Krubera

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.”

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.

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.

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.

 

5.

The Lost World

Elliot rose from her dazed, half-sleep at the incessant beep of her wrist device, programmed to alert of dawn on the surface. Across the small, LCD screen, SGSM relayed the local weather; “MORNING: SUNSHINE, AFTERNOON-NIGHT: RAIN AND THUNDER.”

She read it over twice, marveled at SGSM’s ability to reach her here, through the mile of mountains and caves above. Her minor awe gave way to a sore groan, and a stiff neck and back as she pushed herself up for the tent’s flap. Her pack scraped gravel on rock, was drug out with her other gear into a pile to break down the tent. The others awoke at the disturbance, followed suit to stow their gear, and encircle the pile of glow-wands and torches, They made plans by its eerie green light while Liana half-listened from a far, and Anthony passed out a handful of sheathed diving knives.

He affixed his knife to a leg as he explained, “The final passage could be long, end in a shaft with thousands of those creatures. We should be prepared to defend ourselves if we need to.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t, and we don’t,” Elliot said.

Though it was a discovery of epic proportions, a single species wasn’t the lost world she sought. Even if there were millions of that said, single species, hidden away in a cavern that had been lost to time, she needed more to justify the expense that had been spent.

The group hoisted up their packs, re-fixed their air-tanks to run the few, last-minute checks, and exchanged their boots for fins.

Elliot ran a double-check on everyone, with close attention to Liana’s gear, “’Gonna be okay with the weight?”

Zelenyĭ.” Elliot’s face sketched confusion. Liana sighed, “Yes.”

Elliot stepped for the water’s edge, the others lined up beside her, “If something happens, pull the tether.” She gave the length of cord that connected them a tug, tightened the three and a half meters of line between each of them, Elliot at its lead.

She bled her air hose’s line, “Let’s do it.”

The breather’s rubber mouth-piece set into place on her mouth, and she dove with torrent of aeration around her. Her feet kicked forward until the resistance on her line slacked, then tightened four more times. They were all in the water now.

She clicked on the HID flashlight at her wrist, grabbed it up to shine it backward. One-by-one, beams flared on at her, each of the team-members illuminated by the piercing, bright light. With a thumbs up, and a quick, left-to-right flick of her light, Elliot turned away, began to swim forward.

The passage seemed endless from the start; her beam shattered the darkness until it overpowered the light, swallowed it whole. She made, slow, forward progress, the others in time with her. Their wrist lights scanned each crack, crevice, and bulge of stone twice-over to assure nothing lay in wait to ambush them. Not a single nook nor cranny of the twenty-meter deep passage escaped scrutiny.

They continued on at the slow, methodical pace for roughly twenty minutes, until Elliot’s light hit debris on the floor, forced her to pause. She angled back at the others, tread water to motion them up. Her light swung back on to floor and debris, twitched up at the ceiling. Not even Liana needed to be told what the debris meant; this was where the shaft had once ended, evidently broken open by something– most likely, an earthquake or a simple, tectonic shift. Whatever the cause, it single-handedly proved at least half of Elliot’s hypothesis. Krubera’s depths had been opened to them. Whether or not her Lost World was truly ahead, only time would tell, but at least she’d been partially right.

Elliot studied the damaged ceiling and the debris; huge chunks of rock had been dislodged, large enough that even the five of them, together underwater, could have lifted a single one. If it had taken such force to create the fracture, open the door way to what lay ahead, should it have been opened? She asked the question somewhere in the back of her mind, but had no time for its various philosophical conundrums; they were running out of air, living on borrowed time.

She motioned forward again, continued half a kilometer as the passage slowly shrank in height and width. At times it bulged wider, even deeper than before, but ever-returned to its claustrophobic narrowness. After the fifth bulge, the floor-to-ceiling distance was less than two-thirds what it had been when they’d entered it.

Just as she thought it might go on forever, Elliot’s light kissed an opening, sprinted forward into a wide, open darkness beyond. She followed after it, stopped short as a school of three-hundred fish swam darted through the light in angled paths. The rest of the team caught up to her, stopped beside her just beyond the opening.

The spectacle ahead was nearly indescribable, large bass-like fish, patterned in various hues of concentric rings, boucned the light of their torches off thick, armor-like scales. They lacked any ocular organ, but along their sides ran thick, scaled-tubing just below their dorsal fins. It seemed present everywhere on the dozens of species of fish that criss-crossed the large, open lake just beyond the reaches of her light; an extensive, over-adaptation of a surface-fish’s lateral line. She caught trout-like bodies with dorsals that sported wide, translucent webs between sharp, spear-like spines. Other, frying-pan shaped, round-fish bore tails and anal-fins that shared the spiny protrusions, and long, stream-lined shapes with thickened pectoral and pelvic fins. The latter suggested an evolution meant to increase speed and maneuverability without hindered defense.

One of the stream-lined schools wandered too close, caught sight of her small movements to stay steady beneath the water, and shot off with frightening speed into the darkness behind it. She smiled, suppressed giddy glee; before, she’d been apprehensive of admitting the inevitable, but now she wanted to scream it from the highest mountains– she had found the lost world!

For more than seven hundred years, man had speculated on its existence. Decades of contemporary media frenzy made the phrase an overt selling point for books, movies, and television shows, its original idea diluted beyond recognition. The lost world had become anything hidden beneath a rock, under a canopied jungle, or tucked away just out of view. But this world was different, a picture of evolution in action to surpass any they knew of.

While many of her colleagues no longer subscribed to the theory, preferred the watered-down Hollywood versions, Elliot had sought the glory and splendor of its pure form. The select few that shared her version said that it was trapped somewhere in a jungle, or hidden within an unexplored ocean, or ancient tundra. Elliot said caves, and now she was right.

A strange feeling rippled through her; they needed to continue, but…. Something stopped her train of thought. Light bounced and flitted around her, the tether tugged back, her body went with it, reeled in toward the others.

A massive silhouette thrashed left-to-right just out of range of the group’s lights. The ripple she had been small school of eel-like fish that fled from the silhouette. They cut through the water like snakes with fins, swarmed into the tunnel with a powerful wake. Elliot’s attention was fixed to the mass in the shadows; It swam like a shark, undulated in circles that drew it closer, but was shaped like a crocodile in profile. The long, blunt figure was thin from top to bottom, roughly eight-meters from head to tail. Its jaws and teeth would be proportional in size.

Elliot’s heart stopped. They needed a way out of the water, had no idea what lay ahead, and knew there was nowhere to run to behind. Only one hope for escaped was open; a dim-light that glinted dully of the surface far forward and above the canopied passage that they hid in. Elliot’s muscles were frozen, petrified. They would have to cross open-water before they could reach it– and it might not even help if it wasn’t the surface.

Her body shook as she tread around slowly, careful not to create more of a disturbance than necessary. Her hands sank in front of her, made a slow circle. The four understood, inched toward her to form a large circle. Each person now had a view behind and beside the next. They had no choice by to group up, move as one entity in the hopes that the predator would pass by such a large, illusory animal, or avoid it entirely. Their evasion tactic was the as that of schooling fish, but could it work in a world where fish had evolved differently? There was only one way to know.

They kept ranks, closed the small gaps that formed around them, schooled forward languidly. Their breaths quickened collectively, the aerators bubbled faster. The predator turned for them. Elliot drew a sharp inhale from her mouthpiece, forced back a stuttered cry. It closed the distance to the edge of her torch’s light, appeared in full-view.

