She held up the plastic test tube. “In the nitrogen cooler, I’ve lowered the water’s temperature to negative thirty Celsius. It still won’t freeze.” “What?” Omaha leaned closer.
“It makes no sense. In a freezer, water gives up its heat energy to the cold and turns solid. Well, this stuff keeps giving off energy and won’t solidify. It’s like it has an unlimited amount of energy stored in it.” Safia stared past the dhow’s rail. She could still smell the ozone. She remembered the slight steaming in the water around the iron. “Do you still have the Rad-X scanner among the equipment?” Coral nodded, eyes widening. “Of course.”
The physicist assembled the rod-and-base unit. She passed it over the test tube. Her eyes told what she found before she spoke. “Antimatter annihilation.” She shoved to her feet and held the scanner over the rail, moving from midship toward Safia’s place at the bow. “It grows stronger with every step.” “What the hell does it mean?” Omaha asked.
“The magnetism in the iron is triggering some annihilation of antimatter.”
Coral stared all around her. “We’re sailing through it.”
“That’s impossible. Antimatter annihilates itself with any contact with matter. It can’t be in the water. It would’ve annihilated with the water molecules long ago.” “You’re right,” Coral said. “But I can’t dismiss what I’m reading. Somehow the water here is enriched with antimatter.” “And that’s what’s propelling the boat?” Safia asked.
“Perhaps. Somehow the magnetized iron has activated the localized annihilation of antimatter in the water, converting its energy into motive force, pushing us.” “What about the concern of it all destabilizing?” Omaha asked.
Safia tensed. She remembered Painter’s explanation of how radiation from the decay of uranium isotopes might have triggered the museum explosion. She pictured the smoking bones of the museum guard.
Coral stared at her scanner. “I’m not reading any alpha or beta radiation, but I can’t say for sure.” The physicist returned to her workstation. “I’ll need to do more studies.” The hodja spoke for the first time. She had ignored the excitement and simply stared forward. “The tunnel ends.” All eyes turned. Even Coral regained her feet.
Ahead, a soft flicker of light danced, waxing and waning. It was enough to tell that the tunnel ended ten yards ahead. They sailed forward. In the last yard, the roof became jagged like the maw of a shark’s mouth.
No one spoke.
The ship sailed out of the tunnel and into a vast subterranean chamber.
“Mother of God!” Omaha intoned.
C ASSANDRA HELD the receiver of the satellite phone tight to her left ear and covered her right to cut out the howl of the storm. She was on the second floor of the cinder-block building that housed their command center. The storm tore through the ashes of the town. Sand battered the boarded windows.
As she listened, she paced the floor. The voice, digitally altered, made it difficult to hear. The head of the Guild insisted on anonymity.
“Gray leader,” the Minister continued, “to ask for such special treatment during this storm risks exposure of our desert op. Not to mention the entire Guild.” “I know it sounds excessive, Minister, but we’ve found the target. We are steps away from victory. We can be out of Shisur before the storm even ends. That’s if we can get those supplies from Thumrait.” “And what assurance can you give me that you will be successful?” “I stake my life on it.”
“Gray leader, your life has always been at stake. Guild command has been studying your recent failures. Further disappointments now would make us seriously reconsider our need for your future employment.” Bastard, Cassandra cursed to herself. He hides behind his code name, sitting behind some goddamn desk, and he has the gall to question my competency. But Cassandra knew one way to spin her latest difficulty. She had to give Painter credit for that.
“Minister, I am certain of victory here, but I would also request that afterward I be able to clear my name. I was assigned my team leader. He was not of my own choosing. John Kane has mishandled and undermined my command. It was his lack of security that caused both this delay and his own death. I, on the other hand, was able to subdue and apprehend the saboteur. A key member of DARPA’s Sigma Force.” “You have Painter Crowe?”
Cassandra frowned at the familiarity behind that tone. “Yes, Minister.”
“Very good, gray leader. I may not have misplaced my confidence in you after all. You’ll have your supplies. Four armored tractors driven by Guild operatives are already under way as we speak.” Cassandra bit her tongue. So all this browbeating was for show.
“Thank you, sir,” she managed to force out, but it was a wasted effort. The Minister had already hung up. She shoved the phone down, but continued to pace the room twice more, breathing deeply.
