Taking a deep breath, he waved Nob'cobi to follow. The small hunter, clenching a spear longer than his own body, followed. Ben led the way, sticking close to shadows and ducking from hiding place to hiding place.
As Ben inched across the base, he heard periodic bursts of gunfire. He stopped and listened, biting his lower lip. The shots were getting farther and farther away. With all the hiding places available, Harry should have been able to lose the bastards by now.
He glanced at Nob'cobi. The hunter leaned casually on his spear shaft, his lids half-closed, scratching at his bare backside. Why was he so freakin' calm?
Again five shots rang out-even farther away now.
Then it dawned on Ben. Harry was purposefully firing off rounds, drawing the beasts away, leaving the way open for Ben to get to the office.
He looked at Nob'cobi. He nudged the mimi'swee hunter. "You knew that, didn't ya, bub? C'mon." He increased the pace, counting on Harry to lure the crak'an astray.
Now moving quicker, Ben reached the gorge in two minutes, but stopped when he saw the bridge. Or at least where the bridge used to be.
"Goddamn it," he muttered. "Can't anything go right?" All that was left of the bridge was a couple of broken spars jutting a few feet across the gorge, leaving a black gap of empty space. He eyed the span. At least thirty feet. Much too far to jump. They would have to walk-
He jumped at a loud crash behind him. Whirling around, he turned to see one of the crak'an lunge from between two buildings into the cleared area in front of the gorge. It was Tiny Tim, and he blocked the only way back to the maze of buildings and tents. The creature hissed and stalked forward.
"So, you little bastard," Ben said, backing away as he raised his gun, "you weren't fooled by Harry." He pointed his pistol and fired.
The creature shied away from the noise and pawed slightly at its neck. Ben could see the trail of blood oozing from the wound. He had hit the target, but the bullet hardly seemed to faze the thick-skinned beast. It stalked toward him.
Nob'cobi darted behind Ben as he fired. The shot went wild, but the noise stopped it. The crak'an paused warily, eyeing its prey.
Damn, you could almost see the bastard plotting. Ben backed another step. The edge of the gorge was now only a few feet behind him. He turned to tell Nob'cobi to make a run for it while he distracted the beast, but no one was behind him. Nob'cobi was already gone. Then he saw the small hunter balancing on the spar of the bridge a few yards away, tying a rope to the remains of a lamppost. What was he doing?
Ben turned his attention back to his adversary. The beast just cocked its head back and forth, staring at the pistol as if weighing its danger.
Ben's foot skidded on the slippery rock as he backed another step. He risked a quick glance over his shoulder. Nob'cobi had backed off the bridge and stood an arm's length away from Ben. "What are you-"
Before Ben could finish, Nob'cobi ran toward the damaged bridge. My god, thought Ben, he's gonna try to jump it. It was bloody suicide. He watched as Nob'cobi raced down the single thin spar as if he were running on solid ground. At the last moment, the small hunter brought his long spear forward and jammed the blunt end into the spar and vaulted upward, flying across the empty air. He landed in a roll on the far side of the gorge.
Ben noticed for the first time the loop of rope wrapped around Nob'cobi's waist. The length of climbing rope now trailed across the gorge to where the tiny hunter had secured it to the lamppost.
A roar drew his attention back around. Tiny Tim stared across the gorge at his escaped prey, obviously angered at his loss. Now those black eyes fixed back on Ben. He could almost see the smile spread on its lips, exposing the full length of its yellowed teeth. It stepped toward him.
Ben, whose gun was still vaguely pointing at the beast's head, realized his chances of a head shot were poor, a kill shot beyond his skill. He lowered his aim toward an easier target, its belly. If he had guessed Nob'cobi's intentions correctly, Ben needed only a few seconds of breathing room.
He pulled the trigger. The shot dug into Tiny Tim's flank, causing the beast to back up a few steps.
Ben didn't wait. He swung around and ran toward the damaged bridge. Just as he had anticipated, Nob'cobi had pulled up the slack in the rope and had secured his end around a post on the far side. Ben now had a rope bridge across the gorge.
Behind him, he heard a roar. It was coming! His feet almost slipped as the traction changed from rock to wood as he reached the broken bridge. His arms out for balance, he darted down the spar and leaped off the end.
He dove for the rope, stretching his arms out as far as he could.
Grimacing, he caught the rope with one hand, wrenching his shoulder as his weight swung down. He flailed for a second, his grip slipping slightly. Then he swung a second hand on the rope. He hung there a second, breathing heavily, shaken.
The rope jerked in Ben's grip. What the hell? He craned his neck around. Tiny Tim rammed the lamppost to which Nob'cobi had secured the rope. If the post went, so would that end of his rope bridge.