Its crocodile-shaped head gave way to a slender, shark-like body absent of a dorsal fin that cut a swath through the water. Its pectoral fins left small wakes behind it with sharp spines, swept back to a massive tail that propelled it forward with sideways pumps. The body gleamed as the light caressed it, rubbery and with more, barbed spines that stuck out every which way, and were clustered around the cranial hump near its crown.

Elliot’s hand went for her knife, unsheathed it as they schooled forward, angled for the surface.

The predator’s tail snapped sideways. It shot through the water with unnatural speed. The group split down the middle, missed it by a hair’s breadth. It followed through, overshot by a meter to come about at them. The group re-formed behind Elliot with Anthony at the lead; its maneuvers were slow, but its charge was lightning fast.

Anthony back them up and across the open-water. His aerator belched with terrifed breaths that made massive plumes of bubbles every few seconds. Another charge came. They split, let it follow through, regrouped faster. Elliot returned to the lead. The creature lumbered in a turn, readied to charge a third time.

Elliot was too slow. The others split, but her trembling arm jumbled a move. She was half way in the path of the thing. A forceful tug on the rope jerked her body back fast, created a strong wake in the water, alerted the beast of their tactic. It followed through a final time to come about, but did not charge. Instead, its fins and tail ceased altogether.

No one dared move, the light from the torches illuminated the terror in one another’s faces as they sank back toward the bottom. The creature descended with them, neared the bottom.

Something rocketed between Chad’s legs, startled him. It forced a shutter through the water. The predator was on him with a dart. Chad dove away, recoiled when his line pulled taught. The broke ranks, cut their lines to swim off as fast as possible. Elliot swam backwards, let the others pass, waited for the creature to round on her.

A might pump its tail force it ’round, another rocketed it towards Elliot. In one motion she balled up and kicked out of its path. It wasn’t enough. Her velocity was too low. One of the jaw’s barbed spines snagged her diving fin. The force of the creatures speed nearly pulled her leg free. It remained intact, drug her along behind it. She bit hard on the mouth-piece, nearly punctured the rubber.

The predator slowed, suddenly sensed her weight. It thrashed, bucked her like a rag-doll. She dropped the torch. Its beam fell to the floor, her eyes largely useless without it. Her hands were rigid, tense. Her arms fought the thrashes for her knife, pulled it free with all of her might.

The dim light from the others’ torches glided up, away, their positioned fixed as it flung back and forth in her goggles. She felt sick, ready to vomit, grit her teeth against the rubber. Her body hunched in a ball to grasp her legs.

The creature began to roll, upend itself to dislodge her. The knife slipped beneath the strap on the fin. With a quick flop, the creature righted itself. The strap slid away. She swore silently, foght for another grip. The predator rolled in the other direction this time, pulled her toward its back and the multitude of barbed spines. Her grip tightened on the knife. It slipped under to sever the strap just as the creature flopped back again. One of its upper-jaw barbs caught her arm with the motion. She screamed through the water. The breather fell free.

Tears formed beneath her goggles. Her arm made angry, erratic flails, hacked at the creature’s face with desperate violence. The knife plunged above the mouth. It snapped, sprinted forward, the knife drug back by the force. It twisted and writhed its way forward, Elliot out of air. The knife came free, her arm still caught, almost shredded to pieces by the flails.

The knife plunged a final time, met the un-armored hump of spines behind the head, sank into flesh softness. The beast struggled harder, Elliot near unconsciousness, ready to drown. A final burst of adrenaline compelled her into furious rage as she pulled the knife out, stabbed it back into the hump a dozen times. It twisted back and forth with a final pierce, forced itself deeper.

The creature’s movements suddenly ceased, and it began to sink, pull her down. Green-tinted blood flowed out from the creatures brain. She hacked at the spine in her arm, her vision narrow and fading. Red mixed with green in the darkness as she hacked off the barb, tore it from her arm. Her hands felt for her breather, her chest heaved. It graced her lips with a welcome breath of oxygen that re-focused her eyes enough to retrieve her light.

She rocketed up and away, glanced back at the trail of blood that leaked from her arm, saw the predator’s body swarmed by smaller scavengers. The open water ahead narrowed quickly to a small passageway, grew shallower. A shock-wave of bubbles appeared as something dove into the water. She shined her light her ahead, her knife ready. A body kicked toward her, accompanied by Raymond’s face. She exhaled, relief, followed him from the water, and burst through the surface at a small rock ledge.

She spit the breather free, coughed and choked for air. Hands grasped and worked to pull her onto the ledge, turn off her air-tank, pull it free form her back. Her eyes clenched shut from pain as Chad began disinfected and bandaged the wound. Her screams and cries were quieted by gritted teeth and the terror of what the might bring. When her eyes finally opened, minutes later, what filled their vision was nothing less than spectacular.

Elliot was awe-inspired. Her mind raced at the implications while her adrenaline flowed with the rush of pain and the glory of their discovery. The rock ledge was roughly a stone beach beside a jungle treeline of palms, ferns, and other thick foliage in a semi-darkness. All around the trees were composed of thick iron-hued bark, that wrapped up the trunks like coils. But at their tops, were leaves with a marvelous, chemical-luminescence that glowed green to taint the area with an eerie light.

Elliot looked closer, saw that everything green glowed, some more brilliant than others. As she marveled at the wonder and eerie beauty, the device at her wrist vibrated. SGSM updated her screen with a scrawl of blocky text; “SGSM READS EARTHQUAKE MAGNITUDE 8.7: EURASIAN-ARABIAN PLATE: SHOCKWAVE ETA; 15-MINUTES TO CURRENT LAT-LONG: ADVISE APPROPRIATE MEASURES.”

Elliot read the update twice; an eight-point-seven was unheard of for the Eurasian-Arabian fault. While the plates had collided more often lately, this would be the largest quake there since SGSM was launched. Elliot found once more questioned what she’d gotten into, informed the team.

“At this depth it’s going to be a hell of a shake,” Anthony said, nerve-wracked from the attack.

“Just keeps getting better doesn’t it?” Chad asked, sarcastic and furious.

Anthony grimaced, “We’re here Ellie. We found it. What’s the next move?”

Elliot looked them over, surveyed her bandaged arm. They were all exhausted, their faces haggard, tired. There was little time before the shock wave would hit, and only two options; the jungle, or a path of tall grasses far to the right, where the tree-line ended. The jungle’s glow menaced her away form it. Jungles had a way of getting people killed easily, quickly, when they weren’t paying attention. Sprinting into it to find cover wouldn’t help. With her vision adjusted to the low-light, she judged it was a half a kilometer to the end of the tree-line that was roughly three to four kilometers wide.

She dropped her pack, removed her fin, “Boots on.” They followed. Elliot continued as she laced and tied her boots, “It’s a half-kilo to the plain– what we’ll call east for now. If we hurry we might it away from the water before the shock-wave hits. Maybe find a safe-spot to brace ourselves in it. Either way, we need to move.”

They finished changing, bolted for the jungle’s edge. The eighteen kilograms of weight at their backs made walks a chore. This was a nightmare. They ran for ten whole minutes without slowing. Their chests heaved with sharp, painful breaths, eyes darted sickeningly for stable ground. Elliot suddenly questioned if anywhere down here was safe. They were sprinting through something that shouldn’t exist, a hollowed-out mountain, where any shock-wave could knock loose tons of limestone from the ceiling. From what Elliot could tell, it was at least two kilometers high, any debris that might hit them….

She didn’t want to think about it, pushed her aching limbs for the edge of the trees ahead. A glance at her wrist said they had less than five minutes, and were only slowing. She felt each weighted step tear at her calves, the weight on her back excruciating. Liana was far at the back, the most encumbered, with almost forty kilos, but Elliot was afraid to look back, check on her.

