The year was 1891, and the Industrial Revolution was taking hold, with incredible advances in technology.
Ada Lovelace Evans felt she might worry herself to death. So she started making bread, kneading the dough roughly, to calm her nerves. She’d received a letter from her estranged brother Bertram, and that wasn’t like him at all. And he’d sent a package with a set of desiccated beetle earrings: mourning jewelry, though she had to admit they were quite lovely. She wore them this morning so as to be polite and welcoming to Bertram, whom she feared was suffering some strange, mind-addling malady. He hadn’t been seen in the British Library, where both he and Ada were employed, for weeks. “Says he wants to up and pack up for Egypt, just like that!” she said, snapping her fingers in front of the great fluffy black cat, Jupiter. Flour coated the air in a white plume. “His brain’s been mixed with water, I’ll tell you what!”
The letter lay idly by.
My Dear Sister,
I am to see you in a week’s time, and with incredible news! I have been given a special assignment in my librarian duties that I simply must relate to you in person. A wealthy benefactor has agreed to become the library’s patron, and all he asks in return is my personal service in attempting to track down a volume or two of antiquity whose location is presently unknown but believed to be somewhere in the sands of Egypt. I hope that you will accompany me on this journey. Although I have felt unwell as of late, I thought it prudent to come to your residence at once, and I hope you will gratify me with the honour of your company.
Bertram A. Evans
Soon enough, Bertram sat before her, leaning back in his chair. He looked well-groomed but agitated. Then he began speaking, staring off into space like an obsessed madman.
“To the Ancient Egyptians, there was a sacred book written by Thoth and guarded by priests. Like Dante’s Inferno, with its three parts—Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradisio—the ‘book’ is actually many books; 42 of them, to be precise. Sadly, these books were lost to time.” Bertram looked so forlorn. Perhaps, after a nice cup of tea, he’d be feeling more like his old self again. She set the tea cup and saucer down before him. Bertram glanced at it in what appeared to be bemused interest before setting them to the side and continuing the strange tale that had overtaken his mind. “36 of the books were destroyed in the fire at the Library of Alexandria. The surviving books—if they have indeed withstood the ravages of time—are said to have been inscribed onto stone tablets that have been buried beneath the Egyptian sands.”
“And so what does any of this have to do with us?” Ada asked, hoping to draw out an explanation from him.
“Oh,” Bertram replied, seizing the cup and saucer, “it has everything to do with us, my dear sister. Soon we will be on our way to Egypt to search for the books.”
Ada’s eyes grew wide. “Does your gracious benefactor know that I’ll be coming along as well?” She wondered if she even wanted to go to Egypt; the place seemed so very far away. “Is he wealthy enough that he’ll be sending us both?” Generous benefactor indeed. Must be nice to have that kind of money to just throw around.
“Oh yes,” he replied, taking a dainty sip of his tea. “In fact, Mister Arthur Cunningham insisted upon it when he learned that I had a sister skilled in the art of research.” Oh, Bertram: he knew how she liked compliments and had a weakness for them.
“Very well,” Ada replied. “But what ever does Mr. Cunningham want us to find these books for?” Have I heard the name Arthur Cunningham somewhere before? That name sounds so familiar.
“He says that they must be given to someone who will give them the care that they require: states that he’d like the books for his personal collection. I’d spoken with the library director about setting up a meeting with Mr. Cunningham in order to speak to him in person rather than just communicating by post, but as it turns out, Arthur is already in Egypt, awaiting our arrival.”
“My word!” exclaimed Ada, pouring herself a cup of tea and dipping a biscuit in it. Well, maybe me going on this silly journey will help Bertram. It’s worth a try.
Bertram grew focused, pressing his fingers together to form a steeple. “You know, I think we shall have to judge this Arthur Cunningham. He may not be all that he seems. Finding the Books of Thoth—the Books of Power—would be something akin to finding the Holy Grail. Those books are said to make their reader into the most powerful magician the world has ever known.” He stared off, as though imagining what he would do with that kind of power. Look at him, dreaming about magical objects like he’s reverted back to childhood. Bunch of fairy stories.
Ada crinkled her nose and wiped the thought out of the air. “Oh, rubbish!” Jupiter walked over and rubbed up against Ada’s legs. Ada looked down at the cat. “Wizards don’t exist, you know,” she told him, bopping him on the nose. Jupiter looked up briefly and then sauntered off toward the other room.