She had been so sure of victory when she blew the tractor out of the hole. She had enjoyed tormenting Painter, breaking him so he’d talk. She now knew the others posed no real threat. A handful of experienced fighters, but also lots of civilians, children, and old women.
After the wreckage had been cleared, Cassandra had gone down the hole herself, ready for victory, only to discover the underground river. There had been a stone pier, so the others must have found some vessel in which to row away.
Alternate plans had to be made…again.
She had to lean on the Minister, but despite her frustration, the call couldn’t have gone better. She had found a scapegoat for her past failures and would soon have everything she needed to ensure her victory under the sand.
Calmer now, Cassandra headed to the stairs. She would oversee final arrangements. She clomped down the wooden steps and entered the temporary hospital ward. She crossed to the medic in charge and nodded.
“You’ll have all the supplies you need. Trucks are coming in two hours.”
The medic looked relieved. The other men heard her and cheers rose.
She glanced to Painter, half sedated, groggy on the bed. She had left her laptop near his bed. The blue light of Safia’s transceiver glowed on the screen.
Cassandra carried the transmitter in her pocket, extra insurance for his good behavior and cooperation.
She checked her watch. Soon it would all be over.
K ARA STOOD at the prow with Safia. She held her sister’s free hand as Safia somehow propelled the dhow with her touch. They had done it, found what her father had sought for so many years.
The dhow sailed from the tunnel into a vast cavern, arching thirty stories overhead, stretching a mile out. A massive lake filled the cavern to an unknown depth.
As they sailed the subterranean lake, flashlights pointed in all directions, spearing out from the dhow. But additional illumination was not necessary. Across the ceiling, scintillations of cobalt electricity arced in jagged displays while gaseous clouds swirled with an inner fire, edges indistinct, ghostly, ebbing and flowing.
Trapped static charge. Possibly drawn from the storm on the surface.
But the fiery display was the least cause for their amazement. Its glow reflected and dazzled off every surface: lake, roof, walls.
“It’s all glass,” Safia said, gazing up and around.
The entire cavern was a giant glass bubble buried under the sands. She even spotted a scattering of glass stalactites dripping down from the roof. Blue arcs glistened up and down their lengths, like electric spiders.
“Slag glass,” Omaha said. “Molten sand that hardened. Like the ramp.”
“What could’ve formed this?” Clay asked.
No one even hazarded a guess as the dhow continued its journey.
Coral eyed the lake. “All this water.”
“It must be Earth-generated,” Danny mumbled. “Or once was.”
Coral seemed not to hear him. “If it’s all enriched with antimatter…”
The possibility chilled them all into silence. They simply watched the play of energies across the ceilings, mirrored in the still waters.
Finally, Safia let out a soft gasp. Her hand dropped from the shoulder of the iron figurehead and covered her mouth.
Then Kara saw it, too. Across the lake, a shore appeared out of the darkness; it rose from the waters and spread back to the far wall. Pillars of black glass stretched from floor to ceiling, hundreds, in all sizes. Mighty columns, thin spires, and unearthly twisted spirals.
“The thousand pillars of Ubar,” Safia whispered.
They were close enough for further details to reveal themselves, lit by the reflected glow of the electrical display. From out of the darkness, a city appeared, glinting, shining, shimmering.
“All glass,” Clay murmured.
The miraculous city climbed the shore, stretching high up the back wall, scattered among the pillars. It reminded Kara of the seaside towns found along the Amalfi coast, looking like a child’s toy blocks spilled down a hillside.
“Ubar,” the hodja said at her side.
Kara glanced back as all the Rahim knelt to the deck. They had returned home after two millennia. One queen had left; thirty now returned.
The dhow had stopped after Safia lifted her hand, drifting on momentum.
Omaha stepped to Safia’s side, encircling her with an arm. “Closer.”
She reached again to the iron shoulder. The craft sailed again, moving smoothly toward the ancient lost city.
Barak called from the wheel, “Another pier! I’ll see if I can take us in!”
The dhow angled toward the spear of stone.
Kara gazed out at the city as they drew nearer. Flashlight beams leaped the distance, adding further illumination. Details grew clearer.
The homes, while all walled of glass, bore adornments of silver, gold, ivory, and ceramic tile. One palace near the shoreline had a mosaic that appeared to be made out of emeralds and rubies. A hoopoe bird. The crested bird was an important element in many stories about the Queen of Sheba.