Just then a white-smocked scientist turned a corner nearby and walked in his direction. He quickly returned the firecracker to its hiding place. Maybe he'd better wait until he returned to the States. If his Mom found out about his little treasure… no, he'd better play it cool.

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He zipped up his bag, still unsure what to do with his free time.

Standing, he moved from the steps, shifting his gym bag to his other hand. Just then, angling around the corner of the hut, a group of officers passed by, one of whom was decked out with enough medals to choke an elephant.

The decorated man took off his hat and wiped his brow. "Is it always this damned hot down here?"

One of his companions spoke up. "It's not the heat, it's the humidity."

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"It's the heat, Lieutenant," the man said with authority.

"Yes, sir, yes, Admiral."

Jason, impressed by the fear this man could generate, stood transfixed.

"Now, where is that Blakely fellow?" the admiral asked, replacing his hat.

"This way, sir." The lieutenant bumbled his way around the corner.

Wow! Something big must be happening. Jason peered around the corner. The men disappeared into one of the concrete-block buildings.

Jason knew that building. It was the communications center. He had been in it three times, when he was allowed his two minutes of morning air time to talk to his mother. Usually the conversation consisted of his mother questioning if he was obeying his "baby-sitters." Still, he thought with a sigh, it had been good to hear her voice over that static.

Scratching behind an ear, Jason wondered what all that brass wanted with Dr. Blakely. He pursed his lips. Maybe he could find out. He knew his mother hated his eaves-dropping, but he couldn't resist a good scoop. Besides, it might be information about his mother.

He slinked around the corner and crept to the door. No one was around. The secretary, Sandy, was not at her desk. What luck! He slipped inside. As he reached for the door to the main hallway, the doorknob turned and the door swung open.

Sandy stood in front of him, a half-empty coffeepot in her hand.

"Oh, Jason!" she said with a big smile, pushing a stray lock of blond hair back over an ear. "I didn't know you were coming by."

Jason bit his lip and backed a step, ready to bolt. He cleared his throat. "I… I just wanted to tell something to Dr. Blakely."

She placed the coffeepot down and fingered out a new filter. "I'm sorry, hon, but the doctor is busy. Why don't I tell him for you?"

"No!… You see," he stammered, wide-eyed, "it's something personal… private."

She pursed her lips, then smiled. "I see. Well, then why don't you have a seat, and we can wait until Dr. Blakely is free?"

He nodded. This was getting him nowhere. Perhaps he should just leave and say he'd talk to Blakely later. That would be the smart thing to do. His mouth had other ideas. "I have to use the restroom."

"Well, dear. It's just through the door on the left."

Of course, he already knew that. More importantly, it was also next to the main communications room. He crossed to the door. "Thanks."

Sandy smiled up from her computer keyboard and winked at him.

Holding his breath, Jason passed into the hallway. His sneakers squeaked on the waxed linoleum. No one was in the hall, but he could hear the buzz of voices from the various offices. Raising on tiptoe, he crept down the hall, trying to move as silently as possible. He reached the door that led to the main communications room.

Freezing in midstep, he listened. Blakely's voice was clear and curt. "Why the hell do you think I wanted this communications net? You damned well know from my reports that there is an undetermined danger down here. We need to-"

The admiral's voice interrupted. "Be that as it may, your team's evening report is only an hour late. I think calling this red alert was premature."

"If able, Michaelson would not be a second late with his reports."

"The major's too close to this mission. It's too personal for him. You should never have allowed him to go."

"We've had this argument before. It's done. Now I want to know what you're going to do about this."

"Nothing."

A large crash. "Listen here, I have motion sensors going crazy. Yesterday, another man was lost in Sector Four. And now my team is late with their report. And you're going to do what? Sit on your ass and wait for more of my people to disappear?"

The next words were so cold that Jason shivered. "No. Washington sent me to do only one thing: upon my judgment, to decide if you are fit to continue command. You've made my decision easy. As of this moment, you're relieved of duty."

Silence, then words spat with vehemence: "You jackasses planned this all along, didn't you? You never had any intention of keeping this a civilian project. When did the brass decide to snag this facility from me? Was it when the last team was lost? Or since the very beginning?"

Dead silence followed.

Before Jason could react, the door burst open. Blakely, wild-eyed, bowled into the boy, knocking him down. "Jason!"

"I… I… I…"

"What are you doing here?"

"I was going to… I mean…"

"Never mind." Blakely bent down, helping Jason up. "C'mon."

