Father and Lydia went to Egypt for their winter vacation. They rode on the backs of ill-tempered camels and saw the Sphinx of Giza. The sun was just setting, and the Sphinx, a black, desolate silhouette, was watching over the tombs of the kings. It had been guarding them for 4500 years, the guide said.

"Some people say that the Sphinx is much older than that," Father said. "They say it was built when gods were said to rule the earth, when the Sun rose in the constellation Leo."

But Lydia was exhausted and thirsty and sweaty. She didn't have the strength to look at the Sphinx. They went to the hotel to sleep, but Lydia couldn't fall asleep, as tired as she was.

"Do you know where Cydonia is?" Father asked Lydia then.

"Cydonia? What a strange name. Is it a country or a city?"

"A community."

"I never heard of it. Is it here in Egypt?"

"It's not in Egypt."

"Maybe it's in America?"

"It's not in America."

"Somewhere in Asia?"

"It's not in Asia."

"In Europe?"

"Not even in Europe."

"Well, then, in Africa?"

"I don't think it's in Africa."

"Then it's nowhere," Lydia said impatiently. "It's nothing but some imaginary place that you've invented. This is a stupid game. I'm not going to guess any more."

Behind the hotel's windows murmured the hot, foreign, southern night. Strange insects rustled on the floor. Lydia felt homesick.

"Cydonia is no game, nothing of the sort. It's absolutely a real place," Father insisted.

"Well, at least tell me what city is near Cydonia?"

"All cities are far from Cydonia. But of course their distance from it varies somewhat."

"What on earth!"

"Sometimes Cairo is closer, sometimes Ulan Bator, sometimes Shanghai or Helsinki or Puerto Rico or Uumaja. But actually all the cities you know about are, by and large, the same distance from Cydonia."

"How is that possible?"

"Well, you tell me."

"I can't!"

"But it is possible. The reason is that Cydonia is far, far away from here," Father said. "It's not on Earth at all."

"Well, then, where is it?"

"It's a region on Mars. A very remarkable place."

"Remarkable in what way?"

"They say that there is a Sphinx in Cydonia on Mars. And pyramids too."

"The Sphinx lives here in Egypt," Lydia said. "You know that."

"Some Sphinx, but it's not the only Sphinx," Father said. "There are Sphinxes in many places."

"But no one has been to Mars. There aren't even any Martians there. So how can they know that there is a Sphinx there?"

"From satellite photos," Father said. "There is a cliff there that is like a statue. Like an immense human face, many hundreds of meters high and more than a kilometer wide. It looks up at the sky and the stars."

Into Lydia's eyes rose a strange star and a sober stone face. She raised her hand to her ear. From somewhere far away she heard slow, solemn music. Perhaps she had dozed for a while.

"People have started to call it a Sphinx, since it seems to have an Egyptian hairstyle," Father said.

"Who made the stone face? People?"

"Some say it was time and wind and dust and water. At one time there was rain on Mars, but that was long ago. Perhaps time and wind and dust and water have carved one mountain into such a shape that it coincidentally resembles a human face, and other mountains into shapes that coincidentally resemble pyramids."

"Can there be such a coincidence?"

"It sounds impossible. Just as impossible as a pyramid-shaped cloud floating in the sky. No one has ever seen such a thing, nor will anyone ever see it. But it's no less impossible that pyramids and Sphinxes should have been specially built on Mars. So you have to choose between impossibilities. You often have to. There's nothing you can do about it."

"How old is the Cydonian Sphinx? Is it just as old as the Egyptian Sphinx?"

"Much older. It must be tens of millions of years old."

"That Sphinx has seen a lot. It must be very wise."

"Do you think so?" Father asked. "They say that inside the Sphinx of Giza there is a secret chamber and that in that chamber is all ancient knowledge, sealed in quartz. But even if that were true, the Egyptian Sphinx wouldn't know anything. Only people know. And they don't know very much."

In the morning they returned to the Sphinx of Giza.

Time and wind and dust and water had carved the Sphinx of Giza as well. But before them, so had human hands. The Sphinx had a nose left in name only. Little by little it had crumbled into sandstorms. Even without a nose, the Sphinx was very beautiful.

"The Sphinx even used to have a beard," Father said. "But it fell off centuries ago. Now part of it is kept in a museum."

Lydia imagined the solitary beard in a museum's glass case. Did the Sphinx miss it and want it back? Merchants' stalls had been set up near the Sphinx, and herds of tourists wandered within reach of its paws. Cries echoed. Cameras clicked. The Sphinx gazed on all this clamor with its empty, tranquil eye sockets.

It was both an animal and a human, even a king. No one was as old as the Sphinx of Giza except for the Cydonian Sphinx.

"Could we go looking for that chamber you were talking about? The one that has all ancient knowledge in it?" Lydia asked.

"No, we can't," Father said. "Nobody knows where it is. And a special permit is needed for searching. And we aren't archeologists. But if such a chamber exists, sooner or later archeologists will surely find it."

"And then we can know what we don't know now," Lydia guessed. "Maybe we can even know how to awaken the dead."

"No, that knowledge is not even there," Father said and stroked her head. "Have you heard the riddle of the Sphinx? Not this Sphinx, but some other one. What is it that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs during the day and three legs in the evening?"

"Well, what is it?" Lydia asked. "I can't guess. Is it some animal? Or a robot?"

But before Father could answer, Lydia saw something remarkable: traveling along the sandy desert was a gleaming metallic thing, droning to itself. It navigated among the noisy tourist herds, past the buses and merchants' stalls.

"Father, what is that thing anyway?" Lydia asked.

They went closer. It was a machine that somewhat resembled a small backhoe. It moved forward on six thick rubber-tired wheels. But it had no driver.

"Look, there's your robot," Father said. "But it has six legs."

The robot moved steadily but not in a straight line. It was able to go around obstacles. From time to time it would stop and dig in the dry sand with its bucket.

"What on earth is it doing?" Lydia asked. "And how does it know how to go around obstacles?"

"I think it's searching in the sand for things the tourists have lost-watches, money, cameras," Father explained. "It has sensors and a camera. It's probably a special kind of metal detector. It puts the things it finds into a storage compartment and returns to the hotel at night."

The robot was now traveling in the shadow of the Sphinx. Soon it passed the Sphinx and disappeared in a cloud of dust.

"It looks just as though it understood what it was doing," Lydia said thoughtfully.

"It only looks that way," Father said. "Even we don't always know what we are doing. The robot is the Sphinx of this millennium. We humans made the Sphinx and the robot. And now we look at them in wonderment. One is too old for us and the other too young. And both of them ask questions that we can't answer."

"I didn't hear either of them asking any questions, but if I had to choose, I'd certainly choose the Sphinx," Lydia said.

When they got on the bus that was taking the tourists back to the hotel, Lydia looked back over her shoulder once more at the Sphinx. Above it, high in the hot southern light, floated a marvelously shaped cloud.

"Look, Father," Lydia said. "You claimed that no one had ever seen a pyramid-shaped cloud."

But when Lydia glanced at the clouds again, they had already had time to change so that she and her father saw only slanting cloud towers and rapidly disintegrating cities.

© Leena Krohn