If they touched, it was the end of everything: themselves, Arabia, possibly the world.




Painter focused down upon the ghost of a woman moving sedately along the storm-lit streets, as if she had all the time in the world. She vanished completely when in shadows. He willed her to be safe, but also to move faster. His gaze fluttered between storm and woman.




Omaha appeared from below, hurrying to join them, having lost sight of Safia from his post below. His eyes glistened, full of hope, terror, and as much as Painter didn’t want to see it, love.




Painter swung his attention back to the cavern.




Safia was almost to the sphere.




“C’mon…” Omaha moaned.




It was an emotion shared by all.




Sandstorm




Safia gently walked down the stairs. She had to step with care. The passage of the iron sphere had crushed its way through. Loose glass littered the steps. Cuts pierced her heel and toes.




She ignored the pain, keeping calm, breathing through it.




Ahead the iron sphere appeared. Its surface glowed with an azure blue aura. She stepped up and studied the obstruction: a fallen section of wall. The ball had to be rolled two feet to the left, and it would continue its plummet. She glanced the rest of the way down. It was a clear shot to the lake. There were no other tumbles to block the sphere’s path a second time. All she had to do was shift it over. Though heavy, it was a perfect sphere. One good shove and it would roll clear.




She moved next to it, set her legs, raised her palms, took another cleansing breath, and shoved.




The electrical shock from the charged iron shot into her, arcing over her body and out her toes. She spasmed, neck thrown back, bones on fire. Her momentum and convulsive jerk shoved the sphere away, rolling it free.




But as her body broke contact, a final crack of energy snapped her like a whip. She was flung backward, hard. Her head hit the wall behind her. The world went dark, and she fell into nothingness.




Sandstorm




Safia…!




Omaha could not breathe. He had seen the brilliant arc of energy and watched her be tossed aside like a rag doll. She landed in crumpled pile, no longer ethereal, grounded. She was not moving.




Unconscious, electrocuted, or dead?




Oh, God…




He spun around.




Painter grabbed his arm. “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”




“I have to get to her.”




Fingers tightened on his arm. “The storm will kill you within two steps.”




Kara joined him. “Omaha…Painter’s right.”




Cassandra stood by the rail, watching everything through her damned scopes. “As long as she doesn’t move, she shouldn’t attract the bolts. I’m not sure that’s a great place to be when the sphere hits the lake, though. Out in the open like that.” Omaha saw that the sphere was almost to the lake. Beyond, the titanic forces swirled. An hourglass hung in the center of the vast cavern. A tornado of charge coming down to meet a rising spout of water.




And the ball rolled toward it.




Lightning bolts chased the sphere, stabbing at it.




“I have to try!” Omaha said, and ripped away. He sprinted down the stairs.




Painter followed at his heels. “Goddamnit, Omaha! Don’t throw your life away!”




Omaha landed. “It’s my life.”




He slid to the entryway, dropping onto his rear, skidding. He yanked off his boots. His left ankle, sprained, protested the rough treatment.




Painter frowned at his actions. “It’s not just your life. Safia loves you. If you truly care about her, don’t do this.” Omaha pulled off his socks. “I’m not throwing my life away.” He crawled on his knees to the entryway and scooped handfuls of sand from the path and poured them into his socks.




“What are you doing?”




“Making sand shoes.” Omaha leaned back and shoved his feet into the socks, squeezing them inside and massaging the sand so it covered the bottoms of his feet.




Painter stared at his actions. “Why didn’t you…Safia wouldn’t’ve had to…”




“I just thought of it. Necessity is the mother of goddamn invention.”




“I’m going with you.”




“No time.” Omaha pointed to Painter’s bare feet. “No socks.”




He sprinted away, skidding and skating across the sandy path. He reached the clean glass and kept running. He wasn’t as confident of his plan as he had portrayed to Painter. Bolts dazzled around him. Panic fueled run. Sand hurt his toes. His ankle flamed with every step.




But he kept running.




Sandstorm




Cassandra had to give these folks some credit. They did have balls of steel. She tracked Omaha’s mad flight through the streets. Had a man ever loved her with so much heart?




She noted Painter’s return but did not look his way.




Would I have let him?




Cassandra watched the sphere’s last few bounces. It now rolled toward the lake, aglow with cobalt energies. She had a job to finish here. She considered all her options, weighed the possibilities if they survived the next minute. She kept a finger pressed to the button.




