Khalid grunted and continued deeper into the cavern, aiming for the foot of the falls. He held a pistol in his left hand. "If it is Jason," he finally said, "then we must be near the base. Blakely would not let the boy travel far from the security of the camp."
She eyed the gun. "What're you going to do?"
"Complete my mission."
"What do you mean?"
"That depends on you."
Linda swallowed hard. "Listen, Khalid, I don't want anyone else killed."
His eyes became shadowed under heavy brows. "Then keep your mouth shut. As long as they stay blind to my mission, I'll spare them."
She remembered Villanueva murdered so suddenly and needlessly. "I won't say a word."
Khalid nodded and set up a quicker pace again. Within a few yards, he pointed forward. "Over there. On top of that rock. I can see him. It's the boy."
She squinted. There were boulders everywhere. Then she saw the tiny figure waving his arms. She called to him, "Hang on, Jason! We're coming!"
Jason saw them. Two people wearing helmets; their lamp lights sparked across the fungus-lit cavern. They had seen him. Someone called to him, but the falls drowned out the words. Still, it didn't matter. The important thing was they were coming.
He clambered off the rock to check on Blakely. The doctor's color had blanched, his lips purplish. He still breathed, but each inhalation rattled, as if pebbles filled his chest.
Jason hugged himself, shifting from foot to foot. "C'mon, Doc, don't die. Help is coming." He turned in the direction of the rescuers. Hurry, he prayed.
He sat down next to Blakely, picking up one of his hands. So cold, he thought. He rubbed the hand, like Aladdin with a lamp, wishing for the doctor to get better. As if in answer to his wish, a groan escaped the old man's lips. Jason rubbed harder, then darted to the other side and rubbed his left wrist and hand. "C'mon, Doc, c'mon."
The doctor's eyelids fluttered apart, pupils crossing, then his eyes snapped back into focus. He let out another loud groan, then just breathed thickly. Finally, he spoke: "J-Jason?"
"Are you okay?"
The doctor's lips were taut with pain as he whispered, "M-my m-medicine. Nitro… nitroglycerine."
Jason looked around him. "Where?"
The doctor lifted his hand, but it dropped limply. "M-my pocket. Inside… my jacket."
Jason patted the doctor's clothes and discovered a tell-tale bulge in the inner breast pocket. He fished out a red plastic bottle. "Is this it?"
"What do I do?"
"One… no, two pills."
It took Jason a minute to get the childproof cap off the bottle. He tapped two pills into his palm.
The doctor's eyes opened again. "Good boy." His voice sounded ghostly. Almost like he was some ventriloquist doll and the speaker was miles away. "U-under my t-tongue."
Jason reached across and dropped the two pills inside the doctor's mouth. He watched as Blakely worked the tablets around. Then the doctor closed his eyes and took several deep breaths.
Letting his head hang in relief, Jason thanked whoever was watching over them.
Just then a voice spoke directly behind him, causing him to jump in fright. "Jason? My god, what happened?"
He whirled around and stared into a familiar face. Her hair was stringy with mud, and dark shadows circled her eyes, but she was still a wonderful sight. "Linda!" He jumped up and ran into her arms.
She hugged him tight, and tears burst forth from his eyes. He cried into her shirt, all the pain and terror of two days releasing in a single torrent.
"Oh, Jason." She rocked him in her arms. "You're okay."
He continued to cry, knowing he should stop, but he found he couldn't. He let himself be held and rocked, his body wracked with sobs. He didn't ever want to leave her arms.
An accented voice intruded.
Jason peeked a moist eye open and saw the blue-steel pistol in the Egyptian's hand. He stiffened in Linda's arms.
"So what the hell happened here?" Khalid asked.
Drums and Death
WITH ASHLEY'S PANICKED SCREAM, THE FURRY GRIP tightened on her ankle, like a closing vise. What the hell? She sprang to the side, yanking her leg and breaking the hold of the attacker. She collided with Ben, accidentally knocking his gun aside. A shot rang out as his pistol fired, shooting toward the distant roof, the waste of a precious round.
"Christ, woman!" Ben blurted, shoving her behind him, his eyes still glued to the pack of slathering wolfish creatures pawing the ground.
"Something's in the wormhole. It g-grabbed me."
He darted a look toward the hole. Nothing was there. "I don't see any-Bloody hell!" It was Ben's turn to hop away from the wormhole as something crawled from the passage. "Shit!"
