Longer writing….

The Secret

by

Matt Tucker

Chapter 1 : The discovery
Chapter 2 : A betrayal?
Chapter 3 : The convergence
Chapter 4 : Ambush!
Chapter 5 : The meeting
Chapter 6 : Racing against the clock
Chapter 7 : The desert awaits

Chapter 1 : The discovery

The canvas back of the Land Rover Forward Control 101 ex military ambulance was rolled open, the straps fastening it in position secured against the strong desert wind, the opening cool and dark compared to the bright heat outside. Within small LED lights winked on a rack of electronic equipment, the power cord leading back from the rear of the rack, over the tailgate of the truck to a small diesel generator positioned under the chassis in the shade. The rhythmic noise of the generator twisted and distorted by the swirling air currents, occasionally spluttering as the air intakes struggled against the all pervasive sand. Across from the truck, behind a small outcrop of rock recently exposed by the shifting, wind blown sand two figures, one male, one female toiled on hands and knees, sweeping at the accumulation of silicate particles, revealing more of the outcrop.

To the untrained eye it appeared as a natural formation, but these two figures appeared to be working with a purpose, a goal, exposing more of the surface, as though looking for something. An urgency in their movements suggested excitement that even the most fervent geologist would struggle to muster in an ordinary desert granite outcrop. These were not geologist though. Jack and Sarah were field archaeologists based at Oxford Universities prestigious Bodleian library, the oldest academic library being opened to scholars in 1602 and named for its saviour Sir Thomas Bodley, having been initially created in the 14th Century by then Bishop of Worcester Thomas de Cobham, and rebuilt by Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, the younger brother of Henry V to house his collection of 281 manuscripts. The library had, throughout its history been faced by challenges for the esoteric nature of many of its priceless treasures, and this history was not lost on the two scholars as they brushed at the hard stone.

The site had been a serendipitous find, Jack was looking at old World War II era aerial photographs of the region of desert to the North West of the Iranian border with Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers searching for clues to hitherto undiscovered early Mesopotamian settlement sites. The research followed recent discoveries in Southern Turkey which suggested an earlier date for settled agricultural communities in the region, and the conjecture that the development of large scale settlements may have forced the development of agriculture rather than being a result of that development. The concept had fascinated Jack, the question of what could cause a well established and successful nomadic “hunter-gatherer” community to risk it all by settling into one area on a semi-permanent basis. Clearly the driving force must have been a powerful one, and it challenged the prevalent theories of the development of civilisation. As such it was a subject worthy of closer investigation.

Having approached his head of Department, Emeritus Professor of social anthropology Sir Clive Edwards, Jack had been granted permission to utilise the library resources to put together a proposal for an archaeological expedition to explore the ideas in more detail. He had been offered funding for three months of initial study at Oxford and the cost of a research assistant. The choice of assistant had been an easy one. Jack, in his day to day life was Professor Jack Billings, senior lecturer in classical civilisations and societal development, and within his current student caucus there was one shining light of intellect and inquisitiveness. Sarah Penny had come up to Oxford as an undergraduate reading for joint honours in Philosophy and Classics, and having graduated with a double first had applied successfully to study for a postgraduate qualification studying societal change in early agrarian communities in the Near and Middle East. Her undergraduate thesis had clearly shown her keen researchers mind, and as her academic tutor Jack had seen first hand the inciteful nature of her mind, and the intellect behind it. For her part Sarah was fascinated by her professor, and was delighted to be chosen as his research assistant having experienced the quality of his critical analysis of her own work.

From the outset the working partnership had been highly effective, the two researchers finding an almost telepathic link between them as they instinctively seemed to be attuned to each others way of thinking, complementing each others strengths and driving the work forward at pace. The idea to compare the aerial reconnaissance photographs of the Second World war with more recent satellite imagery recorded during and after operation Desert Storm, the first Gulf War had come from Sarah. She had suggested that they look at the patterns of wind driven sand erosion to highlight any areas that could feature sub-sand structures, the telltale raised profiles making it easier to spot potential sites amongst the shifting sand sea. Within the first twenty photographic comparisons the quality of the idea was clear, as together Jack and Sarah found a series of potentially interesting location all along the intra-fluvian desert zone in the borderland between the regional power bases of Syria and Iran. The frustration came when they presented their initial findings to Sir Clive, the region being highly politically unstable, it was considered too dangerous for an expedition at that time.

It had taken Jack three months to persuade his department that the situation in the specific regions that they were targeting was sufficiently outside the more militarised zones that an expedition was not only possible but highly desirable. The recent events across the region had seen widespread looting of archaeological treasures both from museums and from previously protected sites in the field, and the risk of potentially highly valuable sites being discovered and robbed was a key deciding factor. The department had offered to fund a small security team to accompany Jack and Sarah, but both felt that such a group would attract more unwanted attention than the two of them going alone. The trip was planned and provisioned around a cover story of a couple exploring their families homeland, both Sarah and Jack being fluent in Arabic and several local dialects through their studies, and Jack particularly having a slightly Middle Eastern appearance from years of fieldwork in the region. They purchased the ex-military vehicle as the best means to transport them and their equipment to the remote region that they were most interested in, and having got final clearance had set off, driving across Europe and down through Turkey into the cradle of civilisation.

As they worked side by side, brushing at the sand on the leeward side of the rock outcrop, a sense of anticipation began to wash over them. Slowly, as they worked their way down the rock they started to see hints of what appeared to be lines, carved into the hard stone surface. Areas of the rock appeared to have been scored and chipped away in a manner familiar to both of them from studies of quarry sites and building remains across the region. The techniques of pecking at granite rocks with hammer stones and later with bronze chisels leaves highly distinctive marks and it was these that were causing them to almost hold their breath as they worked. As more of the rock was revealed the marks became increasingly distinct, straight lines in isolation at first but slowly appearing to form a pattern, the lines intersecting across the smoothed surface. Neither had spoken since they had begun this phase of their work, both wrapped in concentration, eyes glued to the surface. It was Sarah who broke the silence ;

“What is it Jack? Have you ever seen anything like these marks?” She asked, her voice barely a whisper.

“We need to keep going, this is very strange! See hee, these lines where they start to form this star pattern? That looks so familiar but it isn’t quite like any pattern I’ve seen before. It isn’t a match for the Egyptian star shapes on the tomb paintings we know of, but it isn’t quite like the earlier Babylonian imagery either.” Jack replied, confusion in his voice.

“No, I can see what you mean Jack, these marks appear more highly stylised, more structured, and look here, there is another set of marks across here that look similar, and isn’t that another set just below? Are they forming a pattern do you think?”

“I don’t know, but it is certainly starting to look that way, come on lets see if we can clear a little more and get a better idea!”

Brushes moving more quickly now, clearing layer after layer of soft, drifting sand from the face Jack and Sarah continued. The marks looked so fresh, that Jack began to wonder if perhaps they had found something much more recent than they were expecting. How could marks carved into rock, even rock as hard as this granite, have retained such clearly defined edges against the erosive nature of the surrounding sand? He thought back to previous dig sites, previous archaeological finds, the carved granite stellae in Egypt, the chiseled tombs of the Iranian desert, the rock cut habitation sites across region and how they had been worn and eroded by the passage of millenia. He shook his head as the questions began to mount. Could he have been so wrong about this site? Was it some recently lost local settlement? Was it possible that, out here in the desert someone was playing tricks? Seeding an area with fake artefacts? It wouldn’t be the first time researchers in this area had been fooled by carefully crafted fakes. He thought of the replica mummy cases in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the supposed lost treasures on the Solomonic temple, the mausoleum of Jesus Christ, and wondered at the lengths people would go to to prove a point or simple make money. He drew a deep breath and brushed on.

Beside him Sarah was having the same thoughts, her mind in turmoil as the rock was exposed. The lines just seemed to perfect, and yet the style of the shapes being revealed looked to be precursors of similar designs elsewhere. How would a forger know to create something that looked earlier than anything else in the region? Would someone trying to imitate existing artefacts use a style that was familiar? This just didn’t make sense, unless there really was an age to this find, unless it really did represent an earlier iteration of the style seen later in Egypt. But how then to explain the sharpness of line? Was it possible that the rock had been protected in some way? She knew that the area they were working in had suffered seismic activity throughout it’s history, so was it possible that the surface they were looking at had once been inside a cave, protected from wind driven sand erosion? She looked across at Jack for a moment, then returned to her work, each brush stroke revealing more and more of the strange markings.

The sound of the wind and the hum of the generator intermingled to create a background drone as the two archaeologists worked on, the sun passing its zenith and beginning the long march towards the Western horizon. As the shadows started to lengthen the markings on the rock face stood out in ever more stark relief emphasising the depth and sharpness of the lines, the patterns becoming clearer as the sand was removed. Jack stopped his brushing and stepped out of the trench that they were creating, looking back and down at the rock face, his breath catching as he began to see the pattern that was emerging. He looked across at Sarah just as she looked up at him and gestured for her to join him. Together they looked in awe at the sight before them, illuminated and highlighted by the shift in the suns angle. The lines they had been uncovering beginning to make sense, as they saw, not one, or two or three stylised stars but an entire constellation, and not just any constellation. What they saw before then could only be one star pattern. One that had been significant since the earliest records of astronomy. One which had resonance with the Pyramids at Giza, with the tiled and patterned floors of the Temple of Solomon and the citadels of Babylon and Ur. Before them, deeply incised into solid granite were the unmistakable stars forming the belt, and sword of Orion, the mighty hunter of the skies, known to the Egyptians as Osiris, the Heavenly Shepherd of the Babylonians, a figure first picked out on a piece of mammoth ivory dated to 32,000 years BCE. The image was lying horizontally rather than the more usual vertical depiction but there could be no mistaking the position of the stars.

“Are you seeing this Sarah?” Jack asked. “I think you’d better get the video camera, we need to record this before we go any further!”

Sarah returned to the truck, scarcely able to tear her eyes away from the images on the rock. She realised immediately that her initial thoughts appeared to be correct. Wherever this petroglyph had been carved, the rock it was on had moved over time to its current position. There was no way such an important figure would have been carved horizontally! The implication was shocking. If this rock had moved, if it had really been, as she now suspected, carved onto the roof of a cave, then it seemed more than plausible that the cave, or perhaps cave system might be in the immediate vicinity, perhaps still directly under the collapsed roof! She grabbed the rucksack containing their video equipment and hurried back to where Jack was waiting, opening the pack and setting up the tripod, the bases of the legs fitted with large square rubber feet to distribute the weight across the soft sand. She fixed the high definition digital camera onto its mount, and checked the image on the flip out screen. panning the camera across the revealed rock surface she slowly zoomed in to the key lines of the markings before pulling out to reveal the overall pattern.

“Make sure you get clear shots of each carving as well as the overall pattern” Jack called.

“I am!” Sarah retorted “Hold on, I need to get a better angle!”

She pulled the tripod round, catching the image more fully and recording the scene. As she did so she stopped, momentarily frozen in place by the image on the camera screen.

“Jack, come here quick! You have to see this!”

Jack sprinted from where he was standing looking at the rock, moving beside Sarah as she indicated a section of the screen that showed an addition to the traditional portrayal of the Orion figure. Descending from the belt, alongside the usual star positions denoting the sword were a series of smaller triangular markings, the tip of each triangle pointing downwards from the central star of the belt.

“Are those directional indicators do you think?” Sarah asked

“I’m not sure” Jack replied “If they are they don’t look like anything else I’ve come across in this area. Look here” He indicated the first, and smallest of the shapes, the size increasing with distance from the start point “Doesn’t this look more like a depiction of something physical rather than an abstract concept like a direction arrow?”

“It does look more like a depiction of the flint arrowheads we find on early hunter gatherer sites, yes, and look at the way the size increases as the sequence progresses. Doesn’t that look as though it is depicting motion towards the observer?”

“It could certainly be viewed that way, but doesn’t that seem strange given that the art of this period isn’t supposed to show perspective well beyond simple vertical perspective? I mean, true perspective doesn’t really appear until the 14th Century Florentine Renaissance art movement does it?” Jack asked

“No, I mean sure you have the Greek architectural styles of modifying building columns to create an illusion of geometric perfection but this doesn’t feel like that at all. This feels like something altogether more complex, more like whoever carved this wanted the viewer to be clear on the meaning!” Sarah continued “It is as if this is showing something coming from a point in space and approaching the observer, rather than anything else!”

They stood together, silent as the camera recorded the scene before them. It was minutes before Sarah finally hit the button to stop recording. They looked at each other, troubled looks mirrored on each others faces.
“We need to see what else is on this rock Sarah!” Jack exclaimed “We need to see where this leads”

They returned to the trench, picked up the brushes and continued to slowly work the sand from the granite rock, exposing more and more of the design, each section raising more questions. As they worked on, the sun slowly sinking they were barely aware of the colour draining from the sky until the darkness became such that they had to pause to erect halogen lamps to illuminate the excavation, too fervent in their excitement to consider stopping. As more and more of the carving was revealed the details on the triangular shapes started to raise ever more pressing questions. Jack and Sarah looked at each other in wonder, scarcely daring to believe what they were seeing as with each brush stroke the position of the lines on the rock face appeared to indicate something that stretched their credibility to breaking point.

