The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Pharaoh's Heart Was Hardened
2.30 pm, Saturday 14th March 1998
Johnny encourages John to join him for a drink. 'John, saw you talking to Jonathan Sherwood when I came in. Everything alright? Didn't think the CPRG were too keen on us.'
A slightly menacing smile comes across John's features as he sips his coffee. 'They are fools, who do not understand what they do. They are no threat to my... our plans. But they can be used.'
'Oh yes? How's that, then?' nods Johnny.
'These foolish rituals they seek to perform can be turned to our...' suddenly John's mouth snaps shut and he glances at Johnny suspiciously. 'Ha! Enough of that, I must be boring you. So, how are you finding Egypt?'
'Oh, it's fascinating,' says Johnny. 'We're lucky to have you here leading us – an expert. You're doing a great job.'
John smiles warmly. 'Yes, I am rather, aren't I?' His body language relaxes somewhat.
Johnny takes a drink himself and says, as if musing, 'This Haremakhet, he must have been a fascinating character – admirable, in many ways.'
'Yes!' says John, nodding his head vigorously. 'What an example of a selfless man – dedicated to the ideal of the kingdom, to his Pharaoh, and to a queen he thought was best for the realm – only to be sacrificed, cast aside. What a tragedy. Who knows, had he lived he might have been given a greater opportunity to make his mark on the world stage.'
'And a man of many personal qualities, too,' says Johnny.
'He certainly was – generous, thoughtful, considerate, loyal – what a loss! Khufu regretted having him killed, you may be sure of that, regretted having the wool pulled over his eyes by that scheming Khentkaus. Pah! If Haremakhet had survived he would have advised against passing the Two Crowns to that fool Khephren, you may be sure of that, the man whose lust to match his great father prejudiced all Khufu's works.'
Johnny is nodding wisely all the while, and sipping at his drink to encourage John to do likewise. 'I can see how Haremakhet must have had a powerful spirit, one that might well survive down the ages – but with what purpose? Why would he start to act, what would prompt him?'
John looks suspicious again, but there is a hint of wishing to confide about him. 'In such a situation – which I must stress is purely hypothetical, of course – the man's purpose would doubtless be twofold. To continue his task of protecting the land of the Pharaohs against the schemes of the witch Khentkaus. And to achieve vengeance against her for his death.'
'But how could he do that? Surely she must be dead, too?'
John looks long and levelly at him. 'You little understand the capability for power and evil of such a sorceress, Dr Stone.'
As the others gaze eagerly at the television screen, awaiting the first images from the tomb, Mickey surreptitiously slips the pendant the Imam gave him round his neck.
At first there is little to see. The robot inches along a narrow tunnel, lighting its way as it goes – the only image is that of parallel lines of sandstone receding alongside it. Its progress is hesitant, as it feels its way over the unevennesses of the stonework.
'These things are amazing,' enthuses Harry. 'You can send them up any angle, over any surface, and still you get these sharp pictures. And this one's got a redirectable light, even better than the old one – that could only see what was right ahead of it.'
To the amateurs in the observing group the images do not look terribly sharp or distinct, but presumably an expert is able to make more out of them. The picture is monochrome, and difficult to resolve.
After about twenty minutes Jane straightens slightly from where she is hunched over the keyboard, and says 'Right, here's the first intersection. Which way?' She glances up at Professor Bird.
'Left, of course,' says Sonia crisply. 'Towards the second chamber.'
Jane manipulates the mouse, the end of her tongue trapped between her teeth, and all is expectant silence again for a little while. Then she says slowly 'That's funny.'
'What is, my dear?' asks Matthews.
Chenevix is staring at the screen. 'Look...' she points. 'This shaft – the angle. I did not think it was so steep.'
'Mm,' says Jane. 'I'm sure it was shallower than this last time. I had the speed set on 1.3, but look, if I do that now, its wheels just spin.' She taps a couple of keys, and the picture starts to judder.
'Are you quite sure?' says Sonia Bird. 'It was quite a few days ago, you know.'
Jane flushes. 'I'm not completely stupid, you know. We can prove it – look!' She stands up, shoving her chair back into Andrew's legs, and strides over to the other television. She presses play on the video recorder attached to it, and fast forwards a little way through the tape. 'Look!'
To the untrained eye the two pictures – the live footage, and the video recording of the previous attempt – seem to be identical, but all the archaeologists stare at the screen in puzzlement. 'That's very strange,' says Sonia slowly. 'It looks at least five degrees steeper. Perhaps there's been some settlement.'
'After four thousand years?' exclaims Harry.
The SITU team exchange glances.
