March 14, 2000
March 14, 2000
The hour was late and Janet would be coming soon. Geologist John Cavanaugh had been organizing his notes and typing out his journal of the last year's expedition for more than a month now, ever since they'd returned to the U.S. from Cairo, and it now topped two hundred pages. At times, his memories of the events seemed distant, as vague as a fading dream, but these days the latent terror had been seeping into his consciousness like a virulent plague oozing through a slum.
From the first day he'd started writing, Cavanaugh had realized that the only way he could record what had happened to them was to relate the incredible truth as if he were telling a story to a stranger: reconstructing events he hadn't seen from what his friends had told him during their trek, imagining the ghastly fates of those who'd died alone, and piecing together his own recollections, all the while knowing he would ultimately repress them. He'd even dared to hope that setting it all down on paper would in some way distance him from all the horrors, purge the evil from his mind, somehow put his heart at rest. But the crisp details continued to swirl in his head like kaleidoscopic images.
He pressed the "save" key, then put his head in his hands as he confronted the tragic results of their desert quest for what seemed the millionth time. His former employer and all but one other expedition member were dead.
How innocent they'd all been when they first set out in pursuit of the legendary lost Persian army and Zerzura Oasis, completely ignorant of the terrors they were destined to face. How foolish he'd been to believe that everyone on the expedition would be focused on the same purpose. In truth, it had been every expedition leader's worst nightmare—crew members with vastly different motives for coming along.
Patterns seemed to emerge only with remembrance. Cavanaugh had hoped to surpass his dead father's desert exploits, prove himself worthy to share the great oilman's name. Janet had been trying to escape an unhappy childhood. Professor Mathews sought only the lost army; Omar Yettif nothing but Zerzura. The irascible Jack Rennie had been chasing personal glory, while Jack's unhappy girlfriend Ellen Rawson and Doug Genoways had hoped to forget their problems by finding each other. On the verge of financial ruin, Emlyn Hobday had been after the gold. Bill Kirkland and Tim Richardson had come along as hired hands. Morley Bishop, a man growing progressively insane, had pursued them to the desert site in a desperate attempt to save his son's soul.
Instead of attaining their goals, they'd found The Father of All Fears.
Cavanaugh's expedition had followed the path forged by a long-dead multitude into the darkest nightmare imaginable.
Hobday had been right when he said that scraps of raw power were left over after the creation of an otherwise ordered universe—moral black holes, as it were—unimaginable horrors, like the Father of All Fears. Insidiously, they warped the destinies of all creatures.
Cavanaugh pulled his thoughts back into focus and returned to his task, reporting the events that had taken place after he and Janet had returned to Cairo.
They'd been detained there for two months, questioned by both the desert police and the military. The authorities had been skeptical of their story at first, then alarmed when the desert police post in Kharga confirmed that the celebrated archaeologist Dr. Hiram Mathews and ten others had indeed left for the deep desert in early October but hadn't been heard from since.
Cavanaugh had been called back to answer more questions when two Egyptian Air Force helicopters sent out on an overflight of the Great Sand Sea to check out his story returned after a two-day search. He'd been greatly relieved, expecting full vindication; but his blood had turned to ice when he was informed that they'd found no evidence of his claim, no abandoned vehicles or tracks, nor any sign that anyone had been in that part of the desert—ever. One police official had tried to hold him and Janet accountable for the disappearance of the others, but had no concrete evidence of foul play. Instead, they were asked to leave the country immediately and as quietly as possible. It had taken months to get their visas reinstated.
The day before their flight back to the States, Cavanaugh had gone to the Nile Hilton photo shop to pick up his developed film, and all the powers of the desert had swarmed back into his mind as he shuffled through the prints and negatives.
Except for a couple of shots of Cairo, Kharga, and the Hanging Spring, they were all blank.
He’d walked back to their hotel in a dazed sweat, feeling as if he’d been injected with menthol.
He'd finally made the monumental discovery he'd dreamed of all his life, but the evidence was once again lost. His father had warned him not to be seduced by the desert, not to go too deep; but he’d ignored the advice, at an enormous cost.
Cavanaugh stopped typing, running his hands through his fiery red hair as he shifted his muscular six-foot-two-inch frame in the chair. He rubbed his right eye, then got up and went into the bathroom to check it in the mirror. For the hundredth time, he found nothing under the lid, but he knew there had to be something there. The constant itching was driving him crazy.
Wandering into the kitchen, he poured himself two fingers of White Horse before returning to his desk. He stared at the screen as he sipped the scotch, forcing himself back to the night that his own fate had changed course forever—from the moment he'd stood in the doorway of the stone dwelling and seen and smelled the abomination that passed by.
Cavanaugh shuddered, the vision of hell flooding his soul.
The doorbell rang, snapping him back to the present.
He opened the door to see Janet standing on the stoop, suitcase in hand. Light drizzle rolled off her hat and raincoat. She gave him a brave smile, the red around her eyes and nose betraying tears mixed with rain. As she stepped inside, he bent down to kiss her, then helped her out of her coat.
"Are you sure about this?" she asked.
"I have to do it," he said. "It's what I am now, what I'll always be unless I go. I still wish you'd stay, though. You'd be safe here."
Janet shook her head, taking his hand as she stared into his eyes.
There are many old sanded-up wells...which very probably...were populous villages and oases; but which,owing to...the encroachment of the sand...have long owing to...the encroachment of the sand...have long since become deserted—W.J. Harding-King
EGYPT, THE WESTERN DESERT NOVEMBER, 1686 C.E.
