Michaelson plummeted past her, his arms and legs wheeling. The slack in his rope snapped taut. He crashed into the wall. The sound of snapping bone accompanied the collision.

Advertisement

She stared down at him. He groaned, eyes narrowed with pain, as he struggled into a rappelling position, using only one leg. Satisfied that the major had survived the fall, she turned back to the cliff's edge.

The monster had disappeared beyond the horizon of her view. She could hear it snorting and sniffing up there, claws tentatively scratching at rock, searching. C'mon, Ben, get down here. She listened for any further sign of what was going on up there. Silence. She glanced to her left. Ben's rope was gone! When had that disappeared?

A loud snort of glee drew her attention. The hunter had found its prey. A frantic scraping and scrambling erupted.

"Look, Ma!" Ben's voice was savage. "I knitted you a new scarf."

-- Advertisement --

A bellow of rage.

Suddenly Ben leaped over the edge, shooting over empty space, rope trailing. As he reached the end of the slack, he twisted in midair to face the cliff and plunged toward the wall. Using his legs, he absorbed the brunt of the impact. Only an explosive "Oof" indicated that the collision had any effect on him.

"Ben…?" She said, relieved and confused. "What about the-"

Ben pointed up.

She turned her eyes back to the cliff's edge. The marsupial's head dangled over the cliff, its blubbery tongue hanging from its slack jaw. Ben's rope was looped around its neck, digging a trench in its flesh.

Ben pushed a pouted lip at the beast. "Now, how's that for gratitude? I don't think she likes my present."

As the SEAL groaned and opened his eyes, Linda checked his pulse. "He's coming out of it," she said. She had been worried that in his weakened state the fungal spores may have been too strong for him.

"That's good," Khalid said. From his queasy expression, he was still suffering from the aftereffects himself. He closed his eyes and pressed fingers to his temples.

"Here. Try this." She passed him a damp towel. "Lay back and place this over your eyes."

He smiled wanly at her but accepted her offering.

As he lay back, Linda turned to Villanueva. She wiped the SEAL's forehead. With Khalid's help, she had been able to transport him to a relatively fungal-free chamber. A stream of cool water coursed through the cave, slightly tangy with dissolved minerals. The only entrance to this room was a narrow hole, too small for any large predators. Still she kept a pistol resting on a rock within arm's reach.

Villanueva struggled to speak between sticky lips. "W-w-water…"

She helped him sit up and raised a cup to his lips. With shaky hands, he collected the cup and managed himself.

"What happened?" he asked, glancing at Khalid, who now snored quietly from under the wet cloth.

She explained the story of the poisonous fungal spores while he finished his water.

He handed her the cup. "Is there anything down here that doesn't want to eat us?"

She grinned at him. "This is a hostile environment. I think for anything to survive it must learn to utilize the scarce resources to the fullest. That means intense competition and varied modes of attack."

"Great. What's next? Carnivorous butterflies?"

She shrugged.

He shook his head. "Damn, I could use a smoke."

"I don't think that would be good for you."

He raised his eyebrows. "I've just about had my arm yanked off, I've been a chew toy for a monster, and now some freakin' mold tried to poison me. I think I can survive one cigarette."

She nodded. "I could check in Khalid's stuff. He has a few extra packs. I'm sure he wouldn't mind sharing one." She tugged his pack over to her, surprised at how heavy it was, then fumbled the flaps open. She rummaged through the extra clothes and climbing gear. "It's got to be in here somewhere."

"That's all right. I could-

"Here, I think I found one. Still in its cellophane." With her arm buried to the elbow, she felt the plastic crinkling with her fingertips. "Got it!" She pulled her arm free, clutching her find. Embarrassed, she realized it wasn't a pack of cigarettes. Curious, she held it up to the light to see the object better.

Villanueva's eyes sprang wide when he saw what she held in her palm. "Careful with that."

"What is it?"

"Plastic explosive. Let me see it."

"Explosive?" She handed him the cellophane-wrapped block of clay.

He flipped the package around. "This insignia stamped into it… it's German manufacture."

"Why would…?" She glanced at the sleeping man. "As a geologist, maybe he thought he might need to explode some sections to get to samples."

The SEAL shook his head. "I was briefed. I would have been told if someone had plastique. This is obviously contraband. Pass me his pack."

