He watched as Linda ran into view, her eyes glued to the crater. Her face was smudged, her hair in stringy tangles. Tears swelled in her eyes.
Khalid stepped into view behind her, smoking a cigarette. "It's done," he heard Khalid say. "The boy's gone."
Linda stumbled to the crater's far edge and began walking around it. Jason realized she was going to cross within a yard of the buried monster.
Jason dashed from the building and ran to the crater's edge. He called across the hole to her. "Linda! Get back! Run!"
Linda jumped at the sight of him, her hands fluttering around her cheeks like scared birds. "Jason?" His words and sudden appearance seemed to shock her. Her foot slipped, and she tripped into the crater.
With a roar, the beast reacted, erupting from the pile of debris like some bloody jack-in-the-box. It reared up. A white bone protruded from its side where its arm had been. Its entire flank was charred. It lunged at Linda, who cowered on the crater floor.
"No!" Jason screamed.
Khalid reacted first, in panic, firing madly at the beast. The beast swung toward Khalid, drawn by the noise of the gun. Yelling, Khalid pawed at his pocket, his eyes so wide they bulged. He barely seemed to react when the monster snatched him up. Only a weak groan escaped his lips as he was yanked upward, his waist trapped in the beast's jaws.
The man's weight, however, proved too much for the beast in its weakened state. It collapsed back into the pile of debris with a crash, still clutching Khalid in its jaws.
Linda scuttled on her hands and knees to the far side of the crater, her face a mask of horror as the beast crept away, dragging the Egyptian with it.
Khalid thrashed in its teeth, his arms still free. He had the pistol in his hand but wasn't using it. Instead he was trying to free something from his pocket.
With a fierce yank and a yell of triumph, blood flowing from his lips, he pulled his hand free. Jason recognized the object. Khalid had showed it to him before. A radio transmitter for setting off bombs.
Linda spotted it too. "Don't!" she screamed.
Khalid smiled painfully. Blood flowed freely from his lips. He raised his hand.
"No!" Linda screamed.
Before Khalid could press the detonator, the monster spasmed, jarring Khalid and knocking the transmitter from his hands. It bounced a few feet away.
Khalid scrabbled for the device; it was just out of reach. Jason watched as the creature, weakening, went limp. Khalid's eyes squinted in agony as he struggled to inch himself from the clenched jaws and reach the transmitter. His fingers brushed the edge of the device on his second attempt.
Jason did not wait. He dashed forward.
Linda called. "Get back!"
He ignored her and snatched the transmitter seconds before Khalid's hand reached the same spot. Khalid swore at him, bloody spittle flying from his mouth. Jason danced back.
"Give it to me, boy!"
"No." Jason backed another step away, out of Khalid's reach.
"Then die." Khalid raised his other hand, the pistol still in his grip. Almost point-blank range.
The last thing Jason saw was the flash of muzzle fire.
Ashley stood and stretched her legs in ohna's chamber. She gave Harry's aluminum transport a kick with her toe. Four hours riding piggyback on top of Ben from the mimi'swee village! She worked a kink out of her lower back with a knuckle. Damn!
"C'mon," Ben called from outside. "It's clear. Let's go."
Ashley crawled from the tiny chamber into Alpha Cavern. She had wondered if she would ever see this place again. Bone-tired, she smiled. Finally!
However, when she spotted the means of transport from here, her smile sank. "A motorcycle?" Ashley clambered down the cliff to Ben.
"I have to hand it to Harry," he said. "He builds mean machines."
She nodded, climbing behind Ben on the cycle. It was unfortunate that Harry's brother, Dennis, had to be left back with the mimi'swee, but his injured ankle compromised their speed. He was coming up with the band of mimi'swee hunters, on foot. "I don't care if we have to get there by mule," she said. "I need to see Jason."
"I know. It's bugging me that I can't reach Nob'cobi. Hang on." Within moments, they were racing through darkness toward the distant glow of the base.
Ashley pressed herself against Ben's back, leaning her cheek on his shoulder. She hugged him tighter. She could almost hear his heartbeat.
"Keep an eye out for any of those crak'an," Ben yelled above the engine noise. "Those nasties are creeping all over the cavern."
"You just keep this bike aiming straight toward the base. I don't care what gets in the way. Run over it."
She watched the surroundings for any flash of movement as they traveled. Nothing but darkness. Soon the blackness faded to a dusky twilight as they approached the base. As night was beaten back by the camp lights, a growing stench filled the air.
She crinkled her nose. "My god."
"You'll get used to it."
She prayed she never would. When Ashley saw the devastation and destruction, she closed her eyes. How did Jason survive this?
"Almost there," Ben shouted.
