The Sign

I. 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 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 seconds.

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 provide 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