“No,” the hodja said behind them. She nudged folk aside with her walking stick and stopped beside Safia. “The locks of Ubar can only be opened by one of the Rahim.” Omaha wiped his hands again. “Lady, you’re more than welcome to try.”
Lu’lu tapped her stick on the bar. “It takes someone blessed by Ubar, carrying the blood of the first queen, to affect such sacred artifacts.” The hodja turned to Safia. “Those who bear the gifts of the Rahim.” “Me?” Safia said.
“You were tested,” Lu’lu reminded her. “The keys responded to you.”
Safia flashed back to the rainy tomb of Job. She remembered waiting for the spear and bust to point toward Ubar. Nothing had happened at first. She had been wearing work gloves. Kane had carried and placed the spear in the hole. It hadn’t moved. Not until she wiped away the rain, like tears, from the bust’s cheek with her bare fingertips. Not until she touched it.
Then it had moved.
And the cresent horns of the bull. Nothing had happened until she had examined them, sparking a bit of static electricity. She had ignited the bomb with the brush of a finger.
Lu’lu nodded her forward.
Safia numbly stepped up.
“Wait.” Coral pulled out a device from her pocket.
“What’s that?” Omaha asked.
“Testing a theory,” she said. “I was studying the keys earlier with some of Cassandra’s electronic equipment.” Coral waved for Safia to continue.
Taking a breath, Safia reached out and gripped the bar with her good hand. She felt nothing special, no spark. She tugged on the bar. It lifted freely. Shocked, she stumbled back.
“Damn,” Omaha gasped.
“Oh, this impresses you,” Kara said.
“I must’ve loosened it for her.”
Coral shook her head. “It’s a magnetic lock.”
“What?” Safia asked.
“This is a magnometer.” Coral lifted her handheld device. “It monitors magnetic charge. The polarity of that length of iron changed as you touched it.” Safia stared down at the bar. “How…?”
“Iron is highly conductive and responsive to magnetism. Rub a needle with a magnet and you pass on its magnetic charge. Somehow these objects respond to your presence, some energy you give off.”
Safia pictured the spin of the iron heart atop the marble altar of Imran’s tomb. It had moved like a magnetic compass, aligning itself along some axis.
Another crash sounded above.
Omaha stepped forward. “However it got unlocked, let’s use it.”
With the bar free, he grabbed the handle and tugged. The oiled hinges swung easily. The door opened on a dark descending staircase carved into the stone.
After closing and blocking the door, Omaha led the way with the flashlight, Safia at his side. The rest of the party followed.
The passage was a straight shot, but steep. It led down another hundred feet and emptied into a cavern four times larger than the first one. A pool filled this chamber, too, dark and glassy. The air smelled odd. Damp for sure, but also a trace of ozone, the smell that accompanies a thunderstorm.
But none of this held Safia’s attention for more than a moment.
Steps away, a stone pier stretched into the water. At the end floated a beautiful wooden dhow, an Arab sailing ship, thirty feet long. Its sides glistened with oil, shining brightly in the glow of their flashlights. Gold leaf decorated rails and masts. Sails, useless here but still present, were folded and tied down.
Murmurs of awe rose among the group as they gathered.
To the left, a wide watery tunnel stretched away into darkness.
At the prow of the dhow rose the figure of a woman, bare-breasted, arms chastely crossed over her bosom, face staring down the flooded tunnel.
Even from here, Safia recognized the figure’s countenance.
The Queen of Sheba.
“Iron,” Omaha said at her side, noting her attention. He focused his flashlight on the boat’s figurehead. The statue was sculpted entirely in iron. He moved toward the pier. “Looks like we’re going sailing again.” 12:32 P.M.
A T THE bottom of the sinkhole, Cassandra stared at the mangled body. She didn’t know how to feel. Regret, anger, a trace of fear. She didn’t have time to sort it out. Her mind spun instead on how to put this to her advantage.
“Haul him up top, get him into a body bag.”
The two commandos lifted their former leader from the wreckage of the tractor. Others climbed in and out the back end, salvaging what could be found, setting the charges to blow apart the bulk of the smashed vehicle. Other men hauled debris out of the way, using the dune buggies.
A pair of commandos unreeled a long wire through a gap in the wreckage.
All was in order.
Cassandra swung to the sand cycle and mounted it. She tightened her muffler and goggles, then set off topside. It would be another fifteen minutes until the charges were set. She sped up the path and climbed out of the sinkhole.
