Michaelson covered his ears, eyes squinting at the noise.
As suddenly as it started, the wailing ceased. The sudden silence felt huge and empty, as if something vital had been removed from the air.
Ashley saw one of the guards look in her direction. Under his bony brow, tears were in his eyes, and something else too-hatred.
"What was that all about?" Michaelson asked.
"We just ran out of time. Mo'amba's dead."
Ben was just starting to stand when it hit. Like an explosion between his ears. He stumbled back to his knees. At first, he thought some bomb must have detonated, like the one attached to Jason's waist, but when he pried his eyes open, Jason was just staring at him with a quizzical look.
"Are you okay?" the boy asked, seemingly unaware of what had just transpired.
Ben nodded. "I think so…" Then the world went black.
What the hell? He struggled but seemed to be floating in a space without stars, nothing to push against, nothing to fight. He was not unconscious, just surrounded by an infinite blackness. Then a single dull ember appeared, glowing in the darkness ahead. As he concentrated on this landmark, like some distant beacon, the glow intensified to a bright flame. It spoke, vibrating with each word, in his grandfather's voice. "… Ben… Ben… you must… hurry…"
By now, Ben could recognize one of Mo'amba's callings. But now was not the time. "What is it? What's wrong? Is Ashley okay?"
"… weak… tired…" The flame died again to only a feeble flicker. "… must hurry…" It flickered bright for a heartbeat. "Danger…" Then it faded, first back to a dull glow, then to nothing. And in the darkness, Ben felt an emptiness. Somehow he knew that Mo'amba had not just broken contact but was gone. Gone for good. As the world reappeared around him, he found tears trailing down his cheek.
"Ben, what's wrong?" Jason was shaking his shoulder.
He pushed off the stone floor where he had collapsed. Mo'amba was dead. He knew this as sure as he knew his father's name. "I'm okay," he answered the boy.
"Don't worry, I'm fine." He patted the boy's knee, while pondering the meaning of Mo'amba's final urgent message. He had wanted Ben to return immediately. Not to waste any more time. But what was the hurry? Ben still had seven hours before his deadline. Something must be up. A new danger.
Jason looked at him with concern but didn't speak.
Ben glanced at the timer on the boy's belt. The number five still glowed on the panel. Hurry, Mo'amba had urged. No kidding. He needed a plan. A way to contact Harry. Get him back here to defuse the bomb.
Then it dawned on him… Hell, why didn't he think of this earlier?
He did have a means of contacting Harry. Well, at least Nob'cobi, who could then tell Harry to get his butt back here. Mo'amba's calling reminded him. He could do the same. He had never tried it at such a distance… and it was doubtful that Nob'cobi was in a relaxed trance state, susceptible to his calling, but it was possible. Mo'amba had done it to him before. He had to try.
"Jason, I know this is gonna seem bloody bonkers, but I'm gonna need to concentrate. I need you to stay quiet."
"Okay, but what-"
"Shhh. Later." Ben sat down cross-legged, closing his eyes and breathing deeply. He again pictured his childhood home outside Perth. The orange dust. The 'roos in the distance. Home.
He sat in a creaking chair on the porch again, not bothering with a beer this time. Instead he concentrated fiercely on Nob'cobi's image, visualizing the hunter sitting next to him. He filled in the details of the hunter's features. The scar across his cheek, the graying patch of fur at the top of his head. As he concentrated, the image flickered into reality for a heartbeat. Nob'cobi's surprised face turned to him, then winked back out.
Damn it! Ben concentrated again. C'mon, Nob'cobi, you saw me there for a second. You know what I want. He pressed forward again. C'mon, listen to me. Nothing. He persisted for what seemed like several wasted minutes. Minutes he didn't have.
Just before he was ready to scream in frustration and give up, Nob'cobi appeared. He seemed winded. "What do you want?" he growled at Ben. "I almost tripped and fell with that first call. You're supposed to-"
"Enough! I need Harry back here. Now!"
"Well, we're heading back that way. That crak'an must have it in for you. It gave up chasing us and turned back your way. Are you cleared out of there yet?"
"No. We've got a problem. I need Harry and you to forget about Tiny Tim and meet me back at the office. Run as fast as you can."
"You better do the same. That crak'an is coming your way fast."
"Hurry." But Nob'cobi had already vanished.
Ben pushed back out of his dream state and found Jason staring at him.
"What are you doing?"
