As she set her foot on the first rung, the world flashed blindingly bright. She flinched, tightening in place, a deer in headlights.
The helicopter had returned, hovering directly overhead.
Death waited above…as surely as it did below.
18 Down the Rabbit Hole
DECEMBER 4, 11:02 A.M.
P AINTER LAY flat on the roof of the cinder-block building. He had bundled his cloak tightly under his legs, the ends of his scarf tucked away. He didn’t want any telltale flapping of material to reveal his position.
He waited for the helicopter to make another pass over the town. He would get one shot. He had to assume the copter was outfitted with night vision. The muzzle flash would give away his position. He waited, the Galil sniping rifle at his cheek, resting on a bipod. The Israeli weapon, borrowed from one of the Rahim, had the capability to deliver a head shot at three hundred yards. But not in this storm, not with visibility so low. He needed the helicopter close.
Painter lay in wait.
The copter was up there somewhere, searching. An aerial hunter hidden in the storm. Any movement, and it would open fire with its double guns.
Painter noted the glow deeper in the storm, in the direction of the ruins. The second helicopter. He prayed that Safia and Omaha had kept their heads down. He had tried to radio them earlier, when he first suspected the danger, but something blocked the signal. Perhaps interference from the static charge of the storm. He attempted to reach them on foot, but the helicopters had swooped in, targeting anything that moved.
If there were birds in the air, then this was no small scouting party. Cassandra had somehow learned of her mistake and moved full forces in.
The radio in his ear whispered with static, the channel left open. Words formed out of the white noise. “Commander.” It was Coral, reporting in from the field. “As you suspected, I’ve hostiles coming in on all sides. They’re doing a building-by-building search.” Painter touched his transmitter, trusting that the storm kept their words private. “The children and older women?” “Ready. Barak awaits your signal.”
Painter searched the skies. Where are you? He needed to take out the helicopter if they were to have any hope of breaking through the noose around the town. The plan was to strike out west of the ruins, collecting Safia and Omaha along the way, risking the wild weather. Though the storm was growing worse with every minute, it could cover their retreat. If they left the ruins behind, perhaps Cassandra would be satisfied enough to make only half an effort to hunt them down. If they could get back to the mountains…
Painter felt a fury build in him. He hated to retreat, to hand Cassandra a victory here. Especially with the discovery of the secret chamber under the sinkhole. Cassandra would surely bring in heavy excavating equipment. Something lay down there. The Rahim were living proof of something extraordinary. His only hope was to abscond with Safia, delaying Cassandra enough for him to alert someone in Washington, someone he could trust.
And that certainly was not the command structure of Sigma.
Anger built in him, stoking a fire in his gut.
He had been set up. All of them had.
His mind flashed to Safia. He could still feel the beat of her heart under the blade he held at her throat. He had seen the look in her eyes afterward, as if he were a stranger. But what did she expect? This was his job.
Sometimes hard choices had to be made, and even tougher actions.
With Coral’s report of forces moving into the town’s outskirts, they would be surrounded in minutes. He could no longer wait for the helicopter to show itself. It would need to be flushed out.
“Novak, is the rabbit ready to run?”
“On your go, Commander.”
“Rev it up.”
Painter waited, cheek against the gun, one eye peering through the telescopic lens, the other on the skies. A bright light burst down in the town, shining from an open doorway. Details were murky, but through his night-vision goggles, the light shone brilliant. A throaty engine growled and whined.
“Let her run,” Painter ordered.
From the building, a sand cycle burst forth. Its path was only evident as a brightness tearing down an alley between buildings. It zigzagged through the tangle of streets. Painter watched the skies to either side and above.
Then it appeared, diving like a hawk.
The helicopter’s guns chattered, flashes in the storm.
Painter adjusted his rifle, aimed for the source of the gunfire, and pulled the trigger. The recoil struck his shoulder like a mule kick. He didn’t wait. He squeezed off another three shots, ears ringing.
Then he saw it, a flare of flame. A heartbeat later, an explosion lit the storm. Fiery wreckage spat in all directions, but the main bulk tumbled in a steep path. It struck a building, burst brighter, then crashed into the roadway.
“Go,” Painter yelled into his radio.
He shouldered the rifle and rolled off the roof’s lip. The soft sand cushioned his fall. All around, engines ignited with rumbles and coughing whines. Lights flared. Bikes and buggies burst forth from alleyways, lean-tos, and out of doorways. One bike sped past Painter. A woman leaned over the bars, another sat behind her, rifle on her shoulder. The women would sweep a path ahead, guard their rear.