Bertram had brought a book with him, and it sat there on the table like a rift between brother and sister. Ada opened up Egypt: Descriptive, Historical, and Picturesque by Georg Ebers, flipping through the reference section in the back. But when she turned to the page, the only information it contained was:
Every one, high and low, has heard of Egypt and its primeval wonders. The child knows the names of the good and the wicked pharaohs before it has learned those of the princes of its own country.
Ada sipped her tea. That quote reminded her of the poem “Ozymandias,” which was the Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II. She looked over at Bertram. “Are we going to the Valley of the Kings?”
Betram paused for a moment and looked up at her, in the midst of cutting his buttered toast with a knife and fork. He finished his bite, took a sip of tea, and adjusted his cravat before answering.
“We are not going to that much-esteemed Valley of the Kings. You see, the books we seek were peculiar to Thoth, who was worshipped in Hermopolis. The city itself no longer stands, but we are travelling to the ruins of the Temple of Hermopolis, along with famed Egyptologist Amelia Edwards from the Egypt Exploration Society, to look for clues. She suggested the location as a starting point for our expedition. As our expedition’s recorder of events, I’ll need you to keep a detailed journal of our destinations and findings.”
Ada nodded, though she was not entirely pleased with this unfolding of events. I am to be a glorified secretary. The things I do for family. Well, Bertram did seem to be calming down already, as evidenced by the less-frequent tapping of his fingers against the table surface. “I see you’ve brought us some light reading as well.” She flipped to a random page in an act of bibliomancy. Let’s see what this has to tell us.
Why is it that Egypt’s name, its history, its national peculiarities and its monuments affect and interest us in quite a different manner from those of the other nations of antiquity?
Why indeed, but that Queen Victoria, in a state of mourning for 30 long years, had cast a dread pall over all of Britain, intoxicating its people with a fascination of the afterlife. This was a shared cultural feeling, and Britain, in its mourning, leaned on the shoulder of Egypt to cry. Perhaps, thought Ada, our nations are more similar than we know. Could it be that Thoth and his mechanical engineering were at work? Ada shook her head. These thoughts are the product of an idle brain. I’ll go mad as Bertram soon.
“Goodbye, dear Jupiter,” said Ada as she settled into her carriage seat, taking one last glance before the horses started off the journey that was bound to take her so very far from home. Bertram looked so excited and he spoke hastily. “Do you know the story of Isis and Osiris?” Ada shook her head no. And there went Bertram, droning on and on about Egyptian mythology. Ada smiled good-naturedly, and wondered what exactly she’d gotten herself into.
Soon enough, they reached the port city, and their ship was waiting to take them across the wide ocean, on toward the sands of Egypt, the land of gods and pharaohs. But all she really wanted to do was sip Earl Grey tea and pore over antiquated texts, like a civilized woman. She sighed. Oh well. The orders of the day are what they are. I shall have to make do.
A journey by sea could take weeks, and passengers would need to wait for a ship’s hold to fill in order to justify a voyage. Fortunately, Ada and Bertram’s generous benefactor was very generous, and paid for them to travel the sea in style and comfort aboard the White Star Line’s famed RMS Majestic. They weren’t to meet up with Amelia Edwards until they reached North Africa, but when they arrived, what a tale Ada would have to tell about the wonders of the ship’s opulence!
Every detail of this ship had been created with the utmost care, artistry, and detail. Ocean liner “lanterns”—magnificent stained glass skylights—filtered daylight into the ship’s many dining areas, libraries, and lounges. They were to make the journey to Egypt in first-class elegance. Had I only known I’d be in for this, I wouldn’t have been so hesitant to leave home. To think that such wonders exist in the world!
