The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness


7 am, Wednesday 11th August 1999

Donald, waking from the dream, walks over to the mirror, looking tired. He runs his fingers through his hair, and notices a couple of grey ones starting to come through. Lighting a cigarette, he looks at the stern face staring back at him. ‘Getting too old for this, Donald. Perhaps after today nothing will matter.’

Rupert meanwhile is gabbling into his mobile phone. ‘Hello, Andre Swahn?’ Half the rest of the party seem to have rung up for a chat over the last couple of days. ‘This is Rupert de Montfort from Egypt, I’m ringing about an emergency.’

‘You’d better be… it’s five in the morning here,’ comes Swahn’s tired-sounding voice. ‘What is it?’

‘Well, where do I start? We haven’t a damned clue what to do to stop Abdel Essawi. I think you’d have been better off sending an Elvis impersonator on this mission. At least he could have entertained the Arabic delegates in front of the Pyramids while Nefertiti controls them.’

Swahn sounds more awake now. ‘Rupert, you people have got to achieve a positive result there. We’re absolutely counting on you. Nefertiti has shown herself in the past as one of the most evil and domineering Ylids. You’ve got to stop her, whatever it takes.’ His tone is almost pleading. ‘You’re the best people we’ve got for a job like this.’

Rupert blinks at this alarming intelligence, but continues blithely. ‘Next is the rather significant fact that we believe Armageddon, as detailed in the Book of Revelations, is due to happen today. If I were you I’d cancel your dinner date for this evening – and now seems the ideal time to start smoking again, if you were planning to. If you don’t, you’ll end up as smoke by the end of today, anyway.’

‘What? – are you serious? Armageddon? –’ Swahn splutters.

‘Finally, and most worryingly of all, we have a mad nymphomaniac in the party, who seems to want to shag everyone in sight. It’s horrific, and the only good point is that we’re so useless as a group that she’ll die by the end of today. It’ll be a blessed relief for most of us.’

‘Rupert, have you been smoking? – no, surely it’s too early –’

‘Don’t worry your head about it, Andre. With us in the driving seat we’re all doomed, so just lie back and accept the inevitable. Anyway, old chap, it was great talking to you – I hope you enjoyed this fascinating conversation as well.’ Rupert talks across Swahn’s attempts to break in. ‘I’ve got to go now, to do a bit of sightseeing before we totally screw up the mission and the world ends. Wish me luck, or alternatively, don’t. Oh, by the way, are you French, with a name like Andre, or were your parents just pretentious?’

‘My mother was French… listen, Rupert, are any of the others there? I really think I should talk to one of…’

‘Cheerio, or should that be break a leg? Or some other part of your anatomy?’

Rupert closes the phone with a snap, carefully turning it off to prevent Swahn calling him back. Then he trots down to join the rest of the group over breakfast.

Phil has established that everyone else had the same dream as him. ‘Strange – a mass hallucination effect? But I suppose we’ve all been under the same sorts of stresses lately, so maybe it’s not that surprising we should dream the same.’

‘It made me feel a bit uneasy,’ confides Arabella. ‘If it was Nefertiti who sent it, she seemed to be saying that she was harmless to us, that she wasn’t part of the SITU–Ylid war.’

‘To be honest,’ says Donald, ‘I don’t really care what it means. We know what we came here for and I’m certainly not going to be put off by some tree-hugging hippie crap that she’s trying to get us to believe.’

‘We’ve certainly seen the evil acts her minions are capable of perpetrating,’ says George.

Arabella glances to Jo for support, but she is looking about the refectory, tracking the movements of the religious students. Now would be a bad time to be caught out.

‘So, these documents – are we going to distribute them as planned?’ asks Phil. He can see that if he wants a scoop on the story, he will have to move fast. ‘Despite the Imam’s reservations about the effect on Egyptian society?’

Donald shakes his head ‘Look at the bigger picture. If we don’t stop Essawi here, today, there isn’t going to be an Egyptian society left – it will become an Ylid society. I think we’ve pussyfooted about far too much already. If anyone disagrees with me then I might as well shoot you now and spare you the pain of what might happen should Essawi win today.’ He glances around. ‘Girls and boys, this is good versus evil, it’s the only way to look at it. Our only saving grace is, well,’ he fingers his gun and gives a small smile ‘we ain’t that good.’

