Mo'amba passed close by Ashley's side as he thumped over to his red-and-yellow-checkered pillow. He too ignored their presence.
The last to arrive was the village leader, Bo'rada. Harry had told her that Bo'rada was the son of the last chief. He had been bestowed the honor of chieftain out of respect for his famous father. Most of the other elders tolerated him, but he was not well respected. Too volatile, too quick to make decisions. The council liked to mull over decisions, sometimes taking years to decide on simple matters. The young chief, with his fidgeting and sudden anger, was an embarrassment to the older members.
Still, he did have his followers. Harry pointed out an exceptionally thin male tribesman whose eyes and ears kept darting in every direction. His hands tugged at the pillow under him as if struggling to find a comfortable position for his bony rear. "Sin'jari," Harry said. "An oily sycophant of Bo'rada. Beware of him. He's as sneaky as he is nervous."
"It looks as if a stiff wind could snap him in two," Ben said.
"Don't underestimate the creep. He's the one who convinced the leader that you two should be killed. He's a wheedling sort of guy. He knows how to play to people's fears. Work them into a frenzy."
The leader stamped his staff three times on the floor, then sat.
Harry stepped between Ben and Ashley, translating for them as the meeting opened.
Ashley had expected their fate would be the first item on the schedule, but she was sorely mistaken. The first item on the agenda seemed to deal with the harvesting of the fields. A lengthy dispute seemed to center on whether to proceed now or to allow the hoofed food animals another month of free grazing. After much arguing, during which Mo'amba seemed to be dozing, it was decided to harvest now.
Ashley straightened up, expecting their fate to be discussed next. She was wrong. The only female council member, Jus'siri, stood up next, assisted from her pillow by one of her guards due to the preponderance of her gravid belly.
Ashley shifted her feet. Now what? This interminable waiting was beginning to grate on her. Even Ben was beginning to grumble.
She watched Jus'siri waddle to the small dug-out pit at the center of the chamber. The other elders encircled her, many smiling in delight.
Ashley's jaw dropped at what happened next.
Ben curled his lip. "That's disgusting."
Jus'siri reached within her belly pouch, both hands disappearing within the fold. With a bit of a strained face, but with her eyes shining proudly, she pulled from her belly a brown-speckled egg, about the size of an ostrich egg. She held it aloft, her belly now sagging empty. The other elders began stamping their staffs and hooting. Jus'siri then carefully placed the egg within the small pit-not a pit, Ashley finally realized, but a nest! The proud mother stepped back.
"My god," Ashley blurted, stunned. "They're not marsupials! They're monotremes!"
"What?" Ben asked, his lips still curled in disgust.
"Linda and I discussed it. Monotremes. Just like the crak'an. Egg-laying mammals. Considered to be an evolutionary link between reptiles and mammals, sharing traits from both-egg-laying like reptiles, but fur-bearing and milk-producing like mammals. Supposedly an evolutionary dead end."
"Looks like this group took a detour," Ben said.
Ashley turned to Harry. "What're they doing?"
"It's a naming ceremony. Jus'siri is offering her child to the tribe."
Ashley watched as Mo'amba struggled up off his pillow and crossed to the egg. Kneeling down, he placed both hands gently on the egg.
"What's he doing?" Ashley asked.
Her question was directed at Harry, but Ben answered. "He's reading the egg and the child within."
Ashley raised an eyebrow toward Ben, but he just shook his head as if unsure himself how he knew this.
Mo'amba raised his head to the mother, still holding the egg. Smiling, he mumbled something to her.
"It's healthy," Harry translated.
Then Mo'amba suddenly jerked away, almost accidentally flipping the egg out of the nest.
Ben jumped beside her. "I felt it," he said. "Like a baby kicking."
"Felt what?" Ashley asked.
Ben just shook his head again.
Ashley watched as Mo'amba rested his hands back on the egg, even more tenderly this time, his hands trembling with more than just old age. He again turned to Jus'siri, who now wore a concerned look on her face. With tears in his eyes, he spoke to her.
The crowd erupted with cheers, staffs stamping jubilantly.
Ashley turned to Harry, impatient for his translation. "Well?"
Again Ben answered, "The child is heri'huti. It bears the trait of seeing and speaking with the mind." He turned to Ashley, wonder in his voice. "I actually felt the child stir."
Mo'amba stood up, his joy so powerful he didn't even use his crutch. He stamped his staff to quiet the crowd. Once the commotion settled to a low murmur, he spoke again, punctuating his statement with two stamps.
"I name this child Tu'shama," Harry translated. "The One Who Sees Our Future."
The crowd erupted, the name Tu'shama chanted from many tongues.
