Nob'cobi followed, but after a few yards, he grabbed Ben's arm and pointed to the droplets of blood from his gash that dripped as he walked.

"I told you it's nothing. Blakely has a first-aid kit in his office." Ben turned to leave, but the little hunter persisted, pulling him back. He pantomimed sniffing at the bloody trail, then imitated a far approximation of a crak'an's throaty growl.

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"You think I'm leaving a trail?" Ben studied the line of droplets. "You're right. I guest it's best if we don't leave such an obvious invitation."

Ben stripped out of his bloody trousers and wrung them out. Standing in his shorts, he examined his wound. A jagged slash across his upper thigh. It would leave an ugly scar but nothing worse. Frowning, he used the last dregs of his canteen to wash the wound then secured a handkerchief around his upper thigh to stanch the flow of blood.

"There," Ben said, slipping back into his trousers. "Are you happy?"

The hunter had that bored look on his face again, apparently content.

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"Fine. Let's go." Ben led the way, sneaking from shadow to shadow. He had enough of those stinking crak'an and didn't want to run into any others.

The way was clear. Within five minutes, he found himself at the door to Blakely's office. The glass door to the administration office was smashed, but otherwise the concrete-block building was intact. Stepping gingerly across the threshold, careful of the glass, Ben entered the reception area. Something large had trashed the room. A thick yellow substance reeking of ammonia smeared the walls.

"Looks like some bloody alley cat sprayed the place," Ben muttered as he examined the wreckage of desk and files. Pushing through the debris, he reached the undamaged metal door that led to the offices. He tried the knob. Locked.

"Goddamn it!" He struck the door, bruising his fist. He rattled the doorknob.

A voice called from behind the door, "Hello! Is someone out there?"

By god, someone was alive! He pounded on the door. "Open up. It's Ben Brust from the exploration team."

A pause, then meekly, "Is it safe?"

"For the moment. Now open up."

He heard the deadbolt releasing. The door pulled open from within. A small blond woman with straggly hair stood before him. A smart business suit was in shambles on her thin form.

"Sandy?" Ben recognized Blakely's secretary. "Are you all right?"

She ran to him and hugged him. "Thank god you're here!"

Nob'cobi stepped up to Ben and mumbled something, pointing back out the door.

Sandy stared at the small naked hunter, her eyes wide, her fingers digging into Ben's arm. She gave a small whimper and backed away.

Ben waved Nob'cobi outside so as not to scare her any further. He pushed Sandy down the hallway toward Blakely's office.

Once inside, he crossed to the safe where Blakely stored the diamond figurine, the ohna idol of the mimi'swee. He didn't know the combination, but there were enough blasting caps and explosives on the base that it shouldn't be hard to open. Harry knew where those supplies were and how to use them. So where was Harry now?

Sandy huddled on a sofa. "What… what was that… creature?"

"He's a friend. One of the cliff dwellers."

"How… I mean… when…?"

He sat down next to her. "It's a long story, but trust me, he's a friend. He won't harm you."

She hugged her arms around her chest and shivered.

"How did you get left behind?" he asked. "Why didn't you evacuate with the others?"

She stared at him as if he were crazy. "There was no evacuation. They attacked so suddenly. There was no time. Everyone's dead."

"What? But what about reinforcements from above?"

"We lost radio communications almost immediately. On the day following the attack, I heard the elevator motor and took a chance and ran to look." Her face paled as she related the story.

"The elevator was packed with soldiers. But they didn't know." She turned to him, her eyes tearing up. "They didn't know. The noise drew those creatures. Scores of them. When the elevator opened, the men were overwhelmed, torn to pieces." She placed her face in her hands. "Since then, no one's tried to come down."

Ben nodded. "With McMurdo on the backass side of the world, it's no wonder. It'll probably take them at least a week to stage a full-scale assault. Until then we're on our own."

Sandy's sobbing worsened.

He patted her hand. "We'll make it until then."

With her voice full of tears, she said, "They all ran out. I was all alone. I couldn't do anything."

"What about Blakely?"

She shook her head. "The last time I saw him, he was running out of here with that boy Jason."

Ben's heart skipped a beat. "Do you know if they made it to safety?"

"I don't know what happened. I locked myself in here. But the screaming… the screaming went on for days. Then nothing. Nothing at all. That was the worst. The silence." She looked up at him, shaking. "I thought I was the last one left."

