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CONTAGION

CHAPTER ONE

Brooks Range, Alaska

Dr. Riley Middleton cupped her hands around her coffee mug and reveled in the sun’s warmth on her face. It was already a balmy 36 degrees, despite the gusting arctic breeze, for which she was exceedingly grateful. While it might have dried out her freckled skin, tangled her auburn hair, and chapped her lips, it kept the mosquitoes from swarming. She only wished the tundra provided better cover so that the infernal insects didn’t feel the need to use her as a windbreak, aggregating on the back of her jacket like a living cape. 

A seemingly infinite cottongrass meadow spreads out before her, stretching all the way to a horizon bumpy with overgrown mesas. Bitterly cold creeks meandered through the willows and dwarf shrubs spotting the floodplain, where a herd of caribou grazed amid the cloudberry bushes. She closed her eyes and imagined how this area must have looked at the end of the Younger Dryas, the last major abrupt climatic event, with the glaciers melting and Beringia once more vanishing beneath the rising waters of the Beaufort, Chukchi, and Bering Seas, stranding nomadic Paleo-Indians on a new continent ripe for exploration. All around her were signs of habitation — from bifacial stone projectiles and primitive chiseling tools carved from the chert beneath her feet to the carbon scoring of ancient campfires immortalized in the permafrost — dating back nearly twelve thousand years, to a time when mastodons, wooly rhinos, and muskoxen roamed the plains, the last vestiges of the once great herds of megafauna.

It was an age critical to the survival of the human species, a tipping point that could very well have led to extinction instead of expansion, one shaped by the environment as much as perseverance, not to mention a heaping helping of luck. Unfortunately, without written records, modern researchers could only try to piece together the few remaining clues, like attempting to recreate the night sky from a handful of stars, and continually revise that picture until it defined itself, although if everything went according to plan today, Riley and her team just might gain the critical insight they needed.

She heard footsteps and turned to find Dr. Dale Edgerton walking quickly toward her. His sun-leathered face was red from the exertion, his dark eyes alight with excitement. There was only one thing Riley could think of that would cause the ordinarily stoic evolutionary anthropologist to exhibit anything resembling human emotion. Her heart leapt at the prospect.

“We broke through?” she said.

The ghost of a smile crossed Edgerton’s lips.

“We’re just waiting for you,” he said.

Riley struck off toward the camp, spilling the last of her coffee onto the back of her hand in her hurry. The ground seemed to tilt beneath her feet as they passed through a circle of yellow tents, rounded the Quonset huts housing their tools and supplies, and headed straight toward the Grand Mesa, where their excavation was concealed beneath a framework of metal scaffolding and tarps.

She’d been the lead archeologist on the site for nearly three years, achieving the dream she’d envisioned when she’d first seen it from the helicopter that had ferried her from Ivotuk Airstrip. It had been a profound moment, one she equated with the call of destiny. While the site had been active at various times since the Nineties, they hadn’t begun making significant advances until she brought her technical acumen to the leadership role. They no longer scoured the ground for artifacts, but rather mapped it using LiDar-equipped satellites capable of recreating the topography, right down to the smallest pebble, and charted the subsurface features with state-of-the-art magnetometers and ground-penetrating radars, all of which had come at significant cost, chief among them what many of her colleagues considered to be a deal with the devil. Combined, however, those tools had been responsible for what could very well be the discovery of a lifetime, one that could potentially rewrite the history of the world.

Drs. Hays Montgomery and Niles Williams crouched over the rugged hole in the sedimentary rock, surrounded by their graduate students, who covertly referred to them as Simon and Garfunkel for their uncanny resemblance to the eponymous duo. They rose to greet her, their expressions those of children waiting to run downstairs on Christmas morning to see what Santa had brought them.

“Has anyone been inside yet?” Riley asked.

“We all agreed that you should have the honor of going first,” Montgomery said. He cast a sideways glance at Edgerton. “Well, almost all.”

