She tried to pull back her hand, but he held her tight. "Ben…" She didn't know what to say. A part of her wanted to cry out that she loved him, but another part was frightened to give in. After Scott, after the miscarriage, that part refused to be hurt again or to trust again. She had barely survived it the first time. Jason had kept her going, and now her son was missing. Too many emotions warred within her to think clearly. How could she put this all into words?

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She didn't have to. He released her hand and pulled away. His words were a strained whisper. "I guess we'd better get going, then. I'm sure Harry and the others are waiting."

He turned away, his shoulders slumped. She opened her mouth to say something, anything, to console him. To tell him not to give up on her. But was that fair? She closed her mouth.

As Ashley entered umbo's chamber, she saw Harry huddled with the three other hunters who would be joining Ben's team. He seemed amazingly bright and chipper for someone who'd been working all night. The room was crowded with other members of the tribe. Mo'amba stood in conversation with Tru'gula. No other village elders were present, not even Sin'jari, and for that, Ashley was thankful.

"We did it!" Harry said, beaming as he crossed to join them.

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"You fixed the axle?" Ben asked, excitement in his voice.

"Come see. You're not gonna believe it." He waved them over to where Michaelson was hunched beside one of the plastic sleds.

Ashley noticed there were now four fluorescent sleds hooked to the aluminum transport. The scavengers had retrieved all the stray sleds, even Villanueva's. She looked at her dead friend's yellow sled, and a chill passed through her. It seemed like a bad omen.

She studied Michaelson's work. With a final tug on a rope, he secured the last of the boards in place. Just like a little train.

Harry said, "It was Dennis's idea." He lifted the large sled up, careful of the motor. "Look. This little alteration makes this the most valuable vehicle on the planet."

Ben whistled his appreciation. "Fine piece of work."

Ashley squeezed up to see. She glanced at the front axle. It glittered in the feeble light. "In that what I think it is?"

"You bet," said Harry. "A pure diamond axle."

"Will it hold?" Ben asked, eyeing a dubiously.

Harry shrugged. "I ran the axle through some stress tests. It seemed okay. Besides, what other choice do we have? We use it or we drag our way along on the plastic sleds."

Ben fingered the diamond. "All right, mate, we travel in style."

Ashley stepped back as Harry lowered the sled. "So… so you're all ready to go, then." For some reason, this bothered her. She had been anticipating this, but suddenly to be faced with the reality that Ben would be leaving her, and possibly killed, seemed too much. Tears threatened to well.

Sensing her anxiety, Ben stepped to her and held her close. "I guess we shouldn't wait. Every minute may matter."

Ashley just nodded, afraid to speak, fearful she would break down.

Harry called the other tribesmen to him and barked final orders, waving his hands and pointing at the various sleds. It seemed he would take the lead, being the most familiar with the motorized sled. Ben would take up the caboose, helping to steady the three nervous hunters, who were not accustomed to the concept of transportation.

Ashley stepped out of the way, trying not to get underfoot, as packs were stowed and instructions explained. Mo'amba stepped next to her and placed a hand on her shoulder. She glanced at him, and he gave her a reassuring squeeze.

Once everything was ready, Ben returned to her. He seemed rejuvenated by the activity, but there was still a sadness in his blue eyes. "I promise I'll find out about Jason. And I will be back."

With Mo'amba's hand on her shoulder steadying her, she felt capable of speaking. "I know you will, Ben. I trust you." And for the first time, she realized she did. Trusted him with her life. Trusted him with her son's safety. Tears welled up and rolled down her face.

He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, then turned and crossed to his sled.

Ashley took a step forward. She could not let him leave without knowing how she truly felt. She called to him, her words catching in her throat: "Ben! I… I…"

Drowned out by the roaring of the ignited sled's motor, her words were lost. Harry revved the engine, and the sled slid smoothly into the wormhole, dragging the train of riders behind it.

She watched Ben disappear into the tunnel, riding Villanueva's yellow sled. Ashley clutched her arms around her chest, a coldness creeping into her stomach. "I love you, Ben," she whispered.

BOOK FIVE

Return to Alpha

THIRTY-ONE

LINDA CRAWLED BETWEEN THE BOULDER AND THE floor, too tired to acknowledge her nagging claustrophobic unease in such a tight space. The miles of stone above her were of less concern at the moment than her stinging eyes, sore muscles, and miserable situation.