There is no longer any reason to stay, the boy thought. All but five were dead now, and they too would die, but he would probably perish long before they met their fate. He gathered his courage, folded his reed cloak tightly around his shoulders, and hefted his worn reed pouch and a dozen gourd canteens.
His village of bone-filled stone houses, built by the ancient ones, had once boasted more than a hundred people. Women had gathered eggs from the giant birds and fashioned clothes from reeds and fibers of date palms, while the men hunted the frogs that populated the spring pools, collected dates from the trees, and took sweet water from the five springs.
Some had believed that other people existed across the sand or in the sky, and some, including the boy, felt they had come long ago from a distant universe. He had accepted this version of their history because it was the one embraced by his grandfather, reinforced by the old man's recollection of the last attack of the black people. Dead nearly sixty moons now, his grandfather had been the last to claim that there were spoken words in the odd triangular markings covering the white rocks that lay tumbled among the trees.
His grandfather had died, then the sand had come. In only four years it had engulfed the springs, and the people had begun to die. They'd dug through to water in the best spring once the wind was gone, but the sand came too fast and there weren't enough survivors to keep the opening clear. Now, the last two springs were quickly drying out, and the trickle of water tasted bad. Soon the sand would cover everything.
Climbing to the top of the dune that bounded their tiny universe the boy paused to glance back at his home, but there was no one left to watch him go. His cousin was sick, and her infant son lay dying. His great uncle had no mind and spent the days playing idly in the sand. Only yesterday, his older brother had implored him to go out and seek aid, weakly puffing his plea as he dug frantically for water. There was nothing to keep him from going, and he had no wish to watch his family die of thirst. There might be another place. Perhaps the sand did not extend forever.
Perhaps there was no demon of the desert.
His grandfather had seen it, though, when he was a young man hunting lizards in the trees. The sand had moved and he'd heard a humming and swishing noise. He'd sensed that it felt his presence rather than saw him. Lying immobile, he had covered his eyes, and it passed. When he rose, the sand around him was pocked with little holes.
On his deathbed, the boy's grandfather had raved endlessly about a way out, telling him to walk toward the morning sun, over the dunes until they ended. He claimed it was the way the ancient ones had come.
The morning the boy left the oasis, the weather was warm and overcast. By the time the sun finally sank behind him, he had crossed eleven of the long, tall dunes. He crossed thirteen the next day, but only eight the day after. The weather turned clear and hot, and the dunes were broader and lower than those he knew, some crested with high sand ridges. Stifling heat made the sand softer, and there was no breath of a breeze. He considered sleeping during the day and walking at night, but feared to journey alone in the darkness.
On the fourth day, he spied two large black birds, the first he'd ever seen. Perched on the back of a narrow ridge of sand, they took flight as he dropped over the crest. Their sharp cries startled him, but he was heartened to see that there were other living things sharing his desolation. He watched them until they dissolved into tiny specks on an unfamiliar horizon, his excitement welling. Perhaps his grandfather had been right, he thought. Perhaps there were more trees and another people on the other side.
The fifth day of his trek saw the sand mountains become lower and broader until, struggling to the top of a gentle rise of soft white sand, the boy saw...nothing. No more hills of sand loomed in front of him. Instead, a flat barren waste stretched out as far as he could see. Never had he been so unconfined by ridges of sand, and the vastness of the stark vista terrified him. He wept. The nothingness extends forever, he thought. We and the black men are the only people who have ever existed.
Yet just as the sheer immensity of what lay ahead sapped his courage, it hardened his resolve. He knew he must journey on, for death lurked behind as surely as it waited ahead. Solitude stole into his soul as he tramped down the slope of the last dune, eroding the foundations of his reason.
The boy cowered motionless that night, covering his eyes. Finally dozing, his sleep was fitful, plagued with ophidian shapes that rose, crept about, dissolved, and reformed all around him.
The demon caught up with him at dawn. The boy had crossed thirty-nine dunes, then twenty miles of open desert. The morning was cool, the wind still. An ominous oppressive throbbing began, one the boy felt rather than heard. A cold fog had crept in after the night wind, obliterating anything more than a few feet away. It became difficult to breathe, as though the air enveloping him had the consistency of water.
Recalling the awesome emptiness he could no longer see, the boy fell weeping to the ground. As he did, the throbbing stopped, instantly replaced by an eerie stridulation. Then a rustling patter arose, advancing on him from all sides. Icy fingers clutched at his heart.
A succession of tiny sand ripples, each a few inches high, had grown across the rocky flats during the night. The sand next to his breast was covered with small, conical holes. Shivering uncontrollably, the boy remembered something else his grandfather had told him—never look at moving sand.
A blast of wind whipped his face as he heard the first frightful tolling. Sand whickered across the rocky flats, dulling the regular thumping rhythm of approaching terror. A gut-wrenching metallic stench permeated the air. Two quarts of sand drizzled from his jerkin. Something moved in the sand-laden wind directly in front of him. Something huge.
Then, he saw it.
The boy felt his body changing. His muscles jerked spasmodically, his head twisted violently to one side. His joints stiffened.
He opened his mouth to scream.
THE SAND SEA
JULY 21-22, 1999
JULY 21-22, 1999
From the crest of the seif, a huge longitudinal dune, the speeding vehicle was nothing more than a distant speck, droning sonorously as it picked its lonely passage around the patches of sand flanking the yardangs—wind-sculpted hills—on top of the mesa-like djebel. White limestone pinnacles rose in jagged profusion tens of feet above the featureless pebble desert, the serir, like half-buried statues. A few skiffs of yellow sand ameliorated the stark contrast between the hills and the millions of black pebbles scattered across the desert floor. In the baking stillness the vehicle was like an alien invading force, its throbbing hum absurdly disproportionate to its tiny source. The top of the dune was vacant, though, except for the billions of skittering particles of sand racing parallel to its crest, then erratically tumbling down its steep flanks in subdued whispers.
