The caves weren't far, just over an hour through the jungle to the shore, a nice little cove where rainforest met sea and water carved out stone. Blair had been quiet during their trek, and Jim could sense he was still upset. Damn, he never meant to hurt the kid! In fact, after arriving the other day, he'd decided not even to bring up the reason behind his unexpected trip. Deep down he didn't really believe Blair would skip out and stay here. Mentioning it at all was the wrong thing to do. Not that he could have lied. And it did bring out more of Sandburg than he'd ever let show before this. But by his subdued attitude as they neared the caves, Jim could tell his words had struck somewhere deep. Somewhere painful.
But he hadn't pulled away completely. That was a big step in itself. Blair usually pulled back and pretended not to be affected at all. This time he got angry, defended himself, and stayed put. Maybe he hadn't gotten over it yet, but he was there for Jim to keep working on. More important, he was there by his own choice. Of course, he was still referring to their relationship as Sentinel-based. One of these days he was going to get a straight answer from that kid.
They were approaching a cliff. Large boulders and rocks jutted out from the jungle ground, pointing to the blue water below.
"There's an entrance over to your left." Blair pointed, slipping slightly over some damp dirt. "Most of the caves are reached from the water, but there's one we can get to through this vent. It's the only one that stays dry."
Jim spotted the dark area Blair was pointing to and walked to it. A wide expanse of ground fell away, surrounded by rock that led down at a steep angle. After a few yards, the vent opened up to the sea and a huge cave entrance that would be easier to reach by boat. Several large boulders provided steps into the cave, and Jim could see where the rocks were worn smooth by travel. He started down, reaching for a chip in the rock wall as a hand-hold.
"Watch out for that--"
Before Blair could finish his sentence, Jim felt the rock shift under his right foot. Instinct took control as he slipped down, landing on the third boulder down already mid-spring for his leap to the cave bottom. He'd felt the complete lack of support under both feet, and managed to turn a fall into a controlled jump, landing hard but safe on the cave floor.
"Jim? Are you okay?" Blair scrambled down the rocks, staying more to the left and barely making it safely himself.
"I take it this is where you lost that dignity?" Jim reached out to stop Blair's momentum as he landed fast himself.
"Yeah, man, I'm sorry. I should have remembered that sooner. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine." Jim glanced at his right hand, slightly scraped from the crack in the wall he'd been holding onto. "Is that the way out, too?"
Blair nodded, pulling his little flashlight from its belt hook. "Yeah, but going up is easier." He started shining the light around the vast cave entrance, adding to the light streaming in from the wide mouth that opened to the sea.
"You were pulled up last time, weren't you?"
"Yeah." Nodding again absently, Blair started walking into the cave.
Great. The kid falls down here last time and gets rescued, could have gotten killed, and all he can think about is what's back there. Sometimes Jim forgot just how fearless-- and at times absentminded--his partner could be.
"Jim, take a look at this."
Blair was standing several yards farther in, shining his light straight up and moving the beam around. As Jim approached, he looked up, focusing easily through the faint light to the moving ceiling above them.
"They estimate there's about 2 million of them."
"I thought you said they harvested bird's nests in here?" Jim glanced around at the massive numbers of small, brown bodies hanging from their toes several yards up.
"They do, at the mouth of the caves. But these things go on for miles. And over here it gets interesting." Blair moved the light to his left and walked farther into the darkness. "There are some cave drawings back here that date over 1,000 years old."
Jim followed, looking ahead to where Blair's light was searching. After some hunting around on the dark, wet rock, he found what he was looking for. Several figures carved into the wall just above the water line of a large, saltwater pool that was fed from below. Jim quickly glanced out the way they had come.
"Sandburg, does this cave fill in with the tide?" It didn't appear to be rising at all, but he was unfamiliar with their surroundings and wanted to be sure.
"Huh? Oh, no, it doesn't." Blair glanced around, then looked back at the wall. "Check this out, man. These pictures show the gathering of those nests from a thousand years ago."
Jim turned back to the drawings, but found himself watching Blair more closely than the figures. His friend had known right where the drawings were, and that they were even here to begin with, so he'd seen them before. And yet, even now, he was scrutinizing the figures as if they were brand new discoveries. His incredible capacity for enthusiasm never ceased to amaze and amuse Jim.
