Omaha let out an explosive sound of derision, as if he had been holding it all along. “Antimatter…what a load of bullshit! Who do you take us for?”
Coral spoke at his side, matter-of-fact, professional. “Dr. Dunn, he is telling you the truth. We tested the blast zone ourselves, detecting Z-bozons and gluons, decay particles from an antimatter/matter interaction.”
Omaha frowned, less sure.
“I know it sounds preposterous,” Painter said. “But if you’ll lower your gun, I’ll explain.”
Omaha steadied the pistol instead. “So far this is all that’s kept you talking.”
Painter sighed. It was worth the try. “Have it your way, then.”
With the gun pointed at his face, he gave a brief overview: of the Tunguska explosion in Russia in 1908, of the unique gamma radiation found both there and at the British Museum, of the plasma characteristics of the explosion, and how evidence hinted that somewhere out in the deserts of Oman lay a possible source of antimatter, preserved in some unknown fashion to make it stable and unreactive while in the presence of matter.
“Though now it may be destabilizing,” Painter finished. “That may be why the meteor exploded at the museum. And it may happen here, too. Time is critical. Now may be the only time we can discover and preserve this source of unlimited power.”
Kara frowned. “And what does the United States government plan on doing with such a limitless source of power?”
Painter read the suspicion in her eyes. “Safeguard it for now. That’s the immediate and primary goal. To protect it from those who would abuse it. If this power should fall into the wrong hands…”
Silence lingered as his words died away. They all knew borders no longer divided the world so much as ideologies. Though it was undeclared, there was a new world war being waged, where fundamental decency and respect for human rights were under assault by forces of intolerance, despotism, and blind fervor. And while its battles were sometimes waged in plain sight—in New York City, in Iraq—its greater struggle was carried on invisibly, fought in secret, its heroes unknown, its villains hidden.
Willing or not, the group assembled here on the beach had been drafted into this war.
Kara finally spoke. “And this other group. Safia’s kidnappers. They’re the same ones who broke into the British Museum.”
Painter nodded. “I believe so.”
“Who are they?” Omaha still held the pistol at him.
“I don’t know…not for sure.”
Painter held up a hand. “All I know for certain is who leads the team. A partner I once worked with, a mole planted in DARPA.” He was too exhausted to hide his anger. “Her name is Cassandra Sanchez. I never discovered who she worked for. A foreign power. Terrorists. A black-market group. All I know is that they are well funded, organized, and cold-blooded in their methods.”
Omaha scoffed, “And you and your partner are the warm, fuzzy types.”
“We don’t kill innocent people.”
“No, you’re fucking worse!” he spat. “You let others do your dirty work. You knew we were walking into a possible shitstorm but kept your mouths closed. If we had known before now, we might’ve been better prepared. We might have stopped Safia’s abduction.”
Painter had no comeback. The man was right. He’d been caught off guard, jeopardizing the mission and their lives.
Distracted by his own guilt, he failed to respond in time. Omaha lunged and pressed the pistol’s barrel against his forehead, knocking him back a step. “You bastard…this is all your fault!”
He heard the pain and anguish in Omaha’s voice. The man was beyond reason. Anger built in Painter’s chest. He was cold, sore, and tired of having a gun waved in his face. He didn’t know if he’d have to take Omaha out.
Coral waited, tense.
Support came from an unlikely source.
A thunder of hooves suddenly broke across the beach. All eyes turned, even Omaha. He stepped back and finally lowered the gun.
“Goddamn…” he muttered.
Across the sand, an amazing sight galloped. A white stallion, mane flying, hooves casting up gouts of sand. It was the horse from the Shabab Oman.
The stallion raced toward them, perhaps drawn by their raised voices. It must have swum to shore after the explosion. It slammed to a stop a few yards from them, huffing white into the cool night air, heated. It tossed its head.
“I can’t believe it got away,” Omaha said.
“Horses are excellent swimmers,” Kara scolded, but she couldn’t keep the awe from her voice.
One of the Desert Phantoms slowly approached the horse, palm out, whispering in Arabic. It shivered but allowed the approach. Exhausted, frightened, needing reassurance.
The sudden arrival of the horse cut the tension. Omaha stared down at his gun as if unsure how it had gotten into his fist.