As she cleared the rim, the force of the sandstorm spun her around. Fuck, it had already grown stronger. She fought for traction, found it, and raced to the command base sheltered inside one of the few cinder-block buildings still standing. The parked trucks circled it.
She skidded to a stop, propped the bike against the wall, and hopped off.
She strode through the door.
Injured men sprawled on blankets and cots. Many had been wounded from the firefight with Painter’s strange team. She had heard the reports of the women’s combat skills. How they appeared out of nowhere and vanished just as easily. There was no estimate even on their numbers.
But now they were all gone. Down the hole.
Cassandra crossed to one cot. A medic worked on an unconscious man, taping a last butterfly suture over the cheek laceration. There was nothing the medic could do about the big lump above his brow.
Painter might have the nine lives of a cat, but he hadn’t landed on his feet this time. He had struck a glancing blow to the head. The only reason he lived was the loose sand along the inside rim of the sinkhole, cushioning his fall.
From the heavy-lidded glances from her men, they weren’t so appreciative of Painter’s good luck. They all knew of John Kane’s bloody end.
Cassandra stopped at the foot of the cot. “How’s he doing?”
“Mild concussion. Equal and responsive pupils. The bastard’s only knocked cold.” “Then wake him up. Smelling salts.”
The medic sighed, but obeyed. He had other men, his own men, to attend to. But Cassandra was still in charge. And she still had a use for Painter.
S O WHAT do we do?” Omaha asked. “Row? Get out and push?” From the bow of the boat, he stared back. The entire company had boarded the fanciful dhow. Barak hunched over the ship’s tiller. Clay knelt and scratched at a bit of the gold leaf. Danny and Coral appeared to be studying the structure of the rudder, leaning over the stern and staring down. The Rahim spread out, examining details.
The dhow was even more impressive up close. Gold leaf adorned most every surface. Mother of pearl embellished knobs. The stanchions were solid silver. Even the ropes had gold threads woven into them. It was a royal barge.
But as pretty as it was, it was not much use as a sailing vessel. Not unless a stiff wind would suddenly blow.
Behind Omaha, Kara and Safia stood at the prow, flanking the iron figurehead of the Queen of Sheba. The hodja leaned on her walking stick.
“So touch it,” Kara urged Safia. The hodja had recommended the same.
Safia had her good arm crossed under her sling, her face lined with worry. “We don’t know what will happen.” In her eyes, Omaha saw the flash of fire from the trilith chamber’s eruption. Safia glanced to the new crew of the dhow. She feared endangering them, especially by her own hand.
Omaha stepped to her side. He placed a hand on her shoulder. “Saff, Cassandra is going to be coming down here, guns blazing. I’d personally rather take my chances with this iron lady than with that steel-hearted bitch.” Safia sighed. He felt her relax under his palm, surrendering.
“Hold on,” she whispered. She reached out and touched the shoulder of the iron statue, the way Omaha was touching her. As her palm made contact, Omaha felt a slight electric tingle shiver through him. Safia seemed unaware.
“I don’t think I’m the one to—”
“No,” Omaha said, cutting her off. “Hold firm.”
He felt a gentle tremble underfoot, as if the waters under the ship had begun to boil. Ever so slowly the boat began to move forward.
He swung around. “Free the ropes!” he called to the others.
The Rahim moved swiftly, loosening ropes and ties.
“What’s happening?” Safia asked, keeping her palm in place.
“Barak, you got the tiller?”
Near the stern, the man acknowledged this with a wave of an arm.
Coral and Danny hurried forward. The tall woman lugged a large case.
The boat’s speed gently increased. Barak aimed them toward the open mouth of the flooded tunnel. Omaha raised his flashlight and clicked it on. The beam was lost in the darkness.
How far did it go? Where did it go?
There was only one way to find out.
Safia trembled under his palm. He stepped closer, his body next to her. She didn’t object, leaning back slightly. Omaha could read her thoughts. The boat hadn’t blown up. They were still okay.
Coral and Danny were bent over the side of the boat again, their flashlights shining. “Can you smell the ozone?” she said to Omaha’s brother.
“Look how the water’s steaming where the iron meets it.”
Curiosity drew all their eyes.
“What are you guys doing?” Omaha asked.
Danny pushed back up, face flushed. “Research.”
Omaha rolled his eyes. His brother was forever a science geek.
Coral straightened. “There’s some catalytic reaction going on in the water. I believe it was triggered by the iron maiden. It’s generating some propulsive force.” She leaned over the rail again. “I want to test this water.” Danny nodded, a puppy wagging his tail. “I’ll get a bucket.”