Ashley thought at first it was a small dirty child, naked and covered in filth. But when it straightened and turned to her, she knew she was vastly mistaken. She took another step back.
It stood four feet high, squat and unclothed, and from the exposed genitalia, it was obviously male. His muddy black hair was tied back from his face with a leather ribbon, and his chest and legs were covered in coarse matted hair.
Ashley's first thought was that she faced a hominid or protohuman. Maybe some type of dwarf Neanderthal. Several of the features supported her supposition: the thick bony brow bulging above huge eyes, the wide blunt nose that sniffed in her direction, the protruding jaw and maxillary bones that created a muzzlelike countenance.
Ashley, though, had studied the fossil record of all the hominid and protohuman species. And this breathing (and stinking) specimen conformed to none of them. The closest might be the Australopithecine species, but this creature was vastly different. The body, though thick with muscle, was not as bulky as the early hominids, and the neck was too long and slender. His ears too were striking: slightly tufted and pointed, they actually swiveled back and forth, wary. None of these features matched the fossil record of any ancient protohumans!
Suddenly the creature stepped toward them.
Ben raised his gun.
Eyeing the pistol, the creature opened his mouth, baring short fangs, then turned away and waved a muscled arm toward the pack of beasts and grunted toward them-"Unkh! Unkh!" Like a precision drill team, they all turned and vanished back into the field. He turned back to Ben, crossing his arms.
Ben lowered his gun. He spoke out of the side of his mouth. "What do you make of this, Ash?"
"I'm not sure," she said with wonder in her voice. "But I think we've just met one of our cave dwellers."
One of the creature's ears swiveled away from them. He seemed to be listening, his eyelids drifting closed. After several heartbeats, his lids snapped back open. He swung around and began walking away with a rolling sort of gait.
Ashley watched him, dying to run a hand over his pelvic structure. It didn't appear right either, matching none of the hominid species. Who was this? What was this?
The creature walked several yards, then stopped and turned back to them. His arms crossed again. Waiting.
"I think he wants us to follow," she said, stepping forward.
Ben touched her elbow, stopping her. "We don't know where in bloody hell it's taking us," he whispered. "For all we know, we may be on tonight's dinner menu." Ben raised his voice, calling to the waiting figure. "Hold it right there, my hairy buddy. Where are we going?"
The creature glanced toward Ben, then turned and walked away.
Ashley stared at the retreating figure. She had to find out more about these creatures. Deciding she had nothing to lose, she started to follow, calling over her shoulder, "I think it's safe, Ben. He could've let those wolf things attack if he meant us harm."
Ben shook his head, but he followed cautiously.
Trailing several yards behind their guide, they were led to a thin path in the field of yellow vegetation. Before the creature started down the track, he took a long dagger from a belt, which was his only piece of clothing. The blade was a long crystal shard. It was diamond!
Ben held a restraining arm across Ashley's chest, obviously worried that their guide was about to attack.
"Dogaomarubi," their guide said, as if explaining, hefting up the knife.
Ben nodded. "Uh-huh. Whatever, little fella. Just keep that little poker in your pants."
"My god," Ashley said, "he's trying to speak to us. Verbal communication! It's incredible."
The creature swung away and led them into the yellow fields. The grainlike seeds at the tip of the stalky vegetation waved above the head of their guide, while reaching only chest-high on Ashley. She had to push down the narrow path, shoving her shoulders through the barrier of vegetation on either side, while their guide seemed to glide down the path without disturbing a single stalk. Ashley felt like some lumbering elephant. After an hour, she stumbled more than pushed through the growth.
Ben followed, grunting with effort to haul through the dense growth. "I'd love a machete," he said, huffing.
"Or a four-wheeler," she added. "I need a rest."
As if in answer, they entered a clearing in the field. A small creek crossed the path, forded by a stone bridge. Their guide waited at the foot of the bridge, sitting on a stone seat, the dagger in his hand. "Dogaomarubi," he repeated. He pointed to two smooth rocks.
Ashley looked at Ben, mystified. Ben looked at their guide.
She watched as their guide pantomimed sitting down. "Dogaomarubi," he said more forcibly.
"He wants us to sit," she said, crossing to a stone, taking off her pack. "Dogaomarubi must mean 'rest break.'"
Ben sat on a neighboring rock, dropping his pack with a sigh. "'Bout time."
The creature crossed to Ben and offered him his dagger.
Ben accepted the dagger. "Thanks… I guess." He turned to Ashley. "So is this a gift? Do I give him something in return?"