“Sarah, I think we could really have something here!” Jack exclaimed “This looks so familiar, and yet I can’t understand what it is doing here or why it appears to have been carved inside a cave!”

“I know!” Sarah responded “The way the lines are incised, the shape of the star glyphs, the design of these triangles, it looks more like something I would expect in South America maybe, or at the very closet West Africa but at a much later date! This is just so strange!”

“I think we have to keep going Sarah, I think we have to see where these carvings take us!”

Jack turned back to the rock face, taking a deep breath as he continued brushing at the loose sand, Sarah beside him as they pushed on. The rock outcrop seemed to keep going, the more they exposed, there more there seemed to be, but gradually, as the hours passed it was Sarah who came to what looked like a definite edge to the shape. They paused, sitting back on their heels, gazing at the work they had done. By how the trench they were sitting in was thirty feet long, and they had exposed a section of granite that was approaching ten feet high. The pattern of carvings on the rock was unmistakable now. The star formation of Orion lay before them, and emanating from the central star of his belt, the supergiant blue star Alnilam, were a sequence of triangular shapes, each larger than the last, the final shape being shown appearing to hover above a circular shape. As they gazed on their discovery, eyes scanning the entire exposed surface Sarah placed her hand slowly on Jacks shoulder, and in a quiet, almost trembling voice said ;

“Jack, look over there, just where the rock edge disappears into the sand!”

Jack looked across and his breath caught as he saw the sand slipping around the edge of the rock, a clear indication of a void, hidden by the sand, the entrance becoming visible as the sand shifted. They watched for a few moments as the sand trickled slowly down, exposing a dark gap beneath the edge of the carved stone. It was Jack who broke the silence ;

“We can’t stop now Sarah! We have to see whether there is something under here, some remnant of the original cave system. Who knows what it might contain!”

Together they stood, turning and walking back to the truck to collect additional tools. As Sarah collected their excavation gear Jack busied himself with the electronic equipment housed in the rack.

“I’m going to send our GPS fix back to the library before we do anything else Sarah. I think we need to let Sir Clive know where we are if we are going to explore what is under that rock!”

“Good idea Jack, I don’t particularly want to get stuck out here with no-one knowing where we are! Do you want me to upload the video we have taken? We could send it via the satellite link?”

“It’ll take too long, let’s do an initial exploration of that hole and we can combine the reports and send them when we take a break.” Jack replied, punching keys and sending their GPS co-ordinates by e-mail back to the Bodleian where they appeared in the inbox of their boss.

Having sent the co-ordinates, Jack joined Sarah collecting up their equipment, climbing ropes, caving helmets fitted with powerful headlamps, stout gloves and a selection of short handled digging tools, picks and shovels. They returned to the rock, hunkering down behind it, relieved to be out of the wind that was still blowing strongly across the desert floor. Jack took the lead, moving to a position at the edge of the rockface, securing a rope around the outcrop and attaching it through a carabiner to the harness that he was strapping on. Once secured he began to slowly shovel the sand in front of him, gradually opening a larger space, clearing the area in a cone shape to prevent further sand falling in as he dug. The light from the halogen stands and his head torch illuminated the area as the sand gave way to underlying bedrock of the same granite as the outcrop.

“This must be the original base of the cave” He turned to Sarah as he spoke “See how it slopes away towards the North here? I think if I clear this area we might see something interesting beyond this current formation”

Jack turned back to his work, pushing the shovel into a patch of deeper sand to clear the area further when, without warning he felt the ground under him begin to shudder. He turned back to Sarah, a questioning look on his face, and she barely had time to register the tremor under her own feet before the section of rock on which Jack was kneeling gave way under him with a tremendous cracking sound, dropping sharply, causing a dense cloud of sand and dust to fountain up from the newly created hole. Sarah screamed and leapt backwards away from the collapse, before carefully crawling forward to the edge of the newly exposed hole. As she peered over the edge the dust began to clear and she could see, about fifteen feet below her a slab of granite, on which the prone for of her digging partner lay unmoving.

“JACK! JACK! Answer me! Are you ok?” She shouted down into the hole, receiving no response from the prostrate figure. “JACK! CAN YOU HEAR ME? ANSWER ME DAMN YOU! JACK!”

Tears welled up in her eyes as she looked down on the still figure. She grabbed her own harness and strapped it on, securing a second rope, and snapping the carabiner shut. Bracing herself, taking a deep breath she slowly inched her way to the edge of the void, letting the rope take the strain as she lowered herself towards her fallen colleague. She reached the bottom, gingerly testing the stability of the rock under her before allowing the rope to slacken and kneeling alongside Jacks form. She checked his pulse, and breathed a sigh of relief as she felt it relatively strong and even. His breathing, though a little ragged seemed to be acceptable, and as Sarah checked him over she saw his eyelids flutter and slowly open. Jack groaned ;

“What happened? OW!” He yelled as Sarahs hands examined his lower legs “That bloody hurts!”

“Looks as though whatever this cave is it had a double chamber and the rock surface you were working on collapsed through! Lucky you didn’t drop to far! Now lie still and let me check you out, I can’t feel anything obviously broken but better safe than sorry!”

Jack lay quiet and still as Sarah completed her initial checks

“Right, can you try moving your hands and feet? I don’t think there is any major injury but lets be careful eh?”

“OW! My ankle is pretty sore but I think it is just a sprain, apart from that I can’t feel anything significantly painful!” He replied “Here, give me a hand up will you, let’s see where we are!”

Chapter 2 – A betrayal?

The Clarendon Building, former home of the Oxford University Press had, since 1975 housed the administrative and clerical offices of the Bodleian Library complex, and within it, behind a nondescript dark oak door was the office of the Librarian. Traditionally it was a role awarded to a senior academic within the University with a particular interest in historical writing and research. The current incumbent, Librarian for the past twenty years was Sir Harold Harper, former curator of the Vatican library and current Fellow of Merton College, one of the Universities oldest and most highly respected Colleges. Behind the closed door, the office was surprisingly spacious occupying what was originally a corner suite of rooms, now opened out into a large reception area and a small private anti-chamber beyond. The walls were lined with dark oak bookshelves, the contents formed from Sir Harolds private collection brought together over forty years of acquisition and amounting to one of the best collections of mediaeval religious texts outside public and museum collections. In the centre of the room stood a large and ancient oak desk, topped with a deep green leather surface behind which Sir Harold sat, head bowed over the manuscript currently resting on the desktop.

Before him, across the leather surface two figures sat, silent, their dress incongruous for the setting. They were both wearing the red uniform of Cardinal Bishops of the Church of Rome, the most senior of the Cardinal orders, directly responsible only to the Pope himself, and wielding considerable power in their own right. Their arrival at the office of the Librarian had been unheralded to the general staff, the lateness of the hour ensuring that all but the nightly security staff, hand picked by Sir Harold himself had already left for the day. The security cameras covering the Library car park and the small rear entrance to the building had been turned off, something which ran completely contrary to University regulations, but within this building, amongst his carefully selected key staff, the word of the Librarian was law, unquestionable, and so, under cover of darkness the extended, and heavily modified Jaguar saloon had pulled quietly into the courtyard parking area, disgorged its two passengers and parked, awaiting their return. The two men had been ushered swiftly into the building and to the room they now occupied using the rear stairwells rather than the more open lifts. As they sat, silent, watching Sir Harold as he scanned the document the two Cardinals might have been statues, so still were they. Long years in the Vatican had made them incredibly patient, and they knew that the Librarian would need time to digest the material in front of him.

As he read the manuscript, the fragile material brought from Rome by the two visitors Sir Harold recognised the seal attached to the bottom as that of the document as being that of Pope Gregory I, known as Saint Gregory the Great, and he was forced to hide his shock as the implication of the antiquity of the manuscript dawned on him. Pope Gregory had died in 604 AD and if this seal and document were genuine it would represent one of the earliest Papal letters in existence being somewhere around 1500 years old. The shock was in part created by the fact that despite his former position as Librarian to the Vatican Archives, this document was one of which he was not aware. He knew, of course that the Roman Church had, over the last 2,000 years suppressed a great many documents that were considered heretical or that called into question the power and primacy of the Church, but despite having access to the sealed vaults below the Holy See, there were still documents extant of which he had no knowledge. His attention focused by this revelation Sir Harold absorbed the faded latin text, the antiquity of the piece stretching his expert knowledge of ancient religious language to the absolute limit.

The contents began with a familiar standard greeting used for Papal communications to senior figures within the church to this day, a carefully coded series of words that meant little more than a benign introduction to the casual reader, but to a scholar of such things meant that the words on this page had been written personal by the Pontiff himself. What was on his desk had been hand written by one of the earliest and most powerful heads of the most powerful religious organisation on Earth, and as such held almost as much power as the words engraved on the Mosaic tablets by the Lord himself. There could be no question that, if genuine, these words were impossible to question, and yet, as he read the further his eyes opened wider, the pupils dilating, scarcely able to believe what he was seeing. After about thirty minutes he had seen enough and raising his head he looked directly at the two men opposite him across the expanse of desk.

“Well your Eminences, it would appear that we have something of a challenging situation, if I may make so bold” he began

“Indeed, Sir Harold, this is the purpose for our, shall we say, unorthodox method of communication. We, that is to say the group that we represent with the Church felt that it was imperative that you be aware of this document, particularly in light of the reports we are hearing of a certain field archaeologist of your acquaintance, and his current project” The more elderly of the two men replied

“Yes, yes indeed, I can see why any work in the area that Professor Billings is currently investigating will need to be monitored very closely. I think perhaps that I should open dialogue with Sir Clive and ensure that any material coming from this expedition is restricted to my own office for the time being!” Sir Harold paused, waiting for the response from his guests. When it came, it was the younger man who spoke for the first time. Raising his head from its bowed position Sir Harold was momentarily taken aback by the coldness in the younger mans eyes, and more so by the soft, almost sibilant tone of his voice as he responded ;

“We feel that whilst this would be a requirement as a matter of course, the risk to our group may be such that even that measure may not be enough. We have already despatched a small group of, ah, associates to assist Professor Billings and Ms. Penny with their work, to ensure that any discoveries are handled with the utmost care and due consideration to their potential importance, you understand?”

Sir Harold understood only too well the implications of the chilling words. The Vatican itself, he knew was guarded by an elite core of the Swiss Guard, but he was always very aware that this was predominantly a ceremonial function, and that the Church had access to rather more functional and operational servants in times of need. He had, himself, had occasion more than once to call on the specialist services of just such servants in order to procure and protect some of the more sensitive material during his time as Vatican Librarian. He shuddered inwardly as he recalled a hurried meeting following the disappearance of a particularly controversial work, and the speedy resolution to it’s relocation and return. He also remembered the sense of danger, and the stern silence of the men who had returned the work to him, and the meeting with a senior Cardinal shortly afterwards to ensure that he knew that what had taken place had never happened, and that these servants in fact didn’t exist. He knew that no matter what the Church was right and that these measures were essential to maintain the very fabric of civilisation, but the thought of a group of these people en-route to oversee the work of one of his colleagues was almost too much to bear.

His eyes were drawn back to the bottom right hand corner of the manuscript where it appeared that the author had drawn something which related to the rest of the writing. The words formed a letter from the Pontiff to his emissary in Egypt and described in some detail the visitation of an Angelic host to the Roman capital some months earlier. The description reported the arrival of the messengers of God on fiery chariots, imagery that had parallels to the biblical stories, but when viewed alongside the crude sketch a rather different interpretation presented itself. There was little doubt in Sir Harolds mind that the drawing depicted triangular shapes descending to the ground in front of a building that appeared to be the Palace of the Holy See, and disgorging humanoid figures of considerable size if the similarly illustrated, but considerable smaller figure of the Pontiff meeting them was to be given any credibility. Forced to take a moment to compose his thoughts as a consequence of what he was seeing the librarian sucked in a sharp breath between his teeth. Of course, he was aware of the theories around unidentified flying objects, the claims that they were the basis for biblical stories, the spurious and derisory claims made by Von Daniken and his ilk that humanity itself owed its existence to some visitation by an extra-terrestrial race. He looked up once more from the manuscript, meeting the implacable eyes of his guests.

“Surely though, this is metaphor? Some code within the image to convey a hidden message at a time when the church was under severe threat from the Northern European tribes? Some suggestion that the Church had access to secret power?” He asked

“We had considered that possibility, yes, but there is more, how shall I put this, physical, yes, physical corroboration which we are not at liberty to bring with us, even for such a vital purpose!” The older Cardinal responded.

“Are you saying that the Church has physical evidence of alien life? How is this possible?”