The first region of plains appeared within reach. Knee-high, wide bladed, grasses imbued with a small glow lit a gentle slope upwards to a hill with sparse, deciduous trees atop it. Elliot used the last of her strength to cut a path through the grasses. They felt wrong against her suit, felt thistle-like, with small punctures, as though it tried to grab hold of her. She slowed further, could hear Raymond’s heavy breaths behind her.

The incline began, steeper than she’d anticipated. A foot misstepped. She stumbled. Raymond caught her mid-stride, drug her up. She scrambled, struggled to regain her balance as he sprinted past, pulled her forward. Raymond let go as she recovered, took the lead. Anthony passed her first, Chad on his heels with terror etched into his face. Liana caught up, matched her pace as she fought her way up the hill. Liana was red-faced, her teeth grit and face serpentine as though madness had seeped in.

They barreled up the hill together, reached the top with the last of their strength and fell into the cover of a large, twisted tree. Its limbs large enough to stand on. Not a moment later, the ground began to shake. They braced themselves against the shock-wave that rocked the ground beneath them with violent heaves. Branches cracked and split in their ears, their eyes clenched shut.

Elliot’s wounded arm shook from agony as she strained to keep herself up. Loud debris hit plummeted to the ground somewhere near the jungle. The ground at one edge of the hill ripped, tore free to heave a large chunk upward and create a plateau. The quake climaxed in a violent, stuttered tremble, that shook their bones and snapped tree-roots with loud cracks of wood.

The last of it drifted off as though it were a massive box-truck that passed by, rumbled the roads it traversed. The sounds and shakes drifted off, dissipated. The five fell to the ground, exhausted. Elliot’s arm bled through its bandage. She sank against the tree, shook from the pain. Liana passed a bottle of water around as Chad re-bandaged her wound.

Exhausted, bloodied, and bruised, Elliot surveyed the plains from the edge of the new plateau. Liana appeared beside her over the scent of MREs warmed on small hotplate. Elliot had redressed in her hiking clothes, her wet suit beneath them before taking in the view. An unsettling beauty in this became more evident as she looked out.

This was a different world, lost millions of years ago, walled up and morphed by natural forces since the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Drop-by-drop it seeped back into the other world, the two so radically different they were incompatible. Elliot felt like an alien in this place, physically stressed and stunted by a noon-time darkness. Even so, the sun’s absence to have had little impact on the flora’s prolific abundance. The world must have compensated the sun’s loss with some yet, undiscovered force, but for now it was impossible to say what that was.

Elliot’s mind drifted, her eyes plotted the horizon. She re-estimated the ceiling between twelve and sixteen kilometers high; it accounted for the cave’s entrance, and more than part of the Gagrinsky range. They must have moved further both downward and laterally than she’d realized.

Despite a shroud of mist-like vapor that clung to every inch of the air ahead, four kilometers or more to the north, a small range of jagged rocks rose in a wide berth. The micro-mountains appeared as massive stalagmites accumulated from eons of calcium runoff from the sky above. Between the plateau and mountains, the plains were dotted with rivers like great, veinous tendrils that transferred water from lakes to Eastward beaches like the one they’d emerged on. By the looks of it, the whole lost world was simply a peninsula.

Indeed, the jungle to their west was roughly the five kilometers wide from this angle, a near square when Elliot considered the width they’d seen then run. Beneath the plateau, and East through the sprawl of plains and mist, more, wooded plateaus covered in coniferous trees rose randomly with hazy glows and silhouettes. The trees seemed larger, on the realm of eight or ten times their surface counterparts.

Beside her, Liana sat silently to stare out on the world they’d found. The plateau rose high enough to give them a downward view on the darkened valley they’d come from. The grasses’ effervescent green, provided scarce light that emanated through it with just enough light to see the trampled path they’d made.

Elliot’s eyes were fixed on the mountains and a river that snaked through the plains, into and behind the range. Thin clouds drifted over their peaks to obscure them, as Elliot wondered where the air might have come from. Evidently the trees, or something else, still exhaled oxygen, but it was certainly of a different consistency than their surface counterparts.

It occurred to her now, how heavy and thick the air felt. The CO2 content would have to be higher here, she postulated, due to the creatures’ divergent evolutionary lineage. It gave some time-frame to when the two world split, diverged on their separate paths. It had to have been sometime in the Jurassic or Cretaceous, when the oxygen content and composition was most unlike now, but still enough to allow for respiration. That put the divergence somewhere between two-hundred and sixty-odd million years ago; about the time that conifers ruled the earth, to roughly the last of the dinosaurs going extinct.

The last hundred-million years had altered the earth so greatly, that Elliot found herself both terrified and intrigued at what might lay, unseen, in the distant mists. The water that spilled into the Black Sea was now an exchange of both ecosystems, but even so, nothing had been large enough to suggest even half the divergence they’d already seen. More importantly, the risk of contamination to both words had increased dramatically simply from the quakes. Whatever was here could be in danger of disappearing if the right fish, crustaceans, or even microbes transferred from the Black Sea to the water here. Their own presence alone could be enough to destroy nature’s delicate balance here, but she could think of no other way to protect it but to leave.

Her curiosity wouldn’t let her leave though. She thirsted to understand, discover everything here. It was all so foreign that an internal ecstasy had flooded her veins, while the rest of her fought to keep focused on survival. In truth, they were trespassing in this place, and all of them knew it. If they stayed too long, it would inevitably kill them. And yet, she couldn’t leave– not until she got what she came for, or at the very least, something to return with to prove its existence.

Elliot buried her thoughts, turned her eyes from the eerie beauty around her, to address Liana, “How’s your back?”

She hid her fatigue well, “No worse for wear.”

Elliot sighed, “I can’t believe we found it. It seems so… surreal.”

“I can believe we found it,” Liana admitted. Her voice turned grave, her eyes narrow, “but I am not certain it will allow us to leave.”

Elliot’s eyes widened with alarm, “What? What makes you say that?”

Liana spoke stoically, she greeted her own death, “You said it yourself; this place has been undisturbed for millions of years. Evolution has been allowed to adapt unabated by a human presence. Everything here is a possible danger. There is no co-habitation of man. No degradation of nature at the hands of Humanity. It does not fear us. We are food, nothing else. In our world, we rule. We control nature to suit ourselves. If we have illness from plants, we eradicate the plants or artificially mutate ourselves so that they are no longer a concern. We control our world. But this world–” She hesitated with a distant look through the plains. “This world controls its inhabitants. These two methods of existence are mutually exclusive. Either we won’t survive, or it won’t. It is the nature of the universe to be chaotic and disordered. That pits the odds against us.”

Elliot’s chest was stabbed form the silence after her profound words. Her mind drifted to the strange creature at their cavern campsite. It was only then that she realized how eerily silent the valley was. Other than a breeze that swayed the grasses of the plains, there was no wind. Its silent stillness contradicted the most-accepted theories of Jurassic and Cretaceous evolution. Most stated that animal life, thought to have gone extinct, gradually evolved into avian creatures. She expected to find flocks of birds that screeched endlessly, glided through the air or fluttered between the treetops. But she saw none, not even the creature they’d found in the cavern.

Concern bubbled in her, popped by Anthony’s voice that rippled her chest, “Elliot?”

“Huh?”

He shot her a look, “You alright?”

“Yeah. Just… thinking. What’s up?”

He nodded slowly, skeptically, stepped up beside her, “I was wondering what you thought of filming things. This’d be a good place to start, right?”