"How far do these caves go?" Jim straightened up from his study of the drawings and glanced down the darkened passageway.
"I don't know exactly. They did find more drawings in some of the other caves, all depicting pretty much the same thing."
The sound of ocean waves crashing through the caves beside them drew Jim's attention, and his focus. Water could be heard surging well inside the rock caverns, splitting as many as twelve times that he could hear, before fading even beyond Sentinel ears. Their particular cave was littered with small pools and bubbling ponds being fed from underneath the rock. Shining up from the dark waters of one, Jim could see more of the drawn figures Blair had been showing him. He stepped closer and peered through the inky waters.
"Hey, Chief, how come these look different?"
"What?" Blair's light found Jim, then danced around the rock floor as he walked over.
"These, at the bottom of this pool. They look different."
"Where?" The excitement in his friend's voice was obvious, as was his heedless progress toward the pool.
Jim reached out and stopped him before Blair stepped into the deep waters. "Right down there, on the bottom and sides of this pool." He pointed, then had to squint against the painfully bright reflection of Blair's light off the water's surface. "Ow! You'll never see them with that."
"Here." Blair handed over the flashlight, then pointed downward. "Show me, Jim."
There was no way this cheap light was waterproof. But Blair's insistence, and the fact that Jim could see in the caves just fine, convinced Jim to plunge the top of the light under the surface. Even then, the light barely reached the top drawings.
"Oh, man!" Blair leaned closer, almost falling over the edge as his eyes darted around what little he could see. "There's no record of those in Dr. Stoddard's notes."
Jim moved the light and caught a few more of the figures etched into the stone.
"These pools probably used to be holes in the ground, then as time passed, fissures opened up and flooded them from below." Reaching out to move Jim's hand more, Blair lowered himself even farther, almost touching the water's surface with his face.
"I'm not surprised they've been missed. Unless you can see these holes without water in them, it's nearly impossible to pick them out. And the low tide mark is still well above the first of them."
Absently, Blair nodded, leaning farther out.
"Sandburg, you're going to fall in." Jim reached out and caught Blair by the upper arms, pulling him back. The flashlight drained of water when it was pulled out.
"Jim, I need to document these. They've been missed all this time, we have to make a record." As he spoke, Blair began to pull out a pen and notebook from his back pocket.
Jim was going to suggest they merely go tell Dr. Stoddard the drawings were here, and let him come back with better lights and notebooks, but the sparkle in Blair's eye stopped him. "Here, this light isn't going to hold up much longer." Handing Blair the light, he took the pen and notebook. "Just sit down before you fall in, and I'll see what I can do here." He pulled the cap off the pen. "And sit behind me. I don't want to have to fish you out of this pool."
"You'll have to get them exact. And position them like you see on the walls."
"I think I can handle this, Chief." Jim shot Blair a dirty look, one that was probably not even visible in the darkness, and sat down on the rock. With his legs crossed under him, he had a good Sentinel view of the drawings under the murky, guano infested water. After a bit of pushing, he got Blair to kneel behind him where he was less likely to lean right into the pool while he watched.
"And don't forget any other marks you see, not just the figures, Jim." Blair pointed over Jim's right shoulder at the water he couldn't see through.
"I know." Jim focused through the darkness and picked out the topmost figure, giving it a complete exam before refocusing to the pen and notepad, where he began to reproduce what he alone could see. Water was dripping down his shoulder from the flashlight Blair was holding, shining dimly down on the paper. "Sandburg, do you mind?" Jim reached up and moved the hand holding the weakening light so it wouldn't drip on his notepad.
Moments later the flashlight was back again as Blair tried to study Jim's drawing. This time, he moved the pad farther up one leg. After drawing three of the figures, Jim switched to the other markings he could see, lines above and between each figure. As he drew, Blair leaned into his back, trying to see the notepad. Hands pressed down over Jim's shoulders as his partner tried to get a closer look without falling straight into the water. The flashlight had not faired well with its submersion, and was dimming more and more.
"Sandburg, do you mind?" Jim took one hand and pushed Blair's forehead, trying to clear some room between his own face and the notepad. Room that had been slowly taken over by his friend's fascinated observations.
