Painter wasn’t either—but his breathing deepened, adrenaline flowing as he balanced on the edge of a precipice.
His eyes remained glued to the screen as the matrix slowly spun in place. He sensed there was a pattern hidden inside that hazy cloud at the edges of the genealogical map. He just needed a key to unlock it.
What am I missing?
July 3, 4:16 A.M. Gulf Standard Time
Off the coast of Dubai
Gray slogged through the chest-deep water toward the entrance to the Burj Abaadi. The others waited by the stairs, ready to flee up to escape the rising waters.
Beyond the glass wall, the city of Utopia slowly drowned. A few buildings still shone with emergency lights, run on batteries. Otherwise, the island was dark. Black waves swept across the park, crashing against the tower steps. Dangerous debris floated everywhere: spare lumber, plastic trash buckets, even a toppled palm, still potted in its crate. The currents were equally hazardous.
Gray pictured the entire platform sinking, crushing the damaged pylons beneath its weight. In the time it took Gray to cross the lobby, the water rose another foot. They needed a way to escape the flooding tower before the island’s descent became a fast plummet—or worse, the entire platform started to cant and tip, toppling buildings over like a waiter dumping a tray of tall glasses.
He didn’t know if Jack Kirkland was alive, if he’d survived the pyrotechnics that blew out the understory of the platform. Gray had activated the homing beacon Jack had given him, hoping for the best, and left it with Kowalski, who still carried Amanda.
But Gray wasn’t counting on hope alone.
He stared at his goal beyond the doors of the tower.
It stood across the park. The roof of the yellow Hummer—the one they’d hid behind earlier—was still above water for the moment, but that wasn’t Gray’s target. They weren’t going to be driving off this island.
Beyond the bulk of the truck, the matching yellow jet boat bobbed. The rising waters had floated it off of its trailer. Straps still tethered it in place, but someone hadn’t properly ratcheted the boat down.
Gray had a dagger strapped to his wrist, ready to cut the craft the rest of the way loose. He hoped he could get the boat started, but if nothing else, at least it floated. He would take that versus clinging to debris at the whim of the eddying currents and riptides.
Reaching the entrance, he shouldered into one of the doors. Swinging the half-submerged barrier open proved a challenge against the weight of water. But it slowly budged. He got it wide enough to slip outside.
The buffeting currents tried to rip him from his perch atop the steps that led down to the park. All that held him in place was his iron grip on the door handle.
A shout drew him around.
He stared back into the lobby.
Seichan stood with the others on the stairs. The waters continued to chase them up the spiraling steps and appeared to be rising faster now. Gray’s toes could barely touch the surface of the marble floor. But it was more than the encroaching flood that concerned her.
Her arm pointed out toward the city.
“Lights!” she called. “Coming this way!”
Gray turned, hanging by his arm from the handle.
Down the wide central avenue that ran along one leg of the star, a trio of lights came racing toward the Burj Abaadi. They wove back and forth in a zigzagging search pattern.
Gray doubted they were a rescue operation. Not on this island, not with who truly ran this place. More likely it was a contingent from the fleet that patrolled the waters around the island. Someone must have sent them to make sure there were no survivors of the assault on the hidden station.
“Stay out of sight!” Gray called to Seichan. “Keep moving if necessary!”
Acknowledging this, she waved the group farther up the spiral stairs.
With time running out, Gray eyed his bobbing target and dove into the surging waters. The currents tugged and hauled, dragging and throwing his body, but once away from the wave actions churning against the walls of the tower, the strength of the tides ebbed. He popped his head clear, sighted his target, and swam with strong kicks.
Submerged obstacles turned out to be the bigger challenge. As he headed across the park, his leg became tangled in the branches of a drowned tree, and he had to fight his way loose.
All the while, he kept an eye on the approaching boats.
He realized he would never reach the Hummer before the patrol arrived at the tower. Still, the waters were dark, and the flotsam plentiful. With care, he might not be seen bobbing amid the debris. He would wait until the patrol left before freeing the boat and rescuing his teammates.
At least that was the plan until flares streaked into the sky, rising from the speedboats, and burst above the flooded park. New stars were born up there, hovering on small chutes, blazing with crimson fire, turning night into a hellish twilight and the waters a dark ruddy hue.
Gray searched for cover before the boats got here. A long, low crate floated ten yards off, slowly spinning in an eddy, offering some shelter.