Pushed toward the door, Jason stumbled ahead. "What's going on? Is my mom okay?"

The old man ignored him. "I need to get you somewhere safe. I should never have allowed you to come down here."

The admiral stepped out into the hall. "If that is Jason Carter, leave him be. He is my responsibility now."

"Go to fucking hell!" Blakely yelled, pushing Jason through the hallway door.

Half shoved, Jason tumbled into the reception area. Too frightened to think, focused on trying to keep one step ahead of the raving doctor, he bumped into the door.

Sandy, her mouth hanging open in surprise, stood up from her typing. "What's happening?"

No one gave her an answer. Jason was brushed through the door, Blakely's arm around his shoulder. By now, tears started to flow down Jason's cheek; he clutched his gym bag to his chest.

In the open air, Blakely seemed to be calming down. "I'm sorry, Jason. I didn't mean to scare you. But you should know-"

A siren blasted through the cavern, its scream so piercing that Jason cringed, covering his ears. "What is it?" he yelled.

"Periphery sensors. The base is under attack. Hurry." Blakely yanked Jason's arm.

FIFTEEN

SILENCE NOW. TEN LONG HEARTBEATS HAD PASSED SINCE the scream had blasted from the tunnel. The dark entrance was beginning to clear of smoke from Villanueva's assault. Was it killed? Swallowing hard, Ashley stared down the length of her pistol's barrel. From the corner of her eye, she could see Halloway's head; it still lay a yard from her toe, staring at her as if asking why she let this happen.

She risked a quick glance toward Ben on her right. He caught her look and shrugged. Maybe whatever killed the SEAL was dead. Maybe they had lucked-

With a bellow, it burst from the tunnel.

A flash of teeth, needle-sharp and serrated.

"Christ!" Ashley yelled. In shock, she stumbled backward, losing her shot.

Ben knocked her to the side, out of the way of the lunging jaws, then hauled her behind a jumble of boulders.

Somewhere far off she heard Linda screaming.

"What the hell-" Ashley began, but Ben silenced her with a hand over her mouth.

A foul carrion scent flooded their hiding place as a massive snouted head, reptilian, like a crocodile, swung over the lip of a boulder, weaving on a scaled neck; its nostrils, open wide, snorted the air, searching. Oily black skin stretched over skull and jaw. Then its snout swept toward them, rolling a lidless black eye, like a chunk of polished obsidian, in her direction.

Beside her, Ben struggled to free his rifle, to swing it around, but the narrow space behind the boulder was too small.

Ashley went to raise her pistol, but her hand was empty, the gun lost in the fall. Shit!

Villanueva stood his ground, silent, fearing movement would distract the beast and ruin his shot. He studied his target, searching for a weakness.

What the hell was it?

Villanueva squinted through his rifle sight. It stood ten feet tall, pitch-black, towering on two heavily muscled hind limbs, balanced with a thick tail. Its arms, spindly when compared to the muscled hind limbs, ended in articulated claws like some feral cat. He could see the claws, razor-edged, extending and retracting as it scrabbled at the boulder's surface.

Villanueva continued to watch as it stalked back and forth, its head out of sight behind the boulder. The hooked scimitars of its hind limbs gouged the cavern floor.

How to kill it? The creature was thick across the chest, layered in mud and scales that looked iron-hard. Could a rifle blast to the chest penetrate to the heart? Maybe. But it was risky. He would get only one shot. He swung his rifle sight forward. It would have to be the head.

The creature still probed behind the pile of boulders where Ben and Ashley had fled, keeping Villanueva's target out of sight. Suddenly its body tensed; its tail stopped twitching. It had discovered something behind that boulder… and he could guess what that was-either Ben or Ashley.

A loud hiss arose from it. Like a rabid dog raising a hackle, a ridge of spiked bristles sprouted in a crest along the back of its snaking neck, tracing down the length of its body.

Show me your head, you fuckin' monster, Villanueva thought. Gimme one clean shot.

He ground his molars. A nonfatal shot would just enrage the beast, making a second shot impossible. He tried to will it to move. Helpless, he watched the beast's muscles bunch up as it prepared to spring on its quarry.

He had to distract it!

Villanueva's knuckles whitened as he gripped his rifle.

Retreat, thought Michaelson. Linda and Khalid were his responsibility.

He huddled behind the sheltering boulder. He hated to abandon the others, but he was in no real position to offer any help. He glanced over at Linda, who still shook in Khalid's arms. They needed to retreat to a more defensible position.

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