Lu’lu stepped to the wall, where a small hole opened in the sandy floor. She opened her hands. A gentle buzzing floated about Safia’s head. From the hole, a small vole emerged, blind, whiskers twitching. It climbed, as docile as a kitten, into the hodja’s palm. Lu’lu caressed it with a finger, then let it go. It dashed back into its hole, surprised to be out.
“Such simple creatures are easy to influence.” Lu’lu nodded to Kara as she continued down the tunnel. “As are those minds weakened by abuse.”
Kara glanced away.
“Nevertheless, we have little control over the wakened mind of man. The best we can manage is to cloud and dull their perceptions when we are close at hand. To hide our presence for a short time…and then only of our own form. Even clothes are difficult to whisper away. It is best done naked and in shadows.”
Kara and Safia glanced at each other, too amazed for words. It was some form of telepathy, mind bending.
Lu’lu adjusted her cloak. “And of course, the gift can be used on oneself, a concentration of will directed inward. This is our greatest blessing, securing our line back to Queen Biliqis, she who was our first and last.”
Safia remembered tales of the Queen of Sheba, stories found throughout Arabia, Ethiopia, and Israel. Many involved fanciful embellishments: magic carpets, talking birds, even teleportation. And the most significant man in her life, King Solomon, was said to be able to speak to animals, like the hodja claimed now. Safia pictured the leopard that attacked John Kane. Could these women truly control such beasts? Was such talent the source of all the wilder tales surrounding the Queen of Sheba?
Kara spoke into the stunned silence. “What happens when you direct your gift inward?”
“The greatest blessing,” Lu’lu repeated with a wistful edge to her voice. “We ripen with child. A child born of no man.”
Kara and Safia shared a look of disbelief.
“A virgin birth…” Kara whispered.
Like the Virgin Mary. Safia pondered this revelation. Is that why the first key, the iron heart, had been hidden at Mary’s father’s tomb? An acknowledgment of some sort. One virgin to another.
Lu’lu continued, “But our births are not any birth. The child of our body is our body, born afresh to continue the line.”
Safia shook her head. “What do you mean?”
Lu’lu raised her staff and passed it forward and backward, encompassing all the clan. “We are all the same women. To speak in modern terms, we are genetically identical. The greatest blessing of all is the gift to keep our line pure, to produce a new generation out of our own womb.”
“Clones,” Kara said.
“No,” Safia said. She understood what the hodja was describing. It was a reproductive process found in some insects and animals, most notably bees.
“Parthenogenesis,” Safia said aloud.
Kara looked confused.
“It’s a form of reproduction where a female can produce an egg with an intact nucleus containing her own genetic code, which then grows and is born, an identical genetic duplicate of the mother.”
Safia stared up and down the tunnel. All these women…
Somehow their telepathic gift allowed them to reproduce themselves, genetically intact. Asexual reproduction. She recalled one of her biology professors at Oxford, how he had mentioned that sexual reproduction was a relatively strange thing for our bodies to do. That normally a bodily cell divided to produce an exact duplicate of itself. Only the germ cells in ovaries or testicles divided in such a manner to produce cells with only half of their original genetic code—eggs in females, spermatozoa in males—allowing for the mix of genetic material. But if a woman could somehow, by sheer will, stop this cellular division in her unfertilized egg, the resulting offspring would be an exact duplicate of the mother.
Safia’s breath caught in her throat. She stopped and searched the faces around her. If what Lu’lu said was true, if her mother was from this clan, then all around her stood her mother. She was seeing her in all her possible incarnations: from newborn babe suckling on a teat to the mother who nursed that child, from the young girl walking hand in hand with her older sister to the elder at her side. All her mother.
Safia now understood the cryptic words of the hodja earlier.
All of us. We’re all your mother.
It wasn’t metaphor. It was fact.
Before Safia could move or speak, two women marched past. One carried the silver case holding the iron heart. The next bore the iron spear with the bust of the Queen of Sheba. Safia noted the iron countenance on the statue. The face of Sheba. The face of these women.
Sudden understanding struck Safia, almost blinding her. She had to lean against the tunnel wall. “Sheba…”
Lu’lu nodded. “She is the first and the last. She is all of us.”
An early exchange with the hodja echoed in Safia’s mind: We are the Queen of Sheba.