‘We certainly ain’t,’ mutters Michael, who is even more withdrawn than usual.

‘Someone get the copies made and sent out to whoever needs to see them –’

‘I’ll take care of that,’ says Sam.

‘And make a bundle for Mahmoud and I, we’ll put them up around town, drop them where they’ll be obvious. This might create some problems for Essawi.’

‘Whatever happens, the press will find out eventually,’ points out Rupert. ‘We don’t live in a vacuum. Essawi is big news. Far better to use the press to destroy him than to let them find out afterwards. That way the attacks will be focussed not on Egypt but on Essawi in particular.’ He counts on his fingers. ‘Make six sets for me, too, please, Sam dearest.’

‘The more people see them, the greater the chance of them becoming public,’ says Jo. ‘But is it safe to distribute them while we’re still here? Surely we should disassociate ourselves from them as much as we can, so maybe mail out copies as we leave the country.’

‘That’ll be too late –- we need this information to get out now, so that we can use it to gather support,’ explains Donald.

‘Anything we can do to discredit Essawi in the eyes of the people and, especially, the Establishment is a good thing,’ says George. ‘We should make the most of the time we have to do damage. We may be able to piss on his chips if he gets away from the Sphinx intact – hopefully he will not find too many friends in the Government.’

Arabella raises her eyebrows at this salty military lingo. ‘Well, with any luck we’ll be able to finish him off on the day.’ She hopes she does not sound as unconvinced as she feels.

‘Hi, it’s Donald here, today’s the day.’

‘Good luck!’ comes Geoff Blaize’s hearty voice. He at least sounds like he has had a decent night’s sleep. ‘We’re all cheering you on.’

‘Well, to be honest I don’t think we’re up to it, nerves are very frayed and we’ve seen some pretty nasty stuff, but we’ll do our best for you – I guess we’re fighting for the world, so it’s quite a big job.’

‘The biggest!’

‘I’d like a couple of favours from you guys should I make it home.’

‘If you pull off a result, old man, you can name your price – whatever. Dream holiday in the Bahamas? Sports car?’

‘No – nothing like that. I’m going to be giving you some documents to keep safe, I’ll explain more at home. And I’d also like you to get some papers together so I can get Mahmoud out of here. I see too much of myself in the boy and this is my one chance to perhaps save myself. Please say you’ll help.’

‘Of course we will! Nothing but the best service for our brave lads. We can even fix you up some adoption papers for him if you like.’

Sam plonks down a big heap of posters in front of Donald: she has had the staff of the local photocopying bureau busy for the past half-hour.

Donald grabs his coat and motion to Mahmoud. ‘We’ll be off then.’ His tone becomes deathly serious as he takes what might be one last look at the assembled group. ‘We are also going to rally the troops. If you don’t see me at the Sphinx later, I won’t be there, I’ll be dead.’

As he and Mahmoud leave, Donald gives the others one last glance. ‘It’s been emotional.’

‘I say, George old chap, can I pick your brains, if you can locate them for me? I’d like to ask your advice if I can.’

‘Er, of course, Rupert. How can I help?’ The two friends are alone in the bar, George setting his nerves steady for the day’s action.

‘You’re a man of the world, though which one I’m not sure. Anyway, can you help me on the subject of our esteemed colleague Arabella?’

George swallows heavily, wary. ‘Ah… what’s on your mind, Rupert?’

‘Well, what is she up to? She used just to be a rather repressed woman who seemed intent on giving all our secrets to the opposition. A bit odd, but bearable. Now she’s just a raging hormone! What is going on? She asked me to move in with her, but it seems her proclivities change with the wind. Help!’ Rupert does not know exactly what passed between Arabella and Jo the previous day, but from the expressions on their faces as they emerged he hazards it was not entirely pleasant.

‘Oh, well, semper mutabile et… er, whatever the Latin chap said, Rupert,’ says George embarrassedly. ‘You know, women, tricky blighters to understand at the best of times. Better not to try! But I’m sure Arabella wants nothing but the best for you, you know.’ He thinks wistfully of his own dear departed Rose. She had certainly never got up to any such antics. And, many though Rupert’s fine qualities are, he is not exactly the sort of chap you would be happy for your daughter to bring home.

