1:52 A.M.

SAFIA 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.

Painter.

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.”

“So?”

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.”

“Antimatter? Where?”

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.

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