the sound of the sled whined down to nothing. Peter was alone in the cavern.
Using his lantern, he checked the time. Brian should be back in five minutes. He smiled. Maybe even twenty minutes if he needed to disassemble the communications relay and replace some parts. That gave him more than enough time. He slipped a joint from his vest pocket.
Peter set down his lantern and rotated it for wide dispersal to illuminate the area. Then he leaned back against the cavern wall, fished a match from his pocket, and struck a flame. He inhaled sharply on the narrow joint. Ahhh! Leaning his head back, he savored the smoke deep in his chest.
Suddenly, the sound of scraping rock echoed across the cavern.
"Shit!" Peter choked on the smoke and grabbed his light. He searched the open space, sweeping his lantern back and forth. No one. Just an empty cavern. He listened, straining, but heard nothing more. The shadows kept jumping in the lantern light.
All at once, it seemed a lot colder and a lot darker.
He glanced at his watch. Four minutes had passed. Brian should be heading back by now. He stamped the joint out. It was going to be a long wait.
Brian Flattery closed the panel on the side of the communications station. The unit checked out fine. Only two more relays to check. His support staff could have handled these routine tests, but this was his baby. The minor static was a personal affront to his expertise. Just a little fine tuning and everything would be perfect.
He crossed over to the idling sled and slipped into position. He twisted the throttle into gear and ducked his head a bit as he rode into the tube. Like being swallowed by a serpent, he thought. The smooth walls flew past his head, the headlamp guiding him forward. After a minute, the sled slipped from the tunnel into the cavern where he had left Peter.
Brian cut the engine. He glanced around. The cavern was empty, but a familiar scent lingered. Marijuana. "Goddamn it!" he exclaimed. Yanking himself from the sled, he raised his voice. "Private Wombley! Get your ass back here on the double!"
His words echoed off the walls. There was no answer from Peter. Searching the cavern with his lantern, Brian turned up nothing. The two motorcycles they had used to travel here were still in place across the cave. Where was that bastard?
He marched toward the cycles. His left boot slipped in a wet patch; he flailed for a handhold on the wall-and missed. With a squawk, he slammed hard on his backside. His lantern skittered across the cavern floor, finally coming to rest with the light pointed back toward him. Warm moisture seeped through the seat of his khakis. He ground his teeth together and swore.
Back on his feet, Brian wiped the seat of his pants, grimacing. A certain private was going to find a foot planted three feet up his butt. He went to tuck in his shirt when he noticed his dripping palms. He gasped and jumped back as if he could escape from his own hands.
Warm blood coated the palms.
Chaco Canyon , New Mexico
Ashley Carter knocked trail dirt from her boots before climbing into her rusted Chevy pickup. She threw her dusty cowboy hat on the seat next to her and swiped a handkerchief across her brow. Leaning over the gear shift, she popped the glove compartment and removed the snakebite kit.
With a knuckle, she tapped the radio. Static rasped from the handheld receiver. Humming, she peeled back the wrapper from the syringe and drew the usual amount of venom antiserum. By now she could gauge it by sight. She shook the bottle. Almost empty. It was time to run into Albuquerque for more.
After cleaning her skin with an alcohol swab, she jabbed the needle into her arm and winced as she administered the amber fluid. Loosening her tourniquet a notch, she wiped iodine over the two punctures in her forearm, then applied a bandage.
Cinching her tourniquet a bit tighter, she glanced at the dashboard clock. Ten minutes, and she'd loosen the tourniquet again.
She picked up the radio handpiece and pressed the button on its side. "Randy, come in. Over. " Static as she released the button.
"Randy, please pick up. Over. " Her neighbor, Randy, was still on disability from a back injury at the mine. For the past ten weeks, he had earned a few extra bucks under the table by supplying day care for her son Jason.
She started the engine and pulled back onto the parallel ruts that constituted a road. The radio belched a garbled blast of noise, then she heard, "… up. Ashley, what's going on? We expected you back an hour ago. "
She raised the handpiece. "Sorry, Randy. Found a new room in the Anasazi dig. Hidden by a rockfall. Had to check it out before the light went bad. But a diamondback had other ideas. I've got to check in with Doc Marshall now. Be back in about an hour. Could you pop the lasagna in the oven? Over. " She hooked the receiver back on the radio.
A squelch of static. "A bite! Again! This is the fourth time since Christmas. You're pressing your luck, Ash. This solo venturing is going to get you killed someday. But listen, after you get checked up by Doc Marshall, hurry home. There's some Marine types here waiting for you. "
She furrowed her brow. Now what did she do? She groaned and grabbed the handpiece again. "What's up? Over. "
"D'know. They're playing dumb," he said, then added in a lower voice, "and they're damned good at it. Real G. I. Joes. You'd hate 'em. "
"Just what I need. How's Jason handling it? Over. "
"He's fine. Eating it up. Talking the ear off of some corporal. I think he almost got the jarhead to give him
his gun. "
She smacked the steering wheel with the flat of her hand. "What are those bastards doing bringing guns into my home? Damn, I'll be there straightaway. Hold the fort! I'm out. "
* * *
Ashley jumped from the truck, arm tucked in a blue sling, and crossed through her cacti garden, hurrying toward a group of uniformed men huddled under the small green awning over her porch, which offered the only shade for a hundred yards.
As she stomped up the wooden steps, the men in front backed up. Except for one man, who sported bronze clusters on each shoulder and stood his ground.
She strode right up to him. "Who the hell do you think you are, barging in here with enough arsenal to blow away a small Vietnamese village? I have a boy in there. "
The officer's mouth flattened to a thin line. He leaned back to remove his sunglasses, revealing a cold blue stare, void of any emotion. "Major Michaelson, ma'am. We are escorting Dr. Blakely. "
She glared at him. "I don't know any Dr. Blakely. "
"He knows of you, ma'am. He says you're one of the best paleoanthropologists in the country. Or so I've heard him tell the President. "
"The president of what?"
He stared at her blankly. "The President of the United States. "
A sandy-haired juggernaut plowing through the uniformed men covered her surprise. "Mom! You're home! You gotta come see. " Her son eyed her sling, then grabbed the sleeve of her other arm. "C'mon. " Even though he stood only a little higher than their belt buckles, he ushered the military men aside.
Glaring, she allowed herself to be dragged through the door. As the screen door clapped shut behind her, she headed toward the family room and noticed a leather briefcase parked on the table. It wasn't hers.
The scent of garlic from a baking lasagna wafted toward her from the kitchen. Her stomach responded with a growl. She hadn't eaten since breakfast. Randy, armed with stained oven mittens, was attempting to extract the bubbling lasagna without spilling it. The sight of such a bear of a man, dressed in an apron, struggling with a pan of lasagna, brought a smile to her lips. He rolled his eyes at her.
As she opened her mouth to say hello, there was a sudden urgent tugging at her arm. "C'mon, Mom, see what Dr. Blakely has. It's bitchin'. "