She saw Painter staring at Safia below as Omaha reached her.




She and Painter had both lost out.




Off by the shore, the sphere took a final hop, bounced up, and landed in the water with a splash.




Sandstorm




Omaha reached Safia. She lay unmoving. Bolts rained fire all around him. His eyes were only on her.




Her chest rose and fell. Alive.




Off in the direction of the lake, a huge splash sounded like a belly flop.




The depth charge had been dropped.




No time. They needed shelter.




He scooped Safia in his arms and swung around. He had to keep her from touching any surfaces. Carrying her prone form, her head resting on his shoulder, he stepped toward the opening of an intact home and ducked inside. It might not protect him from the deadly static bolts, but he had no idea what would happen when the sphere reached the lake. A roof over his head seemed like a good idea.




The motion stirred Safia. She moaned. “Omaha…”




“I’m here, baby…” He crouched down, cradling her on his knees, balanced on his sand shoes. “I’m here.”




As Omaha and Safia vanished into a building, Painter watched the flume of water geyser up after the iron sphere hit the water. It was as if the ball had been dropped from the Empire State Building. It shot toward the roof, cascading outward, water droplets igniting when they brushed the dazzle of the storm, raining back down as liquid fire.




Antimatter annihilation.




The whirl in the lake eddied and shook. The waterspout jiggled.




But overhead, the vortex of static charge continued its deadly descent.




Painter concentrated on the lake.




Already the whirlpool settled again, churning away with tidal forces.




Nothing happened.




Fire from the plume struck the lake, ignited pools, which quickly extinguished, reestablishing its equilibrium state. Nature loves balance.




“The ball must still be rolling,” Coral said, “seeking the lowest point in the lake bottom. The deeper the water, the better. The heightened pressure will help trigger the localized chain reaction and direct its force downward.” Painter turned to her. “Does your mind ever stop calculating?”




She shrugged. “No, why?”




Danny stood at her side. “And if the sphere reaches the lowest point, then that’s also the best place to crack the glass over any Earth-generated cistern, draining the lake water away.” Painter shook his head. Those two were peas in a pod.




Cassandra straightened next to Kara. The five of them were the last ones still on the balcony. Lu’lu had led the Rahim to the back rooms below. Captain al-Haffi and Barak led the handful of Shahra.




“Something’s happening,” Cassandra said.




Out on the lake, a patch of black water glowed a ruddy crimson. It was not a reflection. The glow came from deep below. A fire under the lake. In just the half second it took to look, the crimson blasted out in all directions.




A deep sonorous whump sounded.




The entire lake lifted a few feet and dropped.




Ripples spread outward from the lake’s center. The growing waterspout collapsed.




“Get below!” Painter yelled.




Too late.




A force, neither wind nor concussion, blasted outward, flattening the lake, sweeping in all directions, pushing before it a wall of superheated air.




It struck.




Painter, half around the corner, caught a glancing shove to the shoulder. He was ripped away, tossed bodily across the room, lifted on wings of fire. Others had taken the force fully and were driven straight back. In a tangle, they hit the far wall. Painter kept his eyes squeezed shut. His lungs seared with the one breath he had taken.




Then it ended.




The heat vanished.




Painter gained his feet. “Shelter,” he squeaked out, waving in vain.




The quake came next.




No warning.




Except for an earsplitting clap, deafening, as if the Earth were being cracked in half. Then the palace jumped several feet up, then down again, throwing them all flat.




The rattling worsened. The tower shook, jolted to one side, then the other. Glass shattered. An upper story of the tower went crashing down. Pillars broke and toppled, smashing into city or lake.




All the while, Painter kept flat.




A loud splintery pop exploded by his ear. He turned his head and saw the entire balcony beyond the archway shear and tilt away. A small limb waved.




It was Cassandra. She had not been blown through the doorway like the rest of them, but knocked against the palace’s outer wall.




She fell with the balcony. In her hand, she still held the detonator.




Painter scrambled toward her.




Reaching the edge, he searched below. He spotted Cassandra sprawled in the tumble of broken glass. Her fall had not been far. She lay on her back, clutching the detonator to her chest.




“I still have it!” she hollered hoarsely to him, but he didn’t know if it was in threat or reassurance.




She gained her feet.




“Hang on,” he said. “I’m coming down.”




“Don’t—”