Rupert nods intently. ‘You’re quite right, as ever. Maybe if I put in a word for you we can have that foursome – but remember, I get first pick out of Arabella and Jo!’

George splutters into his brandy.

Rupert stands up, stretching. ‘I just don’t know what to do. She’s been behaving so irrationally that anything she has promised me about being loyal and dependable has to be taken with a pinch of salt. If I move in, will I get chucked out after one week, shagged to death, or stabbed in the shower?’

‘We’ve all been under a lot of pressure… I don’t suppose any of us have been at our best these past few days.’

‘Anyway, let’s put our personal problems aside for a bit, and try and succeed at this mission, eh?’ Rupert claps George on the back.

‘Imam Hosseini, may I have a word before we begin our business today?’ John asks politely. The Imam is in even more of a state than usual, being robed in his finest garments for the coming ceremonies. ‘Hopefully today will bring to a head our activities of the last few days, and I would like to thank you for the kindness and generosity you have shown us.’

‘Oh, it was no more than anyone would do,’ says the Imam distractedly, nodding. ‘It has been a pleasure having you here.’

‘I was wondering whether or not you may have some way of contacting the people that helped you at the pyramid last year? Sarfraz and his friends could do some good at Essawi’s ceremony, especially if it were made clear to them by someone such as yourself that it was blatantly anti-Islamic. The evidence we have could do some long-term harm to Essawi but what we need to do is stop him today before he completes this ceremony.’

Imam Hosseini’s eyes dart about in a panicky fashion. ‘Ah, I am not sure if I can find them at such short notice…’ It seems that whatever trouble comes off, he is not keen to be an instigator.

‘Leave it to me, then,’ says John confidently. He knows where to find Sarfraz, at least: the old man eventually went back to his hut in the diggers’ village after the excitement of his visit to Tell el-Amarna wore off. Let the Imam try and duck out of his responsibilities when he is faced with a crowd of irate citizens.

‘You’re sure this is the place?’ hisses Donald. Mahmoud has taken him to a nasty-looking tenement building, deep in the industrial suburbs. On the way, they have been scattering copies of the documents all over the city, in a subtle enough manner not to have yet been seen at it by the police.

‘Islamic mens, yes, yes, many here,’ urges the lad.

Donald, glancing around, hides his gun inside a nearby bin. He removes a white handkerchief from his pocket. ‘I hope they know what this means.’ He steps out into view of the front of the building, while Mahmoud cowers anxiously nearby.

There is no hail from the building, but a man’s face appears at the door. He is wearing a tarboosh pulled down over his face. He regards Donald silently, appraisingly. There is the glint of sunlight from a gun.

Donald is very calm. He’s been in tighter spots than this. ‘Hello,’ he says in a chirpy voice. ‘I need to talk to you.’

A moment’s pause, and four men come out from the building, all dressed in white djellabah and tarboosh, all armed with AK-47s. The leader stands in front of Donald, while his men fan out. ‘English! What you want here? We kill you!’

‘Don’t do that, mate. I’ve got some information that might interest you, see?’

The men exchange glances, and before too many moments have passed Donald finds himself tripped to the floor, dragged into the building porch, sat on and searched thoroughly. ‘You see I am unarmed,’ he says in a rather muffled voice. ‘I am not here for trouble. I’ve come to talk to you about a man you know very well, Abdel Essawi.’

At the sound of this name the pummelling stops, and whoever is sitting on Donald’s back gets off. He is dragged to his feet and held up against a wall, the muzzle of a revolver shoved in his face. ‘You should speak carefully, English, or you will die in one second.’

‘He is not at all what you think he is,’ says Donald, trying to force conviction into his voice. The eyes of the man holding him are those of a fanatic, not of a man who can be reasoned with. ‘He is evil, and he is working for someone even worse. Read some of the papers in my pockets – we took those documents from his house.’

The leader pulls out the wad of papers and riffles through it, his lips moving.

