"Ash, you better sit down for this one." He watched as she gave him her full attention, her eyebrows knitted tightly together. As he explained what had just occurred between him and the old man, her eyebrows drew apart and climbed high on her forehead.
"You mean he can speak to you!" she exclaimed when he had finished. "They do use some rudimentary telepathy." She glanced toward the creature seated cross-legged across from them. "Is he listening to us right now? Reading our minds?"
"I don't think so. We both have to be in a trancelike state. Like the Aborigines do with their dreaming pools when they communicate."
"And he's the last of his people with this ability?"
Ben nodded. "Besides me."
Ashley's expression became thoughtful. "From the standpoint of population genetics, the loss of this trait among the tribe makes sense. This community has been isolated for thousands of generations. The amount of inbreeding in this closed group without the infusion of fresh genetic stock would weaken the complex string of genes that creates this ability, eventually wiping it out." She turned to him, her eyes wide and glassy. "I could spend a lifetime just studying this single trait's effect on a population. It will turn the field of anthropology on its ear. I mean-"
Ben held up a hand. "Ash, that's all just fine and dandy, but we still need to get out of here. Or at least retrieve Michaelson and the others."
Ashley's expression sobered with his words. "You're right," she said, nodding. "There's plenty of time to start investigating after we get back to Alpha Base." She pointed at the sitting figure. "Did you ask Mo'amba how to get out of here?"
"No. And I don't think he'll be too cooperative. He wants me to stay. Take his place in the tribe."
"That could be a problem." Ashley started tapping the tip of her finger on her chin. "Something doesn't make sense. If you're so damned important to the tribe, why did they try to kill you?"
"I don't know."
"Apparently not everybody shares Mo'amba's view. That young buck with the ruby staff, possibly the village leader, sure as hell didn't seem to want us around. Perhaps we could-"
A sudden commotion erupted behind them. Ben turned to see a familiar figure limping toward them from between the shrouded columns. A small group of armed creatures followed, spears knocking the red mushrooms to swinging.
Ashley sprang up. "It's Michaelson!"
Ben's eyes drifted across the legion of spears that followed the major. He studied the score of armed warriors. While most of the warriors held their spears casually across their shoulders, some kept wary hands on scabbarded knives.
Stepping up to Michaelson, Ben clapped him on the shoulder. He noticed the smears of blood on his face. "What happened?" he asked. "It looks like you've been through the bloody wringer."
Ashley joined them, a worried expression frozen on her face as she looked him over for injuries.
Michaelson avoided their eyes, wearing an embarrassed expression. "It's nothin'. Most of it's not even my own blood. Besides, that's not important. Listen, we don't have much time."
The crowd of warriors stirred behind them. Michaelson glanced back. A tall figure wearing torn military fatigues elbowed his way through the crowd of warriors. As he crossed to Michaelson, Ben recognized the family resemblance. Same black hair and blue eyes. Same hooked nose.
"My brother Harry," Michaelson stated.
"You've got to be kidding," Ashley said. "You found him."
"Actually, he found me. He's been living with these… these creatures for the last three months."
Ben noticed Harry's eyes wander appreciatively up and down Ashley's physique. "Did you tell them?" Harry asked his brother.
"No. I was just about to."
Nodding, Harry turned to Ben and Ashley. "I'm sorry. I thought you all were refugees."
"What do you mean?" asked Ben.
Harry swallowed hard. "I thought you already knew. Or I would have tried harder to reach you sooner."
"What?" Ashley asked forcefully, trying to get Harry to spit out whatever he was holding back.
Michaelson cleared his throat. "Alpha Base. It's been destroyed. Overrun by those dinosaur things."
Ashley froze, her mouth parted with an unspoken question. Then she turned slowly to Ben, fear bright in her eyes. "It can't be," she whispered. "What about Jason?"
Ben collected her in his arms, holding her tight. "Shhh," he whispered. "I'm sure at the first sign of trouble, Blakely would have whisked him out of harm's way."
His words seemed to calm her, giving her an anchor on which to hook her hopes. Her trembling slowed, then ceased. She wiggled out of his arms, a fierce set to her jaw. "We've got to get up there. I need to know what happened."
Ben could hear the tears just behind the words. "I know. We'll leave immediately."
Harry stepped forward. "Listen, we can't just-" He jumped as a loud crack exploded behind them.
