The NRI survivors spent the night crowded around the defense console, watching the perimeter for trouble. They had only two rifles and Hawker’s pistol for defense, but no one wanted to go out into the darkness to retrieve the weapons carried by the fallen men.
During the balance of the night the alarm went off a dozen times. Each time, the dogs howled, Verhoven brought the lights up and Hawker fired a handful of shots in the direction of the targets. Sometimes the targets scattered and other times they lingered, drifting slowly backward into the clutter of the forest until they disappeared from the screen; their true nature, as animal or man, went unrevealed.
No one slept and few words were spoken. As the hours wore on, a type of fear began to seep into every heart. Until eventually the sky’s black hue began to change. When the sun finally rose it brought with it a palpable sense of relief—as if it had physically banished the danger to some other realm, along with the darkness and the Mayan Lords of the Night. In that moment, McCarter felt an instant kinship with the ancient peoples he had long studied. He understood now, on a primal level, why so many of them had worshipped the sun.
Beside him, Hawker stood. “I need someone’s help.”
Danielle answered, “For what? Where are you going?”
Hawker pointed to the clearing. “We have to look for survivors.”
Danielle narrowed her gaze. “Do you think there are any?”
“We need their guns,” he explained. “And we need to be sure that they’re dead. And if any of them happen to be alive … then we need to help them … if we can.”
To McCarter, the absurdity of the situation was plain in Hawker’s voice. He and Verhoven had spent the night doing all they could to kill these men, to make certain there were no survivors. They had shot most of them in the back in a surprise attack, without the option of mercy or surrender. Now, to the extent they might have failed, they would turn around and do what they could to help anyone who might have survived.
His own heart heavy with the carnage, McCarter volunteered to join the search. He and Hawker moved across the clearing from foxhole to foxhole, recovering eleven German-made Hechler-Koch rifles, a dozen crates of ammunition and their own forfeited Kalashnikovs.
McCarter watched as Hawker checked the fallen men for signs of life, then silently pulled dog tags and ID packets from those who carried them. There was sadness in Hawker’s actions, as if the dead had been comrades of his rather than enemies. McCarter wondered what Hawker would do with the items he’d taken. Perhaps he’d send them to some authority or to the governments of the nations that might be listed on their papers.
“I guess even mercenaries have families,” he whispered.
If Hawker heard him, he did not respond.
In the last foxhole they found a survivor, a blond-haired man with a reddish beard, who was minimally conscious and highly disoriented. The left side of his face was caked with dried blood, and judging from the gash and the bruising, either a bullet had caught the edge of his face or a ricochet had hit him square with enough force to knock him out and yet leave him alive. He put one hand up weakly, signaling his surrender.
“Do you speak English?” Hawker asked.
The man shook his head. “Deutsch.”
“Wie nennen sie Sie?” Hawker asked. What do they call you?
“Eric,” the man replied.
Hawker checked him for weapons and then helped him walk to where the others waited. While Danielle tended to him, Hawker and McCarter dragged the dead men to the bunker farthest downwind and buried the bodies with the soil that had been excavated from it.
When they returned to the group McCarter asked the question on all of their minds. “What do we do now?”
“We get the hell out of here,” Hawker said. “Before anything else happens. See if you can find our shortwave or any type of radio that these guys might have brought in.” He pointed to Kaufman. “Take him with you, he could probably tell you where to look. If he causes you any trouble, shoot him.”
“I’ll do that part,” Verhoven volunteered.
As they departed, Hawker stepped away, wandering out among the ruins of the camp, looking for room to think. Before long, he came across a loose pile of mud-covered equipment, items that Kaufman’s people had picked up on their metal detectors and summarily unearthed. The equipment was modern, untouched by rust and disturbingly familiar.
He crouched to examine one particular piece, scraping at the mud caked on its side. As clumps flaked off, the stamping became visible. TSC: Texas Sounding Corp. He shook his head in disgust. TSC was an NRI contracted supplier of equipment. Some of the equipment he’d flown in for Danielle and McCarter bore the same label.