‘We didn’t make any of it up,’ urges Donald, ‘it’s all true… oof!’ as he is punched heavily in the stomach. ‘Look, you don’t have to believe me, or those documents, if you don’t want to – ow! – you can see for yourself. Later today, Essawi is going to be conducting a ritual near the Sphinx to raise some kind of evil god – ugh! – I know how religious you men are, if you are true to your word then you will understand Essawi is not at all what you think he is.’

He pauses briefly to be sick, slumping to his knees, supported by the two men who have his arms pinned.

‘My proposal is this – I will take you near to where Essawi will be. You can see for yourselves what he is doing. If you think I am lying after you witness what he is up to then well, I am at your mercy – aagh!’

‘You are already at our mercy, infidel scum!’ spits the man. ‘But maybe your suggestion is not utterly without merit.’ He leafs through the papers again. ‘These are clearly forgeries, but all the same…’

‘This small boy was taken prisoner by Essawi’s thugs,’ says Donald in quiet desperation. ‘You might have heard of Ali Ramzy? Mahmoud, tell them what they did to your friends and were planning to do to you.’

Mahmoud, who has been absolutely white with terror while all this has been going on, starts babbling wildly in Arabic. Donald has no idea what he is saying, but from the exclamations the Islamic Brotherhood thugs are making, it is clearly quite disturbing.

‘Yes, w must find out more about this,’ says the leader decisively, turning back to Donald. ‘But for now, English, you will quiet your mouth.’ He kicks Donald hard in the teeth, slamming his head back against the rough brick wall.

Everything is briefly surrounded by a halo of light, white fading to red, and through it Donald glimpses the face of the Grail Maiden, peering over the shoulder of his assailant. ‘Arthur, Arthur, hast thou not suffered enough on this earth? Surely thy last battle is now at hand, and the time when thou canst lay down thy sword for the long sleep ahead?’

Then all is darkness.

‘You’re getting too bloody old for this shit,’ John thinks to himself as he goes through his checklist; maps, compass, food and water. He loses himself for a few minutes, thinking back over the last couple of years. ‘Running away again. It’d be nice to hang around somewhere just once.’ His main plan is to try and get a small boat and travel down the Nile to the Med: Port Said looks promising. Then try to get on a ship heading to Cyprus. ‘It’s either that or grab a Landy and head across country. Not too appealing.’

Rolling up his sleeve, he injects himself with a dose of the dubhium serum. ‘No idea what this is going to achieve, but it’d be nice to think that something good was brought out of the Himalayas… aah! Jesus Christ!’ It is as though liquid fire is coursing through every vein in his body. There is a roaring in his ears, and lights explode in front of his vision. He convulses, screams out loud again, and collapses to the floor unconscious.

‘We have to be very careful here,’ says Rupert, as the main body of operatives makes its way towards the Giza plateau. ‘Don’t let’s push our luck. If we try and get through a cordon, and they seize the obelisk, we’re totally screwed. We should play this by ear, I think. Let common sense prevail. There might be a problem this, because none of us has any common sense, but still.’

‘We should wait for Donald’s disturbance to start before we start on the ritual,’ says Jo. ‘That way the police will be tied up.’ It is apparent that Essawi has entrusted the police with security for the event, in the presumed absence of Ali Ramzy’s gang. There are also some army units about the place.

The black limousines which have brought the foreign delegates, each with a different country’s flag fluttering on the bonnet, are drawn up in serried ranks to one side of the Sphinx, and the delegates themselves seated on padded chairs underneath a large awning, out of the heat of the sun. Around them mill assorted bodyguards and police.

There is not that much of a crowd of sightseers, just a few dozen bored rubberneckers, considerably outnumbered by the security.

‘Willem old chap, or whatever your new name is, can you suggest the best distance between the Sphinx, the ritual and the obelisk? If we get too close, then we’ll be spotted and recognized, but too far and we might as well be chanting the telephone directory for all the good it will do.’

Van Heuvelen looks uncertain. ‘The closer the better, I imagine,’ he says.

‘Look, it’s now or never, old fellow,’ insists Rupert. ‘If you know of anything that we have to do to stop Nefertiti and Abdel Essawi, you should tell us now. Tomorrow it’ll be too late, and we’ll probably dead, or worse, listening to Boyzone in Hell.’

‘If I knew what to do, I would have told you long since,’ says van Heuvelen, remarkably calmly considering. ‘It was the haughty Hetepheres who held such knowledge of witchery. But she is here no more.’

