Omaha hoped this discussion was leading to some solution. “Is there anything we can do about it?”
Coral shook her head. “No, Dr. Dunn, I’m afraid we’re fucked.”
T HE FIERY explosion drew Painter’s attention to the mesa.
A truck parked near the sandstone prominence flipped in the air, spewing flaming fuel. One of the roving sand devils continued past it. It left a steaming trail of blackened sand.
These sinuous columns of static charge were somehow discharging astronomical amounts of heat energy, burning their way across the landscape.
Painter remembered Safia’s warning over the radio before it shorted out. She had tried to warn him away. He hadn’t listened.
Now he was trapped inside the tractor as it slowly spun in a vast whirlpool of churning sand. For the past five minutes, it had carried him along, sweeping him in a wide arc, slowly spinning him in place. He was a planet orbiting a sun.
And all around death danced. For every whirlwind that blew itself out with a sharp discharge of static, another three took its place.
It was only a matter of time before one crossed his path, or worse yet, opened up under him. As he spun, he saw the other truck. It was faring no better. Another planet, smaller, maybe a moon.
Painter stared across the sands that separated them. He saw one chance.
It was a madman’s course, but it was better than sitting here, waiting for death to come knocking. If he had to die, he’d rather die with his boots on. He stared down at his naked form. He wore only his boxers. Okay, he’d have to forgo the whole boot dream.
He stood up and crossed to the back. He’d have to travel light.
He took a single pistol…and a knife.
Outfitted, he stepped to the back door. He’d have to be fast. He took a moment to take several deep breaths. He opened the back door.
The clear expanse of desert suddenly erupted yards away. A devil spun up from the sand. He felt the backwash of its static. His hair flumed around his head, crackling. He hoped it didn’t catch fire.
Stumbling back, he fled away from the back door. Time had run out.
He darted to the side door, shoved it open, and leaped.
Hitting the ground, he sank to his calves. The sand was damnably loose. He glanced over a shoulder. The devil loomed behind the tractor, crackling with energy. He smelled ozone. Heat pulsed from the monster.
Fleet feet, little skeet.
It was a nursery rhyme his father had often whispered in his ear when he was caught dawdling. No, Papa…no dawdling here.
Painter hauled his feet free from the sand and raced around the front end of the tractor. The whirlpool dragged at him, bordering on quicksand.
He spotted the flatbed truck. Fifty yards. Half a football field.
He sprinted for it.
Fleet feet, little skeet.
He ran, the rhyme a mantra in his head.
Across the sand, the truck’s door popped open. The soldier stood on the running board and pointed a rifle at him. No trespassers.
Luckily Painter already had his pistol up. He fired and fired. There was no reason to spare the bullets. He squeezed and squeezed.
The driver fell backward, arms out.
The explosion behind Painter shoved him forward, face-first. A wave of fire seared. Spitting sand, he leaped up and away.
He glanced back to see the tractor on its side, on fire, its tank exploded by the heat of the devil as it expanded its reach. Painter pounded away. Flaming fuel rained down all around, splashing into the sand.
He simply ran, hell-bent.
Reaching the flatbed, he skipped the cab door, used the driver’s body as a stepping-stone, and scrambled into the flatbed in back. The tarp was still tangled in the ropes. He used his knife to slice the lashings. They were taut and popped like overstretched guitar strings. He kicked tarps and ropes aside.
He exposed what lay underneath. What he had spotted when the flatbed mired. One of the copter sleds.
This little skeeter found his wings.
S AFIA HEARD the staccato firing of a pistol.
She had been huddling just inside the stairway passage. Kara and Lu’lu kept guard with her. She had been pondering some way to escape the doom here. She sensed an answer, just beyond reach. A clue she was missing, letting fear frazzle through her. But fear was an old companion. She took deep breaths, inhaling calm, exhaling tension.
She thought about the mystery.
She remembered her thoughts on the way up here. How the past and the present were merging in countless ways. She closed her eyes. She could almost feel the answer rising inside her like a bubble in water.
Then the gunshots.
Followed by an explosion. Like the one that had taken out one of Captain al-Haffi’s trucks a minute or so ago.
Safia bolted back to the top of the mesa. A fireball billowed upward, shredding in the winds. The tractor lay on its side.
She spotted a naked figure scrambling by the smaller truck.
Kara joined her. “It’s Crowe.”
