She nodded. "Khalid, it's time to reset Jason's timer."
He glanced at her, his eyes cold. "Later."
She looked at Jason. He just stared back at her in resignation.
Bringing up the rear behind the roaring transport sled, all Ben could see ahead of him was the hairy bottom of the mimi'swee hunter on the next sled.
The exposed hunter went by the name of Nob'cobi. Harry had introduced the tiny warrior as Dennis's blood brother. The hunter had insisted on accompanying the party, since Dennis could not come. Nob'cobi would lose serious il'jann points if he should be denied a place in the party. It was an obligation of blood brothers.
Still, from the way Nob'cobi clutched his sled and shook with every bump, he was probably wishing, il'jann or no il'jann, that he had stayed behind. The other two hunters ahead of him didn't seem to be faring any better.
Ben reached a hand forward and gave Nob'cobi's leg a pat of reassurance. But his touch caused the hunter to squeak in panic and almost lose his grip. "Easy there, buddy," he shouted over the noise of the engine, trying to sound as calm as possible, which is difficult when yelling. "You're doing great. Just a little longer."
Ben glanced at his watch. They had been traveling for just shy of an hour. If he was estimating their speed correctly, that meant another three hours. They should be topside by midday. Not bad.
Ben laid his forehead on his arm, closing his eyes, letting the rocking motion and the persistent thrum of the engine lull him. If only the mimi'swee hunters could relax. He thought about Nob'cobi, who got suckered into this raw deal.
Without even opening his eyes, Ben could picture the hunter clutching his sled like a drowning man bobbing in the surf. The Nob'cobi he pictured then turned to him and spoke: "I can go just as fast on my own. This… this is… mad."
"Well, we can't," he thought in answer. "We're not built as compact as you."
"I hate this!"
"Oh, quit your whining," Ben thought.
Suddenly Nob'cobi's eyes grew so large, they looked almost entirely white. "You really are a heri'huti."
Another voice suddenly intruded on his conversation. A familiar voice. "Very good, Benny boy. You're learning." Mo'amba's voice faded away.
"Wait… what did…?" Ben opened his eyes to find Nob'cobi staring back at him, his eyes wide.
"Heri'huti," he said, then turned forward.
Ben pondered the implications. He had done it. Just like Mo'amba had contacted him, he had contacted Nob'cobi. Even his head throbbed with the familiar ache from a mental conversation. So how come he had done it so easily? He had never been able to do anything like that before.
Mo'amba's disembodied voice again spoke to him. "The hunters are accustomed to the suggestions of the heri'huti. Their minds are trained to accept our contact. Your own people are not so trained." Mo'amba's voice faded away again.
Bloody hell, thought Ben. Enough of this bullshit. This Vulcan mind-meld crap wasn't going to get that statue out of Blakely's safe.
Just then the timbre of the engine changed again. Harry was slowing down. "What's up?" he yelled.
Harry answered, "We're reaching the halfway point."
Ben checked his watch. Another hour had passed. "So why stop?"
"The engine needs to cool. It's red-hot. I built this baby for speed, not to haul cargo. This is like pulling a U-haul with an Indy racer."
Suddenly the train dragged out of the wormhole and into a chamber the size of a two-car garage. A second wormhole opening was on the far wall.
"What's this?" Ben asked, rolling free of his sled. He groaned as he stood, shrugging out of his pack.
Harry stood a few feet away, rolling his head from side to side. "Mo'amba told me there was a resting place halfway up for religious travelers. I thought it would be a good spot to stretch our legs, drain our lizards, and let the engine cool."
Nob'cobi and the other two hunters were already off their sleds and standing as far from the plastic train as possible. The three were deep in animated conversation. The gestures they made toward the contraption, even without translation, were obviously foul.
Ben crossed to Harry. "So how's the gas supply?"
"Just fine. Quit worrying."
"How long till the engine cools?"
Harry shrugged. "I don't know. Half an hour. An hour."
Ben nodded, but his hands kept clenching and unclenching. He paced the narrow space. As long as they were moving, it wasn't so bad. This stop was agonizing.
"Relax!" Harry finally said. "We're making good time."
"I know, I know." Ben searched for something to distract him, but the chamber was a monotonous uniform room. He stared at the trio of hunters. "What are they talking about?"
