Ultimately she had only nodded and removed the ring. It came off easily. She placed it in his palm, then looked into his eyes. There was no sorrow, only relief.
That’s when he walked away.
The others stirred as Painter splashed up to them. He rose among them with a sigh of breath. “I think we’re clear. There’s been no sign of the Jet Skis for the past ten minutes.”
Relief murmured among the others.
“We should strike for shore. We’re too exposed out here.”
In the dark, Omaha noted the man’s slight Brooklyn accent. He hadn’t noticed it before. It grated with each word now. Painter’s instructions sounded too much like commands. Military background. Officer training.
“There are two oars secured in oarlocks on either side of the boat. We’ll need them to overturn the launch.” He sidled among them and showed them how to free the oars.
Omaha found one oar shoved into his hand.
“We’ll need to split into two groups. One group to heave weight down on the port side, the others to use the oars to prop up the starboard. We should be able to flip it. But first I’m going to detach the outboard. It was strafed, shot, and now’s leaking oil.”
After a final few coordinations, everyone ducked down and out.
Rain spattered out of the dark skies. The winds had died to faltering gusts. After the time he’d spent hiding under the launch, the night seemed brighter to Omaha. Lightning flickered among the clouds, illuminating patches of ocean. A few fires still floated atop the water. There was no sign of the Shabab Oman.
Omaha spun around a bit, searching. Painter swam to the stern of the launch and fought to free the engine. Omaha considered going to help, but instead simply watched the man’s struggle with the locking pin.
After a few tugs, Painter finally freed the engine. It dropped into the sea. His eyes found Omaha. “Let’s get this baby flipped.”
It wasn’t as easy as Painter had described. It took four attempts until they put everyone on one side, leaning their weight down. Painter and Omaha, each armed with an oar, levered the starboard side up. They also timed the maneuver with the roll of a wave. But finally the launch flipped back upright, half filled with water.
They climbed aboard and bailed the craft. Omaha fit the oars into place.
“It’s still filling with water,” Kara said as the water level inside the launch began to rise again under all their weight.
“Bullet holes,” Danny said, feeling through the water.
“Keep bailing,” Painter said, again with that bite of command. “We’ll alternate between rowing and bailing. It’s a long haul to shore.”
“Be warned,” Captain al-Haffi said, bare-chested but unabashed. “The currents here are treacherous. We must watch for reefs and rocks.”
Painter nodded and waved Coral toward the prow.
Omaha stared at the few burning bits of flotsam, then back the other way. The coast was barely discernible, a slightly darker bank of cloud. Flashes of lightning revealed how far they had drifted.
Painter also stared around the boat. But it wasn’t sharks or coastline that concerned. The worry was plain in the set of his lips. Somewhere out there lurked the murderous men who had kidnapped Safia. But did he fear for her safety or his own skin?
Painter’s earlier words repeated in Omaha’s head.
I care for her…for Safia.
Omaha felt a burst of anger warm the chill from his wet clothes. Was he lying? Omaha clenched both fists on the two oars and set his back. He began to row. Painter, at the stern, glanced over to him. Cold eyes, the glass of the night-vision goggles, studied him. What did they know about the man? He had much to account for, much to explain.
The muscles of Omaha’s jaw ached from clenching too long.
I care for her.
As he rowed, Omaha wasn’t sure what made him more angry.
If the man was lying…or telling the truth.
A N HOUR later, Painter waded through the waist-high water, dragging the towline over his shoulder. The beach stretched silvery before him, framed in tumbled rocky cliffs. The rest of the coastline was dark, except for a few meager lights to the far north. A small village. The immediate vicinity seemed deserted. Still, he kept a wary eye. He had given Coral the night-vision goggles to keep a watch from the launch.
As he continued forward, his shoes dug deep into the rocky sand. His thighs burned from the effort. His shoulders ached from his shift at the oars. Waves helped push him toward the waiting shore.
Only a little further…
At least the rain had stopped.
He leaned his shoulder into the line and hauled the trailing boat toward solid ground. Behind him, Danny worked the oars while Painter guided the boat around the rocks. At last, the beach opened up ahead, a clear shot.
“Pull hard!” Painter called back to Danny.
Slack grew in the line as Danny obeyed. The launch leaped forward with a sweep of oars. Painter fought the water, climbing out of the waves, knee-deep. He slogged forward and to the side.