Her mind returned to the task at-hand; to document their discoveries, retrieve samples for John and the Museum. She turned away from the plateau’s edge and Liana, “Yes, it would.”

Liana seemed to consider something, then followed her Anthony toward the trees where Raymond and Chad had sat to eat. When Elliot was sure they were ready, she began, “We need samples from everything here; grass, soil, trees, rocks– anything that visibly differs from a previous sample, needs to be re-sampled. In the mean time, someone needs run the camera. We have enough battery and video for forty-eight hours. It’s important we take back as much evidence as possible, otherwise the museum may not organize a second expedition.” They nodded in affirmation. She continued, “If we’re able to get near any Fauna that can be filmed, we need to focus on showing a clear, evolutionary difference form anything we’ve seen before. Since everything here seems radically different than surface life, it shouldn’t be much of a problem, but it goes without saying.”

She looked at the team’s tired faces, lit and shadowed by the luminescent patchwork of bark, grass, and amorphous leaves around them. She knew they were exhausted, but in just two days they were scheduled for a return flight from Abkhazia, and needed to move as fast as possible.

“Way I see it, there’s five main sections to the area: The jungle, water, plains, forest and mountains,” Elliot said as she turned away from the group, gestured outward. “We need as many samples as possible from each area. We’ll save the jungle for last, hit it on our way out. Tony, where’s your book?”

He handed over his sketch-book. She drew up a crude map of landmarks with an X for their position. She set a compass rose on the map, placed the jungle at the west, the mountains to the northwest, and the forested plateau to the east and south-east. The water south encompassed most of the, with a circle and the word “passage” scrawled near the entrance they’d found. She etched out a route, prepared to alter the route in time. It stretched forward into the plains, curved with them to the mountains, and down to the jungle and water.

She passed it off to the others, “We’ll start moving in twenty minutes. Until then, I need two people taking samples from here, and someone getting as much footage as possible from this vantage point. If we find a suitable place along the trail, we’ll set camp. Chad, cam duty; Tony and Ray, samples.” They set to work as she looked to Liana, “I need to see your bag.”

She nodded, dropped her pack to remove the components of several weapons. In the space of five minutes, she assembled three firearms of various sizes beside boxes of ammunition of their calibers.

“Jesus,” Elliot remarked. “Were you expecting an army?”

Liana laughed, “This is standard for any expedition I partake in. Outfitting for war is much heavier.”

“Speaking of which–”

“There is no worry,” she interrupted. “It’s eighteen kilos plus the eighteen you provided. I was trained to carry fifty-five on a light day. I’m fine.”

“This is only eighteen kilos?” Elliot asked, surprised at the arsenal before her.

A pistol laid beside a larger, pistol-like weapon, and beneath a long, menacing rifle. Beside them were small, white, clay-like blocks.

Liana explained, “These are super-lightweight, special law enforcement weapons. The rifle is the heaviest at three kilograms, the SMG at one and a half, and the pistol at one and a third. I brought five magazines each for the rifle and SMG, seven for the pistol. Most of the weight comes from the magazines and ammunition; one hundred rounds for the first two, and ninety-four for the pistol.”

“That’s a lot of ammo.”

Elliot suddenly thought of her fight with the predator, wondered what it would to take down a land predator. She had gotten lucky during the attack. Large land-predators would be much more difficult. She gave an unconscious look at the bandage Chad had affixed as Liana stole her gaze.

“It is not that much. There is no doubt we could use it all.”

“Is this why they sent you? So they could send military armaments to protect us?”

“Not exactly,” Liana admitted uneasily. “Georgian soldiers use Russian hardware. This is German.”

“German?”

“These are Heckler and Koch weapons,” she pointed to each weapon in turn. “The rifle is an S-L-eight, the SMG an M-P-seven, and the pistol an M-K-twenty three. They’re German-made for civilian agencies, collectors, and stockpiles– I believe your own military even uses them– Unfortunately, they are also very illegal right now.”

Elliot suddenly remembered a news article she’d read before she’d left for Abkhazia. Illegal weapons had turned up in militant hands near the Georgian borders. A silent question suddenly rested on her lips, Liana sensed her apprehension.

“I see you have heard something of these weapons, no?” Elliot winced. Liana explained quietly, “Yes, these are militant weapons. Understand this though; the Georgian government sent me, but did not outfit me. I was not walking into the unknown unarmed. As such, I choose the best of what was available to me.”

The words did little to ease her tension at their illegality. If, for some reason, these weapons were connected to her team, they could face a serious issue upon exiting the caves. She stilled a rapid heart-beat; there were more important considerations at hand.

She looked to the white blocks, “So what’s this?”

“Composition-Four.”

“Which is?”

“Explosive ordinance,” Liana replied. “Highly-potent in any quantity. I don’t intend to use it, but it could be useful.”

Elliot’s face filled with concern, “Is it dangerous?”

“Not unless it is armed,” Liana reassured her.

Elliot returned her attention to the weapons, “Will all this do the job?”

“Without a doubt,” Liana replied, her face fixed, certain.

“Give me the pistol,” Elliot said. Liana hesitated, raised an eyebrow. Elliot was instantly defensive, “I’m not walking away unprotected if I have a choice.”

She reluctantly passed Elliot a holster, “Clip it to your belt.” She pointed to a the side of the pistol, flicked it back and forth in its grooved housing. “Safety on while it’s holstered or not in use… Safety off otherwise. Understood?”

Elliot nodded. Liana had been right, the weapon was light in her hands, even lighter as it slid into the holster. She snapped the holster shut, took the magazines from Liana, slipped in them in the pockets of her pack. Liana slung the other two weapons over her shoulder along with her pack.

Chad started for them, “Tapes done, Ellie. Got as much as I–”

A bright light suddenly flared ahead of them. It began to crawl upward along the impossibly distant walls of the cavern, sprinted along to its high ceiling to shower light down on them. It was a fiery, porous sunlight that overtook the brilliance of the chemical luminescence through-out the cavern. As it climaxed in bright haze, the green glow dissolved away and the haze thickened.

Chad fumbled with the camera, pointed it at the ceiling, his voice airy with delight, “Looks like it’s finally morning here in the lost world.”

6.

The Plains

The five set out across the plains with relative ease. The lakes that dotted the landscape here and there, sank through the haze the nearer they came. The tall grasses hid them beneath the gentle sway the wind imparted to them. Every few minutes, one of the group would stop to gather samples of the different foliage and soil. Raymond remarked on the odd composition of the latter, cited that the minute composition of limestone was inconsistent with the world’s place inside a mountain.

As they trudged forward through the knee-high grass, Raymond mused aloud to the others, “It’s possible that the peninsula has been here for millions of years in its entirety. Gagrinsky may have grown upward as the plates shifted, closed it off from everything but the Black Sea. It could have been only a small pond then, or even a lake– smaller than it is now.”

“How do you explain the ceiling then?” Chad asked, the camera at his eye as it captured the plains with a wide, slow pan.

“I can’t be sure until there’s a core drilling,” he admitted. “But I suppose one theory could be arches. If they had spanned the chasm from one side of the growing range to the other at its peak, it would have only been a matter of sediment, dust, or anything else settling over them for millions of years to create the ceiling.”

A ear shattering shriek split the air. Like that of an eagle but much in higher pitch. It dizzied them with a sine that spiraled downward into a growl. The group froze in its tracks, scanned the skies. The luminescent ceiling was all that cut through the thick mist, visibility reduced to little more than a few meters.

“The predators are out now,” Anthony said as he rubbernecked the mist. “Prey must be diurnal.”

Elliot’s voice was airy, quiet, “Probably why we haven’t seen anything yet.”