“Not simply evidence of alien life Sir Harold, but evidence of its interaction with man. You can understand why this information can never be revealed, why, at all cost we must preserve the story that our followers are familiar with. If this evidence were to be even suspected it would destroy the Church and all that we have worked so hard to create over 2,000 years!”
“I understand, of course” Sir Harold looked down at the desktop, before raising his head “I will provide you with the GPS co-ordinates of Professor Billings dig site immediately, and I agree that whatever steps are necessary to protect the Church must be taken, no matter what the cost!”

He knew as he spoke that he was potentially signing the death warrants of the junior staff currently unaware of the peril they were in, and his heart was heavy as he looked into the eyes of the Cardinals, seeing no glimmer of compassion, simply an implacable determination to carry out their duties, utterly secure in the knowledge that what they were doing was right. Faith, he ruminated, was a wonderful thing, but it left scant room for compassion or compromise. He thought back to his own field of study, the mediaeval Church and the period of the Crusades and the Knights Hospitaller and Templar, the utter resolve and ruthless certainty expressed by those warriors for God in their wars against the Saracen and Muslim hoards. He wondered for a moment at the rumours he had heard, faint whispers during his time in the Vatican archives, of discoveries made by the Templar Knights at the site of the Solomonic Temple, secrets that contained revelation in their core. At the time he had dismissed such rumours, or at best thought them relevant only to the antiquated fashion for Holy relics, nails and pieces of the true cross, the bones of Christ, the Spear of Longinus the Roman, the Holy Arc of the Covenant, interesting from a historical perspective but of little relevance in a modern context. What was the purpose of faith if not to render the need for relics obsolete? Had not the Lord himself chastised those who required proof?

“Sir Harold” The older man interjected “We must take our leave and return to Rome. I am glad that you have been able to understand our mission. It would be a tragedy were anything, ah, problematic, arise from this situation”

Rising, Sir Harold came round from his side of the desk, taking a knee before the Cardinal Bishops and kissing the proffered ruby ring of each man, before rising, genuflecting and returning to his seat as the two men collected the manuscript, returning it to its secure carrying case, turned, faint smiles on their lips, opened the door to the private office and left, taking the route they had entered by. As he slumped in the chair he heard, from the courtyard below the throaty roar of the powerful Jaguar V8 engine as his visitors were hurried away to return to Rome. His face was draw, almost grey as he struggled to digest the information he had just been given. He turned to his computer, and called up the files that Jack Billings had recently sent back to the University, and forwarded the GPS co-ordinates to the private email address he had been given. With that, he opened his desk draw, took out a leather bound notepad, reached for his gold fountain pen, and with barely a pause, began to write.

Chapter 3 – The convergence

The Lockheed Martin KC-130J Harvest Hawk swooped out of the dark desert sky towards the tarmac of the temporary runway established in the Bekaa Valley just inside the Syrian border with Lebanon. The airstrip had been created by the local Hezbollah fighters to facilitate the transport of hashish and opium from the region without troubling the local security forces. Alongside the runway large warehouse like sheds had been constructed and as the thirty five metre aircraft touched down and decelerated it began to taxi towards the last structure, the vast double doors rolling back to either side of the entrance revealing a brightly lid, cavernous interior. The four Rolls Royce turboprop engines wound down from a deep roar, the blades gradually coming to a halt as the large rear cargo ramp slowly descended, dust raised as the leading edge touched the concrete floor of the structure. Within the belly of the vehicle the sound of large diesel engines firing up, the dark interior suddenly illuminated by the blazing halogen headlights of the first of three military spec Otokar Cobra, light armoured vehicles produced in Turkey utilising as a base the US HumVee truck rolled slowly forward and down the ramp, tyres squealing at the transition between metal and concrete.

Within each Cobra, beside the driver, sat five figures, all wearing dark grey boilersuits, knee high laced desert combat boots and kevlar body armour. Through the small armoured glass windows it was just possible to discern the weapons racks fitting out the interior before each vehicle passed through the double doors of the hanger, leaving the brightly lit interior and passing into the cold dark of the desert night. The three vehicles formed a small convoy, barely a vehicle length between them as they accelerated in unison towards the high, razorwire topped gates of the temporary airbase, their wheels kicking up clouds of dust as the power motors roared. Within each vehicle the small teams tightened the straps of their safety harnesses, preparing for what they knew would be a long, and arduous journey. Each team consisted of a group leader and four subordinates, the driver being considered separate from the rest of the team, and it was the leader in each vehicle who monitored the progress of the vehicles via the heads up display, the route map and terrain data projected up in front of the passenger seat that each occupied. There was little communication within the vehicles, each member of each team having little need for conversation. No Gung Ho! bravado on display, each person focused on their role, intent on the mission.

The journey would take six hours and cover three hundred miles across open terrain, the group having been instructed to avoid the local roads. There was still seven hours of darkness left before sunrise, so allowing for travelling time they would reach their destination in the pre-dawn lightening which would render their grey uniforms the perfect camouflage. As they passed through the airbase gates each vehicle doused its headlights, the drivers lowering infra red goggles over their eyes, the vehicles seeming to disappear into the night as their long journey began. The teams had no need to check their weapons, they had prepared on the flight from Southern Italy, each piece of hardware cleaned, checked, the firearms loaded, the explosives stored efficiently, the weapons racks holding the mix of shotguns, machine pistols, rifles and heavy machine guns securely against the jolting of the vehicles. With nothing to do each member sat motionless, silent, eyes fixed straight ahead, almost robotic in their inactivity, yet in each could be seen a brooding menace, the sense of a tightly wound spring, pent up kinetic energy just waiting to be released. The atmosphere in the rear compartment of each vehicle was heavy with implied threat and as the convoy disappeared, soon even the sound of the large, powerful engines was lost to the vast waste.

Three hundred miles to the South West of the Bekaa Valley landing strip Jack Billings lay covered in a thick wool blanket. Sarah had returned to the truck for the blanket and first aid kit and was currently rechecking the support bandage she had applied to Jacks damaged ankle. The cold of the desert was such that inactivity, even for a short period held the risk of developing hypothermia, so until he was ready to move, the blanket would protect him. The painkiller that Sarah had given him thirty minutes ago was starting to kick in and as it did he found himself able to start to move his foot and, using Sarah for support raised himself onto his knees before getting to his feet, wincing as sharp twines warned against rapid movement. He looked at Sarah as she supported his weight, found his balance and said

“God! I feel like such an idiot! What the Hell happened?”

“It looks as though the section of rock you were on was a false roof to a cave below and as you cleared around it you must have dislodged some support and it dropped to the cave floor below! There wasn’t anything you could have done, I’m just glad you aren’t too badly hurt!” Sarah replied

“Well, now that we’re down here we might as well have a good look around and see what this place is.”

Jeff turned and began to scan the surroundings of the cavern, using his head lamp to illuminate the walls. As he did so, he and Sarah gasped in wonder at the scene before them. Rather than the rough rock walls of a natural cave formation they began to see the discrete horizontal and vertical lines of structured masonry, the blocks and forms of man made artifice. It appeared that what Jack had fallen into was a man made structure approximately seventeen feet in height, approximately half way up the walls were marks where the floor structure had collapsed away and dropped to the ground. As they scanned the walls, the structure became more clear. Large blocks of shaped stone formed the walls, and towards the North East corner of the structure there was a change in the shape of the blocks, a longer block appearing to form a lintel, and below it, a hint of an opening suggesting a doorway almost completely blocked with sand and fallen rubble.

“Do you see it Sarah? That corner, there appears to be an opening!”

“I don’t understand this Jack, look at the way these blocks have been carved! There shouldn’t be anything like this level of sophistication in this area, unless we are looking at an outpost of the Egyptian empire. The way this wall is constructed looks like the temple structures built by Rameses and he would have passed this way for the battle of Kadesh in 1275BCE, could it be an outpost relating to that?”

“I don’t know, it looks to be a similar construction technique but why would it have been built? Rameses didn’t generally construct outposts like this, and the outcome of the battle wouldn’t suggest the Egyptians leaving a permanent force out here. We have to see what is through that doorway! We need something, some clue as to what we are dealing with here!”

Together they moved across the space towards the corner, Jack limping and wincing slightly with each step, but the intensity of his focus diminishing the pain in his ankle. Sarah picked up two short handled shovels, and handing one to Jack, knelt at the edge of the sand blockage and began to slowly move the heap, clearing towards the lintel stone. Jack started closer to the wall, pushing the sand towards his assistant, each scoop of the shovel revealing more and more of the entrance, the darkness beyond complete despite the bright halogen lamps illuminating the area. Minute by minute they gradually revealed more of the opening until they had cleared a two foot tall gap between the lintel stone and the blockage. Jack looked at Sarah and smiled slowly ;

“That has given us enough of a gap to see what lies beyond the doorway, pass me that spare video camera Sarah, I need to see where this goes”

sarah passed over the camera as Jack repositioned his harness, checking that the rope was still attached, passing the slack to his colleague as he prepared to slide through the newly exposed opening on his stomach. He lay down, the head torch on his helmet barely penetrating the gloom of the new chamber. He looked back at Sarah again, and as she nodded to confirm her readiness, braced the toes of his boots against the soft sand and began to push himself through. The darkness slowly gave way under the beam of his head torch and as he pushed deeper the mound of sand that he was moving over began to slow downwards, the space opening up around him. Scanning the walls and the ceiling rock above him for any signs of collapse similar to the initial area they had discovered Jack was relieved to see that there were no obvious cracks, and the structure appeared solid.

“I’m going to push deeper Sarah” he called back over his shoulder

“Be careful Jack!” Sarah admonished

“I will, but it looks as though the blockage was only in the doorway, there is a lot more space behind it”

He pushed further into the new chamber, his fingers sliding from the sand barrier onto the cold, surprisingly smooth rock surface of a solid floor. As he moved off the mound he was able to stand up in the space, scanning the area for the first time properly. He gasped as his light passed over the walls and ceiling, immediately pulling the video camera up to his eye, starting to record the scene in front of him.

“My God! Sarah! Get in here! Bring one of the spotlights! You have got to see this” The excitement in Jacks voice was palpable, his tone and volume rising as he panned the camera around the walls, scarcely able to believe what he was seeing. The walls were covered with deeply incised carvings, of a type similar to the slab that he and Sarah had been uncovering prior to the collapse. He ran his fingers over the rock surface, shocked at the smoothness of the finish and the depth to which the carvings were made into the hard granite material. There was so much information to take in as he panned over the surface. He could see what appeared to be stars, arranged in patterns that were at once familiar but strangely distorted, as though seen from an unusual position, depictions of the triangular “arrowhead” shapes repeated, changing in scale as though indicating motion, figures varying in size and form, some clearly humanoid in shape, some more difficult to interpret. Here, a depiction of a figure that appeared to have a lions head, there something more closely resembling a jackal headed form. He shook himself, thoughts racing in his head as he studied the shapes, barely aware of Sarah making her way through the entrance, the halogen spotlight pushed in front of her as she joined him. They stood in silence for a moment, stunned.

“Oh Jack! What have we found?” Sarah asked

“I don’t know yet Sarah, get that light set up and lets see if we can make sense of it all!”

Sarah quickly opened the legs of the tripod, positioning the light so that the strong beam illuminated the Western wall of the space they were no in.

“Jack, are these depictions of Egyptian Gods? That looks like Sekhmet over there, and this one looks like Anubis?”

“I thought that, but look here” Jack responded “See how these figures are positioned? See the way the limbs are positioned, the way the perspective is shown? It is like the carvings outside, I wouldn’t expect to see perspective used like this until a much later period, like thousands of years later than this wall appears to be!”

“I see what you mean, it looks almost like a conflation of Babylonian, Egyptian and Meso-American artistic styles, could it be a much later pastiche? Or even a forgery?” Sarah look at Jack as they both considered the possibility that what they were looking was some sort of elaborate hoax.

“It can’t be a hoax Sarah, who would go to the trouble of creating something like this out here in the middle of nowhere? No-one knew we would be digging out here, and it can’t just be random chance that we happen to find some local artist making a bit of a joke!”

Jack moved across the space, raising the video camera again as he recorded the carvings, taking time despite his excitement to make sure he captured each individual carving as well as the broader picture. Sarah, stunned into silence by the nature of the artwork watched as Jack filmed, finally managing to shake her immobility and reach into her backpack, pulling out pieces of equipment. She picked up a laser measure and began to scan the space.

“Jack, I’m going to start gathering the core data of the site. I’ll get the dimensons of this area and then start analysing the composition of the structural rock”

“That’s great! I’m going to capture as much of these images as I can, then we can batch it all up and set it back to Clive on the satellite link when we take a break.”

As the two archaeologists worked at their individual tasks they were silent, intently focused on their activities. As Jack filmed the wall he began to analyse the positions of the star carvings. He could see that they appeared to once again show the Orion Constellation, but the relative positions of each star seemed strangely out of alignment. The overall appearance was familiar but there were three stars which Jack knew were a part of the constellation not visible with the naked eye. The implication was that whoever had carved these stars had access to complex optical equipment allowing them to see the stars more clearly, or had knowledge of the stars that was impossible for the time period! He called Sarah over, breaking her concentration ;

“Sarah! Come and look at this” He indicated the position of the three erroneous stars

“But, that can’t be right, those stars weren’t found until the 19th Century were they? They don’t have sufficient magnitude to be visible without some pretty powerful telescopes!”

