He licked his dry lips, caked with dust and dried sweat. He swirled the canteen at his belt. Almost empty. He'd better take Ben's advice and check that alcove. Fill his canteen and hole up there.
Wincing, he stumbled as quietly as possible down the tunnel, searching for the side cave. The scrape of his boot on the rocky floor sounded explosively loud in the empty tunnel. Luckily, only steps past the turn in the passage, a small black aperture appeared in the right wall of the tunnel. He clicked on his lantern and flashed the opening with his light. It was dark in there, no glowing fungus, just emptiness. The roof was low. Too low to stand up in, but by crouching he could enter and move around. In the corner, a small trickle of water ran down the rear wall and accumulated in a puddle.
He tested it with a finger. A strong mineral tang but should be okay to drink. After finishing the dregs of his canteen, he positioned his canteen under the trickle to collect the fresh water.
Satisfied, he settled by the opening, hidden in shadow; the glow of the mold-encrusted passage allowed him to view both directions in secret. It was a secure post. He waited, his gun pointing forward.
Cowards, she thought, that's all we are-cowards. No matter how logical their decision to abandon Michaelson was, Ashley still felt like a dog running with its tail between its legs.
She followed Ben's back through the twisting maze. Almost five hours had elapsed, and during brief rest breaks to sip warm water from her canteen, she still heard the noises trailing them, sometimes from a long distance away, sometimes from just around a blind bend.
Ben stopped ahead of her, his brow drenched in sweat, and unscrewed the lid of his canteen. He raised it to his lips and took a short swig. Wiping the cuff of his sleeve across his mouth, he said, "It doesn't make bloody sense." He shook the canteen and frowned at it.
Hers was almost empty too. "What do you mean?"
"By now we should have either lost this tail or been caught. This stalemate is bloody odd."
"Maybe we've just been lucky."
A tumble of loose rock down a tunnel to their right caused them both to jump.
Ben scrunched up his nose as if he smelled something foul. "I don't trust luck any more than these caves."
She capped her own canteen after sipping just enough to flush the rock dust from her mouth. "Let's go."
Ben set a faster pace, his shoulder muscles knotted with tension, his gun tight in his hand.
This constant waiting was getting to her also. What the hell was stalking them? And why wasn't it attacking? Her stomach churned with hot acid. She almost wished their pursuers would pounce. At least then she could fight… do something instead of running in fear.
For the next hour, they traversed numerous tunnels, some heading up, some heading down, some with smooth floors, some tumbled with boulders, some illuminated with fungus, some black as pitch.
Ben held his silver compass in his free hand. "We're heading in the wrong direction. Away from the base."
"What choice do we have?" Hunger and the twisting passages were making Ashley dizzy. She had been nibbling dry rations as they moved, but she needed a meal. She found herself dreaming of a cheeseburger with an extra-large order of fries. And, of course, a Coca-cola. This warmed spit in her canteen failed to even moisten her mouth.
She tripped over a rock, dulled reflexes causing her to stumble to her knees. She tried to push herself up, but then her legs protested, muscles tired and strained. She collapsed back down with a sigh.
Ben returned to her and crouched down. "We can't stop now."
"I know," she said heavily. "Just need a minute, that's all."
He sat next to her, resting a hand on her knee, squeezing her thigh reassuringly. "We'll get out of here."
"Will we?" she whispered. What if they didn't make it out of here? She thought of her son, ensconced in the security of Alpha Base, and hung her head. At least Jason was safe. If something happened to her…
She gritted her teeth. To hell with that type of thinking! She would see her son again. She pictured his silly grin when something surprised him, the way his hair had a stubborn cowlick, causing it to stick out behind one ear. She pushed Ben's hand off her knee and stood up. Even if it meant wrestling every damned predator in this hellhole, she would see her son again. "C'mon," she said, offering her hand to help Ben stand. "We've got to find a way home."
"Sounds bloody fine to me." Ben grinned one of his wide smiles, every tooth showing, then set off down the passage.
She tramped after him, determined now, ready to run miles if necessary. But after only a hundred yards, Ben stopped. He held a hand up in the air, his ear cocked.
She remained silent, straining to hear. But she heard nothing unusual. "Ben…? What is it?"
"A breeze." He pointed to a side tunnel.
She stepped next to him. Now that he mentioned it, she could feel a slight wafting from the passageway, raising a few stray strands of her black hair. "What does it mean?"