‘The basic plan,’ explains Arabella, ‘is to use the energy we’ve got stored in the obelisk to attack Essawi at the moment of the eclipse, hopefully while his own powers are being used to attempt his own ritual. We can catch him off guard and punch through his defences.’ She swallows. ‘I’ll be channelling, I guess, with your help Michael? The rest of you… chant, and keep attackers away, I suppose.’

‘Where the hell’s John?’ mutters Jo. There has been no sign of him since he went off earlier that morning to meet with Sarfraz.

‘Did he look… odd… to you, when he left?’ wonders Phil cautiously.

‘Odd? How d’you mean? He was a bit intense, I suppose.’

‘But after he’d been doing all that screaming earlier. I don’t think tough guys like him normally scream like that just from cutting themselves shaving.’

‘I checked his forehead, and he didn’t have the witchmark,’ puts in Michael.

‘Come on!’ snaps Rupert. ‘That’s enough debate. Let’s get ready to chant – it looks like Essawi’s about to begin.’

The unmistakable barrel-like shape of Abdel Essawi, dressed in a soft grey suit, makes its way to the dais in front of the assembled delegates, and starts to talk – too far away to be heard. Between the operatives and the scene at the Sphinx are two cordons of police, glancing keenly about them. The operatives are concealed in the shadow of a ruined brick wall.

‘Look! – those must be the other cultists!’ points out Phil. Essawi is being joined by a group of robed men and women, to the police applause of the delegates.

‘I’d forgotten how bad this was,’ comments Rupert, as a faint chanting starts to make itself heard. ‘It sounds like Ronan Keating being strangled. The only difference is that at least while being strangled he’s suddenly gained some talent, rhythm and vocal ability. It’s not all bad, then. Perhaps this is where the new boy band could come from…’

‘Stop babbling,’ says Arabella firmly. She starts up the operatives’ own chant, her voice wavery at first, gaining in confidence as she is joined by the others.

Jo is not chanting but looking constantly from side to side, and it is she who sees the mob starting to emerge from the village of Nazlet el-Simman. At their head is the wild, capering figure of Sarfraz, while slouching along reluctantly beside him is the morose Maleel. They are armed with cudgels, picks, hoes and stones.

The response from the police is immediate: two squads are detached to move across swiftly and cut off the villagers before they can be seen from the delegates’ position. Clearly the organizers are not keen for the sight of broken heads to impinge on their honoured guests.

Almost at the same time, though, a column of battered cars sweeps down the Sharia al-Ahram towards the Pyramids, passing straight through the police checkpoint. All the cars bear a white flag with the name of Allah in green.

Donald comes round, aching, covered in blood and vomit, face down in the rear footwell of a very smelly and rattly car. Jammed in there with him is Mahmoud, and the feet of three men rest on them. ‘When this is over, Mahmoud, I want to take you to England with me to live. You are a brave kid, and you deserve better than this.’

Mahmoud, his face pressed unpleasantly into Donald’s shoulder, whimpers slightly. Clearly he has little confidence that such a plan will get its chance to succeed.

‘Don’t worry about a thing, I’ll get you out. You just sit tight.’

‘Hey, English!’ comes the voice of the leader from the front. ‘You are with us again? We are at el-Gizeh now. We will see the lies you tell us, and you will die, as Allah says is right for an infidel who will not see the truth.’

‘It doesn’t matter what religion you believe in,’ says Donald stoutly, ‘Someone’s looking after that kid.’ The car engine noise cuts, and he can hear the faint chanting from the Sphinx area. ‘Take a good look – does any of this look like the teachings of your religion?’

From her better vantage, Jo sees Essawi do a double take as the Islamic Brotherhood column roars towards him. Clearly he had not thought to instruct the police to prevent their approach. Without missing a beat in the chant, though, he raises a hand and makes a gesture, and at once two armoured cars start to speed across from the lee of Menkaure’s pyramid to intercept the Brotherhood.

Donald hears an angry shouted Arabic exchange, then the men in the car go very quiet. Craning up, he can see that the lead armoured car has brought its gun to bear on the car.

‘Now we don’t have a lot of time, will you help us or not?’

