Omaha left them to their science project. Right now, all he cared about was where they were going. He noted Kara eyeing him…no, him and Safia.
Caught staring, Kara glanced away, toward the dark tunnel.
Omaha noted the hodja doing the same. “Do you know where this is taking us?” he asked the old woman.
She shrugged. “To the true heart of Ubar.”
A silence settled over the boat as they continued down the long, dark throat. Omaha stared up, half expecting a night sky. But not here.
Here they sailed hundreds of feet under the sand.
P AINTER WOKE with a start, gasping, choking, eyes burning.
He attempted to sit up but was shoved back down. His head rang like a struck bell. Light burned icily. The room shuddered. He rolled to the side and vomited over the edge of a cot. His stomach clenched again and again.
“Awake, I see.”
The voice chilled the feverish pain from his body. Despite the glare and pain of the sharp lights, he faced the woman at the foot of his bed. “Cassandra.” She was dressed in dun-colored fatigues with a knee-length poncho, belted at the waist. A hat hung by a cord behind her, a scarf around her neck. Her skin glowed in the light, her eyes shining even brighter.
He struggled to sit up. Two men held his shoulders.
Cassandra waved them off.
Painter slowly sat up. Guns pointed at him.
“We’ve got some business to discuss.” Cassandra dropped to one knee. “That little stunt of yours cost me most of my electronics. Though we were able to salvage a few things, like my laptop.” She pointed to the computer resting on a folding chair. It displayed a SeaWiFS satellite map of the region, with live feed of the sandstorm.
Painter noted the scrolling weather data. The coastal high-pressure system off the Arabian Sea had finally crossed the mountains. It was due to collide with the sandstorm in the next two hours. A megastorm of sea and sand.
But none of that mattered now.
“There’s no way I’m telling you anything,” he croaked out.
“I don’t remember asking you anything.”
He sneered at her. Even that hurt.
She shifted to the laptop and touched a few keys. The screen contained an overlay of the area: town, ruins, desert. It was monochrome, except for a small blue ring, slowly spinning, a quarter inch in diameter. Below it, coordinates along the X-, Y-, and Z-axes changed. A live feed. He knew what he was looking at. It was a signal from a microtransceiver, a system designed by his own hand.
“What have you done?”
“We implanted Dr. al-Maaz. We dared not lose track of her.”
“The transmission…underground…” He had a hard time making his tongue work.
“There was enough of a gap in the wreckage to lower a weighted thread antenna. It seems once we spooled enough wire we were able to pick up her signal. There must be good acoustics down there. We’ve lowered booster transmitters. We can track her anywhere.”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
Cassandra returned to his bed. She had a small transmitter in her hand. “To inform you of a small modification in your design. It seems with a bit more battery, you can ignite a pellet of C4. I can show you the schematics.” Painter’s flesh went cold. “Cassandra, what have you done?” He pictured Safia’s face, her shy smile.
“There’s just enough C4 to blow out someone’s spine.”
She raised one eyebrow, a gesture that used to excite, quicken his heart. Now it terrified him.
Painter clenched fistfuls of sheets. “I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
“How cooperative. But again, Painter, I don’t remember asking you any questions.” She held up the transmitter and glanced to the screen. “It’s time to punish you for your little stunt today.” She pressed the button.
His scream was lost in a monstrous explosion. It felt as if his heart had detonated. It took him a breath to understand.
Cassandra smiled down at him, deliciously satisfied.
Laughter rose raw, with little true humor, from the men in the room.
She held up the device. “Sorry, I guess that was the wrong transmitter. This one controlled the charges placed in the tractor’s debris. My demolitions experts have promised me the explosives will clear a path to the tunnel. All it requires now is a little cleanup. We’ll be moving in within the next half hour.” Painter’s heart still ached, thudding in his throat.
Cassandra pulled out a second transmitter. “This is the real one. Keyed to Safia’s transceiver. Shall we try that again?” Painter simply hung his head. She would do it. Ubar was open. Cassandra had no further need for Safia’s expertise.
Cassandra knelt closer. “Now that I have your full attention, maybe we can have that little chat.” 1:52 A.M.
S AFIA LOUNGED, one hand on the iron figurehead, her hip leaning against the ship’s rail. How could she be so terrified, yet so tired at the same time? It had been a half hour since they all heard the explosion, coming from the direction of the spiral ramp.
