The Toyota was a speck in the vastness of the desert, moving just ahead of the billowing dust of its wake. The twin scars of its tire prints ran off to the infinity of the horizon. Other than the truck, nothing moved in the desert--no animal or bird, no lizard or crawling insect ventured out into the torturous heat. While rain fell on the eastern part of the country and angry masses of clouds were visible in the distance, the storms had not yet come to the Hajar region. The desert floor was cracked, split open in a natural process that tripled its surface area and would allow a greater amount of water to be absorbed when it finally did rain. It was as if the soil itself needed the precious water to survive.
Mercer drove recklessly, trusting his own reactions and the vehicle's speed in case they drove over any of the anti-personnel mines sown on the open plain. If they hit a larger antitank mine, nothing he could do would save their lives. Gibby sat next to him, his hand braced against the dash while Selome grimly gripped a ceiling strap in the back, her eyes riveted out the rear window.
``Do you see them yet?'' Mercer shouted over the engine's roar.
``No, not yet,'' Selome replied hoarsely. ``Oh shit, I see them now.''
Mercer shifted his gaze to the rearview mirror for a second and spied the pursuing four-wheel drive. At this distance, it was only a sparkling reflection, a jewel pinned to the desert by dust blowing up behind it.
``Sorry, guys,'' he called darkly. ``I don't think we're going to make it.''
They had started their drive from the camp two hours after dawn. Mercer and Habte, with the help of Abebe, had laid the explosive charges Mercer had fashioned during the night by premixing the ammonium nitrate and fuel oil in a dozen one-gallon metal cans. At dawn, the three of them had dug holes into the mountain according to a plan Mercer had devised to maximize the shots and tumble the overhanging walls of their excavation.
Once the holes had been dug and the charges buried, they scrambled back to ground level, moved the vehicles to a safe distance, and waited while Mercer made the final connections to the battery-driven detonator. He called the countdown but gave Gibby the honor of shooting the amfo. The boy had practically begged. The fuses burned at twelve thousand feet per second, so it seemed the detonations were instantaneous, but a cascade compression wave had been created in the rock that built steadily in fractions of seconds.
If Gibby was disappointed by the small geysers of dirt thrown up by the detonation, he was delighted by their final results. The man-made chasm they had laboriously dug into the mountain collapsed inward at the same instant the bulk of material above let go, creating a long-slide avalanche that carried tons of dirt nearly four hundred yards from the slope. Gibby let out a whoop that echoed even as the rumble subsided. Abebe, Habte, and the other driver took up the cry, and even Mercer gave a victorious shout. The blast had been better than even he had anticipated.
``Okay, boys, you know what to do,'' Mercer said.
It would take two days to remove the rubble from the blast, but when the arduous task was finished, they could continue to chip away at the mountain to expose the mine entrance without fear of a cave-in. Mercer had set the charges high enough on the hillside to ensure that the blast went outward rather than into the mountain, so he was not concerned with damaging the ancient workings below.
Selome and Gibby had left the Valley of Dead Children with Mercer while Habte and the others tore into the heaps of debris. They had packed for a couple of days in case it took them longer to find the monastery, but Gibby assured Mercer that he could locate it quickly.
It was Selome who had first spotted the other vehicle. She had noticed it when they were no more than half an hour away from the entrance to the valley and immediately alerted Mercer. ``This can't be good,'' he said.
``It could be another survey team looking for minerals that just happen to be in the same area,'' Selome suggested lamely.
Mercer didn't waste the time to respond. As soon as he saw the truck cresting a hill behind them, he'd started to accelerate. Immediately, the other vehicle took up the chase. Once, when the other truck had gained enough ground for them to recognize it as a Fiat, a winking light appeared in the passenger-side window. An instant later, feathers of dust exploded in the wake of the fleeing Toyota; mid-caliber machine-gun fire. No matter how hard Mercer pushed their battered Toyota, the pursuing truck was quicker. It was only Mercer's driving skills and his ability to read the terrain that had kept them out of weapon's range again.
But now, out in the open, the Fiat was rapidly closing.
``What do you mean, we're not going to make it?'' Selome asked.
``They've got a newer, faster four-wheel drive.'' A gust of wind nearly tore the steering wheel from his grip. When he was back in control, he continued. ``There's no place to lose them out here because our tire prints and the dust this pig is kicking up are going to give us away.''
Neither Selome nor Gibby could argue.
``Another happy fact,'' Mercer said after a minute of silence, ``is the land mines. If this region is covered with them, which everyone tells me it is, we're going to hit one. It's just a matter of time.'' Even an anti-personnel variant would stop the Toyota dead.
``Maybe those guys behind us will hit one first.''
``Not if they drive in our tracks.''
Another blast of wind hit the Toyota. On a horizon that was rushing toward them, the storm clouds piled into towering walls that blocked the distance like dark curtains. It was frightening, an awesome display of natural fury.
``How long before it hits?'' Mercer asked quickly.
``I don't know,'' Gibby shouted over the wind whipping through the Toyota's open windows. ``I have seen storms like that stay over one area for days and not move at all.''