Johnny bids John farewell and heads into the city once more. As the taxi drives along Sharia Muhammed Ali, he hears the sound of automatic gunfire over in the distance, followed by a small, muffled explosion. The driver mutters something in Arabic. Catching Johnny's eye in the rear view mirror, he says 'I praying for souls of dead men, effendi.'
'Protesters?' asks Johnny.
The man nods. 'Soldiers of Islam, effendi, martyred by the police!' He spits out of the window, then adds hastily, 'although I am a tolerant man, of course.'
Johnny notices with slight unease that Islamic symbols and tokens are hung all over the cab.
'Look at that! That is completely incredible!' exclaims Harry Challis.
The robot has reached the end of the shaft, and is looking into a large chamber, not quite as big as the main burial chamber in which the team has stood. The centre of the roughly cubical room is occupied by a sarcophagus: although little detail can be made out in this light, it is clear that it is very crudely finished, compared with that of Tutankhamen, for example. It can dimly be seen that the walls of the chamber, and the sides of the sarcophagus, are covered in carvings and inscriptions. What Harry is pointing at, though, is the floor, which seems to be about six inches below the mouth of the tunnel. On it, about a yard away, against the base of the sarcophagus, is the other robot.
'It's not surprising we couldn't bring the bloody thing back!' Harry expostulates. 'When we sent it down, this vent was at floor level! Now it's got a six-inch sill! What the hell d'you call that? Settlement?' He waves his hands frantically.
'Calm down, Harry,' says Sonia reflexively, but she too is clearly astounded, as are all the Oxford team.
'I, er, don't quite see just how the shaft could shift to that extent,' mutters Matthews. He pulls out an unlit pipe and stuffs it into the corner of his mouth.
'Well, look, whatever caused it, we've got to deal with it now, that's all,' says Jane crisply. She seems the calmest of all now. 'I'll point the camera downwards towards it.'
The other robot leaps into close-up on the screen. It seems perfectly intact. Jane taps on the keyboard, and it starts to move about. 'See – motion works fine, it's just the video that's shot. I thought so! You would keep saying that it was completely fritzed, but I knew it was moving about. If only I'd thought to have told it to try climbing up...'
'How could you have?' says Chenevix. 'We all knew that the way out was at floor level. Anyway, even if you had told it to climb, what are the chances of it hitting this small opening? It would probably have climbed the sarcophagus instead.'
Isobel clears her throat rather nervously. 'Is that another opening, there?' She points to a dark patch on the screen, high above the sarcophagus.
Harry looks round at her in surprise, as if suddenly remembering her existence. 'That's right, yes. If this is another burial, it would have needed its own ka-shaft, too.'
'But whose burial is it, then?' asks Andrew.
'That's easy,' says Sonia. 'We can see this carving on the sarcophagus clearly now.' She points at a fuzzy cartouche, and reads syllable by syllable. 'Het... epher... es.'
There is a moment of silence.
'Now what exactly is she doing here?' asks Chenevix slowly.
Another moment of silence.
Harry Challis points at the screen, at the shadows behind the sarcophagus. 'And what is that?' A vague lighter shape can be seen.
Jane swivels the light and the camera on the robot's nose, and zooms into the shadows.
Lying there, crumpled against the side of the sarcophagus, is a human skeleton.
Isobel swallows hard.
Professor Bird claps her hands together. 'Okay, team, fun later. For now, let's get translating these carvings.'
At the Medina Harafi the taxi-driver agrees to wait for Johnny. 'Keep your face covered, effendi, if you are wise. Many soldiers of Islam here, and they will be angry at their brothers' deaths.'
Johnny walks into the sullen confectioner's once more and proffers his customary wodge of cash. The man takes it without comment and jerks backwards with his thumb.
In the back room van Heuvelen is sitting up on the filthy bed, which Johnny takes as an improvement, although the air is still thick with fumes from the pungent hookah he draws regularly upon. 'Hey – my source.' Van Heuvelen languidly waves a hand. 'Got anything new today, my man?'
'Just here to make sure you take a couple more of what I brought yesterday,' says Johnny, sitting down.
The Dutchman pulls a face. 'Didn't do much for me – are you sure it was the real thing?'
'Real as you can imagine,' Johnny assures him. 'But you have to build it up in your system over a few days, that's all. So you have to take two more today.'
Van Heuvelen leans over and digs in the heap of blankets, eventually coming up with the bottle of pills. 'Whatever you say, chief.' He gulps two down. 'For you?' He offers Johnny the bottle.
'Not me, it's too strong for me,' says Johnny, declining.
