Noise burst from the receiver. “—ainter! Go! Turn back!”
It was Safia! It sounded like she was in trouble.
He hit the transmit button. “I’m not turning back. I’ve got—”
An arc of electricity leaped from the radio receiver to his ear. Yelping out, he dropped the radio. He smelled burning hair.
He felt a surge of static charge throughout the vehicle. Every surface shocked him. He kept his hands on the rubber-coated wheel. The laptop sizzled, then gave off a loud pop. The screen went dead.
The sound of a foghorn reached him, blaring, persistent.
Not a foghorn…a truck’s horn.
He glanced at the side mirror. From the storm’s black wall, the pursuit truck flew out into the open. The last winds slapped the back end. Its frame tilted, beginning to flip.
Then it was free. It struck the sands, the tires on one side, then the other. It bounced, skidded, and spun a full turn. But it was out of the storm.
The truck’s driver must have been as shocked to be alive as Painter was to see him. The flatbed idled. It looked like hell. One tire was flat, the bumper was curled into a steel smile, the tarp over its load in back had been blown to one side, tangled amid the ropes.
Painter pressed his accelerator, racing forward, putting as much distance between himself and the truck. He remembered the RPG bombardment. He wanted a little breathing room, then he’d take care of this truck.
In the side mirror, the truck followed, limping after him.
Painter prepared to fight, setting the cruise.
Ahead the desert was a forest of whirling sand devils, glowing in the twilight gloom. They all seemed to be on the move now. He frowned. They were all moving in unison, some unearthly ballet.
Then he felt it. A familiar lurch in the sand.
He had felt the same when the grenades had triggered an avalanche over the dune face. The shift of sands under his treads.
But he was on flat ground.
All around the whirlwinds danced, static electricity sparked, and the desert loosened under him. Against all odds, the twenty-ton tractor was becoming mired. His speed slowed. He felt its back end fishtailing. The tractor swung around, dragged by unknown forces. Then he was trapped, stopped.
His side window now faced toward the pursuit truck. It continued toward him, closing in on its wide, knobby sand tires. Then the sand under it became powder. It sank to its rims…then axle.
Both hunter and prey were trapped, flies in amber.
But this amber still flowed.
He felt it beneath him. The sand was still moving.
S AFIA GAVE up on the radio. She could only watch in horror, alongside Kara and Lu’lu. It was a landscape out of a nightmare, a painting done by Salvador Dalí. The world melted and stretched.
She stared out at the whirlwinds, the deadly electrical discharges, pools of black sands, streaks of the same, carved out by skittering devils. The dusty clouds in the sky glowed from the amount of energy flowing into them, fed by the snaking columns of sand and static charge.
But that was not the worst.
For as far as she could see, the entire desert floor had begun to churn in one giant whirlpool, spinning around the buried bubble of Ubar. The sandstone mesa was a boulder in the current. But there were smaller rocks: Painter’s tractor and another truck, mired in the churning sands.
Whirlwinds closed in on the vehicles, etching the sand with molten fire.
A crash echoed to the left. A piece of the mesa tore away, tumbling into the sand, a glacier calving into the sea.
“We can’t stay here,” Kara said. “It’ll tear this island apart.”
“Painter…” Safia said. Her clothing sparked and crackled with discharges as she stepped toward the mesa’s edge. He had come to rescue them, driving to his doom. They had to do something.
“He’s on his own,” Kara said. “We can’t help him.”
The radio suddenly crackled in her hand. She had forgotten she was holding it. Painter…
“Safia, can you hear me?” It was Omaha.
She lifted her radio. “I’m here.”
His voice sounded distant, as if from another planet. “Something strange is going on down here. The static is arcing all over. It’s zapping the glass. Melting spots. It’s the cataclysm all over again! Stay away!”
“Can you get up here? To the stairs?”
“No. Danny, Clay, Coral, and I are holing up in the palace.”
A commotion by the tunnel drew her eye. Sharif climbed out.
Kara moved to meet him.
He pointed to the tunnel. “We’ve retreated to the stairs,” he said, panting. “Captain al-Haffi will attempt to hold the enemy off. You should—” His voice died as he suddenly caught a view of the desert. His eyes widened.
Another splintering crack erupted. Rocks crashed. The rim of the mesa crumbled.
“Allah, preserve us,” Sharif prayed.
Kara waved him back. “He’d better. Because we’re bloody damn well running out of places to hide.”
