Roland admired the view from the pinnacle of Khufu’s pyramid. The Giza plateau spread out in endless undulating sweeps until it disappeared at the horizon. The Nile River snaked a verdant line through the desolate landscape, the inundation still receding after the annual flood stage. Cairo lay beyond the ribbon of water, a distant jumble of geometric shapes. The towering minuets of the mosques speared the skyline like the musical notes of the requiem at Sophia’s funeral mass.
From such a distance it was impossible to hear the muezzin calling the devout to evening prayer. Roland regretted not being able to discern the wavering ululation of cries as they echoed through the old part of the city. He’d come to appreciate the uncertain music in the intonations.
The setting sun burned orange and the intense heat of the day rapidly dissipated. The tiny mechanical device warmed his palm but he couldn’t tell if the heat generated from its inner workings or drew from his own body. A red glow issued from the miniature face inside the two halves of the glass globe. He’d studied the piece through a magnifying lens but discovered nothing.
Truly, it was remarkable craftsmanship, an inspired piece of engineering even at the close of 1889 when so many marvels had been conceived. He could trace the inner workings; even identify some of the same principals demonstrated in the finest German clockworks. The exquisitely meshing gears and rotating elliptical spinning weights advanced the faceted black stones around the interior in a winding spiral.
For what purpose, he’d no idea.
The man who sold the intriguing object to him knew even less. He’d been one of the many illiterate shabbily dressed natives who’d offered all manner of trinkets to visitors. Roland had bought the beautiful novelty thinking it was an unusual time piece. Ahmed’s claim he’d plucked the treasure from the scattered bones of a doomed expedition deep in the desert was preposterous.
And yet…stories of lost oases persisted through the centuries.
History was littered with tales of the amazing technology created by the descendants of the ancient pharaohs and storytellers told of how the wisest and most devout had long ago disappeared into the western desert.
Egypt and its fascination with death had distracted Roland. The harsh land provided escape from the sorrowful remonstrance of well-intentioned friends and though he missed his wife, her loss was not unexpected. The wasting illness ate her body until little more than a vague resemblance remained of the girl he’d married. She’d never regained consciousness during that final month.
Death had freed them both.
He closed his fingers over the small sphere and shook off the melancholy. Pivoting, he swung around and found a native woman standing ten feet away.
Garbed in typical dusty black robes, no veil obscured the lower half of her face.
She stared at him through intense black eyes. In the dying light they sparkled and a tremor of disquiet shivered up his spine. Tucking his hand in his vest pocket, he half bowed, never letting his gaze stray from the woman’s regard. He’d lingered too long on the platform. All the guides had departed, whisking paying tourists back down the gigantic staircases that formed the peeled sides of the massive tomb.
In the process of withdrawing his hand, he felt sharp spines erupt from the trinket. Startled, he pulled out his hand and found appendages sprouting from the bronze band that wrapped the device. The petite robot stood at attention, rich red color glowed from inside the glass and tiny bronze hands reached away from Roland.
It wanted her.
His gaze found the black-eyed woman directly in front of him. Her head barely reached his chin but her eyes were filled with dark light, chips of ebony and onyx reflected the dying sun and the first star of night. A shudder passed through him and to his complete bafflement, a sense of recognition filled him up like water in a spring cistern. He gently thrust his hand forward and the tiny metal man danced across his lifeline, a portly gentleman with spindly arms and legs.
“Madam, I believe this creature recognizes you.” He lowered his arm until the small figure stood between them.
A vibration through the leather soles of his shoes made him dart a rapid glance around. The pyramid remained deserted. The sun nearly set; he would have to wait for moonrise before attempting his descent. A heavy clunk sounded. He felt a release of pressurized air as though compressed steam issued from a slew of pipes. A heavy rumble echoed.
Returning his focus to the woman, he saw the billow of dust rise in the background, haloing her black clothes. For a moment, the shimmer of light altered her appearance but then she smiled and he was lost in the whiteness of her teeth and the curve of her lips. In the six weeks he’d navigated this antique land he’d never seen such perfect dentition.
She raised a slender arm. The robot leaped from Roland’s palm and wrapped its limbs around her dainty wrist. The glass body glowed like a ruby held up to flame.
Like a curtain dropping in front of a stage production, the air gave way behind the woman to reveal a monstrous vehicle. Like one of the natural oddities in the British Maritime Museum, its swollen shape was rounded at either end. Constructed of gleaming metal and shining glass, the ship apparently floated through the air as easily as a whale through the sea. Steam vented from copper appurtenances staggered down the side and smoke issued from dual brass pipes at the front.
An oval hatch swung open and the woman turned away.
Words tumbled out of his mouth before thought or caution intruded. “Take me along.”
The woman paused and glanced back. “You would leave everything behind.”
“I already did.” Roland waved toward the plain a great distance below. “Now I’ve heard the muezzin call.”