I shall be with you in this and other worlds. When you look up, know I am there—sun and moon pouring my love around you. You and I together are a single creation. Neither death nor spite nor fear nor ignorance stops my love for you.
- Excerpt from "Hymn to Osiris", Egyptian Book of the Dead, as translated by Normandi Ellis
The wind blew cold across the desert, banishing the arid heat of the day and bringing a welcome respite to the encampment. The evening meal over, the camp workers cleaned up the cooking areas and began preparations for breakfast the next day. Soon, their seventeen hour work day would be at an end, and they would be able to seek the relative comfort of their crowded tents and flea-infested bedrolls. Around the campfire, the site supervisors drank coffee and huddled over maps of the site, arguing about where to begin excavations the next day. Voices animated, they debated in an odd mixture of tongues—Arabic, Hebrew, English, and the occasional French expletive.
Eliana emerged from her tent and shivered in the night air. Rubbing her arms to warm them, she glanced over at the campfire, where her father, the Egyptologist in charge of the excavation, argued vehemently with his counterpart from the Cairo Museum of Antiquities. John Bernstein was a renowned archaeologist, but his sometimes unorthodox methods of handling excavations tended to draw the fire of more conventional scientists. Sighing, Eliana turned away from the group. A scientist herself, although in the field of linguistics, she would be welcomed to the debate, and on most occasions would have enjoyed adding her opinions to the melee. Tonight, though, she felt reticent about joining the noisy group, preferring the solitude of the outer edge of the encampment. She walked past the tired workers, smiling and calling out a thanks to them in Arabic. She continued past the supply tents and the hastily erected corrals for the pack animals, feeling oddly comforted by the huffing and stamping of the pack horses and the quiet shuffling of the camels. At the edge of the camp, she looked out into the blackness of the desert at night, an endless ocean of sand, stretching out before her, timeless and eternal. Sitting down on a flat boulder, she shivered again, wondering for the umpteenth time whether or not she had made a mistake in agreeing to accompany her father on this dig. Normally, she wouldn't have thought twice about agreeing to pack her bags and traipse off with her father on one of his expeditions. She had, after all, been frequently dragged along with him during her childhood, and in fact had fond memories of those adventures. Her travels with her father had become less frequent, though, after she had entered the university and begun her own intense studies, although she still managed to join him during the summer months at whatever site he happened to be overseeing. But there was something different about this trip.
Had she been asked to put into words what that difference was, Eliana wouldn't have been able to, for it had more to do with a vague, unsettled feeling that had begun to grow in her as soon as her feet touched the ground at the site than it had to do with anything concrete or measurable. Scientist that she was, Eliana held an inherent distrust of anything she couldn't observe, quantify, measure or analyze, so she had simply brushed off her foreboding. The feeling had persisted, though, even growing stronger during the week she had been here. It wasn't as much a premonition of something terrible about to happen as it was a lingering feeling of sadness; a lonely, aching feeling of regret and loss that she was completely at a loss to explain. As far as Eliana knew, she had never set foot on this particular patch of the Nubian desert or even heard of the Ahm Shere Oasis archaeological site before her father had made it his life's work, much less had any reason to react to it as strongly as she had upon arrival.
But there was definitely something about this place that made her react so viscerally. She could feel it in the sand beneath her feet, in the wind blowing across her face, in the heat of the midday sun beating on her skin. It was as though she had been here before, sometime, and left something unfinished. It niggled and tickled at the back of her brain like the feet of scratching insects, and Eliana's inherent stubborn streak demanded that she stick it out at the site, and at least attempt to lay whatever ghost was troubling her to rest. Not that Eliana believed in ghosts, of course.
Sighing, she shook off her pensiveness and lifted her face to the cooling breeze. At around nine o'clock tomorrow morning, she'd give a lot to have a cool breeze wafting through the dig site. At around eleven, she'd kill for a breath of fresh air. At noon, the site crew broke for a three-hour rest—the midday heat would kill them if they attempted to work through it. Later in the afternoon, they'd begin the strenuous manual labor again, but no one did much of anything during the heat of the sun's zenith.
Her gaze scanning the sweeping dome of the sky above her, Eliana picked out the distinctive blurred signature of the comet that had appeared in the sky to the northeast a week or so ago. Resembling its celestial cousin, Hale-Bopp, which had graced the skies over North America seven years ago, the comet arced overhead, the bright sweep of its tail trailing behind it on its journey around the sun. It was a beautiful thing to behold, one of the many mysteries of nature that had intrigued scholars and scientists over the centuries, playing a large part in humanity's collective myths and legends since the dawn of time. Comets were such lonely things, traveling through the solar system on their solitary journeys. Eliana couldn't remember reading much about this one, except that it was one of the more rare visitors. Like Hale-Bopp, this comet had been absent from the skies over Earth for millennia. Briefly, she wondered who had seen it the last time it had appeared, wondered who had looked up from the Earth and seen its fiery magnificence overhead. Interesting, how the comet's presence linked the two eras, forging a bond of shared experience between this age and one long past.
