Krubera: Part 4

4.

The Island

Elliot awoke with a start in the middle of the night to an odd sound. Earlier, she had fallen into a light sleep, too anxious for the dive and possible discoveries ahead to fall any deeper. They’d erected their tents on the small island for the sole purposes of privacy, removed their air-tanks, and slept in their suits.

As her ears focused further, the odd sound sharpened; a flutter, much like that of a distressed bird, flopped about as if it were about to fall over dead. The sound startled her from sleep, sent her mind racing through possible human causes. The sound was too distinctive, clearly a non-human emanation. It reverberated off the cavernous walls around the small island, went silent, then began again every few seconds. She strained her ears to locate its source; it seemed to be coming from all around. She sneaked a crawl toward her tent’s flap, unzipped it with a careful, quiet motion, and peered out through the light from a pile of torches and glow wands int the center of their tents.

She had been the only one awakened by the phantom so far. Her eyes skirted in all directions from the front of the tent’s view, spied nothing. She crept out of the tent on her hands and knees, petrified still as a hand clasped over her mouth. Liana’s face emerged before she could scream. She shook her head once, motioned to the partial darkness of a high-corner across the caver. The light from the center of camp fragmented shadows of the tents across the walls and ceiling of the small chamber. Elliot’s heart raced, but her eyes darted along Liana’s forearm and finger to the corner they pointed at.

Her eyes strained against the darkness. She would have missed the source of the commotion had the bird that hung half-out its mouth not struggled to free itself once more. Even in the low light, Elliot could see blood drip from puncture wounds in its abdomen. It looked eerily like a crow, but with a distinct iridescence to its feathers that marked it as a subspecies Elliot couldn’t place. An unhinged, serpentine jaw took the place of the bird’s head, rows of sharp, carnivorous teeth, filed to points by evolutionary predation.

The bird fluttered again. It gave a vain buck in an attempt to remove itself from the head of its predator. The serpentine jaw locked down, severed its torso in half. The lower section fell free, splashed into the water beneath it. Elliot heard the sound of hollow bones crunching from the corner of the room. The serpentine head she saw, gave way to a thick, snake like body. Near its rear-end, two feet, like those of a bat, clung to a protruded section of the ceiling.

Without warning, it dropped from the ceiling, swooped down on scaled wings with the headless carcass in its maw. It shined with the neon-green of the glow-wands, a hint of wet silver beneath it. It circled the area once, its flight silent, swallowed the top-half of the bird. It shrieked with a terrible, high-frequency rasp that pierced the cavern with a shrill echo. Elliot hugged her ears as Liana winced beside her. The team stirred. Flaps flew open, Raymond called to Elliot as the creature dove into the water, disappeared.

She toward the pool with Liana, stared down at the water. It was thick; clouded with sediment from a fast departure. The bird’s blood streamed from its top-half that floated on the surface, separated to blend with the water and follow the current the creature had made.

Raymond appeared beside them, glow-wand in hand to survey the water, “What was that?”

Liana watched the sediment drift, “I don’t know, but I don’t like the feeling it gave me.”

***

“It’s obvious we’re dealing with some new species of marine creature,” Anthony said as he stared at the pile of lighted torches.

Chad paced back and forth behind him, nervous. Raymond was still examining the corner where the creature had been perched, his water-proof flashlight splayed across it. Liana and Elliot stood behind him to scour the beam’s expanse with their eyes. It landed on an edge of rock that jutted outward beyond the others in the wall. Deep imprints had been left by four, small, talon-like claws.

“Evolved with avian characteristics, I’d think,” Raymond said, looking over the marks.

Anthony continued, “It’s not that far of a stretch. I mean, the whole reason we suspected it was here was the new zoophyte species from the Black Sea. It was only a matter of time before we came in contact with something.”

He stood, stepped past Chad’s nervous route for his tent. He rifled through a plastic back inside, emerged a moment later with a field-notebook, and sat close to the torches to sketch an approximation of the creature Elliot had described.

He called her over, showed her the notebook, “Is this right?”

“Larger.”

“ A meter, head to feet?”

“One– one and a half, maybe. But it had a tail, blunt at the end.”

“Catch the light off the scales?” He asked.

“Briefly. Not serpentine. More… reptilian. And Plated.”

He thought for a moment, looked past her to Raymond’s light on the ceiling.“So it’s a lizard, with the head and body of a snake, scaled-wings, and likely webbed, clawed feet.”

“Webbed?” Elliot asked as she watched Chad pace back at forth.

