“Yes, but now a new storm strikes the area, rising from the south. It will be death to walk those sands.”
“So we’re still trapped,” Omaha said.
“Until the storm abates. We must simply hold out until that time.”
With that sobering thought, they crisscrossed a few more streets in silence, finally reaching the back cavern wall. It looked solid, but Captain al-Haffi continued forward. Then Safia spotted it. A straight fracture in the glass wall. It angled inward, making it difficult to spot.
Captain al-Haffi led them to the crack. “The surface lies a hundred and fifty steps up. The passage can act as a shelter for the children and women.”
“And a trap if we can’t hold off Cassandra. She still outnumbers us and outguns us.”
Captain al-Haffi stared across the group. “My men could use help. Anybody who can hold a gun.”
Safia watched Danny and Coral accept weapons from a stash inside the crack. Even Clay stepped forward and held out his hand.
Her student caught her surprised look. “I really want that A,” was all he said as he stepped away. His eyes shone with terror, but he did not back down.
Omaha went last. “I already have a pistol. But I could use a second.”
Captain al-Haffi handed him an M-16.
“But this’ll do.”
Safia stepped up as he moved away. “Omaha…” She had never acknowledged what he had said back by the palace. Had his words been a deathbed confession, knowing they were doomed?
He smiled at her. “You don’t have to say anything. I made my stand. I haven’t earned your response yet.” He moved away. “But I hope at least you’ll let me try.”
Safia shoved up to him and put her arm around his neck and held him tight. She spoke into his ear. “I do love you…I just don’t know…” She couldn’t finish the statement. It hung there between them.
He squeezed her anyway. “I do. And I’ll wait until you do, too.”
An argument forced them apart. Words between Kara and Captain al-Haffi.
“I will not let you fight, Lady Kensington.”
“I am perfectly able to shoot a gun.”
“Then take a gun with you to the stairs. You may need it.”
Kara fumed, but the captain was right. The last stand might come to a fight on the stairs.
Captain al-Haffi placed a hand on her shoulder. “I owe your family a debt. Let me pay it this day.”
“What are you talking about?” Kara said.
He bowed his head; his voice grew mournful and shamed. “This is not the first time I’ve lent my services to your family. When I was a young man, a boy really, I volunteered to help you and your father.”
Kara’s frown deepened.
Captain al-Haffi lifted his face to hers. “My first name is Habib.”
Kara gasped and stumbled back a step. “The guide on the day of the hunt. That was you.”
“I was to attend your father because of his interest in Ubar. But I failed. Fear kept me from following you and your father that day into the forbidden sands. Only when I saw that you intended to enter the nisnases did I come after you, but it was too late. So I collected you from the sands and returned you to Thumrait. I did not know what else to do.”
Kara appeared dumbstruck. Safia stared between them. Everything had come full circle…back to these same sands.
“So let me protect you now…as I failed to do in the past.”
Kara could only nod. Captain al-Haffi moved away. Kara called after him. “You were only a boy.”
“Now I’m a man.” He turned to follow the others back down to the city.
Safia heard an echo of Omaha’s words.
The hodja stared among those remaining. “It is not over yet.” With those cryptic words, she entered the cleft. “We must walk the path of the old queen.”
21 Storm Watch
DECEMBER 4, 5:30 P.M.
T HEY WERE still on his tail.
Painter saw the glow of his pursuers back in the sandstorm. He lumbered forward, eking out as much speed as possible, which was approximately thirty miles per hour. And in the current teeth of this storm, this was a highspeed chase.
He checked both side mirrors. One truck tracked on each side. He caught the barest glimpse of his hunters: two loaded flatbed trucks. Despite their loads, they moved faster than he could, but they also had to compensate for the terrain. He, on the other hand, aimed the twenty-ton tractor in one direction, trundling over anything in his path, riding up one dune and down another.
Sand obliterated all sight lines. If this were a blizzard, it would be described as a whiteout.
Painter had set the tractor’s cruise control. He checked its other features. It had a radar dish, but he didn’t know how to operate it. He did find the radio. His initial plan had been to travel as close to Thumrait Air Base as necessary and contact the Omani Royal Air Force. Someone would listen. If he had any hope of rescuing the others, he had to blow his cover and alert the government here.
But the trucks had set him on a course away from the base, deeper into the storm. He had no chance to swing around. The other trucks were too fast.
As he climbed a monstrous dune, an explosion thundered on his left side. Shrapnel and a wave of sand struck that side like a bitch-slap from God Himself.
