The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

Pharaoh's Heart Was Hardened

From: K S Pyke

To: Operatives: Isobel Blyth, Edmund Davies, Celestina Mirande, John Stone, Michael Thomas, John Torillo, Wotan Andrew Weiser

Subject: Pyramid of Khentkaus

Code: P/21/193/91B

Rendezvous: Heathrow airport, 0730 hours, 8 March 1998

Destination: Giza, Egypt. Giza is a suburb of Cairo best known for the Old Kingdom funerary complex centring about the pyramids of Khufu, Khephren and Menkaure, and the Great Sphinx. You will be staying in the Cairo Hilton, two miles from the site.

Travel arrangements: you have been booked on British Airways flight BA715 to Cairo. The return leg has been left open as to date. You will be met at Cairo airport by the hotel's courtesy bus.

Cover: you are posing as agents of an academic charity, the Davina Millhouse Trust. The Trust (a fictitious body) is considering funding the archaeological research work of Professor Sonia Bird's group, currently studying the pyramid of Khentkaus. Our assessment is that Professor Bird's straitened grant circumstances will lead to her welcoming representatives of such a funding body. This story will be confirmed on contacting the 'Trust' at 16-18 Boundary Row, London SE1 8HN, tel / fax 0171 865 0088, SITU's cover address for this investigation.

Background information:

Historical: Khufu (reigned approx 2551-2528 BCE), also known as Cheops, was the most important pharaoh of the 4th Dynasty: believed to be the son of Snofru, the dynasty's founder, he campaigned successfully in Nubia and in modern-day Syria and left behind the monument known as the Great Pyramid, to which his descendants added lesser structures. Khentkaus was one of his senior queens, who died in approx 2535 BC: hers is the smallest of the three queens' pyramids that stand beside the causeway leading to the presumed site of his valley temple.

Archaeological: the pyramid of Khentkaus has stood empty of goods since the First Intermediate Period, thanks to the depredations of tomb-robbers. Archaeological work has centred on the translation of the inscriptions within its chambers. Professor Bird's group are currently engaged in exploring the air-shafts of the pyramid using a robot video camera: there is a possibility that this work will also reveal further chambers.

The robot was first introduced into the complex of air-shafts on 2 March 1998. On 8 March a fault was experienced which led to its failure, and the Bird group have since been concentrating their efforts on attempting to recover it. One possible method would involve sending in another robot with a magnetic or other grapple attached, for which the group would require additional funding: this might prove a suitable angle of pressure for the SITU team.

Professor Bird is attached to the University of Oxford Archaeological Unit, and currently has a team of six: herself, Drs M Matthews, W van Heuvelen and M Chenevix, and graduate students H Challis and J Tate. There are also no doubt various local assistants.

Other: in March 1997 Yorkshire-based science fiction author Ben Foster experienced what was interpreted by witnesses as an abduction episode while camping in the Giza complex (reported by SITU operative Russell Osbourne). Foster's disappearance was accompanied by a bright light, as was his reappearance 28 hours later – a circle of sand around him was also melted to black glass. Operative Osbourne reports that Foster had no memory of the episode. We have reason to believe that Foster has recently been back in Cairo purportedly researching for a new novel.

Your mission:

a) to establish the reason for the Bird group's robot's failure

b) to inspect any video footage available after its recovery

c) to assess and evaluate any 'occult' influences present at the site

d) to gather and assess further information regarding Ben Foster's 'abduction' and his subsequent activities in Cairo

Political climate: Operatives should be aware that the terrorist menace in Egypt is growing, and that tourist sites such as the Giza complex are being targeted. Operatives should conduct themselves with care, and in particular avoid giving offence, by word, action or dress, to the devout Muslims who form the backbone of support for the Islamic Brotherhood terror organization.

Expenses: SITU will reimburse Operatives for all reasonable expenses incurred during the investigation. Receipts will be required.

General advice: All operatives should be aware that, while they may choose to operate outside the law, they are not above it. SITU does not condone unlawful activity of any nature. Note that SITU will not act on the behalf of an Operative who is cautioned, arrested, charged, etc in the course of an investigation. Indeed, if an Operative were to attempt to contact SITU in such a situation, he/she would find all telephone numbers unobtainable and all addresses unoccupied.

