She was pushing herself through the third squeeze she’d found when she heard his voice again.
“Your heart rate is elevated, Doctor Simmons. Everything okay?”
Simmons sighed. “I’m starting to regret letting the med-techs wire me up. Other than that, it’s nothing I can’t handle.”
“Okay. We’re not getting picture at the moment.”
Simmons grunted as she pushed herself another inch through the squeeze. “That’s because I’m moving through a subterranean rock formation barely wide enough for my body, Eddleston. You’re going to have to wait until I make it through.”
“I’m just telling you what the situation is up here. Howards wanted to remind you that champagne is waiting for you back on the Cousteau.”
“Did you hear that?”
“That was me… urgh! …rolling my eyes.”
In truth, Simmons knew that they wouldn’t be here without Howards and his millions. He was, after all, the contractor with the wherewithal to pick up on what the military would have passed off as echoes in sonar readings from their subs. A man accustomed to having only the best, he’d sought out the world’s foremost speleologist, which is how Simmons met him. In truth, she admitted to herself as she reached the end of the squeeze that she preferred talking to Eddleston. A fellow academic, even if their fields weren’t terribly related, Eddleston at least was able to hold a conversation with her on cavern structure and other areas. She wondered often how an archaeologist knew so much about caves, and when asked, Eddleston just shrugged and said “I like to know where I might have to go.”
She took a deep breath when she emerged from the squeeze. The caves had been formed by lava flows, leaving the rock faces smooth and slightly spongy to the touch. She knelt and reached back to pull her backpack through the bottom of the squeeze, which had been wide enough for her feet. A meter up, it had been so narrow that her torso had barely made it through. She took a moment to readjust her suit, and make sure her helmet was secure on her head. The lamp on the helmet’s left side cast wan light through the cavern before her. She tapped the camera on the right side.
“Do you have picture now?”
“Yes!” Eddleston sounded more relieved than anything. “Thank you, Doctor. I’m sorry if I’ve been too intrusive; you must be used to exploring caves on your own.”
“It’s the first time I’ve been down a shaft carved with industrial lasers. I think we’re all a little unnerved.” She looked around, taking her time to pan the camera. “I’m not seeing another squeeze or any branching tunnels. I’m going to proceed ahead.”
“Roger. This is about where the Navy’s readings ended. We don’t know what’s beyond this point.”
“Correction. We don’t know yet.”
There was a pause on Eddleston’s end as she made her way forward. Then, she heard him chuckling.
“Howards reiterated how much he admires your attitude.”
“Wonderful. It’d be nice if he weren’t so obvious about how much he admires my ass, too.”
“They did make that environmental suit a little form-fitting. Are you comfortable?”
“It’s warm down here. Is all of the volcanic activity dormant?”
“That’s what the seismology indicates. Howards said that lava was, and I’m quoting, ‘the least of our worries’.”
Simmons frowned. “A bit dramatic for the inside of a dormant undersea volcano.”
“You know, there could be more than that down there.”
“I still don’t buy it.”
“Myths have basis in fact as well as folklore. If we find nothing, we find nothing. But if we find something…”
“James, I admire your tenacity, but there’s a reason people stopped giving you grants. A few bits of difficult-to-identify metals aren’t enough to substantiate your claims.”
“I know. I’m trying not to get my hopes up. But I have to admit, the possibilities…”
“Hold on.” She looked up. “Are you seeing this?”
Behind what seemed at first to be a turn in the tunnel, Simmons saw something reflecting the light of her lamp. She walked over to it and, after a moment, touched it. Through her glove, she felt a chill.
“What is it?”
“Metal,” Simmons said, “at least I think so.”
She pulled a climbing axe out of her belt, chipping away at the solidified magma. A few minutes later, she stepped back to look at what she’d uncovered.
“It… it looks like a hatch.”
“I knew it.” Eddleston’s excitement was palpable even over the wireless radio. “Can you open it?”
“There’s a handle, let me…” She put her hands around what seemed to be the handle, and gave it a tug. It moved, slowly, and after a moment she was able to turn it. The hatch opened inward, and she stepped into a short metal corridor, facing another hatch, this one without a handle. Her foot touched a skeleton at her feet, and she gagged.
“Stinks in here.”
“Trapped sulfur from the lava. This poor soul must have been locked in here when it happened.”
“There’s writing here.” She ran her fingers over the embossed symbols on the inner hatch, and the small circular hole in its center. “I can’t make it out.”
“It’s definitely similar to what I found in Madagascar. Let me see if I can find any similar characters.”
Simmons knelt, picking up something from the hand of the skeleton. She tried not to look at the skull’s empty sockets or open jaw. She held the object up to her lamp. It was a cylinder, copper in color, that caught the light and reflected multiple colors.
“That’s orichalcum! The highly conductive and extremely durable metal used throughout Atlantis. I’m certain of it!”
“James, are you saying that…?”
There was a burst of static in the radio. “Doctor Simmons, we’re… …something…”
She tapped her earpiece. “James?”
“Sarah… …et … anger…”
The hatch slammed shut behind her, and her lamp went out.