Sin'jari, though, was not ready to give up his battle. "The newcomers are not of our tribe. Our laws don't apply to them. What's to stop them from running off with ohna and letting our world die?"

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"They are different," Mo'amba agreed. "One only has to look to see that. But the difference is minor." Mo'amba pointed his staff at Ashley, Harry, and Ben. "Come here. Join me."

Now what? Ashley thought. If things should go sour-and with Sin'jari's pitbull-like persistence, it was a good possibility-they would have the entire council and its entourage between them and the only exit.

Ben helped Ashley off his knee, rubbing at his thigh after she stepped down. "At least you weren't wearing high heels," he complained.

"Ben, we're putting our backs against the wall if we go out there."

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"Trust him," he said. "He'll get us out of this mess." Ben squeezed through the narrow opening afforded him by the crowd, pausing only to reach back and pull Ashley after him. Harry trailed behind them.

Once they were congregated before the wall of staring eyes, Mo'amba stepped between her and Ben, then continued, with Harry translating: "These newcomers may look strange and even slightly offensive to some, but another villager might find Tru'gula with his scars strange and even unsettling, but he is still one of us. What matters is the spirit." He tapped his chest with his staff. "Here we are not so different."

He paused to level his staff at Harry. "Here, a newcomer has proven the bravery of his people, proven that they are worthy of il'jann, like any other tribesman." Next he swung the staff toward Ben. "Here is a newcomer with the powers of a heri'huti, a gift from the gods. Why would our spirits bestow such a gift unless they thought him worthy?"

Finally, he pointed the staff at Ashley. "The gods have given us another clue to their worthiness. The newcomer's heri'huti planted his seed in her during the last sleep cycle." He place a hand on Ashley's belly. "It has taken root, and the gods have blessed her with a child. A child conceived here in our village. A new child of the tribe."

Ashley blinked a few times, staring at the hand on her belly. He had to be kidding! She looked up at Ben. His mouth hung open.

"If the gods have blessed them with a child, the spirits have judged them worthy. Who are we to judge them any less so?"

Sin'jari struck a rock with his staff. "We have only your word that this… this… this invader is a heri'huti," he spat.

Mo'amba, eyes thin with anger, opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted by the stamping of a spear. All eyes turned to Bo'rada, who stamped his stick a final time.

Bo'rada spoke. "Enough, Sin'jari. To accuse Mo'amba, who has served our tribe for generations, of falsehoods is a rudeness that can't be tolerated. I shun you from further discussion in this matter." Bo'rada waved the ruby tip of his staff across his lips.

The crowd gasped. Ashley looked questioningly at Harry, who leaned closer toward her. "This is a rare act. This society is very open to free expression. A shunning is a major punishment."

"Just as long as it keeps Sin'jari shut up," she muttered, fidgeting in place. Where did the council now lean? she wondered. Death or acquittal? Had Mo'amba convinced them? She glanced at her belly, swallowing hard. He could be very convincing.

Bo'rada had not finished speaking. "I believe Mo'amba. The newcomers deserve a chance to correct their mistake." He then pointed his staff at Ben. Harry translated. "Do you know where ohna is kept?"

Ben nodded.

"Will you return her?"

"I will try my bloody best," Ben said as they translated. "That's all I can promise."

"Then I cast my vote that we stay their execution depending on the successful completion of this mission. But, because I harbor reservations similar to those expressed by Sin'jari, I will require some reassurance… The female stays here until the mission is completed. If it's not accomplished within one day, then she dies." He stamped his staff.

His words caused all the elders to stamp their staffs in agreement. Except two: Sin'jari, who was shunned from voicing an opinion, and Mo'amba. The old heri'huti just stared, first at Ben then at Ashley. She could see the sorrow in his eyes as he finally raised his staff and stamped it three times on the ground-agreement.

TWENTY-NINE

"I CAN'T JUST LEAVE HER," BEN SAID TO MO'AMBA. THE other elders had already left umbo's chamber, leaving only a cluster of armed guards around them. Ben stared at Ashley where she leaned over the tumescent image of umbo, studying the figurine. Always the anthropologist, he thought, always in command. Still, he noted the way her hand trembled as she coursed a finger down the figurine.

"I'm sorry." Mo'amba's words were translated by Harry. "It's the best I could do. You have today to prepare yourself and your team of hunters. Then you have one day to return ohna, or else Bo'rada will kill Ashley… and your unborn child."