Safia watched the cloaked women march past. These women had been reproducing themselves asexually far back into history, tracing their genetic code to one woman, the first to produce a child in this manner, to regenerate herself.
Biliqis, the Queen of Sheba.
She stared into the face of Lu’lu, into the green eyes of the long-dead queen. The past living in the present. The first and the last.
How was this possible?
A shout rose from the front of the line.
“We’re through the mountains,” the hodja said. “Come. The Gates of Ubar await.”
P AINTER SHIELDED his eyes as he stared at the stalled van, at the rising sun, at the walls of sand all around. This would not be a good place to be trapped when the coming sandstorm struck. He imagined those mountainous dunes spilling over them like crashing waves against rocks.
They had to get moving again.
A few minutes ago, the van had been careening along a stretch of flat sand, riding along the edges of dunes, a Volkswagen surfboard. The graveled “streets” they had been following had finally vanished completely, requiring them to furrow through hard-packed sand.
Only not all of the sand was packed.
“Camel wallow,” Barak commented, on his knees, staring at the back end of the van. Its front and rear tires were mired to the axle. “Sand here is very loose. And deep. Like quicksand. Camels roll in them to clean their bodies.”
“Can we dig the van out?” Omaha asked.
“There’s no time,” Painter said.
Barak nodded. “And the deeper you dig, the deeper the van will sink.”
“Then we’ll have to unload what we can. Travel on foot.”
Danny groaned from his seat in the sand. “We really have to be choosier with our means of transportation. First the flatbed truck, now this junker.”
Painter stepped away, too full of nervous energy, or maybe it was the electricity in the air, some cloud of static charge pushed ahead of the sandstorm. “I’m going to climb that dune. See if I can spot Shisur. It can’t be more than a mile. In the meantime, clean out the van. Weapons, equipment, everything.”
Painter set off up the hill. Omaha trudged after him. “I can check by myself,” Painter said, waving him off.
Omaha kept climbing, every step pounded deep, as if he were punishing the sand. Painter didn’t feel like arguing with him. So the pair trudged up the dune face. It was more of a trek than Painter had imagined down below.
Omaha drew a step nearer. “I’m sorry…”
Painter’s brow crinkled in confusion.
“About the van,” Omaha mumbled. “I should’ve spotted the wallow.”
“Don’t worry about it. I would’ve hit it, too.”
Omaha continued upward. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”
Painter sensed the man’s apology covered more than the mired vehicle.
At last, they reached the knife-edged crest of the dune. It crumbled underfoot. Runnels of sand coursed down the far side.
The desert held a perfect crystal stillness. No birdsong, no chirp of insect. Even the wind had subsided momentarily. The calm before the storm.
Painter gaped at the expanse before them. Dunes stretched to all horizons. But what held his attention was the roiling wall to the north, a hurricane of sand. The dark clouds reminded Painter of stacked thunderclouds. He spotted even a few bluish flashes. Static discharges. Like lightning.
They needed to reach cover.
“There,” Omaha said, and pointed his arm. “That cluster of date palms.”
Painter made out a tiny patch of greenery about half a mile away, buried among the dunes, easy to miss.
“The oasis of Shisur,” Omaha said.
They were not far.
As he turned away, movement caught his eye. In the sky to the east. A black gnat flew, limned in the morning sunlight. He lifted his night-vision goggles over his eyes, flipping up the ordinary lenses rather than the low-light feature. He telescoped closer.
“What is it?”
“A transport helicopter. United States Air Force. Probably from Thumrait. It’s circling to land out there.”
“A rescue mission, because of the storm?”
“No. It’s Cassandra.” Painter heard her voice in his head. Did you really think that I’d believe you were heading to the border of Yemen? Here was more confirmation of how high up Cassandra’s group had its teeth and claws in Washington. How could Painter hope to win out here? He had only five people with him, few with military training.
“Are you sure it’s her?”
Painter watched the helicopter rotor down to the sands, vanishing among the dunes. “Yes. That’s the spot on the map. Six miles off course.”
Painter lowered his goggles. Cassandra was too close for comfort.
“We have to get moving,” he said.
Painter fixed the bearings and headed back downhill. The two men slid their way down, making faster time. Reaching the bottom, Painter eyed the stacked gear. It was a load. But they dared not leave anything they might need.
“How far?” Coral asked.