“How’s things look, Captain?” Kane asked through her radio earpiece.
She knelt and peered below. The chasm stretched ahead of her. Opposite her position, the far side of the sinkhole was a tumbled slope of rock, still rolling with tiny slides. A fresh avalanche. What the hell had happened? She shifted her gaze directly below her.
The tunnel entrance stared back at her, a glistening eye, crystalline.
Her pulse quickened at the sight of it. This had to be the entrance to whatever treasure lay below. Her gaze swept over the parked vehicles. She could not let them steal the prize.
She touched her throat mike. “Kane, I want a full team ready to enter that tunnel in five minutes.” There was no answer.
“Kane,” she shouted louder, twisting around.
The tractor’s headlights blinded her.
She shoved to the side. Suspicion flared.
She moved forward, only then spotting something knocked on its side, in the lee of the wall, abandoned, half covered in sand.
A sand bike.
Only one person was that clever.
T HE KNIFE stabbed at his face. Tangled, rolling across the floor, Painter turned his head, avoiding a fatal plunge to the eye. The dagger sliced his cheek, grazing the bone under his eye.
Fury and desperation fueled Painter’s strength. Despite the blood flowing, he kept his legs pinned around the other man’s legs, his right arm clenched around the man’s neck.
The bastard was as strong as a bull, bucking, rolling.
Painter pinned him, trapping his knife arm.
As he had climbed through the side door of the tractor, left conveniently ajar by Cassandra, he’d recognized the man. Painter had been hiding, buried under loose, windblown sand piled against the crumbling wall. Five minutes ago, he had ridden the sand bike at breakneck speeds up out of the sinkhole and raced to the gap in the east wall. He knew Cassandra’s forces would have to come through there with any vehicles.
He hadn’t expected the behemoth of a tractor, a twenty-ton monster from the look of it. A bus fitted with tank treads. But it suited his purpose better than an ordinary truck.
He had crawled out of hiding as the tractor stopped, idling in the storm. He had ducked between the back treads. As he expected, all attention had been focused on the sinkhole.
Then Cassandra had stepped from the vehicle, giving him the opening he needed. With the door unlocked, Painter had slipped into the back compartment, pistol in hand.
Unfortunately, his wrestling partner, John Kane, must’ve caught Painter’s reflection in the glass. He had swung around on a splinted leg and snapped out with the other, knocking the pistol from Painter’s hand.
Now they struggled on the floor.
Painter maintained his choke hold. Kane tried to slam the back of his head into the bridge of Painter’s nose. Painter avoided the blow. Instead, he yanked the man’s head back even farther and slammed it hard against the metal floor.
He repeated the action three more times. The man went limp. Painter continued to clamp his forearm over the man’s neck. Only then did he note the blood spreading across the gray metal. Nose broken.
Time running out, Painter let the man go. He stood up and stumbled back. If that leopard hadn’t tenderized the bastard first, Painter would never have won that fight.
He shoved to the driver’s seat, popped the clutch, and gave the tractor some gas. The lumbering giant crunched forward, surprisingly agile. Painter checked his landmarks and aimed the tractor toward the right trajectory, straight for the sinkhole.
Bullets suddenly peppered the side of the tractor. Automatic weapons. His presence had been discovered.
The noise deafened.
Painter continued forward, unconcerned. The tractor was armored. And he had locked the side door.
The rim of the sinkhole appeared ahead. He kept the tractor moving.
Bullets continued to pound, stones against a tin can.
The front end of the tractor crawled past the lip of the sinkhole.
That was good enough for Painter. Trusting momentum, he swept out of the seat. The tractor slowed but crept farther past the edge of the sinkhole. Its forward end dipped down as the rim crumbled. The floor tilted.
Painter scrambled toward the rear door, intending to jettison before the tractor went over, taking his chances among the commandos. But a hand snatched his pant leg, yanking his feet out from under him. He fell hard, the wind knocked out of him.
Kane dragged Painter toward him, still impossibly strong.
Painter had no time for this. The floor angled steeply. He kicked out with a heel, striking Kane’s broken nose. The man’s head snapped back. His ankle was freed.
Painter crawled and leaped up the sloped floor, climbing a cliff of steel. Equipment and gear tumbled toward the front, knocking into him. He felt a sliding lurch. Gravity now gripped the tractor. Treads tore through stone.
It was going over.
Leaping, Painter snatched the handle to the back hatch. Unfortunately, it opened out. He didn’t have good purchase to shove it open. Using his toes, his calves, he just managed to push the hatch a foot up.