``Are you kidding me?''
``It's true,'' Selome yelled from the backseat. ``These storms usually hug the ground and can't get over the mountains. Often, rain won't fall from them for days, even weeks.''
``That means the air in front of them compresses against the hills and springs back, creating--'' Mercer's voice was choked off as the air around the truck came alive.
The sandstorm blew up so suddenly and violently that the trio was coughing before they could close the windows. The Land Cruiser filled with a dark amber light that shifted constantly as the storm raged over them. The sky screamed as sand was stripped off the surface of the desert and blown thousands of feet into the air. Mercer slowed the Toyota, his visibility down to zero.
``Jesus,'' he muttered as the storm unbelievably intensified. Already the windshield was opaque. Selome gave a little cry from the backseat and Gibby stared goggle-eyed into the maelstrom. The wind shoved the Toyota so hard it felt as if they were still speeding over the broken ground.
``Selome, how far behind was the other truck?'' Mercer shouted.
``I don't remember.''
``Come on,'' he prompted. He could see the terror in her eyes when he twisted around to look at her. ``Just give me your best guess.''
``Half a mile, maybe.''
``All right. The storm's going to erase our tire tracks, but we're still too close to the Fiat. When this mess blows over, they're going to spot us in a second.''
``What can we do?'' Gibby asked.
``We're going to continue on.'' Mercer's jaw clenched with determination.
``But you can't see,'' Selome cried.
``Sure I can. I just can't see outside of the truck.'' The joke felt flat to Mercer's ears too.
He replayed the last image of the desert he'd seen before the dust had obscured it, studied it in his mind, and engaged the transmission, gambling that the driver of the other truck wouldn't budge until after the storm had passed. The Toyota crept forward, Mercer driving from memory. The desert floor had been relatively flat before the storm had hit, so he wasn't overly worried about any sudden drops or dips, but as the wind pummeled the side of the Land Cruiser, keeping them on a straight course was next to impossible.
Ten minutes trickled by, the Land Cruiser crawling blindly through the twisting slashes of wind and sand, Mercer's hand slick on the steering wheel, his body attuned to any attitude shifts that would signal a hill or a valley. Then as suddenly as it had started, the storm blew over them and they were in the clear. Even before his eyes could adjust to the sudden burst of sunlight, Mercer floored the accelerator, flinging Gibby and Selome back in their seats. They had a precious few minutes before the sand settled around their pursuers.
``Selome, keep your eye out for that Fiat and tell me the instant you see it.''
There was a series of low hills a half mile ahead, and Mercer was hoping that they would be behind them before she saw the other vehicle. If the three of them were spotted first, it would all be over.
``No, the storm is still hanging on back there. I can't see them. I think--''
The Toyota catapulted in the air, throwing off smoking hunks of body work and bits of its undercarriage. The thunder of the explosion drowned out the screams of the passengers. Crashing on its three remaining tires, the Land Cruiser flipped on its side, its front fender plowing a deep furrow into the soil.
A ``perfect soldier'' had waited decades to strike its deadly blow. Designed as an antipersonnel weapon, the Soviet-built landmine did not have the power to destroy the Toyota, and because of the vehicle's speed, much of the detonative force was released under the engine rather than below the wheel that had activated its primer. With most of its energy absorbed by the engine block, only a tenth of the charge blasted into the cab. It was more than enough.
The last thing Mercer remembered clearly was the sound of Selome's voice. Then he was assaulted by a jumbled whirl of images, screams, and pain, the earth erupting under the Land Cruiser and the jarring crush as it slammed into the ground again.
His ears ringing, Mercer wiped his face, and his trembling hand came away covered with blood. His whole body ached as his senses slowly returned. He couldn't feel the pain that would indicate a wound capable of producing the amount of blood splattered on his clothes. His first thought was Selome. He tried to turn and check on her, but he couldn't move from where he was wedged under the steering wheel. A heavy weight pressed on him, and he recognized it was Gibby. Or what was left of him.
The explosion had been channeled into the passenger-side foot well, shredding the boy's legs so badly that only a few stringy bits of flesh kept them attached to his body. Massive tissue trauma had killed him immediately, but ropes of blood still drooled from the ragged wounds, pouring onto Mercer, saturating him. Seeing the dead Eritrean sharpened Mercer's mind, and vomit flooded his mouth. He choked it back painfully.
``Selome?'' he called.
She was sobbing. Thank God! Slowly, he eased Gibby's body off him. When he stood on the smashed-in door, a wave of nausea nearly dropped him back on top of the corpse. He ignored any injuries he might have and concentrated on Selome. She lay curled on the driver's-side rear door, her face cupped in her hands, her shoulders heaving. Mercer called her name again and finally she looked up. Her face was filthy, her hair bushed around her head, but he saw no blood, and while her eyes were made enormous by fear, she didn't appear to be in shock.
``Give me your hand.'' He hadn't forgotten the Fiat still behind them. ``We have to get out of here.''
She reached for him tentatively, and as soon as her fingers laced with his, Mercer pulled her to her feet. She winced when her weight pressed against her right foot, the one closest to the explosion. ``Are you okay?''
