A bolt of charge stabbed out as she stood, striking at her toes. The glass melted underfoot. She dropped into the pool, thigh-deep before the glass solidified under her.
She didn’t scream, though her entire body wrenched with pain. Her cloak caught on fire. She still held the detonator, in a fist, hugged to her neck. A gasp finally escaped her.
He spotted a patch of sand in the courtyard below. He leaped and landed hard, wrong, ankle turning, skidding. It was nothing. He stood and kicked sand, a meager path to reach her side.
He dropped next to her, knees in sand. He could smell her flesh burning.
She held out the transmitter, every line on her face agonized. “I can’t hold. Squeeze…” He grabbed her fist, covering it with his own.
She relaxed her own grip, trusting him to keep her finger pressed now. She fell against him, her pants smoldering. Blood poured where charred skin met glass, too red, arterial.
“Why?” he asked.
She kept her eyes closed, only shook her head. “…owe you.”
She opened her eyes, met his. Her lips moved, a whisper. “I wish you could’ve saved me.” He knew she didn’t mean a moment ago…but back when they were partners. Her eyes closed. Her head fell to his shoulder.
He held her.
Then she was gone.
Safia awoke in Omaha’s arms. She smelled the sweat on his neck, felt the tremble in his arms. He clutched tightly to her. He was crouched down, balanced on the balls of his feet, cradling her in his lap.
How was Omaha here? Where was here?
Memory snapped back.
The sphere…the lake…
She struggled to get free. Her movement startled Omaha. He tipped, caught himself with a hand, then yanked his arm back.
“Saff, stay still.”
His face was strained. “Nothing much. But let’s see if you saved Arabia.” He hauled her up, still carrying her, and ducked out the door.
Safia recognized the place. Where the rolling sphere had jammed. They both looked to the lake. Its surface still swirled, eddying. The skies overhead blazed and crackled.
Safia felt her heart sink. “Nothing’s changed.”
“Hon, you slept through a whirlwind and a major quake.”
As if on cue, another aftershock rattled around them. Omaha took a step back, but it ended. He returned to studying the lake. “Look at the shoreline.” She turned her head. The water’s edge had receded about twenty yards, leaving a bathtub ring around the lake. “The water level’s dropping.”
He hugged her tighter. “You did it! The lake must be draining into one of those subterranean cisterns Coral was yammering about.” Safia stared back up at the static storm on the roof. It, too, was slowly subsiding, grounding out. She glanced across the spread of the darkening city, both upper and lower. So much destruction. But there was hope.
“No bolts,” she said. “I think the firestorm is over.”
“I’m not taking any chances. C’mon.” He hiked her higher in his arms and marched up the slope toward the palace.
She didn’t protest, but she quickly noted Omaha wincing with every step.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, arms hugged around his neck.
“Nothing. Just some sand in my shoes.”
Painter saw them approach.
Safia was riding piggyback on Omaha.
Painter called to them as they reached the courtyard. “Omaha, the electrical discharging is over,” he said. “You can put Safia down.” Omaha marched past him. “Only over the threshold.”
He never made it. Shahra and Rahim all gathered around the pair in the courtyard, congratulating and thanking. Danny hugged his brother. He must have said something about Cassandra because Omaha glanced to the body.
Painter had covered it with a cloak. He had already deactivated the detonator and switched off the transceiver. Safia was safe.
He studied the group. Besides plenty of bruises, scrapes, and burns, they had all weathered the firestorm fine.
Coral straightened. She held one of the launchers and placed a belt buckle against its side. It stuck. She caught him staring. “Magnetized,” she said, tossing it aside. “Some type of magnetic pulse. Intriguing.” Before he could respond, another aftershock rocked the place, strong enough to shatter away another pillar, weakened by the original quake. It fell across the city with a resounding crash.
That sobered everyone up to the dangers still here.
They were not safe.
To emphasize this fact, a deep rumble rose from below, trembling the glass underfoot. A low sound accompanied it, a subway train passing underground.
No one moved. Everyone held their breath.
Then it came.
A whooshing geyser erupted from the lake, fountaining upward, three stories high, as thick around as a two-hundred-year-old redwood.
Prior to this moment, the lake had drained to a small pool, a quarter of its original size. Monstrous cracks skittered along its basin, like the inside of a broken eggshell.
