Static erased any further reception.




Safia pressed the send button and held the radio to her lips. “Painter, if you can hear me, don’t come! Do not come! Did you hear me?”




She released the button. Only static. He hadn’t heard.




She stared out at the netherworld of storm, fire, and wind.




It was death to travel those sands…and Painter was coming here.




6:05 P.M.




C ASSANDRA CROUCHED with two of her men. Gunfire rattled and spat all around. After the first RPG blast had caught her off guard, Cassandra had entered the fray, moving into the wreck and tumble of the town.




Fighting continued, but her team was making steady progress.




She stared through the sights of a rifle and waited. The cluster of blocky homes lay before her, limned in shades of emerald and silver through her night-vision goggles. Having also employed an overlay of infrared, she watched a red blob move beyond a glass wall, near a corner. One of the enemy.




She studied the silhouette. Her target carried a tube on his shoulder, blazing like a small sun. Fiery hot. One of the launchers. She had instructed her men to focus their attention on such objectives. They had to eliminate the enemy’s long-range capabilities.




By the wall, her target shifted, moving out into the open, positioning the grenade launcher.




Cassandra centered her crosshairs on the hottest part of the enemy’s body—the head. She squeezed her trigger. Just once. That’s all she needed.




Through the infrared, she saw the spray of fire blossom outward.




A clean shot.




But some twitched reflex fired the launcher.




Cassandra watched the RPG blast away, blinding on her scopes. She rolled to her back, dazzled. The grenade sailed high overhead, the aim way off course, as the enemy’s body fell backward.




Angled toward the roof as the grenade was, she lost sight of it against the brilliant display of electrical discharges storming across the ceiling. She flipped away the infrared overlay and toggled off the night-vision mode. Through the regular lenses, the roof still blazed. The display had grown more violent, filling the entire cap of the dome. Small arcs of electricity speared out like bolts of lightning.




Across the lake, the misfired RPG exploded. It had struck the far wall, opposite the city. She focused the telescopic view.




Fuck…She could not catch a goddamn break.




The grenade struck the wall above the tunnel leading into the cavern. She watched a section of the glass wall tear away from the rock behind it, along with a portion of the tunnel room. It collapsed, sealing the tunnel.




Their exit was now blocked.




She rolled to her stomach. The surface team would just have to dig them out. The immediate concern was to secure this town, capture Safia, and extract the prize here. She flipped her infrared overlay back over her goggles’ lenses.




It was time to continue the hunt.




Her two men had gone forward already to check the body and confiscate the launcher. They were ready to move on.




Cassandra paused to check her electronic tracker.




Safia lay a short distance ahead. Red triangles, the beacons from her team, closed on her position from all directions.




Satisfied, Cassandra almost pocketed the device, but the elevation reading alongside the blue glowing ring caught her eye. She froze. That didn’t make sense.




Cassandra stared up again at the blazing roof. If the reading was correct, Safia was on the surface. Was there another way out?




She touched her throat mike and sent out a general alert over the open channel, reaching every man. “Close in now! Full run! Leave no one alive!”




Cassandra rose from her position and joined her men.




“Let’s finish this.”




6:10 P.M.




O MAHA HEARD the cry from Captain al-Haffi, in Arabic. “Pull back to the stairs! All forces retreat to the exit.”




Omaha crouched with Coral, Danny, and Clay. They had taken up a position inside the courtyard of the palace. A grenade blasted twenty yards away. They all pressed against the wall.




“We have to go,” Clay said.




“I’d love to,” Omaha said. “Just tell that to the two men around the corner.”




They were pinned down in here. They had been for the last minute. Moments ago, Omaha and Clay had run into the courtyard from one direction, Danny and Coral from the other. Both teams chased by commandos. Now all four were pinned down.




A standoff.




Only Cassandra’s soldiers had an advantage: sophisticated scopes that seemed to track their every move.




“We should pull back into the palace,” Coral said, slapping a fresh magazine into her pistol. “We’d have a better chance of losing them.”




Omaha nodded. They made a dash for the palace entrance.




“What about Captain al-Haffi and the others?” Clay asked as they ducked inside. “They might leave without us.”




Omaha crouched on one knee, gun pointed toward the courtyard. Coral took his flank, Danny and Clay behind them.