Ben rubbed at his temples with the tips of his fingers. "You… you mean… she's really pregnant?"

The old man nodded.

"A father," he mumbled to himself, shaking his head. Things were happening too quickly. The winds were blowing in too many directions.

The old man leaned closer to Ben, whispered something guttural to him, too low for Harry to translate, then touched the center of Ben's forehead. With the touch, a sense of peace and calmness saturated Ben, like a cool shower after a hot day under the Aussie sun. Ben sighed. How does the bugger do that? Mo'amba stepped away.

Now calmer, Ben could think more rationally, rather than just relying on gut reactions. He needed to plan. At least the village elders had given him a day to work out a strategy. Still… he remembered the long journey down here. Even if supplied with a map, it would take longer than a day to reach Alpha Cavern.

Exasperated, Ben turned to Harry. "Are you sure you translated that correctly? They're giving us one day? Twenty-four hours?"

Harry nodded. "Almost. Their daily cycle, termed cu-curu, is actually twenty-six hours."

"That's a lot of help. Two extra hours. I don't suppose you happen to know a quicker way up to Alpha Base?"

"I know of a route up, but it'll still take at least a day and a half. And that's if we hurry and don't get ambushed by any of the crak'an. I was eventually planning on taking the journey myself once my broken arm had healed and strengthened, but Dennis beat me down here."

"Shit."

Mo'amba suddenly stamped his staff, looking frustrated. He motioned them over to the wall. He struggled to speak a few words of English: "I show… Fast. Up." He seemed to have understood the gist of their discussion.

Mo'amba crossed to the far wall and pressed the butt of his staff against a rocky outcropping. As he pressed, the outcropping receded into the wall, and a section of what looked like solid rock swung inward.

"It's a secret door!" Ben leaned down and stared into the revealed tunnel. "Leading to another of those goddamn wormholes." He waved Ashley over.

Mo'amba hobbled to the side with Harry in tow, the two already conversing animatedly.

Ashley knelt next to Ben. "I should have suspected," she whispered, a trace of tension in her voice. "The holy places of many cultures have hidden chambers and passages." Ashley sat back on her heels, seemingly despondent at missing a key anthropologic connection. Then suddenly she sprang up. "Damn, I've been so stupid!"

"What?"

"This… this tunnel. I can guess where this leads." Baffled, Ben raised a questioning eyebrow.

"This is the male spirit's chamber. I would bet the female spirit's chamber in Alpha Cavern has a similar hidden passage that we all missed. I would bet my life that this tunnel connects with her chamber. A symbolic vaginal canal linking male and female spirits."

"You mean…"

"It's a straight and safe shot right back up top."

Ben allowed himself a glimmer of hope. "But are you sure? If you're right," he whispered to her, "maybe we can make a break for it. Use this tunnel so all of us can escape."

Ashley knelt back down. "No. With their small physiques, they would be on top of us in seconds. We wouldn't have a chance. Besides, Mo'amba and his tribe are trying to accept us. This is a crucial test between our peoples. I won't betray their trust. As an anthropologist, I can't destroy this tentative bond that they are working to establish with us."

"But what if-"

"No," she said, but Ben could see the agony in her eyes. It was taking all her will not to rush into the tunnel and go seek out her son.

A few steps away, Harry and Mo'amba had finished their animated discussion. "Well, I'll be damned," Harry declared loudly, drawing their attention. He turned back to face them. "You're not going to believe this. This wormhole-"

"-leads to Alpha Base," Ashley finished for him, standing up.

Harry's brow furrowed with creases. "How did you know?"

"I finally remembered I'm an anthropologist," Ashley said sourly. "So what else did you learn from Mo'amba?"

"If I'm understanding correctly, it's about a thirty-mile long tunnel."

Ben eyed the tunnel. And about two miles up, he guessed. "It'll be a bloody long crawl. And'll probably eat up a good part of the day."

"Maybe not," said Harry cryptically. "Let's get out of here. Join up with Dennis. Plan your strategy."

Ben turned to Mo'amba. "Harry, ask him to help us plan. He knows these caverns."

Nodding, Harry blurted a few words to Mo'amba, gesticulating with his arms. The old man answered, shaking his head.

Harry translated: "He says he has much to prepare, and he'll talk to you later, but I don't know if I'm translating that correctly. It's a looser translation. It's almost like he said he'd be 'dreaming' of you later."

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