Oliver and Diana managed to identify seventeen possible locations for the temple. The tablet was running a mapping application containing high resolution satellite imagery of the entire country, which could be overlaid with a detailed topographical map to verify the contours of the desert. Diana estimated that the “three day journey” could be anywhere between thirty and one hundred fifty miles, depending on whether the directions assumed traveling on foot, by camel, or in a chariot. Given the accuracy of ancient desert navigation techniques, she also suggested searching north and south of the indicated path in a widening search pattern. The upshot of this was that they ended up swiping the tablet map slowly north, then a little west, then south and a little west, and then north again across an ever expanding triangle of desert that encompassed over seven thousand square miles. They took turns swiping at the screen and gazing over each other’s shoulders, stopping occasionally to blink and gaze out at the shifting shadows of the canyon walls.
Kyle stopped by now and then to berate them for not producing results fast enough, but for the most part he stayed with Frank, who sat sullenly in the padded copilot seat of the helicopter, smoking cigarettes and badgering the medic to administer more morphine.
“You’re telling me that we need to check seventeen different locations?” Kyle exclaimed, as Diana pointed to the various possible temple sites marked on the map. “Do you have any idea how much it costs to fly this helicopter? How difficult it is to keep out of sight of Egyptian radar systems?”
Diana shrugged and gestured at the canyon surrounding them. “Just look around you. Thousands of years ago this was a lush valley with a stream flowing through it. There would have been fields of grain bordering the stream. That sandy plaza surrounding the chapel would have been a garden filled with trees and flowers, probably with a few pools of fresh water stocked with fish. The rooms of the house were filled with dozens of living people.”
“Get to the point.”
“My point is that a lot can change in thousands of years. The message describes the temple sitting in the center of a lake far out in the desert, but there are no lakes west of here for hundreds of miles, so Oliver and I had to look for geological formations that could have been that lake long ago. Let me tell you Kyle, it’s not easy to find a lake that is not there.” Diana had managed to keep her voice level for most of the explanation, but by the end, she began to enunciate each word with a sharp clarity that Oliver knew she only used when truly angry.
He couldn’t blame her.
Oliver put a hand on Diana’s shoulder to calm her, then said, “You asked us to find the temple. Our best guess is one of these locations. Some might be nothing more than shallow valleys with rock formations at the center, but if one is the temple…” He waited, hoping that Kyle would get the point.
Kyle glowered over the tablet for a few minutes, ignoring Oliver, Diana, and his own men, who had begun to cluster around. There were seven in all, including Kyle, Frank, and the medic. They were of varying heights and skin tones, but all shared the muscular build and cold expression of their leader. Oliver had developed the impression in the last few hours that each and every one of Kyle’s men would have gladly shot him in the back on command, but was otherwise content to ignore him. Every man, except Frank, who had repeatedly expressed his desire to kill Diana, in revenge for her shooting him in the shoulder.
Finally Kyle nodded to himself and tapped an icon on the screen that activated a navigation mode in the mapping program. A line appeared on the screen, tracing a path through the air between their current location and the nearest marked waypoint.
“We’ll head to the nearest spot now. It should only take about twenty minutes to reach the first waypoint. Depending on how long it takes to inspect each site we should be able to get through half of these waypoints before nightfall.”
Frank made a disgusted rumbling noise at the back of his throat and flicked his cigarette at Diana. He reached up with his left arm, grasped a strap hanging from the roof of the helicopter, and hauled himself up out of the seat. He was shirtless, but wore a tan camouflage jacket over his shoulders to keep off the sun. His right arm was in a sling and Oliver could just see a large bandage wrapped around his upper chest, with thick layers of gauze packed against his right shoulder.
“Pardon me for interfering with this lovely planning session, but why are these two even alive?”
“We need their help,” Kyle replied, glancing over his shoulder at Frank.
“No, we don’t.
Kyle ignored Frank’s comment and waved for his men to board the helicopter. One of them stepped up behind Oliver and pushed him towards the open door of the helicopter. Diana moved past him, climbing up into the helicopter and moving to the end farthest from the cockpit, where Frank still stood glowering. She sat on the bench seat and pulled the webbed belt across her chest and lap. Oliver hopped up into the helicopter and was about to follow Diana to the back when he heard heavy boots clanging on the metal deck.
Frank stalked down the length of the helicopter, eyes fixed on Oliver. He stopped an arm’s length from Oliver.
“Kyle, tell me exactly what this guy is good for.”
Kyle twisted back around the side of the pilot’s seat, his head already clamped into the shell of a helmet, wires jacking him into the helicopter’s radio system spiraling down from a junction box in the roof. He studied Oliver and Frank in silence for a few seconds, then flipped the visor of his helmet down and replied, “We need the girl to translate any old writing we find. Do what you want with him.”