“Of course,” he said.
“I wanted to thank you,” a voice said from behind him, one he recognized as Danielle’s.
“For coming back to get us. For shutting Kaufman up last night.”
“Don’t thank me,” he said, turning. “I already knew what he was going to say.”
He noticed her eyes, locked onto the device he held. “How much did they know?” he asked. “As much as we do? Less, maybe?”
“How much did who know?”
“The group you sent out before us,” he said. “The ones who left this behind.”
She was silent.
“This is an ultrasound receiver,” he said. “I loaded one just like it the other day. Brought it out for McCarter. It didn’t work right, but it’s the same exact piece of gear, the same manufacturer. Direct from the NRI equipment list.”
He held the receiver up. “This is how you knew to bring an army with you,” he explained. “You had another team out here before us. And you lost them.”
She folded her arms across her chest. At least she wasn’t denying it. That was a step in the right direction. “You should have told me.”
“What difference would it have made?” she said.
“You lose a group in the field and it raises the threat level.”
She arched her brow. “People shooting at us, dead bodies in the river; that wasn’t enough for you?”
She was right, it should have been. He hated everything that had happened, all that had been lost. His heart wanted someone else to blame, but he knew the part he’d played. “What happened to them?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “They stopped reporting about fifty miles from here. And they weren’t headed in this direction at the time.” She looked eastward, the direction she’d led the team in from. “They didn’t know about the Wall of Skulls, they didn’t have the information we had, so how the hell they found this place is beyond me. But apparently they did. After that …” She shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. The natives … those animals … I don’t know.”
Hawker looked around at the carnage, thinking of the men he’d just buried. He hadn’t even counted up their own dead yet. “How many have we lost?”
“All the porters except Brazos, all of Verhoven’s men,” she said. “Polaski, Susan.” She shook her head. “They came in firing. A helicopter first, followed by men on the ground. For a while I thought we’d lost you as well.”
Hawker looked at her. “When I started back here, I was pretty sure I’d find you all dead,” he said. He looked away, thankful that some of them were still alive, but drained by the cost. “We should have never brought these people here. We both knew this was a possibility.”
“I know,” she said. “And that’s on me. But we can’t leave yet. Now that we’re back in control, we have to find what we came here for. We have to finish this.”
He was stunned. “Are you out of your mind?”
“The worst is over, Hawker.”
“The worst is not over,” he said. “Did you listen to Kaufman, were you even here last night? Do you want to see whatever those things were again? Do you want to be here when the natives come storming in, intent on hacking us to pieces? Those threats are still out there. And don’t forget about Kaufman. I don’t care what he says, that son of a bitch has other people hiding somewhere. When they don’t hear from him for a while, they’re going to come looking. You want to wait around for that?”
“Not really, but we still have a job to do.”
“Fine,” he said. “We can take these people out of here and come back with a new team; you can bring a battalion of Marines if you want to. Then you can get whatever the hell you’re after and nobody else has to die.”
He needed her to see reason, to see the danger instead of the goal. When he spoke again his tone was more subdued. “You have to understand: we won last night because Kaufman’s people were looking for a different kind of fight. That made them easy targets. We won’t be that lucky next time.”
She hesitated, glancing across the camp to where Kaufman was walking with McCarter and Brazos. “I’m sorry for everything that’s happened here. More than you can know. You probably won’t believe me, but I didn’t want anything to do with this damn expedition in the first place. But in our business you go where they send you and you do what they tell you. And right now I have orders to bring back what we came here for. Regardless of the cost or consequences, remember? Everything we came for is within our grasp. We just have to get back in there and grab it.”
“Grab what?” he asked. He didn’t expect an answer, but she gave him one anyway.
