Painter hauled the entire case. Safia was onto something.
The storm fought him as he passed through the wooden gate and into the ruins. Sand peppered every exposed inch of skin, wind tore at his scarf and cloak. He leaned into the wind. The day had turned to twilight. And this was only the front edge of the storm.
To the north, the world ended in a wall of darkness, flashing in spidery crackles of blue fire. Static charges. Painter smelled the electricity in the air. NASA had done studies for a proposed Mars mission to judge how equipment and men would fare in such sandstorms. It wasn’t the dust and sand that most threatened their electronic equipment, but the extreme static charge to the air, formed from a combination of dry air and kinetic energy. Enough to fry circuits in seconds, create agonizing static bursts on skin. And now this storm was swirling up a giant squall of static.
And it was about to roll over them.
Painter ducked toward the low hill, burrowing through the wind and blowing sand. As he reached the area, he headed down instead of up, following the steep trail that descended into the sinkhole. The deep pit stretched east to west along its longer axis. On the west end, the citadel sat atop its hill, maintaining a vigil over the sinkhole.
Safia and her team crouched on the other side, at the eastern end of the chasm. By now, the Rahim had gathered, too, around the rim of the pit. Most lay flat on their bellies to lessen their exposure to the wind.
Ignoring them, Painter slipped and slid down the sandy path. Reaching the bottom, he hurried forward.
Safia, Omaha, and Kara were bent over the monitor of the ground-penetrating radar unit. Safia was tapping at the screen.
“Right there. See that pocket. It’s only three feet from the surface.”
Omaha leaned back. “Clay, drag the radar sled back two feet. Yeah, right there.” He bent over the monitor again.
Painter joined them. “What did you find?”
“A chamber,” Safia said.
Omaha frowned. “It’s only a remnant of the old well. Long gone dry. I’m sure it’s already been documented by other researchers.”
Painter moved closer as Omaha clicked a button on the monitor. A vague three-dimensional cross section of the terrain under the radar sled appeared on the monitor. It was conical in shape, narrow at the top and wider at the bottom.
“It’s only ten feet at its widest,” Omaha said. “Just an uncollapsed section of the original cistern.”
“It does look like a blind pocket,” Kara agreed.
Safia straightened up. “No, it’s not.” She faced Painter. “Did you bring that radiation detector?”
Painter lifted the case. “Got it.”
“Run the scanner.”
Painter opened the case, snapped the detection rod on the Rad-X scanner’s base, and activated it. The red needle swept back and forth, calibrating. A blinking green light steadied to a solid glow. “All ready.”
He slowly turned in a circle. What was Safia suspecting?
The red needle remained at the zero point.
“Nothing,” he called back.
“I told you—” Omaha started.
He was cut off. “Now check the cliff face.” Safia pointed to the rock wall. “Get close.”
Painter did as she directed, the scanner held out before him like a divining rod. Sand swirled around inside the pit, a mini–dust bowl, stirred by the winds overhead. He hunched over the scanner as he reached the cliff face. He ran the detection rod over the rock face, mostly limestone.
The needle shimmied on the dial.
He held the scanner more steadily, shielding it from the wind with his own body. The needle settled to a stop. It was a very weak reading, barely shifting the needle, but it was a positive reading.
He shouted over his shoulder. “I got something here!”
Safia waved back. “We have to dig where the sled is positioned. Three feet down. Open the pocket.”
Omaha checked his watch. “We only have another twenty minutes.”
“We can do it. It’s just packed sand and small rocks. If several people dig at the same time…”
Painter agreed, feeling a surge of excitement. “Do it.”
In less then a minute, a ring of diggers set to work.
Safia stood back, cradling her arm in the sling.
“Are you ready to explain yourself?” Omaha said.
Safia nodded. “I had to be sure. We’ve been thinking about this all wrong. We all know the sinkhole opened under Ubar’s township and destroyed half the town, driving folks away in superstitious fear of God’s wrath. After this disaster, the last queen of Ubar sealed its heart, to protect its secrets.”
“So?” Kara asked, standing beside the hodja.
“Doesn’t it strike you as odd that the gate was conveniently spared during the devastation here? That as the city folk fled, the queen stayed behind and performed all these secret acts: sealed the gate in such a manner that it has never been discovered, forged and hid keys at sacred sites of that time.”
“I suppose,” Kara said.
