Omaha nodded, continuing his sketching.
The bark of the radio startled them both. It was Painter. “Safia, I have the artifacts. I’ll be returning with water and a couple MRE rations. Anything else you need? The winds are becoming fierce.”
She considered, staring at the walls around her, then realized something that might come in handy. She told him.
“Roger that. I’ll bring it.”
As she signed off, she found Omaha’s eyes on her. He glanced too quickly to his notepad.
“Here’s the best I could sketch,” he mumbled, and showed her his diagram.
“Any thoughts?” she asked.
“Well, traditionally the three stones of the trilith represent the celestial trinity. Sada, Hird, and Haba.”
“The moon, the sun, and the morning star,” Safia said, naming them as they were known today. “A trinity revered by the early religions of the region. Again the queen was showing no preferential treatment between the faiths.”
“But which stone slab represents which celestial body?” Omaha asked.
She nodded. “Where to begin?”
“In the morning, I’d say? The morning star appears at dawn in the southeast sky.” Omaha patted the appropriate wall. “So that seems obvious enough.”
“Which leaves us two other walls,” Safia said, taking over. “Now the northern wall is aligned along the east-west axis, straight as an arrow.”
“The path the sun takes across the sky.”
Safia brightened. “Even that little hollow square in the north wall could represent a window, to let sunlight inside.”
“Then that leaves this last wall to be the moon.” Omaha stepped to the southwest wall. “I don’t know why this one represents the moon, but Sada was the predominant deity to the desert tribes of Arabia. So it must be significant.”
Safia nodded. In most cultures, the sun was the major divinity, paramount, life-giving, warming. But in the searing deserts, it was deadly, merciless, unforgiving. So instead, the moon, Sada, was most worshiped for its cooling touch. The moon was the bringer of rain, represented by the bull with its crescent-shaped horns. Each quarter phase of the moon was named Il or Ilah, which over the years came to be known as a term for God. In Hebrew, El or Elohim. In Arabic, Allah.
The moon was paramount.
“Still, the wall appears blank,” Omaha said.
Safia neared him. “There must be something.” She joined the search. The surface was rough, pocked in places.
A crunch of sand announced Painter’s arrival.
Omaha climbed halfway up the ladder and passed supplies to Safia below.
“How’re things going in there?” Painter called as he lowered a plastic gallon of water.
“Slow,” Safia said.
“But we’re making progress,” Omaha interjected.
Painter leaned into the wind. Unburdened as he was, it looked like the next strong gust might kite him away. Omaha climbed back down. Skitters of windblown sand followed him.
“You’d better get back to the shelter,” Safia called up, worried for Painter’s safety.
He gave her a salute and pushed away into the sandy gale.
“Now where were we?” Omaha asked.
O UT OF the sinkhole, Painter fought through the storm. An eerie night had fallen. Dust covered the sun, casting the world in crimson. Visibility shut down to mere feet in front of his face. He had his night-vision goggles fixed in place, but even they gained only another yard of sightline. He barely saw the gates as he hunched through them.
Among the village buildings, sand flowed underfoot with the winds, as if he were walking along a streambed. His clothes spat with static electricity. He tasted it in the air. His mouth felt chalky, his lips brittle and dry.
Finally, he ducked around into the lee of their shelter. Out of the direct teeth of the storm, he felt capable of taking full breaths. Sand flumed in wild eddies, streaming over the roofline. He walked with one hand along the cinder-block wall.
Feet in front of him, a figure folded out of the swirls of darkness, a ghost taking form. A ghost with a rifle. It was one of the Rahim scouts, on guard. He hadn’t seen her until he was on top of her. He nodded to her as he passed. No acknowledgment. He marched by her to the doorway.
Stopping, he glanced back. She was gone again, vanished.
Was it just the storm, or was it a part of her ability to blend into the background, to cloud perception? Painter stood in front of the door. He had heard the story from Safia, but it seemed too wild to believe. As a demonstration of their mental abilities, the hodja had placed a pale green scorpion on the floor and made it do figure eights in the dust, over and over again, seeming to control it. Was it some trick? Like snake charming?
As he reached to the knob, the winds took a slightly different keen. The roar had grown so constant that he barely heard it anymore. But for a moment, a deeper rumble arose, a sound carried on the wind, rather than the wind itself. He remained still, listening for it again, trying to pierce the veil of sweeping sand. The storm continued its steady growl. The grumble was not repeated.