“But then you’d better move out of the way and make room for the rest of us,” Williams said. His cracked lips bled when he smiled, but he didn’t seem to notice. He held out a caving helmet with a headlamp affixed on one side and a digital video camera on the other. “I should point out that this decision has nothing to do with the fact that you sign our grants.”

Riley donned the helmet without a word, knelt, and stared into the hole. It had been nearly two years since they’d discovered the subterranean void from the top of the mesa, using sonic waves of such low frequency that they were able to penetrate the bedrock to previously uncharted depths. Of course, they’d sacrificed resolution in the process, so all they’d been able to tell was that there was a hollow space of indeterminate size and shape within the formation. And if there was a cave, then there just might be artifacts and primitive artwork that offered them insights into the minds of the men and women who’d seeded the indigenous populations of the North and South American continents. The dry, sealed conditions and the arctic temperatures were better suited to their preservation than even the Franco-Cantabrian and Maros-Pangkep caves in Western Europe and Indonesia, respectively, which had miraculously safeguarded Upper Paleolithic paintings dating back over forty thousand years.

With the flip of a switch, the beam shot from her forehead into the darkness, illuminating the passage it had taken them nearly two full summers to excavate from the loose talus and remove the stones clogging it, most of which had been so lodged in the frozen, sandy loam that they’d been forced to chisel them free by hand. It couldn’t have been more perfectly sealed had someone deliberately done so.

She glanced back at her colleagues one last time, started the recording, and crawled into the earth. The stone walls were remarkably smooth and constricted to such an extent that they forced her to lower her chest all the way to the ground. Using her elbows and knees, she squirmed deeper, her heavy breathing harsh and loud in the confines. She dictated for the camera to distract herself from thoughts of suffocation and entombment beneath thousands of tons of rock.

“I’m approximately ten feet into what appears to be a natural formation, and already the temperature has dropped a good twenty degrees. The rock is so cold that it hurts my palms, even through my gloves.”

The beam outlined the end of the tunnel and diffused into the open space beyond. Another twenty feet and she reached the mouth of a cave that extended beyond her light’s reach. A stone roughly the same size and shape as the opening rested on the ground inside, its surface adorned with petroglyphs of a style reminiscent of a cross between ancient Sumerian, Egyptian, and Native American. She felt a distinct coldness around her, like the breath of the dead upon the fine hairs on the back of her neck, causing her to shiver. The crown of her helmet grazed the jagged outcroppings of the rocky roof as she crawled into the cavern and rose to a crouch. It had to be at least thirty degrees colder in here. The sounds of her breathing echoed from the seemingly infinite darkness. She turned her head slowly from one side to the other, exploring the vast space with her headlamp.

“The cave is formed from Katakturuk dolomite, representing carbonate sedimentation from the Late Proterozoic Period. The limited presence of flowstone and speleothems suggests largely dry and still conditions, as evidenced by sporadic aggregates of dogtooth spar and a handful of small gours.”

She stepped over one of the fragile, craterlike formations and stopped dead in her tracks. Her light focused upon human skeletal remains so old they’d nearly turned to stone. She could hardly find the voice to speak.

“I’ve discovered a concentration of disarticulated remains, abandonment context. The body is positioned on its back, its incomplete torso flexed, the bones of its extremities scattered. Its intact calvaria rests nearby.”

A light swept across her from behind, throwing her shadow onto the rocky ground as though it were attempting to escape. She turned and shielded her eyes from the glare.

“Don’t let me interrupt,” Edgerton said, striking off to the right.

Riley shook her head. There was something about the presentation of the remains that didn’t sit right with her, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

“There are no grave goods or artifacts of any kind.” She crouched to get a closer look at the condition of the bones, which were hardened and deformed by a combination of putrefaction and petrification. She traced her fingertips over scratch-like striations in the cortices she would have recognized anywhere as she’d spent her summers as an undergraduate excavating Anasazi ruins in Southwestern Colorado. “This can’t be right.”