They waited, listened. When the next call came, it was further off, headed away from them.

Elliot sighed relief, “C’mon. We don’t know how long the day lasts here”

Liana readjusted the rifle in her hands, followed Elliot to match her pace.

To the right, a pond was half-shrouded by mist that seemed to sink further and further toward the ground. Elliot hoped it wouldn’t delay their trek– it was already getting harder to see the forested ridge, and she didn’t like the idea of climbing in the fog. While the day might last much longer here, as the laws of the surface need not apply, it might also be much shorter. Though it was certain the cavern’s light-source had curiously thickened the air. Her lungs were heavy, fatigued by the foreign oxygen.

“Wait, wait,” Elliot said with a flail of her hand.

She turned for the others, worried for the oxygen levels. Liana watched her step past with curious look, turned to follow her again. The shriek sounded high overhead. Elliot froze mid-step, her mind blank. Liana crouch-walked to her, pulled her downward. With a slow, calculated momentum, she shouldered her rifle, raised it to the skies, the mist too dense to see anything.

The shriek pierced their ears, forced hands over heads.

Liana swiveled, yelled, “Down!”

The team fell to the ground, covered their ears against another shriek. A shadow raced at Liana as she dropped; a massive gray blur that swooped down, skirted the air where Liana’s head had been. Air rushed as it passed, cried out with a vile high-pitch to their ears at such close range.

Liana yelled, “Up! Up!”

The group had just enough time to regroup in a single-file crouch, when the second run came. She waited, timed her words, caught sight of a spear-like beak, barbed at the lower end, attached to a swept back, horned head. Its appeared as a demonic crane that rocketed at them. She yelled.

They were on the ground before it passed, but Chad screamed. He lay on his back, a wolf-sized predator atop him. Liana took aim, fired her rifle in short, loud bursts. The bullets sprayed green blood from its lizard-like body. It thrashed in pain and anger, its long beak embedded in Chad’s shoulder. Forelimbs extended from its torso, forced Chad agaisnt the ground. The body gave a hard jerk, ripped its beak free. Blood dripped from the barbs as it yelped, shrieked. It reared up at Liana atop Chad’s chest. Her rifle rose. The creature’s feet balled up. It sprang toward Liana. She squeezed the trigger.

The creature animal was blasted backward mid-leap, fell with a twitch. It leaked, milky, green translucence from its body, bore no feathers, but forearm-thick muscular bulges beneath its leathery wings.

Chad screamed again. Elliot rushed over examined his wound; the beak had pierced straight through the left clavicle.

Liana shouted, “Get him quiet!”

Elliot opened her mouth to speak, her voice drowned in a high, rasping roar. This one was much closer, Terran in nature. Raymond and Anthony rushed to Chad, silenced him. Second and third roars came from opposite directions. Before Elliot could speak, Chad was silent, on his feet. Blood leaked from his shoulder, his face red from the pain, he moved fast. He hurried past her, then Liana, sprinted away from the sounds.

“Get him before he’s out of sight,” Liana commanded.

She took up aim once more as Elliot and the others sprinted past her. Her feet made slow, quiet back-steps, her eyes darted around the forward area. The roars came again, ahead of her this time.

Light thumps were all that was audible until a heavy breath emitted death and dried blood at her. The silhouette of a medium-sized animal sped across the path the team had made. Its spine was curved, like that of cat’s, but the muzzle was large, blunt. It bounded across, disappeared into the mist. Liana’s feet worked her backward at a slow, consistent pace, the distant team audible behind her.

The first Terran-creature rushed at her in a diagonal path. Two bursts spattered blood from its chest. Its legs gave out mid-bound. It tumbled forward, end-over-end, dead. Life faded from its yellow eyes, visible in deep sockets and framed above a heavy jaw-line. Sinew and wounds made the beast’s head appear as though its skin had been turned inside out. Its ears were absent, mere openings near the crown. The other beasts growled a heavy menace. Liana’s feet worked faster, were too slow.

The two beasts came into view. Their blunt snouts flared with razor-sharp teeth. A second set gave a violent oscillation from the back of the throat. They launched at her in unison. The rifle barked without aim. Liana was tackled, the rifle thrown from her hands. Heavy claws dug into her sides. She screamed in agony, felt blood drain from her sides. She grasped for the diving knife at her waist, managed to thrust it hard into the weight on her chest.

One of the beasts stumbled back with a high yelp. The second took its place, dug its claws deep into her chest. The stench of death overwhelmed her, the pain torturous. The beast made a sharp inhale as it sniffed, snorted at her, opened its mouth to reel back its head for a death-strike. Its head snapped forward, met her arm to block it. Teeth sank into her forearm, lashed it from side to side. She struggled to keep the beast’s teeth from her neck, tried to roll away, felt the SMG beneath her. She rolled back and forth. Her arm weakened. The weapon slipped out beside her.

With a forceful hand, struck the beast in the neck. It rasped, stumbled back. The SMG rose. The beast returned, readied to strike. The barrel pressed the neck, spewed ammunition from the barrel to shred its airways, and severe its spinal cord. Liana’s adrenaline kept the trigger down as she scurried backward, the creature dead. Her hand released only after it fell over dead.

She swallowed hard, bloody and sickened, turned for her rifle. Shouts and screams emitted from the direction the team had gone. She retrieved the rifle and her knife, sprinted with a limp after the sounds. Each breath was a knife in her side, but she dared not stop. Torn flesh burned and bled from beneath her shredded wet-suit. She stumbled down Chad and the others had created as their shouts grew louder, coherent.

Elliot yelled with desperation, “Your knives! Get your knives!”

Liana emerged from the mist into a small grove of trees, the other four bound up by thick vines, suspended a meter in the air.

Anthony’s neck was stretched upward, his voice a grunt, “It hurts!”

“Liana, No!” Elliot screamed.

She stopped with heavy pants, looked to the ground. More, long vines, thick as sea-rope criss-crossed the patchy soil with hundreds of small thorns and wet suckers in them like a squid.

“Don’t…. touch them,” Elliot shouted, her breath strained as the vine squeezed her.

Liana dodged the vines with nimble feet, watched the team rise slowly upward. Her eyes followed the vines upward and deep into the canopy of conifers. She found a bare spot where the vines had been triggered, stepped into it.

She called to the others, “Stay still.”

The rifle rose in her hands, grazed the torn flesh at her abdomen. The rifle cracked once. A bullet whizzed over Elliot’s head, split the vine that curled around and over her. She fell free, hit the grounded with a winding thud, coughed and choked for air. Liana shifted her aim, freed the others with more cracks of the rifle.

Elliot choked for air, pushed herself up. Her throat rasped for air as she tore thorns form her arms and sides, brushed off a viscous liquid that had begun to coat her. Raymond and Anthony did the same, hurried to Chad on the ground whom struggled to breathe.

Liana took careful steps over the vines, examined Chad’s wounds, “He’ll be fine. Get him up. Chad moaned, took a sharp breath. Liana neglected her own injuries, to help lift him, “We need to move.”

She checked the magazine in the rifle, cast it aside, for a new one. Elliot stepped to her, knelt to examine the jagged skin at her belly. It had been scalped to the dermal layer, the epidermal-layer like a flap that hung, still connected.

“Jesus, what the hell happened?” Elliot asked as she surveyed the puncture wounds.

The animal’s claws had stabbed her sides as though it had tried to grasp her. The motion necessary suggested digits that moved independent of the hand or foot connected, like fingers.

“You need to be bandaged,” she said, her voice grave.

We need to move.” Liana protested.

