Folks were fleeing the desert in droves.
“I thought you said no one knew about this back door out of the mountains,” Painter asked Barak.
The Arab shrugged. “When you’re facing the mother of all sandstorms, you run toward higher ground. Any ground. I wager every riverbed is being climbed like this. The main roads are surely worse.”
They had heard periodic reports over the radio as reception came and went. The sandstorm had grown in size, as large as the Eastern Seaboard, whipping up eighty-mile-per-hour winds, packed by scouring sands. It was shifting sand dunes around like they were whitecaps on a storm-swept sea.
And that was not the worst. The high pressure system off the coast had begun to move inland. The two storm systems would meet over the Omani desert, a rare combination of conditions that would whip up a storm unlike any seen in ages before.
Even as the sun dawned, the northern horizon remained cloaked in a smoky darkness. As they descended the mountain road, the storm ahead grew taller and taller, a tidal wave cresting.
They finally reached the bottom of the wadi. The cliffs fell away to either side, spilling out into the sandy salt flats.
“Welcome to the Rub‘ al-Khali,” Omaha announced. “The Empty Quarter.”
The name could not be more fitting.
Ahead stretched a vast plain of gray gravel, etched and scoured with pictographic lines of blue-white salt flats. And beyond, a red ridge marked the edge of the endless roll of dunes that swept across Arabia. From their vantage, the sands glowed in pinks, browns, purples, and crimsons. A paint pot of hues.
Omaha studied their fuel gauge. With luck, they’d have just enough gas to reach Shisur. He glanced over to the Desert Phantom, their only guide. “Thirty kilometers, right?”
Barak leaned back and shrugged. “Thereabouts.”
Shaking his head, Omaha turned forward and set off across the flat-lands. A few straggling folk still trudged toward the mountains. The refugees showed no interest in the van heading toward the storm. It was a fool’s journey.
No one in the van spoke, eyes fixed forward on the storm. The only sound: the crunch of sand and gravel under their tires. With the cooperative terrain, Omaha risked pushing the van up to thirty miles per hour.
The winds unfortunately seemed to pick up with every half mile, blowing streams of sand from the dunes. They would be lucky to have any paint on the van when they reached Shisur.
Danny finally spoke. “It’s hard to believe this used to be a vast savannah.”
Clay yawned. “What are you talking about?”
Danny shifted forward. “This wasn’t always desert. Satellite maps show the presence of ancient riverbeds, lakes, and streams under the sand, suggesting Arabia was once covered by grasslands and forests, full of hippos, water buffalo, and gazelle. A living Eden.”
Clay stared at the arid landscape. “How long ago was this?”
“Some twenty thousand years. You can still find Neolithic artifacts from that time: ax blades, skin scrapers, arrowheads.” Danny nodded to the wastelands. “Then began a period of hyperaridity that dried Arabia into a desert wasteland.”
“Why? What triggered such a change?”
“I don’t know.”
A new voice intervened, answering Clay’s question. “The climatic change was due to Milankovitch Forcing.”
Attention turned to the speaker. Coral Novak.
She explained. “Periodically the Earth wobbles in its orbit around the sun. These wobbles or ‘orbital forcings’ trigger massive climatic changes. Like the desertification of Arabia and parts of India, Africa, and Australia.”
“But what could cause the Earth to wobble?” Clay asked.
Coral shrugged. “It could be simple precession. The natural periodic changes in orbits. Or it could be something more dramatic. A flip-flop of the Earth’s polarity, something that’s occurred a thousand times in geologic history. Or it might have been a burp in the rotation of the Earth’s nickel core. No one can really say.”
“However it happened,” Danny concluded, “this is the result.”
Before them, the dunes had grown into massive hummocks of red sand, some stretching six hundred feet high. Between the dunes, gravel persisted, creating winding, chaotic roadways, nicknamed “dune streets.” It was easy to get lost in the maze of streets, but the more direct route over the dunes could bog the hardiest vehicle. Something they could not chance.
Omaha pointed ahead, directing his question to Barak, meeting the Desert Phantom’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “You know your way through there, right?”
The giant of an Arab shrugged again, his usual response to everything.
Omaha stared at the towering dunes…and beyond them, a wall of churning dark sand rising from the horizon, like the smoky edge of a vast grass fire sweeping toward them.
They had no time for wrong turns.