Cavanaugh was driving too fast, and he knew he was in trouble the instant the tires hit the white sand. Buffeted against the door and the chattering gear shift, he snapshifted down into second, then first, as control of the battered Russian jeep was wrested from his grip. Closing the throttle, he pulled the tires straight, but the jeep lurched, leaped over a low sand wave, then shuddered as its tires sank in above the axles.
"Shit," he swore, switching off the ignition. The jeep gave a final convulsive shudder. Breathing heavily, he rested his head against his arms on the steering wheel, telling himself that it could've been worse, then he pulled a bandanna from his jeans and wiped his face and neck. It had been stupid to drive so fast, especially in this heat when the sand was so soft.
He got out of the jeep and noticed the blowing sand playing down the face of the towering dune. The incessant wind was furious, concentrating its energy at the top of the steep, saw-toothed cornices, then drifting silently across the flats below. The featureless desert seemed to be mocking him as it danced and shimmered in the 120-degree heat.
To the east were nothing but high dune crests stretching unbroken for a hundred miles, followed by miles of rock cliff djebels and open serir, which he knew extended all the way to the Nile Valley. His colleagues shouldn't be too far behind, but any number of things could happen in deep desert.
He grabbed the pair of binoculars hanging from a knob on the dashboard, but he realized they wouldn't be much help. In the silent heat, with the gentle rise of the land to the south, he'd hear the hum of approaching vehicles long before he'd see them. Heat waves were playing at the extremities of his vision, distorting the distant terrain into grotesque, dancing ghosts of what lay beyond, just out of sight.
Walking to the back of the jeep, Cavanaugh crossed his legs and folded himself onto the sand in a single motion, like an Arab. He slipped on his sunglasses and extracted a cigar from a breast pocket, rolling it slowly around in his mouth. Time trickled by. He settled back and let his thoughts wander.
He'd been on this field assignment nearly a month now. He was enjoying the work, mapping interdune rock outcrops, and he'd return to Cairo in a month to find forty thousand Egyptian pounds credited to his account. But it was the desert more than the money that had brought him to Egypt, the chance for adventure and discovery in a land that promised both.
He also had the luxury of time now, but it had cost him his marriage. Geology meant field work, and field work meant the desert. The two-day excursions had grown to a week, then a month, his obsession with the desert eventually alienating the woman he loved. He’d always been so certain that his devotion to his work would make any personal sacrifice worthwhile, that he’d find something really important, even make a great discovery like his father, but overwhelming guilt was the only thing he’d been left with in the end.
Sighing, he pulled a box of matches out of his pocket, scratched one into flame, and drew the cigar to life.
By the time he’d finished his smoke, the afternoon sun was hovering in mid-sky, the shadow of the dune creeping toward his feet. Cavanaugh closed his eyes and drifted into a light sleep.
A breeze stirred, hot as breath from an oven door, puffing a flurry of sand into his face. He burst from a nightmare with a groan and wiped the sand from his eyes. Anticipation of the dream used to keep him from sleeping when he was overtired, but he'd been living with it so long that the phantasm had lost some of its bite. It had been years since he'd awakened in panic.
Always the same, like a rerun.
He was in a clearing surrounded by palm trees, wrestling playfully with his childhood friends, when he felt a shove from behind and found himself plummeting face first into a funnel of sand. Screaming in terror, he clawed at the loose earth as the wide black hole yawned below. Everything shifted into slow motion as he slid to the brink, pulling a brick out of the lip of the well as he groped for a handhold. Its weathered edges crumbled in his fingers, and his body tumbled down the shaft, the dank musty smell of damp earth assaulting his senses as the tiny circle of light overhead retreated. He always awakened before hitting the bottom, but not before a huddled pile of bones raced up to greet him, skull facing upward, mouth gaping in the sardonic grimace of eternity.
The dream mirrored a truth Cavanaugh carried closer than his wallet and house keys. While living in the walled American compound near Daharan as a boy, he'd often escaped to play with the children of his Indian ayah and their many Arab playmates. On that particular day, he and his best friend Ahmad had been wrestling, when Ahmad suddenly tumbled backward into a broad funnel of sand around the opening of an abandoned well. The boy screamed, frantically clutching at the loose soil, then disappeared head first down the hole. Cavanaugh had raced to the edge with a rope and climbed down. But thirty feet into the pit he'd become too terrified to go deeper.
Later, after Ahmad's body had been recovered, the police said he'd died in the fall, but Cavanaugh had never been able to erase the humiliation of his fear on the rope, the cowardly role he'd played in the tragedy.
His father's words of comfort had carried a hidden onus. "You did the best you could, son, and I’m proud of you. You’ve shown me that you have the courage to act in an emergency. But if you want to become a man, you must learn to overcome your fears, be able to climb all the way down the next time you find yourself staring into a hole as black as pitch."
Cavanaugh had always believed his father could do anything, and wondered if he would ever measure up to him. George Cavanaugh had been an aggressive California oilman with local drilling investments, as well as a skilled amateur antiquarian who'd discovered the first relics of a 4,000-year-old Sumerian port on the coast of the Gulf of Bahrain. He'd assisted in the excavation of the site, which proved to be an ancient pearl-harvesting center. His sudden death three years after the well incident had devastated the young Cavanaugh.
