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Sandstorm


Sandstorm: Page 98


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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.









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.


Painter swore.


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.


Bogged.


Both hunter and prey were trapped, flies in amber.


But this amber still flowed.


He felt it beneath him. The sand was still moving.


6:15 P.M.


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.

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