“Nothing in the air right now, sir. I’m reaching out to our nearest air force friend, but I have the feeling they’ll want to stay out of it before shooting down their own expensive toys, even unmanned ones.”
Bryn grabbed for her phone and checked their location on the map. Close. Very close. Brick and his men were still talking, and Joe was tossing in suggestions, but Bryn leaned forward and held out her phone. “Here,” she said. “Go here. Haul ass and max the engines. It’s our only option.”
“Go,” Brick said to Joe, and got on the radio to deliver the orders. To his credit, he didn’t even ask where they were going; Bryn supposed it didn’t much matter to him. She thought, Wait until I tell Annie about this, because it was Annie’s teenage obsession with kitschy roadside attractions that had rung a bell for her, out here in the middle of nowhere.
They were heading to the salt mines.
“Here,” Riley said, and pressed a protein bar into her hands; Bryn wasn’t even really aware of her hunger, except as a gnawing constant, but she realized that she’d been staring fixedly at Brick’s neck, and that probably wasn’t a good thing. She licked her lips and tasted salt, and nodded to Riley as she unwrapped the foil from the food.
It tasted like sawdust, sweet glue, and fake chocolate, but it did, surprisingly, help—not as much as a thick, bloody steak would have done, but it made her less likely to imitate a raving zombie in the close confines of the truck. That would be inadvisable, not to mention messy.
She ate three of the bars . . . and so did Riley, which meant that the other woman was just as protein-challenged as she was. That was inherently dangerous, but at least they were still thinking, still understanding that the cliff was ahead of them, and taking action to change course.
But the cliff . . . well, the cliff was always there, and she knew Riley was acutely aware of it, too.
“Highway 50,” she said, and pointed at the off-ramp. The convoy took it at a speed just under insane, and she held on for dear life. “Head west and floor it. We’re heading for the Kansas Underground Salt Museum.”
“Wait, a museum?” Brick said. “You understand that this drone could be set to bomb the holy shit out of—”
“It’s a mine,” she said. “And it has a secured slant-drilled shaft they use to ferry heavy equipment in and out, which means we can drive our own vehicles inside—instant cover. The mine itself is about seventy miles of tunnels under solid rock, and a block of salt so hard you can’t even drive nails into it. The drone won’t be able to blow through that.”
“We going to have to worry about civilian casualties?” Brick asked, which was a reasonable question, and Bryn had already checked it on her phone.
“They’re closed Mondays, so I think we’re good,” she said. “It isn’t like they’re overstaffed. Our enemies might send in a team, but it’ll be damn hard for them to get to us. If we lock off the elevator and secure the vehicle exit, it’s a long way down—six hundred fifty feet of narrow stairs. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t risk it, because just one of us could hold that forever.”
“Not ideal, but it’ll do,” Brick said. “They can’t keep the drone up there long; people get the idea that they’re conducting military drone ops on American soil, and it gets ugly. They were hoping for a quick, fatal strike in the middle of nowhere. Taking out a tourist attraction won’t have nearly so much appeal. They ain’t that desperate.”
“Yet,” Riley said.
He didn’t argue. They all rode in silence as the engine of the SUV roared, and Kansas miles disappeared under the whining tires. It felt effortless, the way momentum always did, but it wasn’t. Bryn was acutely aware of the drone somewhere out there in the cloud-clotted sky, making its way to them with equally ruthless efficiency. She wouldn’t even know it when it happened, most likely. The weapons the drone carried would make the trucks infernos, and she doubted the nanites, no matter how upgraded, could survive a direct strike like that.
Good way to go, some traitorous part of her said. Maybe it would be for the best if it ended right here, right now. Before I do things I can’t take back.
But if she gave up now, there was nothing to stop the Fountain Group—and their agenda was something they were willing to do horrible, ruthless things to accomplish. They didn’t have pity, or mercy, or second thoughts. And she needed to stay alive and stay fighting if she wanted to have even an outside chance of stopping them.
So tempting as that fireball would be, she knew they needed to win this one.
The sign for the Underground Salt Museum flashed past, signaling they were coming up on it soon, and Brick activated his radio. “Hard right coming up, guys—be ready. What’s the ETA on our little friend?”
“Getting ready to say howdy,” his man said. “About one minute out. Going to be close, boss.”