Diana made to unstrap herself, but was restrained by the mercenaries sitting to either side. Frank grinned and lunged forward, striking out with his massive left fist in a powerful blow that would have knocked Oliver flat if it hadn’t been thrown off target by the constraining bandages wrapped around Frank’s chest. Oliver staggered back, easily dodging Frank’s awkward attack. A glance told him that Diana was completely helpless, but at least the other mercenaries didn’t seem interested in helping Frank kill him.
The helicopter motors coughed to life, then settled into a deep thrum that Oliver could feel in his chest.
Frank swung at Oliver again.
Oliver dodged to the side, letting the blow slip past his face by mere inches, and grabbed Frank’s forearm. He jerked hard on the arm, adding his own weight to the momentum of Frank’s attack. The wounded mercenary stumbled forward and crashed into the bench seat, nearly falling into the laps of his comrades.
Frank roared in frustration and scrambled back to his feet. Instead of going after Oliver with his fists again, Frank grabbed the assault rifle resting between the knees of the man he had just stumbled against. The rifle was secured to the mercenary by a webbed strap, so it jerked back and fell as Frank raised it.
Oliver took that as an opportunity to jump out of the helicopter.
He hit the ground hard, rolled, and came up into a crouching run. The blades of the helicopter had begun to spin over his head, pulling air downwards and whipping the sandy canyon floor into a hurricane of gritty dust. Oliver ran in a crouch until he was beyond the downdraft of the blades, then stood and ran as fast as he could, heading in the general direction of the Range Rover, but throwing in the occasional zig or zag. Oliver was grateful for the obscuring cloud of sand whipped up by the blades of the helicopter, but he knew he was dead if he didn’t get to cover. He reached the Range Rover just in time to see the glass of the passenger window shatter and hear the crack of a shot rip through the rising thrum of the helicopter blades.
Oliver dropped to the ground and tumbled behind the front wheel of the Range Rover, putting the heavy steel of the brake assembly and engine between himself and Frank’s rifle. He prayed that Kyle was simply letting Frank blow off some steam. If the mercenaries took off right away he might get out of this alive, might even be able to rescue Diana, but if Kyle held the helicopter at ground level while Frank got out and hunted Oliver down, he was a dead man.
More shots crackled through the air and Oliver covered his face to protect his eyes from chips of stone and glass that spattered up around him.
The sound of the helicopter reached its zenith in a thumping pulse that slammed the air from his lungs, but was no louder than the rumble of a diesel engine. The small part of Oliver’s mind not focused on surviving the next minute noted that he must have not heard the mercenaries approach because the helicopter employed some sort of stealth design to reduce the noise of the rotors. The shots ceased and Oliver rolled onto his belly and slipped under the car, keeping the dense mass of the engine block above him as he slithered back to the side where the helicopter had rested.
It was gone.
The dust was beginning to settle and the pulsing noise and impact of the rotors was already fading.
Oliver waited until the noise was entirely gone before slipping out from under the Range Rover. The vehicle was a complete wreck. Multiple bullet holes deformed the side panels and only the rear window remained intact.
Looking around, Oliver saw his and Diana’s backpacks laying on the ground not far from where the helicopter had rested. He walked over and looked down at them for a moment, pondering the likelihood that they had been booby trapped and left for him, just in case he had survived the gunfire.
After a moment’s hesitation, Oliver slowly unzipped the bottom access panel of his bag and found his camera, still safely nestled in the padded pouch. He closed the bottom panel and worked his way through each compartment, unzipping each slowly and using the light on his phone to peer in through the narrow opening and check that no explosives waited for him. He transferred Diana’s emergency rations and water to his own pack. He pulled the memory card out of her camera, but left the camera in the bag. As much as he hated to leave it, there was no point in carrying the extra weight of it.
Oliver was pleasantly surprised to find Diana’s spare ammunition in a side pouch of her pack, as well as his own backup gun still tucked away in the very bottom of his bag. It was increasingly evident to Oliver that Kyle had grown sloppy in his desperation to save his own skin. He was grateful for that.
Oliver tossed Diana’s pack into the back of the Range Rover and sat down on the bullet riddled passenger seat to think. He pulled out his phone and saw that he now had no service, so there was no chance of calling for help until the antenna somehow managed to catch a signal, which might happen when he left the cage of the car. He pulled up a map of the area and did his best to mark the locations he and Diana had identified from memory. Even if he couldn’t chase the mercenaries, he could hope that they would let Diana live or, at worst, abandon her at the temple. If they did that he might be able to track her down before she died of dehydration.
A stone tumbled across the sand, clattering against other rocks as it fell down the canyon wall.
Oliver grabbed for his gun and dove out of the car through the open door. Looking back towards the entrance of the canyon he saw nothing out of place. He spun, scanning the canyon walls, and saw a party of five figures in light brown robes and white headscarves emerging from a narrow cleft in the rock about two hundred feet away.
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The Staff of Moses © 2022, Andrew Linke