Kara stepped forward and faced Painter. “I think it’s time we stopped arguing. Casting blame. We all had our reasons for coming out here. Hidden agendas.” She glanced back to Omaha, who would not meet her eye. Painter could guess the man’s agenda. It was plain from the way he’d been looking at Safia, his furious anger a moment ago. He was still in love.
“From here,” Kara continued, “we must figure out what we’re going to do to save Safia. That’s the priority.” She turned to Painter. “What do we do?”
Painter nodded. His left eye ached with the motion. “The others think we’re dead. That gives us an advantage we’d best keep. We also know where they’re heading. We have to reach Salalah as quickly as possible. That means crossing almost three hundred miles.”
Kara stared toward the lights of the distant village. “If I could reach a phone, I’m sure I could get the sultan to—”
“No,” he cut her off. “No one must know we’re alive. Not even the Omani government. Any word, anywhere, that we’re still alive jeopardizes our thin advantage. Cassandra’s group managed to abduct Safia through their advantage of surprise. We can win her back the same way.”
“But with the sultan’s help, Salalah could be locked down and searched.”
“Cassandra’s group has already proven too damn resourceful. They’ve brought in significant manpower and weapons. That couldn’t have happened without resources in the government.”
“And if we come out of hiding, word would reach the kidnappers,” Omaha mumbled. He had holstered the pistol in his waistband and rubbed his knuckles. His angry outburst seemed to have steadied the man. “The kidnappers would be gone before any action could be taken. We’d lose Safia.”
“Then what do we do?” Kara asked.
“We find transportation.”
Captain al-Haffi stepped forward. Painter was unsure how the man would feel about deceiving his own government, keeping them in the dark, but then again, when out in the field, the Desert Phantoms acted with full independence. He nodded to Painter. “I’ll send one of my men over to the village. They won’t arouse suspicion.”
The captain must have read something in Painter’s face, some question about why he was so readily helping the team. “They killed one of my men. Kalil. He was my wife’s cousin.”
Painter nodded with sympathy. “May Allah carry him home.” He knew there was no stronger loyalty than that to the members of one’s own tribe and family.
With a half bow of thanks, Captain al-Haffi waved to the taller of his two men, a true giant of a man, named Barak. They spoke rapidly in Arabic. Barak nodded and began to step away.
Kara stopped him. “How are you going to get a truck with no money?”
Barak answered her in English, “Allah helps those who help themselves.”
“You’re going to steal one?”
“Borrow. It is tradition among our desert tribes. A man may borrow what he needs. Stealing is a crime.”
With this little bit of wisdom, the man headed out toward the distant lights at a steady jog, disappearing into the night like a true phantom.
“Barak will not fail us,” Captain al-Haffi assured them. “He will find a vehicle large enough to carry all of us…and the horse.”
Painter glanced back along the rocky shore. The remaining Phantom, a taciturn young man named Sharif, led the stallion with a length of towline.
“Why bring the horse?” Painter asked, concerned about the exposure of a large vehicle. “There’s good grazing here, and someone would find it.”
Captain al-Haffi answered, “We have little money. And the horse may be bartered, sold. Used as transportation if needed. It is also a cover for us to be traveling to Salalah. The horse farms there are well known. It will lessen suspicion if we bring the stallion along on our journey. And besides, white is good luck.” This last was said with deadly seriousness. Luck among the folks of Arabia was as important as a roof over one’s head.
They made a brief camp. While Omaha and Painter beached the launch behind some rocks to hide it, the others built a fire out of drift-wood, sheltering it within the lee of a tumbled section of cliff. Hidden, the tiny pyre would be hard to spot, and they all needed its warmth and light.
Forty minutes later, the grinding of gears announced the arrival of their transportation. Headlights rounded a bend in the coastal road. A flatbed truck rolled up. It was an old International 4900, painted yellow, scarred with rust. Its bed was framed in wooden fencing with a drop gate behind.
Barak hopped out.
“I see you found something to borrow,” Kara said.
They put out the fire. Barak had also managed to borrow some clothes: robes and cloaks. They quickly dressed, concealing their Western wear.
Once ready, Captain al-Haffi and his men took the truck’s cab, in case they were stopped. The others clambered into the back. It took blind-folding the horse to get it to walk up the drop gate into the flatbed. They tied the Arabian near the front cab. Then Painter and the others huddled near the back.
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