Movement drew Safia’s attention back to the village fifty yards away.
From a doorway below, a figure appeared, dressed in a dishdasha robe, his head wrapped in a traditional Omani headdress. He lifted a mug into the air.
“I just put a fresh pot on. If you want a cup of joe, you’d best get your butts down here.”
Safia stood. She recognized that flash of a rakish grin.
A flush of relief washed through her. Before she knew it, she was running down the slope toward him, eyes blurry with tears. Even as she ran, the depth of her reaction surprised her.
She stumbled across the gravel roadway.
“Hold it right there,” Omaha warned, backing up a step.
From windows and neighboring doorways, rifles suddenly bristled.
Safia stopped, stunned, wounded. Before she could react, a figure swept out of hiding from behind a low wall, grabbed her, swung her around. A fist snatched a handful of hair and yanked back, baring her neck. Something cold touched her flesh.
A long dagger glinted, pressed.
A voice whispered with an icy ferocity. It chilled her more than the knife at her throat. “You took a friend of ours.”
Omaha stepped to her shoulder. “We spied you coming. I wouldn’t forget the face of someone who tried to kidnap me.”
“What have you done with Dr. al-Maaz?” the voice hissed at her ear as the dagger pressed harder.
Safia realized her face was still covered by scarf and goggles. They thought her one of the women, bandits perhaps. Breathless from fright, she reached up and pulled down her scarf and goggles.
Omaha did a double take. He gaped at her face, then lunged, and pushed the man’s arm away, freeing her. “Ohmygod, Saffie…” He hugged her tightly.
Fire flared in her shoulder. “Omaha, my arm.”
He dropped back. Others appeared in doorways and windows.
Safia glanced behind her. A man stood there, the dagger in his hands. Painter. She had not even recognized his voice. She had a hard time reconciling this man with her image of him. She still felt the blade against her skin, the fist twisted in her hair.
Painter backed up a step. His face shone with relief, but his blue eyes also glowed with an emotion almost too raw to read. Shame and regret. He glanced away, to the neighboring slope.
Cycles and buggies now lined the ridge, engines revving. The Rahim had been preparing to come to her rescue. Women, all dressed and cloaked like Safia, appeared around nearby corners of buildings, rifles on shoulders.
Kara stomped down the slope, arms in the air. “Everyone back down!” she called loudly. “It was only a misunderstanding.”
Omaha shook his head. “That woman doesn’t need to remove her mask. I’d recognize that screech of command anywhere.”
“Kara…” Painter said, stunned. “How?”
Omaha turned to Safia. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she managed to squeak out.
Kara joined them. She removed her scarf. “Leave her be.” She waved them off. “Give her some room to breathe.”
Omaha pushed back. He nodded to the slope. Warily the Rahim had begun to march down. “So who are your friends?”
Kara shrugged. “That may take some explaining.”
C ASSANDRA STEPPED up to her tent, a U.S. Army desert survival model, meant to withstand winds up to eighty miles per hour. She had reinforced it with a wind-and-sand shield on the windward side of the tent.
The team here had similar accommodations. The larger transport trucks had also been positioned as a windbreak.
At her tent, Cassandra shook sand from her fatigues. She wore a wide-brimmed hat, tied down around her ears, a scarf over her face. The winds gusted now, snapping tent lines, causing sheets of sand to course underfoot. The sandstorm rumbled like a passing freight train.
She had just returned from a final inspection of their deployment, ensuring all the copters were battened down. The men had already planted the GPS beacons to fix their position, coordinated with the fixed orbital satellites. Feed should be flowing into her computerized mapping system.
Cassandra had a couple hours before the static electricity of the sandstorm would threaten the electronics, requiring them to be shut down. Plenty of time to intercept the data from the LANDSAT satellite as it focused on her GPS beacons. The satellite’s radar had the capability of delving sixty feet under the sand. It would give her an overview of what lay underfoot. Some indication of where to begin digging. As soon as the sandstorm blew itself out, her team would set to work with dozers and backhoes. By the time anyone was aware of their excavation, they’d be long gone.
That was the plan.
Cassandra pushed through the tent flap. The interior of the tent was spartan. A cot and a duffel. The remainder of her tent was an elaborate satellite communication system. She had other electronic gear stored in carryalls.
She crossed to the laptop computer and used her cot as a seat. She linked to JPL in Houston and fed the proper authorization to access LANDSAT data. The pass should have been completed five minutes ago. The data awaited her. She tapped the keys and began the download.
