Page 81

Under the doorjamb, sand whistled in, streaming and writhing along the floor like snakes. Through cracks in the windows, it gasped and sighed in dusty puffs, now almost a continual blow.

The air in the room had grown stale, smelling of blood and iodine.

The only ones left here were the wounded, one medic, and two guards. Half an hour ago, Cassandra had cleared out the rest for her underground assault.

Painter glanced at the laptop. It showed Safia’s blue spinning ring. She was six miles due north of here, deep under the sands. He hoped the glow meant she was still alive. But the transceiver would not die with her body. Its continual transmission was no assurance. Still, from the scrolling numerical axis coordinates, Safia was on the move. He had to trust she still lived.

But for how much longer?

Time pressed against him like a physical weight. He had heard the arrival of the M4 tractors from Thumrait Air Base, bringing in a shipment of new supplies and weapons. The caravan had arrived just as the sandstorm blew at its worst. Still, the group had managed to outrun the predicted megastorm.

In addition to the new supplies, another thirty men swelled the forces. Hardeyed, fresh, heavily packed with gear. They had stomped in like they owned the place. More of the elite of the Guild. With no joking, they had stripped out of their sandy clothes and into black thermal wet suits.

Painter had watched from his bed.

A few cast stares his way. They had already heard about John Kane’s demise. They looked ready to rip his head off. But they left quickly, heading back out into the storm. Through the open doorway, Painter had seen a Jet Ski being wheeled by.

Wet suits and Jet Skis. What had Cassandra found down there?

He continued to work under his sheets. He had been stripped to his boxers, one ankle cuffed to the foot of the bed frame. He had only one weapon: an inch-long, eighteen-gauge needle. A few minutes ago, when the two guards had been distracted by the room’s door blowing open, Painter had managed to snag the needle from amid a pile of discarded medical gear.

He had quickly palmed it.

He sat up a bit and reached to his foot.

The guard, lounging on the next cot, lifted his pistol from the crook of his arm where he had been resting it. “Lay back down.”

Painter obeyed. “Just an itch.”

“Too fucking bad.”

Painter sighed. He waited for the guard’s attention to drift, less focused on him. He shifted his free foot to the cuffed one. He had managed to pinch the needle between his big toe and its neighbor. He now sought to pick the lock on the cuff, tricky to do blind and with his toes.

But when there’s a will, there’s a way.

Closing his eyes, he kept his movements minimal under the sheets.

Finally he felt a satisfying slip in pressure on this trapped ankle. He was free. He lay still and glanced to the guard.

Now what?

4:45 P.M.

C ASSANDRA CROUCHED in the bow of the Zodiac pontoon boat. The motor idled behind her. She had night-vision binoculars focused on the far shoreline. Three flares hung above the glass city, lighting it brilliantly through the scopes. Despite the situation, Cassandra could not help but be amazed.

Across the lake, she heard the continual shatter of glass.

Another rocket-propelled grenade arced from one of the six Jet Skis. It struck deep into the city, flashing blindingly through her scopes. She lowered the binoculars. The flares cast the city in shades of crimson and fire. Smoke billowed, hanging in the still air. Above, energy scintillated, swelling, crackling, swirling, a cerulean maelstrom.

There was such beauty in the destruction here.

A chatter of machine-gun fire drew her attention farther toward shore. A second Zodiac zipped parallel to the city, strafing the area with continuous fire.

More RPGs arced over the water, smashing into the city. Pillars of glass collapsed like toppled redwoods.

Truly beautiful.

Cassandra slipped her portable tracker from a pocket of her combat jacket. She stared at the tracker’s LCD screen. The blue circle glowed, moving away from her position, seeking higher ground.

The artillery barrage was just to soften them up.

Run while you can. The fun is just beginning.

4:47 P.M.

S AFIA CLIMBED with the others up a winding narrow stairway. Explosions echoed all around, amplified by the glass bubble. Smoke choked the air. They ran through the dark, all flashlights off.

Omaha kept to her side, helping Lu’lu. Safia held a child’s hand, though she wasn’t much reassurance to the girl. With every bomb blast, Safia ducked, fearing the end, expecting the glass bubble to come down. Small fingers squeezed hers.

The others trailed ahead and behind. Kara helped another of the elders. Danny, Clay, and Coral followed behind, leading more children. Several of the Rahim had slipped away, into side streets and terraces, dropping into sniping positions. Others simply vanished, whispering away to guard their rear.

Safia had watched one woman take a few steps down a dark street and vanish in front of her eyes. Perhaps it was a trick of glass and shadow…or maybe it was a demonstration of the gift Lu’lu had told Safia about. To cloud perception and disappear.