She pressed deeper into the cave as more and more lights emerged from the tunnel behind her. The carvings on the walls were ornate, elaborate, and appeared to tell a story in panels, much like a comic strip in a newspaper, although their meaning was lost on her. Frigid air lanced through her skin and resonated in her bones. The muscles in the back of her neck tightened, raising the hackles. Her pulse accelerated and each breath came faster than the last.

“Another concentration of disarticulated remains,” she said, spotlighting them with her beam. “Abandonment context. On stomach, sprawled, torso twisted to the right.”

She again crouched and traced the contours of the outer layer of the bones, which demonstrated the same telltale grooves as the last set.

“We hit the jackpot,” Edgerton said. “There are more remains over here.”

“What’s their condition?” Riley asked, her voice high and tight.

“Disarticulated, abandonment context, largely scattered.”

“What about the cortices of the bones themselves?”

“They’re more stone than calcific matter by now, but there are distinct crescent-shaped ridges . . . ” Edgerton’s words trailed off. “Are you reading this the same way I am?”

Riley nodded to herself. She didn’t want to use the word out loud, not while she was recording, but there was no doubt in her mind that the remains exhibited evidence of cannibalism.

There was a rock wall ahead of her, at the very top of which was a jagged crevice barely tall enough to squeeze through. The temperature plummeted as she crawled closer, the air growing so heavy she labored to breathe. She shone her light through the opening and into a terminal branch reminiscent of a bear’s den, not least of which because of the bones scattered across the ground and piled against the walls. She raised her beam and found herself staring at a mummified corpse, contorted and pressed into the corner, its back to her, wearing the horned skull of a steppe bison on its head. It was so ancient that it hardly appeared human, its crisp, brownish skin clinging to its bony framework, and yet she almost felt as though it were the source of the coldness emanating from the depths of the mesa.

“What in the name of God happened here?” she whispered.

* * *

The frigid wind howled across the tundra, battering everything in its way. The walls of Edgerton’s tent bowed inward and snapped with every gust, which, despite the heat generated by his propane stove, seemed to pass straight through the polypropylene fabric, his sleeping bag, and all of the layers of clothing underneath. He wrapped his arms tightly around his chest and tried to keep his teeth from chattering. Never, in his eight years at this site, had he experienced a windstorm remotely like this, let alone the kinds of temperatures that prevented them from working here all year long. There was a reason their archeological season lasted only three months, the same reason that had driven the primitive humans that once inhabited this region ever southward as the climate changed. It was way too bloody cold for anything shy of caribou and bears to survive for any length of time. And the infernal mosquitoes, of course. He was convinced those blasted creatures would outlast them all.

A vicious gust buffeted his tent with enough force to pry one of the pegs from the frozen earth. He poked his head out of his sleeping bag and watched the shadow of the guyline lash the opaque siding. There was no way on this planet he was going out there right now, not unless — 

Another gust slammed against the wall, nearly lifting the bottom of the tent from the ground.

He didn’t have a choice in the matter now. Either he drove those stakes back into the ground or he found himself tumbling downhill through the cottongrass and into the creek. And if he got wet in cold like this, he could very well freeze to death before the sun rose.

Edgerton grumbled under his breath and kicked at his sleeping bag until he was able to cast it aside. He was already wearing nearly everything he owned, and yet it felt as though he were wearing nothing at all. With as little propane as he had left, once he crawled outside, he was consigning himself to a long, sleepless night of uncontrollable shivering.

None of this would have been a problem had it not been for Little Miss Ambition, Dr. Riley Middleton. They’d all been doing just fine without the expensive equipment, let alone their new benefactor and its financial interests, about which he could only speculate. It should have been him sleeping peacefully inside the tent in the lee of the Quonset hut, not her. He’d been working this site every summer for nearly a decade. He had seniority, not to mention more experience, a better publication record, and a higher standing in academic circles. Plus, he was a bloody professor in residence at Stanford, for Christ’s sake. How had he allowed himself to be relegated to the support staff?

