Wadi Kerf, Western Thebes, Egypt. Site 65-A.
Dr. Reid Farmer perched on the lip of the archaeological excavation and studied the sheer-walled canyon in which he worked. The tomb area had been cut out of the tan-and-amber canyon wall; it lay perhaps three meters above a dry streambed filled with rocks and gravel.
With his archaeologist's eye, Reid could reconstruct the valley's original morphology. Higher beds of pale-yellow sandstone had been incised by hydraulic action—probably back in the Pliocene some four million years ago. During the ensuing 1.6 million years of the Pleistocene this part of Egypt had remained desert, and the canyon was occasionally scoured as runoff poured down the exposed slick- rock, sluiced into the wadis, and thundered down the channel.
The ancient Egyptians had changed it with their copper, bronze, and—finally—iron tools. During the Eighteenth Dynasty, they'd quarried the exposed strata for stone and carved out the very bedrock to construct a series of tombs the length and breadth of the valley. For over three thousand years, wind, weather, and sun—along with occasional pillaging looters—had tumbled enough material down the slopes to reduce the valley back to rubble.
Reid glanced up at the brass-hot sky and wondered what kind of damned fool would be out here running an excavation when the temperature was knocking on forty degrees Celsius.
One who's being paid extraordinarily well, he reflected. Almost too well.
Though why Skientia had chosen him for the job still made no sense. His expertise and skills were in North American archaeology, not Egyptology. Excavation, however, was excavation, be it an Anasazi pithouse or an Egyptian tomb. Reid was being paid to dig and, by God, he'd get it done.
Everything had been seen to with incredible efficiency: visas, excavation permits, travel and lodging, food, tools and supplies, and even security—a perimeter guard of uniformed security consisting of alert young men with slung Kalashnikovs.
"Quite the operation," Reid mused as he stepped over to their field tent and pulled out yet another bottle of water.
"They really think something is here?" Yusif, the Egyptian crew chief, wondered. He was a broad-shouldered man, closing on forty, who sported a thick black beard. Skientia had chosen him for his expertise in excavation. "I've been doing this since I was a boy. Worked with the best. I have a PhD in Egyptology from Cambridge. Never have I seen a project as, how do you say...forthwith?"
"This company?" Yusif asked. "Skientia? You have worked for them before?"
"Until two weeks ago, I'd never heard of them." Reid glanced up at the fractured sandstone outcrops and high canyon walls. Heat waves shimmered above the pale stone. "When they said Egypt, mentioned the salary, and asked if I had a valid passport, I said yes to all three."
"Do you know why they said to dig here?"
"Something about an inscription on a potsherd that one of their researchers found in the Cairo Museum of Antiquities."
"We have heard the same rumor."
"You ever seen this mysterious potsherd?"
Yusif shot him a sidelong glance. "No, sahib. You?" Reid shook his head.
"They just gave you the coordinates?" Yusif pointed at the GPS on Reid's belt.
Reid chugged hot water from his bottle. "They told me Wadi Kerf, this GPS reading, and that I'd have everything I needed waiting for me in Cairo." He screwed the cap on and looked back at the line of sun-baking vehicles stuffed with research equipment.
Yusif's voice lowered. "You know, don't you, that this dig is highly irregular?"