Suddenly, to the right, a reptilian head sprang up behind an overturned car, its muzzle bloody. Ben saw it and gunned the bike. The cycle shot forward, leaving the beast bellowing far behind.
"Over there," Ben said finally, pointing.
She had already recognized it. Though scarred with burns, Blakely's office still stood intact. Ben slowed the bike to a crawl and edged around a corner of the building.
The sight that came into view stopped Ashley's heart cold.
No! She flew off the cycle. The hulking carcass of one of the predators lay sprawled just yards from the building. Khalid lay limp in its jaws, his pallor pale, his eyes staring blindly upward.
This was not the sight that had panicked her. Harry was hunched over a small figure that lay twisted on the rock.
No, she prayed, not after so much.
Ben caught up to her, pulling her back. "Wait," he said.
She resisted his restraint, pushing his arm away. She crossed over to Harry. Standing up, he moved aside for her. Ben stood next to her.
"It's not Jason, Ash," Ben said, placing a hand on her shoulder. "That's what I was trying to tell you. I knew from your face what you were thinking."
She stared down at the dead mimi'swee hunter, a bullet hole in his chest. "Who is it?"
Ben knelt down next to the dead man, placing his hand on his shoulder. "No wonder I couldn't reach him. It's Nob'cobi." Ben lifted his eyes to Harry. "What happened?"
With tears threatening, Harry explained, "I'd gone to check for survivors from the elevator explosion. The mimi'swee were left to guard the building. While I was away, Khalid and Linda returned." He continued to relate how the crak'an attacked and how Khalid attempted to blow the place up as a final act before he died. "The hunters were watching, waiting for the best time to intervene. When Jason grabbed the transmitter, Khalid tried to kill him. But Nob'cobi knocked the boy to the side and took the bullet instead."
Ashley knelt next to Ben. "He saved my boy's life."
"Yes," Harry said. "Jason got a good knock on the head. Blacked out for a few seconds, but he's fine. Linda took him-"
Ashley whirled to face the building. Jason stood in the blasted opening, a bandage wrapped over his forehead. "Jason!"
She stood up and ran to him. They collapsed into each other's arms. "Oh, honey, I'm so sorry." She hugged him hard to her chest.
"I love you, Mom."
She just held him, rocking him in her arms.
Ben pointed to the large carcass. "I thought I had killed that bloody beast."
"Apparently it had a hide as thick as yours," Harry said.
Linda then stepped through the doorway, a smile on her face. Jason saw her and wiggled out of Ashley's arms. He wiped at his nose and straightened his bandage, obviously embarrassed at such a childish display of motherly attention.
Ashley smiled. Was he already that old?
Harry suddenly called out, "Look!" He jabbed a finger toward the roof.
She stood up and joined the others, staring at where Harry pointed.
Lights, pirouetting downward.
In the feeble glow of a few remaining spotlights, ballooning parachutes drifted downward. As she watched, more and more chutes flared open from the top of the skeletal elevator shaft. The chutists each had a halogen light, which they waved to and fro as they descended. Within minutes there seemed to be hundreds of them, drifting in all directions to cover the entire base.
Like fireflies on a warm spring night.
"Who are they?" Jason asked.
"I believe that's the cavalry coming over the hill." Harry said.
Ben snorted. "About bloody time!"
Mount Erebus, Antarctica
BEN CRAWLED INTO BED, SIGHING. WHAT A DAY! HE snuggled next to Ashley. She moaned in her sleep and rolled onto her side. He placed his hand on her belly. She was already showing. Four months along, and not a sign that she was ready to cut back on her cultural study of the mimi'swee. Knowing her, she would wait until her water broke before finally putting pen and paper down.
He smiled in the darkness and lay back with an arm propping his head, staring at the ceiling. Alpha Base had almost been put back together again. The sonic repellents that Linda had developed were succeeding in keeping the crak'an away. Her team of biologists had also made another discovery: The erosion of the mimi'swee's ring of protective fungus had not been due to the imbalance of umbo and ohna, as Mo'amba had claimed, but rather to the introduction of and competition from a modern fungus, carried here by humans. So Sin'jari had been right after all-humans were to blame. At least indirectly.
Ben let out a rattling sigh and stretched, bone-tired. As heri'huti, his responsibilities with the tribe seemed endless. No wonder Mo'amba had wanted to pass the baton on to him. Still, in memory of the old man, he felt an obligation to carry on the position. At least until the tiny mimi'swee offspring gifted with heri'huti blood grew to maturity. Ben had overseen the hatching of the child, another of his duties. The child, who had been named Tu'shama by Mo'amba before his death, was a girl, the first female heri'huti of the tribe. Her gender had shocked the community, but Ben didn't care. Male or female, here was his replacement!