Ben glanced down at the black pit below him. He scrambled hand over hand across the bridge, but the jostling of the rope made his progress jerky and slow.
He wasn't going to make it.
And as the rope went limp in his grip, he realized for once in his life he was right.
LINDA REALIZED TWO THINGS AS SHE CROUCHED IN THE semi-demolished latrine. First, there was no way that she and Khalid could complete all the explosive charges before Jason's time ran out. With only twenty minutes left, they still had three more charges to set. Second, she had also come to realize that Khalid had never intended to free Jason anyway.
She stared at the cold figure of Khalid as he peered out the broken door of the building. The stench of pine disinfectant was thick in the narrow space. Since the gunfire began, he had made no move to complete the charges; instead, he sought the nearest shelter and decided to lay low.
She slid next to Khalid. "Jason's timer is running out."
He nodded. "I know, but the gunfire is between us and the boy. A small pocket of resistance obviously withstood the initial onslaught. And whatever they're shooting at, I'd just as soon avoid."
Right, you bastard, she thought. A convenient excuse. The asshole never planned to return for Jason. By now, she had recognized a pattern to Khalid's charges. He was circling the camp, setting charges at the base of the largest colonnades that ran from floor to ceiling. He meant to blow up a majority of them and bring the roof down. Drop the volcano on top of the caverns.
She also noted that his route was circuitous, ending near the elevator. He obviously meant to complete the series of charges, then hop on the elevator and escape. Leaving Jason to be a human bomb.
Of course, the gunfire had put a crimp in his fine-tuned plans.
Suddenly a roar of rage erupted from across the base. One of those creatures. It sounded pissed. She noticed Khalid flinch with each roar. These things seemed to unnerve him in more ways than simple fear. Even now, he mumbled something low in Arabic. It sounded like a prayer.
Even though she enjoyed seeing the icy Khalid finally shaken up, it had left him paralyzed, afraid to leave this hiding place. And time was running out.
"We need to get going," Linda said firmly.
Khalid whirled on her, his eyes dark.
Before he could curse her, she spoke up. "The gunfire is heading this way, Khalid. Listen." She pointed out the door. "Whatever they're firing at is being driven this way. Toward us."
He clenched his fists, not in anger, but with fear and frustration. "We need to keep moving." Fear cracked his normally steady voice.
"Then let's go!"
A loud snap echoed across the gorge as Tiny Tim rammed loose the mooring of the rope bridge. As Ben began to plummet, he tightened his grip on the limp rope. He prayed Nob'cobi had the remaining mooring securely rigged. Wincing, he watched the far wall race toward him. This was going to hurt, but he had to hold his grip. If the collision should jar him loose from the rope, he would be nothing more than a messy splat on the floor of the gorge.
He twisted around to catch the brunt of the collision with his legs, but it was little use. When he hit, it felt like he had jumped off a ten-story building. His left hip smashed into the wall, almost blinding him with pain, but he ignored it, concentrating on one thing: keeping his grip on the rope, willing his ten fingers to clench tight. He bounced off the wall and swung back. This time his legs did bear the brunt of the impact, and he came to a stop, hanging fifteen feet from the lip of the gorge.
Across the chasm, Tiny Tim bellowed its rage at him. It stalked back and forth by the damaged bridge, searching for a way across.
Ben squinted at its piercing cries of rage. "Shut the fuck up!" he screamed back at it.
Tiny Tim tensed at his outburst and crouched low just across the gorge. Ben knew it could see him. For a moment, he thought the crak'an might suicidally leap at him, but instead it hissed a final time and darted back into the maze of buildings. Good riddance.
Sighing in relief, Ben hung there, resting. He could feel blood running down the inside of his pants leg as he clutched the rope. He needed to finish the climb before he weakened any further.
Twisting a leg in the rope, he risked freeing a hand to snap the rope into the rappelling harness around his waist. With a modicum of a safety net now, he made a steady ascent to the lip.
Once there, Nob'cobi helped him over the edge. Ben rolled to his back on the hard floor, his breathing raspy. The hunter fingered Ben's blood-soaked trousers leg. He said something in his guttural language, his voice sounding concerned.
"It's just a gash. I'll live." He pushed himself up. "By the way, mate, thanks for the rescue. I was sure we were gonna be monster chow."
Nob'cobi wrinkled his brow in confusion.
"Oh, never mind." Ben tried to stand, but his injured hip protested. It wasn't broken, but it still hurt like hell. Hopping, he headed away from the gorge. "C'mon. We still need to get to that safe."