He took a step forward, meaning to check the blast site before they returned. The increased motion burrowed the spear of pain deeper in his side. Cautiously he took shallow breaths, knowing that a broken shard of rib bone could slice into his lungs.
After taking two more steps, he stopped to rest, his brow now dripping with sweat. This wasn't good for his heart either, but desperation pushed him on. Besides, if he had screwed up in placing the charge, he wanted to be the first to know.
Following the trail of debris with his light, he saw the wall of rock that had blocked the way forward and smiled. A gaping maw large enough to pass a baby elephant through now opened the way ahead.
From behind him, a pistol shot suddenly echoed down the tunnel. Not thinking, Blakley jumped and twisted at the retort. A whiplash of searing fire ripped into his chest as he turned. His flashlight beam dimmed to a flicker as the pain blackened his field of vision, threatening to overwhelm him.
He took a step forward, his arms wrapped around his chest trying to squeeze back the pain. He coughed into the handkerchief over his face, triggering a spike of agony that sent him to his knees. Smelling his own blood in the sputum, he tore the handkerchief from his face in disgust. Pinpoints of lights cartwheeled across his vision as he fought oblivion.
A second shot rang out.
Linda winced as the bullet ricocheted off the rock over her head and zinged past her ear. Khalid stood coolly before her, punctuating his words with blasts from his pistol, pocking the walls with glancing shots. She placed a hand on Jason's head, trying to reassure him as he cowered behind her.
Khalid spoke slowly. "I had hoped that you would recognize the importance of my mission."
"Khalid," Linda began. Her words were sticking in her throat, but she had to try to reason with him. "You left me no choice. I couldn't let you abandon them, leaving them to die."
Quicker than she could react, Khalid lunged at her, shoving her aside, and grabbed Jason's arm, pulling him free of her. Set off balance, she slipped and fell to the floor, landing hard on her knee.
"Don't, Khalid!" she pleaded, tears welling in her eyes. "Please. I'll do anything."
For a moment, he seemed to hesitate, his pistol wavering. Then he clutched Jason tight to his chest, pressing the muzzle of his pistol to Jason's temple. The boy's eyes were wide with fear but dry, his lips pale. He squirmed, but Khalid knew how to restrain a hostage; even with Jason's frantic wiggling, the muzzle never shifted from his temple. She realized there was no hope.
Suddenly… "Leave the boy alone!" Blakely stumbled into view, startling Linda. Even Khalid jumped slightly, backing a step away.
Blakely leaned with one arm on the wall of the tunnel; the other held the flare gun pointed at Khalid. Linda knew it was an empty threat-the gun already spent-but Khalid didn't know. She allowed herself a small hope. She saw blood dribble from the doctor's lips, heard his labored breathing. The blow from the explosion must have hurt him badly. "I said," he wheezed, "leave the boy alone… Release him." The flare gun swung circles in his weakening grip.
Blakely stepped between Linda and Khalid. "Now!"
Khalid seemed to cower from the gun. Then, like a striking cobra, he burst forward, knocking the gun from Blakely's hand with a swipe of his pistol. "Empty threats are dangerous, Doctor. I watched you use the flare to blow the opening." Khalid nodded toward the blasted tunnel. "Thank you, by the way."
Blakely coughed and slumped against the wall, his lips narrowed and blue from pain and exhaustion. He turned to Linda, fresh blood flowed from his lips. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
She crossed to Blakely as Khalid backed away, clutching Jason with the pistol jammed to his temple again. She checked the doctor's pulse, weak and thready. He needed immediate medical attention. She turned to Khalid where he had backed about several feet away.
"Please, stop this," she begged. "We can all leave together. There's no reason anyone has to die. Let the boy go."
Staring at her, Khalid did the most amazing thing: He leaned down and placed his gun on the ground. For a moment, her heart soared. As he stood, however, he removed another small gun from a hidden holster above his boot. He pressed this new gun against Jason, whom he still held tight to his chest, the boy's arms pinned within the circle of Khalid's arm.
"You want the boy to live?" Khalid said, his eyes narrow. He kicked the gun toward Linda. "Kill the doctor."
She stared at the pistol as if it were something toxic, afraid to touch it. "What are you talking about?" she said, turning her eyes up to Khalid.
"We're carrying too much dead weight here. I'll take either the boy or the doctor with us. You choose. There's one bullet left. I want you to shoot Blakely, or I'll kill the boy."
