"Don't try to talk," Ashley said, then turned to Khalid. "Go get the packs. I need the medical kit."
Khalid, who still stood a few feet away, glanced at the wormhole opening, then back at her. "We don't have time…"
Linda stood up. "We can't leave him here, Khalid. If you won't get the packs, I will." She stepped away.
Scowling, he followed.
Ashley turned her attention back to Villanueva, as another volley of rifle fire erupted from across the cavern. The SEAL's eyes closed. "Others are coming," he mumbled. "Khalid's right. You need to get out of here. Just leave my rifle."
"Shut up. We're all getting out of this fucking cavern. Every one of us." She turned back to search the darkened cave.
Did you hear that, Ben? she thought. That means you too.
Michaelson yanked the trigger again. Another empty chamber. No time to slap in another magazine.
With an angry hiss, the creature lunged at him.
Using his rifle like a baseball bat, he slammed the wooden butt into the soft sinus tissue as the snout snapped at him. The creature grunted, taking a step back. It pawed at its nose with a tiny forearm.
Not waiting, Michaelson bolted away, thanking the gods for his years of Little League back in Nebraska.
While sprinting down the trail, Michaelson pawed for the extra magazine in his breast pocket. Distracted, his foot slipped in a hole. He stumbled but managed to stay upright, but his ankle shot a bolt of pain up his leg. He hopped a few steps. Twisted or broken, he couldn't tell.
He hobbled farther. After several painful yards, he realized he would lose this race. He stopped and glanced back. All clear still. He'd have to make a stand. As he kept his eyes fixed on the trail, he struggled to force the rifle's magazine into place but had it upside down. Damn it all.
Flipping the magazine the right way, he slammed it home as he shouldered his way around a boulder and aimed down his back trail. Now come to me, you ugly fucker.
He heard something approaching, cautiously.
A shadow suddenly popped between two boulders just a few feet in front of him. Startled, Michaelson jerked his trigger finger. The round blasted past the figure.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Ben said, covering his singed ear.
"Sorry. I thought-"
"A simple 'Please move' will do fine next time."
Just beyond Ben's right shoulder, Michaelson noted a familiar bruised snout edging around the trail's bend. He raised his rifle again. "Move!"
Not hesitating, Ben scrambled next to Michaelson, swinging around with his own rifle.
As the head edged completely into view, Michaelson aimed and pulled the trigger. The head bounced backward, and blood fountained from its mouth. Its body flopped into the trail, its tail beating convulsively several times before finally ceasing.
"Jesus Christ! How many of them are there?" Ben said, winded.
"I spotted at least four."
"We need to hurry," Ben urged. "Ashley and Villanueva are still struggling with the other one."
As if on cue, a pistol shot rang clear as a bell, followed by a second. "Let's go," Ben said. His eyes shined with worry.
"My ankle's screwed up. I can't move very fast."
Ben bit his lower lip. "Then you go first. I'll cover the trail behind us. We'll work our way back as best we can."
"No, you go on alone. I'll get there when I can."
"Forget it," Ben said. "I'm not leaving you out here injured. Now move it. We're wasting time."
The stubborn stiffness of the Aussie's shoulders told Michaelson it was useless to argue. He pushed off the rock and winced when his ankle touched the ground. He hopped two steps on his good leg for every one on his bad.
Ben's next words sped up his hopping. "We've got company."
Laying on her sled and peering out from the opening of the wormhole, Ashley winced with each rifle blast. For the past fifteen minutes, shots rang out sporadically. Five shots in a row, then nothing for a minute, then an explosion of gunfire again. But for the past two minutes, the cave was silent. Not a sound. The quiet was agony.
C'mon, Ben, just get back here.
From far down the wormhole, she heard Villanueva mumble something. The morphine had made him incoherent. His arm was bandaged and wrapped to his chest. It took a good dose of painkiller and a sharp pull to his arm to get his shoulder in place. Afterward, he had slipped into a fitful slumber. Damn, he was one strong son of a bitch.
Still, he needed more help than a glorified first-aid kit could supply. As soon as they were somewhere safe, they would radio for assistance in the form of huge guns. Bazookas, preferably.
Linda and Khalid had moved the packs and helped haul the SEAL deeper down the shaft. Ashley waited at the entrance, watching the cavern. Where are you, Ben? She strained her eyes in an attempt to pierce the wall of blackness.
From behind her, she heard wheels scraping rock. "Do you see anything?" Linda asked.