Finished, she sat back and watched the screen slowly fill with an image of the desert. She spotted her trucks, tents, even their trenched latrine. It was the survey pass. Perfect alignment.
A second image slowly fed into her laptop. The deeper scan.
Cassandra leaned in closer.
The terrain stripped away to display a different conformation, revealing the bedrock under the sand. It was a fossil of a different time, preserved in limestone. While most of the terrain was flat, it was etched by an old riverbed coursing along one corner of the image. It drained into an ancient lake bed buried under their site.
Cassandra studied the landscape, a snapshot from another time.
She saw nothing significant. No meteor crater, no artifact that intrigued.
She sat back. She would forward it to a pair of geologists on the payroll with the Guild. Perhaps they could read more into it.
A noise at her tent flap drew her attention around.
John Kane limped into her tent. “We’ve picked up Dr. al-Maaz’s signal.”
Cassandra swung to face him. “When? Where?”
“Eight minutes ago. It took another few minutes to get a fix. Her signal blipped into existence ten miles west of here. By the time we triangulated, she’d stopped moving. She went to ground about six miles from here.”
He hobbled over to the map on her worktable and tapped. “Right here.”
Cassandra leaned next to him, reading the name. “Shisur. What’s there?”
“I asked one of the techs at Thumrait. He says it’s where the old ruins of Ubar were found. Back in the nineties.”
Cassandra stared at the map. Her lines in blue and red still looked fresh. The red circle marked her present position. She put her finger on the circle and followed the red line backward.
It crossed Shisur.
She closed her eyes. Again picturing the curator’s expression when Cassandra had drawn the circle. She had continued studying the map. Her eyes had been distant, calculating in her head.
“The goddamn bitch…” Cassandra’s finger on the map closed to form a fist. Anger burned through her. Yet deeper down, a flash of respect flared.
John Kane stood with his brows crinkled.
Cassandra stared back at the LANDSAT image. “There’s nothing here. She fucked us. We’re at the wrong place.”
She faced Kane. “Get the men up. We’re heading out. I want the trucks moving in the next ten minutes.”
“Fuck it. We’ve just enough time. We’re moving out. We can’t let ourselves get pinned down here.” She herded Kane toward the doors. “Leave the equipment, tents, supplies. Weapons only.”
Kane swept out of the room.
Cassandra turned to one of her carrying cases. She snapped it open and removed a handheld digital radio transmitter. She flipped it on, dialed in the proper frequency and channel to match the curator’s implanted transceiver.
She held a finger over the transmit button. One touch and the C4 pellet in Dr. al-Maaz’s neck would explode, severing her spine and killing her instantly. She felt an overwhelming urge to press it. Instead she switched the unit off.
It was not compassion that held her hand. Safia had proven her prowess at riddle solving. Such skill might still be needed. But more than that, she didn’t know for certain if Painter was at the woman’s side.
That was important.
Cassandra wanted Painter to see Safia die.
17 Picking a Lock
DECEMBER 4, 9:07 A.M.
S AFIA SECURED her goggles in place. “Does everyone have their gear?”
“It looks like night’s falling,” Clay said by the open doorway. They had boarded up the windows to the cinder-block building. They had chosen this particular home because it had a solid door to close against the winds. It also opened on the south face of the structure, away from direct assault by the storm.
Through the doorway, Safia could see that the morning sky had been swept away by higher-blowing sand, darkening the world to an eerie twilight. Dust clouds shadowed the sun. Closer at hand, channels of swirling sand swept along the alleys to either side of the home, eddying in front of the door. It was the leading edge of the storm. Farther out, the heart of the sandstorm moaned and roared, like some ravenous beast, gnashing through the desert.
They didn’t have much time.
Safia faced the group assembled in the plain room. Most buildings in Shisur were left open or unlocked. The seasonal residents simply stripped the place to the plaster before moving on, leaving nothing to steal, except for a few broken bits of pottery, a dirty cracked dish in the kitchen sink, and a handful of pale green scorpions. Even the curtains had been taken.
“You all have your assigned places to search,” Safia said. She had a map nailed to one wall. She had divided the site into five sections, one for each of their metal detectors scrounged from the ruin’s work shack. They had Motorola radios to keep in contact. Everyone, except the youngest children, had an assigned grid to help search, armed with pickaxes, shovels, and spades.