“Somewhere down in that cave,” she said, “there’s a power source. An energy-producing system that we can study and use to create working cold fusion power cells. I’m not at liberty to tell you how it got there, but I promise you it’s not a joke. The crystals Martin brought back were slightly radioactive, our tests proved that they had undergone a low-level fusion reaction. They’d either been exposed to it or were part of it.”
He stood back, shocked. “Why would such a thing be out here?”
“Somebody put it here,” she explained. “That’s all I can tell you. That, and that if we find it, we can change the way humanity lives. Global warming, wars for oil, pollution. We can put an end to all of that. Think of it like the Manhattan Project, only the other way around. We can become life, the healers of the world,” she said, reversing Oppenheimer’s famous quote.
Hawker listened to the words and found his mind reeling. He brought a hand to his temple and rubbed at a stabbing pain.
“Look,” she said, “I know you don’t trust the system. And why should you? They burned you for something, exiled you. I don’t even know what it was; I have a fifty-page file on you and two-thirds of it’s blacked out. But from what I’ve seen, you do what you think is right, even when it costs you.”
“Not always,” he assured her.
“The point is, that’s what I’m trying to do here,” she said. “And if you help me, I promise you, it will be worth it. This is your chance, Hawker. It may be the last chance you ever get. You can change your life and if you look at it from the bigger picture, you can change a lot of lives.”
The bigger picture. It was something he’d always had a hard time focusing on, especially when the smaller, local picture was so painful to see.
“Hawker,” she continued, “I know you want to leave, to take everyone home. But if you go, they will stamp this file closed as a failure and things will be worse for you. Not by my doing,” she insisted. “God knows I owe you my life. But those same people who exiled you, they still run things, and they have an interest in this. And they will want someone to blame. This time exile won’t be enough. They’ll come for you. They’ll hound you.”
He turned away, angry and confused. Tell them to bring it on, he thought, catching the words just before they could escape his mouth. “People are dying out here,” he said. “Good people—our people. You lied and I helped you lie and we walked them, smiling, right into hell. If you don’t think there’s going to be a price to pay for that, then you are sadly in the dark.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” she said. “People I cared about are dead as well. Leaving won’t bring them back. But finishing the job will make their sacrifice have some purpose.”
She gazed into his eyes. “I have to go back in there, Hawker. Whether you want to or not, I have to. I’ll go in alone if you make me. But I’m not leaving here empty-handed.”
He could feel the price getting steeper for both of them. “Before this is over,” he warned, “I think you’re going to wish you had.”
She looked at the ground and then briefly back up at him before turning and marching away, off toward the center of camp.
Hawker shook his head, dropping the piece of equipment he’d found and kicking it across the clearing in frustration. It skipped and rolled and then broke into several pieces. For a long moment, he stared at the shattered remnants as if they held some great meaning.
It took the sound of distant shouting to tear him away.
Professor McCarter was running across the camp, carrying something and waving. McCarter arrived at Danielle first. They spoke briefly before he took her by the hand and led her back toward Hawker. By the time they reached him, McCarter was out of breath.
“We’ve got to go back inside the temple,” he said, panting. “We’ve got to do it now.”
Hawker shook his head in disbelief. “This is like some kind of disease with you guys.”
McCarter didn’t waste time explaining; instead, he held out a bright orange object he’d been carrying: Kaufman’s ELF radio. He turned the volume up.
“Can anybody hea …? Mr … aufman … please answer …” It was Susan Briggs, attempting to reach Kaufman on the low-frequency transmitter.
“She’s alive,” McCarter said. “We can hear her transmission, but she can’t hear ours. She hasn’t responded to anything we’ve sent.”
“Where?” Hawker asked. “How?”
“She’s in the cave beneath the temple somewhere, and if Kaufman’s right, those animals are in there with her. She’ll never make it out on her own. We have to go in and get her. We have to go now.”
Hawker glanced sideways at Danielle; both of them knew what this meant: she would get her chance to explore the cave after all. “You must have nine lives,” he said to her. “Try not to forget which number you’re on.”