The drone wasn’t, strictly speaking, just an automated killing machine; drones could be used for all kinds of purposes from simple reconnaissance and supply delivery all the way up to bomb-dropping, and they were always piloted—remotely—by highly trained teams. That was part of why the damn things were so effective—they were flexible, and they could react to new information at a moment’s notice. This one didn’t have to be on a WMD mission, but it was safer to assume that it would be if the opportunity presented itself. In the wide Kansas countryside, it sure wasn’t coming in to map unfamiliar territory or track down the Taliban.
Bryn found herself trying to look for it in the sky, but that was useless; drones were hard to spot even when you knew the exact trajectory. She grabbed for the panic strap as the SUV, true to Brick’s warning, began the precarious hard right. The left side wheels left the ground, but they didn’t quite topple, and they also didn’t slow down, at least enough to matter.
They hit the low parking lot barrier hard enough to shatter it open and throw bits of chain into the air like hard confetti. Ahead, in a modest-sized car lot, was a rounded blue building, but that wasn’t where they needed to go. Bryn pulled up the aerial map and zoomed in. “Back of the building,” she said. “You’ll see a chain-link fence with a gate. Go through the gate and straight—the ramp down will be about a hundred feet in. Once we’re under the concrete, the drone will lose us, but they could go ahead with the missiles in hopes of collapsing the place on top of us before we go deep. So don’t let off on the speed.”
She was hoping, desperately, that the Salt Museum wouldn’t have state-of-the-art surveillance or security; she also hoped that the drone operators would hesitate to throw heavy weapons around at a public attraction, on American soil, without a clear target. If the drone was military—and they were all supposed to be—then even if the particular op was run by someone friendly to their enemies, there would be dissension in the ranks, chains of command, lots of places for the op to get hung up and fail.
If it was private security who’d gotten their hands on the same tech, and had nothing but dollars at stake, then all bets were off.
Brick’s driver was good, really good. They smashed the chain-link gate open at the back of the building without slowing, and in less than ten seconds the concrete box that overhung the ramp loomed up, a square of darkness that looked, for a heart-stopping second—like a solid barrier . . . and then they were hurtling down a ramp in the dark, blowing through another chain-link gate along the way. He’d flipped on the lights, and by the time she caught her breath, they were roaring at the same speed, angling down, through a narrow tunnel.
The other SUVs were right on their rear bumper.
Bryn was waiting for the explosion, braced for it with every muscle twitching and tight, but it never came. The driver slacked off on the speed after another twenty seconds, and the four-truck convoy coasted down the incline, deeper and deeper. The bedrock walls of the tunnel changed to what looked like limestone—aquifer level—and then took on a gray, diamondlike shine.
They’d made it.
The oppressive darkness made it feel as if the shimmering walls were pressing in, but then the headlight beams suddenly seemed to dim. . . . No, not dim—spread. They’d reached the end of the ramp, and coasted out into a large open space—round and cluttered. Definitely not the public areas of the museum’s tunnels; this was some kind of storage area for equipment using for tunneling and maintenance. They also bumped over a large iron grate, like a cattle guard. A water diversion, Bryn realized, like a sewer grate, designed to drain off any rain that rolled down the ramp. Couldn’t have the rain soaking into the salt, or the entire place might dissolve. She shuddered to think about that.
The four SUVs pulled into a line and shut off their engines, and Bryn got out and looked around at the walls. She found an electrical box, opened it, and pulled the switch, and overhead work lights popped on.
It was a grayish fairyland of glitter, streaked here and there with muted browns from minerals trapped in the salt. She ran her fingers over the surface. The crystals felt hard as steel, and sharp enough to cut if you weren’t careful. She licked her finger, ran it over the surface, and tasted. There was something miraculous about the fact that the walls were . . . edible. Just bizarre.
Which reminded her that she was hungry, again.
“We’re out of the drone’s target zone,” Brick said from behind her, “but we’re gonna need a strategy for extraction. It’ll take time for them to get boots on the ground for a strike team, but they’ll be coming, and I don’t want to be here when they are. My job is to get you people where you’re going, and I’d sure as hell like to deliver you to Kansas City without losing any more of my own people. After that, fair warning, I’m out. This has turned out to be a whole lot more expensive and nasty than anybody thought.”
He was standing with Joe Fideli and Riley Block, and Bryn went back to join them. She missed Patrick’s calm, solid presence. Badly. “What if we split up?” she asked. “The three of us can go on foot through the tunnels, find the public museum area, and get out that way while your team goes out the way we came in. This tunnel is a work space, so it ought to be clearly marked and lit, and it ought to dump right into the public spaces. Your four cars hit the freeway and split up, we go on foot and meet up with one SUV down the road. Divide and conquer. They’ve only got one drone, and they can’t keep it out for long.”