Skeleton Coast, Namibia --- Two years ago
As the bottom of the ravine rushed up to meet him, the dry, rocky
landscape hurtling past Danny Sherwood miraculously slowed right
down to a crawl. Not that the extra time was welcome. All it did
was allow the realization time to play itself out, over and over,
in his harrowed mind. The gut-wrenching , agonizing realization
that, without a shadow of a doubt, he would be dead in a matter of
And yet the day had started off with so much promise.
After almost three years, his work --- his and the rest of the
team’s --- was finally done. And, he thought with an inward
grin, the rewards would soon be his to enjoy.
It had been a hard slog. The project itself had been daunting
enough, from a scientific point of view. The work conditions ---
the tight deadline, the even tighter security, the virtual exile
from family and friends for all those intense and lonely months ---
were even more of a challenge. But today, as he had looked up at
the pure blue sky and breathed in the dry, dusty air of this
godforsaken corner of the planet, it all seemed worthwhile.
There would be no IPO, that much had been made clear from the
start. Neither Microsoft nor Google would be paying big bucks to
acquire the technology. The project, he’d been told, was
being developed for the military. Still, a significant on-success
bonus had been promised to every member of the team. In his case,
it would be enough to secure financial security for him, his
parents back home, and for any not-too-overly profligate wife he
might end up with along with as many kids as he could possibly
envisage having --- if he ever got around to it. Which he
conceivably would, years from now, after he’d had his fun and
enjoyed the spoils of his work. For the moment, though, it
wasn’t on his radar. He was only twenty-nine years old.
Yes, the cushy future that was materializing before him was a far
cry from the more austere days of his childhood in Worcester,
Massachusetts. As he made his way across the parched desert soil,
past the mess tent and the landing pad where the chopper was being
loaded for their departure, and over to the project
director’s tent, he thought back on the experience --- from
the lab work to the various field tests, culminating with this one,
out here in this lost netherworld.
Danny wished he’d be allowed to share the excitement of it
all with a few people outside the project. His parents, firstly. He
could just imagine how stunned, and proud, they would be. Danny was
making good on all the promise, all the lofty expectations
they’d heaped on him since, well, birth. His thoughts
migrated to his older brother, Matt. He’d get a huge kick out
of this. Probably try and get Danny to back him in some dodgy,
harebrained, borderline-legal scheme, but what the hell,
there’d be plenty to go around. There were also a few
big-headed jerks in the business that he would have loved to gloat
to about all this, given the chance. But he knew that any
disclosure outside the team was strictly --- strictly ---
not allowed. That much had also been made clear from the start. The
project was covert. The nation’s defense was at stake. The
word treason was mentioned. And so he’d kept his
mouth shut, which wasn’t too hard. He was used to it. The
highly competitive industry he was in had a deeply ingrained
subterranean culture. Hundreds of millions of dollars were often at
stake. And when it came down to it, the choice between an
eight-figure bank account and a dingy cell in a supermax federal
penitentiary was a no-brainer.
He was about to knock on the door of the tent --- it was a huge,
air-conditioned semi-rigid-wall tent, with a solid door and glass
windows --- when something made him pull his hand back.
Raised voices. Not just raised, but angry.
He leaned closer to the door.
“You should have told me. It’s my project,
goddammit,” a man’s voice erupted. “You should
have told me right from the start.”
Danny knew that voice well: Dominic Reece, his mentor, and the
project’s lead scientist --- its PI, short for principal
investigator. A professor of electrical engineering and computer
science at MIT, Reece occupied hallowed ground in Danny’s
world. He’d taught Danny in several of his formative classes
and had kept a close eye on Danny’s work throughout his PhD
before inviting him to join his team for the project all those
months ago. It was an opportunity --- and an honor --- Danny
couldn’t possibly pass up. And while Danny knew that the
professor had a habit of expressing his opinions more forcefully
and vociferously than most, he detected something else in his voice
now. There was a hurt, an indignation that he hadn’t heard
“What would your reaction have been?” The second
man’s voice, which wasn’t familiar to Danny, was
“The same,” Reece replied emphatically.
“Come on, just think about it for a second. Think about what
we can do together. What we can achieve.”
Reece’s fury was unabated. “I can’t help you do
this. I can’t be a party to it.”