“I know, this is so confusing, and have you sen the positions of the stars in relation to each other? They are clearly the Orion constealltion but the stars are too far apart and almost twisted!”

Sarah grabbed her backpack, pulling out her iPad tablet and connecting it to the satellite uplink wirelessly. She tapped at the screen for a minute then turned the tablet to show Jack waht she had found.

“I knew I recognised the star positions, look!”

“It does look very similar! Where was this image taken?”

“You aren’t going to believe this” Sarah replied “but that image was recorded by the Voyager space probe as it passed the orbit of Uranus. It was one of a series of images taken of the starfield to aid calculation of red shift positions and relative speeds of stellar movements!”

“You’re right, I can’t believe that! No way would anyone out here have the necessary skills or knowledge to fake something like this! Come on, we need to see what else we can find, There has to be a rational explanation!”

Sarah returned the iPad to her backpack and continued taking digital measurements of the dimensions as Jack pondered the new information. His mind flashed to the reports of the Dogon tribe and their oral traditions of a solar system of nine planets despite the impossibility of observing this from Earth without powerful telescopes. He had always followed conventional historical wisdom that these stories had developed after contact between the Dogon tribe and visiting missionaries, and that there was no more credibility in them than was found in any other ancient alien theory, but what he was seeing here was causing him to question those assumptions. Occams razor stated that given a range of possible explanations the most likely was the one that required the least assumptions until such time as it was proved incorrect. He was rapidly running out of credible possibilities as he ran each thought into the solid wall of evidence in front of him. Could it be that everything he thought he knew was wrong? Was it really possible that in Earth’s past something mind-blowing had happened/ He could scarely bring himself to think something so radical, but what other answer was there?

Across the desert, closing on the excavation site the three military vehicles, still travelling in tight formation raced over the sand at close to their top speed of seventy miles per hour, the squads in each vehicle barely seeming to be aware of the jolting of the tyres over the rough ground. Dark shapes barely perceptible in the night, with each passing moment they came closer to their target. The silence in each vehicle was a stark counterpoint to the howl of the diesel engines as the drivers raced against the clock to reach their destination. There was no hint on the faces of any of the occupants as to their mission, stoney, impassive, resolute, they started straight ahead as though barely conscious of what lay ahead. The heads up display showed each squad leader their elapsed journey time, time to target and topographic terrain information of the route ahead, the lead driver adjusting course to avoid the most challenging areas, following the contours of the ground to maintain a higher speed.

Completely unaware of what was approaching Jack and Sarah continued their work, scanning and recording their latest discovery. They were just finishing their first sweep as Sarah noticed an anomaly in the farthest corner of the room from their current position. She put down the measuring equipment and slowly walked over to a small pile of loose sand pushed against the Southern wall. Protruding from the sand was what appeared to be a metal tube, some six inches sticking out from the edge of the pile. As the light from her own head torch illuminated it she could see that the metallic surface was bright as though chromium plated, and that it was inscribed with carving of a similar style to those on the walls. This was almost to much for her as she wondered at finding any metallic object associated with a discovery that, by rights, should predate the development of Iron, let alone techniques in plating. She held her breath as she reached down towards the object, her movement catching Jacks eye and causing him to turn to face her, the video camera still recording.

“Be careful Sarah! We have no idea what any of this means or what any artifacts might be!”

Sarah waved him to silence as she squatted down alongside the object, pausing to examine it in greater detail. She reached out a tentative hand, and as her fingers approached she swore she could feel some kind of buzz coming off the surface. She shook her head, took a deep breath and extended her arm, grasping the object and slowly drawing it from the sand pile. The object moved easily, sliding free to reveal a 3 foor long follow rod of perfectly untarnished metal. It was cold to her touch but she could feel a tingling sensation along her arm and when she looked she saw that every one of the fine hairs on her arm was raised, and goosebumps appeared to be forming. She held the rod at arms length, turning it slowly, the light on her helmet highlighting each marking along the length. The markings appeared to be in the same style as the wall carvings, deeply incised lines forming complex patterns but there were no obvious star shapes here. Instead the markings more closely resembled the punched clay tablets of cuneiform script that had been found on ancient Babylonian sites, one of the earliest forms of writing ever discovered. She had studied those tablets as part of her first degree and she knew immediately that what she was looking at, although similar had the same sense of distortion as the stars on the wall carvings. It was almost as though the tablets had tried to emulate these marking but hadn’t quite achieved accuracy. Was it possible that what she was holding was a precursor to what was previously thought to be the earliest form of written language?

She looked up at Jack as he stood over her, filming her discovery, a look of puzzlement on her face.

“Jack, I can’t believe any of this! What the Hell is going on?”

“I don’t know, this is absolutely incredible! I can’t understand this! It makes no sense!”

Turning away from Sarah, hiding his own puzzlement from her for a moment Jack drew in a series of deep breaths. There was no question in his mind now that what they had stumbled upon was a discovery that would change the way that humanity understood it’s own history. The importance of these revelations was such that he knew there was only one course of action. Secure the site and file a report immediately. Get a full team down here to try to make sense of this incredible find!

Chapter 4 – Ambush!

Sarah turned, seeing Jack, head bowed, deep in contemplation. She placed the object back down beside the pile of sand, and stood, making her way to stand alongside him. Together they took several deep breaths, gathering their thoughts, the shock of this new discovery taking time to process and comprehend. She looked at him, turning her body towards him, the movement causing him to raise his head and look at her. She was shocked to see his eyes welling up with tears, and it look a moment for her to realise that hers were too.

“This is way beyond anything we had prepared for” Jack noted, his voice trembling slightly as he fought his emotions.

“The only option is to get back to the truck and upload all of the data that we have recorded so far, file it as a report and then sit tight and wait for a response!” Sarah responded

Jack nodded, and together they gathered up the video camera, voice recorders and the surveying equipment Sarah had been using, placing it all carefully into one of the backpacks and beginning the scrambled ascent back through the opening into the collapsed first chamber. Using the ropes Jack climbed out, pulling the backpack up behind in after Sarah had secured it, before helping her to climb free. Together they walked over to the big, canvas backed truck, placing the pack onto the truck bed before climbing in after it. Jack went immediately to the combined flat screen monitor and keyboard that controlled the communication system and began punching in the sequence of numbers that would align the dish mounted on the roof of the truck to the nearest available communication satellite. The noise of the servo motors driving the dish was loud in the truck, masking even the never ending wind, and there was a distinct click as the dish locked into position. Sarah had unpacked the recording equipment and was efficiently connecting the data cables from each unit to the computer system housed in the custom built cabinet situated immediately behind the truck cab. As she connected each cable the computer automatically registered each device, and popped up a message asking if she wanted to download the data onto the computer storage system.

“How are you doing Jack?” She asked “I’ve got everything hooked up and I’m ready to start downloading the data if you have established a connection to the libraries servers?”

“I’m almost there Sarah, you start the download, I’m going to send the data straight to the secure storage vault, and encrypt it to make sure it doesn’t get seen by anyone who doesn’t need to know. This information would cause chaos if it got out before we have a chance to understand it more fully!”

Sarah nodded and turned back to the screen in front of her workspace, tapping commands into the keyboard, before picking up a stylus and using it to interact directly with the touchscreen, selecting appropriate folders to download the data into. Prompts appeared on the screen asking in she wanted to password protect the folders, and she clicked “yes” entering the password that she and Jack had agreed in the planning of this trip. She turned as the LED displays on each unit lit up and the disk drives of the computer started to whir into life. On the screen a timing bar appeared for each download, indicating that the whole process would take just over fifteen minutes. Having established that everything was running as it should she opened a draw in the workspace cabinet beside her and withdrew an A5 notepad, followed by an A3 sketchpad. Clearing a space in front of her she opened the notepad to the first blank page, and, taking a pen from her jacket pocket, began to make notes from memory about their discoveries to date. She found that by making her personal notes in this way she was able to report not only the raw facts of an excavation, but also her interpretations and thoughts, which had proved insightful in the past.

Having jotted down key points she turned to the sketchpad and, again from memory, began to draw out the key features of the site. She started with the rock slab as they had first found it, before moving on to the position and appearance of the discovery of the second chamber. As she sketched she annotated each diagram with additional brief notes, periodically returning to the notepad to expand on a particular point and add detail to her descriptions. She worked in silence, oblivious to the distractions around her, the sounds of the computer system and the wind outside becoming inconsequential. Jack had completed the electronic handshake between the trucks computer systems and the secure systems in the libraries data centre. There were a series of passwords and codes that he had memorised before coming on the trip, and, having established contact he had accessed the most highly secure area of the libraries storage. The data would be encrypted using a public key, the only people with access to the decryption key being Sir Clive and the librarian Sir Harold Harper. Not even the libraries security or computer staff had access to it, and the memory sticks holding the key were locked in two safes, one in each senior staff members office. He looked across at Sarahs workspace and saw the downloading data from the equipment progressing steadily, and he tapped at his own keyboard, inputting the necessary commands to begin the encryption process. An additional timing bar appeared on Sarahs screen, indicating the progress of the encryption alongside the progress of the download.

Having set the system to automatically complete the encryption process and then send the data via secure satellite link as soon as it was ready Jack turned off his screen and crossed the bed of the truck, jumping down onto the sand and kneeling to check the fuel level in the generator underneath the chassis. He saw that there was just over half a tank of fuel remaining, and as he turned and began to rise he paused, something catching his attention. He held his breath, and at that moment the wind dropped slightly, the sudden decrease in ambient noise allowing him to pinpoint the source of whatever had made him stop. Just audible above the sound of the generator, masked by the wind before it dropped he could hear the sound of an engine, some way off to the North East, and as he listened harder he realised that it was getting closer!

“Sarah! How is the data coming?” He shouted back into the truck

“Another five minutes and it will be complete, why?” Sarah asked, her voice slightly perturbed by the unexpected question. Jack was usually calm, controlled, but she heard in his voice something that sounded almost like fear!

“You’d better leave that work and get out here, somethings going on. I’m pretty sure I can hear an engine heading this way!” His voice more urgent, the tone sending a shiver down Sarahs spine.

“It can’t be an engine Jack, it must be a trick of the wind, echoing the sound of the generator of something. Why would anyone be driving out here? We aren’t on any usual routes and we haven’t given anyone local our precise location!” Sarah replied as she jumped down from the back of the truck and moved alongside Jack.

“I’m telling you I can hear an engine over in that direction” he indicated towards the North East “and coming this way! Listen!”

Sarah held her breath and strained her hearing as she stood alongside Jack. The wind dropped again and suddenly her eyes widened as she too heard the unmistakable sound of an engine approaching at some speed. Together they turned to face the direction of the sound, the dark sky towards the East just beginning to lighten with the pre-dawn glow. As they stood beside the truck they scanned the horizon for any indication of movement, and minutes passed, slowly, seemingly endlessly as the wind caused the sounds to shift and swirl around them.

“There!” Sarahs voice urgent “Coming over that rise about three kilometres away! Can you see it?”

Jack nodded his confirmation, he could see a dust cloud rising above the ground surface, and as he watched he saw a dark shape at it’s base. No! Wait! not one shape, but three, almost merging into one, moving fast, and undoubtedly heading towards them! With nothing else around they could only have one destination, but how could they have known that there was anyone out here? He grabbed Sarahs hand, shaking her out of her immobility and pulling her towards the front of the truck.

“Get in Sarah! Quick!” He helped her to mount the high cab before racing round the front of the truck and climbing into the drivers seat. He turned the key savagely in the ignition, the heavy diesel engine roaring into life as he depressed the clutch and selected first gear. Pressing hard on the accelerator he released the clutch and with a jolt the four wheel drive truck set off. He shifted up through the gears as the large, rugged wheels found traction on the soft sand and they accelerated, turning away from the approaching vehicles, away from the excavation, heading out across the desert almost due West. The heavy duty suspension of the truck bounced them both hard in the cab as the wheels juddered over patches of rock and hard packed sand before dropping once again into the softer, wind blown accretions. Jack drove in silence, his attention split between monitoring the route ahead for obstacles, and keeping an eye on his mirrors for the vehicles that he knew must be gaining on them with each passing moment. Sarah yanked her seatbelt harness across her body, securing it as she reached for the tablet computer attached to the dashboard in front of her. Lifting it from it’s cradle she began to tap the screen, connecting it wirelessly to the computers in the rear, the screen displaying the live progress of both the downloading data and the encryption. She could see that there was about three minutes of data left to download, and another five to fully encrypt it and begin transmission.