But that kind of thinking was too deep for Eliana right now. She had come out here to relax, to escape from her thoughts. Closing her eyes, Eliana enjoyed the feel of the wind blowing her hair back and caressing her face. She leaned back, resting her hands on the boulder, which still radiated warmth from the heat of the day. The strange, disoriented feeling that had been plaguing her since her arrival was still present, but the night air was soothing, and sitting here, absorbing the feel of the desert at night, served to allay some of the unsettledness in Eliana's soul. The breeze swept over her and around her, gentle as a lover's touch. Remember, it seemed to whisper. Remember me; remember us, what we were to each other…
Starting upright, Eliana blinked several times and shook her head to clear the fogginess that had enveloped her mind. Frowning, she stood up and brushed the sand off her jeans. Now where had a thought like that come from? Slightly disgusted with herself for fancying that she heard voices in the wind, she turned to go back to her tent and turn in for the evening. Shaking her head, she grimaced in wry amusement. Next thing you know, she'd be seeing things appear from the sands of the desert itself.
"Damn it, John! We can't just start digging! We need to wait for the representatives from the Sudanese government to arrive. If we remove so much as a spoonful of sand from this godforsaken wasteland before they arrive to oversee the dig, they'll kick us out so fast it'll make your head spin!"
Eric Johnson dragged his fingers through his well-mussed blonde hair, frustration evident in every tense angle of his lanky body. He had been arguing with his boss and mentor for the better part of the evening, and he was about ready to throw in the towel. Indeed, the Egyptian museum director had given up in frustration several minutes ago, and stomped off to his tent. If Dr. Bernstein wanted to piss off the Sudanese government by refusing to kowtow to their oppressively rigid rules and regulations regarding archaeological permits, then there was no stopping him, as Eric knew from past experience. But Eric didn't need to like it, or go along with it willingly. This expedition was one he had waited his whole life for, and he wasn't about to botch it up before it even got started.
While Eric looked red-faced and frustrated, the middle-aged man he was talking to couldn't have looked calmer. Dark-haired and still handsome, even at fifty-four, John Bernstein calmly took a sip of his brandy and lifted an eyebrow at the younger man.
"You know, don't you, Eric, that they're dragging their feet on purpose, just to prove a point? If we were, say, a French crew, rather than an American one, they'd be falling all over themselves to help us out."
"Yes, John, I know that. But the fact of the matter is that we are here on their sufferance, and only because it's an American oil company that happened to be running the geological survey that turned up the findings in the first place. We have to play nice, at least to some extent." Eric sighed and sat down, leaning his elbows on his knees and bending forward to look earnestly into the face of the man he had admired and looked up to for almost fifteen years. "Please, don't jeopardize the dig by refusing to wait a day or so…"
Bernstein looked down into the half-empty snifter of liquor and thoughtfully swirled the amber liquid around. He was a man of action, not inclined to wait around for a bunch of bureaucrats and their reams of paperwork. But Eric had a point. What difference would a day or so make? And in the meantime, they could study the survey results further, and possible go over the new information they had obtained from the oil company. The new results from the seismic survey had been provocative to say the least, turning up vast underground chambers in the middle of the Nubian Desert, which were once thought to be rich repositories of oil. Further study, though, had determined that the pockets were not liquid-filled, but rather, empty. And strangely enough, they were too regularly shaped and uniform to suggest anything other than their being man-made, not a work of nature. All of this implied, improbable though it was, that under the sands of the desert lay an immense man-made subterranean cave, or structure of some sort, that had somehow sunk beneath the shifting surface of the sand, or been covered up somehow, by some massive sandstorm or other cataclysm. The Sudanese were disappointed, to say the least, in not having won the petroleum lottery, but were making up for it to some degree in cashing in on the notoriety and fortune of sitting on what was potentially the archaeological find of the century.
Little was known about the lost Oasis of Ahm Shere, except for the disjointed bits and pieces that had been passed down in legend and stories dating back to the days of the Old Kingdom. In the glory days of archaeology, the late 1800s and early 1900s, and earlier, as well (Roman emperors were said to have sent parties searching for the place) those legends had led many to mount well-financed expeditions into the arid regions south of Egypt—into what was today known as Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. The political climate back then was much more receptive to scientific expeditions, as well, with much of that area under British (or Italian, in the case of Eritrea) colonial rule and the rest being, for the most part, nothing more than wilderness. Today, the area was a hotbed of political unrest, with Eritrea finally having gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 but still experiencing growing pains and occasional conflicts with its neighbors. Sudan was even more difficult for Americans to freely travel within, it being considered one of the centers of operations for international terrorists. Americans were not well tolerated in the Islamic Sudan even before the 1998 bombings in Khartoum, but after that, it became outright dangerous.