While on another of his jaunts into the desert, George had become separated from his colleagues during a two-day sandstorm. When he was finally found, lying at the base of a dune three days after the storm, he could barely breathe from an allergic reaction to more than two dozen scorpion stings. He had collapsed from exhaustion over their burrows.
John could still hear the knock on the door, the desert police telling his mother that they'd found his father, the sound of her sobs. He'd never thought his parents had been very close, until he heard them talking as he opened the door to his dad's hospital room. The unfamiliar words, "I'm sorry I wasn't there more," and "I've always loved you," had brought tears to his eyes, and it was then that he realized his father was dying.
George Cavanaugh had been a healthy, robust, ruddy-faced man, but he'd looked old that day, his voice a rasp through the tube stuck down in his throat. "Sit down, son," he'd said. "Remember all the times we went out in the desert together, how I told you there were wonderful discoveries to be made out there? Well, I was wrong, John." He wheezed, forcing a weak smile. "And I've been wrong about a lot of things. Family is the most important thing in life, but I let the desert seduce me. Don't let it do that to you."
John had started crying then, confused by the urgency in his father's voice. "Okay, Dad," was all he could manage.
His father had looked at him with a mixture of sadness and pride. "I know you'll keep going out there. It's in your guts. Just don't go too deep, son. You can't beat it."
Cavanaugh had merely nodded, afraid to trust his voice.
"I love you, son, and I've always been proud of you."
Those were the last words his father had spoken to him. George Cavanaugh had died less than an hour later.
Ever since that day, Cavanaugh had been determined to do something with his life, discover something that would make him feel worthy of his father’s pride. Find a major new oil field or uncover a buried city. He'd taken every opportunity to explore the desert, but his years of work in it hadn't turned up anything of importance and his sense of aimlessness was growing like a cancer.
He’d also never overcome the fear that had paralyzed him that day in the well, could never understand how he’d let something so intangible wield such power over him. But even the bedou’in Arabs dropped their voices when speaking the word. Rou’ab. What was its source, and how could a man free himself from its strength?
Shaking off the memories brought by the dream, Cavanaugh sighed and glanced at his watch: 4:41 P.M. Where the hell was the rest of his crew, he wondered. They should've been no more than an hour behind him. He stood up, deciding to climb the nearby dune and look around.
His upward progress was slow and laborious, every step plunging his feet several inches into loose sand. The sediment cascaded under his weight, almost pulling him backward as much as he climbed. He finally stepped over the sharp crest and plopped down on the sand to survey the stark panorama.
Huge elongated dunes, seif typically have double crests flanking a central longitudinal furrow, but this one offered nothing but sharp ridges and shallow closed valleys of drifting, eddying sand.
Cavanaugh scanned the horizon. To the west, far in the distance, he could just make out a tall black garet, a hill rising above the tallest dunes.
He was about to return to the jeep and dig it out, when he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. If there was anything travelers could rely on in deep desert, he knew, it was the absence of movement. The sweat on his back turned cold, the subtle motion beckoning his senses like a siren. All he had to do was take a peek.
Cavanaugh took a deep breath and forced his head around.
Far to the west, its base originating just in front of the horizon, rose a tall, narrow, twisted pillar of red dust—a zazay bil djebel. The cyclone seemed immobile at first, but as Cavanaugh watched, the cylinder of sand began weaving sinuously back and forth, bending first at its midline then nearer the top. Everything around him was serene, though, not a thread of sound penetrating the still desert air.
He let out a breath of relief and sat down. Just a dust-devil. Then he glanced to the west, looking for it, and it was gone. As he scanned the horizon, finally spotting it again, his skin broke out in sweat.
It lay to the south now, at least a mile closer.
Impossible! It couldn't have changed course and advanced so far eastward in just a few seconds. His cold sweat returned as another realization hit him. The dust and sand billowing from the base of the vortex was drifting to the south, but the dust devil was advancing steadily to the north. Against the wind.
Stifling a shudder, Cavanaugh stood up and turned away, running to the crest of the dune, where he paused to look back. The whirlwind had vanished. A hallucination, he told himself. The shimmering heat waves playing tricks on his vision. Shrugging off the illusion, he pounded back down the steep sandy slope toward his jeep. The warm breeze whipped his soaked clothing as he ran, easing his tension as it cooled his skin. He sat down at the base of the dune and emptied the sand from his shoes.
The sun had waned noticeably by now, its huge red disk looming only inches over the horizon. The floor of the desert was littered with smooth flint and ironstone pebbles. Among them, he spotted an irregular lump of sand about the size of a golf ball that was glimmering in the fading sunlight. He plucked it up to study it closer, noticing that it was unusually heavy. A mineralized rock, he decided.
He shoved it into a pocket of his vest and trotted back to his jeep, just in time to hear the hum of approaching vehicles.
* * *
Cavanaugh woke up long before sunrise, well ahead of the others. He lit the white gas gaz ob'yat burner and put some water on to boil. Minutes later, coffee in one hand, notebook in the other, he began perusing his notes on what they'd discovered in the last few weeks' work. He found nothing particularly encouraging. A couple of decent rock samples—maybe.
He ducked into his tent and returned a moment later with a specimen tied up tightly in a white cloth bag. He tried to open it with his fingers, then reached for his pocket knife, pulling it out with his keys, several coins, and the heavy lump of sand he'd found the day before. The object was much smaller now, since most of the friable sand had fallen away, but it seemed even heavier than he remembered. He noticed a yellowish metallic object buried inside, its hue similar to that of a new brass key.
Curious, he scrubbed away the remaining sand, turned the object over and over, and studied it through a hand lens.