‘It seems,’ the leader says slowly, ‘that not all Christians are liars.’ He barks a command in Arabic, and the car’s wheels spin as it reverses into a sharp right-hand turn, taking it to one side of the armoured cars, around a heap of masonry. The Brotherhood thugs spill out, filled with righteous anger.

‘Hey! Me too!’

The leader, grinning humourlessly, bends into the back of the car and slits Donald’s bonds with a long knife. ‘You are a brave man, English. If Allah wills we live this day out, I will share a fine cigar with you.’ He tosses an automatic to Donald as he crawls out of the car, flexing his cramped limbs.

Within the space of about ten minutes, the borders of the ceremonial scene have dissolved into chaos. Diggers are in open battle with police to the east, each bashing the other heartily with whatever weapons come to hand. To the north, an all-out gun battle is under way, the Islamic Brotherhood moving expertly through the ruins to outflank the superior firepower of the infantry units they are up against.

At the ceremony itself, though, all is curiously peaceful and tranquil. Jo would have expected the delegates to be piling into cars and fleeing the scene, but they, and their bodyguards, merely sit or stand impassively as Essawi’s chant weaves its spell over them.

‘Come on! We’re going to have to get closer now, while the security’s distracted – we need to get in and stick it to him!’ She starts to shepherd the ring of chanting operatives, Arabella carrying the obelisk, over the broken ground through the gap which has now opened in the cordon.

John is taking giant strides, a mile at a step, across the ancient landscape, the sun wheeling dizzily about him, the moon and stars dazzling about his head. Where he steps, forests grow, and rivers flow as he points his hand. His skin tingles with a million fine needles.

Ahead he can see the old man-lion, squatting astride the web of power that flows up the west side of the river, from the necropolis at the Valley of the Kings, through Abydos, through Asyut, through Memphis, through Amarna itself where the Aten came down to earth to greet the queen who created it. She is here, hidden, in among the myriads of al-Qahira, but his blood calls out to her. He strides forward again, but the lion rises, wakes, and roars., a tracery of golden energy pouring up through it like a fountain.

‘Don’t kill my friends!’ Donald exclaims. ‘You need them alive… I’m off to help them, there’s only a couple of them who can look after themselves.’

‘God be with you, English!’ The Brotherhood leader hurls a grenade towards the nearer armoured car.

Jo sees Donald running across the plateau towards them, dodging from building to building. She can also see John, in the midst of the villagers, walking slowly, standing upright, impervious to the blows of police batons that are raining down all around him.

‘Hope you haven’t missed me!’ pants Donald.

‘Glad you could make it. Help me keep an eye on these, huh?’ It is much easier to guide Arabella’s chanting group in the right direction with two. The obelisk is now growing brightly.

‘There’s John, look – what the hell’s he up to?’

‘God knows. He looks – hey!’

John has just walked straight through a knot of three policemen, casting them to either side as though made of straw. The villagers raise a ragged cheer of ‘Insh’allah!’ and redouble their efforts.

Arabella can feel the obelisk shaking gently, like a pan of water coming to the boil. Any moment now she is going to have to pour its energy out towards Essawi. But he still seems so strong, so impervious, chanting away resolutely, the cultists gathered around him adding their strength.

‘Jesus, there goes the sun!’ exclaims Donald. In all the excitement, everyone has forgotten that there is an eclipse this afternoon. A great dark bite is eating away at the western edge of the sun, and shadows are weakening and turning watery.

In the dimmed light, Essawi’s power burns ever more brightly, so that looking at him is like gazing at the sun itself. The same is true of the obelisk Arabella is carrying – her arms starting to ache under the weight, but that is nothing to her – and he at last notices it.

All at the same time, the cultists turn to face Arabella and her group, and all feel a wave of heat pressing them back, as though they are advancing into a furnace.

Rupert, tears coming to his closed eyes, can see nothing, but he can feel the force of evil pushing the group back. He clasps out blindly for hands to either side, closing the circle tight. ‘Come on! We can’t give up now! What’s a little heat to worry about!’

Donald, ahead of the others, has now reached the awning, and he strides firmly towards the cultists, firing into the group of them from the hip, ignoring the Arabic delegates.