"Are you sure that line was there, Jim?" Blair touched the notepad, indicating one of the wavy lines just drawn. His body had completely conformed to Jim's back and shoulder, trying harder to lean far enough down to see what was being drawn.
"I put it there, didn't I?"
"Yeah, yeah. What about this? Is this really angled to the left like that?"
Before Jim could answer, Blair's light gave up the ghost, leaving them both in near complete darkness.
"Damn." Blair smacked the light once, but got nowhere.
"I guess you'll just have to take my word for it now, huh?" Not that he could see what Jim was seeing, but now at least his comments on the reproductions would be limited.
Blair, not to be outdone, leaned farther over Jim's shoulder, pressing his shorter body into his partner's back for support as he squinted through the extreme low light at the notebook.
With a sigh, Jim resumed his drawing. He angled the notepad just slightly so his friend could take advantage of the light filtering in from the cave's mouth. It took nearly two hours to get every marking and figure drawn, then Blair insisted Jim examine all of the other pools to see if he could make out anything inside. The light from outside was dimming every minute, as the sun outside their tunnels began to set over the mountains. Jim's eyesight adjusted easily, but Blair was without his flashlight and still insisting he follow along in case they missed an area.
"All right, just keep your hand on my belt." Jim put Blair's left hand onto his side, waiting until he felt his friend take hold of the leather belt around his jeans. "I don't need you breaking your neck in here."
"Let's hurry, Jim. The bats leave right at sunset and I want you closer to the mouth of the cave when they go." Blair grabbed the belt and gave Jim a small shove forward. After stumbling once in the darkness, his other hand found a wad of shirt to hold onto.
"You're still thinking about the bats after what we found in here?" Jim moved to the next pool and looked through the waters.
"Yeah. These drawings are for Eli. The bats are why I dragged you down here." Blair stumbled again and took a firmer grip on Jim's belt, pulling himself a little closer.
"Don't you people get credits for discoveries like that?" Jim scanned the last of the pools he could see, then turned and took Blair by the arms to get him around a large guano-covered section of rock.
"Jim, I have my name on hundreds of discoveries. It's no big deal after your first one or two."
They passed the slippery section and were closer to the mouth of the cave, where the last remains of sunlight filtered in enough to illuminate the ground. "Hundreds?" Jim stopped and looked down at Blair. Sometimes it struck him just how little of Blair's life he really knew.
"Okay, maybe that's a slight exaggeration." Blair shrugged and looked up, squinting in the dim light toward the ceiling.
"How much of an exaggeration, Chief?" Weren't these things important? "These things get documented somewhere, don't they?"
Absently, Blair nodded, still looking around at the bats above them. "Yeah, they do. What time is it?"
"It's just about sunset." Jim didn't need a watch to tell him that. "How many discoveries have you made?"
Blair sighed, thinking, but still glancing upward. "Well, there was a burial site at Machu Picchu, but I was just one of the names there." He stepped closer to the mouth of the cave and peered around. "That was my first. Then I found remnants of a lost culture in this remote section of the Congo. And the burial rituals in Matango. It was by chance that I was the first Westerner to witness those." Satisfied with what he saw, Blair walked back toward Jim. "There's four or five more minor things, like these drawings. And then the Sentinel discoveries, including you." He found a good spot to stand near the side of the cave and looked up again. "So I guess a hundred is a bit of an exaggeration."
Jim watched his friend, slightly stunned. A bit of an exaggeration, he called it. What Jim imagined to be the career equivalent of several high-profile, media related busts, the kid calls it a bit of an exaggeration. He'd just opened his mouth to comment further when he felt it.
From overhead, a tingling sensation on the top of his head was quickly followed by the rustling sounds of thousands of winged rodents preparing to launch into flight.
"They're getting ready." Blair stood, pointing to the bats. "Jim, just stand there while they fly out and tell me what you hear or feel."
He was going to question this whole experiment, ask why his ability or lack thereof to hear bat sonar had any importance. But suddenly that didn't matter. The bats, in what looked like a solid mass of bodies, were releasing their toe-hold and dropping into flight. At first, Jim could hear a high-pitched chorus of screeches echoing through the cavern, but as he stepped out under the thick of them, the sound vanished. As did the cave, Blair, and the very bats themselves.