The glittering gold coin bore the images of a lion and bull facing each other on one side, and a block of incuse squares on the other. It had to be ancient.
How the hell did it get way out here, he wondered, 350 miles from the closest outpost of civilization?
AUGUST 18, 1999
AUGUST 18, 1999
Morley Bishop studied his feet as he followed the nurse down the familiar, worn linoleum of the psychiatric hospital. His heavy body plodded along with determination, bald head gleaming in the dim light, head like a round yellow cheese perched squarely erect on stooping shoulders. The floor's light green, muddled pattern reminded him of a mass of rotting weeds. Strips of peeling paint drooped from the dirty, off-white walls, and a musty odor hung in the air, defying all chemical efforts to eradicate it. Sometimes it was nearly imperceptible, but today it was unusually strong, its essence seeming to emanate from a realm somewhere between despair and oblivion.
He'd have to tell Philip he was going out there again. He could've gone back years ago if his damned fool surveyor Messenger had kept his head and gotten their records out, instead of panicking and disappearing with the maps and the truck. He’s probably a mummy by now, Bishop thought, smirking.
A security guard was sitting at a table fifty feet down the hall, reading a comic book. Bishop frowned when the man stood up, disgusted by his sallow skin, greasy hair, and dirty clothes.
"This gentleman is here to see the man in 307," the nurse announced.
The guard whistled through broken front teeth. "He’s the worst, he is, and you know it. Lost 'is bloomin' mind. Poor bloke just sits and stares out the window. Sometimes screams, but mostly just nights now. Screams about sand. Aren't no sand here anywhere, miss. At least...well, you know."
"Enough," the nurse scolded. "Just open the door."
"Right." He turned to Bishop. "Sorry, sir. Your friend just gets a little confused sometimes."
"Can we please get on with it?" Bishop said with an exasperated sigh.
The guard took a fat ring of keys from a drawer in his tiny battered table and led them down the corridor. To their left, the drab light of a cloudy mid-August London afternoon filtered through a bank of tall windows, offering little cheer to the gloomy atmosphere of the hall. They passed a series of gray steel doors, Bishop mentally counting off the numbers as he walked.
"Stand back, sir," the guard said, drawing a heavy club from his belt. "Got to be sure he aren't near the door."
"Open it," Bishop barked. "He's not going to hurt anyone."
The nurse inserted her key in one lock, the attendant in the other, turning them in unison. Raising the weapon in readiness, the guard pushed the door open and peered inside, then turned back to Bishop. "Looks right peaceful today, sir. Sleepin', he is."
"That's nice," Bishop said. "Now, if you'll both go, and give me ten minutes."
The room was all too familiar. He'd seen it more than fifty times. As always, the walls and floor were bare. A patient could cut his throat with the glass from a picture frame or tear a rug into strips long enough to hang himself. The only furniture was a bed, which was bolted to the floor. The flowers he'd sent four days ago lay wilted and dry beside it, since flower pots were also forbidden. The patient might cut himself on a jagged shard, if he could unstrap himself from the bed.
Philip Robards was lying on the bed, his face turned away. He did appear to be asleep, but he spoke up as Bishop walked toward the bed. "Is that you?"
"Yes, Philip," Bishop replied, paling at the sight of the invalid. "It's me. Can I do anything for you?"
"No, just stay awhile."
"As long as you wish." Bishop's hands were beginning to shake as he reached out and stroked the man's hair. "I think I can safely say that your ordeal will be over soon."
Robards rolled over, his forearms pushing violently against the tightly stretched fabric as he tried to reach for Bishop's hand. "Over?" he laughed. "How can it ever be over?"
"I'm going back out there, Philip."
Robards' eyes looked as if they were coming out of their sockets. "You can't go out there again. You can't!"
"It's our only hope."
Philip turned away, staring bleakly out the barred window. What was left of the eyes he'd tried to tear out with his fingers two years earlier might still see, but through an ever-present fog. "Then you'll die," he whispered. "And I'm done for anyway." His laugh progressed to a maniacal raving, spittle drooling down his chin. "Tell them to wash me again," he ranted. "My clothes are full of sand. Why are they always full of sand?" He groaned, then fixed his gaze on the ceiling. "Listen! Do you hear that pounding? It's deafening. It's coming again. Can't you smell it? Oh, God. Cover me. Cover me!"
Bishop laid a hand on Philip's shoulder. "It's going to be all right, Philip." He pulled off his sunglasses and bent over, staring into the man's ruined eyes. "You see it?" he whispered. "I have it too." He giggled. "Yes, and it's much worse now. It came on me a few years ago, and it's been escalating ever since." He paused, grinning. "We're the same now, you and I. We'll beat this thing yet. By God, I swear it. Now that I've got someone who knows where to go."
"Too strong," Philip moaned. "And us...we were too close. I'm turning, dissolving. It's twisting in me like a worm." His head collapsed on his pillow.
After showing Bishop out, the guard returned to the nurse's station to find her waiting with mop and pail. He took the pail, and they started back down the hall.
"Cain't understand it, miss," he said. "Where the devil does it come from?"
The girl shrugged. "He must bring it in with him. Personally, I think they're both crazy. Did you notice that guy's head? It looks like a squashed pear."
Robards was howling uncontrollably when they opened the door.
"Something's set 'im off again, miss."
Closing the door, the two set to work, sweeping up the floor around the bed where Bishop had stood.
This happened, or maybe it did not; the time is long past,and much is forgot—Egyptian proverb
SEPTEMBER 4, 523 B.C.E.
