She nodded ahead. “We’re going in.”
“Should we wait until the birds are in the air?”
“No, we’re armored.” She glanced over her shoulder to the men seated in the back compartment, Kane’s commando team. “And we have enough land support with us. Something’s happening over there. I can smell it.” He nodded, shifted into gear, and kicked the tractor into motion. The lumbering tank ambled toward the ruins.
S AFIA KNELT on one knee and reached a hand over the hole’s lip. She tested the heat with her palm. Winds tugged at her. Sand swirled in sweeps, but not as fiercely. The storm had abated slightly, a momentary pause, as if the explosion had sapped some strength from the gale’s force.
“Careful,” Omaha said behind her.
Safia stared down the hole at her feet. The waters continued to recede. It seemed impossible. As the waters had drained away, a glass ramp revealed itself, spiraling deep. The trilith chamber was gone. All that was left was glass, flowing downward in a corkscrew.
The entrance to Ubar.
Safia lowered her palm toward the ramp’s exterior, slowly, bringing it close to the glass. It still glistened with drops of water, radiant against the black surface, reflecting the bike’s headlight.
She felt no searing burn.
Daring, Safia touched a finger to the black glass. It was still warm, very warm, but it didn’t burn. She placed her palm flat. “It’s solid,” she said. “Still cooling, but the surface is hard.” She rapped on it to demonstrate.
Standing up, she reached a leg out and placed a foot on the ramp. It held her weight. “The waters must have cooled it enough to harden.” Painter stepped toward her. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
Coral spoke, still astride her bike. She lowered the radio from her lips. “Commander, all Rahim are now gathered. We can bug out on your word.” Safia turned to the upper rim, but it was lost in darkness. She glanced down the throat of the glass spiral. “This is what we came to find.” “If we don’t leave now, Cassandra will bottle us here.”
Omaha joined them. “Where will we go?”
Painter pointed west. “Into the desert. Use the storm as cover.”
“Are you mad? This blow is just starting. And the worst is yet to come. What about that goddamn megastorm? Out in the open desert?” Omaha shook his head. “I’d rather take my chances with that bitch.” Safia pictured Cassandra, the ice in her manner, the mercilessness in her eyes. Whatever mystery lay below would be Cassandra’s to exploit. She and her employer. Safia couldn’t let that happen.
“I’m going down,” she said, cutting off the argument.
“I’m with you,” Omaha added. “At least it’s out of the storm.”
New gunfire suddenly blasted up at the ridgeline.
Everyone ducked and turned.
“It looks like our decision is being made for us,” Omaha mumbled.
Coral barked into her radio, Painter into his.
Along the rim, lights flared, headlamps. Engines revved. Vehicles began to descend into the sinkhole, racing down.
“What are they doing?” Omaha asked.
Painter shoved aside his radio, his expression grim. “Someone up there spotted the tunnel. One of the women.” The hodja, Safia imagined. With Ubar now open, the Rahim wouldn’t flee. They would defend the site with their lives. Lu’lu was bringing the whole tribe down. A pair of dune buggies even bounced across the tumbled rock slide.
Vehicles closed in on their position.
The sudden eruption of gunfire died away.
Coral explained, holding her radio to her ear, “A hostile scouting party got into a sniping position atop one of the towers. They’ve been dispatched.” Safia heard the respect in the woman’s voice. The Rahim had proven their mettle in this skirmish.
In moments, buggies and bikes, loaded with women, braked in the sand. The first buggy bore familiar faces, crammed together: Kara, Danny, and Clay. Barak followed on a bike.
Kara climbed out, leading the others. The winds were growing fiercer again, snapping scarves, flapping cloak edges. Kara held a pistol in one hand. “We spotted lights coming,” she said, and pointed in the other direction, off to the east. “Lots of them. Trucks, big ones. And at least one helicopter took off. I glimpsed its searchlight for a moment.” Painter clenched a fist. “Cassandra’s making her final move.”
The hodja pushed through the throng. “Ubar is open. It will protect us.” Omaha glanced back to the hole. “All the same, I’ll keep my gun.”
Painter stared east. “We have no choice. Get everyone below. Stick together. Carry as much as you can manage. Guns, ammunition, flashlights.” The hodja nodded to Safia. “You will lead us.”
Safia glanced down the dark spiral of glass, suddenly less sure of her decision. Her breathing tightened. When it was only her own life, the risk was acceptable. But now other lives were involved.