“Dom, please ---
“Think about what we can --- ”
“No,” Reece interrupted. “Forget it.
There’s no way.” The words had an unmistakable finality
A leaden quiet skulked behind the door for a few tense moments,
then Danny heard the second man say, “I wish you hadn’t
“What the hell does that mean?” Reece shot back.
No answer came back.
Then Reece’s voice came back, tinged with a sudden unease.
“What about the others? You haven’t told any of them,
have you?” An assertion, not a question.
“When were you planning on letting them in on your revised
“I wasn’t sure. I had to get your answer first. I was
hoping you’d help me win them over. Convince them to be part
“Well that’s not going to happen,” Reece retorted
angrily. “As a matter of fact, I’d like to get them all
the hell away from here as soon as possible.”
“I can’t let you do that, Dom.”
The words seemed to freeze Reece in his tracks. “What do you
mean, you can’t let me do that?” he said
A pregnant silence greeted his question. Danny could just visualize
Reece processing it.
“So what are you saying? You’re not going to...”
Reece’s voice trailed off for a beat, then came back, with
the added urgency of a sudden, horrible realization. “Jesus.
Have you completely lost your mind?”
The outrage in the old man’s tone froze Danny’s
He heard Reece say, “You son of a bitch,” heard
thudding footfalls striding toward him, toward the door, heard the
second man call out to Reece, “Dom, don’t,” then
heard a third voice say, “Don’t do that, Reece,”
a voice Danny knew, a harsh voice, the voice of a man who’d
creeped Danny out from the moment he’d first met him: Maddox,
the project’s shaven-headed, stone-faced head of security,
the one with the missing ear and the star-shaped burn around it,
the man he knew was nicknamed “The Bullet” by his
equally creepy men. Then he heard Reece say, “Go to
hell,” and the door swung open, and Reece was suddenly there,
standing before Danny, a surprised look in his eyes. Danny heard a
distinctive, metallic double-click, a sound he’d heard in a
hundred movies but never in real life, the all-too-familiar sound
of a gun slide, and the second man, the man who’d been
arguing with Reece all along and who Danny now recognized, turned
to the Bullet and yelled, “No --- ”
--- just as a muffled, high-pitched cough echoed from behind Reece,
then another, before the scientist jerked forward, his face
crunched with pain, his legs giving way as he tumbled onto
Danny faltered back, the suddenness of it all overwhelming his
senses as he struggled to keep Reece from falling to the ground. A
warm, sticky feeling seeped down his hands as he struggled to
support the stricken man, a thick, dark red liquid gushing out of
Reece and soaking Danny’s arms and clothes.
He couldn’t hold him. Reece thudded heavily onto the ground,
exposing the inside of the tent, the second man standing there,
horrified, frozen in shock, next to the Bullet, who had a gun in
his hand. Its muzzle was now leveled straight at Danny.
Danny dived to one side as a couple of shots cleaved through the
air he’d been occupying, then he just tore off, running away
from the tent and the fallen professor as fast as he could.
He was a dozen yards or so away when he dared glance back and saw
Maddox emerging from the tent, radio in one hand, the gun in the
other, his eyes locking onto the receding Danny like lasers as he
bolted after him. With his heart in his throat, Danny sprinted
through the temporary campsite --- there were a few smaller tents,
for the handful of other scientists who, like him, had been
recruited for the project. He almost slammed into two of them, top
minds from the country’s best universities, who were emerging
from one of the tents just as he was nearing it.
“They killed Reece,” he yelled to them, pausing
momentarily and waving frantically back toward the main tent.
“They killed him.” He looked back and saw Maddox
closing in inexorably, seemingly carried forward on winged feet,
and took off again, glancing back to see his friends turn to the
onrushing man with confused looks, crimson sprouts erupt from their
chests as Maddox gunned them down without even slowing.
Danny had ducked sideways, behind the mess tent, out of breath, his
leg muscles burning, his mind churning desperately for escape
options, when the project’s two ageing Jeeps appeared before
him, parked under their makeshift shelter. He flung the first
car’s door open, spurred the engine to life, threw the car
into gear and floored the accelerator, storming off in a spray of
sand and dust just as Maddox rounded the tent.