A large black car roars up at the dig, and Mickey, who has come out of the tent to prowl about, wanders over to it. The driver, a man in black uniform, shows a pass to the gate guards, and then out gets Abdel Essawi, the Ministry of Culture official who is observing the dig for the Egyptian Government. He stands by the car for a moment, a big man, impressive in a grey silk suit, then fixes Mickey with his gaze. His eyes are very deep. 'Mister Thomas, I believe?'
'That's right,' says Mickey defensively, wondering how Essawi knew his name.
'There is no need to announce me – I shall make my own way within,' says the Egyptian. As he walks past Mickey, the latter cannot resist a tremble that inexplicably comes over him, and his hand goes up reflexively to touch the phylactery the Imam gave him. All the diggers are regarding Essawi with fear, and Mickey sees one of them mutter something to another in Arabic as he enters the tent.
While the archaeologists work on the translation, the SITU team gather in seclusion to confer.
Andrew shares with them the contents of the fax he received from SITU. 'We need to get more co-ordinated,' he says seriously. 'There are clearly many dangers around, so we can't continue the way we have. We should all get together and have a long talk about every aspect of our situation.'
'I met this man Essawi at Branston Hall,' explains Celestina. She is not sure how much she is allowed to say about what transpired there. 'We believe that he was responsible for spiritually attacking one of the team – a woman called Tanya Hyde.' Her level gaze does not betray her opinion of the unfortunate Tanya. 'He may be dangerous.'
'What about these secret police guys?' asks Mickey, who has come back in. 'What should we do about them?'
'I recommend we act like we don't know they are around,' says Andrew. 'If they should make contact we should be passive and respect their lawful right to question our actions. If we have to buy our peace from them we must be very careful not to act arrogant or disrespectful in anyway. We are alone here , and we must assume they know that.'
Mickey grimaces but sees the sense in this argument.
'Also,' says Celestina, 'the obelisk that the group inside the tomb were using was part of the ceremonies at Branston Hall, and the ritual there caused sleepiness in participants. The chanting was recorded by one of my fellow investigators, but I never found out if it was analysed.'
Just at that point Essawi walks into the tent, and everyone gradually falls silent as they notice his presence. He nods to Celestina. 'Miss Mirande? How delightful to meet you once more.'
'Oh, do you two know each other?' says Professor Bird, slightly flustered, tucking her hair back behind her ears. 'Mr Essawi, we've made the most marvellous discovery – look!' She replays the video.
Essawi watches carefully, raising his eyebrows at the final scene of the second chamber revealed. 'And you say that these airways, shafts, have been moved? Fascinating. Each grain of rice holds a new world within it, as we say. What might have caused such a disturbing event?'
'We really have no idea, my dear chap,' admits Matthews. 'Disturbing indeed. It's not as if simple settlement could have caused a movement of such magnitude. Considerable power must have been involved.'
'Considerable power, indeed,' says Essawi calmly, stroking his chin. Then, so briefly that it can hardly be noticed, he very briefly stiffens, as if in realization. He clicks his fingers together sharply. 'Of course! That explains...'
'Of course what?' asks Chenevix suspiciously.
Essawi regains his composure. 'Of course, these new findings are a great resource, my dear Doctor. We of the Ministry will give you all the help we can with them.'
Andrew makes his way back to the fax bureau to report to SITU. He also requests a portable PC, with email and a cellular phone connection, and encryption software. 'Buy them there if you can,' says the SITU rep he speaks to on the phone. 'We'll reimburse you. You can get hold of encryption software from the Internet, once you've got the modem link up and running.'
Celestina also phones SITU, and learns more about the Circles Phenomenon Research Group. Apparently they tour major ancient structures of the world, attempting to 'realign' them in line with instructions supposedly received from aliens. The 'Stonehenge incident' occurred last summer: Sherwood and Isobelle Kingston were arrested at the site while conducting a midnight ceremony, SITU presume attempting to realign the great altar-stone. SITU have previously written the group off as harmless cranks, but the news that they have the obelisk from Branston Hall, which was thought destroyed or at best with Essawi, suggests that they should be taken more seriously. Certainly the obelisk itself seems to be an object of considerable power.
Essawi has left the site, promising to return in the morning.
Eddie has been confined to the hotel thanks to a nasty bout of dysentery, but he manages to stagger out mid-afternoon only to find that everyone else has gone – except, that is, for John Torillo, who is deep in discussion with the CPRG people. As Eddie staggers by he sees John handing out sheaves of typescript to each member of the group, who look at them with varying degrees of interest and puzzlement: John is talking enthusiastically, with an edge of need in his manner, as though trying to convince Sherwood and his cohorts of something.