"Well," Ben said, "at least they'll be in a good mood when it comes to deciding our fate."
Ashley nodded. "Hopefully, they won't simply delay the decision. I don't want to lose another day."
As if the scarred Tru'gula had understood her words, he stamped for attention and proposed that the decision on Ashley and Ben's fate be put off. In response, many heads nodded, even Bo'rada.
Then the bone-thin Sin'jari stamped to be heard. With Harry translating, his words chilled: "It truly is a time of joy, but we cannot forget that with joy there is also sorrow. How many widows now wail?"
His words sobered the audience.
"Here stand demons meant to destroy us." He pointed a long finger with thick knuckles at them. "Ever since they arrived and desecrated this world, we began to die. We have tried befriending them," he continued, nodding toward Harry, "but still we have continued to perish. I think it more than chance that when we finally decide to destroy the demons, a new heri'huti should suddenly appear. I say it's a sign from the gods. A sign that we must drive the demons from our world. Without delay!"
Now several heads nodded in agreement with Sin'jari's words.
Ashley reached behind her back and shoved her pistol deeper in her belt, securing it. She started eyeing the obstacles between her and the door.
Mo'amba stamped for attention.
Ben's nervous shifting calmed once he saw that Mo'amba was to speak in their defense. He reached over and squeezed Ashley's hand. "He'll make them see reason," he said.
Mo'amba waited for the noise of the crowd to subside before speaking. Sin'jari's eyes twitched, and his hands scrabbled on his staff; he was obviously worried. But as Mo'amba began speaking, a smile grew wider and wider on Sin'jari's gaunt face, revealing too many teeth.
Harry translated: "Sin'jari's correct that many of our protective barriers have fallen. That many of our people have died. I have given this much thought, spending many hours praying and seeking guidance from our ancestors. And have come to only one answer." Mo'amba pointed his staff toward Ben and Ashley. "Sin'jari is correct. They are to blame!"
MICHAELSON CROUCHED OVER HIS ARSENAL, TAKING INVENTORY of his weapons: One collapsible rifle, a snubnosed AK-47, two pistols, and four boxes of.34-caliber shells. Why hadn't he requisitioned a grenade launcher for this mission? He shook his head.
Frowning, he realized that they didn't have a chance in hell of getting out of here alive if a fight was necessary. He sat back on his haunches, wincing as his injured ankle protested.
Behind him a couple were copulating in full view of the other hunters, their grunting and moans interrupting the silence of the chamber. Having spent last night here with Harry, he had almost grown accustomed to their openness. During the night, the same open passion had been abundantly displayed. Still he kept his back to them and studied one of the warriors working in a corner.
The creature seemed old, graying at the temples, thin, but with piercing eyes. He clutched a crude diamond spearhead in his hand and smeared a gray paste over its surface. Even in the dim fungal light, a reddish glow could be seen developing in the spearhead. Clucking his tongue in satisfaction, he spread a thicker layer of paste to the edge of the rough blade. The edges now began glowing a deeper, fiery red.
Fascinated, Michaelson watched as the craftsman now used another tool to grind at the spearhead, filing the edge of the now-soft diamond. The paste seemed to have weakened the surface of the crystal into a malleable consistency. Though judging from the corded muscles of the creature's forearms, it was still stiff, resistant, almost like softened lead. Michaelson watched as he tooled the diamond into a wicked blade.
So that's how the fuckers did it, he thought. Sculpting chunks of diamond with the aid of some crystal-softening mold. As a final step, the old creature dipped his handiwork into a bowl of water. Removing the dripping spearhead, he tapped it with a bone tool. It rang like a struck goblet. Solid once again.
Awed, Michaelson stood up and stretched his legs. The passionate couple had finished their sexual dalliance and now lay napping in each other's arms. He worked the kinks out of his legs, but the low roof kept him from being able to straighten his back.
A sudden flurry of raised voices near the entrance to the hunter's warren of caves drew his attention. The garbled speech had a keening edge of panic in it. Thinking that the ruckus might be Ashley's group trying to beat a hurried retreat, Michaelson grabbed a loaded pistol. He elbowed his way through the small crowd to the center of the commotion. Shoving past the last onlooker, he froze as he saw the source of the agitation.
Four hunters carried the body in a rough woven sling. They laid the limp form at his feet, the SEAL's torn uniform bloodier than the last time he had seen him. From his cyanotic pallor and fixed glassy eyes, he knew there was no use checking for a pulse. "Villanueva," he said. "Goddamn it." Michaelson holstered his gun and knelt down. He picked up the limp hand of his friend. "Fuck," he spat out. He stared at the two bullet holes in the SEAL's forehead. Two. This was obviously no suicide. Someone murdered him. But who?