Jack gunned the engine, coaxing more speed from the ex-military truck, focusing intently on the ground ahead, watching for larger boulders that would smash an axle or flip the truck completely. His hands sawed at the wheel, maintaining traction, utilising all of his off-road driver training and years of experience driving in remote locations to dig sites. He glanced in the mirrors again and gasped as he saw the three vehicles pursuing them coming ever closer, moment by moment. As the lead vehicle came up behind them he could see plates along the side of the heavily armoured vehicle lift to reveal small holes through which the barrels of high powered automatic weapons were being aimed. He saw the flash of muzzle flare as one of the weapons fired and the steering wheel was almost wrenched from his hands as the bullet impacted the near-side front tyre, shredding the rubber and causing instant deflation. The wheel hub crashed to the desert surface, jamming against the sand, causing unbearable torsion across the front axle, tugging the vehicle to the left. Even as he tried to correct the movement, Jack knew that it was hopeless as he yelled ;

“Hold on Sarah! I’m losing control!”

Sarah screamed as she felt her side of the truck lurch downwards, her seatbelt cinching tight against her body, pinning her to her seat as the front axle gave way under the pressure, the rear of the truck pivoting around a central axis. Almost in slow motion the seven and a half tonne vehicle began to cant over at an alarming angle, the wheels on Sarahs side lifting, as those on Jacks dug into the soft surface. There was nothing more he could do to prevent the inevitable, as with a shriek of tortured metal they began to roll, the windows exploding as the bodywork deformed, the whole front section twisting against the chassis as sand and gravel fountained up around the crash. They rolled over and over, metal breaking free from the vehicle, the equipment in the rear torn from its mounting points and flung out as the canvas cover was shredded. Electronic components destroyed in an instant as the cartwheeling behemoth finally came to rest, upside down, the front half buried in a small drift of fine sand. The three pursuit vehicles came to a halt surrounding the wrecked truck at a distance of about thirty metres, and the rear doors opened, disgorging the figures inside. As each figure exited they took up positions ringing the debris, weapons aimed towards it. Once the ring of figures was established the patrol leaders descended from their front seats, and began to assess the situation. In the ruined cab, still held in their seats, upside down, unconscious, Sarah and Jack were suspended. Jacks face was a mask of blood from the cuts caused by flying shards of glass when the windows shattered. Sarahs arm was twisted, obviously broken above the elbow, the blood on her sleeve suggesting that she had suffered a compound fracture, the broken bone penetrating her skin and causing an open wound.
At a signal from the group leaders the circle of figures began to slowly move towards the crashed truck, weapons constantly aimed at the front section. They moved almost noiselessly, the grey of their one piece jumpsuits rendering them invisible in the pre-dawn lightening of the sky. As they approached the wreck they slowed further yet, creeping across the sand, closing on their target. They stopped as one at five metres from the truck, awaiting further instructions as the group leaders monitored their positions and progress. Another signal and five of the figures moved closer, the remaining ten holding position providing cover for those pushing forward. The lead five reached the truck cab in unison, weapons scanning the immediate area around and inside. Having satisfied the leaders that the area was as secure as it could be, the order was given to remove the two occupants. Shouldering their automatic rifles, and drawing razor sharp combat knives they cut the restraining webbing harnesses and pulled Jack and Sarahs limp bodies free, carrying them slightly away from the twisted metal and laying them side by side on the cold ground. They stepped back from the two archaeologists and sheathed their knives, pulling their rifles round, and training them on the two figures. Red dots blossomed on the bodies as the laser targeting system fitted to each weapon was engaged. The ten providing cover moved up to join their colleagues, just as Jack moaned softly, slowly beginning to regain consciousness.

The three leaders, watching constantly, circled around to the rear of the truck, pulling the shredded canvas clear and looking into the devastated bed. Every single piece of electronic equipment had been jolted loose and smashed, blue smoke rising from several areas, circuits boards and sections of casing jumbled up together. Satisfied that there was no immediate threat from the rear of the truck they continued around to join the rest of the unit looking down at the two archaeologists as they slowly started to regain consciousness. Jack opened his eyes first, groaning in pain as he tried to move, two figures immediately seizing him and rolling him onto his stomach. Two more repeated the movement with Sarah, their touch causing her to cry out as the broken bones in her upper arm twisted. Still barely able to focus Jack tried to push himself up onto his knees, only to feel the impact of a rifle butt against the small of him back slamming him face down onto the sand again.

“Remain still, do not attempt to move” The voice was hard, cold, precise and Jack winced at the clipped tone. The accent was hard to place and in his injured and dazed state it took him several moments to recognise the unusual combination of South African and German, the clipped vowels of the Teutonic tongue merging with the slight drawl of Johannesburg.

Jack tried to turn his head slightly to allow him to look over towards Sarah, only to feel once again the impact of a rifle butt slammed down onto his unprotected back. He growled, biting his lower lip hard against the pain.

“I said remain still! Do not attempt to move at all or you will both be shot!” The tone that of someone well used to being obeyed without question. “I will ask you some questions and you will answer fully and truthfully, do you understand?” The voice quite calm, almost quiet, yet insistent.
“I’m not saying anything until I know that Sarah is ok!” Jack yelled

“You are in no position to make demands Professor Billings! You will answer my questions, then perhaps will shall see about Ms. Penny!”

Jack felt his stomach tighten as he realised that these people had not only found them in the middle of trackless desert, but also knew who they were, and presumably what they had been doing. There could be no doubt now that what was supposed to be a completely unannounced preliminary investigation of a site had somehow become known outside the library organisation. Given that only Sir Clive and Sir Harold knew the details of this trip it was clear that the information had been leaked at the highest level. Given the potential significance of what they had found, Jack could only wonder what he had stumbled into, and who these armed military figures might be. He understood that if he and Sarah were to have any hope of getting out of this situation he had no choice but to co-operate. He lowered his head against the sand in resignation, a gesture noticed by the figure who appeared to be in command.

“That is better Professor, I see that we have an understanding. To be clear, my team has intercepted your satellite communication and we know that the data is encrypted. You will provide me with the decryption algorithm.”

“I can’t!” jack exclaimed “I don’t have access to it! There are only two copies and they are both held securely at the Bodleian!” Jack was trying desperately to demonstrate his willingness to answer questions if he was able, but it became clear that his attempts had failed as he felt a heavy combat boot slam into his shoulders pinning him to the ground and then heard a shrill female scream beside him! He struggled against the pressure holding him down but it was hopeless, he was completely immobile! He could hear sarah beside him, sobbing, the sound like a shard of ice piercing his heart.

“To make you aware Professor, Ms Penny screamed because one of her fingers has just been amputated. I strongly advise you to be considerably more co-operative with your subsequent answers if you would like to prevent this from being repeated!” The leaders voice was implacable.

“I told you! I can’t give you that information! I don’t have it and don’t have access to it! Please! Don’t hurt sarah!” Jack pleaded.

“Then perhaps you can answer this more simple question Professor. Why have you come to this barren region? What were you expecting to find?”

“I was following a hunch, I swear! I was studying old aerial photographs and saw some anomalous features that I felt should be investigated! I had no idea what I would find!” Jack shouted.

“I am afraid that your answer lacks credibility!” another scream ripped from Sarahs lips, her voice breaking, descending into wracking sobs.

“You have to believe me! If I had better answers I would tell you! Please! Leave Sarah alone!” Tears ran down Jacks face, streaking the dust on his skin as he struggled against the boot holding him down.

“I will ask you one more question Professor, and I must warn you that if you are not considerably more forthcoming there will be no further amputations. If you do not give me the information I require I am afraid that both you and Ms Penny with be subject to summary execution! Now, tell me who sent you to this site!” The tone level and even despite the implications of the words.

“I’ve told you!” Jack sobbed “I was following up a hunch based on aerial photographs! No-one sent me!”

At a signal from the leader two shots rang out almost simultaneously, the high velocity rounds smashing into the backs of Jack and Sarahs heads killing them instantly, blood pooling under their twitching corpses. The armed figures pulled back, waiting for further instructions. After a brief pause the group leader spoke again ;

“We have the intercepted satellite transmission, there is nothing more for us here. Put the bodies back in the truck and incinerate everything. I want no evidence of anything other than a tragic accident.”

The grey suited figures slung their weapons and set about moving Jack and Sarahs bodies back to the truck cab. Two figures returned to the vehicles and carefully collected several small canisters, approximately the size and shape of soft drink cans. As the rest moved back from the wreckage the two positioned the canisters within the shattered truck, pulling pins from the top of each. They moved efficiently, quickly retreating once they had completed their tasks, joining the rest of the group returning to the armoured vehicles. They boarded as quickly as they had disembarked, the movements well practiced, and as the drivers fired up the engines each figure had returned to their original position and strapped in. The three Cobra armoured cars rolled out, accelerating back towards the excavation site, taking a different route, further West than the one by which they had arrived. As they reached a point five hundred metres from the crash site the group leader in the first vehicle pressed a small button on the box he held. The radio signal triggered the cannisters, causing magnesium fuses to ignite, heating the mixture of aluminum and Iron oxide causing a thermite reaction that swiftly reduced the truck to a twisted heap of semi molten slag, utterly destroying the two bodies and the equipment that had filled the rear. The thermite reaction was so complete that all trace of the incendiary devices was destroyed leaving no evidence of anything other than an accident and subsequent vehicle fire, assuming that the wreckage was ever discovered, given its’ distance from the nearest habitation. The video screen set into the dashboard of the lead vehicle showed the view from a rear mounted camera and the leader watched as the inferno blossomed and died. He raised his hand to the earpiece fitted to his right ear, depressing the small button. The miniature satellite phone connected to an unlisted private phone exchange where the call was answered by a human operator. The exchange was an old analogue type, the physical cable connections making it almost impossible to intercept the conversations held over them. The operator connected the call as directed, and as he heard the mechanical click of the line becoming live the leader said flatly ;

“It is done, we are on route to primary destination and will sanitise the site as required”

“Understood, proceed” The response was two words, the voice delivering them sounding cracked and ancient, the ‘s’ sounds made sibilant by laboured breathing.

Chapter 5 – The meeting

Sir Clive Edwards sat behind his desk on the third floor of the Bodleian Library building, his usually calm demeanour slipping slightly as he held his desk phone to his ear. Moments earlier an e-mail alert had popped up on his Apple desktop computer, the contents immediately causing him to reach for the phone, punching in the internal extension number of his assistant Lucy Schaeffer. She answered on the second ring, her voice, as always soft yet efficient, reassuring.

“Lucy, I need you to set up an urgent meeting for me” Sir Clives words, slightly rushed

“Certainly Sir Clive, when do you need it and who would you like me to invite?” She asked

“ASAP I’m afraid Lucy, and I need Max, Paul, Angela…” He paused “…and you of course! We’ll need to use the secure meeting room downstairs, and I want you to organise this quietly. I don’t want anyone else knowing about it at this stage.”

“Of course Sir Clive, I will make the necessary arrangements now, shall we say meeting in 30 minutes?”

“Thank you Lucy” Sir Clive drew in a deep breath, the calmness of his assistant helping to steady his quickening pulse “That will be fine.”

He replaced the handset and leant back in the leather executive chair, his large hands on the desk in front of him. Despite his academic qualifications and seniority within his field of study Sir Clive had originally been invited to Oxford University as an undergraduate more for his abilities on the rugby and cricket pitches than for his academic ability, although his intellect was such that a place at one of the Worlds best Universities would have been within his grasp anyway. Standing 6’ 5” tall, broad shouldered and even at fifty five years of age still athletic in his physique Sir Clive had an aura of strength and control that had seen him excel within the, at times, fiercely competitive world of academia. Noted for his insight and his ability to accurately assess complex situations and make effective decisions there was little that phased him, but the few people who knew him well would have seen the tell-tale set of his jaw, the slight flush to his face that indicated serious concerns.

He re-read the e-mail that had triggered the phone call. It was a notification of an incoming data stream to the Library data centre. The email gave no details of the source of the data stream other than the route via a satellite uplink and the fact that the data was encrypted, but that was enough that Sir Clive knew where it had come from and who had sent it. It could only have come from Jack Billings, and the timing of it, so soon after the receipt of the GPS data that had come through earlier was unusual enough to be troubling. There was a standard University procedure that data transmissions should only be encrypted to the highest security level if the data was extremely sensitive, and that all data from a specific project was batched and send at set intervals to ensure maximum efficiency both of the Libraries computer resources and the cost of sending data via satellite link. Whatever was in this transmission, it had to be highly significant and highly urgent for Jack to break protocol and send it in this way.

Rising from his seat, the big man turned to the wall behind him, and slid the Van Gogh oil painting hanging above the fireplace to the left, the action facilitated by an intricate set of runners on which the painting was mounted. Behind it’s original position was a safe built into the chimney breast, on which, central to the front panel was a digital readout and numeric keypad. Without pause Sir Clive punched in the sixteen digit passcode from memory, waiting for the sound of the locking bolts retracting before he opened the safe door. Within the high spec metal container there were three box files along with a locked metal security box of the type used in bank safety deposit rooms. The need for extra layer of security would become apparent as he removed the chain that was constantly around his neck, lifting a key from beneath his well pressed shirt. He lifted the security box clear of the safe and opened it. Inside, it’s size giving no indication of it’s value lay a computer USB memory stick which he lifted out and placed in his pocket, before re-locking the box and returning it to the safe, sliding the picture back into position, and crossing his office, shutting and locking the door as he left.