“Damn right we do, but we’re not going anywhere with you like this,” she said, poking a finger into the wound. Liana fell to her knees, gasped and whimpered. “Ray, Tony; I need gauze, alcohol, and pain killers.”

Liana doubled-over, clenched her eyes shut and grit her teeth, “What are you going to do?”

Raymond passed over supplies to her, Anthony still at work on Chad, now propped upright. Raymond knelt to aid Elliot, poured alcohol onto a large swath of cotton-cloth.

“This is going to hurt,” he winced, sympathetic.

“Do it any–”

He swabbed the wound. She screamed through her teeth, tortured by fiery needles. Her voice resounded off the trees and the empty clearing. It was answered by a shriek.

Son of a bitch!” Anthony cried backward. “Can’t we be off the menu just this once?”

“What do you expect, we’re wounded prey to them,” Elliot said over Liana’s cries.

She tried to silence herself, but Elliot’s knife was out. It sliced away the torn flesh, gave way to a hard pressure against her exposed dermis. Tears squeezed through her eyes, stuttered breaths inhaled with whimpers. Elliot wrapped her abdomen with a large roll of gauze, threw her hands back and forth fast.

“Done,” Elliot said to Raymond. “Get her up.”

They got beneath either of her shoulders, lifted her to her feet. She hung limp from the pain, the weapons at her back dangled, smack together. Her feet caught the ground, took off with Raymond at one-side. Elliot helped Anthony lift Chad, followed after the others. Their legs ached from the slope of the forest, the shrieks nearer behind them. Elliot glanced back to see a small animal scamper into view, devour the piece of Liana’s flesh she’d left behind.

The slope peaked a few moments later, the shrieks banked away, headed back for the scene of carnage Liana had left behind. The treeline opened ahead. A dirt clearing appeared with a river through one third of it. The mist was thinner here, the far-side of the river clearly stone as it would off and round to the right. Small crocodile-like creatures sat lazily on the far side of the bank, as if sunning themselves. The group slowed, quieted.

The creatures resembled their surface relatives in every way, save for their minute size. They were as large as a toy dog, with heavy jaws and short, squat snouts in place of a croc’s wide rounded one. Their claws were long, stiff, stuck out several inches from finger-like appendages. The crocodile creatures seemed to notice them, but paid them, no mind. Even so, the group passed by them nearer the trees, came to a downward slope.

Liana begged to stop, panted for water. Raymond set her upright against a rock, her face pale, covered in sweat. Elliot grabbed for a bottle, handed it over, set Chad beside Liana.

She checked his wounds, moved onto Liana, “How’re you doing?”

“Fine, just… tired,” she breathed, weak.

“Looks like blood-loss,” Chad said. “But I wouldn’t rule out poison.”

“No poison… just tired.” Liana wheezed.

“It could be both,” he siad with a look to Elliot. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”

“Its blood loss,” Raymond said with certainty. “I’m exhausted, and I didn’t get attacked like she did. Plus her wounds were clean– there would have been some residual left over if it were poison. Discoloration of the wound, discharge, a reaction from the alcohol– something.”

Anthony fell back in a sit beside Chad, “I think we’re all exhausted, but we’ll need to keep moving. We’re going to have to set camp eventually.”

“Christ, I wish we’d just slept through the day,” Chad groaned.

Anthony was sarcastic, “Why? So we could be eaten in our sleep?” He shook his head. “Look the fact is, it will get dark again. When that happens we have to move, otherwise we will be eaten. The night will be our best time.”

“Then we need to find somewhere safe, out of the way and off the ground,” Elliot said, with a glance around.

The path ahead sloped down, but the river twisted off in the opposite direction. Both paths disappeared back into canopied forest. She was at a loss, if they stayed in place too long, they risked an attack, but if they headed back into the mist now, they risked having to set camp in the open grassland.

She sighed frustration, “Set camp here. We need to rest, and this seems like the safest place we’ve come across so far. When we do leave, we’ll head back down into the mist and the trees. Two tents. Pack it in.”

Raymond and Anthony acknowledged with a nod, broke open two tents and helped the others into them. Elliot sat watch for the first two hours the others slept until Raymond woke to relieve her. She handed over the pistol Liana had given her. He ushered her into a tent. Liana lay on the floor, deep in sleep, her breath labored from pain and morphine. Elliot settled beside her, fell fast into sleep.

She was awoken by Chad four hours later, sat up with a start. His arm was now placed in a make-shift sling, made from a torn remnant of his flannel over-shirt. He put his free finger to his lips, motioned for her to follow. She grabbed Liana’s SMG, crawled out. The area had changed since she had slept; now free of mist and with a receded river while daylight waned overhead.

Chad crouched at the rock they’d taken refuge at, pointed across the river with his uninjured arm and the video-recorder in his hand. There, by the water, were a dozen, long-necked animals. They bore features of deer, save that their skin was of hard, reptilian scales, and their bodies sported thick-veined muscles. They reached up into the low trees, chewed off large sections of the needles that crunched in their triangular muzzles. The smallest ones, juveniles Elliot guessed, sprinted at trees. They leapt up, suddenly began to climb like an arborist with spiked shoes. She took the camera from Chad to zoom in on the creatures’ feet. Where a normal hoof was rounded, adapted only for running, these also had large, heavy spikes in the front, no doubt for climbing.

They watched the animals in silence for a few minutes while they finished their meals and bounced off into the forest. Elliot was elated; for once they weren’t on the menu, and it was almost worth it. She was taken by the alien beauty of the scene, her mind on the creatures’ skin.

She mused at Chad beside the rock, barely above a whisper, “Everything here seems to have evolved from reptilian ancestors, or else adapted their distinguishing features; hardened skin or scales, long bodies, jointed feet, etcetera. All of their natural defenses are reptilian too; sharpened spins, or vestigial bones, barbs– I’ve yet to see a single feathered animal.”

Chad was silent for a moment, replied thoughtfully, “You think Ray’s right?”

“You mean about the rock bridges?”

“Yeah. You think its possible?”

“I’m not a geologist,” she admitted. “But I trust Ray. If he thinks that might be it, I agree.” Chad hesitated, then, “It does seem odd though. I wouldn’t have thought any number of arches could’ve formed this.”

An idea came to her, her voice hushed, “Of course! I can’t believe I didn’t see it before!” Chad’s brow furrowed in confusion. “That’s why everything here is so radically different.”

Chad’s confusion manifested words, “Elliot, what the hell are you talking about?”

“The Single-Impact Chad, that’s what did it.”

Chad still wasn’t following, but he knew what the “Single-Impact” was. Postulated by Luis and Walter Alvarez in 1980, the Single-Impact Theory stated the last, massive extinction event was most probably caused by a hundred-and-eighty kilometer wide asteroid. After it struck the Earth, the changes to the global atmosphere would have equaled that of thousands of atomic bombs. The result was extinction of some seventy-percent of Earth’s life at the time.

Chad had only begun to piece it together, when Elliot helped him along, “The bridges form right?” She illustrated long arches with her hands, “It takes thousands, maybe millions of years of water for the valley between sides to form, leaves the arches behind. The result is two, connected edges of a mountain range that frames the valley’s ceiling– like rafters of a roof.” Her hands hands made a quick slide sideways, “Then, the water recedes. Sediment and soil blow around for eons, end up sprinkled on top of the framing. Meanwhile, the water moves inland again as the mountains begin to rise. The combination blocks off what, at the time, could have been described as horseshoe valley. Finally, the impact event occurs, and the dust and fallout settles over the extensive “framing,” and finishes the roof. Over the eons, the mountains grow, shift, over take it.”