"Well, you're not." He stood up. What was he going to tell Ashley? He paced the floor and glanced at his watch. Fourteen hours had elapsed. He still had to blow the safe and return to the mimi'swee village. That didn't leave him room to thoroughly search the entire base with those beasts around. He stopped in front of the safe and clenched his fist. Where in bloody hell was Harry? He turned to Sandy. "I don't suppose you happen to know the combination to Blakely's safe?"

She nodded and told him.

Finally, maybe his luck was turning. He twirled the dial as she instructed and swung open the heavy door. For a moment he didn't think it was in there, until he realized the statue had been wrapped in brown paper and twine. He picked it up and ripped the paper off, holding it up to the filtered light. Ben ran a finger across the statue's thick belly. Hopefully, she would bring him luck.

Just then Nob'cobi came rushing in, a panicked look on his face.

Somehow Ben knew his luck had just run short again.

Tears of frustration ran down Jason's face. He still couldn't believe it. At first he had thought he had imagined it, but the accent was clear. Ben! He had heard him talking to someone, followed by a loud knocking. From only a little distance away! He couldn't make out the words clearly, but it had to be Ben. Jason had tried to call to him, but the gag stifled all but a soft moan that barely reached his own ears.

Finally, he had heard a door slam shut, followed by silence. He strained to listen for any evidence that Ben was still around. Nothing. He must have gone into the building.

Jason struggled with his bonds. If only he could free a hand and pull the gag off. He had to find some way to call to Ben when he exited the building. If he should fail… He glanced at the LED readout on his belt. The number 11 glowed on the screen, and as he watched, it dissolved into the number 10.

He needed help… fast. He struggled again with the ropes, but it was no use. He slumped against the restraints. He needed another plan.

As he hung from the pillar, an idea suddenly struck him. Maybe…

He shifted his hips. If he could reach his left hand to his jacket pocket… He squeezed his eyes closed as he stretched and contorted his body, straining in his bonds. He felt his fingers close on the familiar plastic box. Careful not to drop it, he struggled to free it from his pocket, but it caught in the fabric. He stopped and took a deep breath. Don't rush! With more concentration, he slowly worked it free of his jacket, sighing in relief. It had been the only thing that Khalid had let him keep from his gym bag.

He prayed the batteries still worked as he flipped on his Nintendo Game Boy. A familiar jingle bounced from the toy. He twisted the volume control to its highest. The music was not particularly loud, but with luck, the oddity of the sound would attract Ben when he left the building.

He waited. Please, Ben, hurry. What if the batteries should die out too soon? What if he was wrong and Ben had already left? What if the timer on his belt reached zero before Ben heard him? His mind spun with awful misgivings.

But one worry he had not considered until he saw the black snout angle around the corner to his right. What if the noise attracted something other than Ben? Jason watched as it hissed softly at him, its nostrils flaring open and closed. He thumbed off his Nintendo and froze. The creature stalked fully into view. Bloody wounds oozed from its belly and neck, but it seemed unaffected by the injuries as it slowly slunk in his direction.

THIRTY-FOUR

ASHLEY WAS SURE HER SON WAS FINE. HE HAD TO BE. SHE put down her pen. All day she had been working in umbo's chamber, trying to keep her hands busy and her mind distracted. Cataloging, measuring, recording notes in her logbook.

She glanced at her watch. It was already late evening. Ben should be heading back by now. What if he didn't have any word of Jason? Or worse, what if he never came back? How much longer could she wait before this tension drove her mad?

Sighing, she sat back and stared across the chamber at the dozing figure of Mo'amba, seated with his eyes closed. He was her only guard. The others had been sent away. His word was obeyed without question.

She eyed the black wormhole through which Ben had disappeared. She could make a break for it. If Mo'amba was truly napping, then perhaps… She shook her head. It was a long crawl. They would surely catch her. Besides, she couldn't abandon Michaelson. Even if by some miracle she did manage to escape, he'd be killed in her place.

Suddenly, Mo'amba's eyes snapped open and he stared at her. He struggled to his feet, but his hours of sitting seemed to cramp him. Ashley crossed over and helped him up.

He eyed the opening to the chamber that led to the village.

"What is it?" she asked.

He placed a hand over her mouth for silence, then waved for her to follow. Using his staff as a crutch, he hobbled through the entrance and pulled her into a shadowed alcove just across the tunnel.

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