Now water spewed back out again.
They all gaped.
“The aftershocks must have ruptured into the original Earth-generated springs,” Danny said. “One of the global aquifers.” The lake quickly began to refill.
“This place is going to flood,” Painter said. “We need to get out of here.”
“From fire to water,” Omaha grumbled. “This just gets better and better.”
Safia helped gather the children. They hurriedly fled from the palace. The younger Shahra men helped the older Rahim women.
By the time they reached the foot of the stairs, the lake had already climbed over its original banks, drenching into the lower city. And still the geyser continued to spray.
Flashlights bobbling, the strongest men pushed ahead. Boulders and tumbled piles of rocks blocked the passage in places. They hauled and burrowed a path through them.
The rest of the group waited, following as best they could, climbing as quickly as possible, crawling over obstructions, the stronger helping the weaker.
Then a shout from above. A cry of joy. “Hur-ree-ya!”
It was a cheer Safia was relieved to hear.
The group fled up the stairs. Painter waited at the top. He helped pull her through and out. He pointed an arm and reached to Kara behind her.
Safia barely recognized the mesa now. It was a tumbled pile of rubble. She glanced around. The winds blew hard, but the storm was gone, its energy sucked and damped into the firestorm below. Overhead a full moon shone, casting the world in silver.
Captain al-Haffi waved a flashlight at her, motioning to a path down through the jumble, making room for the others. The exodus continued off the mount.
The group marched from the rocks and into the sands. It was uphill. The prior whirlpool in the sand had worn a declivity miles across. They passed the charred husks of the tractor and trucks. The landscape was scribed with swatches of molten sand, still steaming in the night air.
Painter darted away to the overturned tractor. He climbed inside, disappeared for a bit, then came back out. He carried a laptop in his hand. It looked broken, the case scorched.
Safia raised an eyebrow at his salvaging, but he never explained.
They continued into the desert. Behind them, water now fountained from the ruins of the mesa. The declivity behind slowly filled with water.
Safia walked with Omaha, his hand in hers. People spoke in low whispers. Safia spotted Painter, hiking alone.
“Give me a second,” Safia said, squeezing Omaha’s hand and letting go.
She crossed over to Painter, matching his stride. He glanced at her, eyes questioning, surprised.
“Painter, I…I wanted to thank you.”
He smiled, a soft shift of his lips. “You owe me no thanks. It’s my job.”
She strode with him, knowing he was concealing a well of deeper emotion. It brimmed in his eyes, the way he seemed unable to meet hers.
She glanced at Omaha, then back at Painter. “I…we…”
He sighed. “Safia, I get it.”
He faced her, his blue eyes raw but certain. “I get it. I do.” He nodded back to Omaha. “And he’s a good man.” She had a thousand things she wanted to say.
“Go,” he murmured with that soft, pained smile.
With no words that could truly comfort, she drifted back to Omaha.
“What was that all about?” he asked, attempting to sound casual, but failing miserably.
She took his hand again. “Saying good-bye…”
The group climbed to the crest of the sandy declivity. A full lake now grew behind them, the crumbled mesa almost flooded over.
“Do we need to worry about all that water having antimatter in it?” Danny asked as they paused at the top of the crest.
Coral shook her head. “The antimatter-buckyball complexes are heavier than ordinary water. As the lake drained into the massive spring here, the buckyballs should have sunk away. Over time, they’ll dilute through the vast subterranean aquifer system and slowly annihilate away. No harm done.” “So it’s all gone,” Omaha said.
“Like our powers,” Lu’lu added, standing between Safia and Kara.
“What do you mean?” Safia asked, startled.
“The blessings are gone.” No grief, only simple acceptance.
“Are you sure?”
Lu’lu nodded. “It has happened before. To others. As I told you. It is a fragile gift, easily damaged. Something happened during the quake. I felt it. A rush of wind through my body.” Nods from the other Rahim.
Safia had been unconscious at the time.
“The magnetic pulse,” Coral said, overhearing them. “Such an intense force would have the ability to destabilize the buckyballs, collapse them.” Coral nodded to Lu’lu. “When one of the Rahim loses their gifts, does it ever come back?” The hodja shook her head.