SEPTEMBER 4, 523 B.C.E.
The Persian army was already two months late getting underway from the island village of Oasis. Worse, a blinding sandstorm had blown in with the dawn. Hydarnes, the new satrap of Egypt, met with his Parthian friend Astathes and raged against Osroes, his obese, obsequious paymaster, who had just asked for an additional six camels to transport the treasury.
Time was of the essence. After the oracle of a tiny oasis had enraged him by predicting that the Persian stay in Egypt would be a short one, the Great King Cambyses, Hydarnes' uncle, had demanded of his nephew that he complete his desert campaign before the winter solstice. Hydarnes' orders were to destroy the oasis and bring the oracle to the Nile Valley for execution.
At forty-seven years, Hydarnes was just beginning to show a smattering of gray. He was stocky without being fat, medium in height, and dark skinned. His long, curly black hair was knotted in back above his waist, his beard braided in rows of thick curls that accentuated his darting, hawk-like eyes. He wore leather trousers and a jerkin of rectangular strips of hide stitched together and reinforced at the corners with bronze conchos. A brilliant tactician, Hydarnes had fought with his uncle and the first Great King, Cyrus, rising rapidly through the ranks because of his valor, ingenuity, and an almost fanatical devotion to duty. Though still fit, he'd grown battle weary through the endless campaigns. He planned to make this his last, then retire with his wife and unseen newborn son to the cool Alborz Mountains of northern Persia.
A giant, Astathes stood six-foot five and weighed 280 pounds. He too, wore leather breeches, but his shoulders were covered with a goatskin mantle speckled with iron studs. The haft of his long curved knife was barely visible above the sleeve of his mantle. Although Astathes was ten years younger than his friend and commander, the long hair knotted in a bun at the top of his head and straggly beard were already streaked with gray.
A fifteen-day march through the desert lay between the village of Oasis, where they were now assembling their troops, and their military objective. Hydarnes' principal concern was water—having enough and finding a way to carry it. Now, his foolish paymaster wanted to squander an additional six camels to transport the army's treasury instead of the more precious water.
He cuffed the cowering Osroes sharply across both cheeks, then placed a foot on the man's fat shoulder and shoved him into the sand. The paymaster rolled away, peering up fearfully before standing. Once he'd pulled himself to his feet, he raced out of the tent, ushering in a fresh blast of sand.
It was decided that an additional thousand slaves would be purchased to carry nothing but water, in addition to the supply borne by the soldiers and three hundred camels. The new slaves would be abandoned in the desert, either at the halfway point of their march or at the place en route where the guides had said they would find springs. Should no springs be found, the guides would be handed over to the marooned slaves, at whose hands they would die unspeakable deaths.
The sand stopped blowing by late morning, and the day turned hot as the sky cleared. The men were paid their current wage chits and arrears, and Astathes suggested they decamp as soon as possible, before the soldiers found an opportunity to drink wine and gamble away their pay.
A curious host of 14,075 persons began the march toward the western extremity of Kharga Oasis, led by Hydarnes and his geographer Datanes on camels and surrounded by Datanes' pupils and assistants, as well as a two-hundred-strong contingent of Bactrian cavalry. A skilled equestrian force, the cavalry consisted of noblemen sworn to act as bodyguards for Hydarnes. They were followed by two thousand peltasts and slingers. The peltasts' light spears were stowed in cloth loops that dangled against their shoulders, and the slings hung from girdles at the slingers' waists. Many played pipes as they marched, the barren flats at the west end of the island resounding for the first time with the wailing, melancholy music of the central Anatolian highlands. Behind them trailed three thousand archers, who tramped in time with the music, their spare bows folded in lots in the baggage train. Since it was unlikely that the army would see action in the barren desert before encountering the Siwans, all but two each of their arrows rested untipped in their quivers. The archers were Parthians and Bactrians, accustomed to plying their skilled marksmanship from horseback, but they moved on foot now, members of an army that could ill afford the extravagance of many four-legged beasts.
The largest part of the force consisted of six parts of light infantry drawn from the best troops in Egypt, numbering eight hundred Bactrians, four thousand native Egyptians led by a competent young officer named Minnes, and twelve hundred Ethiopians from Upper Egypt. The latter had been captured by Hydarnes and the Great King during their campaigns the previous year in Nubia. Excellent fighters, the Ethiopian prisoners had willingly joined the Persian ranks after the promise of monthly pay, regular food, and billeting, luxuries hitherto unknown to them.
The slingers and peltasts wore drab, light wool garments and conical leather skullcaps. In contrast, the Parthian and Bactrian archers were adorned in brightly-colored cotton tunics and shoulder trappings of goatskin, all studded with gleaming conchos of bright metal. Although no longer on horseback, the Parthians had insisted on wearing their normal equestrian footwear, either boots of tightly wound hide straps that extended up to their knees or the entire hide of a horse's leg cinched wet to their own to dry and shrink in place.
The Bactrian infantry and Median cavalry wore trousers and tunics that fell below the knees, garments fashioned from rectangles of cloth in numerous bright colors that had been stitched together, the seams joined by iron studs. Their heads were covered with the helmets Hydarnes favored, wicker cornucopias with the horn's apex turned forward, adorned with the plumage of exotic fowl. Their feet were protected by crude leather or wicker sandals. All toted huge, convex, rectangular shields fashioned of heavy wicker faced with leather, the various clans' motifs emblazoned on the front.
The native-Egyptian infantry's attire was more utilitarian for a long desert march, consisting of a short cotton skirt and a thin wrap for the shoulders. They wore no shoes or helmets, and carried short heavy spears, axes, and light, figure-eight wooden shields faced with ox hide.