"It's a long story," he said scrambling up. "We've got company coming." With a relieved sigh, he noticed Jason's LED readout showed a 4. Time moved oddly in the dreaming place. It seemed like he was there a lot longer than a mere moment. "Can you run?"
Jason shifted from foot to foot, obviously full of nervous energy. "Oh, yeah."
"Then come on." Ben grabbed his hand and hurried away, just as he made out the sound of Tiny Tim scrabbling toward them from the other direction. He increased the pace to a vigorous run. The office was barely a hundred yards away. He reached it with Jason in tow in less than a minute. The readout on the belt changed from 4 to 3 just as he pushed through into the trashed reception area. Now just bloody hurry, Harry.
Ben crossed to the door leading to the building's offices and knocked. "It's Ben," he called. He heard the deadbolt being released; the door swung open.
Sandy's worried face peered out. She spotted Jason and her eyes widened. "You found the boy!" She rushed out and scooped him up in a hug as if he were some sort of life preserver.
Then a voice behind him. "So what's the big rush?" Harry stumbled into the reception area. Nob'cobi stepped carefully in behind him.
Ben noticed Jason's eyes widen with surprise at his first glimpse of the mimi'swee.
Ben grabbed Harry's shoulder and pulled him forward. "Jason's rigged with explosives. We only have a couple minutes before it blows. I need you to defuse it."
"What the hell?" Harry said, crossing to Jason. "Let me see."
At Ben's words, Sandy had released Jason as if he carried the plague and backed away into the hallway.
Jason pointed to the belt, but kept looking over Harry's shoulder at Nob'cobi as Harry knelt down beside him. The number 2 glowed red. Gingerly, Harry fingered the device, having Jason spin around so he could examine the entire belt. "Hmmm," was all he said.
"Well?" Ben asked.
"I've seen this work before. All ready-made. The triggering device is housed in this little tin box. Even if we had time and tools, I can't get to it without significant risk. Without the code, this baby is gonna blow."
"Goddamn it!" Ben blurted. "Then we're screwed."
Harry shrugged and reached up for the clasp of the belt, triggering an alarmed "Don't!" from Jason. Harry ignored him and yanked it open. The belt merely parted and fell free from his waist. Harry stood up, holding the belt away from him as if it were some snake.
Jason tumbled away. "It was supposed to explode if you took it off."
"Who told you that?" Harry asked.
"He was lying. There's no circuit around the belt."
Jason stood there trembling. "Then I… I could have taken that off… anytime." Ben noticed the boy seemed more disturbed by this fact than by the fact that he had been about to be blown up.
Harry nodded. "Yep. Now if you don't mind"-he pointed at the number 1 glowing on the belt-"this thing's still going to explode."
Ben snatched the belt from Harry. "Everyone to the back of the building. I'm gonna toss this baby as far as I can. Then run like hell."
Harry herded everyone into the hall as Ben headed for the door. From behind him, Harry called, "Don't throw like a girl. There's a shitload of plastic hooked to that belt."
"Just get everyone to the far side of the building!" Ben dashed out the door. He sprinted several feet away from the building to get a clear path to lob the belt. As he raised his arm, the beast pounced at him.
From a mere ten feet away, the wounded crak'an leaped in front of him, head low, hissing with cold menace. It blocked the entire way forward.
Ben scrambled for his pistol, but his hand came back empty. He had left the gun in the building. Ben backed up a few steps.
Tiny Tim opened its jaws wide and howled at him in triumph.
"Fuck you!" Ben whipped the belt toward the open maw, then spun on his heel and ran for the safety of the building. He risked a glance over his shoulder and saw the beast paw at its mouth, trying to dislodge the belt.
Bastard, you just bit off more than you can chew.
Ben flew through the demolished front door and dived for the hallway. Just as he reached the threshold, the explosion ripped the world apart behind him. The force of the explosion grabbed him and threw him down the hall.
He did his best to roll when he hit, but something snapped as he collided with the hallway floor. Debris rained upon him as he lay sprawled in the hallway. A choking smoke quickly followed.
Jason appeared at his side. "Ben, are you okay?"
In answer, he just groaned.
Harry knelt down. "Let me take a look at him."
Ben pushed to his hands and knees, coughing smoke from his throat. Pain flared at the base of his neck. His shoulder felt dislocated, but he'd live.
Ben glanced up to Jason's concerned face. "When we get out of this, I'm buying you a pair of suspenders. No more belts."