The group reached the top of the stairs. Safia glanced behind her. She had a panoramic view of the lower city and shoreline. Flares overhead lit the place brilliantly, bathing the city in crimson.

Down by the lake, the royal barge was a smoldering ruin of broken timber. The stone pier had been shattered, the glass shore pitted deeply.

“They’ve stopped the bombardment,” Omaha said.

Safia realized he was right, but the explosions still echoed in her head.

On the lake, Cassandra’s forces were moving in. Jet Skis and pontoon boats angled and swept toward shore, in unison, like an aerial team. Closer in, all along the shoreline itself, smaller Vs aimed through the waters.

Safia squinted, spotting men in wet suits atop motorized body boards. They struck the beach, surfed high, and rolled into crouched positions, rifles already in hand. Others darted into the streets and alleyways.

A gun battle erupted below, flashing like fireflies, popping loudly, an exchange of fire between Cassandra’s forces and some of the Rahim. But it was brief, the snarl of dogs. Another grenade rocketed from one of the incoming Jet Skis, striking where the gunfire had come from. Glass shattered in a spray of brilliance.

Safia prayed that the Rahim had already fled. Shoot and run. It was their only chance. They were far too few and vastly outgunned. But to where could they run? They were trapped in a glass bubble. Even the dhow was destroyed.

Safia watched the Jet Skis and pontoons skid up to shore, off-loading more men. They would hunt and blast their way through the city.

Overhead the flares began to dim and fade, sinking into the shattered city. With the fading of the flares, Ubar darkened, lit now by the showers of blue fire above, basking the city in shades of indigo.

Safia glanced up to the arched roof. The crackles of energy and swirls of gaseous clouds had grown fierce, roiling, as if angry at the destruction.

Another spate of gunfire blasted, rattling, somewhere else in the city.

“We have to keep going,” Omaha said, urging her on.

“Where?” she asked, turning to him.

He met her eyes. He had no answer.

4:52 P.M.

T HE SANDSTORM continued to pound the cinder-block building. It had worn everyone’s nerves raw. Sand, dust, and grit covered everything, finding every crack and crevice to stream inside. Winds howled.

It didn’t help matters that field reports radioed up from below described the battle. Clearly it was a rout. Cassandra’s superior forces were sweeping through, finding little resistance, enjoying the mayhem.

And the boys here weren’t allowed outside to play.

“Turn that goddamn Dixie Chicks shit off!” the guard yelled.

“Fuck you, Pearson!” the medic shouted back, fixing a seeping bandage.

Pearson swung around. “Listen, you piece of dogshit…”

The second guard was back by the plastic water barrel, tilting it while trying to fill a paper cup.

Painter knew he’d never have a better chance.

He rolled from his bed with hardly a squeak, grabbed the pistol from the guard’s hand, twisting the man’s wrist savagely. He pumped two bullets into the guard’s chest.

The impact blew the man backward onto the cot.

Painter dropped to a shooter’s stance, aimed at the second guard, and fired three shots. All at the man’s head. Two struck home. The guard went down, brains and blood sprayed on the back wall.

Leaping back, Painter held the gun out. He trusted that the roar of the storm had muffled the shots. He swept the room. The wounded had clothes and weapons stacked nearby, out of immediate reach. That left only the medic.

Painter kept his eyes focused on the man, his peripheral gaze on the rest of the room. On the cot, Pearson moaned, bubbled, and bled.

Painter spoke to the medic. “Go for a gun, you die. This man can be saved. Make your choice.” He backed to the laptop, reached blindly for it, snapped it closed, and tucked it under his gun arm.

The medic kept his hands in the air, palms toward him.

Painter did not let his guard down. He sidled to the door, reached behind to the handle, and yanked it open. Winds almost buffeted him straight back into the room. He leaned against the onslaught and forced his way out. He didn’t bother closing the door. Once out, he turned on a heel and spun away.

He aimed in the direction he’d heard the armored tractors stop, and tunneled through the sand and wind. Barefoot, he wore only his boxers. Sand scoured him like steel wool. He didn’t bother keeping his eyes open. There was nothing to see. Sand choked him with each breath.

He held the pistol out in front of him. In his other hand, he clutched the laptop. It had data he needed: on the Guild, on Safia.

His outstretched gun struck metal.

The first of the tractors. As much as he would’ve liked to take it, he moved on. The mammoth vehicle was pinned down by the others behind it. He heard its engine running, to keep the batteries charged. He prayed they were all idling.

He continued down the line, moving fast.

He vaguely heard shouts behind him. Word was out.

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