Still, Ahm Shere was one of the crown jewels of archaeology, and was to Egyptologists what the Ark of the Covenant was to biblical archaeologists, what El Dorado was to Latin American archaeologists and what Atlantis was to almost everyone else. And, at least according to a few cryptic passages included in the memoirs of one of the renowned Egyptologists of the first part of the twentieth century, Evelyn Carnahan O'Connell, there was some evidence that Ahm Shere really did exist, buried in the sands of the desert somewhere in the arid plateaus of Sudan, just north of the canyon-riddled highlands cut through by the Blue Nile.
Ms. O'Connell, of course, never really came right out and said that she had found Ahm Shere, or that she had heard of any expedition that had successfully discovered it, but she had said enough about it, with enough detail, and recounted enough about the legend of the Scorpion King, to suggest that she knew more about it than most of her contemporaries. In addition to that, there was also the bequest that her brother, Jonathan Carnahan, made to the British Museum in his will, probated after his death in the mid-1980s, of the obscenely huge diamond that was, oddly enough, shaped like the capstone for a pyramid. Legend, of course, held that the Oasis of Ahm Shere contained a golden pyramid topped by a huge diamond. No verifiable history accompanied the post-humous gift from Mr. Carnahan, but rumor abounded, none the least of which was why, in all his years, the old gentleman had never sold, or tried to sell, the huge gemstone. Perhaps, it was rumored, he kept the stone simply because he'd never met anyone with enough cash to offer him in trade, or perhaps he kept it because no one would ever believe how he really came to own it, or that it was really his.
In his later years, while living in a nursing home in the British countryside, Jonathan had been given to telling strange, rambling stories about his youthful adventures with his sister, Evy, and her husband, Rick O'Connell. No one ever paid much attention to these stories, since they contained such unlikely scenarios as reincarnated mummies, ancient curses and giant half-human/half-canine warriors made out of sand. His care-takers chalked his vivid storytelling sessions up to progressive senile dementia and a life spent accompanying his sister about in the wilds of the Egyptian desert, digging about in the sand for old chunks of pottery and desiccated cats wrapped in old linen. There was certainly no reason to believe any of his wild ramblings.
Ahm Shere, though, and the legends that accompanied it, continued to intrigue Egyptologists down through the decades, and its discovery had, in fact, become the life's work of Eliana's father. He had spent his life gathering and organizing the legends concerning Ahm Shere and the Scorpion King, and was considered by most archeologists to be the unquestioned expert on the subject. He had long ago narrowed down the likely locations of the Oasis to the Nubian desert of southern Sudan, but the unrest and distrust between the Sudanese and American governments had never made an official expedition possible, or even likely. Launching such a campaign of discovery had always been one of John Bernstein's fondest dreams, but he had almost begun to think that he'd never live to see it realized. Until now. Or, rather, until six months ago, when the results of that oil-financed geological survey had the Sudanese government scurrying to find anyone who could possibly help them cash in on this newest national resource. That scurrying had led them, reluctantly, for he was, after all, American, to John Bernstein, Professor of Egyptology at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. And Professor Bernstein, now camped on the Nubian Desert, was about to realize his lifelong dream. He was sure of it; he could feel it in his bones, in every instinct that he possessed. They were sitting on top of the culmination of his entire life's work, and he would give almost anything he possessed to make sure that his lifelong dream was realized, and realized soon.
"Turning in, Dad?" Eliana called, as she walked past. She noticed that the campfire argument, which had been gaining steam when she passed by before, had now subsided, and most of the participants had made their way back to their tents.
"Yes, Ellie. Eric has convinced me to wait until the Sudanese grace us with their presence before beginning the excavation," he sighed, standing up. It had been a long day, and was looking like it would turn into a long week.
"Hang in there, Dad—you'll get to start picking through the desert soon enough," laughed Eliana. She walked over to her father and put her arm around his waist. "Come on, walk me to the tents—you'll feel better once you surround yourself with your maps and history books."
Bernstein hugged his daughter and put a companionable arm around her shoulders as they walked the short distance to her tent. She had always been one to look at the bright side of things—he wished he could be so optimistic. Delay just seemed like a waste, at this point.
"Well, we're here, anyway, aren't we, Eliana? And that itself is a major accomplishment, considering how unwelcoming the Middle East is to Americans these days." Reaching out, he opened the zippered flap to her tent and held it open for her. As she walked past, she gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and squeezed his arm.
"Don't feel too bad, Dad. We're here, we're ready to start whenever we get the official go ahead, and we really haven't wasted that much time. Really, it's only the beginning…"
Seeing that his daughter was safely in her tent for the night, Bernstein shook his head and shrugged. "We'll see," he said, as he walked away.