They were all overwhelmed.
“Slow us down!” Barak called as they approached the pier.
Safia released her hold on the iron statue. The dhow’s pace immediately dropped. Barak slid the craft easily alongside the pier.
“Tie us up,” he said.
The Rahim were again on their feet. They leaped to the sandstone pier and tied lines to silver stanchions, matching the ones on the royal dhow.
“We are home,” Lu’lu said. Tears brimmed her eyes.
Kara helped the old woman back to the center of the ship so she could step from boat to pier. Once on solid ground, the hodja waved Safia to her.
“You should lead us. You have returned Ubar to us.”
Safia balked, but Kara nudged her. “Do the old lady a favor.”
Taking a deep breath, Safia climbed from the dhow and led the party to the glass shore of Ubar. Kara marched behind Safia and Lu’lu. This was their moment. Omaha even held back from rushing forward, though he did keep darting his head left and right, trying to see past the two women’s shoulders.
They reached the shore, all flashlights ablaze.
Kara glanced up and around. Distracted, she bumped into Safia’s back. She and the hodja had suddenly stopped.
“Oh, God…” Safia moaned.
Lu’lu simply fell to her knees.
Kara and Omaha stepped around them. They both saw the horror at the same time. Omaha flinched. Kara took a step back.
A few yards ahead, a skeletal, mummified body protruded from the street. Its lower half was still encased in glass. Omaha shifted his flashlight’s beam farther up the street. Other such bodies sprawled, half buried in the roadway. Kara spotted a single desiccated arm poking up out of the glass, as if drowning in a black sea. It appeared to be a child’s hand.
They had all drowned in glass.
Omaha moved a few steps closer, then jumped to the side. He pointed his flashlight down to where he had just stepped. His beam penetrated the glass, revealing a human shape buried below, burned to bone, curled within the glass under his feet.
Kara could not blink. It was like her father.
She finally covered her face and turned away.
Omaha spoke behind her. “I think we just discovered the true tragedy that drove the last queen of Ubar out of here, sealing the place, cursing it.” He moved back to them. “This isn’t a city. It’s a tomb.”
20 Battle Under the Sand
DECEMBER 4, 3:13 P.M.
P AINTER STARED across the makeshift medical ward. The injection of sedatives still kept his head full of cobwebs, but enough had worn off that he could think clearer, straighter. A fact he kept to himself.
He watched Cassandra enter the room, pushing in from the storm, sand blowing in with her. It took an additional shoulder to shove the door closed.
Painter had heard enough earlier to determine that her attempt to chase down the others had hit some snafu. But he had no details. Still, from the confidence in her stride, from the way the morale here seemed high, she had not been fully thwarted. As always, she had another plan.
She noted his bleary attention, crossed to him, and plopped down on a neighboring cot. His personal guard, seated behind him, shifted straighter. The boss was here. She pulled out a pistol and rested it in her lap.
Was this the end?
From the corner of his eye, he happened to note the tiny blue ring on the laptop computer. At least Safia was still alive. She had moved well out of Shisur by now, due north. Her Z-axis coordinate grid showed her still deep underground. Over three hundred feet.
Cassandra waved off his bodyguard. “Why don’t you take a smoke. I’ll watch the prisoner for a bit.”
“Yes, Captain. Thank you, sir.” He bolted away before she changed her mind. Painter heard the trace of fear in the man’s voice. He could guess how Cassandra commanded here. An iron fist and intimidation.
Cassandra stretched. “So, Crowe…”
Painter curled a fist under the sheets. Not that he could do anything. One of his ankles was cuffed to the cot’s foot. She sat just out of reach.
“What do you want, Sanchez? Come to gloat?”
“No. But I just wanted to let you know that you seemed to have piqued the interest of my superiors. In fact, capturing you may have earned me a few steps up the chain of Guild command.”
Painter glowered at her. She had come not to gloat, but to brag. “The Guild? So that’s who signs your paychecks.”
“What can I say? The salary was good.” She shrugged. “Better benefits packages. Matching 401(k)s. Your own death squad. What’s not to like?”
Painter heard the combination of confidence and derision in her voice. It did not bode well. She certainly had a plan in place for victory here. “Why throw your lot in with the Guild?” he asked.
