The first half of the night passed quietly, perhaps due to the fires or the number of animals wounded the night before. But during the latter stages, the Zipacna began to prowl around the clearing once again. They set off the perimeter alarms at least ten times, drawing small bursts of fire in each instance, but only twice did any of them attempt to enter the clearing, and neither foray got very far.
Hawker killed both creatures with lethal shots from the Barrett rifle. The first Zipacna simply fell, unmoving. The second was blown apart, shattered, like a clay target on the firing range. A short while later, an explosion erupted in the tree line, as one of the animals attempted to reclaim the body the team had rigged with explosives.
After that the animals became more cautious, lingering farther back in the tree line, away from the flickering firelight and piercing red beam of the laser. By morning they were gone, and the NRI team went back to work.
As day broke, the team began moving their weapons and ammunition to the temple’s summit, a spot they would defend to the last.
The plan was simple: keep the Zipacna away until the rains came. From the temple’s roof they would occupy the high ground with a perfect field of view; the Zipacna would literally have to storm the castle to get back inside.
Initially, they guessed that a charge might come from all directions, but as McCarter examined the sides of the temple, he grew suddenly thankful for the level of Mayan workmanship. The three faces without the stairs were steep, a seventy-degree angle or more, the fit of the stones tight and unyielding, the surfaces smooth and slick. Even with the creatures’ incredible ability to climb, he doubted they would be able to scale those walls. That left a frontal assault and the stairs as their main concern.
To defend against this they excavated a shallow trench ten feet out from the bottom of the stairway. It stretched across the front and a quarter of the way around either side. They lined it with plastic sheets and trash bags, items that had been brought in to protect artifacts and other treasures. They filled it with kerosene, placing one of the two surviving barrels next to it. The remaining explosives were set at various points along it, and as a further defense, they relocated the metal spikes and other obstacles to its inner side.
They worked the day with their heads down as the color bled slowly from the sky. By midafternoon the horizon was sickly white and the air was thick with haze. The hills that had once been visible from the top of the temple were no longer in view, and the sun was a perfect orange disk, robbed of its glare and floating in a murky, white sea.
By now every member of the camp knew what Hawker had discerned the night before: the rains were coming and the rain would save them—if they could hold on long enough. But they also suspected that the impending storms would bring the Zipacna home, calling them like a siren to the one place they could find shelter for ten thousand square miles. And they raced to finish their preparations in time.
Out in the rainforest, Hawker and Danielle worked on the sensors, trying to recalibrate them so they would search the trees as well as the ground. Hawker stood by with the healthiest of the surviving dogs, while Danielle fiddled with the controls on the motion detectors. They moved from sensor to sensor, calling back to Brazos to shut the grid down momentarily and then having him bring it up again once the sensor had been reset.
The first few changes went off without a hitch, but on the fourth try a static burst snapped the air between Danielle’s finger and the sensor.
Brazos radioed them instantly. “What did you do? The whole screen’s gone crazy.”
Danielle backed off and Hawker asked Brazos, “How’s it look now?”
There was a delay, presumably while Brazos cycled the screen. “It’s okay,” he said, in obvious relief.
“The humidity is making the static worse,” Hawker said. “You might want to hurry.”
She cut her eyes at him and he spoke into the radio once again. “Shut it down.”
Back in the clearing, Brazos threw a switch and the screen faded to black. For the next minute they would live without eyes, and Brazos had found he could not stare at the blank screen for such a length of time.
He surveyed the camp. McCarter stood on the temple’s roof by the Barrett rifle, while Eric, the lone survivor from Kaufman’s team, carried two heavy boxes of shells to the roof. Out near the original center of camp Susan rooted around in the remaining supply lockers for anything else of value, while nearby Verhoven worked Devers mercilessly, forcing him to pile heavy stones upon an improvised sled, which he would then have to drag toward the trench and unload. A dozen trips had left the linguist drenched in sweat and his shoulder wound bleeding through its gauze.