He explained logically, “Nothing can move that fast in water without webbing. I think we can deduce its not poisonous either, or we’d have never heard the struggling– unless the bird’s somehow immune. But let’s think horses before zebras. Either way, It’s dangerous– it couldn’t kill us, but even alone it could do a lot of damage.”

Chad’s nerves made his tone crack, “I doubt that it’s alone all the time.”

“It won’t bother us,” Raymond assured him as he returned form the water’s edge. Liana remained their, half-focused on the conversation as she stood sentinel over the water. “It has predators– likely larger in size than us, at least matured.”

Chad said shook is head, “Great! Just magnificent! Fuck!”

“What’d you expect Chad,” Elliot asked. “A welcoming party? Maybe Big iguanas? A thirty foot herbivore? No, it isn’t that kind of world in there.”

Anthony grimaced, “Chad’s sorta’ got a point, we should’ve brought some protection.”

Lianan turned for the group, “You did. You brought me.”

Chad was caustic, “You honestly think you can protect all of us, unarmed?”

“Who said I was unarmed?” She countered,

Elliot was instantly furious, “What?” Liana’s face was blank, indifferent. Elliot scolded here, “We came here to look for this place, not destroy it. That thing’s evolved independent of us for millions of years, and your first instinct’s to kill it?”

“I fail to see your point,” Liana admitted. Elliot glared. Liana crossed her arms, stern but calm, “I was hired to keep the four of you alive. If an animal must to die to fulfill that duty, I don’t care how important it is. I’m sure you won’t either if the time comes.”

Elliot growled, threw her head back. Liana had a point. She fumed, “I’m less angry about that damn it! But it means you’ve been carrying extra weight this whole time.”

Liana was puzzled. Elliot’s response and rebound was hardly what she expected. She looked between the stunned faces, landed once more on Elliot’s. A question emerged on her face.

Elliot answered without provocation, “Our lines, our gear– everything is load-tested. Eighteen Kilos of gear a piece isn’t some arbitrary number. There are limits for a reason. These lines are tested to five body weights and eighteen extra Kilos a piece. That’s it.”

“How much extra gear do you have?” Anthony asked.

“A…about twenty.”

“Twenty extra Kilos?” Anthony replied, irate.

“How could you even carry that?” Raymond asked seriously.

Chad threw up his hands, returned to pacing, “We’re screwed.”

He repeated his words over and over, paced faster.

“Twenty kilos!” She with a fast step at Liana. “Twenty kilos over the mark, on old rope. We’ve been getting by on luck this whole time.”

Liana hung her head with a small shake, “I…I’m sorry. I didn’t think-”

“No, you didn’t!” Elliot spat. She turned back to her tent.

Anthony eased back toward his sketch-book, ate an energy bar as he stared at his drawing.

Raymond stepped beside Liana, hoping to ease her embarrassment, “I still don’t know how you managed to carry it so easily.”

Her upper-lip stiffened, “Training.”

She swiveled on-heel, returned to her tent. After a time, the group fell back into silent sleep, save Elliot who couldn’t sleep at all. Even so, no-one slept well; too nervous or agitated otherwise. Elliot laid awake for a few hours, before she gave up, left her tent. Another, quiet rustle– furtive and human– emitted from within Liana’s tent. The flap hung half-open, enough that Elliot could peer inside from a short distance away. Through the dim-light, she saw Liana arranging gear from her personal pack. The contents appeared to be an assortment of machinery parts, as well as a few small boxes, and a few lumps of white clay. She watched Liana assemble a few of the parts into a pistol, bent around to get a better look.

Her foot slid out from beneath her, and she fell face first into the flap with a swear. Liana had turned fast with the gun aimed out. She pointed it upward, away, then lowered it back to the floor of the tent.

Elliot’s cheeks and ears reddened, “Sorry.” She waited a moment before she eased to her feet through the now-unzipped flap.

Liana kept her attention affixed to the back, “As am I– I do not wish to be eaten.”

“No, I–” Elliot sighed, sat beside her. “I meant about earlier. I won’t lie, I was pissed. Still am a little, but I’m mostly worried for your safety.”

Liana exhaled a short burst of air from her nose, “Worried for me?”

Elliot replied earnestly, “Yes. I was afraid of who they would send. A lot can go wrong when you’re diving like this. We dig together a lot, it requires a lot of this type of climbing, so we’re ready if something goes wrong. They could have sent anyone. That person may not have been ready. But you were when Anthony slipped– and you did it carrying more than your weight.”

“It is what I was hired to do,” Liana said callously, as she pulled boxes from her pack.

“Maybe. But it seemed like an instinct to work as a team.”