He growled in frustration, stuffed his feet into his boots, and rummaged around until he found a flashlight and a hammer. Maybe if he dialed up the propane on the stove, he’d be able to warm up at least a little bit. Forget rationing. It wasn’t his problem their stockpiles were running low and their next supply drop wasn’t for another three days. 

“Screw them,” he said, cranking up the dial.

He’d held his tongue when he was passed over for promotion, but he wasn’t about to suffer needlessly for anyone.

Edgerton unzipped the flap and ducked out into the night. The wind screamed and knocked him off balance, driving him to his knees with a whip from the untethered cord. He shielded his face and crawled around the side to where the wind had pried one of the aluminum poles from the grommet strip. It took all of his strength to bend it back into place and stretch the strap far enough away from the old hole to create a new one.

A ferocious, screaming wind knocked him against his tent. He heard something beneath the gale, an undercurrent of sound, little more than the whisper of a distant stream, only it almost sounded like someone calling his name.

He struggled to his knees, captured the guyline, and pounded the peg back into the hard ground. One more corner and he’d be right back inside, with the thermostat cranked up and a contented smile on his face as he drifted off into a blissful— 

Daaaaale.

He froze and cocked his head toward the sound. He’d heard it clearly that time. The Quonset huts and the other tents in the ring were dark and silent, without a hint of movement inside. He listened for several seconds more before he resumed his task, refitting the tapered end of the pole into the grommet and hammering the stake—

Daaaaale.

He gave the peg a final tap and rose to his feet.

“Who’s there?” he shouted, but the wind stole the words from his lips.

The remaining loose cord flapped behind him as he struck off toward the dark mesa, a black shape eclipsing half of the cloud-covered sky, like a wave preparing to crash down on them. He passed the tents belonging to Montgomery and Williams and had just reached the one shared by the graduate students when he heard it again.

Daaaaale.

Suddenly, he realized exactly where it was coming from and why it sounded like it did. Someone had gone into the cave and had gotten either hurt or stuck, someone who needed not just help, but his help specifically. Someone who could count on good old Dale to keep his mouth shut and not ruffle any feathers, someone who knew she could walk all over him and there was nothing he could do about it, at least not without being evicted from the site and losing every bit of headway he’d made with his research.

Well, not this time. He’d crawl in there and get Dr. Middleton out of whatever mess she’d made for herself while trying to find a way to take all of the credit for their shared discovery. And while everyone else was sleeping, no less! There had to be a way to turn the situation to his advantage. It was high time Dr. Dale Edgerton took charge of his own destiny and finally got what he deserved.

He shielded his eyes from the wind and staggered toward the active dig, where the tarps attached to the framework of their makeshift windbreak had torn loose and flew tattered, like the sails of a ghost ship concealing the earthen maw. A cold darkness radiated from the tunnel. He crouched before it and felt the stale breath of the mesa upon his face, as old and lifeless as time itself. In that moment, he understood exactly what had happened and allowed himself a smile that caused his chapped lips to bleed.

Dr. Riley Middleton — genius extraordinaire, master of technology, and unapologetic suck-up — had forgotten the first and most important rule of spelunking: always take a backup light. Her flashlight must have died while she was inside and she’d gotten herself turned around, unable to find her way back to the lone egress.

Daaaaale.

The voice was louder, more insistent, and unmistakably coming from the depths of the mountain.

Leaving her stranded in there all night, a victim of her own panic, would serve her right, but waking up the entire camp as he paraded her past colleagues who wouldn’t find her late-night adventures at all amusing, would be infinitely more gratifying.