Pharaoh's Heart Was Hardened
Chapter 1

11.30am (local time), 11 March 1998

The plane skims high over the rolling desert – mile upon mile of utterly featureless golden sand. From above, the outline of the dunes could not be made out, with the sun as close to overhead as it now was – only the flickering movement of the plane's shadow gave away the texture of the desert below.

John Torillo has been peering out of the window for the last ten minutes, since the plane crossed the Egyptian coastline. He is a tall man, in his late twenties, with brown hair and green eyes, betraying an academic's slight stoop when he stands. He is wearing a tasteful dark grey suit, but his scarred and weather-beaten hands indicate that this archaeologist has a good deal of field experience. "There it is!" he says enthusiastically. A thin, dark line has appeared on the horizon, breaking the uniformity of the desert. "That line – the valley of the Nile – it looks so narrow from up here – birthed one of the greatest civilizations known to history!"

His neighbour, Isobel Blyth, politely cranes to see. She has been quiet during the journey, answering John's attempts at conversation politely. She is a few years older, taller than average and slim, with tidy, bobbed dark brown hair. She wears a smart tailored suit and her makeup is impeccably applied. She conveys nothing less than the image of the perfect Home Counties housewife.

Celestina Mirande, the other female member of the SITU team, is a complete contrast in appearance, and makes a much stronger impression at first sight. She is slim, with delicate, well-structured features and mid-brown skin, and although some inches shorter than any of the other operatives she does not appear small. She wears a long, flowing skirt with a bright African print, and a plain green top, with a yellow-and-red scarf wrapped around her head. She has clusters of silver and wooden jewellery festooning her neck. When she greeted the other investigators, she shook their hands with a slightly unusual grasp, although none were able to attach any significance to the gesture.

Next to Celestina is Johnny Stone, the radio psychoanalyst. Like many who have risen to prominence in the spoken medium, his appearance is unremarkable: of average height and build, his hair is mousy blond and short, and he wears combat trousers and a nondescript beige shirt. He and Celestina have been comparing knowledge of Haiti – Celestina's ancestral home, which Johnny has visited – although he has been letting her do most of the talking.

Andrew Weiser, the Norwegian member of the group, is also looking curiously out of the window. He has said little and looks if anything even more undistinguished than Johnny. He is around thirty, tallish, with short blond hair and blue eyes, and he introduced himself as a history student at the University of Bergen when he met the other operatives at Heathrow Airport early this morning.

Eddie Davis more than makes up for the quietness of his neighbours. He is a larger-than-life personality, chunkily built although small in height, and with a booming laugh which has had frequent exercise thanks to the stream of jokes with which he has regaled his companions. In his mid-twenties, with close-cropped brown hair, he wears outdoor gear like Johnny. "How are we going to catch the rugby results out here?" he wonders ruefully, his West Yorkshire accent strong, staring down at the smear on the horizon that is Cairo.

The last member of the group is Micky Thomas, who has said barely a word since the meeting. He is small and slim, with a wiry build, dressed in jeans and a leather jacket. He is in his early thirties, with mousy brown hair of medium length. "Would you please fasten your seatbelt now, please, sir," says the stewardess to him, and he sighs in mock annoyance before doing so, as the plane starts its steady descent towards Cairo.

The Hilton is virtually empty, and its staff wear the worried looks of men and women whose jobs are under threat. The SITU operatives are fallen upon by bellboys, porters and chambermaids anxious to escort them to their rooms, which are all along the same corridor. Clearly the recent upsurge in terrorist action has severely damaged the tourist trade here. The accommodation, while not palatial, is far better than anything most of the group are used to, and a certain amount of time marvelling at the contents of the mini-bar is only to be expected.

It is early afternoon by the time they congregate in the bar.

"How should we go about tackling this investigation?" asks Celestina, once everyone is settled.

All eyes turn to John, who as an archaeologist himself might be expected to take a lead. "Well, I suppose it would be polite to introduce ourselves to Professor Bird as soon as possible. The question is merely whether we should all head down to the site now – it's about fifteen minutes' drive from here – or should we split up, and some of us concentrate on other avenues of investigation?"

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