1 – Petra

The Age Of Ra by James LovegroveThe sun went down like a tin duck at a shooting gallery. Night stretched itself over the eastern Arabian desert, the light from a clear full moon creating a finely filigreed landscape of silver and black.

At an altitude of 1,000 feet a twin-engine Griffon-3 transporter plane released a stick of paratroopers in alternating door technique, ten on either side. Canopies flared immediately. The twenty men turned into the wind and dropped to the desert floor as silently as thistle seeds, each making a perfect five-point landing. Within minutes their chutes were buried and they were jogging towards Mount Hor and the dead city that nestled in its shadow, Petra.

They filed through the Siq, Petra’s eastern gateway, a sheer-sided gorge hacked out by a long-ago earthquake and smoothed by water erosion. In places it was so narrow they could barely walk two abreast. Above, the sky was a distant strip of starshine, a glittering river meandering between black banks. The paratroopers moved carefully, wide-eyed in the near-total darkness of the gorge. The path sloped steeply, uneven underfoot. Each man held his ibis-headed ba lance at the ready, reassured by the warmth he could feel through the handgrips, the charge of divine essence that glowed within the weapon.

The Siq opened out onto a valley. Directly ahead lay the rendezvous point, a Romanesque temple hewn out of the face of a sandstone cliff and known as Al Khazneh, “the Treasury”. Its colonnaded and porticoed entrance towered before the soldiers. Essentially a decorated cave mouth, it exuded a dusty silence, the breath of the ancient darkness within.

On the steps of the Treasury, Lieutenant David Westwynter lowered his lance and checked his watch. Precisely 8pm.

“Bang on time,” he muttered. “At least, we are.”

He gave the order to his men to fan out in a defensive formation. Sergeant Mal McAllister, his number two, relayed the order. The paratroopers broke off into small units and found what cover they could in this smooth-bottomed natural amphitheatre. They aimed their weapons in the direction an attack was most likely to come from, should one come: above.

“This can’t be a trap,” David said to Sergeant McAllister.

“Aye, but if it is,” McAllister said, finishing his sentence, “they have us the ideal spot for an ambush.”

“That’s just what I’m trying not to think.”

They waited. And waited. The cold desert wind sidled through the crags and canyons of the abandoned city, never louder than a sigh. In centuries past, Petra had been home to thousands. It had been a trading post, selling its principal resource, fresh water, whic h came from frequent flash floods and was husbanded in a network of dams and cisterns. The cave-dwelling citizens had worshipped deities who had been vanquished long ago, their names now forgotten, their effigies defaced. Christianity had briefly gained a toehold here, as had Islam. But in time those religions, too, had evaporated, leaving nothing but ruined monuments behind.

Petra, like so many other places, was a museum to the world’s fallen gods. A museum and a mausoleum. Here lay their legacy, such as it was — a few broken idols and abandoned buildings, sacred to no one. Here were the sparse, scratched traces they had left behind, the only tangible proof that somewhere on earth they had once held sway. Now mankind belonged to the One True Pantheon, and the wind blowing through Petra sounded, to David Westwynter’s ears, like a faint, mournful sob, the despair of defeated rivals. He was comforted by that.

“Sir.”

A whispered warning from McAllister.

David turned.

Men were approaching from the far end of the valley. He counted at least a dozen. They were spread out in a line, and the moonlight showed them to be clothed in ragged camouflage fatigues, with turbans around their heads and scarves across their faces, so that just their eyes were visible. Only the falcon-head nozzles on their ba lances and the maces that hung by their sides marked them out as Horusites.

David drew himself up to his full height, which at 5′10″ was a shade shorter than he might have liked.

The leader of the Horusite commandos halted in front of him and unveiled his face, revealing himself to be a broad-nosed black man with finely pitted skin. He stood an inch or so taller than David.

“Colonel Henry D. Wilkins, Eighth Infantry Division out of Cairo, Illinois,” he said, snapping off a salute. “Cobra Force.”

David returned the salute. “Lieutenant David Westwynter of His Pharaonic Majesty’s Second Paratroop Regiment, stationed on Cyprus.”

“By the light of Khons we have met… ” said Wilkins.

“… by the wisdom of Thoth may we assist one another,” David said, completing the password sequence.

It was a kind of verbal handshake. Wilkins stuck out his hand for the real thing.

“Pleasure to meet you, Loot’ Westwynter.”

“You too, sir. Related to Pastor-President Wilkins, I take it?”