The wind did the rest. The storm caught the door and flung it wide.
Painter followed, carried bodily outward.
Beneath him, the tractor fell away, diving into the sinkhole.
He managed one kick. Leapfrogging off the back end, he aimed for the cliff edge, arms outstretched.
He made it, barely. His belly struck the edge. He flung his torso on the ground, legs dangling in the pit. His fingers dug for purchase. A screeching crash sounded below him. He noted figures scrambling toward him.
They wouldn’t reach him in time.
He slid backward. There was no grip. The tractor’s treads had churned the edge to mush. He managed for a moment to catch a buried rock in the dust.
He hung for a breath by one hand and stared down.
Forty feet below, the tractor had slammed nose-first into the glass hole, tearing away, crumpling, a twenty-ton plug in the tunnel.
His rocky purchase gave way. Painter fell, tumbling into the pit.
Distantly he heard his name called.
Then his shoulder struck an outcropping of rock, he bounced, and the ground rushed up to meet him, jagged with rocks and broken metal.
Fire Down Below
Any Port in a Storm
DECEMBER 4, 12:02 P.M.
S AFIA HURRIED down the spiraling ramp, leading the others. The crash above them had thrown them into a panic. Debris rolled and skittered from above: glass, rocks, even a broken rim of metal. The last had rolled like a child’s hoop, skimming around the spiral, through the mass of folk in flight, and down into the depths.
Omaha followed it with his flashlight until it vanished. The noise above subsided, echoing away.
“What happened?” Safia asked.
Omaha shook his head. “Painter, I guess.”
Kara marched on her other side. “Barak and Coral went back to check.”
Behind them marched Danny and Clay, backs loaded with gear. They held flashlights. Clay held his with both hands, as if it were a lifeline. Safia doubted he’d ever volunteer for a field expedition again.
Beyond them marched the Rahim, similarly encumbered with supplies and packs. Only a few flashlights glowed. Lu’lu, bent in discussion with another elder, led them. They had lost six women during the fighting and bombing. Safia saw the raw grief in all their eyes. A child wept softly back there. As insulated as the Rahim were, a single death must be devastating. They were down to thirty, a quarter of them children and old women.
The footing suddenly changed underfoot, going from rough glass to stone. Safia looked down as they wound around the spiral.
“Sandstone,” Omaha said. “We’ve reached the end of the blast range.”
Kara shone her light back, then forward. “The explosion did all this?”
“Some form of shaped charge,” Omaha said, seemingly unimpressed. “Most of this spiraling ramp was probably already down here. The trilith chamber was its cork. The bomb simply blew its top away.” Safia knew Omaha was simplifying things. She continued forward. If they had passed the transition from glass to stone, then the end must be near. The sandstone underfoot was still wet. What if all they found was a flooded passage? They’d have to go back…face Cassandra.
A commotion drew her attention. Coral and Barak trotted up to them. Safia stopped along with the others.
Coral pointed back. “Painter did it. Dropped a truck over the entrance.”
“A big truck,” Barak elaborated.
“What about Painter?” Safia asked.
Coral licked her lips, eyes narrowed with concern. “No sign.”
Safia glanced past the woman’s shoulder, searching.
“That won’t keep Cassandra off our tail forever. I already heard men up there digging.” Coral waved forward. “Painter bought us time, let’s use it.” Safia took a deep shuddering breath. Coral was right. She turned and continued down. No one spoke for another turn of the spiral.
“How deep are we?” Kara asked.
“I’d say over two hundred feet,” Omaha answered.
Around another bend, a cavern opened, about the size of a double garage. Their lights reflected off a well of water in the center. It jostled gently, its surface misty. Water dripped from the ceiling.
“The source of the water flume,” Omaha said. “The shaped charge of the explosion must have sucked it up, like milk through a straw.” They all entered the cavern. A lip of rock circled the well.
“Look.” Kara pointed her light to a door on the far side.
They marched around the well.
Omaha placed his palm on the door’s surface. “Iron again. They sure like smelting around here.” There was a handle, but a bar was locked across the door’s frame.
“To keep the chamber pressure-sealed,” Coral said behind them. “For the explosive vacuum.” She nodded back to the well of water.
Far above them, a crash echoed down.
Omaha grabbed the locking bar and pulled it. It wouldn’t budge. “Goddamnit. It’s jammed.” He wiped his hands on his cloak. “And all oily.” “To resist corrosion,” Danny said. He tried to help him, but the two brothers fared no better. “We need a crowbar or something.”