From the doorway, Kara appeared, carrying a girl in her arms. Others followed. Barak helped an old woman, followed by two others, supporting each other. Clay and Danny held children’s hands, one on each side. Not a whimper from the lot of them. Not even Clay.
“Follow me,” Painter said, and set off.
He kept his rifle shouldered but held a pistol in one hand.
As he rounded the corner of their shelter, a barrage of gunfire sounded from the ruins. Through the gloom, a floodlight flared. The second helicopter.
“Oh, God…” Kara said behind him, knowing what the gunfire meant.
Safia and Omaha had been found.
R UN!” OMAHA screamed as they ran across the floor of the sinkhole, but his words never reached his own ears. The rattle of guns was deafening. He pushed Safia ahead of him. They raced, blinded by the swirling sand, chased by a twin line of bullets chewing across the ground.
Directly ahead rose the western cliff of the sinkhole, shadowed from above by the citadel’s ruins. The wall was lightly scalloped, coved in. If they could get under the lip of rock, out of direct line of fire, they’d have some shelter.
Safia ran an arm’s length ahead of him, slightly encumbered by her sling, loping, the stiff winds tangling her cloak about her feet. Sand blinded. They hadn’t even had time to pull their goggles in place.
Moments ago, they had decided that the helicopter was the lesser of two evils. The powder keg building in the trilith chamber meant certain death. So they took their chances on the run.
The chatter of guns grew louder as the helicopter swept behind them.
The only reason they had survived this long was the sandstorm. The pilot fought to keep his craft trimmed in the winds. It buffeted and fluttered, a hummingbird in a gale, throwing off the pilot’s aim.
They fled for shelter, running blind.
Omaha waited for bullets to shred into him. With his last breath, he would push Safia to safety, if need be.
It wasn’t necessary.
The bullets suddenly stopped, as if the craft had run out of ammunition. The sudden silence drew Omaha’s attention over his shoulder, his ears still ringing. The helicopter’s floodlight angled away. The copter swept back.
With his attention turned, he stumbled over a rock, went down hard.
Safia came back to help. He waved her off. “Get to shelter!”
Omaha hobbled after her, his ankle flaring with pain, twisted, sprained, hopefully not broken. He cursed his stupidity.
The helicopter retreated to the other side of the sinkhole. It had them dead to rights. They shouldn’t have made it. Why had it pulled back?
What the hell was going on?
E AGLE ONE, don’t hit the goddamn target!” Cassandra screamed into the radio. She banged a fist on the armrest of her seat in the M4 armored tractor. On her laptop, she stared at the blue glowing ring of the curator’s transceiver. It had blinked into existence a moment ago.
The gunfire had flushed Safia out into the open.
Eagle One answered, the pilot’s voice choppy. “I’ve broke off. There are two of them. I can’t tell which one is the target.” Cassandra had radioed just in time. She pictured the pilot cutting down the woman. The curator was her best chance to quickly root out the secrets here and abscond with the prize. And the asinine pilot had almost mowed her down.
“Leave them both,” she said. “Guard the hole they came out of.”
Whatever cavern the curator had disappeared into had to be important.
Cassandra leaned close to her laptop, watching the blue glow. Safia was still in the giant sinkhole. There was nowhere she could go that Cassandra could not find her. Even if the woman vanished into another cave, Cassandra would know where to find the entrance.
She turned to the tractor’s driver, John Kane. “Take us in.”
With the engine still running, he shoved the gearshift. The tractor jerked, then trundled up the dune that hid them from the town of Shisur. Cassandra sat back, one hand on the laptop, holding it steady.
As they reached the dune’s summit, the nose of the tractor rocked high, then fell down the far slope. The valley of Shisur lay ahead. But nothing could be seen beyond a few yards of the vehicle’s xenon headlights. The storm swallowed the rest away.
All except a scatter of glows, marking the town. Vehicles on the move. A firefight between her forces and some unknown party still continued.
Distantly, echoes of sporadic gunfire reached her.
The captain of her forward forces had radioed in his assessment: They all appear to be women.
It made no sense. Still, Cassandra remembered the woman she had chased through the back alleys of Muscat. The one who had vanished in front of her. Was there a connection?
Cassandra shook her head. It no longer mattered. This was the endgame, and she would not tolerate anyone thwarting her.