“Leave where?” Omaha asked. “I’d rather take my chances out here than in the cramped stairwell. At least here we have some elbow—”




The shot pinged off the wall by his ear. Glass shattered, needling the side of his face. “Damn…”




More bullets chewed. Omaha dropped flat next to Coral. Danny and Clay retreated into the far room. The only reason Omaha was still alive was that the iron-and-glass statue of the palm holding the sphere in the courtyard’s center had blocked a direct shot into the entrance.




Across the courtyard, one of the commandos ran into view, angling to the side, a grenade launcher on his shoulder, pointed at the door of the palace. Bullets continued to pepper, suppression fire for the artillery soldier. A gutsy move. Something had lit a fire under Cassandra’s team in the last few minutes.




Coral twisted around and aimed her pistol at the man with the grenade launcher. She was too slow.




The gods above were not.




From the roof, a dazzling bolt of energy struck the ground near the man, crackling for a half a breath, searing the retinas. It was not true lightning, just an arc of energy between the roof and floor. It did not blast a crater. It did not even knock the man down.




It did much worse.




The glass under the man instantly transmogrified from solid to liquid, changing states in one breath. The soldier fell into the pool, up to his neck. The scream that burst from his mouth was a sound only heard in the deepest pit of hell, the scream of a man burned alive.




It cut short after an instant.




The man’s head fell backward, steam rising from his mouth.




Dead.




The glass was solid again.




The suppression fire died with the man. Others had witnessed it.




In the distance, the fighting continued, echoing with rifle blasts—but here no one moved. Omaha raised his gaze. The roof was on fire, filling the dome. Other bolts jumped between ceiling and floor. Somewhere across the way another scream erupted, a twin to the one heard here.




“It’s happening again,” Coral said.




Omaha stared at the dead man, buried in glass. He knew what she meant.




Fiery death had returned to Ubar.




6:12 P.M.




P AINTER BOUNCED in his seat as the twenty-ton tractor flew over a small dune. He could see nothing now. The visibility of a few yards had dropped to the tip of his nose. He was driving blind. He could be blithely aiming for the edge of a cliff and he’d never know.




A few minutes ago, the sandstorm had suddenly whipped up with a renewed ferocity. The buffeting winds sounded like giant fists striking the tractor. Painter’s head throbbed from the concussion of the forces.




Still, he continued blindly forward. His only guidance glowed on the laptop beside him.




Safia.




He had no idea if she heard his radio call or not, but she hadn’t moved since the broadcast. She was still aboveground…actually about forty feet aboveground. There must be a hill ahead. He’d have to slow once he was nearer.




A shimmer of reflection caught his eye. In the side mirror. The second pursuit vehicle. It was following the tractor’s larger lights. The hunter had to be as blind as he, following in his tracks, keeping to his packed path, letting him encounter any obstacles.




The blind leading the blind.




Painter continued. He dared not leave his post. The winds suddenly whipped even more savagely. For a moment, the tractor tilted up on one tread, then slammed down. Christ…




For some reason, a laugh bubbled out of him. The gibbering amusement of the damned.




Then the winds ended, as if someone had unplugged the fan.




The lumbering tractor rode out into more open sands. The skies even lightened from midnight to twilight. Sand still stirred, and winds did indeed still blow, but at a tenth of the velocity of a moment ago.




He glanced to the side mirror. A solid wall of blackness blanketed the view. He must have traveled completely through its heart and out the other side.




As he watched, he saw no sign of the pursuit vehicle, its glow lost in the total darkness. Perhaps that last burst of winds had flipped the sucker.




He focused forward.




His sight line stretched for a good quarter mile. In the distance he could see a shadowy prominence of dark rock. A desert mesa. He glanced at the laptop. The blue glow lay directly ahead.




“So that’s where you are.”




He kicked up the speed of the tractor.




He wondered if Safia could see him. Reaching out, he took the radio in hand. He kept one eye on the road. Throughout the region, mini-tornadoes whipped and snaked, joining desert to sky. They glowed with a cobalt radiance. Crackles of static charge spun up from the ground. Most stood in one place, but a few meandered over the desert landscape. He was close enough to see one etch down a dune face, sand coughing up around it. In its wake, it left a trail of black sand, a squiggled sigil, a pen stroke from some storm god.




Painter frowned. He had never seen such a phenomenon.




But it was none of his concern.




He had more pressing worries. He raised the radio to his lips. “Safia, if you can read me, let me know. You should be able to see me.”




He waited for a reply. He didn’t know if Safia still had one of their radios. It was the frequency to which he had set the tractor’s transmitter.