Chad understood at last, his eyes wild, “Do you know what this means?”

Elliot’s tone matched his eyes, “This world is the direct lineage of the world before the impact event. And it’s been totally preserved.”

 

7.

The Jungle

It was another three watches, or six hours, before the darkness set in. The team had gathered their things, began to make their way down the slope and back through the forest. They crisscrossed their steps over more vine traps, emerged on the far-side of the mist-covered plain that had receded in the darkness. They headed west for the mountains, cut a straight path through the plains until forced to curve around a large lake. Water rushed between the banks of a stream that wound from the lake beneath the mist.

It was two hours after nightfall when they’d made the five kilometer trek between the forest and the mountains. They rose from the ground to high peaks that were by the high darkness. Everywhere about them were large, coniferous trees, similar to yews. Their trunks were wide– fifty meters at the smallest– and stretched a hundred or more meters into the air. The larger yews, it seemed, were close to that in width but doubled in height. All seemed clad with the same, iron-hued bark they’d seen elsewhere. Some of the trees had shed their coil-like bark as a snake might shed its skin, large broken pieces of it cluttered the ground, trampled the grasses. As always, each tree they found glowed from the luminescence created by their unique photosynthesis.

They stopped at the base of a smaller mountain that still dwarfed them as though they were ants, to take rock and soil samples. Raymond examined a piece of the mountain in the light of his torch, called to Elliot. She rose from the brush, closed the few steps to him.

He held out the sample he’d just collected, “Elliot, these are limestone mountains.

“Shouldn’t they be?” She asked, dully.

“Yes, if they’re mountains,” he replied with emphasis. His face reflected a deep concern, uncharacteristically agitated. He explained, “The entire theory I’ve concocted in my head relies on these being stalagmite speleothems– in other words, enormous, natural stalagmites composed from calcium run-off of the ceiling above. I figured their size was simply attributed to the age of the cavern. But now? Age has nothing to do with it.”

Elliot shook her head, “I’m sorry Raymond, I just don’t understand.”

His tone was critical, “They’re mountains, Elliot. Mountains within a cavern, within a mountain. There’s tectonic activity here.” Her face blanked. Raymond voice grew more grave, “If there are plates here, it’s only a matter of time before they quake.”

“You’re telling me it’s only a matter of time before a massive quake hits this place?”

He grimaced,“Yes, and judging by the amount of activity lately, it’s could be catastrophic.”

For the first, she saw fear in Raymond’s eyes, his confidence shaken. Anthony called her name, pulled her attention away. He motioned for her to follow, led her beneath and around a tree, to an opening in the mountain. It was small, cramped, enough that they were forced to hunch to at the entrance. The faint, orange glow that had illuminated the valley through-out the day shimmered from the small cave’s entrance.

Anthony knelt at the wall, near a patch of the light, scraped some of it into Petri-dish, “It’s some kind of moss.”

Moss?” She asked, alarmed.

He capped off the petri-dish. It filled with mist, exhaled in vapors from the moss to cloud out its light. He passed it over, the glass hot in her hand.

“It’s heating up?”

He nodded. The Petri dish warmed fast, burned her hand. She dropped it to ground. The glass shattered with a puff, like smoke released from burning room. Liana entered the cavern called for her. She stopped mid-turn as her wrist vibrated. She glanced down feared the inevitable; “SGSM READS EARTHQUAKE MAGNITUDE 8.0: EURASIAN-ARABIAN PLATE: SHOCKWAVE ETA 12-MINUTES TO CURRENT LAT-LONG: ADVISE APPROPRIATE MEASURES.”

“We’ve gotta’ move,” Elliot said, without further explanation.

Liana looked to Anthony, panted in a lean, her abdomen clutched, “SGSM?”

He shrugged, hurried past her and out of the cave. Elliot was helping Raymond pack his samples into his bag.

“Eight-oh,” she said.

“Then we need to get out of here,” he replied as he shouldered his pack.

“Any idea where were going to go?” Chad asked belligerently.

“Jungle?” Ellie asked.

Raymond winced, “If you think its best,”

“Do we really have a choice? We need whatever we can get from there, and the Jungle’s furthest from the fault, right?”

He started forward, “Theoretically but the fault’s probably a few miles wide. There might not be anywhere safe down here.”

They followed his lead. He’d neglected to say his thoughts aloud; even if they survived the quake, it could collapse any number of passages they’d taken from the surface. Elliot didn’t need him to say it though, it was at the forefront of her mind. The earthquake might produce several shock-waves; the first would be the most violent, but the subsequent shocks would be a danger for hours. She wanted to be gone from this place by then, have as much ground crossed as possible before the first wave hit.

They doubled their pace, Liana’s weight redistributed to compensate for the severity of her injuries. Even still, she lagged behind. They were only able to traverse half the kilometer to the jungle, when the quake hit.

They pushed themselves harder, fought opposing forces from the waves that built to a slow climax. Each step threatened to topple them. Shrieks and growls echoed from the jungle ahead, the creatures within awakened prematurely by the ground that rolled beneath them. The trees shook, fern-leaves rustled in a torrent of violence. Flashes of fast-movements sprang between the trees, gave only glimpses of tails and wings in profile.

The first climax came, knocked Liana to her knees. Elliot shout the others forward, doubled-back to retrieve her. She struggled to her feet. Her equilibrium failed from unstable ground. She slipped back down. Elliot pulled her up hard. They planted their feet against the pitch and roll of the grasses. She planted her feet on the ground, stepping forward one foot at a time. The unmistakable crack of trees sounded in the distance. The Earth gave a massive lurch.

The shock-wave had triggered a separate quake from the cavern’s fault. The treeline boucned through their vision, their steps thrown to and fro. A stomach-curdling vertigo overtook Elliot as the cavern’s quake fought against the opposite shock-waves. Dirt and roots snapped, ripped with the surge of Earth as it rose. Elliot risked a look back to see gigantic trees felled near the mountains.

She and Liana managed to make the jungle as the second quake climaxed, toppled limbs and trees over the path the other three had made. A scream sounded from one of the men, beneath the deafening shrieks and growls of the jungle’s residents. Elliot forced Liana forward through the foliage. Ferns and thorny shrubbery tore at their faces, arms, punctured their wet-suits, and shredded their bandages.

The quake’s waves began to low. Its rumbles quieter as it died out beneath them. They stopped short of the screams from the three men, stuck in the depths of a pit-fall trap. A thick, cloudy fluid stuck bubbled up from the bottom of the trap, began to fill it. Massive, thorn-like teeth on the sides of the walls folded in, like a Venus fly-trap that readied to enclose them.

In a flash, she had a climbing rope out, anchored to a tree. She lowered it to them, drug the rope up with it wrapped tortuously around her wounded arms. Anthony’s head became visible, he fell out of the hole, threw himself to the side, to scramble up and help. Raymond was pulled up next; he laid his weight into the rope, managed to slide Chad up and out of the hole just as the teeth snapped shut on the trap.

They fell about in various states of exhaustion. The suits at their ankles sizzled away, pocked their skin with smokey burns. The digestive acids seared their flesh.

“Vinegar,” Elliot shouted. “Then water.”

Luck was with them for once. The vinegar neutralized the chemicals, water washed away the severed bits of boot and neoprene. They readied to bandage Chad, when an ominous, low grumble sounded around them.

“Go,” Chad insisted. “I’ll just slow you down.”

“Don’t be a drama queen,” Elliot spat. She slipped his arms under one of his shoulders, called to the others, “Get him up!”

Anthony and Raymond helped to lift him. The growls sounded louder behind them. Anthony and Raymond bolted with Chad between them, left Elliot to un-sling Liana’s rifle from her back, pass it to her. Elliot readied the pistol.