Omaha brightened visibly. “I see what you’re getting at.” He glanced to the diggers, back to Safia, grabbing her good arm. “We’ve been looking at this ass-backward.”
“Would someone care to explain it to us layfolk?” Painter asked, irritated at Omaha’s understanding.
Omaha explained. “The chronology has to be wrong. Chicken-and-egg scenario. We’ve believed the sinkhole was the reason Ubar was sealed.”
“Now think about it in a new light,” Safia added. “As if you were the queen. What would such a disaster matter to the royal house anyway? The true wealth of Ubar, the source of its power, lay elsewhere. The queen could’ve simply rebuilt. She had the wealth and the power.”
Omaha chimed in, the pair working as an experienced team. “The town was not important. It was only a mask hiding the true Ubar. A facade. A tool.”
“One turned to a new use,” Safia said. “A means of hiding the gate.”
Kara shook her head, clearly as confused as Painter.
Omaha sighed. “Something truly terrified the queen, enough to drive her from the wealth and power of Ubar, force her and her descendants to live a nomadic existence, existing on the fringe of civilization. Do you really think a simple sinkhole like this would’ve done it?”
“I guess not,” Painter said. He noted the excitement growing between Safia and Omaha. They were in their element. He was excluded, on the outside looking in. A flare of jealousy prickled through him.
Safia picked up the thread. “Something terrified the royal family, enough that they wanted Ubar locked from the world. I don’t know what that event was, but the queen did not act rashly. Look at how methodical her preparations were afterward. She prepared keys, hid them in places sacred to the people, wrapped them in riddles. Does this sound like an irrational response? It was calculated, planned, and executed. As was her first step in sealing Ubar.”
Safia glanced to Omaha.
He filled in the final blank. “The queen deliberately caused the sinkhole to collapse.”
A stunned moment of silence followed.
“She destroyed her own town?” Kara finally asked. “Why?”
Safia nodded. “The town was only a means to an end. The queen put it to its final use. To bury Ubar’s gate.”
Omaha glanced all around the rim. “The act also had a psychological purpose. It drove folks away, frightened them from ever approaching. I wager the queen herself spread some of the stories about God’s wrath. What better way to hang a religious ‘Do Not Trespass’ sign on these lands?”
“How did you figure all that out?” Painter asked.
“It was only a conjecture,” Safia said. “I had to test it. If the sinkhole was used to bury something, then there must be something down here. Since the metal detectors discovered nothing, either the object was too deep or it was some type of chamber.”
Painter glanced at the diggers.
Safia continued, “As with the tomb sites, the queen cloaked clues in symbols and mythology. Even the first key. The iron heart. It symbolized the heart of Ubar. And in most towns, the heart of their community is the well. So she hid the Gate of Ubar in the well, buried them in sand, as the iron heart was sealed in sandstone, then dropped the sinkhole on top of them.”
“Driving people away,” Painter mumbled. He cleared his throat and spoke more clearly. “What about the radiation signature?”
“It would take dynamite to drop this sinkhole,” Omaha answered.
Safia nodded. “Or some form of an antimatter explosion.”
Painter glanced at Lu’lu. The hodja had remained stoically quiet the entire time. Had her ancestors really utilized such a power?
The old woman seemed to note his attention. She stirred. Her eyes were hidden by goggles. “No. You cast aspersions. The queen, our ancestor, would not kill so many innocent people just to hide Ubar’s secret.”
Safia crossed to her. “No human remains were ever found in or around the sinkhole. She must have found some way to clear the city. A ceremony or something. Then sank the hole. I doubt anyone died here.”
Still, the hodja was unconvinced, even taking a step back from Safia.
A shout rose from the diggers. “We found something!” Danny yelled.
All their faces turned to him.
“Come see before we dig further.”
Painter and the others all shifted over. Coral and Clay stepped aside for them. Danny pointed his shovel.
In the center of the trenchlike hole, the dark red sand had turned to snow.
“What is that?” Kara asked.
Safia hopped down, dropped to a knee, and ran her hand over the surface. “It’s not sand.” She glanced up. “It’s frankincense.”
“What?” Painter asked.
“Silver frankincense,” Safia elaborated, and stood up. “The same as what was found plugging the iron heart. An expensive form of cement. It’s stoppered the top of the hidden chamber like a cork in a bottle.”