The launch surfed a final wave and passed to Painter’s right. He ducked to avoid being hit. “Sorry!” Danny called to him, dragging in the oars.
The boat’s prow ground into the sand with a screech of aluminum. The wave receded, leaving the boat beached.
Painter crawled and kicked out of the water, gaining his feet.
The eight men and women clambered from the launch. Coral helped Kara, while Danny, Omaha, and Clay half fell out of the boat. Only the three Desert Phantoms—Captain al-Haffi and his two men—remained on their feet, scanning the beach.
Painter lumbered farther out of the lapping water, sodden, limbs heavy. He crossed beyond the tide line in the sand. Winded, he turned to see how the others were faring with the launch. They’d have to hide the boat, drag it somewhere, or sink it.
A shadow loomed behind him. He failed to see the raised fist. He was struck in the face. Too weak, he simply fell backward onto his rear.
“Omaha!” Kara called out.
Painter now recognized his attacker. Omaha stood over him.
“What are you—” Before Painter could finish, the man was on him, shoving him back into the sand, one hand on his throat, the other going for another punch.
“You goddamn son of a bitch!”
Before the fist could land, hands grabbed Omaha’s shoulder, shirt. He was tugged backward. He fought, twisting, but Coral had a fistful of the man’s collar. She was strong. Cotton ripped along the neckline.
Painter took the opportunity to scramble backward. His left eye wept from the first punch.
“Let me go!” Omaha bellowed.
Coral threw him bodily into the sand.
Kara circled to his other side. “Omaha! What the hell are you doing?”
He sat up, red-faced. “That bastard knows more than he’s been telling us.” He jerked a thumb at Coral. “Him and his Amazon sidekick.”
Even his brother tried to calm him. “Omaha, this isn’t the time to be—”
Omaha shoved up to his knees, panting, spittle flying. “Goddamn right it’s time! We followed the bastard this far. I want answers before we move one step further.” He heaved to his feet, swaying a bit.
Painter gained his feet with an arm from Coral.
The others all faced them, a line drawn in the sand between them.
Kara stood in the center, glancing at each group. She held up a hand, seeming to settle on a side. She faced Painter. “You said you had a plan. Let’s start there.”
Painter took a deep breath and nodded. “Salalah. That’s where they’ll be taking Safia. Where we have to go next.”
Omaha called out, “How do you know that? Why are you so sure? They could be taking her anywhere…for ransom, to sell the artifact. Who the hell knows where?”
“I know,” Painter said coolly. He let silence stretch before speaking again. “This was no random raiding party that attacked us. They were focused, purposeful in their assault. They whisked in and grabbed Safia and the iron heart. They knew what they were going after and who knew the most about it.”
“Why?” asked Kara, clipping some outburst from Omaha with a thrust of an arm. “What do they want?”
Painter stepped forward. “What we wanted. Some clue to the true location of the lost city of Ubar.”
Omaha swore under his breath. The others simply stared.
Kara shook her head. “You haven’t answered my question.” Her tone darkened. “What do they want? What do they seek to gain by finding Ubar?”
Painter licked his lips.
“This is bullshit!” Omaha growled. He shoved past Kara, fast.
Painter stood his ground, holding Coral back with a hand signal. He would not be punched again.
Omaha lifted his arm. Metal glinted in the meager light. A pistol pointed at Painter’s head. “You’ve been yanking our chains long enough. Answer the woman’s question. What the hell’s going on?”
“Omaha,” Kara warned, but there was not much energy in her voice.
Coral sidled to the side, positioning to go for Omaha’s flank. Painter again signaled her to hold.
Omaha punched the gun at him harder. “Answer me! What goddamn game is going on here? Who do you really work for?”
Painter had no choice but to come clean. He needed the group’s cooperation. If there was to be any hope of stopping Cassandra, of rescuing Safia, he would need their help. He couldn’t do it with Coral alone.
“I work for the U.S. Department of Defense,” he finally admitted. “Specifically DARPA. The research-and-development arm of the DOD.”
Omaha shook his head. “Fucking great. The military? What does any of this have to do with them? We’re an archaeological expedition.”
Kara answered before Painter could. “The explosion at the museum.”
Omaha glanced at her, then back at Painter.
He nodded. “She’s right. It was no ordinary blast. Residual radiation pointed to an extraordinary possibility.” All eyes were on him, except Coral, who still had her full attention on Omaha and the gun. “There is a high probability that the exploded meteorite contained some form of antimatter.”
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