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.

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