All too soon, they reached Egypt, and Ada had to bid farewell to that beautiful ocean liner. She soon found herself aboard a steam engine, eating a steak, sitting in a lavish railcar that looked like a room, complete with chandeliers, shuttled all over Britain on such a smooth trip that she barely felt that she was in a moving transportation device at all. Upon entering, Bertram introduced her to Miss Amelia Edwards, founder of the Egypt Exploration Society. She seemed a most unlikely woman to be on an Egyptian expedition, appearing to be a well-dressed British aristocrat of around 60 years of age, with white hair and fine clothing, including a luxurious green velvet fur-trimmed coat. She’d spoken at length about the ideals of the Society, which included the belief that the ancient culture and civilization of Egypt needed to be protected for future generations. And this woman was the author of many books. She’d handed Ada a girthy volume, fresh off the presses, of her own writing. It was titled A Thousand Miles Up the Nile. Bertram sat at the table on the other side of the railcar, folded his arms, brought his bowler cap down over his eyes, and went to sleep.
Ada herself was not tired, and the woman who sat across from her, Amelia, looked wide awake, her blue eyes sparkling with excitement.
“How many times have you been to Egypt?” Amelia asked.
“Oh, this is my first expedition,” replied Ada.
“Oh how delightful!” Amelia clasped her hands together. “This will be my 36th…no, 37th trip. I am delighted by the success of our Society. You know, we are currently funding archaeological excavations at a number of locations, publishing findings, and doing the important work of garnering interest in ancient Egypt in general.” Her eyes sparkled with a genuine delight, as though all this time she’d been playing a game of chess, and Ada and Bertram finally had shown up to join in as well.
Amelia reached across the table and grasped Ada’s hand. “There are some people who believe that a woman’s place is in the home. What idiots those people are! I am so glad you’re here. You know better than they do.”
Ada smiled good-naturedly. This Amelia must think I am some independent wild woman. She has no idea how much I adore my humble home and its teapots. And yet, Ada began to relax, realizing that perhaps this journey was just what she needed.
Ada climbed onto the blanket-draped saddle of the camel. At the signal from its handler, it rose to its feet, and Ada adjusted to the height. The sudden jolt caused her to raise her bosom in a most unladylike manner.
“Oh!” exclaimed Amelia, as her own camel stood up. The ladies shared a hearty laugh. Ada looked over at Bertram, who had a serious expression on his face.
“Foul creatures, these,” he said with a look of disgust.
Soon they were all riding off in the direction of the ruins of Hermopolis, and as they’d adjusted to the canter of the camels, they were able to continue conversing.
“Can you tell us about the Egyptian gods?” Ada asked. “Our generous benefactor has tasked us with seeking out the books of Thoth. Who exactly is Thoth? What is his role in Egyptian mythology?”
Ada didn’t believe in strange Egyptian gods and hadn’t bothered to look up the mythologies about them, dismissing them as fairy tales from an older age.
“Well you see, Thoth was believed to be the scribe of the Egyptian gods, but what is less well known about him is that he was the Egyptian god of engineering. You’ll find that he’s pictured many times over as holding two objects; one of them is ascribed as being a pen or writing implement, because modern scholars do not know what these tools were. I believe that they are engineering implements, and that just because we do not know what something is does not mean that we ought to be so quick in our interpretations and say that it must be a pen.”
Ada laughed. “Oh, indeed.”
Amelia looked thoughtful for a moment. “Do you not think it strange that all of these technological achievements are taking place in Britain at the exact time that we have a newfound interest in Egyptology? There are a great many secrets hidden beneath the sands of time, and not only the famed Books of Thoth. At any rate, Thoth is the Egyptian god of engineering and wisdom. He is pictured with the head of an Ibis, and he is said to have given Isis the words to resurrect her love, Osiris, after she gathered up the pieces of him from the far corners of the Earth and put him back together again.”
Ada wondered how this knowledge might help them find the Books of Thoth and where in the vast desert sands they could possibly be hidden. Though by now, she was in no great hurry to go back home again. What a delightful journey it had been so far, though Bertram appeared to be deeply unsatisfied. Off in the distance, some white pillars came into view, and a small black speck between them grew larger as they approached it.
“What is that? Off in the distance…”
Amelia took out a set of binoculars from the leather pack strapped to her back and gazed off in the direction indicated. She looked pale and shocked for a moment, all the blood draining from her features. “There is someone at the ruins already.”
Oh no. Someone else is on the trail of the Books of Thoth and may find them before we do. Ada’s mind produced a whole host of nightmare scenarios, including having to explain to their generous benefactor that they had to return empty-handed, the scene having been previously raided by another party. Ada was not one to be outdone in such a manner. She steeled herself. I will approach this robber and force him to be accountable.