The Library, and indeed the University as a whole was engaged in a huge number of research projects, many of which would be of great interest to industries, institutions and Governments around the World. Since the second World War and the discovery by military intelligence that highly intelligent academics make excellent code breakers through the work carried out at Bletchley Parks “Station X” the University had been at the cutting edge of intelligence gathering and counter espionage activities as well as carrying out research into more mundane but no less valuable scientific and engineering subjects. It was not without reason that the Russian KGB had, throughout the Cold War, targeted academics at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities for recruitment as spies. Very few people outside the security services were aware of the role played by a select group of highly talented academics and researchers, and it was for this reason that, within certain areas, security was given paramount importance. The memory stick now residing in Sir Clives trouser pocket contained within it a software based decryption algorithm matched to the encyption used for the data transmission that had been received. The algorithm had been developed by Oxford Universities mathematics and computer science departments and was considered amongst data security experts, or at least few who knew of it’s existence, to be completely unbreakable. The encryption was beyond even that used by MI5 and MI6 the UK security services.

Leaving his office Sir Clive turned left and walked purposefully along the corridor, passing his assistants office, the door open as always, he could see Lucy on the phone. He paused in the doorway, his presence causing her to look up, a smile of acknowledgement before she returned to her conversation. He could tell that she was organising the meeting, a look of focused concentration on her face as he heard her making arrangements.
“I am aware that it is unusual to require the secure meeting room at such short notice, but this requirement comes from Sir Clive himself….” she listened for a moment “Yes, I understand that, but I need that meeting room ready in the next ten minutes…” she listened again “I am afraid that I can not divulge the numbers attending the meeting but I can say that the current layout of the room will suffice, now if you will be so kind as to organise access that would be appreciated, thank you!”

Lucy hung up the phone and looked up at her boss ;

“Sir Clive, I have spoken to the others and we will all be ready in ten minutes.”

“Thank you Lucy, I can always rely on you!” Sir Clive smiled as he responded.

He turned from the doorway and made his way along the corridor. He had chosen Ms Schaeffer personally, something he rarely did, relying on the Library human resources department to organise staffing, but when it came to his personal assistant he had very clear criteria which went beyond organisational and secretarial skills, although Lucy excelled in those areas. She had previously served in the German army first training as a front line infantry trooper, one of the first women to do so, before being seconded to military intelligence and from there to the Militärischer Abschirmdienst, the internal counter-intelligence arm of the german intelligence agencies. He knew that she had been an active field operative, but had no details of her specific missions, even his influence only extending so far into national security secrets. What he did know was that she had excelled as a marksman, being selected for sniper training, although turning it down in favour of intelligence work, and also demonstrated strong tactical leadership abilities as a squad commander in her training unit.

Her background was not apparent from her appearance, and he mused as he continued through the building that perhaps her looks had been an asset in counter intelligence work. She stood barely 5’ 2” tall and was slim with mousey brown hair cut in a bob style. Her features, whilst not strikingly beautiful, were pleasantly feminine with none of the overt musculature often associated with women who pursued athletic endeavours. She dressed well but modestly, a two piece skirt suit and blouse were her standard office attire and she invariably carried out her duties with speed and accuracy, often anticipating requests and requirements. She had been his assistant for three years, and in that time they had grown to know each other well, beyond the merely professional relationship. Sir Clive trusted her implicitly, not simply because of her background and training, but because she exuded an air of calm efficiency and unfailingly achieved whatever task was set for her. He reached the end of the corridor and pressed the button on the wall to summon the lift, waiting patiently for it’s arrival. The lift doors opened and he entered, pressing the floor indicator for the sub-basement level of the old building. He stood in the centre of the lift as the doors slid shut, a slight jolt as the lifts descent began.

The lift doors opened onto a brightly lit corridor, one wall was painted white, the other was a glass construction allowing anyone in the corridor to see into the large open area beyond in which row upon row of computer cabinets sat. The carpet underfoot a deep, rich red. The celing lights were recessed LED bulbs, chosen for their output and the fact that they gave off very little heat. The ambient temperature was some fifteen degrees centigrade cooler than that in the building above, maintained at twelve degrees by high powered air conditioning units to provide the optimum operating conditions for the Libraries data centre servers. Sir Clive walked along the corridor, passing the plate glass wall until he almost reached the end, where, waiting for him, one of the data centre security guards punched a sequence of numbers into a numeric keypad and opened the solid metal door to the secure meeting room. He nodded to the guard as he entered ;

“Thank you Simon, the others will be arriving shortly if you would be so good as to let them in.”

“Certainly Sir, and I have taken the additional precaution of making this level off limits to all other staff for the duration of your meeting.” the guard replied.

“That is very much appreciated Simon, we shouldn’t be more than about 30 minutes.”

Entering the meeting room Sir Clive took a position, seating himself at the head of the conference table. The room itself had bare, grey painted walls, one of which featured a large flat screen television, mounted centrally. He knew that the walls hid the true construction of the room. When the sub-basement had been turned over to the data centre this area had been completely redesigned to facilitate meetings at which sensitive information could be discussed. The data centre and meeting room had been installed by a specialist German company who had experience installing computer equipment into hazardous military and nuclear environments. The meeting room was a modular construction, the walls have a steel mesh core coated in sound deadening foam and finished with an impact resistant polymer resin to simulate plaster. They had been designed and tested to withstand earthquake and bomb damage, and in this case had been refined to function as a faraday cage preventing electronic snooping and to provide soundproofing so that once the door was shut nothing could be overheard from outside. The principle had been established in the 1960’s when many embassies around the World had installed meeting facilities that protected those using them from espionage, and whilst it may have seemed an excessive measure in a University library Sir Clive, as he contemplated the possibilities of the meeting he was about to have, was glad that he had it available to him.

While he waited for the others to arrive he took the memory stick from his pocket and inserted it into the port on the rear of the computer monitor in front of him. A message box popped up on the screen asking for a password which he duly entered. From this point on any data called up on the machine would automatically be decrypted and displayed in its original format. He had just finished as the door of the meeting room opened and Lucy stepped through, closely followed by three more associates, each taking their seats quickly. Sir Clive looked at each of them in turn as he quickly gathered his thoughts. Max Andrews was a well liked lecturer within the department specialising in the development and expansion of the Greek city states in the first millenium BCE from the late bronze age to the rise of the Roman Empire. At thirty five years of age he was one of the younger academics, his interest in the Greek expansion period first awakened during officer training at Sandhurst Military Academy where he studied before accepting a commission to the rank of captain in the Household Cavalry. As part of a light cavalry regiment he had become a proficient operator of a variety of armoured vehicles and had served on active duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan before leaving the army and pursuing his passion for ancient history. He still retained his military physique and bearing, and his hair, now longer than military regulation allowed, fell around his shoulders in soft curls. Alongside him, pulling a notepad and pen from his bag, Paul Hunter looked up and met Sir Clives steady gaze. At forty he was older than Max but he too still looked strong and fit, his daily exercise routine maintained from years of top level competitive sport. A distance runner and competitor in ironman events Paul had the tanned, rugged, outdoors look of a backwoodsman, a looked enhanced by a thick beard below close cropped dark hair.

The final member of the trio of newcomers was Angela Reynolds. She looked the most at home in the setting of a library, her horn-rimmed glasses harking back to the image of a studious librarian of the 1950’s, her tweed skirt and jacket adding to the effect. To look at her she could have been anywhere in her early to mid fifties but was in fact twenty nine, a car accident in her late teens giving her prematurely white hair and a slight weakness in her left side, the result of a spinal injury suffered in the crash. Even amongst the academics of Oxford University she had a prodigious mind, contributing considerably to the research output of the department, working alongside a number of colleagues assisting in the reconstruction and translation of ancient manuscripts and tablets. She had recently returned from a sabbatical year working with scholars at the Coptic Museum in Cairo on the Nag Hammadi Library project and the reports that had come back of her seminal work in piecing together one of the more challenging fragmentary codices had been exemplary. She had personally discovered a previously unknown writing that called into question key aspects of the Christian gospels, and despite the quality of her work had received much criticism for her translation and interpretation.

The three newcomers and Lucy settled themselves and look expectantly across the table to where Sir Clive sat. He took a breath, paused then addressed his attentive audience ;

“Ladies, gentlemen I have called this meeting because I have received an usual data transmission which appears to have come from Professor Billings. You will recall he is excavating a new site that he discovered on the Syrian Iranian border. Yesterday at 09:30 hours I received GPS coordinate data, and wasn’t expecting to receive any additional data for another couple of days at least. I haven’t seen what has been sent yet so this will be new information for me just as much as for you, but given the unexpected nature of the transmission I wanted the four of you involved from the outset. I am sure I don’t have to tell any of you that this meeting is to be regarded as restricted information, attendees only at this stage.”

The four nodded, no words necessary, all of them aware of the potential implications of the breach of communication protocol. Sir Clive continued ;

“The communication was sent using our highest security encryption and I have just installed the decryption key and requested the data files from the server. If you will all watch the screen we’ll see what we have. I want your initial reactions please, no analysis at this stage.”

He punched the button on the keyboard to begin the decryption sequence and stream the images on his monitor onto the large screen on the wall. As the screen came to life it filled with columns of numbers, the raw encrypted data that had been transmitted. As the decryption algorithm did its job the columns began to disappear to be replaced by a series of files, the titles of which gave some indication of their contents. There were four files in total, one video file, one audio and two document files the first labelled “field notes”, the second labelled “finds analysis”. Immediately the files appeared on screen the five people around the table knew that Sir Clives hunch had been correct. They were looking at a report that could not possibly have been prepared in accordance with normal excavation procedures. Something sufficiently unusual to warrant this rushed communication must have happened, and the fact that all of them knew Professor Billings and his steadfast, meticulous approach to fieldwork only aroused their interest further. He moved the mouse pointer over each of the files in sequence starting with the audio file, and the group sat in silence as each file was opened. They exchanged looks of surprise as they heard and read the reports of strange discoveries, the carvings on the granite slabs, the discovery of the man made nature of the site, the highly unusual metallic object with its intricate markings and the brief summary analysis of Professor Billings himself.

As soon as the files had been viewed Sir Clive turned back to the others ;

“There is a lot of information to take in there clearly, but what I need from each of you is your initial gut reaction. Max, you first.”

Max paused for a moment collecting his thoughts ;

“Wow! That is my immediate reaction! If what we have just seen is in any way credible, if it isn’t some sort of elaborate hoax then I can understand why we have received this data! There is no way this can be real though is there? Angela, what did you make of the markings on the metallic object?” He turned in his seat as he spoke, facing the young linguist.

“I’m struggling to make any sense of what I’ve just seen if I am to be completely honest Max! Sir Clive, I will need to look at these files in much closer detail but just from what we have seen I can tell you that whatever the markings on the object are they are categorically not any sort of writing that we are currently aware of although they do bear very strong similarities to the style and form of early Babylonian clay tablets!” She shook her head, looking down at the brief notes she had been taken as the files were running.

Paul looked over at Sir Clive, a puzzled look on his face.

“There is something else isn’t there Sir Clive, something you aren’t telling us?”
“Yes Paul, there is. As soon as I received the notification of this data arriving I tried to contact Jack and Sarah, both via satellite phone and via e-mail. That was almost an hour ago now, and as yet I have had no response. Normally I would not be so concerned but if you observe the original message description you will notice that it lists five files, yet only four have been received. Additionally the logo of the transmission shows that it was terminated at the sending terminal before completion. Combined with the lack of response I fear that something may have happened on site!”

“Well that explains why the four of us are here!” Paul replied “I see a trip in our very near future!”

Sir Clive nodded and the four academics looked at each other, their expressions a mix of determination, concern and shock at the revelatory information they had just received. They slowly stood as Sir Clive closed the connection to the server and shut down the computer, the process automatically deleting from it’s memory the files that had been viewed. He rose and walked around the table to join then as they moved towards the door.

“Lucy, can you make the necessary travel arrangements please? As quickly as possible? I am authorising you to requisition any equipment you need and to utilise the most expedient methods to get the four of you on site as a matter of priority”

“Yes, Sir I understand. I’ll get to work as soon as I am back at my desk!”

Paul opened the door to the secure meeting room and they passed through into the corridor. As they were making their way back to the lift, Simon the security guard who had granted them access approached them.

“Sir Clive, I thought I ought to ell you, just in case it is important that Sir Harold requested access to the secure room and was down here fifteen minutes before you came down. I wouldn’t have mentioned it except that the log showed that he left the building immediately after he finished in the room and has not been contactable since then despite numerous attempts.”

