“If you detect something, mark it. Let your companions dig it out. Keep moving. Keep searching.”
Nods met her orders. All the searchers were outfitted in reddish brown desert cloaks, supplied by Lu’lu. Faces were muffled. Eyes shielded by goggles. It was like they were preparing to go underwater.
“If anything of significance is found, radio it in. I’ll come see. And remember…” She tapped the watch on the wrist of her slung arm. “After forty-five minutes, we all return here. The storm’s full brunt is due to hit in just under an hour. We’ll weather the worst of the storm in here, examine anything we find, and move on from there as the winds die down. Any questions?”
No one raised a hand.
“Let’s go, then.”
The thirty searchers set off into the storm. As the citadel was the most likely spot to search for the Gates of Ubar, Safia led a majority of the team members to the ruins of the fortress, to concentrate attention there. Painter and Clay lugged the ground-penetrating radar sled. Barak held the metal detector over his shoulder like a rifle. Behind him, Coral and Kara carried excavating tools. Trailing last, Lu’lu and the dune-buggy driver, Jehd, followed. All the other Rahim had broken up into teams to search the other grids.
Safia stepped around the corner of the cinder-block building. She was immediately blown back a step by a gust. It felt like the hand of God shoving her, rough-palmed and gritty. She bent into the wind and set off toward the entrance gates to the ruins.
She noted Painter studying the hodja. They had all exchanged their respective stories upon meeting, catching everyone up. Safia’s story was, of course, the most shocking and seemingly fanciful: a secret tribe of women, whose bloodline ran back to the Queen of Sheba, a line granted strange mental powers by some source at the heart of Ubar. Though Painter’s face was goggled and wrapped in a muffler, his very posture expressed doubt and disbelief. He kept a wary pace between Safia and the hodja.
They crossed out of the village proper and through the wooden gates to the ruins. Each party dispersed to its grid assignments. Omaha and Danny lifted their arms in salute as they headed toward the sinkhole below the citadel. With their field experience, the two men would oversee the search of the sinkhole. The chasm was another likely spot for a possible significant find, as a corner of the towering fortress had collapsed into the hole.
Still, Omaha had not been happy about his assignment. Since Safia’s arrival, he had followed her every step, sat next to her, his eyes seldom leaving her face. She had felt a flush at his attention, half embarrassment, half irritation. But she understood his relief at discovering her alive and didn’t rankle against his attention.
Painter, on the other hand, held back from her, dispassionate, clinical. He kept busy, listening to Safia’s story without any reaction. Something had changed between them, become awkward. She knew what it was. She forced her hand not to rub her neck, where he had held the dagger. He had shown a side of himself, a fierce edge, sharper than the dagger. Neither knew how to react. She was too shocked, unsettled. He had closed off.
Focusing on the mystery here, Safia led her team up a steep trail to the hilltop fortress. As they climbed, the entire system of ruins opened out around them. It had been a decade since Safia had last laid eyes upon the ruins. Before, there had only been the citadel, in disrepair, just a mound of stones, and a short section of wall. Now the entire encircling ramparts had been freed from the sands, partially rebuilt by archaeologists, along with the stumplike bases of the seven towers that once guarded its walls.
Even the sinkhole, thirty feet deep, had been excavated and sifted through.
But most of the attention had been devoted to the citadel. The piled stones had been fitted back together like a jigsaw puzzle. The base of the castle was square in shape, thirty yards on each side, supporting its round watchtower.
Safia imagined guards pacing the parapets, wary of marauders, watch-ful of approaching caravans. Below the fortress, a busy town had prospered: merchants hawked wares of handcrafted pottery, dyed cloths, wool rugs, olive oil, palm beer, date wine; stonemasons labored to build higher walls; and throughout the town, dogs barked, camels brayed, and children ran among the stalls, bright with laughter. Beyond the walls, irrigated fields spread green with sorghum, cotton, wheat, and barley. It had been an oasis of commerce and life.
Safia’s eyes drifted to the sinkhole. Then one day, it all came to an end. A city destroyed. People had fled in superstitious terror. And so Ubar vanished under the sweep of sands and years.
But all that was all on the surface. Stories of Ubar went deeper, tales of magical powers, tyrant kings, vast treasures, a city of a thousand pillars.
Safia glanced at the two women, one old, one young, identical twins separated by decades. How did both stories of Ubar hang together: the mystical and the mundane? The answers lay hidden here. Safia was sure of it.
She reached the gateway into the citadel and stared up at the fortress.