The heads and feet of the Ethiopians were also bare. Thin, link-mail armor clung tightly to their bodies, with plain skirts or breechclouts underneath. Each carried two light spears, a long trident, a net, a small wooden shield, and a dagger secured in a leather girdle.
In the rear of the army trod its entourage, nearly three thousand strong. Slaves, prostitutes, military surgeons, potters, woodworkers, weapons-makers and other craftsmen, the paymaster Osroes and his huge retinue, along with 150 friends, relatives, adventurers, and hopeful entrepreneurs aspiring to gain a fortune by impressing any surviving Siwans into slavery.
The six hundred original slaves were barefoot, clothed in rags or shoddy worn skins, the fleshy part of their noses cut off to denote their status. Most were suffering from chronic dysentery, and all were plagued with the boils and lesions of the obligatory unclean. Four hundred and twenty of them bore thousands of bronze and iron projectile points, leather thongs to bind them against their hafts, as well as an assortment of knives, shields, armor, and wood and wicker strips for repairing shields and helmets.
The thousand new slaves, carrying only water, walked between the Egyptian infantry and the Ethiopians. All were barefoot and wore only the most rudimentary garments. Many were naked. All were young, carefully selected for their strength, each carrying eighty pounds of water in tall, sixteen-pound ceramic jars bound to their backs and heads with heavy leather straps.
At Hydarnes' insistence, Astathes had instructed the men to carry no personal gear. Nevertheless, every soldier had done so, most carrying charms for luck in battle. The Egyptians, whose custom it was to shave the meager hair on their bodies, carried razors. The Persians, preferring luxuriant growths of hair, carried combs and sharp hair knives, even mirrors. Many brought leather straps fitted with metal rings on which to hang the trophies cut from their victim's bodies—ears, fingers, clutches of hair, and penises. This barbaric habit had spread among the troops, adopted even by some of the Bactrians and Medes. Hydarnes was determined to put a stop to it, but he knew that now was not the time.
Even Astathes had hidden something for luck, a huge bronze helmet too cumbersome to wear in battle, given to him by his wife's family. For himself, Hydarnes had sewn four precious letters written by his wife into the secret pocket of his saddle bag, reading the next in sequence each night before falling asleep.
Most of the soldiers, even many of the slaves, had concealed a container of extra water. Although there had been an ample supply under the hot sun of Kharga Oasis, all had been perpetually thirsty there. None had any knowledge of the looming desert, except that it would be drier still.
And totally unknown.
By late afternoon, the army had reached the high cliffs bordering the western edge of the oasis. The precipice rose over a thousand feet, but an ancient trail that led to the top of the rise was visible. Hydarnes ordered sixty horsemen to secure the crest and guard the desert approaches as the rest of his men labored up the slope. Four hours later, the largest part of the force had reached the top.
An old man repairing the mud wall of a canal on the western edge of the oasis would be the last human being to see Cambyses' army. Nearly dusk now, it had taken the Persian troops almost two hours to march by. Bringing up the rear was a young boy, who was trying to kill one of the old man's geese with slingstones. He made two attempts, missing with both stones. The goose merely jumped slightly, then settled back to its placid indifference. The boy could easily have walked down and stolen the bird, but he seemed more interested in antagonizing the old man.
The ancient kept his head down, and the young slinger finally gave up, tramping the rest of the way up the sandy hill, his colorful striped robes whipping in the breeze. Reaching the crest, the youth turned back to give a last wistful glance at his lost prey, then raised his arms high over his head as he spied the man watching him and shouted a defiant "Yee-yow!" Then, in the blink of an eye, he vanished over the rise.
The villager returned to his work. In cupped hands he gathered up a new supply of mud, pressed it against his filthy jerkin to squeeze out the excess water, then slopped and smoothed it over the sides and top of the wall. He applied more mud in the same fashion, chanting a prayer in rhythm with the fading melody of martial piping as the host of invisible soldiers trekked into the distance.
Twenty minutes later, all was quiet.
By morning, the soldiers' tracks had blown away.
AUGUST 22, 1999
AUGUST 22, 1999
Cavanaugh arrived at the pool bar of the Swiss Jolie Ville Hotel at 1:00 P.M., ordered a scotch, and gazed out at the great pyramid of Khufu looming a mile away. The man he'd consulted for on his last desert job was late for their appointment, but he didn't mind the inconvenience. Cairo and Giza traffic were approaching gridlock, and waiting was something he'd grown accustomed to.
He'd just finished his drink when the tall, portly, florid man finally emerged from the gilt-edged blue curtains dripping from a portico at the far entrance of the bar. He'd first met Morley Bishop months before, and had guessed him to be in his late fifties, but he looked a decade older now. His pate was bald, a bit of hair surviving above the ears, his face tan and leathery. If you studied him hard enough, you'd conclude he'd once been an attractive man. But something about his face made Cavanaugh instinctively look away. The hands also didn't seem to fit his frame. Fragile, delicate appendages, the fingers long and slender like a woman's. He was sporting an immaculate, white-linen colonial suit and black silk tie. A pair of sunglasses rested on his nose like blinders, so dark that had he not navigated so well through the tables around the pool Cavanaugh might've thought he was blind.
"Cavanaugh," Bishop said, stepping up to the table.
"That's right." The geologist smiled as he stood up and offered his hand, wondering if the man remembered him. Bishop's head and face had changed since they'd first met, become squashed and twisted somehow. Looking at him was unnerving, and Cavanaugh wondered what the hell had happened.