"Mostly bitching." Harry took a diamond knife from a hide scabbard at his waist and picked at his nails. "They're also telling some old folk tales about the great exodus from their original dwellings above, down to their present village."
"Yeah, so why did they leave?"
"From what I can tell, there was some sort of earthquake and the cavern flooded. Lots of them died. I guess there's some holy site up above that Nob'cobi wants to visit. Something about ancient warriors who died in a flash flood. Their heads are buried in clear stone. I don't get that part."
"I think I do." Ben pictured the cave pearls that his team had discovered with the embedded skulls in the center.
Harry looked at him as if he were nuts. "Yeah, whatever. Anyway, after they left, the crak'an took over their cavern. The bastards use it as some sort of mating ground. Apparently there are several pods of these creatures. And once every decade, they converge in the big cavern and duke it out for mates."
"Something tells me this was the tenth year." Ben tried to picture herds of those bloody monsters, hyped up with territorial and mating aggression. Alpha Base never had a chance.
Harry nodded soberly. "I'd better check the sled."
Finally, after tinkering with the engine for twenty agonizing minutes, Harry gave the thumbs-up sign. After much fidgeting, the group of mimi'swee climbed astride their sleds, and they were under way again.
The remainder of the trip was uneventful. No stalls, no problems. Still, it took forever. During the trip, Ben checked his watch at least sixty times.
At long last, Harry cut the engine. "End of the line, folks."
One of the hunters clambered over Harry to get to the stone door ahead. He manipulated something to the right of the door, and the wall of rock swung out into ohna's chamber. Harry followed the hunter into the small cave, hauling the train behind him.
Once in the chamber, Ben rolled off his sled and crossed in a crouch to the chamber's threshold. He quickly scanned the immediate environment, expecting to see herds of mating beasts. But nothing was out there, just the still lake gently lapping at the rocky shore below.
He glanced across the cavern. Miles away, he could see the flickering lights of the distant camp. Alpha Base. From here it appeared okay, but on closer inspection he realized there were not enough lights. The base was partly extinguished.
The air, once so clear, now stung his nostrils. Reeking of old smoke and burning oil, it smelled like trouble.
THE FIRST THING THAT STRUCK JASON AS THEY GOT close to the base was the odor. The stench penetrated past the perpetual odor of oily soot. Jason pinched his nose and concentrated on breathing through his mouth but still felt like he was going to gag.
Linda patted him on the back but wore a sour expression too. "Khalid," she called. "We're close enough to the base, and Jason's timer is down to seven minutes."
"Then increase your pace. I won't reset it until we reach the camp."
"It's not safe to rush like this. There could still be more of those monsters around. We should go slowly."
"By now the smoky air has probably driven them out of the cavern, but it won't last forever. We need to strike now before the smoke clears."
Linda took quicker steps. "Jason, we'd better hurry."
Jason glanced down at the belt of explosives. He watched the number blink from six down to five. No kidding.
As they approached the edge of the base, the source of the odor became apparent, and they all slowed down. "Don't look, Jason," Linda said, trying to shelter him.
Ignoring her warning, Jason watched while Khalid gave the carcass of the dead beast a wide berth as he crept around it. Linda followed, pulling Jason along. As they rounded its bulk, the cause of death became apparent. Its stomach had been blown open by some explosive. Bits of metal and clotted intestines were strewn several yards across the floor. Jason swallowed hard, fighting back the urge to retch. He didn't know which was worse, the sight or the smell.
As they hurried around the reeking beast, Linda suddenly gasped and turned Jason's head to her chest. But not before he glimpsed the headless torso of one of the base personnel still caught in its dead jaws. This time he didn't fight to be free of her embrace.
Once past the remains, Linda released him, patting him on the back. He saw Khalid had stopped ahead, visibly shaken, his face blanched.
Linda crossed to him. "I don't want Jason to see any more of this."
Khalid actually nodded. "We're almost where I need to go. It's down this way." He turned and led the way. "Move quietly."
Leading the way, Khalid traced a path between two collapsed wooden buildings. As they followed, Jason noticed the booted legs of a soldier sticking out from under a jumbled pile of wooden beams and glass. He looked away.
The base was silent around them, their footsteps the only noise.
Khalid paused for a moment, glancing around him as if to get his bearings, then proceeded north across the edge of the base. In less than a minute, they had reached one of the yard-thick natural pillars that connected the distant ceiling to the floor.