For a moment, an awful grating sound tore at the treads.
Painter winced, but the tractor rode through it, grinding away whatever had clogged its gears. It moved up the long slope.
Another explosion, this time directly behind him. The noise was deafening, but the armor plating proved its mettle…or in this case, its poly-carbonate steel and Kevlar. Let them take potshots at him. The wind and storm would surely throw off their aim, and the tractor’s armor would do the rest.
Then he felt a sickening lurch.
The tractor’s treads still spun, but Painter’s speed slowed. The M4 began to slide. He suddenly realized what his hunters’ bombing had intended—not to take out the twenty-ton tractor, but to make it lose its footing.
They were bombing the slope, triggering an avalanche. The whole slope was sliding backward, taking the tractor with it. He switched off the cruise, popped the clutch, and kicked to a lower gear. He slammed the accelerator, trying to regain traction in the slippery slope.
No luck. He just churned himself into the loose sand.
Painter braked the tractor, fishtailing the back end, then hit reverse. He fled with the sand now, swimming with the riptide in the avalanche. He turned the tractor until he was parallel with the slope, the tractor tilting dangerously. He had to take care not to roll it.
He pushed the gear into neutral, braked, then back into first. The tractor moved forward again, now surfing down the slope, running along its flank, finding good traction and speed. He raced down to the bottom. The trucks gave chase, but they ran into the toppling sand and had to slow down.
Painter reached the end of the dune and cut around the corner.
He was done running from these fuckers.
He positioned the tractor to run straight, then reset the cruise.
Letting go of the wheel, he made sure the tractor continued its course. He then retreated quickly to the back. He found his own launcher. He loaded one of the rocket-propelled grenades, balanced the long tube on his shoulder, and crossed to the back hatch of the tractor.
He kicked the door open. Sand blew in, but not too fiercely as he was traveling into the wind. He stared out behind him. He waited until he spotted two glows, rounding the last dune, coming at him again.
“Come to Papa,” he mumbled, and aimed.
He set the crosshairs and pulled the trigger. The launcher exploded with a whoosh. He felt the backwash of heated air as the grenade rocketed away.
He watched the red fire of its trail, a shooting star.
The hunters spotted it, too. Painter saw them both wheel to either side. Too late. At least for one of them. The grenade exploded. Painter enjoyed seeing one of the glows shoved high into the air and explode into a fiery ball, shining brightly in the darkness. It crashed back into the sands.
The other truck had vanished. Hopefully, in its haste, it had bogged down among the dunes. Painter would watch for it.
He returned to his seat and checked both side mirrors. All dark.
With a moment to breathe, Painter opened the stolen laptop. Slowly pixels charged and bloomed to light on the dark screen. He prayed the batteries held. The schematic of the area reappeared. Painter stared.
Oh, God, there was no blue marker.
Panic prickled. Then the familiar tiny spinning blue ring appeared. It had taken an extra minute for the wireless feed to pick up again. Safia was still transmitting. He checked the scrolling coordinates. They were still changing. She was moving. Alive. He hoped that meant all the others were safe as well.
He had to get to her…to them. Though the implanted transceiver could not be removed—it was tamper-proofed to blow unless deactivated—he could get Safia out of Cassandra’s range, get her to a surgeon and demolition expert.
As he stared, he realized only the Z-axis coordinates were changing. That axis measured elevation or depth. The negative number was growing smaller, approaching zero.
Safia was climbing up. She was almost on the surface. She must have found a back door out of the caves. Good girl.
As he watched, he frowned. The Z coordinates passed zero and continued to climb into the positive numbers. Safia had not only reached the surface. She was climbing higher.
What the hell?
He checked her position. She was 5.2 miles from his position. As he had already been heading in the general direction, he had only to adjust his course slightly, aiming directly for her.
He crept the speed up another five miles per hour.
Breakneck speed in the current conditions.
If Safia found a back door, so would Cassandra. He had to reach Safia and the others as soon as possible. He glanced back to the blue glow. He knew one other person was surely monitoring this transmission.
Cassandra…and she still had the portable detonator.
S AFIA MARCHED up the long dark stairs, the others trailing behind her, climbing in twos, children and old or injured women. Kara carried their only flashlight, pointed it up the passage, casting Safia’s shadow ahead of her. They sought to put as much distance as possible between them and the war below. Echoes of the fighting still reached them. A continual gunfire.