"I think… it's the end of this maze."
"Then let's go." She headed out, taking the lead this time.
As they progressed, the passage narrowed with sudden knife-sharp turns, the breeze becoming stronger and stronger. The fungus on the walls had thinned as they followed the turns; eventually they were forced to click on their hand lanterns and helmet lamps.
After almost a mile of trekking, Ben spat, "Bloody hell."
"We've yet to cross a single side passage in this chute. It would be easy to get pinned down in here. No escape routes."
She frowned and continued. Great. One more thing to worry about. But they were committed, with only one way to go: straight ahead.
As she worked around the next tight bend in the corridor, the roof lowered. Crouching, she continued. The breeze had become a wind, blowing hair about her face, whipping it behind her as if pointing for them to turn back. The rushing air whistled in her ears.
Ben poked her from behind. "Did you hear that?"
She twisted around. "What?"
"They're behind us now-and they're coming fast."
She turned around, her lips drawn into tight lines. She increased the pace, crouching and running into the wind. She turned the next corner, and the passageway ended just yards ahead. Wind blew from a wormhole opening at the end of the tunnel. The first they had seen since entering the maze.
She ran forward, praying that this tunnel would lead up, toward home. She knelt beside the opening and pointed her lantern. The sight forced a groan from between her lips. It not only led downward, but at a frighteningly steep slope, deeper into the heart of the continent.
Ben leaned beside her. He already had his sled out and was releasing the catch to expand it. "Better hurry, Ash. They're about a hundred yards behind us."
She pointed at the wormhole sullenly. "It heads down. Pretty far too, I'd say."
"We can't go back." He helped her unstrap her sled. "I have the sneaking suspicion that we've been herded to this place."
"What?" She unhooked the catch to expand her sled.
A scrabble of rock echoed from behind them.
"No time," Ben said. He waved to the hole. "Ladies first." He pointed his gun to their back trail.
Ashley glanced at the black tunnel behind them, then at Ben. She took a deep breath and shoved into the wormhole on her sled. The steepness of the slope quickly accelerated her plummet. She braked with the heels of her gloved hands and toes of her boots, but succeeded only in slowing her pace slightly.
She heard Ben enter the wormhole behind her, his wheels whisking toward her.
"Hell!" he called to her. "It's like a slide. Let's see those bastards catch us now!"
By now, her rate of descent was such that it burned her hands to brake, even through her climbing gloves. And as they flew farther down the tube, the fungus began appearing in patches on the walls.
"We're in a big corkscrew!" yelled Ben. "Can you feel the centrifugal force?"
She did. Her board kept climbing higher on the walls as their speed increased and the tunnel's curves tightened. To try to brake now was impossible. During their flying descent, the fungus had grown thicker and thicker, its glow almost blinding now. The mold also made the walls slick so even the tips of her boots dragging across the floor failed to offer any significant braking.
She hoped the tunnel would level out before ending. Give them a chance to slow down. At this speed, she'd hate to be spewed out of the tunnel right into a slumbering stalagmite. She watched the tunnel ahead, praying for an easing of the slope.
No such luck. The tunnel exit appeared around the next bend. No time to brake. No time to slow down. Only time to cover her head with her arms and cringe.
She shot out of the tunnel, blasting into the next cavern. Blinded for a moment by the bright light, she jolted and bounced across the slightly rugged floor. When her eyes adjusted, she saw herself barreling toward a solid wall of yellow vegetation. Closing her eyes, she slammed into the thick stalks of growth. Her collision tumbled her from her board, but the field cushioned her fall as she rolled for several yards.
Once stopped, she pushed to her knees. She was almost up when Ben tumbled into her with a wild yell. She fell in a tangle of arms and legs.
"Well, that was different," Ben said, speaking to her left knee.
She untangled herself and stood up with a groan. Bruised everywhere, she glanced around as Ben stood up. The field of yellow vegetation, like wheat, stood chest-high and spread for miles across the rolling cavern floor. Miles! She craned her neck around. The cavern was monstrous, dwarfing even Alpha Cavern. Almost like the Grand Canyon-but with a lid. The walls stretched hundreds of stories high. The roof, far overhead, glowed with thick fungus, some patches glowing as bright as sunlight. She glanced across the smooth yellow fields that undulated across the wide plain, broken only by tiny groves of spindly trees, like islands in a sea.
"I don't think we're in Kansas anymore," Ashley said, with her mouth hanging open.