Next to them the other surviving canine sat calmly, licking at its bandaged wound and panting softly.
Brazos picked up his radio. “Can I switch on now?”
In the forest, Hawker looked at Danielle. “I don’t mean to rush you, but …”
Danielle ignored him as she struggled with the tiny dials. Finally she stepped back from the sensor. “That should do it.”
Hawker pressed his talk switch. “Go.”
As they waited for Brazos’ response, Danielle bit her lip softly.
“How’s it look?” Hawker asked.
The reply came with some uncertainty. “More static. I think in sector two this time.”
Sector two was halfway around the circle. “Doesn’t make sense, we haven’t gotten there yet. He’s probably looking at the wrong thing.”
Hawker brought the radio up to call Brazos again, but before he could the German shepherd beside them stiffened. A second later distant barking reached them from the canine in the clearing and the dog beside Hawker bolted for its companion.
The air-horn alarm sounded across the clearing as one of the creatures burst from the forest and raced across the open ground, heading for the temple.
Caught in the space between, Susan panicked, dropping what she was doing and dashing toward McCarter, unwittingly putting herself right in the animal’s path.
Verhoven shouted to her, but she was gone. He grabbed his shotgun, stepped into the line and pulled the trigger.
The solid lead slug hit the beast and cracked its shell, but it caromed off the angled shape and failed to bring the creature down. Without his hand taped to the barrel, Verhoven could not reload.
The animal leapt.
Verhoven swung the shotgun like a club, but the Zipacna crashed through the blow, knocking him to the dirt and savaging him.
Brazos was the closest. He fired and the Zipacna spun back for an instant.
In the brief moment that the animal was off him, a bloodied Verhoven pushed himself backward with his legs and pulled Hawker’s pistol from his belt.
The animal turned and lunged for him, the open jaws coming down just as Verhoven swung the pistol upward, into the mouth. He pulled the trigger.
Hawker reached him a few seconds later, shocked at the damage the thing had done. Verhoven had managed to protect his face and neck, but blood was spreading rapidly from a wound in his side and squirting in pulses from a torn artery in his forearm.
Hawker ripped a section off Verhoven’s shirt for a tourniquet and shouted for Danielle.
Verhoven looked at his arm, his eyes drooping. “Where’s the girl?”
“She made it to the temple,” Hawker said, threading the fabric around Verhoven’s arm.
Verhoven nodded weakly. “Stop,” he said.
Hawker cinched the tourniquet, and started another.
“It’s too late for that,” Verhoven said, his voice dropping to a raspy whisper. “Better to go like this … than in a home somewhere.”
Hawker paused and Verhoven looked at him, coughing up blood.
“All sins forgiven?” Verhoven asked Hawker stared at his old friend, his old enemy. The man was a ghost already. Hawker shook his head. “None to forgive.”
Almost imperceptibly Verhoven nodded. “Damn right,” he managed. Then, as Danielle came over, he reached out and grabbed Hawker’s shirt. “You finish this,” he said. “Finish this, and get these people home.”
Verhoven shook him once, as if to emphasize the order. But his grip had already begun to fail. He held on for a moment, gazing at Hawker, and then his hand fell, dropping to the dry earth. With his eyes still open, Pik Verhoven died.
Danielle crouched beside Hawker, a hand on his shoulder. Hawker stared at Verhoven, finding it impossible to look away.
Brazos’ voice reached them, breaking the silence. “My God,” he said.
Both Hawker and Danielle looked toward him. Brazos was staring at the defense console with a grim expression on his face.
Hawker put a hand out and closed Verhoven’s eyes. The black pistol Hawker had given him lay on the ground. He grabbed it, stood and walked with Danielle to the console.
Targets were showing up, at least a dozen already, gathering on the western edge once again. Their numbers were growing rapidly, as if they were massing for a charge.
Hawker looked up. The haze above them had thickened into a solid layer of darkening gray and the sun had all but vanished.
On the brink of the storm, all of them, animal and human, had run out of time.