Dale switched on his flashlight and crawled into the tunnel. The wind roared as he scurried out of its reach, deeper into darkness somehow even colder. His exhalations echoed in the confines, metered by the thrum of his pulse in his ears. He heard the buzz of the mosquitoes that had sought shelter from the elements, felt their tiny legs on his bare cheeks and wrists. Exposing Middleton’s subterfuge wasn’t enough by itself; there had to be a way to turn the situation to his advantage. After all, he couldn’t possibly be passed over twice. He wouldn’t even need to hurt her, just scare her a little. Let her reach the decision to leave on her own, or maybe the two of them could come to an accommodation. All he really needed to do was publish his findings first, and he’d be able to write his own ticket.

He shut off his beam and continued onward until he felt open air beyond the end of the tunnel. The only sound was the hollow echo of his breathing. He totally understood how she could have gotten lost in the pitch-black cave. Had he not brought his flashlight, he never would have considered crawling from the hole and advancing into the emptiness as he did now. A glance over his shoulder confirmed he could neither see the orifice nor feel the flow of air on his face.

Daaaaale.

He turned toward the origin of the sound, which somehow seemed as far away as it had from the surface, a phenomenon he chalked up to the strange acoustics of the cave. The ground was hard and jagged and hurt his knees, but he didn’t dare risk walking and injuring himself, or worse, damaging the remains. He found the bones in the darkness, tracing their hard contours as he inched around them. Had the Paleo-Indians to whom they belonged crawled through this cave, just as he did now, twelve thousand years and countless generations ago?

Already he’d lost his bearings and was just about to turn on his light when he heard the voice again.

Dale.

A single syllable whispered seemingly from all around him at once.

He pressed on and bumped into a stone outcropping. Ran his palms over the surface until he found the upper edge of the formation and recognized where he was. Just on the other side was the chamber where they’d discovered the mummified remains. Riley must have squeezed inside before her light abandoned her to the darkness. He could only imagine the expression on her face when he surprised her by shining his beam directly into her eyes.

Edgerton rose to his knees, braced his elbows on the rocky ledge, and aimed his flashlight toward the back wall. He took a moment to savor his victory before thumbing the switch.

The light struck the mummified corpse, its desiccated skin crawling with mosquitoes beneath the clear plastic tarp they’d draped over it.

In that momentary flash of illumination, it was a living, breathing entity, a tan-skinned being looking back at him over its shoulder through the hollow sockets of the steppe bison’s skull. The bones scattered around it took on flesh and the bare stone became a killing room floor.

The flashlight flickered and the remains in the corner were no longer those of an ancient being, but rather Edgerton himself, naked and covered with blood, the bodies lying at his feet those of his colleagues.

His light died and the frigid darkness smothered him.

He heard the voice again, only this time directly in his ear.

“Dale.”

His screams echoed into the depths of the earth.

* * *

Riley awakened with the dawn. The way the red sunlight hit the golden fabric of her tent turned it a deep shade of orange, reminiscent of the tender flesh around a peach pit. She took a moment to appreciate the beauty and savor the prospects of the coming day before casting aside her sleeping back and hurriedly dressing to keep the morning chill from settling in.

The others were obviously just as excited as she was. It was a rare occasion to crawl from her tent and find a fire already burning and the graduate students not just awake, but boiling water for coffee and oatmeal. She understood exactly how they felt; there was a big difference between starting the day knowing you’re going to spend the next eight hours participating in grueling physical labor, moving stones and toting equipment, and finding yourself at the epicenter of a groundbreaking discovery with the potential to change everything the world knew about the history of humankind.

Skeletal remains were one thing, but an actual intact specimen with an unprecedented level of preservation was the find of a lifetime. Prior to this, the oldest known naturally mummified remains had been found in the Atacama Desert of Chile and dated to nine thousand years ago. This discovery potentially predated it by more than three thousand years, which could easily have been the amount of time required to travel all the way down to South America and seed that very population.