Bishop sat down, ignoring the hand. "Hot day. I could use a drink. Have another yourself?"
"Sure," Cavanaugh said, puzzled that the man wasn't drowning in sweat like everyone else.
Signaling a waitress, Bishop ordered gin and water with lime, no ice. Cavanaugh stuck with his usual White Horse. The drinks came, and both men sampled deeply. Nodding approval, Bishop pursed his lips in satisfaction. Everything the man did seemed overdone. He was an expatriate Englishman, though, and could be permitted a few eccentricities.
Looking up again, Cavanaugh started. Bishop's narrow, yellow incisors were curled down below his lower lip, making him look like a huge rat. Had they been so long before?
"I want to hire you for another consulting job," Bishop said.
Cavanaugh folded his hands on the table and smiled. "Great. I'm always up for another desert adventure."
Bishop smiled thinly, as though the idea of adventure had never occurred to him. "I want you to complete the mapping survey you began for us in the same sector of the Great Sand Sea where you found that ancient coin. Oh, here it is, by the way," he said, plopping the coin down on the table. "Sotheby's said it's a Persian stater, worth about £2,200. I'm going along this time, and I'll pay you double your usual fee. There's also a strong chance that we'll run into more antiquities, and they'd be worth a great deal of money. You'll get a good share of that too."
"That's very generous." Cavanaugh surrendered a grim smile, his blood beginning to boil. What Bishop was proposing was illegal, and somehow Cavanaugh sensed that Bishop's motives had nothing to do with mapping or any money to be gained from antiquities. He was a wealthy man. For himself, the appeal of another expedition to the Great Sand Sea wasn't really in the money, even though he could certainly use it. It might be his last chance to explore one of the most remote and dangerous places on earth—a place only a handful of explorers had ever visited.
He leaned across the table, lowering his voice. "It's a crime to remove antiquities, let alone sell them. You know that as well as I do."
Bishop smiled and leaned back, as if to distance himself from Cavanaugh's disapproving eyes. "Of course it is. But there won't be any chance of an antiquities agent showing up where we're going." He smiled again, then snapped his fingers for another round and, pulling out a cigarette, tapped it on the table before lighting it with a gleaming gold Zippo. "I'm being more than fair with you, Cavanaugh. You're the best man for the job. The deep desert is dangerous. Long stretches way out in real desert..." He paused, sweeping his hands. "Well, they can do things to a man." Bishop shifted in his chair, as if uncomfortable. "We've had more than a few...uh, problems out there in the past, but you returned without any ill effects."
Cavanaugh had heard about the "problems" from shop talk between colleagues before his first desert mission. Some British fellow by the name of Robards had gone mad in the Great Sand Sea in 1984. He'd been incarcerated in a London psychiatric hospital with no hope of improvement. Others had died, and Robards' surveyor, a man named Messenger, had disappeared. Three years ago, Will Strangways vanished from his field party while mapping in the same area. He was found two days later, wandering naked through the desert with his hands over his ears, hopelessly insane. He'd been interned in a mental hospital in Denver, but escaped after a few months and committed suicide. Another problem had cropped up just last year, when Phil Rogers and Corky Moore disappeared in the same region. Their bodies were never found, but a search turned up their truck, which was stuck in the sand, intact and operable, with a full water fantass and three full quart canteens on the floor in front of the passenger seat.
Problems. All in the same tract of desert. Cavanaugh didn't know what to make of the tragedies, and neither did anyone else. He'd seen men and women lose it in the field before, determined professionals who couldn't handle the isolation. It did things to their minds. He'd once had to discharge a man in Saudi Arabia who'd abandoned a desert drilling rig, repeating over and over, "We don't belong out here."
He glanced up at Bishop, but the man's gaze was fixed at the bottom of his drink. He evidently didn't like what he saw there because he was frowning when he finally looked up again.
"Well, that's it, Cavanaugh," he said. "We'll head out there around the end of September. We'll have some bedou'in laborers along. They can be a troublesome lot. The deeper into the sand we go, the more we'll have to ride herd on them. They, uh...scare easily."
"But there's nothing out there to scare them."
Bishop grabbed him by the wrist. "You're wrong, Cavanaugh. There is something out there. The void." He seemed to stifle a giggle, and the pitch of his voice rose alarmingly. "Oh, yes. The void."
Cavanaugh felt the hackles rising on his neck. He stared at Bishop, too surprised to respond.
Apparently noticing his reaction, Bishop dropped his hand just as abruptly as he'd grabbed it. He picked up his gin and took a couple of deep gulps.
Cavanaugh noticed a sudden stink of burning oil on hot metal. He glanced back at the hotel but saw no smoke. In the same moment, Bishop was seized by a violent coughing fit. Cavanaugh made a move to help, but the man waved him away, composed himself, then tossed off the rest of his gin and stood up.
"Our departure date will be posted in the office Monday morning. I'll see you then." Bishop turned on his heel and walked away.
Cavanaugh tracked him as the man strode through the throng of drinkers, until he disappeared through the drapes at the far end of the pool. A breeze came up, raking over the blue water, and a chill ran through him. How could that be? The temperature had been over a hundred, and the afternoon sun was still blazing overhead.
Unannounced, a tall, blond man slid into the opposite side of the booth, pulling Cavanaugh’s attention away from the sudden change in temperature.
"Can I help you?" Cavanaugh asked.
"My name's Doug Genoways," the man began. "I was sitting in the adjoining booth and couldn't help but overhear some of your conversation with that other guy. Something about an ancient Persian coin."
Cavanaugh flushed with irritation. "Do you always eavesdrop on private conversations?"
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