“I’ve been extensively trained to do so,” she replied, her words mechanical.

Elliot shrugged, “I guess I’ll take that then. I just wanted to say, sorry I was an asshole.”

She left left Liana’s tent, returned to her own. There was an obvious guilt that swirled within her from the she’d snapped at Liana. She couldn’t allow her momentary anger to become a problem in the future. An apology was the only thing that might help avoid that. Whether or not Liana accepted it, at least she’d tried. In the wake of the creature’s discovery, she needed everyone at their best, ready to act whatever the situation or context. Not spiteful, resentful, or terrified.

So far, things weren’t going well.

Krubera: Part 3

3.

The Crow’s Cave

Elliot emerged from her pop-tent to greet the morning sun with a groggy apprehension. She adjusted her hair with the aid of a breeze that fluttered through area. The others still slept with sky’s massive star only just ready to breach the horizon. The previous day’s hike had been uneventful, tiring. They’d climbed over hills of dense conifers, trekked to high peaks, sprinted down them only to follow the Earth back up again. It was nearly nightfall when they entered the limestone valley.

They’d set-up camp outside of the Crow’s cave in time to cook dinner. But Elliot’s concern rose as time progress. The area was silent, desolate. Odd as it was, they had yet to see a single crow overhead– neither during the day, nor in the night. Common sense would have told her they no longer nested here, but she was certain they should have. For that matter, they should have feared being swarmed by them the closer the got to the cave. Instead Gagrinksy range was still, empty; as though its inhabitants had altogether abandoned it.

The furthest tent unzipped to tear Elliot from her thoughts. Liana emerged, Elliot surprised by her alertness in the early hour. She nodded to Elliot, moved to the embers that still glowed red-hot in the circle of tents, and tossed kindling atop them. In moments, the fire blazed forth as it had the night before as Liana cooked MRE-oatmeal in a hanging pot and trellis.

The others awoke one-by-one, levitated from their tents by the scent of food. The early sun rose around them, kissed dew away from the grasses and tents that had collected overnight. In time, they each took a place around the fire, disheveled, and slow to gain their bearings.

Elliot remarked on the absence of the cave’s avian namesake, directed it toward Liana, “I’ve noticed something. I haven’t seen or heard the crows.”

“I too, have noticed,” she said with a poorly masked suspicion. The others exchanged worried looks over tasteless gruel. Liana caught one, corrected herself, “It is strange, but perhaps they’ve migrated.”

“Not late enough in the season,” Raymond mused absently from a corner of his mouth.

“It is strange, no matter what,” Chad said with a minor agitation.

Elliot glanced around, “Even if they weren’t here, we should’ve seen them somewhere. There’s no way they’d have moved so far from the nesting grounds.”

Liana was quick to subdue her eerie fears, “Perhaps they’ve begun nesting in the mountain.”

The conversation ended here in silent contemplation, but Elliot felt a growing uneasiness at the birds’ absence. Everything about this had been problematic, but nothing near what they could encounter was they entered the cave. They’d been brow beaten, detained, searched, and stuck babysitting some pseudo-soldier consultant. None of that was nearly as bad as a mistake in the caves could be.

Though she suspected Liana was hiding something, she decided it would either work its way out of her, or remain hidden, irrelevant. She hoped for the latter, suspecting any other option meant it would affect their expedition. Even still, the absence of the Crows was disheartening, and Elliot was left unsatisfied with their speculations.

They prepared for the climbs and dives ahead, distributed and secured their equipment. Each person carried at most, eighteen kilograms– roughly forty pounds– as anymore risked their equilibrium or might over-stress their ropes. Though their supports would hold more than their weight, 2,000 meters from the surface and miles from a hospital, Elliot felt it was better to be safe than sorry. Moreover, they had only a few days before they were due to leave the country. With the fuss put up over their entrance, Elliot could only imagine the intrusions and interrogations once they’d over-stayed their welcome.

They traded their denim and plaid for full-body wet-suits, for inevitable sumps submerged below the water line. These passages would be otherwise impassable unless they each donned a breathing apparatus– a hefty portion of their weight-limits. There was little more than two hours of air in each of them; a supply required to last through the return trip. As such, each breath had to be deep, held as long as possible.

Liana understood Elliot’s instructions on the matters without further inquiry. Her immediate compliance somehow made Elliot both uneasy and relaxed at the same time. The expedition was already a mix of contrasted and conflicted emotions, and they’d yet to breach the cave.