“Sounds like Cassandra’s come knocking,” Omaha had said.
By that time, their boat had sailed far down the tunnel. Still, tensions had escalated. Many flashlights pointed backward. Nothing came. Safia could only imagine Cassandra’s frustration at finding them gone and faced with a flooded tunnel.
It would be a long swim if Cassandra and her team attempted to follow.
Though the dhow’s pace was only a bit swifter than a fast walk, they had been sailing now for over an hour. They had to be at least six or seven miles away, making a slow but regal escape.
With each passing moment, everyone relaxed a bit more. And who was to say if Cassandra had even been successful in clearing the blockage atop the ramp?
Still, Safia could not let go of another fear, one closer to her heart.
What was his fate? Dead, captured, lost in the sandstorm. There didn’t seem to be any hopeful possibility.
Behind Safia, a few of the Rahim women sang softly, sadly, mourning their dead. Aramaic again. Safia’s heart responded, grieving.
Lu’lu stirred, noting her attention. “Our old language, the language of the last queen, dead now, but we still speak it amongst ourselves.” Safia listened, taken to another time.
Nearby, Kara and Omaha sat on the planks, heads bowed, asleep.
Barak stood by the wheel, keeping them sailing straight as the course meandered in lazy S-curves. Perhaps the passage had once been part of an old underground river system.
A few steps away, Coral sat cross-legged, bent over an array of equipment, powered by batteries. Her face was limned in the glow. Danny helped her, kneeling at her side, face close to hers.
Beyond them, Safia’s eyes found one last member of their group.
Clay leaned against the starboard rail, staring forward. Barak and he had shared a cigarette a moment ago, one of the few left in the Arab’s pack. Clay looked like he needed another.
He noticed her attention and came to join her.
“How’re you holding up?” she asked.
“All I can say is that I had better get a good grade.” His smile was sincere if a bit shaky.
“I don’t know,” she teased. “There’s always room for improvement.”
“Fine. That’s the last time I take a dart in the back for you.” He sighed, staring into the darkness. “There’s a hell of a lot of water down here.”
She remembered his fear of the sea, flashing back to a similar chat by the rail of the Shabab Oman. That now seemed like a world ago.
Danny stood and stretched. “Coral and I were discussing that. About the sheer volume of water down here. There’s more than can be attributed to local rainfall or the water table.” Omaha stirred, speaking with his head down. He had not been asleep, only resting. “So what’s the story then, hotshot?” Coral answered, “It’s Earth-generated.”
Omaha lifted his head. “Say again?”
“Since the 1950s, it’s been known that there was more water within the Earth than can be explained by the surface hydrological cycle of evaporation and rainfall. There have been many cases of vast freshwater springs found deep within the Earth. Giant aquifers.” Danny interrupted. “Coral…Dr. Novak was telling me about one spring found during the excavation for the Harlem Hospital in New York. It produced water at the rate of two thousand gallons a minute. It took tons of concrete to produce enough pressure to plug the spring.” “So where the hell does all this new water come from?”
Danny waved to Coral. “You know it better.”
She sighed, clearly bothered at the interruption. “An engineer and geologist, Stephen Reiss, proposed that such new water is regularly formed within the Earth by the elemental combination of hydrogen and oxygen, generated in magma. That a cubic kilometer of granite, subjected to the right pressures and temperatures, has the capability of yielding eight billion gallons of water. And that such reservoirs of magmatic or Earth-generated waters are abundant under the crust, interconnected in a vast aquifer system, circling the globe.” “Even under the deserts of Arabia?” Omaha asked, half scoffing.
“Certainly. Reiss, up until he died in 1985, had over fifty years of success finding water at sites other geologists flatly predicted were impossible. Including the Eilat Wells in Israel that continue to produce enough water for a city of a hundred thousand. He did the same in Saudia Arabia and Egypt.” “So you think all this water down here might be part of that system?”
“Perhaps.” Coral opened a tiny door in one of her machines. Safia noted a whiff of fog rise from it. A cooler of some sort. She fished out a tiny test tube with tweezers. She swirled it around. Whatever Coral saw deepened a frown.
“What’s wrong?” Danny asked, noting her reaction.
“There’s something strange about this water.”
“What do you mean?”
She lifted the test tube. “I’ve been attempting to freeze it.”