Ben whirled around to see the chief of the village cross toward them. He slammed his new staff again on the floor, the crack deafening in the chamber. "Uh-oh," Ben said under his breath. "Someone's bloody pissed."
Mo'amba struggled to rise at the sudden appearance of the village leader, heaving himself up with his staff. He shuffled across the floor to intervene. Heated words were exchanged back and forth. Finally, in a burst of growls, the chief swiped his staff across the floor, knocking Mo'amba's staff out from under him. Unsupported, the old man toppled to the floor.
A gasp arose from the warriors who circled the group. Several turned their backs. The chief eyed the others warily, his chest heaving up and down. Finally, he seemed to calm a bit and helped Mo'amba up. Quieter words were then exchanged, followed by an awkward moment of silence as they stared each other down. The chief then growled, pounded his staff on the ground as punctuation, and stomped away.
Michaelson turned to Harry. "Did you follow any of that?"
Harry nodded, his face drained of color. "Trouble."
JASON KNEW THEY WERE IN TROUBLE WHEN THE TWO adults started talking in low tones. Just ahead, the tunnel passage was blocked by an old rockfall. Only a small hole the size of a pumpkin penetrated the tumbled stone. Out of this tiny hole, smoky air buffeted toward them, blowing in their faces. He stared at the two adults crouched by the rockfall.
"We can't go back," Linda said. "He'll be waiting."
"Well, then maybe we can find another way back to Alpha Base. One of the side tunnels," Blakely said, his voice wheezing in the smoky air, his eyes red and watering.
Jason looked back the way they had come. Pinching his nose against the stench, he watched the whorls of black smoke fly away from him, smoke that stank like roasted rubber tires. He could even taste its foulness on the back of his tongue. The dampened cloth wrapped around his face did little to stop the stench.
Still, no one complained, since the smoke was also their guide. For the past day, whenever they had reached a crossroads in the tunnels, pausing to decide which way to go, the smoke wafting through the passageways marked the correct path.
"Turn around? I don't know," Linda said behind him. "None of the other passages had a breeze. The air seemed stagnant."
"What other choice do we have? We can't go forward." The doctor coughed harshly. "And at least we'd get away from this damned smoke."
Jason crossed to Linda's side. "Maybe I can wiggle past the hole."
Linda gave him a weak smile. "No, honey, it's too small."
"Let me see," Jason said, squeezing between Linda and Blakely. He coughed when he got a whiff of the thick smoke coming from the opening.
Blakely put an arm around him. "Hold up, Jason. We don't know how stable that is. Besides, Linda's right. It's much too small."
Jason persisted. "Just let me see!" He shoved past Blakely's hand and crouched down. The column of smoke looked like a solid pillar jetting toward him from the opening. Pushing a fist into it, he was amazed at the pressure of the wind, like sticking his hand out of a speeding car. But his amazement turned quickly to nausea as his probing arm disrupted the flow, diverting a stream directly into his face. Gagging, he pulled his hand back out. Lights twinkled before his eyes as he gasped for clear air.
Blakely placed a hand on his shoulder, a half-amused smile on his lips. "Careful, boy, that's potent enough to kill you."
His face reddening, Jason shrugged off his hand, now even more determined to investigate the hole. Before anyone could stop him, he sucked in a lungful of air and clamped his eyes and lips closed. Then he dove forward into the smoky wind.
He found himself almost instantly buffeted back by the pressure, but he dug his toes in beneath him. Working one arm and shoulder through the hole, he wiggled around, seeking a way to crawl ahead.
If he could just turn his head and twist over this way… but rock blocked him at every turn. In a few seconds, he realized it was much too small for him to squeeze through. Disappointed, he pulled back and rolled to the side, letting out his held breath in a long sigh.
He saw Blakely waving his hand before his nose as the disturbed smoke billowed around him. "A lot of good that did you. You almost gassed the two of us with your foolishness."
"But I was just-"
"Enough of this tomfoolery. We just need to accept our predicament and find an alternate route. This tunnel is a dead end for us."
Jason sniffed, trying to save face. "But I did find out that the hole is only about two feet deep. After that it widens again. I think the tunnel is fine beyond this short section. If we can find a way through…"
"Well, unless you happen to be hiding a pickax under your shirt, I'm afraid that's not much help."
Jason, finally defeated, hung his head.