They carried little else save small, personal hammocks, that would allow them to sleep from the walls of cave, and rations to last the length the trip. Elliot also wore a small device strapped to her wrist that communicated with SGSM as well as any scientific institution she could think to connect it to. Chad managed to stow a field medic’s first-aid kit in his pack, complete with sterilization liquids, field dressings, and surgical tools.

They consulted a series of scans and dye-tracings that formed a picture of the path to the cave-bottom. The first few hours would consist of a series of long, winding vadose shafts– areas where atmospheric pressure is that of ground level– that intertwined and threatened to throw mislead them from their intended route. Raymond assured them he was certain of their path, began the walk toward the mouth of the cave.

Indeed, he led them the whole first leg with barely a word. The group’s time was consumed by steep descents in claustrophobic crevices, confusing four way shafts that intersected one another as they crouch-walked the length of them, led forward by Raymond’s mental map.

The cave zigged with slopes, zagged with others, wound its way northwest, then down further still. It jutted at a right-angle, continued straight down with steep crevices that they were forced to hook into, inch down. More than once they expended the length of their ropes, forced to connect spares to follow the path further down. The deeper they went, the more Raymond was alight at the cave’s significance.

“In what we’ve passed since our start,” he said, unusually giddy. “Is the whole of human history, laid out in porous, porphyritic limestone.”

To his credit, the stone was an intriguing sight. The vertical walls seemed as though a child had mixed millions of pebbles and grains of sand with everyday cement, the shaped them like clay and pained them with a lime tint. Raymond always saw more than the others in them, as though he were the sculptor’s father that gazed lovingly over his child’s creation.

As they continued further down, the path became more treacherous. Fractures in the floor appeared in the straights, led down hundreds of feet or more to a claustrophobic ending, or otherwise disappeared altogether into the bowels of the Earth. In order to pass such obstacles, they secured themselves to the walls, shimmied over the missing bits of floor to the opposite sides of the chasms.

There were of course, those chasms just wide enough to be jumped over or stepped across. Even still, careful consideration was given to each of them. A single, false step might shift an already crumbling rock, cause the surface to give way. One crumbling edge did give way when Anthony tested its integrity. He fell, jolted the others forward by their ever-present tether. They managed to keep their footing as he slammed the side of newly opened chasm. He yelped, swore. The four worked to step backward together, pulled him to safety.

After it was over, he dusted himself off with a few, fresh and bloody cuts but none the worse for wear, “That was a close call.”

Elliot heart beat like made as she panted with waning adrenaline, “Too close, Tony.”

They traveled onward, crossed more chasms, pulled themselves up lips and plateau-like protrusions, inched down steep slopes until the path ahead became wider, clearer. The dive became a straight line with a few twists and turns, but ended level to the anticlinal formation that at the entrance.

Raymond stared up at stalactites as they stopped for water, “It’s an interesting thought. A few thousand feet above us the sun’s beating down on the ground. Yet nothing here’s ever touched sunlight. It’s a beautiful testament to the solidity of the rock which we on.”

Having long since switched to hanging lamps, flares, and strapped head-lights, the others found little beauty in the thought. They were merely party to its negative effects as they clambered and clanged over each new obstacle. They continued forward not long after Raymond’s musings. Then, after what seemed an eternity of doubt and vertigo, the first sump came into view. They’d reached the waterline, and pending their strength held-out, they would reach their destination by nightfall.

They broke for a quick lunch, traded their dry-gear for the wet, and prepped for the first in a series of sump dives. They secured guide-ropes to the dry land that they planned to affix one they made the other side, and strapped on their breathing apparatuses. They dove into the first sump, the way forward lit by water-proof HID flash-lights.

They managed the first sump without incident, emerged from a pool in front of a high pathway to climb it. The next passage sloped down, ended in a second large pool. They dove into it, search for a half-hour for its exit before they’d climbed onto a low passage. They had made excellent time, already achieved the lowest recorded depth in history. A second pool awaited them on the other side of the small island they found. They agreed to rest for the night. The next two days spent in a scientific exploration of the submerged, forward chasms. And, as Elliot hoped, in discovery of her lost world.

Krubera: Part 2

2.

The Guide

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.

Krubera: Part 1

KRUBERA

1.

The Sell

She leaned in close, whispered as though she feared being overheard. “John, please!”

They were two of six people in the small patio of a Parisian-style cafe.

John, the curator, watched her display with pity, “Elliot, what makes you think this is it?”

She scowled. He responded with a crossed leg, and a lean back to sip his Cappuccino while his little-finger protruded further than a man’s should.

