Safia stared behind her. The palace—and there was no question this was the queen’s palace—stood high up the cavern wall, near the back of the city, the rest of Ubar stretched in winding, crooked roads, descending below in terraces, stairs, and ramps. Pillars rose everywhere.
“Let’s peek inside,” Omaha said. He moved ahead, followed by Clay.
Kara helped Lu’lu. The hodja had recovered from her initial shock.
Still, on their journey up here, they had come across body after mummified body, buried in glass, most partially, some completely consumed. All around, at every turn, agonized poses stretched from the glass, macabre skeletal trees of desiccated, mummified limbs. The poses spoke of a misery beyond comprehension. One woman, frozen against a glass wall, sunk almost fully into it, had tried to protect her child, holding it up, like an offering to God. Her prayer had not been heard. Her child lay in the glass over her head. Such misery was everywhere.
Ubar must have once housed a population that numbered close to a thousand. The elite of the city above. Royalty, clerics, artisans, those who garnered the favor of the queen. All killed.
Though the queen sealed the place and never spoke of it, some word must have escaped. Safia recalled the two stories from The Arabian Nights: “The City of Brass” and “The Petrified City.” Both tales spoke of a city whose populace were frozen in time, turned to brass or stone. Only the reality was much worse.
Omaha moved toward the entrance to the palace. “We could spend decades studying all this. I mean, look at the artistry in the glasswork.”
Kara spoke up. “Ubar reigned for a thousand years. It had a power source at hand unlike any seen before…or now. Human ingenuity will find a use for such power. It would not go untapped. This entire city is an expression of human resourcefulness.”
Safia had a hard time matching Kara’s enthusiasm. The city was a necropolis. A city of the dead. It was not a testament of resourcefulness, but of agony and horror.
For the past two hours, their small group had climbed the city, exploring it for some answer to the tragedy. But upon reaching the summit, they had found no clue.
The others of their party remained below. Coral still worked by the lake’s edge, performing arcane acts of chemistry, assisted by Danny, who had discovered a newfound passion for physics…or perhaps his passion lay more for the six-foot-tall blond physicist. Coral seemed to be onto something. Before Safia and the others left, Coral had asked for something odd: a couple drops of blood from her and a few of the Rahim. Safia had complied, but Coral refused to explain why she made such an odd request and went immediately to work.
Meanwhile, Barak and the remaining Rahim had spread out to search for some means to escape the tomb.
Omaha led their group into the palace courtyard.
In the center of the open space, a giant iron sphere, four feet in diameter, rested on a cradle of black glass, sculpted into a palm. Safia eyed the sculpture as she circled it. Clearly it represented the touch of the queen upon such iron artifacts, the source of all power here.
Safia noted Lu’lu studying it, too. Not with the reverence of before. Horror still shone in her eyes.
They moved past it.
“Look at this.” Omaha hurried forward.
He crossed to another sculpture, sandstone this time, perched on a glass pedestal. It flanked one side of the arched entrance to the palace. Safia stared up at the cloaked figure bearing aloft an elongated lamp on one arm. A twin to the sculpture that had once hidden the iron heart. Only the details of this one were not worn away. It was stunning, the intricate folds of cloth, a tiny sandstone flame perched at the tip of the lamp, the soft features of the face, clearly a young woman. Safia felt a renewed bit of enthusiasm.
She glanced to the other side of the archway. Another black glass pedestal stood there—but no statue. “The queen took it from here,” Safia said. “Her own statue…to hide the first key.”
Omaha nodded. “And planted it at Nabi Imran’s tomb.”
Kara and Lu’lu stood at the arched opening. Kara shone a flashlight inside. “You two should see this.”
Safia and Omaha joined her. Beyond the entry, a short hallway opened. Kara flashed her light along the walls. They shone with rich, earthen hues: tans, creams, rose, umber. Splashes of indigo and turquoise.
“It’s sand,” Kara said. “Mixed in with the glass.”
Safia had seen such artistry before, paintings done with different-colored sands, preserved behind glass…only in this case, the artwork lay inside glass. It covered walls, ceiling, floor, portraying an oasis in the desert. Overhead a sun shone with rays of golden sand, swirled with blue and white for the sky. To either side, date palms swayed, and in the distance, an inviting sapphire blue pool. Red dunes covered one wall, done with such subtlety of shades and hues as to invite one to come strolling. Underfoot, sand and stone. Actual sand and stone incorporated into the glass.