C ASSANDRA KNEW true terror for the first time in ages. The last time she had felt this gut-level fear was as a child, listening to her father’s footsteps outside her bedroom door at midnight. This was the same. A fear that gelled the insides and turned bone marrow to ice. Breathing was a talent forgotten.
She cowered inside a tiny glass building, more a chapel, enough for one person to kneel. Its only entrance was a short door that had to be ducked into. No windows. Past the door, the lower city spread below her.
She watched the continual arcing bolts of discharge. Some struck the lake, grew more intense, then sucked back to the roof, brighter for the effort, as if the storm above were feeding off the waters below.
The same was not true when it struck the glass. Every surface absorbed the strange energy, becoming a liquid pool, but only as briefly as a lightning flicker. Then it turned solid again.
She had watched one of her men succumb to such a bolt. He had been sheltering behind a wall, leaning on it. Then the bolt struck the wall. He fell through it, his support suddenly gone. The wall solidified again. Half his body on one side, the other half on this side. Between, he had been burned to bone. Even his clothes had caught fire, a human torch, on two sides of glass.
All across the city, the fighting had stopped. Men sought shelter.
They had seen the mummified bodies. They knew what was happening.
The cavern had gone deathly quiet, accept for the occasional gunshot by the back wall, where the enemy had sequestered itself in some passageway. Anyone who approached was shot.
Cassanda clutched her electronic tracker. She watched the spread of red triangles. Her men. Or those few that were left. She counted. Of the fifty on the assault team, only a dozen were left. She watched as another blinked out. A shattering scream fluttered through the city.
Death stalked her men.
She knew even such enclosed shelters were not safe. She had seen the mummified bodies within a few of the homes.
The key seemed to be movement. Perhaps the amount of static in the room was such that any stirrings attracted a bolt to stab out at it.
So Cassandra sat still, very still. She had done the same in her childhood bed. It hadn’t helped then. She doubted it would now. She was trapped.
O MAHA LAY flat at the entryway to the palace. The quiet pressed upon him. Beyond the courtyard, the firestorm worsened. Bolts crackled, shattering into brilliant forks. The dome shone like the corona of a blue-white sun.
Omaha watched and knew death was near.
But at least he had told Safia he loved her. He had made his peace. He would have to be satisfied with that. He glanced upward. He prayed Safia was safe. She had relayed another short message, describing the chaos upstairs.
Death above, death below.
Take your pick.
Coral lay with him, studying the storm. “We’re inside the world’s largest transformer.”
“What do you mean?”
They spoke in whispers, as if afraid to draw the sleeping giant’s attention.
“The glass cavern with its energized antimatter solution is acting like a massive insulated superconductor. It draws energy to itself like the iron camel did at the museum. In this case, it collects the static energy of any passing sandstorm, sucking it down from above. But as energy builds in the chamber, crossing some threshold, it must need to shed its excess energy, like lightning does during a thunderstorm. Only this is aimed from sand to sky, shooting upward again in immense discharges, creating those momentary blasts of deadly whirlwinds on the desert’s surface.”
“Like it’s draining its battery,” Omaha said. “But what’s going on in here?”
“A storm in a bottle. The megastorm is pouring too much energy down here. The bubble can’t discharge it fast enough, so some of it’s lashing back.”
“Redistributing charge,” she corrected. “Glass is a great conductor. It merely takes the excess energy it can’t discharge to the surface and passes it down to the floor below. The glass here captures the energy and disperses it. A cycle to keep the charge spread evenly throughout the entire glass bubble rather than just the dome. It’s that equilibrium of energy that keeps the antimatter lake stable during this storm. A balance of charges.”
“What about those pockets of molten glass?”
“I don’t think it’s molten glass. At least not exactly.”
Omaha glanced questioningly in her direction. “What do you mean?”
“Glass is always in a liquid state. Have you ever seen antique glass? The flowing streaks that slightly distort the clarity? Gravity affects glass like a liquid, slowly pulling it down in streams.”
“But what does that have to do with what’s going on here?”
“The energy bolts aren’t just melting the glass. They’re changing its state, instantaneously breaking all bonds, liquefying the glass to the point that it borders on gaseous. When the energy disperses, it resolidifies. But just for a flash, it’s in a fiery state between liquid and gas. That’s why it doesn’t flow. It keeps its basic shape.”