Ada gave the camel its signal that she was ready to dismount, and it obediently lowered itself to the ground, giving her a chance to climb off its back. She walked toward the stranger as Bertram and Amelia remained seated on their camels.
“Who are you?!” Ada demanded as she gazed up at the figure. What a convincing bird mask he wears. But she knew better. There are no gods that walk the Earth.
“Come to kill me, have you, dearie?” said Thoth as he emerged from the center of the ruins. Ada stood defiant as she gazed up at the towering, muscle-bound Egyptian god in all his spectacular glory. He did indeed have that strange bird face, with its huge, curved beak. She studied him, but could see no seams, no extra bits of glue or latex. This was master craftsmanship in costume design.
But Thoth was too busy looking over her head, surveying the land, as though checking its measurements relative to the sun. He put both the thumbs and first fingers of both hands together, and looked through the triangle they created.
Perhaps I ought to try a different approach. “We haven’t come to kill you,” Ada replied. “But we are looking for Mister Arthur Cunningham.”
Thoth shrugged and then answered. “I am Mr. Cunningham: Mister Thoth Arthur Cunningham. But, please, call me Thoth. All my friends certainly do.”
Just outside the open-air ruins of the portico, which was the only remaining hint of structure left to the once-grand Temple of Hermopolis, there sat a rather ordinary-looking wooden table; beside it, four chairs. A full tea service sat upon it, as though Thoth had prepared for a picnic. “It gets so dreadfully lonely sometimes, you know? Care for tea?”
“Well, I don’t mind if I do!” said Amelia, ordering her camel to sit and then dismounting, hastening to take a seat at the table. “We’ve all been on such a dreadfully long journey, you understand, and my feet are just aching something awful! And oh, how it warms the soul to see a piping-hot teapot: takes me back to England!” She wasted no time in pouring herself a cup.
“Well, this is nice and all,” replied Bertram, “but we are here on business, and we must find the books that we’ve been tasked with locating for you, chief amongst them, The Divine Pynander.”
The god’s eyes glowed for a moment with a divine, scary light.
“Do you know where the Books of Me are?” He held up a hand for silence, indicating that this was a rhetorical question. Then he tapped his head. “Lost to time, buried in the desert sands, burned in the fire at the Library of Alexandria.” He began pacing around the ruins as though looking for something, and then stopped before a column.
He touched the column, reciting an incantation. Then he walked over to what was once a set of stairs leading to the temple’s entrance. The earth shook, spilling tea and shattering porcelain from the table, as gigantic metal walls rose up out of the ground and a massive, gleaming, ornate temple re-formed itself. The walls rotated, flipped, created rooms and shelves and walkways. Hidden contraptions below the ground stirred and turned on, creating light shows and holographic images of the Egyptian gods, of animals, of people. A small beetle robot scuttered by, sweeping up the spilled tea and broken porcelain pieces before skittering off. Where he went, he swept the ground.
“Behold the power of Thoth!”
He spread his arms wide and looked out from the steps of his new-formed, gleaming gold temple. He looked proud and glorious for a moment, every bit the god that he was alleged to be.
Ada gasped. The gods of Egypt are real. This was a terrifying, awesome power and she could not tear her gaze away from the spectacle unfolding. Some primordial fear chilled her blood, and she stood in awe of the idea that gods truly existed and not just on paper. Seeing is believing, and here was her visual proof that the stories were more than just ancient fairy tales. She wanted to run, but what good would that do? She looked over at Amelia, for support. The matriarch of the Egypt Exploration Society grinned widely. She was clapping her hands as she watched the performance, and Ada steeled herself. If she is so brave, right now, so too shall I be. She walked over toward the humble tea table and watched the incredible inventions spring to life all around them.
“I think you’ll find the library downstairs to be satisfactory, as far as written texts go,” said the ancient Egyptian god.
Then he walked over to the table and poured himself a cup of tea. Taking a seat, he pointed, drawing everyone’s attention to a wall with a projection screen, showing a cat.
“Let us watch some videos,” he said, and breakfast began.
Leslie D. Soule is a fantasy and sci-fi author from Sacramento, California. She has an M.A. in English and is currently working on the final book of her fantasy series, The Fallenwood Chronicles. Connect with her on Twitter here.