This was the second day since she and Jason had been captured by Khalid, and the pace he set was exhausting: minimal rest stops, no lunch break, just a brief breakfast, and a cold dinner of ration bars. It was up to her and Jason to keep pace with him. He had warned her that he wasn't going to stop and wait for them. If he was to punch in the code on Jason's belt of explosives every two hours, then they had better keep up. So the entire day was spent trying to keep abreast of Khalid.

With a final heave, Linda cleared the boulder and pushed to her feet. The tunnel here was wider. The choking smoke had by now faded to a mild annoyance, which made breathing easier. Yet it was this continuing dispersal of the smoke that drove Khalid's savage pace. If the smoke should dissipate completely before they had tracked their way home, then they truly would be lost.

There was another reason to race the smoke. So far, not a single predator had blocked their trail upward. Linda had voiced her opinion that the acrid fumes were probably acting as a repellent. Khalid had merely nodded at her assessment, and with an oddly worried expression, he had set an even harder pace.

As Linda stretched her back and adjusted her handkerchief over her nose, her headlamp speared the darkness ahead. Khalid had halted several yards down the tunnel, leaning over something on the floor. Jason's upper arm was clutched in his grip. What now?

Jason turned to her. "Come look."

Squeezing next to Jason, she saw what had attracted Khalid. A half-yard-tall metal canister stood in the center of the tunnel, with thick cables leading from it and trailing forward into the darkness. A meshed dish, like a miniature satellite receiver, topped the canister.

"What is it?" she asked.

"It's one of those special radio things of Dr… Dr. Blakely's." Jason stammered over the dead man's name. "The cables should lead us to the base."

"Then we did it," Linda said. "We made it."

Khalid continued down the tunnel, following the cables.

"Linda," Jason spoke up from beside her, taking her hand as they followed Khalid, "I don't think he's gonna let me go free."

She squeezed his hand. "Jason. He will. Once you're no longer needed as a hostage, he'll let you go."

The boy remained silent a moment, then spoke. "When we reach the base, when we get there…" His voice trailed off.

"What is it, Jason?"

"If you get a chance to escape, take it. Leave me behind."

She stopped, pulling him to a halt. "I'm not going to leave you with him. We'll find a way out of this mess."

"He's gonna kill me anyway. I can tell."

"Jason… honey, I won't let-"

"It's in his eyes," he interrupted. "He looks… looks at me as if I'm not really here. Like I'm already dead."

Linda knelt and cupped his face in her hands. "I promise you. We'll get through this. Together."

Jason shook his head, dislodging her hands. "He's gonna let me die." He then turned and marched down the tunnel.

She watched his back disappear around a bend. Like hell, she thought. Pushing to her feet, she followed him, determined to keep that animal from harming Jason. She caught up with the boy and put an arm around his shoulder. They both remained silent as they continued through the tunnel, following Khalid and the snaking cable.

After thirty minutes of hiking, the tunnel seemed to be brightening around them. Jason glanced up at her. She clicked off her helmet lamp, no longer needing the illumination. As they passed around a corner in the tunnel, lamps could be seen attached to the walls.

They were still lit! That meant the generators were still active. From Jason's account, she figured the base would have been demolished and sunk in darkness. Maybe there was a chance that the base had been retaken already. Maybe reinforcements had arrived.

As she passed down the illuminated passageway, she could see where Khalid had stopped at the mouth of the tunnel. "Alpha Base," he said to her without looking back.

She hurried beside him, holding her breath, hoping. She glanced out, and her heart sank. The tunnel exited out the west wall of the cavern, atop a slight rise. The view of Alpha Cavern was spread out below, the base a mere mile away.

Or what was left of the base. The place was a ruin. Lights still flickered here and there, but poles were toppled throughout the camp. Every building still standing was scarred by fires or explosions, and several smoldering red glows suggested some fires were still active. A haze of smudged clouds hovered over the base, as if trying to mask the damage. Even from here, bodies, looking like tossed rag dolls, could be seen dotting the empty alleys between collapsed buildings. Worst of all, nothing, absolutely nothing moved. The base was dead.

Linda tried to keep Jason from seeing, but he wiggled free and just stared silently at the carnage below.

"The elevator's still intact," Khalid said. "We can proceed."

Jason tugged at Linda's arm. She glanced down at him, having to tear her eyes away from the devastation. He had lifted up his shirt and pointed to the LED readout on his belt. The number thirty glowed on the panel. Thirty minutes until the plastique would be triggered.

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