The chant falters, and the furnace-blast heat wavers. ‘Now!’ shouts Michael. ‘Now, Arabella! Through me! I can use it!’

Arabella lifts the buffeting lid in her mind, and the sun-power courses out of the obelisk, tearing through her like floodwater through a dried-up channel. She totters and sinks to her knees, clutching the obelisk to her.

Michael is in the biggest rush of his life. The power, that he has to work so hard for, that he has to dredge up from the dark side of himself and the dark deeds he has done, is surging through him, bearing his spirit upwards like a dark arrowhead. His mind’s eye can see Abdel Essawi pale, stop chanting, step backwards, make a sign of protection, but it is all vain – the black arrow smashes straight into him, battering him back, twisting and turning through his evil body, seeking out his heart.

Phil sees Essawi drop to the floor, writhing, clutching at his heart, his face purpled – he has suffered what looks like a major coronary.

Donald, his teeth bared in a snarl, steps up, bends down and pumps three bullets into Essawi’s head.

All is now chaos on the podium. The delegates and their bodyguards are all slumped unconscious. The cultists are dead or fleeing.

Michael comes back to himself. ‘Yes! Result!’ He spits on Essawi’s body.

‘Well, that wasn’t as hard as it could have been,’ says Rupert, brushing himself down.

‘Wait a minute…’ says Phil slowly, pointing upwards.

The sun has disappeared, but so has the eclipsing moon. In its place is a flat golden disk, the disk of the Aten, with hundreds upon hundreds of hands snaking down from it towards the Earth, glowing like rays of light. And from deep within the Sphinx there comes a grinding noise.

‘Blasphemy!’ cries van Heuvelen, his voice shaky. ‘The foul sun-spirit that the witch caused to be a god! Her power is close upon us!’

The hands continue to snake down, grasping for the nearby buildings and people, burning as they touch brick, thatch, skin.

The awesome majesty of the Sphinx slowly, steadfastly rises to its feet, the feet of a great lion, and it casts its head about, sniffing for prey.

By now the villagers and police alike are trying to flee in terror, getting in each other’s way. The Islamic Brotherhood too have paused in their assault, praying stoutly for deliverance from this vile pagan monstrosity.

The Sphinx bends its head and snatches up three policemen at one bite, not bothering to chew them before swallowing.

John, ignoring it, steps around it, walking towards the pit now visible under where its  belly used to lie.

‘How the hell are we going to deal with that thing?’ asks Donald.

‘Let’s just get out of here!’ urges Michael.

‘We can’t leave these poor folk to be eaten!’ exclaims George. He reaches into his jacket and pulls out a taped bundle of seven sticks of dynamite.

‘Where did that come from? I thought we used it all!’ Donald exclaims.

‘Always carry a few spares,’ says George, tapping the side of his nose. ‘Old Royal Engineers trick.’ He rapidly prepares a fuse, his stubby fingers moving quickly and expertly.

‘Look!’ exclaims the sharp-eyed Jo. In the pit under the Sphinx’s belly, there is a glint of silvery metal, a curved shape. ‘What’s that?’

Arabella says ‘It looks like…’ but as she speaks it becomes apparent what the object is. Sleek, finned and pointed, with powerful-looking nacelles, it could be a missile, but the front part is glazed to form a cockpit. ‘A spaceship!’ But it looks like no craft ever constructed by human ingenuity.

John clambers down into the pit and touches the side of the ship, carrying out some complex-looking manoeuvre with his hands.

George leans forward and tosses the bundle of dynamite carefully under the rear left foot of the Sphinx, which is now half way to the village.

There is a great and terrible wailing, a woman’s voice, which reverberates all around the whole area. Everyone drops to their knees, clutching their heads. In the deafening noise, the sound of the dynamite exploding is lost, as is the rumbling crash of the Sphinx slumping to the ground, its leg shattered to fragments.

‘… I don’t really know,’ says John. ‘It was like I was vaguely aware what was happening, but I had no control. I was being ridden. Someone, a man – well, an Ylid I guess – maybe Alexander – took control of me after I injected the serum. He knew about Nefertiti’s spaceship, hidden under the Sphinx. He didn’t want her to use it – didn’t want her to leave Earth. I don’t know why. I could sense he had a sort of anger at her that she was betraying their kind. But he was familiar with the ship – he knew exactly what to do to make sure it couldn’t be used again.’