Safia grabbed on to that hope. “Are you sure?”
“He really needs to cut his hair.”
The figure climbed into something in the back of the truck. Then Safia spotted the spread of collapsible rotors. She heard a distant whine. The rotors churned. A helicopter.
Kara sighed. “That man is resourceful, I’ll give him that.”
Safia noted a tiny whirlwind, one of the untethered ones scribing through the dunes, swing in a wide arc, aiming for the truck and copter.
Did Painter see it?
P AINTER LAY flat on his belly in the sled. The controls were near his arms, one for each hand. He kicked up the rotor speed. He had flown helicopters during Special Forces training, but never one like this.
But how different could it be?
He yanked the right throttle. Nothing happened. He pulled on the left. Still nothing. Okay, maybe things were a bit different.
He pulled on both throttles and the copter lifted out of its cradle and into the air. He kept the throttles pulled and shot up in a wobbly arc, spun by the winds. The thump-thump of the rotors matched his heart, fast and furious.
As the copter swung, he caught a glimpse of a twister on his tail. It glowed and spat fire like a demon risen from hell.
Painter played with the controls, leaning right, left, and forward.
Forward was good.
He sped away, dipping too low, like sliding down a snowy slope. He attempted to get his nose up before he buried himself in the sand. He worked the throttle, rolled to the left, balanced it out, and finally found a way to bring the nose up.
Now he was aiming directly for a monstrously huge whirlwind.
He climbed higher and to the right—and successfully managed to spin himself in place while still flying toward the large devil. He felt his stomach flip. He dragged the left throttle, stopped the spin, and just managed to miss the devil.
But as a parting shot, the whirlwind spat an arc of static, zapping him. Painter felt the shock from the tip of his toes to his eyebrows.
So did the sled.
All power died. Instruments twirled. He plummeted, rotors churning uselessly. He switched all systems off, then back on again. Rebooting. A small whine answered, the motor coughed. Then died.
The mesa lay ahead. He aimed for it as best he could…which was at the side of its cliffs.
He rebooted again. The motor caught this time. The spinning rotors must have helped jump-start the engine. He pulled both throttles.
The copter climbed.
The cliffs rushed at him.
“C’mon…” he mumbled between clenched teeth.
As he reached the mesa, he caught a glimpse of its top. He willed the craft up another few inches. The landing skids brushed the edge of the lip, caught a bit, tilting the copter on its side. Rotors tore into stone.
They shattered away.
The sled compartment flipped high, and landed upside down atop the mesa. A lucky break. Painter banged his head, but he lived.
He popped the side hatch and fell out. He lay on the stone, panting, surprised to be alive. It was a good surprise.
Safia hurried over to him.
Kara followed, staring down at him, arms crossed. “Good effort, but have you ever heard of the phrase, ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire’?”
He sat up. “What the hell’s happening?”
“We must get to a safe place,” Safia said, helping him stand.
“Where?” Kara asked, taking his other arm. “The sandstorm is tearing apart the desert, and Ubar is on fire below.”
Safia straightened. “I know where we can go.”
DECEMBER 4, 6:45 P.M.
S AFIA STOOD with Captain al-Haffi at the base of the stairs. She stared out at the azure maelstrom roiling over the arched room. It blinded. Bolts of cerulean energy lanced, forked, and speared all across the chamber. The most disturbing feature was the absolute quiet. No thunder here.
“How far to the palace?” she asked the captain.
She stared back up the staircase. The Rahim were down to fourteen adult women and the original seven children. Captain al-Haffi’s dozen men were now eight. None of them looked ready to enter Ubar with its electrical wildfire.
But they stood ready to follow Safia.
She faced the path they had to walk. One misstep meant a fiery death.
“Are you sure about this?” Kara asked behind her. She was flanked by Lu’lu and Painter.
“As much as I can be,” Safia answered.
Painter had borrowed a cloak from one of the Shahran men, but he was still barefoot. His lips were tight.
Far back, echoing down the passage behind them, the tumble of stones reached them. The preparation had taken longer than Safia would have liked. Already the upper sections of the stairway were falling apart.
“You’re putting a lot of trust in that old queen,” Painter said.
“She survived the cataclysm. The king’s line survived. During the last cataclysm, the royal line was protected. They were the only ones. How?”
Safia turned and emptied the folded cloak she held in her hand. Sand poured out and covered the glass in front of her. It skittered down the path.
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