Ashley glanced over her shoulder. Underneath the helmet, Linda's face was pale, her breathing raspy. "No," she answered, "and it's too damned quiet out there."
"Ashley, I need to get into the open."
"It's safer in the wormhole."
"No… I can't breathe. I need air."
Ashley finally realized. Hell, there'd been enough signs. "You're claustrophobic, aren't you?"
Linda remained silent, then a timid, "Please."
"Okay. I'll go with you."
Ashley slid out first, releasing a hand lantern and flashing the immediate area. She turned to wave Linda out, but the biologist was already standing up, slightly wobbly on her legs.
Linda took a few steps, breathing deeply.
Ashley studied the cave. Still no sign of anyone or anything.
Linda spoke behind her, her voice trembling slightly. "So… what do you make of… this creature?"
Ashley turned to her. The small woman stood by the collapsed bulk of the beast, the back of its head a bloody mass. The biologist nudged it with a toe.
Ashley shrugged, not in the mood to discuss it, not with Ben still out there. "I don't know."
Linda knelt down by the huge creature, her nose crinkling in disgust at the odor. She ran a finger over the ridge above the good eye. "The orbit of the eye is strange for a reptile. The zygomatic arch is wrong. More mammalian. And the pelvic structure is odd. Look how it moved: upright, with birdlike joints and legs." She talked as if in a dream, half aware of what she was saying. "I've never seen anything like it."
Ashley shrugged, sweeping her light across the boulder face. "Hell, it's been isolated here for centuries. No telling what evolutionary pressures created this monstrosity," she mumbled, distracted. Only one thought occupied her full attention: Where are you, Ben?
Linda continued to examine the creature's carcass, moving down its sprawled length. "Hmm, come look at this."
Ashley turned to Linda, pointing her light.
The biologist was raising and lowering a few of the bristled spines that composed the creature's ridged crest. "This isn't scale. It's bunched hair."
Intrigued, Ashley stepped closer.
"Careful," Linda warned. "I think the bristles may be poisoned. See the glistening sheen at the tip of each and the pulpy gland at the base of the bristles. Be cautious." Linda moved aside, sliding farther down the carcass, continuing her examination.
Ashley knelt beside the damaged skull and carefully lifted one of the bristles with a gloved finger. Then she sat on her haunches. "Maybe it's some unknown species of dinosaur. I can see several primordial reptilian traits. Even its scales are similar to the scales of the plesiosaurs, a species of dinosaur, but what about the rest of it? The temporamandibular joint is too low on the skull, hinging its jaw like a snake, allowing its mouth to open wide enough to swallow a small pig in one gulp. And I know of no dinosaurs sprouting hair."
"Ashley, come see this."
Ashley crouched next to the biologist. "What did you find?"
"It's not a dinosaur. Or a reptile. Or a mammal." Linda reached to the exposed belly of the beast. Pulling back a flap of skin, she revealed a pouch in its abdomen. "It's a monotreme."
Her mind fuzzy and distracted, Ashley recognized the term, but couldn't quite recall its exact meaning. "A what?"
"An egg-laying marsupial. Like the Australian platypus. The species shared characteristics of both reptiles and mammals. Supposedly an evolutionary dead end."
The injured SEAL moaned stuporously from the tunnel behind Ashley.
"Hell of a dead end," Ashley said.
Big Bertha was still behind him. From several yards away, Ben watched the largest of the trio of beasts that stalked his trail. She leaned down, reaching with a claw, and picked up one of the expelled shells from his rifle. She snorted at it, then threw it away. The other two crowded behind her until she hissed them away.
Ben rolled back around the boulder. Three against one. Not good odds. Maybe he shouldn't have been so hasty to send Michaelson on ahead. His plan to lead the trio away to buy the major some time now seemed bloody daft.
Rifle fire had drawn the group after him, but the buggers were getting smart, skulking behind boulders, making difficult targets. And no matter how fast he ran, they matched his pace. Just minutes ago, one had almost out-flanked him, catching him by surprise. A lucky shot that ricocheted off a rock and struck it in the tail had delayed it long enough for him to slip past.
He pushed off the rock and ran. He needed something to distract them, buy himself some time to slip away. He heard the characteristic snuffling as the hunters pursued.
Think, damn you! You're smarter than a freakin' cave monster.
Then it came to him in a flash. Maybe, just maybe…
He sped up, searching for a perfect spot. Luck, for once, was with him. He came upon a clearing in a grove of boulders. He mapped out the plan in his brain.