“Come, Galina, the water is perfect!” Eduard said, cupping his hand and splashing water at her. He waded deeper into the small lake, still in awe of the view from this spot in the Greater Caucasus. They could look down upon rolling green hills to their south, while to their north, great peaks thrust upward, mist drifting among their snowy heights.
“You just want to see me in my bikini!” Galina said, teasingly walking along the edge of the water.
“Oh, c’mon, stop being such a wet blanket! We didn’t come out here just for the view,” he said, doing the back stroke through the water. To himself, he said, “Not of the mountains, anyway.”
Galina slid out of her shirt and shorts, diving into the water and swimming toward him. She stayed deep under the water, her eyes open, as she neared the boy. The two neighbors had been friends forever, but now had reached the age where they were seeing one another differently. Eduard had become strong and handsome, while Galina had become excruciatingly hot. Yes, things had changed a lot since they were little first-graders playing house. Now, they were both 22, and had more than house on their minds.
Grabbing his leg, Galina pulled Eduard under water and held him there as he kicked and struggled. Finally, she let go and swam to the surface with a laugh.
“Why, you little. . . “ Eduard said, good-naturedly, and grabbed her by the hair, forcing her underwater. He wrapped his legs around her neck and used his weight to keep her submerged for a little more than a minute. All the while, she was struggling, trying to get free. Finally, he released and she swam to the top.
Both of them were laughing, looking into one another’s eyes as they dog-paddled. As their breathing grew more normalized, they slowly moved closer to one another. For the first time, Eduard felt the courage to do something he’d been thinking about all summer. He moved in and kissed her on her big, soft lips.
The whole world seemed to fall away, like everything was spinning. His eyes closed as his hands slid around her waist. Eduard felt like he was falling, and perhaps he was: falling ever deeper into a love that had grown from so many years of a close friendship. The same girl who had helped him learn to ride a bike was going to be the first girl to teach how to ride . . . well, other things.
It wasn’t until the two felt themselves pulled apart as they plunged deeper into the water that they realized something was wrong. Although their kiss had, in fact, been very good, the sensations they felt were the result of a slight tremor in the mountains. That tremor had caused a hole to form at the bottom of the lake, and like a toilet, the whole lake had drained down through it. They had now fallen more than forty feet into an underground lake where they both clamored back to the surface. It was almost entirely black within the cavern, a single column of light flooding down through the hole they had just fallen.
“What just happened?” Galina said. “Where are we?”
“I think we’re in a cave,” said Eduard, looking up at the hole above them. “That’s total bullshit. How did that happen?”
“We got flushed,” said Galina disbelievingly. “How did we get flushed? Geologically, does that make any sense?”
“Just stay calm,” he said in a voice that was less than convincing. “I’ll get you out of here.”
Galina rolled her eyes. “Oh. So, since I’m a woman, I obviously need rescuing by you. Because you’re a man.”
“This is no time to debate gender stereotypes!” Eduard said in a manly tone. “We need to get out of this water. And figure out whether there’s any way out of this cavern.”
“Obviously,” Galina said, swimming in a randomly selected direction. Since they could see almost nothing, she figured one way would be as good as the next.
Eduard remained in the same location. “Hold on a minute, let’s be rational. We need to see which way the water is moving.”
Galina looked back at him. “It was moving away from us. Because we just fell into it.” Then, she continued swimming in her chosen direction. Eduard was still uncomfortable with the idea of swimming into total darkness, and was certain there would be something to base their direction on.
“Stop being such a pussy and come on!” she called back. That is when she felt something beneath her, touching the bottoms of her feet. Sand. She was nearing the shore, or at least had found a sand bar. Water dripping from her, Galina waded from the water and further onto land. Frustrated by her continued inability to see anything, fear was finally setting in.
Eduard was now looking around, his hand blocking out the light that was shining down upon him, and was looking at the tiny flickers of illumination bouncing around the room from where the light collided with the lake. After he had been doing this for a moment, things were beginning to come slightly more into focus. He could see that Galina was now wading out of the water. He could see that many stalactites hung down from the ceiling with twisted, jagged points. As his eyes made their way across the ceiling, he was confused to see another stalactite sticking sideways from a small, stone outcropping with a smooth surface. And a closed eye lid. And a big face.
“Galina! Stop! It’s a unicorn!”
Galina turned around, her seductive physique silhouetted in the faint light. “A unicorn? There’s no such thing. And anyway, if there was one, why would I be scared-”
“Get away from the unicorn,” he said, trying to keep his voice from exciting the tremendous creature with the head of a bull.
“I’m not running from a unicorn. Maybe we can ride it to safety,” she said. “Where is it?”