“Thank you Simon, that is very useful information” Sir Clive replied, turning back to the lift with his companions. As the lift doors closed and the compartment began to ascend he mused quietly ;

“I think, ladies and gentleman, that the urgency of your departure has just increased!”

Chapter 6 – Racing against the clock

The 5.5 litre V12 engine of the Maybach 62 growled as it navigated the congested streets around the centre of Oxford. In the back Sir Harold Harper sat back against the deep leather seat, his head resting on the headrest eyes closed as he gathered his thoughts regarding recent events. The communication from Professor BIllings had been unexpected but he was certain that he had been the first to see it, and consequently that he had a head start on whatever was going to happen. He also knew that it would not have gone unnoticed that he had seen the files and that his swift exit from the building would be viewed as highly irregular, but he knew that his options were extremely limited. The visitation of the Cardinal Archbishops had fixed his resolve on a course of action that could only have two possible outcomes, and had reaffirmed his loyalties. He knew that by his actions he was betraying his colleagues, but he felt no compunction or remorse, his faith in a greater power guiding his hand far stronger than any ties of friendship. He pressed the button that raised the privacy screen between himself and his driver and picked up the iPhone beside him, tapping numbers into the screen. He lifted the phone to his ear as the single tone ring of a call to an international number started. It was answered on the second ring and a male voice intoned

“Pronto!”

“Chi Parla?” Sir Harold slipped automatically into the language and syntax of the Italian language.

“Questo e Roberto parlando” The reply gave no indication of location or position of the recipient of the phone call.

“L’aereo e pronto per l’uso?” Sir Robert asked, attempting to ascertain the flight readiness of the plane that had been arranged for his use.

“Si, tutto e sistemato!”

He disconnected the call, placing the phone in his inside jacket pocket, leaning back into his seat again as the large car continued on, picking up speed as the driver cleared the Oxford one way system and reached the clearer roads of the outskirts. Picking up the A44 the driver guided the vehicle towards it’s destination. Within fifteen minutes the car was pulling to a halt in front of a large metal gate, alongside which a security building was positioned. A uniformed guard approached the drivers door and spoke briefly, the conversation muted by the privacy screen between front and rear compartments of the vehicle. Moments later the car was moving again as the gate was rolled clear of the entrance. The driver followed the roadway around the corner of the first of a row of hangers, proceeding to the last one in the line, turning in through the large double doors and coming to a halt alongside the Brazilian maufactured Embraer 175 twin engined jet aircraft liveried in the AliItalia colours. The aircraft was currently under a private charter at the behest of vatican City officials and as Sir Harolds driver came around the car to open his door the door of the aircraft opened to reveal a man dressed in the traditional black cassock of a priest of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuit order that had long been associated with the more militaristic expansions of the Church of Rome. Sir Harold mounted the steps and ascended into the belly of the aircraft, being directed by the silent priest to a large leather seat positioned before a solid oak desk. The interior of the plane had been refitted to better suit the needs of high ranking officials within the Church when travelling on diplomatic missions. As Sir Harold settled into the seat and fastened the lap belt the plane began to taxi out of the hanger, the roar of the jet engines dulled by the reinforced materials that heightened the aircrafts defensive security.

Once clear of the hanger doors, the pilot opened the throttles further and the plane rolled across the tarmac taking up position at the end of the fifteen hundred metre tarmac and concrete runway as clearance for take-off was requested and given. The planned flight time was a little over four hours, and the plane would be arriving at Ciampino airport in Rome at seven o’clock in the evening local time. As the plane accelerated down the runway, the nose-gear wheel lifted as the pilot rotated the aircraft, the sleek regional class aircraft climbing and banking away from the Oxfordshire countryside swiftly passing through low level cloud and emerging into bright sunlight above. Back on the ground the driver returned to his seat in the car, speaking rapidly into the hands free phone built into the dashboard, confirming the planes departure. He fired up the engine and headed out of the airport, reaching the M40 motorway some 25 minutes later and joining the Southbound carriageway towards the M25 and London. An hour later the dark shape of the car disappeared into the underground carpark of a non-descript office building deep in the heart of Canary Wharf, the tail-lights blinking out as the metal security grill descended sealing the car park against ingress.

The Alitalia Jet reached it’s cruising height of 35,000 feet as it crossed the Kent coast flying South over the English Channel. Sir Harold looked out of the small porthole window, catching glimpses of the blue/grey sea through breaks in the cloud below. At a cruising speed of 475 knots the plane crossed the twenty five miles of sea quickly, soaring over the coast of France as the pilot spoke softly into the radio, clearing his flight plan as he crossed between air traffic control centres. The phone in the passenger compartment rang, shaking the academic from his reverie as the Jesuit air steward appeared, lifting the receiver, listening for a moment before handing the phone to Sir Harold. A heavily accented voice spoke ;

“Signore Harold, we have your flight on our radar system and have a vehicle waiting for you at Ciampino airport. Please make haste as we have a lot to discuss, and it would be better to do so face to face.”

“Indeed so Eminence!” Sir Harold recognised the voice as that of the Cardinal Archbishop with responsibility for the Vatican archives. “Things have developed significantly since our last meeting and it is vital that we respond in the correct way!”

“You have carried out your duties well Signore, and I feel sure that even at this late stage the sanctity and security of the Church can be protected. I look forward to welcoming you shortly,”

The call was disconnected and Sir Harolds face looked pale against the dark leather headrest of the seat. Despite his years of maintaining powerful and prestigious academic positions within some of the Worlds most respected organisations he was still capable of feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the pressure that he found himself under. The Jesuit approached, clearly interpreting the nature of the phone call, silently handing the librarian a tumbler of good scotch Whiskey over ice, the strong alcohol warming his mouth and throat as he took a deep swallow, draining half of the liquid. He nodded to the attendant, who respectfully withdrew to his station between the passenger compartment and the cockpit. Sir Harold sat back once again as he felt the aircraft pitch slightly, the port side wing dipping as the pilot turned onto a course that would take them over the heartland of France and on to the Mediterranean and the final destination just outside Rome.

As the plane sped on through the skies of Europe, back in the office of Sir Clive Edwards, Max, Paul, Lucy and Angela arranged themselves around the large desk, the senior academic taking his own seat.

“There is a vehicle waiting downstairs to take you to RAF Brize-Norton. Once there you will report to Squadron Leader Dempster of 99 Squadron. He heads up the C17 Globemaster flight and will be managing your transit. All of the equipment you need is already being loaded and the aircraft will be ready for take off when you get there.”

“Thank you Sir Clive” Max responded “I’m going to need to pick up a couple of bags from my flat on the way, but I’m ready to go immediately”

“And the rest of you?” Sir Clive asked, already knowing the answer.

The others nodded their assent, each wrapped in their own thoughts about the journey ahead, the information that they had received and what would await them. As a team they had grown to know each others strengths and weaknesses and were confident of each others abilities, but they were aware of the challenges that they would face.

“Well, in that case I will wish you a safe journey and a successful resolution.”

They stood, pausing to shake hands with their academic head before filing out of the office and crossing the corridor to the lift, descending to the ground floor and exiting the building into the courtyard where a minibus was waiting for them. They climbed in, setting off to each members accommodation to pick up the personal items they were going to need. The process was quick, each of them having bags prepared for a quick departure because of the nature of their work and the demands of their roles. Within thirty minutes the preparations were complete and they were en-route to the RAF base. They sat in silence throughout the journey, the driver facilitating the transition through the military security around the base, collecting security passes for them at the guard house. They drove across the base, past concrete and brick structures, armed figures watching them pass. The minibus pulled to a halt at the end of a row of accommodation buildings and the four travellers disembarked. As they exited the minibus they were met by a uniformed flight sergeant from the Royal Air Force Police division. He saluted as he addressed them ;

“Welcome to Brize, please follow me, Squadron Leader Dempster is waiting for you in the briefing room.”

He turned and led the way through the double doors into the large brick building in front of them. They followed, clipping their security passes to their shirts. The sergeant punched numbers into the digital security keypad on the first set of doors through the lobby area and, holding them open, ushered the four into the briefing room beyond. The room was dominated by a large projector screen at one end, the windows already covered with shades drawn down to exclude the light from outside. At the front of the large room, bent over a laptop computer was the figure of Squadron Leader Dempster, dressed in a one piece flight suit, his insignia of rank on his shoulders. He looked up as the approached, a tight smile on his lips ;

“Welcome to Brize Norton ladies and gentlemen, my name is Colin Dempster and it is my job to ensure that you and your equipment arrive at our destination safely.”

He shook each of them by the hand before returning to the laptop, his fingers swiftly pressing the keys, causing the ceiling mounted projector to hum into life, the image from the laptop screen being beamed onto the fabric screen behind him. The image showed a map of the flight path that they were about to take.

“We will be leaving Brize in the next thirty minutes, and flying non-stop across France, then over Yugoslavia and the Black Sea before crossing into the North Africa area of operation. We will be flying through some antagonistic airspace so it will be anything but a pleasure flight, but it is a route that we know well and I’m confident of a successful outcome.”

“We are in your hands Colin,” Angela replied for the travellers “We will leave all of the arrangements for transport to you, just tell us where you need us to sit!” She smiled as she spoke, despite the nerves that she knew they were all feeling.

“The closest landing strip we can use is an old Saudi airbase on the Eastern border that the US built in preparation for Operation Desert Storm in 1991. It isn’t in ideal condition as it hasn’t been maintained but we have overflown it with a couple of drones and it looks achievable. Of course that means that you will need to continue over land across Kuwait and Northern Iraq to reach your destination. The flight time is eight hours and we have estimated your drive time to be a further seventeen hours, so you should be in position in just over twenty four hours.” Colin continued.

“We can work with that Colin, you just get us to Saudi soil and we’ll take it from there!” Max’ face was grim as he spoke, the words clipped. The enormity of the task ahead of them suddenly becoming very real. This was no boys own adventure any more. This was a mission into potentially hostile territory to investigate the loss of contact of two eminent field archaeologists who also happened to be their friends. The risks were significant, but merely served to strengthen their resolve as they looked at each other, then back to the Squadron Leader.

Colin nodded, tapping the laptop keyboard, ejecting the pen drive that would serve as the navigation details of the flight when uploaded to the aircrafts guidance system, and shutting it down. He turned, leading the small group back out of the briefing room, across the lobby and out of the building. Once on the tarmac again he turned right, marching briskly across to the first of a row of hangers, just visible through the partially open large doors was the nose section of the large transport aircraft that they would be using. Unusually for an RAF aircraft it was painted a dull, pale grey colour and bore none of the usual insignia or roundels. At the rear of the aircraft the cargo ramp stood open and it was through this entrance that the five people boarded the aircraft. Squadron Leader Dempster immediately headed to join his colleagues in the cockpit completing the flight crew of four. Max, Lucy, Angela and Paul remained in the vast cargo hold, momentarily taken aback by the equipment facing them and the speed with which it had been put together. Colin looked back from the flight deck and shouted ;

“You should find everything in order, but if you look on that table to the right” he indicated “You’ll see the loading manifest detailed everything we have put aboard. You have about ten minutes to check it before we will be closing the ramp and taxiing out!”

The four moved swiftly to the table, Paul picking up the multiple A4 sheets of printer paper comprising the manifest. Some items were immediately obvious as they scanned down the list. The two heavily modified Landrover Defender 110 pick up trucks were strapped down to restraining points in the hold, their most noticeable features the oversized balloon desert tyres and the suspension lift kits required to allow them to be fitted. They knew without even looking at the sheets that the modifications didn’t stop there and that these vehicles had been heavily reinforced and strengthened to make them suitable for hostile environments. Some of the items further down the list were less obvious but the numerous crates and boxes both in the hold and strapped onto and within the vehicles made it clear that the list was comprehensive. Each item was quickly checked off and verified by the group and six minutes later, satisfied that they were ready they began strapping themselves into the canvas webbing seats bolted to the fuselage. Precisely ten minutes after they had boarded the plane the loading ramp began to rise, the thrum of the four powerful jet engines increased in pitch and the huge plane began to roll out through the now fully open hangar doors, towards the long runway, and the skies beyond. On time to the second the flight was cleared by the tower and they felt themselves pushed back in their seats as the plane accelerated, tilting as it left the ground. Their journey had begun.

Chapter 7 – The desert awaits

As the C17 Globemaster left the tarmac, just over a thousand miles away the four vehicle convoy sped away from the molten ruin of the former Landrover FC-101 across the desert as the sun breached the horizon, the morning rays instantly increasing the ambient temperature outside. Within each Otokar Cobra the six occupants remained impassive to the heat, to the jolting of the vehicles across the rough terrain, even to the violent acts they had just committed. The training that each member of the teams had received, the years of conditioning and utter control serving them well as they stared straight ahead, sat in silence. The driver of the lead vehicle tapped coordinates into the satellite navigation system mounted to the dashboard, the signal returning, plotting a route back from the site of the attack to the excavation. As the armoured vehicles pulled to a halt the doors to the rear troop compartment opened and the teams exited, carrying with them the equipment they were going to need. They moved in single file through the exposed dig site, pausing to take video of the carvings on the slab of rock before passing into the chamber beyond. Moving with speed and efficiency they began to clear the mounds of sand from the floor and walls. As they worked, two members stayed back operating cameras, recording each aspect as it was revealed. The carvings on the walls of the chamber became clearer, the narrative sequence of images exposed to view.

