Elliot emerged from the conference room with a huff. Her team anxiously waited to celebrate, she stepped into, smiled at them. The tension shattered into a half-dozen sighs. Elliot laughed, expertly masked her irritation.
Meeting with the Georgian officials had gone well, but they had refused to relent on a single issue. Elliot and her team would be forced to bring one of their countrymen along as a guide. Despite her vehement protests that they would be cave-diving, and could not assure the safe return of the guide, the officials refused to grant her access to the country until she agreed. In all of her expeditions she’d learned only two things were immovable; mountains, and politicians with an agenda. In truth, she didn’t want the straggler to hinder their pace, in addition to presenting a liability. Officially, the expedition was American, but if something happened to the Georgian, accusations would fly when the four Americans returned unscathed– no matter how loud they shouted that the Georgian was inexperienced.
Anthony Weir was the first to approach her; a thirty-five year old paleontologist from Brigham Young, and the jewel of her team. All of the others knew it. He was invaluable to an archaeologist, able to tell the era of bones on first observation. No one knew how he did it, but he was more accurate, and faster, than carbon dating. He also held a Master’s degree in paleobotany. Elliot joked that he must have “loved the idea of robbing the grave” as a graduate student.
“Well?” He asked with an anxious step forward. His hands shook change in the pockets of old khaki, cargo shorts, his button-up shirt curiously still. He looked out of place in a building full of suit-clad politicians, but didn’t seem to mind. Elliot wasn’t sure he noticed anyhow.
“Well, what?” She asked, almost oblivious.
“Are we in?” He retorted.
A voice piped up behind him, “Of course we’re in Tony, that was never the question,”
Chad Balzray, an Aussie-American and eternal rock star that even now wore his sunglasses despite the dark, wood-paneled hallway of the Embassy. His Hollywood-style blue blazer was draped over a shirt unbuttoned to the middle.
Chad held a Master’s in Micro-biology from Berkeley, but was also skilled herbalist. For as many times as Elliot re-considered his position, he’d come through doubly when someone was ill, and the team was out of or low on medical supplies. Through-out all of the various terrains they’d been through– deserts, jungles, even a few ocean-dives, and more– he’d made four times the amount of herbal remedies. He was, ostensibly, the team’s physician if they’d been allowed one. On-paper he was the consultant for fossilized micro-biology, able to stick rocks under a scope, deduce what bacterium had ruled the de-calcified life. Otherwise, he pulled his weight where it was needed, and that was enough for Elliot.
“So Ell, what’s the catch?” He asked intuitively.
She sighed through pursed lips, “We’re taking a guide.” The group remained silent. She continued with a shake of her head, “Something about tensions on the border. I’m sure it’s B-S, but I have to seriously question whether or not they’ll be a liability. They haven’t chosen who’s going yet, but I told them it needs to be someone that can dive.” She sank on to a bench in the hall, rubbed her forehead, “I swear it’s like talking to trees– you know they’re communicating, but talking back’s useless.”
“Egg heads,” Chad chuckled.
“Without a doubt,” Tony agreed.
The final member of the team, Raymond Bradley, was as quiet as ever. He sat on a bench across from Elliot in a tweed jacket that was tattered around the edges. He stared at a piece of limestone in his hand, as if it explained some deep, philosophical mystery of the universe to him. His mind and attention hung on its every word.
Bradley was the most eccentric of the group, with a PhD and tenure-ship from Stanford, and an undeniable geological-attitude he’d inherited from his life’s work. He weighed every word he spoke, as though to test its weight in his hands before it became a corner-stone to be laid with the greatest of care. His patience was eternal, because, in his words, “stone makes fools of us all.” He was also a walking, geological encyclopedia. Long before they had decided to explore Krubera, he had known all of its facts. To him, the expedition was an exercise in review; every twist and turn of the system undoubtedly already mapped in his mind.
“What do you think Raymond?” Elliot asked across at him.
He stared a moment longer, sighed with tongue-in-cheek, “Eggheads.”
The team’s lengthy flight exhausted them to irritation. They’d left JFK International for a connecting flight in Moscow, airborne for nine and half hours. Then, without warning, their second leg was diverted around Abkhazian airspace, back into Russia’s Krasnodar Krai. Their twin-engine charter was threatened by a pair of MiG-29 fighter jets, forced down on a long strip of dirt-road, boarded, then searched by Russian soldiers. They were held there until several Russian officials arrived with a translator who claimed they were bound for forbidden airspace.
No one was in the mood, Elliot especially. She produced their itinerary and signed, official documents. The translator explained the situation between the two parties, neglecting Elliot’s swears and curses. Evidently, the flight had warranted Russian authorization, Abkhazia a contested zone between the Russians and Georgians. Elliot assumed there would be political opposition to her entry, but never imagined the Russians would force her plane down
Unfortunately, as far as the Russian government was concerned, Abkhazia was an independent nation. To Georgia, it was not. Their government, as well as most of the world, refused to acknowledge Abkhazia’s independence, but it was Russia’s job to assert it.