Painter flicked on a flashlight and shone a bright beam into the dark interior of the citadel. “We should begin our search.”
Safia stepped over the threshold. As soon as she entered the fortress, the winds died completely, and the distant rumble of the sandstorm dimmed.
Lu’lu joined her now.
Barak followed them, turning on the metal detector. He began to sweep behind her as if wiping away her footprints from the sand.
Seven steps down the hall, a windowless chamber opened, a man-made cavern. The back wall was a collapsed ruin of tumbled stone.
“Sweep the room,” Safia directed Barak.
The tall Arab nodded and began his search for any hidden artifacts.
Painter and Clay set up the ground-penetrating radar as she had instructed.
Safia swung her flashlight over the walls and ceiling. They were unadorned. Someone had lit a campfire at one time. Soot stained the roof.
Safia paced the floor, eyes searching for any clue. Barak marched back and forth, intent on his metal detector, searching floor and walls. As the room was small, it didn’t take long. He came up empty. Not even a single ping.
Safia stood in the center of the room. This chamber was the only inner sanctum still remaining. The tower overhead had collapsed in on itself, destroying whatever rooms lay above.
Painter activated the ground-penetrating radar, flicking on its portable monitor. Clay entered the room, slowly dragging the red sled over the sandy stone floor, pulling it like a yoked ox. Safia came over and studied the scan, more familiar with reading the results. If there were any secret basement rooms, they would show up on the radar.
The screen remained dark. Nothing. Solid rock. Limestone.
Safia straightened. If there was some secret heart to Ubar, it had to lie underground. But where?
Maybe Omaha was having better luck with his team.
Safia lifted her radio. “Omaha, can you hear me?”
A short pause. “Yeah, what’s up? Did you find anything?”
“No. Anything down in the pit?”
“We’re just finishing with the sweep, but so far nothing.”
Safia frowned. These were the two best spots to expect to find answers. Here was the spiritual center of Ubar, its royal house. The ancient queen would have wanted immediate access to the secret heart of Ubar. She would have kept its entrance close.
Safia turned to Lu’lu. “You mentioned that after the tragedy here, the queen sealed Ubar and scattered its keys.”
Lu’lu nodded. “Until the time was ripe for Ubar to open again.”
“So the gate wasn’t destroyed when the sinkhole opened.” That was a bit of luck. Too much luck. She pondered this, sensing a clue.
“Maybe we should bring the keys here,” Painter said.
“No.” She dismissed this possibility. The keys would only become important once the gate was found. But where, if not at the citadel?
Painter sighed, arms crossed. “What if we tried recalibrating the radar, heightened the intensity, searched deeper.”
Safia shook her head.
“No, no, we’re looking at this all wrong. Too high tech. That’s not going to solve this puzzle.”
Painter had a slightly hurt look. Technology was his bailiwick.
“We’re thinking too modern. Metal detectors, radar, grids, mapping things out. This has all been done before. The gate, to survive this long, undisturbed, must be entrenched in the natural landscape. Hidden in plain sight. Or else it would’ve been found before. We need to stop leading with our tools and start thinking with our heads.”
She found Lu’lu staring back at her. The hodja wore the face of the queen who had sealed Ubar. But did the two share the same nature?
Safia pictured Reginald Kensington frozen forever in glass, a symbol of pain and torment. The hodja had remained silent all these years. She must’ve dug up the body, taken it to their mountain lair, and hidden it away. Only the discovery of Ubar’s keys had broken the woman’s silence, loosened her tongue to reveal her secrets. There was a pitiless determination in all this.
And if the ancient queen had been like the hodja, she would have protected Ubar with that same pitiless determination, a mercilessness that bordered on the ruthless.
Safia felt a well of ice rise around her, remembering her initial question. How did the gate conveniently survive the sinkhole’s collapse? She knew the answer. She closed her eyes with dawning dismay. She had been looking at this all wrong. Backward. It all made a sick sense.
Painter must have sensed her sudden distress. “Safia…?”
“I know how the gate was sealed.”
P AINTER HURRIED back from the cinder-block building. Safia had sent him running to fetch the Rad-X scanner. It had been a part of the equipment taken from Cassandra’s SUV. Apparently Cassandra had even demonstrated it to Safia back in Salalah, showing her how the iron heart bore a telltale sign of antimatter decay, to convince Safia of the true reason for this search.
Along with the Rad-X scanner, Painter had discovered an entire case of analyzing equipment, more sophisticated than anything he was acquainted with, but there was a hungry gleam in Coral’s eye as she had looked at the equipment. Her only comment: “Nice toys.”