The ship is now packaged carefully and loaded into the rear of a speedboat, ready to set off up the Nile, then into the Mediterranean. John, now back to himself, is accompanying it back to England and SITU.

‘It’s weird, that silvery metal. Amazing construction, too. I couldn’t see how you’d get inside,’ says Phil.

‘It’s the same metal as that odd skeleton thing we saw in the Himalayas, in the cave of the ancestors,’ John says, almost to himself. His heart clenches as he thinks of Ella. Even her sacrifice had not been enough to bring that back, and now the valley had been destroyed. But maybe this victory will help make it worthwhile.

‘Thanks for your help,’ says Donald to the Brotherhood leader. ‘You have done the world a favour today.’

‘It was an honour to work with you,’ the man replies.

‘But keep vigilant, OK? We still don’t know what happened to Nefertiti herself – we’ve weakened her, I guess, but she’s still around somewhere. You’ll have to keep an eye out for more cults like this one starting up under her control.’

‘I wonder how much of this’ll get into the papers,’ muses Phil, looking around at the scene of devastation – Sphinx moved and broken, half-chewed villagers and policemen all over the place, an armoured car burnt out by the pyramid of Menkaure, Arabic delegates now shepherded bewildered away back to their embassies. He can already see the headlines on the pieces he himself intends to write.

‘Are you flying back to England with us?’ Jo asks Donald. She and Arabella are off to get their tickets.

‘I’ll be along in a day or so, once Blaize’s sorted out the boy’s paperwork.’ Donald ruffles Mahmoud’s hair. ‘Don’t worry, I’m not planning on bringing him on missions!’ But first, he has a little job to do, he things to himself. A matter of a word with his former employers.

Rupert saunters over, one arm around van Heuvelen, who is looking lost and confused once more, after the Imam kindly exorcised the spirit of Haremakhet from him. In the other hand he carries a bag of methadone for both of them. Withdrawal is going to be long and difficult, but together they can make it. He has hopes that if the Dutchman can clean himself up, he might even one day return to being a professor of archaeology. ‘So, Arabella – how about a celebratory shag before we head off for the plane?’


SITU Debriefing

To: Operatives 'John Hamilton', George Hardy, Philip Harlow, Samantha Michaelson, Rupert de Montfort, Arabella Robyns, Donald Swathe, Joanna Wilton

From: G M Blaize

Subject: Tackling Nefertiti

You are all to be congratulated on what turned out to be a highly successful mission. Short of killing Nefertiti herself, you could scarcely have done better. You slew her chief agent Abdel Essawi, together with the inner circle of her cult, and broke her power within Egypt, a country which will henceforth be much more wary of attempts to manipulate its national psyche by such means as this Ylid seems to specialize in.

The biggest bonus is the recovery of the spaceship. This example of Ylid technology is frankly beyond us at the moment, we’re still trying to work out how to get it open, but clearly analysis will reveal a great deal more about the Ylid nature. Why Nefertiti had it, and what she might have used it for, we can only guess, as presumably it had laid undisturbed under the Sphinx for the last four millennia. All questions for tomorrow.

Operative de Montfort is particularly to be commended on overcoming his personal problems to make an extremely valuable contribution to the team effort. His bravery and ingenuity are quite remarkable in one who I’ll admit frankly I feared was a total basket-case. As to his theory that the Ylid plan is based on the Book of Revelations (or possibly vice versa), we are treating it with the seriousness it merits.

SITU’s, and an unwitting humanity’s, war against the Ylid tyrants has now moved into a highly dangerous phase. You should be aware that all of you may be in considerable personal danger, assuming that Nefertiti’s agents retain enough structure to have identified you. Hitherto it seems she has been playing a fairly lone hand, but this setback may drive her closer to the other Ylids, with whom we are now openly at war. If any of you wish to enter secure accommodation, we can readily provide it, and we can of course cover for you with employers, etc.

Over the coming months further missions will be launched aimed at breaking the power of individual Ylids at their home bases: once this wave of attacks is over, we will be ready for the final conflict between their kind and ours. I know that you will be standing alongside me.

Geoff Blaize.

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