He kicked toward it, sweeping with his arms.
The whining scream of the engines grew in volume.
He reached the crate and grabbed an edge, catching his breath. He kept his eyes on the boats as they rode out of the flooded avenue and into the drowned park. The trio fanned out from there.
He hugged closer to his meager shelter.
With the enemy splitting up, he would have to be careful to ensure the bulk of the crate remained between him and the patrol at all times. He clung to the edge and kicked with his feet, dragging the box with him, careful not to move too fast, trying to maintain the illusion of another piece of flotsam.
Then a pair of boats angled toward him, splitting to either side—not with intent, just poor luck on his part. He slipped underwater and moved beneath the crate. His hands blindly sought the underside of the box, to hold himself steady until the boats passed.
But as he searched, his palms found no bottom to the crate. It was open on the underside. Reaching up, he felt a pocket of air. He rose into it and took a deep breath in the darkness. His fingers discovered soft, cushioned fabric lining the inside.
He suddenly knew where he hid.
He pictured the casket used to transport Amanda here, resting in the back of a pickup truck. It must have been washed out of the rear bed, the lid ripped off.
The waters lightened to either side as the two boats swept by with their headlamps shining.
After they passed, Gray continued his swim across the park, hidden beneath the casket. He didn’t know if this mode of transportation was good luck or a bad omen. Still, he forged on, slowly floating his way toward the boat. Hopefully, the patrol would be gone once he got there.
After another half minute of silence, Gray risked ducking back outside to gauge his trajectory across the park.
As his head cleared the water, a thunderous scream jerked him around. He stared back toward the Burj Abaadi. The trio of boats faced the entrance. From the center one, a streak of smoke cut through the blood-tinged night and slammed into the multistory glass façade. The explosion of a rocket-propelled grenade shattered into the lobby. Sheets of glass fell from above like a hundred shimmering guillotines, opening a wide chasm.
A pair of the engines whined into a roar, and two of the boats swept through that gap and into the dark lobby. Once they were inside, another flare burst like a red sun.
Gray hoped the others had taken cover and that the patrol would only make a cursory pass before exiting the tower.
In the meantime, he had his own mission.
Before he could turn away, an eerie vibration shuddered through the water. The surface of the lake trembled.
With a low groan, the world began plunging down all around them. Towers sank faster, floor by floor. The last of the treetops vanished under the waves. Trapped air bubbled out everywhere, the last drowning gasp of Utopia.
Across the park, the blasted hole in the façade of the Burj Abaadi had shrunk to a lowering archway as the tower submerged. A single boat came racing through, the occupants ducking under the fangs of broken glass.
The second boat got trapped inside, circling futilely behind the glass, as the hole closed. The patrols on the outside tried to fire another rocket, but by the time they readied a shot, the entire lobby had sunk away.
Gray swung around, taking advantage of the distraction, knowing the crews would be focused on their trapped companions.
The Hummer and jet boat were gone, vanished fully underwater.
Reaching where they had sunk, he took a huge breath, kicked his legs over his head, and dove down through the fiery surface waters. Far below stretched only darkness.
Gray strained for those black depths.
Seichan fought for more height.
Below, a rising flood chased her and the others, swallowing the spiraling stairs beneath them. But that wasn’t all. A few floors down, dark shadows pounded their way up, their panicked flight lit by the shine of a few emergency bulbs. The trapped crew of the patrol boat sought the same escape they did, running for higher ground, staying ahead of the cresting water.
Seichan wanted to put three floors between her team and the water table before abandoning the stairs and trying to reach the far windows on one of these levels.
But she had another problem. She was thoroughly turned around. With the power out, the tower levels had stopped rotating and settled into a haphazard corkscrew. Floors stuck out in all directions. On top of that, the dizzying spiral of the staircase left her disoriented. She no longer had any idea which side of the building she was supposed to meet Gray.
A gunshot echoed up from below.
She scowled at the source.
The fleeing patrol.
First, what did the bastards think they could hit?
And second, fuck you very much.
But if they wanted to play that game, she wouldn’t mind eliminating a few worries.
“Kowalski! Do it!”
“Anything you say.” He still lugged Amanda over one shoulder, but he reached to a pocket as he ran. He let the pellets he collected dribble between his fingers, falling away like a trail of bread crumbs onto the steps.
She watched between her toes and waited until the shadows below reached the littered section of stairs.