Her eyes settled to a pair of children, grasping each of Clay’s hands. They looked as terrified as the young man between them. But Clay held firm.
Safia could do no less. She allowed her heart to thunder in her ears, but she calmed her breathing.
A new noise intruded, carried on the wind. A deep bass rumble of an engine, something huge. The eastern rim lightened.
Cassandra was almost here.
“Go!” Painter yelled. He met Safia’s eyes. “Take them down. Quickly.”
With a nod, Safia turned and began the descent.
She heard Painter speak to Coral. “I need your bike.”
C ASSANDRA WATCHED the blue spinning ring on the transceiver blink out. She balled a fist. The curator was on the run again.
“Get us over there,” Cassandra said between clenched teeth. “Now.”
“We’re already here.”
Out of the gloom, a stone wall appeared, crumbling, sand-scoured, more outline than substance, illuminated by their headlights.
They’d reached the ruins.
Kane glanced at her. “Orders?”
Cassandra pointed to an opening in the wall, near a broken tower. “Get your men on the ground. I want the ruins locked down. No one leaves that chasm.” Kane slowed the tractor enough for his crack team of commandos to roll out the side doors, leaping over the trundling treads. Twenty men, bristling with weapons, spread into the storm, vanishing through the gap in the wall.
Kane drove the tractor ahead, moving at a snail’s pace.
The tractor crunched over the stone foundations of the ancient wall and into the inner city of old Ubar. The tractor’s headlights pierced no more than a few feet as the storm wailed and cast up gouts of sand.
The sinkhole lay ahead, dark and silent.
It was time to end all this.
The tractor braked. Its headlights pierced ahead.
Men dropped flat along the rim, using the cover of boulders and tumbled bits of ruins. Cassandra waited while the team took up positions, winging out to either side, encircling the sinkhole. She listened to their radio chatter, subvocalized over throat mikes.
“In position, quadrant three…”
“Mongoose four, on the tower…”
“RPGs locked and loaded…”
Cassandra hit Command Q on her keyboard and twenty-one red triangles bloomed on the schematic on the map. Each of the commandos had a locator beacon tagged to his fatigues. On the screen, she watched the team maneuver into position, no hesitation, efficient, fast.
Kane directed his men from the command tractor. He stood, palms on the console, leaning forward to stare out the windshield.
“They’re all in position. No movement seen below. All dark.”
Cassandra knew Safia was there, hidden underground. “Light it up.”
Kane relayed the order.
All around the rim, a dozen floodlights snapped on, carried by the soldiers and aimed down into the hole. The chasm now glowed in the storm.
Kane held one hand over his radio earpiece. He listened for half a breath, then spoke. “Still no hostiles in sight. Bikes and buggies below.” “Can they see any cavern entrance down there?”
Kane nodded. “Where the vehicles are parked. A black hole. Video feed should be transmitting now. Channel three.” Cassandra brought up another screen on her laptop. Real-time video feed. The image was shaky, pixilating and vibrating. Static interference. A shimmer of electric charge danced down the whip antenna strapped outside the tractor.
The storm was kicking into full blow.
Cassandra leaned closer. On the screen, she saw wavering images of the chasm floor. Sand bikes with huge knobby tires. A scatter of Sidewinder desert dune buggies. But they were all abandoned. Where were all the people? The image swung, centered on a dark hole, three yards wide. It looked like a fresh excavation, glistening, reflecting back the spotlights.
A tunnel opening.
And all the rabbits had ducked into the hole.
The video image scrambled, refocused, then was lost again. Cassandra bit back a curse. She wanted to see this for herself. She closed the jittery window on the screen and glanced at the spread of Kane’s men on the glowing schematic. They had the area locked down tight.
Cassandra unbuckled. “I’m going to get a visual. Hold the fort.”
She pushed to the back compartment and slid open the side door. The winds knocked her back, slamming her full in the face. She bent into the wind with a grimace, yanked a scarf over her mouth and nose, and shoved out. Using the tractor’s tread as a step, she jumped to the sand.
She crossed to the front of the tractor, one hand on the tread for support. Winds battered her. She had new respect for Kane’s men. When she was ensconced inside the command vehicle, their deployment seemed satisfactory: quick, efficient, no fumbling. Now it seemed extraordinary.
Cassandra crossed in front of the tractor, stepping between the two headlights. She followed the beams toward the sinkhole. It was only steps, but by the time she reached the rim, she could barely hear the growl of the tractor over the roar of the storm.
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