Gray called to the peacekeeper as a handful of refugees fled to either side of them. “You’re a sitting duck up there, soldier! You need to get this vehicle moving, help defend the camp.”
The man, dark-skinned and helmeted, yelled back in a French accent. He was young, likely not even twenty. Fear frosted his words. “I am alone! I cannot shoot and drive, monsieur.”
Gray turned to Alden. “Here is how you can best help your men. Put this tank in motion. Draw the chopper’s attention and take that bastard down.”
Alden understood. “I’ll do what I can to cover your escape.” The captain pointed to a pair of sand-rail buggies fifty yards away. The skeletal dune runners looked perfectly suited for this rough terrain. “If there are no keys, they’re easy to hotwire. Just jam something sharp into the ignition and twist to get them started.”
The captain’s next words were for his fellow soldier. “Stay with them, Jain. Get them all clear, and I’ll see what I can do from here.”
The major looked exasperated, but she knew how to take orders and nodded.
Gray shook Alden’s hand as they parted ways. “Be safe.”
“You do the same.” The captain stopped long enough to give Baashi a fast hug. “Do what they say!”
“I … I will, Mr. Trevor.”
The captain nodded and climbed into the armored car.
Gray hurried them forward, ordering them to secure their radio earpieces in place.
Ahead, the sand-rail cars were little more than engines strapped to roll cages with some seats bolted in place. They had no windows, fenders, or doors. But Tucker had played with them back in the dunes near Camp Pendleton. Their advantage was a low center of gravity and high flotation tires perfect for skimming over sand and hopping over obstacles.
Kowalski must have had a similar experience and rubbed his palms together as they reached the vehicles. “Which one’s mine?”
Machine-gun fire erupted behind them. They all leaped forward and split on the run, dividing between a smaller two-seater, which Gray and Seichan commandeered, and a larger four-seater with a bench in the rear.
Jain reached the driver’s seat first, but Kowalski wasn’t having any of it.
“I’ll drive!” he yelled.
“Listen, boyo, I’ve had plenty of tactical driving—”
“And I didn’t just get a concussion. So move it, sister!”
She looked ready to bite his head off, but she was still wobbly on her feet. She finally relented and abandoned the driver’s seat to Kowalski. He discovered a screwdriver already jammed in place in the steering column, serving as a key. Judging by the roar next to them, Gray started his vehicle with no more difficulty.
Jain took the passenger seat up front, leaving the rear bench to Tucker and the boy. Kane crouched between them, panting, flinging a bit of drool in his adrenaline-fired excitement.
“Hang on!” Kowalski yelled, grinning way too big.
The buggy leaped forward like a bee-stung horse—just as an ear-shattering explosion flung a nearby truck into the air.
Another rocket blast.
Tucker twisted around. Behind them, the helicopter roared out of the camp and aimed toward them. An M230 chain-gun on the chopper’s undercarriage chewed across the sand—chasing after them.
But they weren’t defenseless.
The Ferret armored car raced into view, as fleet-footed on its large tires as its nimble namesake. It crossed into the path of the attack helicopter. From the minitank’s turret, the machine gun chattered, firing up at the bird in the sky.
Captain Alden manned the weapon himself, shrouded in gun smoke and swirls of dusty sand. The minitank skidded around to face the diving helicopter head-on. Rounds cracked into the chopper’s windshield, driving the bird to the side as the pilot panicked.
The armored car spun a full circle and took off, driving wildly through the parked vehicles. The chopper twisted in midair and took off after them, like a hawk after a fleeing rabbit—or, in this case, a fleeing ferret.
Tucker settled back around, looking forward. Kowalski hit a ridge at full speed and jumped the buggy into the air. The driver hollered his joy. Tucker and Baashi flew into the aluminum half-roof over the bench seat. Tucker managed to get hold of Kane’s leather collar as they crashed back down.
The dog growled angrily, ready to bite someone.
Tucker couldn’t blame him. He glared at the back of Kowalski’s stubbly head, suddenly wishing he were back with the rockets and chain guns. It would be safer than this backseat.
No wonder Gray had fled to the other buggy.
He was no fool.
Maybe this wasn’t so smart.
Gray’s buggy twisted sideways down a steep hill, made treacherous by loose shale and slippery scree. He broadsided a patch of brittle bushes at the bottom of the slope and crashed through them.
Seichan ducked away as thorns and broken branches exploded through the open roll cage.
Once clear, she yelled at him, “Make for the gravel road we saw from the air!”
“That’s what I’m trying to do!”
He had set off overland initially, thinking the road would be too obvious an escape route if the helicopter decided to give chase. He’d already spotted other cars, trucks, even camels fleeing up that road, driven all in the same direction by the attack. He didn’t want to be trapped in that traffic jam if there was a firefight.
His original plan was to travel as far as they could, then cut back to the road. But the hilly terrain proved tougher than it looked, broken up into rocky hummocks, sudden cliffs, and thick patches of bushes and trees. Ahead, it looked even worse as the land pushed up toward the mountains.
Risky or not, the road had to be safer than this.
With that in mind, he drove the car up the next rise to get a better view and gain his bearings. In the rearview mirror, he spotted Kowalski following him. And farther behind him, an ominous column of oily black smoke marked the horizon.
Let’s hope that’s the helicopter.
“There!” Seichan pointed.
He turned his attention forward. A quarter mile away, the road looked little better than a dry riverbed winding across the bitter terrain. It disappeared into the higher hills and scraggly lower forests.
Kowalski skidded up next to him.
Gray touched his throat mike as he nosed his vehicle down the far side of the rise. “Kowalski, we’re heading back to the road. We’ll make better time there.”
“Too bad,” his partner responded in his ear. “It was just getting fun.”