Wilkins chuckled, amused. “How’d you guess? We don’t talk about him much. White sheep of the family.”

“The resemblance is marked,” said David, also chuckling.

“Mind if I call you Dave?”

“David, preferably. I’ve only ever let one person call me Dave.”

“Sure. Whatever.” This was said with a slightly dismissive air. You Brits and your formality.

“And you’re late,” David pointed out.

Wilkins bristled. You Brits…!

“Listen, Lieutenant,” he said. “It so happens we’ve been tramping around the desert for three months. Hiding from enemy patrols and Saqqara Birds. Living like animals. So we arrive a few minutes later’n we’re supposed to. Cut us some goddamn slack!”

David frowned. The encounter had begun well, but things were deteriorating fast. He said, “You have some information for me regarding a concentration of enemy forces outside Amman and Damascus.”

“Straight to business, huh?” said Wilkins. “Yep, we’ve got some good shit for you all right. Long-lens photos of Nephthysian infantry and heavy armour being marshalled. Major, major build-up. Ask me, it looks like the start of a push northward into the Ottoman Empire to take on the Osirisiac Hegemony’s south-eastern flank.”

David’s eyes narrowed. “That’ll be for the desk jockeys in Intelligence to decide. Our job isn’t t o speculate. It’s to get the information back to them.”

“Looks pretty cut and dried to me,” replied Wilkins, adding sardonically, “But then what do I know? I’m just a dumb grunt on the ground who risks his life doing recon in hostile territory all day long. I sure as shit can’t imagine what else the Nephs would be gathering their forces there for, but hey, let’s do as you say and leave it to the big-brains. Ten’ll get you one they agree with me.”

“Where are they then?” said David. “The photos.”

“Back that-a-ways.” Wilkins gestured along the valley in the direction he and his Cobra Force cohorts had come from. “We’re holed up in this place that’s all towers and tombs. Ain’t far, no more than a quarter-mile. You can come alone or bring your guys with you if you like.”

David looked at Sergeant McAllister. “Let’s all go. We’ll be home by midnight.”

McAllister nodded, his lip down-curling. “Men! Fall in. Home by midnight.”

Wilkins had already walked off a few paces to rejoin his group. Now he stopped abruptly. His shoulders slumped. Not turning round, he cursed softly in a language that was not English. “Khara.” Arabic for shit.

David levelled his ba lance, training it on Wilkins’s back.

“Who are you really, Colonel Wilkins?” he demanded softly.

“‘Home by midnight’,” said Wilkins. “That’s your abort code. Mission compromised. Right?”

The paratroopers closed in on him and his men.

“I’ll ask again,” said David. “You’re not Cobra Force. You’re not even Americans. Are you Nephthysians? Setics?”

“The answer to that is fuck you, Dave.”

“Brave talk, but you’re surrounded and outnumbered. You have twenty fully charged god rods aimed at you. I suggest you try and be co-operative.”

“What was it?” Wilkins said. “Where did I slip up? How did you rumble me?”

“The accent’s pretty good,” said David, “but you pronounced the name of your base ‘Ky-ro’, not ‘Kay-ro’ as the Yanks do. And you said the Osirisiac Hegemony, when most Horusites call it the Parent Hegemony. Either of those, on its own, I’d have passed off as harmless. An idiosyncrasy. But together… ” He shrugged.

“Well, don’t I just feel like the big shit-eating idiot. All those years at the Baghdad Special Ops Academy watching crappy Hollywood movies, and I blew it with a couple of careless mistakes. Thing is, Dave, I’m not the only one who’s been careless.”

“What?” said David.

“Look up,” said Wilkins, adding, “sucker.”

The rim of the valley was fringed with soldiers. They stood silhouetted against the stars. David could make out the distinctive jutting rectangle-and-semicircle insignia on their helmets and the baboon heads that capped their lances. Well, that settled that. Nephthysians. They were all fucking Nephthysians.

Wilkins’s grin was bright and sickle-shaped in the gloom.

“You’re surrounded and outnumbered,” he said in a passable imitation of David’s English accent. “You have forty fully charged god rods aimed at you. I suggest you try and be co-operative, or else we’ll zap you all to the Field of Reeds.”

David’s response was to fire his lance at Wilkins.

Wilkins, however, had anticipated this and sprang out of the way. A beam of green ba light, pure godly essence, crackled out from the lance’s mouth, striking the man who was standing behind Wilkins. It seared a hole through his chest and he fell to the ground, shuddering in death.

