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HOURS LATER, JOHN whistled the same tune. The camels plodded forward, almost synchronized with the melody. John's ride, in fact, appeared inspired, keeping ahead of the others. Tarik rocked his head to the rhythm, but Cara's entire body tightened, lips pursed, a fuse set to blow.

"John," Cara snapped. "Sweetie, you think you can take a break for a while?"

"Sure." He started a new annoying sound, clicking his tongue on the roof of his mouth.

Cara glared over to Tarik.

Tarik shrugged. "It is a little less annoying."

John unzipped the backpack clipped to his saddle and withdrew a pair of binoculars, sunlight flashing off the polished lenses. The instrument featured the latest optical technology, with electromagnetic and thermal enhancements allowing the viewer a degree of X-ray vision. He flicked on a few filters that illuminated the moisture-rich areas in the desert-scape light-blue. Water rode on the aquifers many meters below them. The aquifers sloped and joined with other impermeable layers of earth that funneled water to the distant lake. Unable to resist, John pointed the binoculars at Cara—he thought.

Instead of her, an image of Tarik riding at John filled the device, his grin spread wide—artificially stripped of his clothing. He stood in his stirrups and stretched.

"No-no! Oh man." John recoiled, and all but fell out of his saddle. The binoculars nearly flung from his neck. "That's going to give me nightmares." He shifted in his saddle, wincing as he turned away, only to be hit by Cara's stone-cold stare when he opened his eyes.

"See anything you like?" Cara asked, riding up alongside, brows arched in curiosity.

John's face reddened.

For the rest of the day, the group rode westward, the setting sun accentuating the rippling shadows of the desert sand. They stowed the sunshades.

"I don't see any signs of a settlement," Cara said as she straightened in her saddle, scanning her surroundings. "How much further?"

John rode up next to her and pointed ahead. "Looks like we're almost there."

Cara shot him a bewildered glance. "Almost, where?"

John pointed again to a small discoloration in the sand some ways off. "To the village, can't you see it?"

She spotted the tarnished blip in the sand, but to Cara, the smudge couldn't possibly be a settlement. She was wrong.

Tents rose into the sky like trees of an oasis, surrounding the settlement in a tight circle. Other more permanent structures lay settled against the natural ledge of the squat, auburn ridge.

"That," Cara gulped, "is Neftita?"

John reached over and hit her in soft teasing. "Maybe you want me to buy a Ritz Carlton and put it out there really quickly, hmm?" He snapped his fingers.

Cara doubted that running water and hot showers existed as amenities at Neftita. "What have I gotten myself into?"

"Aw, c'mon. It can't be that bad," John said. "I'll race you there for first dibs on beds."

"If there are any beds."

"Enough, you two." Tarik waved their concern away while pulling up next to them. "You act like a love-struck couple with all your bickering. Besides, I will be the first—I am a camel jockey."

Tarik chirped out a whistle like an old dial-up-modem. His camel picked up its pace considerably and peeled away from the pack. Tarik laughed heartily as he pulled away. "See you at the finish line!"

THE THIRD ALIGNMENTWhere stories live. Discover now