``I don't know.'' Her voice was small and frail.
``We have to get moving. That other truck will be on us in no time.'' Mercer looked beyond the shattered rear window and saw a plume of dust speeding out of the shifting sandstorm like some questing tentacle. The Fiat was too distant to see yet, but Mercer knew he only had minutes before it reached them.
``Give me your gun,'' he demanded quickly.
``Your gun, Selome, give it to me.''
``What are you talking about?''
Her acting job was unconvincing. ``We have about five minutes before they reach us, and if you want to live beyond then, give me your goddamned gun.''
She stared at him, her face a mixture of fear and confusion, then she reached into her knapsack to retrieve a big automatic. ``How did you know?''
Even in this situation, Mercer felt relief that the wall of secrecy between them was starting to come down.
``I'll tell you later. You know, we could have used this in the cattle pens in Asmara.'' Mercer took the Heckler and Koch. Selome shrugged but couldn't meet his eye. Mercer levered himself out of the destroyed four-wheel drive, twisted on his perch, and lowered his hand back to Selome. ``Climb up to me. I'll help you, but don't look in the front seat. Gibby didn't make it.''
The Fiat's trail of dust no longer merged with the storm dying behind it. Mercer jumped to the ground, held up his arms, and Selome leaped to him. ``Stay here.''
At the back of the Toyota, a five-gallon jerry can of gasoline was clamped tightly in a special bracket. Mercer unclipped it from its mounts, grabbed a pair of knapsacks that had been tossed from the roof storage rack, and returned to Selome's side. The crater left by the landmine looked like a tiny, smoking volcano. He judged that the Land Cruiser had been thrown nearly fifteen feet by the blast.
``What are we going to do? We're in the middle of a mine field.''
Mercer didn't answer her question, nor could he ignore it either. The desert here was loose and sandy, the surface raked smooth by the storm. However, there was a rocky outcrop about fifty yards away that would be free of mines. The trick was to get from the stranded Toyota to the rocks without blowing themselves up and doing it quickly enough so the pursuing Fiat didn't discover their escape. He twisted the lid off the gas can and began dumping its contents onto the Land Cruiser.
``Mercer, I need to get--''
He cut her off. ``No time. I'm sorry.''
The Fiat was about a half mile away; its roof was visible as it drove in a shallow depression. Mercer scanned the ground as he worked, hoping to see the imprints of mines, but praying he'd never see another one again. Finished dousing the vehicle, he led her a few yards away, using its battered hulk to cover their escape. Whenever he was working in the field, Mercer carried half a dozen cigarette lighters with him. It was a safety precaution that went way beyond the Boy Scout motto, but he'd been in situations where he'd needed all of them.
Using his left hand, he sparked open a Zippo and tossed it underhand into the pool of gasoline beneath the Toyota. In a continuous motion, he began shooting into the ground as a whooshing explosion engulfed the four-wheel-drive, masking the sharp cracks of the H&K. A wall of heat overwhelmed them as they stood in the open. Selome tried to move away from the raging flames, but Mercer held her wrist tightly. He fired off the entire magazine, walking his shots toward the boulders a short way off, each bullet plowing a small crater in the dirt roughly five feet beyond the previous one. Had a round hit a mine, it would have carried the power to detonate the charge, but there was no secondary explosion.
Mercer released Selome's hand and jumped into the first pock created by the 9mm bullets.
``Land where I step,'' he cautioned and jumped again, leaping into the next shallow depression.
It took every bit of his balance to land in the tiny craters, teetering on one foot for breathless seconds, his arms windmilling until he could center himself again. Then he would leap to the next, Selome at his heels. Unencumbered by the two knapsacks Mercer carried, Selome bounded easily, her long legs covering the distance with the grace of a gymnast. If her foot was bothering her, she didn't let it show.
``Give me another clip,'' Mercer said when he reached the last impact hole.
``That's what I wanted to go back for,'' Selome answered. ``The rest of my ammo was in the Toyota. I don't have any more.''
Mercer's eyes went wide as he stared at the seventy-five feet of open space separating them from the safety of the rocks; seventy-five feet of mine-sown no-man's land with only one way across. He couldn't hear the engine noise of the approaching Fiat over the fiery eruption behind them, but he knew only a few seconds remained before the vehicle rumbled into view. Mercer took the deep, final breath of a man bent on suicide.
Fighting an instinct to yell and vent some of the pent-up emotion, he started running. It took his entire will not to stretch his gait to its fullest. He had to leave footprints close enough for Selome to use as stepping stones.
With every step, Mercer expected the detonation that would come like a sledgehammer at full swing; a shearing pain that at best would kill him and at worst would immobilize him for the pursuers to finish the job. He covered the first half of the distance without incident, but took no solace from this. The law of averages was working against him, and with every step, the ratio tipped more and more out of his favor. With just ten more feet to cover, he moaned aloud in frustration for not being able to leap those last few yards. He could have done it in a flying dive, but again he thought of Selome and took a step that cut the distance in half and made it safe for her.