6:22 P.M.

SAFIA HEARDthe staccato firing of a pistol.

Painter…

She had been huddling just inside the stairway passage. Kara and Lu’lu kept guard with her. She had been pondering some way to escape the doom here. She sensed an answer, just beyond reach. A clue she was missing, letting fear frazzle through her. But fear was an old companion. She took deep breaths, inhaling calm, exhaling tension.

She thought about the mystery.

She remembered her thoughts on the way up here. How the past and the present were merging in countless ways. She closed her eyes. She could almost feel the answer rising inside her like a bubble in water.

Then the gunshots.

Followed by an explosion. Like the one that had taken out one of Captain al-Haffi’s trucks a minute or so ago.

Safia bolted back to the top of the mesa. A fireball billowed upward, shredding in the winds. The tractor lay on its side.

Oh, God…Painter…

She spotted a naked figure scrambling by the smaller truck.

Kara joined her. “It’s Crowe.”

Safia grabbed on to that hope. “Are you sure?”

“He really needs to cut his hair.”

The figure climbed into something in the back of the truck. Then Safia spotted the spread of collapsible rotors. She heard a distant whine. The rotors churned. A helicopter.

Kara sighed. “That man is resourceful, I’ll give him that.”

Safia noted a tiny whirlwind, one of the untethered ones scribing through the dunes, swing in a wide arc, aiming for the truck and copter.

Did Painter see it?

6:23 P.M.

PAINTER LAYflat on his belly in the sled. The controls were near his arms, one for each hand. He kicked up the rotor speed. He had flown helicopters during Special Forces training, but never one like this.

But how different could it be?

He yanked the right throttle. Nothing happened. He pulled on the left. Still nothing. Okay, maybe things were a bit different.

He pulled on both throttles and the copter lifted out of its cradle and into the air. He kept the throttles pulled and shot up in a wobbly arc, spun by the winds. The thump-thump of the rotors matched his heart, fast and furious.

As the copter swung, he caught a glimpse of a twister on his tail. It glowed and spat fire like a demon risen from hell.

Painter played with the controls, leaning right, left, and forward.

Forward was good.

He sped away, dipping too low, like sliding down a snowy slope. He attempted to get his nose up before he buried himself in the sand. He worked the throttle, rolled to the left, balanced it out, and finally found a way to bring the nose up.

Now he was aiming directly for a monstrously huge whirlwind.

He climbed higher and to the right-and successfully managed to spin himself in place while still flying toward the large devil. He felt his stomach flip. He dragged the left throttle, stopped the spin, and just managed to miss the devil.

But as a parting shot, the whirlwind spat an arc of static, zapping him. Painter felt the shock from the tip of his toes to his eyebrows.

So did the sled.

All power died. Instruments twirled. He plummeted, rotors churning uselessly. He switched all systems off, then back on again. Rebooting. A small whine answered, the motor coughed. Then died.

The mesa lay ahead. He aimed for it as best he could…which was at the side of its cliffs.

He rebooted again. The motor caught this time. The spinning rotors must have helped jump-start the engine. He pulled both throttles.

The copter climbed.

The cliffs rushed at him.

“C’mon…” he mumbled between clenched teeth.

As he reached the mesa, he caught a glimpse of its top. He willed the craft up another few inches. The landing skids brushed the edge of the lip, caught a bit, tilting the copter on its side. Rotors tore into stone.

They shattered away.

The sled compartment flipped high, and landed upside down atop the mesa. A lucky break. Painter banged his head, but he lived.

He popped the side hatch and fell out. He lay on the stone, panting, surprised to be alive. It was a good surprise.

Safia hurried over to him.

Kara followed, staring down at him, arms crossed. “Good effort, but have you ever heard of the phrase, ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire’?”

He sat up. “What the hell’s happening?”

“We must get to a safe place,” Safia said, helping him stand.

“Where?” Kara asked, taking his other arm. “The sandstorm is tearing apart the desert, and Ubar is on fire below.”

Safia straightened. “I know where we can go.”

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