Even more exciting was the physical condition, which more closely resembled that of Ötzi the Iceman, whose five-thousand-year-old corpse had been recovered in the Austrian Alps, protruding from a melting glacier. The ice and colder temperatures had proved to be more conducive to preservation than the arid desert, so much so that researchers had been able to collect pollen and grains from the dead man’s teeth and analyze the contents of his stomach and bowels with high enough accuracy to determine not just what he’d eaten, but where he’d consumed his final meal. They’d been able to divine his origin by the bacteria in his intestinal tract, a strain of Helicobacter pylori genetically similar to a modern strain common in Northern India. Best of all, his red blood cells hadn’t deteriorated in the slightest and his DNA had been so pristine they’d been able to sequence his entire genome, which they’d subsequently traced to the Mediterranean Islands, and nineteen living descendants in the Tyrolean region of Eastern Austria and Northern Italy, who shared the same uncommon genetic mutation as their remote ancestor.

Riley couldn’t wait to find out what secrets the man they were calling the Brooks Caveman was hiding. They couldn’t afford to rush the process and risk damaging his remains, though. Even exposure to the outside air after so much time in static conditions could be hugely detrimental. They’d covered the body with plastic and limited the amount of time they subjected it to artificial light, but that wasn’t nearly enough. They needed to find a way to contain it under carefully controlled environmental conditions and remove it from the mesa, which was where their benefactors came in. She’d already uploaded the video imagery, submitted her formal request, and set the wheels in motion. Unfortunately, satellite connectivity was sporadic at best, which meant there was no way of knowing when NeXgen would receive her communication or how long it might take to get a reply.

NeXgen Biotechnology and Pharmaceuticals might have sounded like a strange bedfellow, especially considering its high-profile defense contracts, but the fact remained that climate change, whether natural or anthropogenic, posed a significant danger to human populations, and not just from rising temperatures and sea levels. Lord only knew what kinds of diseases were frozen in these arctic wastelands — which provided the perfect conditions for the preservation of life forms requiring neither light nor oxygen for metabolic activity — just waiting to be thawed and unleashed upon a species that no longer possessed the immunities its forebears had developed. Without the presence of those antibodies, something as simple as an ancient cold virus could easily mow down the global population with such speed and severity that it would make the Spanish Flu — which killed an estimated fifty to a hundred million people in the early twentieth century — pale by comparison, a prospect of no small consequence for any company on the front lines of combating that nightmare scenario.

The moment NeXgen had learned of the budgetary shortfalls at Grand Mesa — a site already known for its distinct evidence of protohuman habitation and extreme levels of preservation — and recognized the potential for the discovery of hominin remains, it had reached out to her via the Johan Brandt Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Even a single phalanx, like the finger bone that had been unearthed from a Russian cave and led to the classification of a discrete subspecies of proto-human known as Homo sapiens denisova, could be used to generate at least a partial genome from which they could identify residual viral DNA that had been incorporated into the specimen’s genetic code. If they could isolate that DNA and work backward to recreate the virus, they could manufacture treatments that could very well save the entire species from a pandemic of historic proportions, one that could start at any moment and in a place where no one expected, much like the Siberian thaw that released ancient anthrax spores and caused the evacuation of an entire isolated village.

While her colleagues might not have cared for their benefactor’s cozy relationship with the military-industrial complex, Riley was a realist. Not only had they desperately needed the funding NeXgen had provided with a single stroke of its pen, but the pentagon would have been alerted to any discoveries with national security implications by the National Science Foundation or the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, anyway. The Department of Defense would have swooped in and assumed control of their excavation and all of their research without the slightest notice. At least by partnering with NeXgen, they’d be able to exert a measure of control over the usurpation. After all, it was amazing what powerful entities could accomplish behind closed doors.

But politics was the furthest thing from her mind this morning as she drank her coffee with a smile on her face, enjoying the excited conversation, if not actively participating. In her mind, she was already back inside the cave, painstakingly sketching the locations of the bones, which would provide the foundation for the research that would ultimately become a book. Her only concern, slight though it might be, was the condition of the cortices of the bones. If the scratches matched the dentition of the mummified subject or his stomach contained any amount of human flesh, there would be pressure to suppress the discovery unless she could determine conclusively that he’d been forced to eat the others in an ultimately futile attempt to survive. As it was, she was having a hard time not thinking about the enormous stone, roughly the same size and shape as the mouth of the tunnel, which could have easily been used to seal the people inside while they were still alive.