S AFIA MARCHED beside Kara down another tunnel. The Rahim clan spread out ahead and behind them, traveling in groups, carrying oil lanterns in the darkness. They had been walking for the past three hours, stopping regularly to drink or rest. Safia’s shoulder had begun to ache, but she didn’t protest.
The entire clan was on the move. Even the children.
A nursing mother strode a few steps ahead, accompanied by six children, whose ages ranged from six to eleven. The older girls held the younger ones’ hands. Like all the Rahim, even the children were bundled in hooded cloaks.
Safia studied the young ones as they sneaked glances back at her. They all appeared to be sisters. Green eyes, black hair, burnished skin. Even their shy smiles carried the same dimpled charm.
And while the adult women varied in minor ways—some were wiry, others heavier built, some long-haired, others shorn short—their basic features were strikingly similar.
Lu’lu, the tribal hodja, kept pace with them. After announcing their journey to the Gates of Ubar, she had left to organize the clan’s departure. As guardians of Ubar for centuries, none of the Rahim would be left out of this momentous occasion.
Once they were under way, Lu’lu had gone silent, leaving Kara and Safia plenty of time to discuss the revelation of their sisterhood. It still seemed unreal. For the past hour, neither had spoken, each lost to her own thoughts.
Kara was the first to interrupt the silence. “Where are all your men?” she asked. “The fathers of these children? Will they be joining us along the way?”
Lu’lu frowned at Kara. “There are no men. That is forbidden.”
Safia remembered the hodja’s comment earlier. About how Safia’s birth had been forbidden. Did permission have to be granted? Was that why they all looked so identical? Some attempt at eugenics, keeping their bloodline pure?
“It’s just you women?” Kara asked.
“The Rahim once numbered in the hundreds,” Lu’lu said quietly. “Now we number thirty-six. The gifts granted to us through the blood of Biliqis, the Queen of Sheba, have weakened, grown more fragile. Stillborn children trouble us. Others lose their gifts. The world has grown toxic to us. Just last week Mara, one of our elders, lost her blessings when she went to the hospital in Muscat. We don’t know why.”
Safia frowned. “What gifts are these that you keep mentioning?”
Lu’lu sighed. “I will tell you this because you are one of us. You have been tested and found to harbor some trace of Ubar’s blessing.”
“Tested?” Kara asked, glancing to Safia.
Lu’lu nodded. “At some point, we test all half-bred children of the clan. Almaaz was not the first to leave the Rahim, to lie with a man, to forsake her lineage for love. Other such children have been born. Few have the gift.” She placed a hand on Safia’s elbow. “When we heard of your miraculous survival of the terrorist bombing in Tel Aviv, we suspected that perhaps your blood bore some power.”
Safia stumbled at the mention of the bombing. She remembered the newspaper reports heralding the miraculous nature of her survival.
“But you left the country before we could test you, never to return. So we thought you lost. Then we heard of the key’s discovery. In England. At a museum you oversaw. It had to be a sign!” A bit of fervor entered the woman’s voice, so full of hope.
“When you returned here, we sought you out.” Lu’lu glanced down the tunnel, voice lowering. “At first we attempted to collect your betrothed. To use him to draw you to us.”
Kara gasped. “You were the ones who tried to kidnap him.”
“He is not without talents of his own,” the old woman conceded with half a smile. “I can see why you pledged your heart to him.”
Safia felt a twinge of embarrassment. “After you failed to kidnap him, what did you do?”
“Since we couldn’t draw you to us, we came to you. We tested you in the old manner.” She glanced to Safia. “With the snake.”
Safia stopped in the tunnel, remembering the incident in the bath at Kara’s estate. “You sent the carpet viper after me?”
Lu’lu halted with Kara. A few of the women continued past.
“Such simple creatures recognize those with the gift, those blessed by Ubar. They will not harm such a woman, but find peace.”
Safia could still feel the viper draped over her naked chest, as if sunning on a rock, content. Then the maid had walked in and screamed, triggering it to strike at the girl. “You could’ve killed someone.”
Lu’lu waved them onward. “Nonsense. We’re not foolish. We don’t stick to the old traditions in that regard. We had removed the snake’s fangs. You were at no risk.”
Safia slowly continued down the tunnel, too stunned to speak.
Kara was not. “What is all this about a gift? What was the snake supposed to sense about Safia?”
“Those who bear the blessing of Ubar have the ability to project their will upon other minds. Beasts of the field are especially susceptible, bowing to our wishes, obeying our command. The simpler the beast, the easier to control. Come see.”