He returned the cup to its saucer, “In all the years the theory’s been around, we’ve found nothing. More money’s made off speculation on the topic, nowadays than invested by formal channels. No-one wants to find it anymore.”

Elliot’s dark eyes matched her dark hair, both wild in the slight breeze around them, “John, if anyone can find it, I can. You of all people know that.”

His brows bucked grandly, one after the other. It was true; if you needed something found, Elliot would find it. She was young, energetic, and in all the time he’d allocated funds for her expeditions, she’d never returned empty-handed. The Museum received display rights, and Elliot’s fame sky-rocketed again. She’d lived lavishly off the Museum’s grants and various, academic novels and book-tours. Her discoveries drew crowds, and her benefactors raked in the cash.

But this was different. If she found what she was looking for, it would be miraculous. If she found it. The odds were slimmer than nil. The entire scientific community had searched for this since the fourteenth century. Then again, they weren’t Elliot, and only now did she want to find it.

He set is cup and saucer down, folded his hands in his lap, “Alright Elliot, sell me.”

She reached into a briefcase that hung beside her, produced a thick file-folder, and laid it open to subsurface resonance scans. They looked like ultrasounds, but from the body of a creature the size of Earth, and with a distinct, geologic topology in place of a uterine one.

“These are from SGSM– the new system NASA’s just launched.”

He waved his hand to press her forward; everyone knew what the SGSM was. It was the first time NASA had ever collaborated with the National Science Foundation. Together, they built and launched a new type of satellite system known as the Sky-Ground Sonic Mapping system, or SGSM. Its purpose was to map the Earth’s interiors via low-frequency sound waves– well below that of human hearing– on invisible lasers. The lasers simultaneously read the reverberations of the sound-waves, formed a picture of the ground beneath a set of coordinates.

Widespread global earthquakes had both preceded and followed its launch, caused some to decry the use of the SGSM, cite it as the cause. NASA said these complaints were unmerited. The system was simply incapable of this. The truth was, no-one knew for sure. It had however, made it possible to scan for active and building earthquakes. The computers on the control-end received early-warnings of the seismic activity, recorded peta-bytes of varied information in real-time.

Elliot elaborated on this point. John could tell she was leading him somewhere. He stopped her with another hand, “Elliot. Elliot. What have you found?”

She gathered her thoughts, “You know I have more access to the system than anyone outside NASA. I went over the most-recent scans in detail. One stuck out: Krubera’s cave system is deeper than we ever thought possible. Something’s happened. Something’s been shaken loose.”

A curious brow rose on John’s face, “We?”

“My team and I.” She hesitated, “John… we think it’s in Krubera.”

His brows sank. He shook his head, “Elliot–”

“It all fits, John! The Krubera range has cracks beneath its surface where the Black Sea spills in. The cracks have widened from all the activity lately.”

His tone incised her, “So?”

She was taken aback, “So? You know as well as I do there’s been dozens of new zoophyte species in that area in the last year. No-one has any idea how they’ve gotten there, but no-one’s really looking either. They aren’t accounting for the cavernous mountain-range.” Her brown eyes widened with a plea, gleamed from the sunlight above them, “If it’s anywhere, it’s in Krubera. You have to believe me.”

He watched the gleam, considered her logic. He knew of the Krubera cave system and the Gagrinsky range of the Western Caucasus mountains of Abkhazia. It had been in the news some years back when the scientific community speculated on its possible depth. Named for Alexander Kruber, whom founded Karst-Science in Russia, its mouth was discovered in Aribika Massif by Georgian speleologists in the 60’s. It was Kruber’s study of irregular limestone, eroded over time, that led him to trek the range in question. His published observations were later honored by the bestowal of his name on the system. While its mouth– the Crow’s cave– added the alias Voronja; the Russian word for crow, due to the birds that nested there in droves..

More relevant in John’s mind was that fact that, in 2001, it had been discovered as the deepest of all recorded cave systems: Its topology disguised its 2,200 meter concave into the Earth, rivaled the previous record-holder, Lamprechtsofen of the Austrian Alps, by over eighty meters. This last fact had been discovered only recently due to the first Georgian foray being made impassable near one-hundred meters.

This assertion alone convinced John. If the system could have widened to allow for such a depth in forty or fifty years time, then it was more probably the Black Sea findings were indicative of something more. At that, Elliot was right. New species of all kinds were being discovered regularly in the Black sea. Although most were microbial, a few marine Chordata had appeared that were strangely unsuited for the Black Sea.

His mind was made up, and a familiar smile graced his cheeks that brightened the gleam in Elliot’s eyes, “Alright, assemble your team. Find me this “lost world.”