She held her breath, and a thousand thoughts bounced around her head as she passed him Khalid's pack. She now recalled how guarded he was at times when anyone handled his pack. How odd some of his expressions were when anyone asked about his past. But she also remembered his strong hand pulling her up steep slopes and his kind words of encouragement.

Villanueva closed the pack. "There's twelve packages in here. Enough to bring the entire volcano crashing down on us." He reached for her pistol, but his injuries prevented him. "Give me your gun."

Instinctively, she started to obey, but with her hand on the pistol grip, she froze, suddenly unsure what to do.

With a rattling snort, Khalid coughed himself awake. He pushed the cloth off his face and sat up. "What are you…?" His eyes shifted from Villanueva with the pack to Linda with the gun. His brows drew together, lowering over his eyes. His accent became thicker. "What the hell are you doing with my pack?"

His words were directed at the SEAL, but the heat of his anger scorched her too. Embarrassed, words flowed from her. "We were just looking for a cigarette and-"

Villanueva cut her off. "What is your game here, Khalid? Who sent you?"

"I don't know what you're talking about. Give me back my pack."

The SEAL shook his head. "Go to hell."

Linda backed a step away from the combatants. Her gun hung limply in her fingers. She kept staring at Khalid. He was the same man who had shared his canteen with her. The same man who had pulled her free when she was trapped in the narrow crack.

Her motion attracted Khalid's eye. He spoke to her, pointing a thumb toward Villanueva. "Is he feverish? Is it the fungal poison? Why is he acting like that?" He waved her away from the SEAL. "Be careful. He may be dangerous."

Numbly, she watched as her feet started stepping toward Khalid. "He's fine. It's just that he doesn't understand why you have explosives."

"Get away from him!" Villanueva struggled to stand but was too weak and unstable. He toppled back down. "Don't trust him. Give me the gun."

Khalid turned to her. "Don't. He'll kill me."

She glanced toward the SEAL.

Villanueva's lips were a cruel line. "And what did you have planned for us with all these explosives?"

Khalid lowered his head. "Linda, let me explain. He's twisting it all around. I'm not some Arab terrorist. He's letting his prejudice delude him."

"Khalid…?" She took a single step toward him, now only a few feet between them.

"Watch out!"

Villanueva's words were too slow. Much slower than the sudden speed of Khalid's leap. He was upon her before she could gasp. He held her in a tight hug. One hand reached down and freed the gun from her trapped hand.

"I'm sorry," he whispered in her ear. "It wasn't supposed to be like this." With the gun in his hand, he released her.

She stumbled a few steps away, tears pooling in her eyes.

He pointed the gun at Villanueva.

"So now what, Khalid?" he said with a sneer. "How do you think you're gonna get out of here?"

"By lightening the load." He pulled the trigger twice. Villanueva's head bounced back, two small holes appearing in his forehead. His body slumped to the floor.

Linda screamed. Covering her face, she dropped to her knees, sobbing, expecting at any moment to feel bullets ripping into her too.

A hand touched her shoulder. No words.

She cringed from his touch and continued crying. The hand did not try to touch her again. Eventually her wracking cries dissolved to a simple flow of tears. She glanced up.

Khalid sat on his haunches, hanging his head. The gun still rested in his hand, as comfortable and easy as a pen. He must have noticed her look.

She sniffed. "Why?"

His words were dry, unemotional. "I was assigned this mission." Khalid shifted to face her. "Blakely was naive. News of his discovery of a huge diamond statue reached many ears. A South African diamond cartel approached my employer. If the source of such huge diamonds were ever discovered, it would destroy the diamond market. Current prices would plummet. I was assigned to find the source of the diamonds, then sabotage the site. Explode the entire system."

She lowered her head. "All those deaths just for money."

He reached over and tipped her face toward him, his fingertips warm from the hot gun. "No," he said. "I accepted this assignment from the South Africans for another reason too. One closer to my heart. Like the diamond market, if this continent should open up as a major oil competitor, it could devastate the Middle East economy. Oil is my country's lifeblood. Before oil, my country was poor. No education, no health care, no way out of the sand. I will not see that happen again. Not after so much progress." A flash of pain in his eyes. "I care for my country as much as you do yours. Would you kill to save your country?"

Unsure herself, she did not answer, only turned her face away.

Releasing his grip on her chin, he stood up. "I need to head back up. Complete my mission." He walked to Villanueva's body. "He had to be killed. His knowledge was a threat to my mission. But… you… I need. Another pair of eyes, another pair of hands. It's a long journey back up."

-- Advertisement --