Danny kept an eye on to the rearview mirror as his Jeep charged
across the harsh gravel plain. He clenched the steering wheel
through bloodless knuckles, confused thoughts assaulting his senses
from all directions, his heart feeling like it was jackhammering
its way out of his chest, and did the only thing he could think of,
which was to keep the car aimed straight ahead, across the deserted
terrain, away from the camp, away from that crazed, insane maniac
who’d killed his mentor and his friends, all while fighting
for a way around the horrifying truth of his predicament, which was
that there was nowhere to run. They were in the middle of nowhere,
with no villages or habitations anywhere near, not for hundreds of
That was the whole point of being there.
That fear didn’t have much time to torment him as a loud,
throaty buzz soon burst through his frazzled thoughts. He looked
back and saw the camp’s chopper coming straight at him,
reeling him in effortlessly. He pegged the gas pedal to the floor,
hard, sending the Jeep bounding over the small rocks and
undulations of the outback, slamming his head against the inside of
the car’s canvas roof with each jarring leap, avoiding the
occasional boulder and the lonely bunches of dried up quiver trees
that dotted the deathly landscape.
The chopper was now on his tail, its engine noise deafening, its
rotor wash drowning the Jeep in a swirling sandstorm. Danny
strained to see ahead through the tornado of dust, not that it made
much difference since there was no road to follow, as the chopper
dropped down heavily on the car’s roof, crushing the thin
struts holding up the roof and almost tearing Danny’s head
He veered left, then right, fishtailing the car as he fought to
avoid the flying predator’s claws, sweat seeping down his
face, the car careening wildly over rocks and cactus bushes. The
chopper was never more than mere feet from the Jeep, connecting
with it in thunderous blows, slapping it from side to side like it
was toying with a hockey puck. The thought of stopping didn’t
occur to Danny: he was running on pure adrenaline, his survival
instincts choking him in their grasp, an irrational hope of escape
propelling him forward. And just then, in that maelstrom of panic
and fear, something shifted, something changed, and he sensed the
chopper pulling up slightly, felt a spike of hope that maybe, just
maybe, he might make it out of that nightmare alive, and the
twisting cloud of sand around his Jeep lifted ---
--- and that’s when he saw the canyon, cutting across the
terrain dead ahead of him with sadistic inevitability, a vast
limestone trench snaking across the landscape like something from
the Wild West, the one he’d seen in countless cowboy films
and had hoped to visit someday but hadn’t yet, the one he now
knew, with a savage certainty, that he’d never get a chance
to see, as the Jeep flew off the canyon’s edge and into the
dry desert air.
Wadi Natrun, Egypt
Sitting cross-legged in his usual spot high up on the mountain,
with the barren valley and the endless desert spread out below him,
the old priest felt a rising unease. During his last few visits to
that desolate place, he’d sensed a more ominous ring to the
words that were reverberating inside his head. And today, there was
something distinctly portentous about them.
And then it came. A question that sent a straightening spasm
shooting up his spine.
“Are you ready to serve?”
His eyes fluttered open, blinking against the soft dawn light. He
glanced around instinctively, as he’d done many times before,
but it was pointless, as it had been each time before. He was alone
up there. There was no one around. Not a soul, human or animal.
Nothing at all, as far as the eye could see.
Despite the early morning chill, sweat droplets sprouted across his
baldpate. He swallowed hard, and concentrated again.
And then it came, again.
The voice, the whisper, coming from inside his own head.
“The time of our Lord will soon be upon you. Are you prepared
Hesitantly, with a tremor in his voice, Father Jerome opened his
mouth and stammered, “Yes, of course. Whatever you ask of me.
I am your servant.”
There was no reply at first. The old priest could feel the
individual droplets of sweat sliding down the rugged skin on his
forehead, one after the other, skating across the ridge of his brow
before dropping onto his cheek. He could almost hear them trickling
down, a slow, torturous progress across his tightened,
Then the voice inside his head came back.
“Are you ready to lead your people to salvation? Are you
prepared to fight for them? To show them the errors of their ways,
even though they may not want to listen?”
“Yes,” Father Jerome cried out, his voice cracking with
equal doses of passion and fear. “Yes, of course. But how?
A suffocating silence gripped the mountain, then the voice
returned, and simply told him, “Soon.”
Excerpted from THE SIGN © Copyright 2011 by Raymond Khoury.
Reprinted with permission by Signet Adult. All rights reserved.