The group could not help but enter. After the horrors of the lower city, the beauty here was a balm for the heart. The entry hallway was a short few steps, opening into a large chamber with arched halls leading deeper. A sweep of stairs curved to the right, heading to the upper levels.
And everywhere about the room, sand filled the glass, creating panoramic landscapes of desert, sea, and mountains.
“Was this how the original citadel was decorated?” Omaha wondered. “Did the queen try to re-create the stone abode? Turning glass into sandstone.”
“It may have been a matter of privacy, too,” Safia said. “A light on the inside would reveal the queen’s every move.”
They wandered the space, finding enough in this one room to occupy their attention. Safia found herself studying one sand painting, opposite the entry. It was the first bit of decoration one saw upon entering.
It was a sweep of desert, the sun setting, shadows stretching, sky a dark indigo. Silhouetted was a flat-topped towering structure, vaguely familiar. A cloaked figure approached, bearing aloft a lamp. From atop the structure, a spray of brilliant sand cascaded, rays of light. The quartz and silica of the sand glistened like diamonds.
“The discovery of Ubar,” Lu’lu said. “It is an image passed from one generation to another. The Queen of Sheba, as a girl, lost in the desert, finds shelter and the blessings of the desert.”
Omaha stepped behind Safia’s shoulder. “That structure with the rays of light shining out of it. It looks like the citadel, too.”
Safia now realized why the building looked familiar. It was a crude rendering, compared to the detail in other work. Perhaps it had been done much earlier than the others. To either side, the wall paintings depicted the Ubar above and the Ubar below. The palace and citadel were prominent. Safia crossed between them.
She stopped before the depiction of the subterranean Ubar, all done in indigo and black sands, a stunning depiction, the depth of detail amazing. She could even discern the two statues flanking the entryway. The only other detail in the courtyard was the figure of the cloaked girl again. The queen of Ubar. She touched the figure, trying to understand her ancestor.
There were so many mysteries here. Some would never be known.
“We should be getting back to base,” Kara finally said.
Safia nodded. They reluctantly departed, heading back down. A winding thoroughfare led from lake to palace. She marched beside the hodja. Kara helped the old woman, especially with the stairs. Overhead, silent crackles of blue fire lit their path. Only Omaha kept his flashlight burning. None of them cared to illuminate too clearly the horrors around them.
As they hiked, the quiet of the city weighed upon them, the press of eternity, usually reserved for churches, mausoleums, and deep caverns. The air smelled dank, with a hint of electricity. Safia had once walked past a traffic accident, cordoned off, a power line down in the rain. The wire had snapped and spit. The air now smelled like that scene. It made Safia uneasy, reminding her of sirens, blood, and sudden tragedy.
What would happen next?
O MAHA WATCHED Safia as she strode with the hodja around a curve in the glass road. She looked a pale shade of herself. He wanted to go to her, comfort her, but he feared his attentions would not be welcome. He had seen that look in her eyes. After Tel Aviv. A desire to curl up and shut out the world. He had been unable to comfort her then, too.
Kara moved closer to him. Her entire body expressed her exhaustion. She shook her head and spoke in a hush. “She still loves you…”
Omaha stumbled, then caught himself, flashlight bobbling.
Kara continued, “All you had to do was say you’re sorry.”
Omaha opened his mouth, then closed it again.
“Life is hard. Love doesn’t have to be.” She continued past him, her voice a bit harsher. “Just be a goddamn man for once in your life, Indiana.”
Omaha stopped, flashlight dropped to his side. He was too stunned to move. He had to force his legs to follow, numbly. The rest of the journey through the lower city was in silence.
At last, the lake appeared ahead, down a long ramp. Omaha was glad for the company. Barak was still missing, still searching. But most of the Rahim had returned. Few could stomach the necropolis for long. Their expressions were somber at the sight of their former home.
Danny spotted Omaha and hurried over. “Dr. Novak has discovered some intriguing findings. Come see.”
Omaha’s group followed him back to the pier. Coral had constructed a makeshift laboratory. She had a haggard look to her eyes as she glanced up. One of her pieces of equipment was a molten ruin. It still smoked a bit and smelled like burning rubber.
“What happened?” Safia asked.
Coral shook her head. “An accident.”
“What have you figured out?” Omaha asked.
Coral swiveled an LCD screen toward them. Data scrolled down one side. The main window, open on the screen, showed a few line drawings. Her first words captured their attention.
“The proof of God’s existence can be found in water.”
Omaha raised an eyebrow. “Care to elaborate? Or is that all you’ve come up with? Fortune-cookie philosophy.”