Was it just the storm? He stared out to the east. He was certain the sound had come from that direction. He yanked open the door and twisted inside, half pushed by the winds.
The room was crowded with bodies. He heard a child crying upstairs. He had no trouble picking Coral out from among the women, an iceberg in a dark sea. She rose from a cross-legged position. She had been cleaning one of her pistols.
Recognizing his worry, she met him in quick strides. “What’s wrong?”
A LL THE trucks gathered in the lee of a dune, lined up as if awaiting the beginning of a parade. Men hunched in the relative shelter of the vehicles, but details were murky in the gloom. They were a quarter mile outside of Shisur.
Cassandra strode with Kane down the ranks. She wore night-vision goggles, khaki fatigues, and a hooded sand poncho, belted at the waist.
Kane marched with one hand covering the earpiece of his radio, listening to a report. A company of twenty soldiers had left ten minutes ago. “Roger that. Hold for further orders.” He lowered his hand and leaned toward Cassandra. “The team reached the town’s outskirts.”
“Have them circle the area. Both town and ruins. Pick vantages from which to snipe. I don’t want anything or anyone leaving that place.”
“Aye, Captain.” He returned to speaking into the throat mike, relaying orders.
They continued to the rear of the line, to where six flatbed trucks carried the VTOL copter sleds. The helicopters were covered in tarps and lashed to their transport cradles. They continued to the last two trucks. Men tugged free the ropes securing the copters. A tarp went flying into the wind, billowing high.
Cassandra frowned at this.
“These are your best two pilots?” Cassandra asked Kane as he finished with the radio.
“The bastards had better be.” Kane’s eyes were on the storm.
Both Cassandra and Kane’s lives were now staked on the success of this mission. The screwup at the tomb had cast both of them in a bad light. They needed to prove themselves to the Guild command. But more than that, Cassandra noted an idiosyncratic quality in the man, a new savageness, less humor, more deep-seated fury. He had been bested, maimed, scarred. No one did that to John Kane and lived to tell about it.
They reached the group of flatbed trucks.
Cassandra found the two pilots waiting. She strode toward them. They had helmets tucked under one arm, trailing electronic cords that would feed radar data. To fly in this weather would be to fly by instruments only. There was no visibility.
They straightened once they recognized her, difficult with everyone muffled up and bundled in ponchos.
Cassandra eyed them up and down. “Gordon. Fowler. You two think you can get these birds in the air. In this storm?”
“Yes, sir,” Gordon acknowledged. Fowler nodded. “We’ve attached electrostatic sand filters over the engine intakes and uploaded sandstorm software into our radar array. We’re ready.”
Cassandra saw no fear in their faces, even as the winds howled. In fact, they both looked flushed, excited, two surfers ready to tackle big waves.
“You’re to keep in constant contact with me personally,” Cassandra said. “You have my com channel.”
“One will scout the town, the other the ruins. Kane has a software patch to load into your onboard computers. It will let you pick up the signal of the primary target. The target is not—and let me repeat not—to be harmed.”
“Understood,” Gordon mumbled.
“Any other hostiles,” Cassandra finished, “are to be shot on sight.”
Cassandra swung away. “Then let’s get these birds in the air.”
O MAHA WATCHED Safia crawl on her knees, sweeping sand off the floor with one hand. He found it hard to concentrate. He had forgotten how wonderful it was to work alongside her. He noted the tiny beads of perspiration on her brow, the way her left eye crinkled when she was intrigued, the dab of dirt on her cheek. This was the Safia he had always known…before Tel Aviv.
Safia continued sweeping.
Was there any hope for them?
She glanced up to him, noting that he’d stopped.
He stirred and cleared his throat. “What are you doing?” he asked, and motioned to her sweeping of the floor. “The maid comes tomorrow.”
She sat back and patted the wall tilted above her head. “This is the southeast side. The slab of the trilith that represents the morning star, rising each day in the southeastern skies.”
“Right, I told you that. So?”
Safia had been working in silence for the past ten minutes, laying out the supplies Painter had lugged here, very methodically, her usual way of doing things. She had spent most of this time examining the keys. Whenever he tried to interject a question, she would hold up a palm.
Safia went back to her sweeping. “We’ve already determined which wall corresponds to which celestial body—moon, sun, or morning star—but now we have to figure out which keys match those celestial bodies.”
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