She stared down at him tied to the cot. Her voice grew contemplative, but also somehow meaner. “True power can only be found in those willing to break all rules to achieve their ends. Laws and regulations do nothing but bind and blind. I know what it feels like to be powerless.” Her eyes drifted away, into the past. Painter sensed a well of grief behind her words. Still, ice entered her voice. “I finally broke free by crossing lines few will cross. Beyond that boundary, I found power. And I will never step back…not even for you.”
Painter recognized the futility of reasoning with her.
“I tried to warn you to back down,” Cassandra continued. “Piss off the Guild too many times and they have the tendency to bite back. They’ve taken a particular interest in you.”
Painter had heard whispers about the Guild. An organization structured after terrorist cells, a loose association with a shadowy leadership structure. They operated internationally, no specific national affiliation, though it was said they had risen out of the ashes of the former Soviet Union, a combination of Russian mobsters and former KGB agents. But since then, the Guild had dissolved across all borders, like arsenic in tea. Little else was known about them. Except that they were ruthless and bloody. Their goals were simple: money, power, influence. If they should gain access to the antimatter source, it would be a prize equal to none other. They could blackmail nations, sell samples to foreign powers or terrorists. The Guild would be unstoppable and untouchable.
He studied Cassandra. How far did the Guild’s reach stretch into Washington? He remembered his test e-mail. He knew at least one man who was on their payroll. He pictured Sean McKnight. They had all been set up. He tightened his fist.
She pushed forward, leaning elbows on knees. “When this is over, I’m going to package you up, put a ribbon around you, and deliver you to Guild command. They’ll pick apart your brain like a crab on a dead fish.”
Painter shook his head, but he was not even sure what he was denying.
“I’ve seen their interrogation methods firsthand,” Cassandra continued. “Impressive work. There was one fellow, an MI5 operative, who attempted to infiltrate a Guild cell in India. The chap was so broken down that all he had left to give were a few plaintive whimpers, the mewling of a beaten puppy. Then again I’d never seen a man scalped before, electrodes drilled into his skull. It’s fascinating stuff. But why am I telling you all this? You’ll get to experience it yourself.”
Painter had never imagined the depths of depravity and cunning in the woman. How had he missed such a well of corruption? How had he almost given his heart to her? He knew the answer. Like father, like son. His father had married a woman who would eventually stab him to death. How had his father missed such a murderous soul in the woman to whom he pledged his heart, whom he slept beside each night, with whom he bore a child? Was it some genetic blindness passed from one generation to the next?
His eyes drifted to the blue glow on the screen. Safia. He touched the well of warm feelings there. It was not love, not yet at least, not after so short a time. But it was deeper than respect and friendship. He grasped that possibility, that potential inside him. There were good women, with hearts as genuine as his own. And he could love them.
He stared back at Cassandra. The anger bled from him.
She must have seen something in his face. She had been expecting defeat but found resolution and calmness instead. Confusion shone in her eyes, and behind it, Painter caught a glimpse of something deeper.
But it was only a flicker.
In a blink, fury burned away all else. Cassandra shoved up, hand on her pistol. He simply stared at her. Let her shoot him. It would be better than to be handed off to her superiors.
Cassandra made a sound between a laugh and a sneer. “I’ll leave you to the Minister. But I may come to watch.”
“His is the last face you’ll ever see.” She swung away.
Painter heard the edge of fear behind her words with this last statement. It sounded exactly like the guard who had departed moments ago. Fear of a superior, someone ruthless and ironfisted. Painter sat very still on his cot.
The last cobwebs from the sedatives burned away in a sudden flame of insight. The Minister. He closed his eyes against the possibility. In that moment, he knew with certainty who led the Guild, or at least guided Cassandra’s hand.
It was worse than he imagined.
T HIS HAS to be the queen’s palace,” Omaha said.
From across a courtyard of black glass, Safia stared up at the huge structure as Omaha splashed his flashlight’s beam over the surface of the towering, vaulted structure. Its base was square, but it was surmounted by a four-story round tower, with crenellated battlements at the top. Arches of blown glass decorated the tower, opening onto balconies that overlooked the lower city. Sapphires, diamonds, and rubies decorated rails and walls. Roofs of gold and silver shone in the blue coruscations that flickered across the cavern roof.
Still, Safia gave it a critical eye. “This is a duplicate of the ruined citadel up top. Look at the dimensions. The structure of the base. They match.”
“My God, Saff. You’re right.” Omaha stepped into the courtyard.
The space was walled on both sides, with a huge arched opening in front.