Wilkins rolled and came up firing. Golden light blazed from his Horusite lance, but it was a wild shot and missed its target, scorching the step at David s feet instead. David leapt back and took cover behind a column. McAllister joined him, firing as he went.

The Nephthysians started shooting from above, strafing the valley floor with purple beams. The paratroopers scattered, loosing off retaliatory shots. Wilkins’s bogus Horusites also scattered. Shafts of light crisscrossed the valley at all angles, a cat’s cradle of lethal, coruscating power. Men were shouting and screaming, their faces lit up by the rippling exchange of fire.

David took aim upward and shot at the origin points of the purple beams. His vision was laced with multicoloured afterimages, like slashes across his retinas. A ba lance fire-fight in darkness was inevitably short-lived. After a while your eyes became dazzled and you were firing more or less blind. It would come down to hand-to-hand soon. He was prepared for that.

He scored a hit. A Nephthysian shrieked and plummeted from his vantage point, hitting the ground two seconds later with a crunch. David then winged another, whose own blaster shot went astray and lanced throug h one of his colleagues in the valley. Enemy fire came David’s way but struck the column harmlessly. At this range, the blaster beams could not penetrate solid stone.

A few of the paratroopers had retreated to the mouth of the Siq and were putting up a strong resistance from there. They took it in turns. One would shoot, eliciting return fire from the Nephthysians. Then the next paratrooper would aim a blast at where the enemy shot had come from.

The air was alive with the lightning-smell of ozone, along with a tang of burnt flesh. David sensed a lull was coming. The shooting was getting more sporadic. He slung his lance back over his shoulder on its strap and unhooked his hand weapons from his belt. Sergeant McAllister followed suit.

Colonel Wilkins, or whatever his name was, barked an order to his men in Arabic. All lance fire ceased. Then David heard the slithering sound of ropes being dropped, uncoiling as they fell. The Nephthysians on the valley rim were about to come down. This was his and his men’s chance. They had to take out the handful of Horusit es and flee down the valley before the additional Nephthysian soldiers weighed in with their greater numbers. It was the only hope they had of getting out of this clusterfuck alive.

“Crook and flail!” he called out. “Crook and flail!”

He and McAllister launched themselves from behind the column, hand weapons raised. The crook was a baton tipped with a crescent-shaped titanium blade. The flail was two lengths of ash wood linked by a short chain. Brandishing the one, whirling the other, David and McAllister made for the Horusite impostors. The other paratroopers were close behind, howling a war cry.

Colonel Wilkins and company rose to meet them, maces aloft. As the two groups engaged, David was appalled to see that they were more evenly matched than he had hoped. Only about half of his stick had survived the blaster fight. He knew they had taken casualties but not so many.

Then there was no time to think about any of that. There was only the immediacy of close-quarters combat, the brutal intimacy of standing toe to toe with an opponent and trying to kill him and not be killed, two people as physically near to each other as embracing lovers yet with the very opposite intention. David clinched with one of the Horusite commandos and let his training take over. The flail provided a diversion, preventing the man from swinging his mace properly. The crook meanwhile raked and slashed. Blood jetted, oil-black in the moonlight. The man went down, throat sliced open, gargling and drowning.

David spun to his left. One of his men, Private Langley, was being beleaguered by a pair of mace-wielding foes. Langley had lost his crook. A mace crashed into his chest and David heard ribs crack like far-off fireworks. He wrapped his flail around the attacker’s forearm and tugged him off-balance. His crook blade sank into the man’s eyeball and plucked it out like a plum from a pudding. A second, sideways jab with the crook cut short his scream.

Langley was on the ground, hissing with pain, struggling to get up. The other fake Horusite straddled him and lifted his mace with both hands to bring it down on Langley’s head. Had he been a true Horusite soldier, more experienced with the weapon, he would have gone for a shorter-range blow to stun his victim first and then delivered the skull-crushing coup de grâce. As it was, he left David with a split-second window of opportunity.

David came in from behind the man and snapped the flail up between his legs. As the man collapsed to his knees, whimpering, David hooked the crook through his turban into the side of his head and yanked. The man’s head jerked back. Most of his ear came away, along with a tangle of unravelling turban cloth. In an agonised frenzy the man aimed a backwards blow with the mace, which David was able to evade. Then Langley coshed him with his flail, knocking him sideways and concussing him.