“Firm grip,” Liana grunted, pained and fatigued.

Elliot nodded. She’d never fired a weapon before, never even held one; yet, here she was, ready to try. They backed up, around the trap, away form it. The growls were louder, more than before– at least five now. A sick scent of blood wafted up their nostrils. They back-stepped as red-eyes appeared through-out the darkness. Had Liana not seen its glowing eyes she would not have seen it at all. A flash of light glinted off a transparent body, a large dog, but with a boxed jaw. It prowled forward complete with spiked, sharp teeth and a chameleon-like stealth.

Liana fired in a burst, killed the first animal. Pairs of eyes began flickered open before the eerie light of the trees. The creatures stalked, ready to strike. Liana flicked a lever on the side of the weapon, firing single shots at them. Two fell. The others bounded forward.

Liana and Elliot fired together. Rhythmic blasts sounded with an erratic beat as they backed away in their crouch. The gun recoiled in hard in Elliot’s hands until her grip was firm enough. She managed to hit a creature as it jumped away. She attempted to aim, pulled back on the trigger, hit another. It bounded for her, unfazed.

Liana finished it off, shouted, “Move. I am behind you.”

Elliot didn’t question it. She turned, sprinted down the path the other three had created. Liana’s gunfire followed after her in cut-time. New shrieks and growls sound from the beasts that were slain behind her. Elliot tripped, fell forward smacked her head into something hard. Her face fell into the soft dirt, her mind dazed from the impact. She recovered, scrambled back on her hands and knees. She run smack into a lumbering creature as it crossed the path in front of her. It was as tall as her on four legs, its skin the color of pus, with large spikes on its back for protection. It glanced sideways with a prehistoric snout, gave a smelly grunt, then continued forward.

Her heart skipped a beat, but was spurred to speed by gunshots that drew closer. The trees rustled, parted as Liana appeared and the creature ambled past into the jungle’s depths. Liana pulled her up, shoved her along the path. An abrupt silence fell over the jungle while Elliot’s legs regained their speed, charged her through the brush to a small, circular clearing.

From the far, left-side, Raymond and Chad looked on in horror as a bipedal creature pulled its claws from Anthony’s gut. Four other bipeds had encircled them. Elliot froze. Liana stopped, confused, turned to see the scene that unfolded before them.

Anthony was on the ground, the lead biped hunched over his abdomen. Elliot screamed obscenities, raised the pistol. The beast rose, mad a slow turn. Anthony’s flesh hung from its clawed hands, blood dripped from its muzzle-like mouth onto large, armor-plated muscles across its torso. The muffled gurgle of blood signaled Anthony’s screams, forced the pistol to bark until it clicked empty. The animal stumbled backward, jolted by the force, but uninjured. The bullets fell to the ground, crushed by the impact.

The other creatures seemed confused, began a slow advance on the two women. Grunts and growls turned to roars in steps with their short gait. Liana flicked a lever on the rifle, its magazine fell free. Its impact with the ground startled the beasts for a moment, but they soon continued their slow advance.

In a blink Raymond and Chad sprinted off. Liana slapped in a new magazine, sprayed ammunition at the bipeds. They stumbled back in shock, gave the women enough time to make for Anthony. They each grabbed an arm, drug him away at top-speed. He spit up blood, tried to scream, writhed and shook. They forced their way to the path on the other side. The bipeds suddenly screamed with a deafening plethora of frequencies that rasped over the jungle. The biped’s feet pounded the soft ground, then charged after them. A low rumble sounded off in the distance; a second shock-wave had begun.

Ahead, the jungle opened onto the rock shore-line. Raymond and Chad beckoned them from the water’s edge, shouted for them.

“Help her,” Liana yelled, releasing Anthony.

The others rushed toward Elliot as the ground gave a violent lurch. In a flash, Liana’s hands produced the white, clay blocks, tossed them into the jungle.

She shouted, “Down!”

She dove against the throbs in her abdomen, landed with a glance back. Three of the bipeds were within steps of the white blocks. Her hands were ready with a small box and switch. She flicked the switch. An explosion light the darkness, rained fire on the tree-line, and propelled the bipeds into the air. Their bodies and limbs were torn asunder, cooked to a crisp as debris from the jungle expelled with them.

Beneath them, the ground rocked with a second violent tremor that Liana fought to crawl for the others as they gathered around Anthony. He clutched at Elliot’s arm. Tears dripped from her face. She sniffled hard, gripped his hand. A final gleam from his eyes rolled way, and the life left his body.

Elliot’s heart ripped in two, shattered by the quake of the Earth beneath her and her own guilt. Animals shrieked, cried from the jungle as the fire spread rapidly along the tree-line. Even so, she didn’t hear it, too numb to feel anything but the hands that clasped her shoulder, maneuvered her around to face Liana. She mouthed a word Elliot didn’t hear, but read, “Dive!”

They divided Anthony’s gear, as she kissed his forehead, and slid a bloody hand over his eyes to close them. A moment later, they dove into the water as the last of the quake trembled into nothingness beneath them. Elliot gave a final, last look at the fiery horizon, cursed her vanity and the “lost world,” and dove in.

Epilogue

The surviving members of the team reached the surface without difficulty, and on time for their departure. They said goodbye to Liana, whom promised to attend Anthony’s funeral, but said little else the rest of the trip. John was elated at their discovery, seemed to regard Anthony’s death as a sacrifice for science. Elliot felt otherwise.

Upon presenting the evidence to John, they learned that Anthony had taken up filming after Chad’s initial injury. He had managed to capture everything they had experienced during the final hours, including the bipedal creatures and sounds of his final breaths. Elliot released the tape to the public, warned of the dangers of a return expedition. There was a resounding silence before the media and the masses exploded, most with questions most directed at John and his museum’s ethics.

While the resulting recognition afforded Elliot and the others several, considerable research grants concerning the samples they had retrieved: The moss alone was considered as a replacement light and heat-source if the luminescent chemicals could be extracted, synthesized. Despite the academic community’s insistence that they spear-head the research, Elliot and her team refused, turned the work over to another team, and set about other avenues of work.

True to her word, Liana ventured to America for Anthony’s funeral; a small service that consisted of an empty casket, and hallowed earth watered with tears. In his honer, the National Science Foundation, established a substantial foundation to be awarded each year to select, graduate students in paleo-sciences for doctoral research. And though Liana had only ventured to America for a short time, with plans to return home, the worsening relations between Abkahzia and Georgia forced her to reconsider. She was soon offered, and accepted, a position as head of security at a newly established research facility headed by Elliot and her team.

Although the team vehemently protested each time, several new expeditions were outfitted to attempt to breach the cavern. Each team that left failed to return. When one finally did, they reported that the underwater passage Elliot had marked on the maps was blocked off, likely by the recent increase in tectonic activity registered by SGSM. The passage that had allowed them entry was, as Elliot hoped, now permanently sealed. While new species of marine life continued to appear within the Black Sea, requests for further search-efforts for entrances to the Lost world were futile; everyone, including Elliot and her team, knew the passage should remained sealed, the remaining secrets of Krubera forever concealed to man.

The Lost World had been found, and so far as most cared, that was all that mattered. Whatever had yet to be discovered there was little more than with man’s vain hope to understand what he ought not to. It was a realm where neither Humanity, nor its progeny, was welcome– one that should be allowed to forever carry out its curious machinations without them. Until, perhaps, it was once more lost to the annals of time that had so long ago buried it deep within the Earth, and hidden it from all who might seek it.

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