As the rest of the group worked on the movement of the sand began to reveal sherds of pottery, fragments of fire blackened wood, the detritus that gave evidence of the ancient presence of humanity. As each artifact was revealed its position was recorded and filmed, the process feeling very similar to the process followed by the archaeologists, only the pace of the work changing. each find was sealed into plastic bags and containers and stacked in a clear area of floor ready to be transferred to the vehicles. The finds elicited no response from any of the team members. There were no sounds of shock or surprise, no words exchanged. The process was ruthless and efficient, a picking clean of the site. Pottery and wood finds were interspersed with more metal objects, rods, sheets, metal shapes, each covered in the markings that had caused such surprise for Jack and Sarah. Here, now, under the impassive eyes of the team there was no room for surprise. The finds were given no order of precedence, no analysis, each simply recorded, bagged and stacked together. The process continued as each cleared area of sand revealed more, one wall, particularly heavily blocked was found to have yet another opening into a further hidden room beyond. It was as this entrance was cleared that even the control of the highly trained team was tested to the absolute limit. The camera operators were signalled forward, and as the lights of the video units shone through the doorway there were the first audible expressions of awe and wonder.

The contents of the room beyond reflected the intruding light, shining it back onto the grey clad figures, onto the walls of the first chamber rendering them with a warm golden glow. Not since the opening of the Royal tomb of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter in the 1922 had there been a discovery of quite this level of richness in terms of material wealth, but unlike the Pharoahs’ tomb what was being revealed here had implications far beyond the intrinsic dollar value. It took a moment for the squad leaders to retain composure, and ragain focus ;
“Attention! Continue working! What is here has no relevance!” The orders barked, made more harsh by the heavily accented voice.

The effect was immediate, conditioning taking over as the figures moved through into the newly revealed room, the process of cataloguing, recording, packing and removing each artifact continued, the pace increasing as a sense of urgency began to overtake them. The movements of each figure once again became robotic, all thought subsumed by the obeying of orders. Item by item the room was cleared, the process revealing yet more carvings on the walls and ceiling, even the floor surface appeared to be covered in markings. Within sixty minutes this new room was cleared and all measurements and positions recorded. Once done, the squad leader made a final sweep of the area, scanning each wall, each joint in the masonry surfaces. Finally satisfied, the group began the process of removing the bagged finds, loading them into the vehicles. As the finds were loaded, boxes were removed and transferred into the excavation site, being positioned around the walls of each chamber. Each box had a small LED panel and numeric keypad, and as each was placed, the squad leader followed, inputting number sequences, checking the illuminated panels, ensuring that each was correctly set. Once all of the find bags were removed and the boxes positioned and set the leader gave a signal and the squad formed around the granite slab that had formed the first discovery.

“What we do today is for the security of the Fatherland and the Church” His accented voice harsh, his posture straight and rigid, his eyes shining with the light of true zealotry. “You are all part of a larger World order, a World order which was founded many years ago and has grown slowly. Today we take a step forward towards our ultimate goal, and each of you have played a significant role. Your actions here today will never to be recognised, never be acknowledged in the wider context of our destiny, but I honour each of you, here in this place. To each of you I say meine ehre heisst treue!”

“MEINE EHRE HEISST TREUE!” The rest of the squad raised their voices repeating the phrase that had stood at the core of National Socialism through the 1930’s. My honour is loyalty, the mantra which had forged a nation into the most ruthless regime in human history, leading normal men, women and children to carry out acts of utter barbarism in the name of national pride. The concept drew on the traditions and stories of the Northern European traditions of family and honour through death in battle, the warrior spirit corrupted and distorted to support and encourage the complete desecration of all that was good in that belief system. The words became a chant, rising in sound and tempo with each iteration ;

“MEINE EHRE HEISST TREUE! MEINE EHRE HEISST TREUE! MEINE EHRE HEISST TREUE!” The fervour of the group increasing, their eyes shining, tears forming as the passion rose.

The squad leaders arm rose in the straight arm Nazi salute, his heels clicking together as he drew himself up to full attention. His movements were mirrored by the rest, he looked at these people who he had personally trained, developed, controlled. His lips drew into a thin line as he dropped his arm to his side, the signal for the four drivers to quietly leave the vehicles, raising their Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine guns to their shoulders. The fusillade of nine millimetre rounds loud in the confined space of the excavation site, the bullets tearing into the bodies of the squad as their chanting turned to cries of pain. As the gunfire died away and the bodies fell to the ground the leader approached each of his former comrades in turn, drawing his Sig Sauer 2022 sidearm, firing point blank into the back of each head, the traditional coup de grace afforded to the fallen. The grisly work completed the leader turned, walking back to the lead vehicle as the drivers rolled the bodies through the entrance to the first chamber unceremoniously before mounting up, firing up the engines and setting off. As soon as the last vehicle had gone more than four hundred metres the leader completed the mission by taking from a pouch on his chest the remote control unit that matched the frequency of the receivers on the boxes that ringed the site. As he pressed the button he felt the ground they were travelling over shudder as the packages of high explosive and thermite detonated, effectively obliterating the site and the evidence that it contained.

As the charges went out the sand fountained into the air, the granite blocks forming the hidden structure shattering under the concussive blast. The thermite charges erupted white hot molten metal, instantly incinerating any organic matter remaining on the site. The bodies of the dead squad members were instantly vaporised by the intensity of the heat, even the metal of their uniforms melting and forming mis-shapen blobs of copper, bronze and steel. Within moments, where there had been a partially excavated archaeological site of global significance, all that remained was a shallow crater, the sand within heated to the point that it had taken on a glassy appearance. As the smoke cleared, the same wind that carried it away served to shift the soft sound around the site concealing the tyre tracks of the vehicle, until before long, there was no trace of what had occurred save the devastation of the explosions.

By the time the C17 landed at King Abdul Aziz Airbase seven hours later the four vehicles that had left the devastated excavation site crossed back into the Bekaa Valley and were approaching the Hezbollah controlled airbase in preparation for extraction. In Saudi Arabia the Landrover Defenders were rapidly unloaded, and Lucy, Max, Paul and Angela climbed aboard, setting out along well maintained tarmac roads towards the Iraqi border. They knew that this was the easiest part of the journey, and that when they reached the border they would effectively be illegally crossing into a hostile country and that if they were stopped they would be arrested and detained as spies. ten miles from the border they left the road on a preplanned route across the desert environment, the all terrain vehicles coming into their own as the mix of soft sand and large rocks shook the occupants. As they came within sight of the border crossing they paused, scanning the area for any signs of movement, before accelerating across the wilderness, entering this most unstable of regions, keeping their speed as high as they dared. As the bright desert sun began to set and the sky began to darken they pushed on, knowing that every second was precious, and that the sooner they reached their destination, the sooner they could begin to discover exactly what had been going on. In the lead vehicle Max was driving, Lucy sitting beside him as navigator, the screen of her tablet computer illuminating her face as night swiftly drew in. The screen showed their current position and mapped the terrain between them and their destination, a live feed from US military satellites overhead highlighting any known or suspected military or guerilla bases. They followed a twisting course keeping as much distance between themselves and any possible blockades as they could as the miles and the hours passed.

The second vehicle stayed close, following the wheel marks of the vehicle in front, Angela driving very deliberately knowing that this whole region had been seeded with vast numbers of landmines in the period before and during the Gulf Wars. She knew that there had been repeated missions to clear the horrendous devices but that there was no guarantee of safety. Beside her Paul carried out the same role as Lucy in vehicle one, monitoring their progress whilst at the same time going back over the essentials of the data they had received, and checking for any updates from Sir Clive. Since leaving the UK they had been almost in communication blackout, but even out here in the remote desert of the Middle East the constant surveillance by military satellites facilitated the possibility of receiving any urgent intelligence reports. All four of them were wrapped up in their own thoughts, going over the limited information they had already received and preparing themselves for the possibilities of what they might find. In some ways, not having a complete picture was even more difficult to deal with than having definitive bad news, and each of them started to mentally prepare themselves for the worst case scenario. The thought processes and the intensity of the situation kept them alert as they passed through having been awake and in transit for twenty hours, it was clear from their faces that none of them could have slept even if opportunity had presented, so keyed up were they, and yet they knew that once they reached their destinations they would still have to function at maximum efficiency and be ready to face whatever they found. The radio in the second vehicle crackled into life, Paul pulling on the headphones, the fitted boom microphone falling naturally in front of his lips.

“Just a heads up that we are just over two miles from the target!” Lucys’ voice clear despite the speed of the vehicles and the interference of the local environment “We’ll slow down a little to make sure that we don’t miss anything!”

“Roger!” Paul responded “Message received and understood!” He switched channel on the radio and handed the second set of headphones to Angela, waiting until she had slipped them on before repeating the message. She nodded her understanding and eased off on the accelerator as both vehicles began to slow. They entered a rock strewn gulley, the consequence of the infrequent torrential rain storms that triggered flash floods throughout the region, the sides of the canyon funneling the wind and causing sand to swirl around them as the over-sized wheels kicked the loose particles up into the air. Slowing further still as they began to have to negotiate larger boulders and rock outcrops, the two Landrovers progressed until they came around a bend in the formation and saw before them a sight which made their hearts sink. The area of the excavation site had begun to cool after the explosion destruction, but the crater, the fused sand and the stench of chemical burning was still almost overwhelming. Max and Angela brought the vehicles to a full halt at a distance of about fifty metres and all four of them dismounted. As soon as they had left the vehicles Paul reached into the pack that had been nestled between his feet for the whole journey, and unzipping the main pocket he pulled out a small hand-held video camera and began to film the scene before them.

“Oh God!” Lucy began “What on Earth happened here? It looks like a war zone! I can’t see any indication of Jack and Sarahs vehicle or equipment, and if this is the site, then we are too late!”

“Come on” Max replied, sternly “We still have a job to do so lets get the gear unpacked and start our investigation!”

Together the four of them began removing boxes from their vehicles, working swiftly, each item them required packed logically for maximum efficiency. Paul began to set a theodolite up on its tripod, taking measurements of the relatives heights and distances across the site. While he was doing that Lucy and Max began to slowly survey the surface of the site visually while Angela opened two large flight cases and removed a pair of metal detectors of the type used by the military for landmine clearance. She took out a sample kit and used the selection of metals on it to calibrate each machine, knowing that this process had already been done before they set off but her mind needing the reassurance of familiar tasks to prevent it from focusing on the carnage before her. Once the machine were set up and tested she pulled a tablet computer from her personal pack and began to follow Lucy and Max taking notes as they made observations about what they were seeing. The four of them followed a prescribed routine, one which would have been familiar to any forensic crime scene investigators but probably not to many field archaeologists. Sir Clive had chosen well when he put the team together at such short notice, selecting each of them for their complementary skills and abilities and for their logical processes and attention to detail.

With each passing moment the four began to piece together what had happened. From an initial assessment it was clear that there had been deliberate destruction on a massive scale and the only logical reason seemed to be to hide whatever it was that had been found on the site. As they worked in it became clearer and clearer that the entire site had been put beyond any hope of salvage, and that whatever had been there to give them a clue as to what had happened was now beyond their reach. Littering the site were tiny fragments of the granite blocks that had featured so strongly, but even these were broken into such small pieces that none of the markings that they were expecting to see were distinguishable. Running the metal detectors across the site yielded a wealth of metal finds but they were all so deformed and in many cases so obviously the remnants of whoever had been here and perpetrated this act of desecration that they served no useful purpose. Paul shook his head sadly, looking over at the others ;

“I really don’t see that there is anything useful that we can glean here guys” He look disconsolate,

“Wait!” Angela replied “What’s that, over there, half buried in the sand?” She moved forward, kneeling at the edge of a pile of sand and extracting from it a section of metal container that had miraculously avoided being melted by the inferno that had raged here. On it were a sequence of letters and numbers, obviously some type of manufacturers code or mark. It was clearly something that had been introduced to the site by whoever had been here before them, but it might still provide some lead as to where to go next.

Together they gave the site a finally scan before returning to the vehicles. Before they set off Angela used her tablet computer to upload their exact position, the notes she had been taking, the data from Max’ survey and images of the metal fragment that they had discovered. With heavy hearts they fired up their engines, and, moving more slowly than on their inbound journey, the sense of urgency diminished, they returned across the border and made their way to the Saudi airbase where their transport plane and Squadron Leader Dempster awaited their arrival. They sat in silence, drinking strong Arabic coffee as the vehicles and equipment were loaded and secured, each of them lost in their own thoughts, sadness for their colleagues, bewilderment at the damage done to the site, but above all a determination to find out what had happened and why….

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