"No!" she cried, backing away from the gun.
"Then the boy dies. It's your choice. I am only the instrument."
"Khalid… please," she said, tears flowing, "don't make me do this."
Blakely spoke up. "Pick up the gun." His words were so plain and calm that she found herself reaching for it before she realized it. She froze, her hand hovering over the grip.
She snatched up the gun. It was still hot to the touch from the rounds already fired. She cradled it between her two hands, afraid to trust only one hand. She glanced up at Khalid.
As if reading her mind, Khalid warned, "You have a single shot, my dear. Even if you manage to hit me, the boy would be dead before you could squeeze the trigger."
Her shoulders slumped. "Why?" she asked in a small voice. "Why do this to me?"
"I need help. And I need obedience. I will teach you how to obey."
"I can't," she said. "I can't just kill someone like that."
"Listen," Blakely said, his voice hoarse and moist. "You've got to do this." Now in a whisper, "You need to buy some time. He's going to kill us all anyway."
He coughed. Tears welled in his eyes; lines of pain etched his features. "Do it. I'm not going to make it anyway."
"I… I still can't," she whispered, her head falling to her chest.
Blakely reached to her, placing a hand on her head, whispering in her ear, "My wife died four years ago. My kids have grown up. I've bounced seven grandkids on my knee. I've lived a full life. But Jason's is just starting." He lifted her head, then picked up her hands that held the gun. He placed the gun in one of her palms and raised her hand, positioning the muzzle against his forehead. "Be strong, Linda."
"No, please, no," she cried, tears flowing down her cheeks.
He closed his eyes, still holding up her hand with his own. Hidden from view, she felt his finger push hers off the trigger. "I know," he whispered. "I won't let the bastard win." His finger replaced hers on the trigger. She felt his finger twitch, and the blast and recoil jumped the gun from her hands. It clattered to the ground, smoke trailing from its muzzle.
Stunned, she froze in place, her hands still raised as if she held the gun. Blakely had slumped over to his side, staring blankly at the far wall, a hole the size of a dime in his forehead. The wound looked so small, like a simple bandage would fix it.
"No," she moaned, rocking back and forth, "no, no, no…"
Suddenly Jason ran up beside her, hugging her from behind. Khalid had released the boy. Jason held her silently, staring at Blakely's still form with wide eyes.
Linda turned to Khalid; his pistol was pointed at her. "You promised that you wouldn't harm the boy."
"I won't," he said. His words were cold, devoid of any concern for the dead man sprawled in the tunnel. "Unlike yours, my word is good. But it's now time for your next lesson."
"You can't keep me tied up for the whole trip," Linda protested. Her attempts to loosen the knots that bound her only tightened their cutting grip.
"You're clever, Linda," Khalid said, smirking at her effort to free herself. "And we still have a long way to go to reach Alpha Base. I won't lose you again." He grabbed Jason by the upper arm and manhandled him down the tunnel. "You can be sure of that."
Frightened that he intended some harm to Jason, she called after him, "What are… You promised not to hurt him."
"Don't worry. I'll keep my word." He disappeared around a bend.
She stared at the tunnel around her, her heart beating so hard in her throat she could hardly breathe. What did he have in mind now? She gave one final pull on the cords that gripped her.
She searched around her, the helmet lamp casting only a weak finger of light. At least the smoke had thinned, allowing them to breathe without masks, but there were still enough fumes to sting the eyes and nose.
Swinging her helmet the other way, she tried to see some sign of what Khalid was planning. She heard an occasional word or echo from where he and Jason had disappeared. What was he up to?
Almost two hours passed before she finally heard the scrape of boot on rock, signaling the return of Khalid and Jason. Exhausted, she had almost dozed off. It had to have been at least forty hours since she had last slept.
"Are you okay, Jason?" she asked.
He nodded but had a strange expression on his face.
Khalid crossed to her and loosened her bonds, freeing her hands. "I'll set up camp," he said. "We'll stay here for six hours, then continue."
Rubbing at her red wrists, she noticed Khalid did not have his gun. Strange, she had not seen him without a pistol clutched in his hand since Blakely's death. He turned his back on her and walked away, leaving her and Jason alone. His lack of concern jarred her. She could just grab Jason and run, but she knew better than to try; he would just track them down again. Still, this sudden lack of caution disconcerted her.
She knelt down by Jason. "Did he hurt you?"
"No, but… I couldn't stop him." Jason suddenly burst into tears.