The gargantuan beast’s eyes opened, an eerie blue light emitting from them. It tottered forward, crashing its way through the stalactites until it began crouching over Galina. As she looked up at it, light from its eyes made it possible to make out the tremendous head of a bull with razor sharp teeth.
Her fear and her annoyance at Eduard were struggling for dominance, but her annoyance won. “Eduard, you call THAT a unicorn? You dumbass, that is obviously a minotaur! If you had said ‘minotaur,’ I would’ve ran like hell, but now there’s no time, because the goddamn thing is–”
Just then, the beast reached down and snatched her from the ground. She was jerked through the air, screaming. It took a big bite like she was a candy bar, chewing and crunching her, then taking another bite, finally finishing her off and licking its fingers.
“A minotaur,” Eduard said, now wondering if this was really just some horrific nightmare. The beast moved forward, splashing through the water and quickly moving towards him. It opened its mouth, letting out a scream, and he could see that one of Galina’s legs was stuck between its teeth.
“Of course. A minotaur. It’s a minotaur that just ate Galina. Because a unicorn would just be silly.”
Sergeant Moscow pushed the door open and stepped into Dr. Thompson’s office, confidently striding over to the desk. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, doctor.”
“You must be Moscow,” the doctor said with a smile, standing up with a nervous energy. Moscow had a tendency to make some men uncomfortable; after all, he’d always been naturally strong. His time in the U.S. Marines had only served to make his strong physical presence even more powerful. Not to mention his otherworldly good looks: he had a strong jaw line, and piercing brown eyes that knew no fear. He shook the smaller man’s hand, lightening his grip as he saw the doctor wince.
“It’s a pleasure,” the doctor said. “Have a seat. Would you like a cigar?”
“Thank you,” Moscow said, leaning forward and taking the Cuban that was offered to him.
The doctor leaned back in his chair, adjusting his spectacles. “How much have they told you about this expedition, sergeant?”
“Honestly, doctor, they’ve told me barely anything.” Moscow lit the cigar and drew in a deep lungful of smoke. “I know it’s going to take us into the heart of Russian territory, into the most remote of mountains. Maybe it’s a habit of working in the Marines, but I don’t ask for more information than is offered.”
With a smile, the doctor leaned forward. “This will be an expedition to try and locate what is probably the oldest church on the planet. This church, as far as I can tell from the few sources that know of it, is at least as old as the son of God himself.”
Sliding his hand over his buzz cut, Moscow said, “What’s the big deal about that? Why are we sending men in, especially now, when we’re on the brink of World War II?”
With a nervous laugh, Dr. Thompson said, “My friend, the political squabbles between our countries are but flickers, like a stroke of lightning, when you look at the broad sweep of history. This church has survived with virtually no changes for longer than any of these bickering nations. We believe great secrets are housed in this place.”
“But why is the military interested?”
With a shrug, the doctor adjusted his tie. “The military is always on the hunt for bigger, better weapons. We don’t know what we may find at this church, and someone decided there’s a lot of potential for discovery there. Your friend, General Palmer, has been very interested in this investigation since I first made the proposal.”
Standing up, the doctor walked over to the window, looking out with his hands clasped behind him. “You see, Franklin–”
“Moscow, sir,” he said. “I’ve never liked my last name.”
“Alright, Moscow. We believe you and your men will be able to protect our scientists and historians as they do their investigations. You’ve come personally recommended by General Palmer, and we deeply hope you’ll help us get deep into the enemy territory, and all the way up into the Greater Caucuses, so we can find out more about this church.” With a meaningful glance, the doctor said, “We truly don’t know what we will find there….and they say you’ve had some experience with things that can’t be rationally explained.”
“I don’t know who ‘they’ are, but ‘they’ are likely to get a boot in the mouth if ‘they’ don’t learn to mind their own business.” Defensively, Moscow crossed his arms, tapping his foot on the ground.
“I’m sorry if that’s a touchy area, friend, but you have exactly the kind of experience we would find most valuable. I understand it is asking a lot of you to pull you away from the field of battle, at such an important point during the opening stages of World War 2. But if General Palmer is right, and there is a weapon that can be harnessed by the U.S.A. to get a strong advantage….well, I’m sure you want to help make that happen, don’t you, Moscow?”
Furrowing his brows, Moscow rubbed the cigar out on the sole of his shoe. “Let me see if I have this straight, doc. You’re asking me to stop killing the Japs right when the killing is getting good, so I can babysit some academics in the center of Communist territory…all because you armchair theorists believe there’s some weapon at a church?”
Swallowing, the doctor’s adam’s apple bobbed up and down. “Well, er—yes, that’s precisely it.”
He stood and, with a sigh, flicked the cigar into a waste basket. “Alright, I’m in. When are we leaving?”