Jim was floating somewhere dark and warm. His entire body had begun to vibrate gently as tiny fingers of sound slammed into every inch of skin in an all-encompassing massage. At first, the waves reached only his skin, almost painfully, but as he concentrated and the numbers grew, his very bones felt the touch. Losing himself in the sensation, Jim felt his body begin to react. Muscles lost their tension to the massage. Bones tingled in waves of motion as the feeling ran up, then down, each length. Slightly surprised, he realized there was a pattern to it all. As if the sense of touch caressing his body with invisible fingers used a language that had no words. The fingers had something important to convey, but only his body understood. His mind was left to ponder, and enjoy, the language.
After a time, the rhythm changed, becoming more intense. Stronger vibrations rocked his spine, and from head to toe he felt the impact. The sensation remained completely pleasurable, even when it felt as if his bones could vibrate into small bits. But not long after the increase, the feeling began to dissipate. Slowly, Jim felt the fingers fade away and the massage lessen more and more. With eyes closed, he nearly imagined himself floating out after them, but another touch brought his attention back into the cave.
Startled, he opened his eyes and found Blair standing beside him, one hand on his arm. All light from the mouth of the cave was gone, as were the bats. "What happened? What was that?"
"You zoned out, man." Blair kept his hand on Jim's arm, squinting through the darkness at his eyes. "It takes over an hour for all the bats to leave the cave."
Jim swallowed, still tingling from the sensations. "You mean I just stood here for an hour?"
Blair nodded. "I was going to bring you out sooner, but you seemed to be enjoying it."
That was certainly an understatement! He could have stayed there another three or four hours and not noticed the passage of time. "Let's just say this would be a great place to bring a date." No wonder Dracula got all the girls.
"What was it like, Jim? What did you hear?"
"It wasn't a matter of hearing anything, I--I felt their sonar. It was like tiny little pinpoints of touch, slamming into my entire body." Jim was glancing around, almost hopefully, for more bats still to leave, but he and Blair were now alone. "It was the strangest thing. It almost hurt, it was so intense."
"You felt them? You didn't really hear it, but you felt it?" Blair seemed more excited than perplexed, his eyes reflecting a million thought processes all demanding sudden attention.
"Yeah." God, yes. "And the strangest part was the pattern. After a little while, it felt like there was some kind of pattern there. Like a--a rhythm or something." How do you explain a sensation that has no explanation? "I can't really explain it, but it was incredible."
"But did you hear anything? Any sounds at all, or was it all just feeling?"
Sounds? Who the hell cared about sounds when his entire body had just been shaken and massaged from the inside out? "No, not really. I don't think so." Jim shook his head. "I dunno, there might have been. I was so zoned on what I could feel, I--there might have been sounds." He looked back at Blair apologetically. "I just don't remember sounds, Chief."
Blair was nodding, glancing around at nothing as the wheels started spinning wildly. "No, that's okay." He kept nodding, glancing around in the dark as if chasing a thought. "I didn't expect this."
"Neither did I." At the most, he'd expected a headache from lots of high-pitched little squeaking rodents. It would almost be worth it to wait for their return, but he and Blair had already been out well past sunset running on nothing but breakfast that morning. And if that look in his friend's eyes right now was any indication, Jim knew if he didn't take the kid back and feed him, he'd forget to eat altogether. "We'd better head back, Chief. It's dark and we have a long walk ahead."
"Yeah." Blair's reply was hardly convincing.
"Sandburg, are you with me?" Jim stared down at his partner, waiting for his eyes to focus again. "It's dark. Let's get back and we can talk about this all you want."
"Right, right." He nodded, but Jim was still less than convinced.
The cave was completely dark, and Blair's flashlight totally worthless. "Listen, you're going to have to stay close. We have to climb up that chimney and I don't want to pick up the pieces."
At that, Blair seemed to return to the cave. "Just stay to the left, it's dryer."
"The left." The side he forgot to mention on the way in. Jim nodded, then reached out and took both of Blair's hands, placing them on his belt again. There was no telling how long he'd have his friend's attention, now that he had a new puzzle to play out in his mind. "Just stay close."
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