“The pictures came out perfectly,” Dr. Montgomery said. “I commend you all for your skill and professionalism.”

The graduate students beamed at their professor. They’d spent the entire previous day gridding off the eastern half of the cave with chalk lines and documenting the remains with rulers and directional markers to establish scale and positioning. It was a frustratingly slow process that would likely take two more full days to do the same for the western half and the adjacent chamber with the intact body, and that was before they could even touch the remains, let alone explore the full extent of the cave, at the back of which was a honeycomb of passages, some of which appeared to lead deeper into the earth, while others were plugged with stacked rocks, just like the main entrance had been. The full size and scope of the project was daunting, especially considering they had only ten more weeks before winter set in. The mere thought of spending nine whole months obsessing about a site she wouldn’t be able to see until next summer was excruciating.

“Dr. Middleton?” Williams said, gently placing his hand on her shoulder.

“Hmm?” Riley said.

“I said, I don’t suppose you’ve seen Dr. Edgerton this morning.” 

“Dale?” She turned and looked around the camp. “I can’t imagine he would have chosen this, of all days, to sleep in.”

Riley set down her mug and struck off toward his tent. It wasn’t until she was nearly upon it that she noticed the front flap was unzipped and hung limply over the entrance.

“Wake up in there,” she said. “We’re burning daylight.”

She ducked inside and recoiled from the intense heat. It was like a sauna, the heating element on his propane stove glowing cherry red. The sleeping bag was bunched against the side, and it looked like someone had rummaged through the supplies, yet the evolutionary anthropologist himself was nowhere to be seen.

“I should have known,” she whispered.

Riley turned off the heater and retreated into the open air, which suddenly felt a whole lot colder. Waiting for her to enter the cave first must have been eating him alive all night. Beating her inside today would teach her a lesson. She rolled her eyes. After suffering through unending days of his less-than-subtle criticism and passive-aggressive posturing, this morning he’d actually done her a favor by allowing her to ease into this wonderful day without his constant needling.

“He already went in, didn’t he?” Montgomery asked.

“You don’t sound at all surprised,” Riley replied.

“I should have recognized as much from the get-go, but I suppose my subconscious mind didn’t want to jinx the peace and quiet.”

“Well, someone needs to tell him he’s about to miss breakfast.”

Riley playfully elbowed her colleague and headed toward the excavation, stopping at her tent only long enough to grab her flashlight. Even though she’d already spent a full day inside, she felt the same flutter of nerves in her stomach as she switched on the beam and crawled inside. It was staggering to think that she was squirming across ground that had hardly been touched since the end of the last ice age, and by hands that would subsequently shape the future of the entire species. It smelled of unwritten history, of secrets yet to be revealed.

Her light spilled into the cave, revealing the chalk grids off to her right and the vast space ahead of her.

“You’d better grab something to eat before it’s all gone,” she said. “You’ve seen how those kids wolf it down.”

She climbed over the boulder with the elaborate designs, rose to a crouch, and swept her beam across the interior.

There was no sign of Edgerton.

She pressed deeper into darkness that fled from her light. Her breath seeped from between her lips and trailed over her shoulder.

“Dale?”

Riley caught a flash of red from the periphery of her beam. She focused on it and recognized Edgerton’s parka. At first, it almost looked like it had been draped over a rock, but then she saw the heels of his boots and his frightened eyes looking back over his shoulder from where he crouched against the wall, almost exactly as they’d found the mummified body in the adjacent chamber. The bare skin of his face was positively covered with mosquitoes. He didn’t even blink when they crawled over his eyelashes. His lips formed whispered words, the same phrase repeated over and over, barely loud enough to be heard.

“All going to die. All going to die. All going to die.”

COMING MARCH 8, 2022

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