David’s blood was up. His heartbeat was pure pounding timpani. He looked around for Colonel Wilkins. The bastard needed to get what was coming to him, from one commanding officer to another. Wilkins was clashing with McAllister, warding off the sergeant’s dual-weapon assault with deft use of the mace. He, at least, knew how to wield one. Something else he’d learned at the Baghdad Special Ops Academy no doubt.

Then David saw that the other Nephthysians had arrived. Some were already in the valley and rushing to join in the mêlée; the rest were on their way, abseiling down.

Now he and what was left of his stick didn’t have a prayer. Their only option was a tactical withdrawal.

“Retreat!” he yelled, stowing his hand weapons. “That way! Down the valley!”

He lunged past McAllister, barging Wilkins aside with his shoulder. McAllister came with him, running full tilt. The remaining paratroopers followed.

David had considered making an exit via the Siq, but it was too narrow, with too many potential bottlenecks. Wilkins might anyway have posted guards at the far end, and the paratroopers would be sitting ducks, coming up the gorge two by two.

Instead, all they could do was plunge deeper into the dead city and hope to find another way out.

Golden and purple beams of ba sizzled blisteringly around them. Private Robbins took one full in the spine. He arched backwards, slumping bottom-first onto the ground. Gasping and mewling, he groped for the hole in his back where several vertebrae had been fused together in a twisted mass of melted bone. His legs were splayed in front of him, useless. A second beam penetrated his skull from their rear. Briefly Robbins’s head was lit up from the inside, like a crimson lantern, before his eyes burst and his teeth exploded from their gums and he keeled over, smoke pouring from his mouth and nostrils.

Colonel Wilkins was shouting again, giving more orders in Arabic.

It was just David now, and McAllister, and four other men, versus some thirty or so enemy soldiers.

They ran on.

Then, ahead, like dark ghosts, yet more of the enemy appeared. They emerged from behind rocks, from cave mouths, from ledges on the valley wall. They moved slowly, stiffly, shufflingly, as though every step was an arthritic effort.

David’s breath caught.

Mummies.

He and his paratroopers skidded to a halt. The dead creatures in front of them advanced with a grim, swaying purposefulness, arms outstretched. They were wrapped from head to foot in cerecloths and linen bandages, which rustled as they walked. Their joints creaked, and their jaws worked, opening and closing with a terrible, empty clicking sound.

David felt nothing but a weary dread.

Mummies. He loathed mummies.

is men began firing. Fear — the innate, visceral fear of the undead — disrupted their aim. Shots went wild or else only clipped their targets. The mummies lumbered closer, little perturbed to have small chunks blown off them. Even the occasional direct hit in the body didn’t faze them. They staggered, then resumed their advance, lacy fireglow chasing across the singed parts of bandage.

“Knees!” David yelled. It was elementary tactics. “Wide beam setting! Cut them off at the knees!”

He demonstrated with a blast that sheared a mummy’s leg in two. The creature toppled onto its face. Even downed, it kept going, crawling along with its arms and one good leg.

The nearest of the m ummies reached the paratroopers. It lunged for Private Carey, enfolding him in an embrace of hideous strength. Carey barely had time to cry out as the mummy crushed him to its chest, shattering his ribs and spine and bursting his heart.

Then Wilkins’s voice rang out. A one-word command in Arabic halted the mummies in their tracks. Then, in English, he said, “Put down your weapons, Osirisiacs. Surrender. There’s no way out of this. We have you pinned down. Surrender, or go to meet Anubis like dogs.”

David glanced at McAllister and the other three.

He saw in their eyes. They didn’t want to die here, now, like this. They would if he asked them to. If that was his decision. But they didn’t want to.

Neither did he. He laid down his lance and raised his hands.

Within moments, he and his men were having their wrists bound tightly behind them. Colonel Wilkins strode up and looked David in the eye.

“Interesting,” he said smugly. “I had you pegged as the go-down-fighting type. Clearly there’s a streak of cowardice in the supposedly fearless British soldier.”

“No,” David replied. “It’s just that, as long as I’m alive, I can still kill you.”

“Ah,” said Wilkins, as if musing on this. “Ah ha.”

He gut-punched David, then kicked his legs out from under him.

“Kill me?” he spat, as David writhed in the dust. “I doubt it, Lieutenant Westwynter. But I’ll tell you this. By the time I’m done with you, you’ll be begging me to kill you.”

Amazon UK:

Leave a Reply

• Filed under Extracts • 08/08/2009 •