Elliot didn’t care for the politics of it. There was more to be concerned with on this trip. She pressed the officials, and after several hours, they agreed her team could enter the country, so long as they not continue to Georgia. Elliot was fine with it: Krubera was only forty kilometers inland from the Russian border. Even so, she purposely neglected to mention the Georgian guide.
They took off once more from the stretch open, dirt road for their last stop; the Sukhumi Dranda Airport. Customs officials met them on the tarmac, no doubt sent by the Russians, pulled them from the plane, and ransacked their belongings with dogs. Haggard, jet-lagged, and on-edge, the team hurled their luggage into awaiting Land-Rovers. There beside them, was the Georgian guide.
Elliot guessed she wasn’t more than thirty, but she seemed out of place in the crowded terminal. A few inches taller than Elliot, and well-toned with black, mid-back-length hair, she introduced herself as Liana Lomidze. She watched them load their things with curiously wily-eye, took a seat on the driver’s side of the first of the two SUVs. Elliot and Chad, climbed in with her. Anthony and Raymond followed close behind her, drove as she did; the last thing they needed was to be pulled over, searched again.
Elliot watched the gray-cities pass by, matched by the gray-sky overhead, “Any idea why the pulled that stunt on the plane?”
Liana replied with a resonant guilt, “It is unfortunate. For as little good as it does, you have my apologies. It is sad that my homeland and my countrymen do not see eye-to-eye. It is not however, surprising in the least.”
“Why dogs? Do they think we’re militants?”
Liana’s eyes were focused ahead, her tone dead-pan, “Or smugglers moving weapons.”
Chad leaned in from the back-seat, “Is it really that bad here?”
Liana glanced back at him, then to Elliot, “Only to those in power, and those that fear change.” She returned to her focus to the road with a breath, “Truly, the situation is reflected by the people. And they’re very angry. A decade and a half of peace after a purge not seen since the likes of Stalin, interrupted by politicians pulling strings for their own gains. It is not bad. It is terrible.”
Elliot threw he head back against the seat, “Christ. What the hell was I thinking?”
Chad smiled as he relaxed backward, “Don’t worry, Ell, we’re Americans. No-one’s got the balls to mess with the U.S. military.”
Ellie breathed a reply, “I’m more worried about being an innocent bystander.”
Chad laughed, but Liana glanced sideways, “Your friend is right– however misplaced his humor may be.” Chad’s smile fell away. Liana refocused on the road, “There has been no fighting recently. When there is, it is on the Georgian border, far to the East. You are in no danger.”
“That’s helpful,” Elliot snarked.
They followed the twists and turns of the highways out of the city and into a wooded, forested region, stopped at a motel to pass the night. The small, cramped rooms smelled of damp mold and old, stale smoke. The storm that raged during the night shook open cracks in the bathroom ceiling. Water dripped from loud leaks, splashed on the bathroom floor to lull Liana to sleep, but kept Elliot awake in the bed beside her.
They left first-thing in the morning, well before sunrise, traveled highways and rural roads to a clearing that sprawled out into a forest. The mountains rose above far ahead, lit from the sun that rose behind trees to one side. The group set to breakfast on the hoods of the SUVs as the mountains continued to lighten, and the sounds of morning birds resounded from the forest ahead.
“Ever been spelunking?” Elliot asked Liana, between bites of food.
“Once, long ago.” She hesitated to drink, swallow food, “I am not usually one for exploration, but I was contracted by the Georgians for things of this nature.”
“What do you do normally?” Raymond asked as he balled up a sandwich bag.
“Travel. I am a consultant for several large industrial companies,” she replied vaguely.
Chad’s attempts to press her were obvious, “Uh-huh, and why’d the Georgians contract you to us?”
Liana sighed her wits too sharpened for Chad’s lack of subtlety, “I will be frank with you. I am a military consultant for the Georgian government. I was chosen to guide you as protection because of my background. The Georgian government, as you said–” she nodded to Chad. “–was afraid of involving you, and vicariously the U.S. Military, in the conflict here.”
Raymond gave a silent nod, as his eyes worked its way up the mountains ahead. Elliot looked to her feet, like the others, clad in blue-denim pants, hiking boots, and long sleeved plaid shirts. Her boots hung from the hood of the Land-Rover, dangled childishly. She dropped down on instinct, shifted uncomfortably across her hips.
Liana’s admission forced a silence over them that lasted through breakfast. When everyone was finished, Elliot broke the tense silence to spend a few minutes planning their trek along topographical maps of the area. They found the best possible route to lead them through the woods, down into glacial, limestone valleys, and straight to the entrance of the cave. With the weight the five were required to carry, it would take all day. They would make camp at the mouth of the Crow’s cave, sleep through the night, and begin their descent first thing in the morning.