Johnny arrives at the dig, and stories are exchanged once again. 'Maybe these ducts, chambers, whatever shifting was the cause of the release of the evil spirit?' he suggests.
'In that case, was that what the CPRG were trying to achieve?' wonders Isobel. 'Or was it a side effect? And did Essawi give them the obelisk?'
'I've been talking with John,' says Johnny. 'If he's been possessed now, we have to make sure he doesn't find out what's going on.'
'You're the boss, now,' says Mickey. 'What d'you reckon – should we be watching him? Or try and take him out of the picture?' He looks round defensively. 'Not permanently, I just mean should we do something about him?'
'We could try to get him to this sorcerer of yours, or a priest,' suggests Johnny.
'I know how to rid a person of possession,' says Celestina, 'although I am not sure if it will work on non-voudoun cases. You must take a piece of goats-skin parchment and write on it using ink – made from sacrificed chicken's blood, charcoal and various basic herbs – the name of the possessed person and the possessed person's father. This is tied up in scarlet ribbon and the possessed person is confronted with it – it is read out loud, and the person's soul should be freed, often to attack their enslaver.' She looks round at the group, who have non-committal expressions. 'The materials should be easy to find here, and the information not to difficult to wheedle out of the possessed. I am willing to perform the ceremony if you think it necessary.'
'Let's have a think about that,' says Johnny uneasily.
'In any case,' continues Celestina, 'I advise that no-one should sell any part of their soul to a bokor – they cannot be trusted, especially not in a deal. They will twist their words so they will get your soul and you will get something unexpected.' She looks round the circle of worried faces and, unexpectedly, smiles, showing her very white and regular teeth. 'Of course, it may only all work if you believe in it!'
'Here we are, then,' says Professor Bird, spreading a stack of paper across the big chart table. 'This is so fascinating – it's even more complex than we thought. This sarcophagus is that of Hetepheres, as I said. It seems that she was executed instead of Khentkaus, by mistake.'
'Eh?' exclaims Mickey. 'That's a hell of a mistake!'
'Apparently some sorcery of Khentkaus's was involved. A strangler was sent to her room at night – that was the usual way queens were executed – but she had switched places somehow, and Hetepheres was there instead. So she got strangled instead.'
Everyone blinks, taking this in.
'So the outer chamber, the one you've stood in, never had a body in it at all,' continues Sonia. 'It was made ready for Khentkaus – she was a queen, after all – and the walls were painted and so on, but the sarcophagus remained empty. Must have been quite a disappointment to the tomb robbers. The second chamber, this one the robot's in now, was built hurriedly, and Hetepheres was buried in it – and that's her, in the sarcophagus, we assume.
'What about the skeleton?' asks Andrew.
'Ah! That seems to be the unfortunate, er, Haremakhet,' explains Matthews. 'The Pharaoh seems to have, er, decided to immure him within the tomb, as a punishment – poor fellow. His death must have been somewhat, eh, protracted. But here we see "the traitor Haremakhet, on whom let the Sun not shine more" – it seems he was a, er, a confederate in Khentkaus's plans, or at least so thought Khufu.'
'So he just starved to death?'
'Er, yes, the skeleton is quite intact, it seems – ah, except for one slight, ah... disturbance.' Matthews cleans his glasses embarrassedly. 'It, ah, seems that in our initial entry into the chamber, while we were, er, while young Jane was, er, backing the robot along the wall to get a good picture of, er, the inscriptions we showed you earlier, it, ah, the robot, backed into Haremakhet's remains – this must have been just before it, er, conked out – perhaps a piece of bone damaged it...' He dries up rather weakly.
'So what happens next?' asks Isobel.
'Well, we have plenty here to work on,' says Sonia. 'Pages and pages of new inscriptions – we can learn a great deal about ceremonial life in the Fourth Dynasty from this one room. Although constructed in haste, it seems very complete. But then there's the sarcophagus itself – we have no Old Kingdom burials at all, you see. This really is an unrivalled find. We would very much like to examine it, but that would mean a certain amount of disassemblement, to create an aperture in this chamber large enough to allow entry. I'm really not sure if Mr Essawi and his superiors will be keen to permit that.' She sighs and looks downcast. Then her expression brightens. 'Of course, if you ladies and gentlemen from the Davina Millhouse Trust were to add your request, that might help sway him.'
Eddie feels well enough to eat dinner, still alone, and he sees that John Torillo is eating with the CPRG team: they seem quite chummy now.
7.30 pm, Saturday 14th March 1998
Eddie: at the Hilton
Everyone else: at the dig