Gizeh Plateau, Middle Kingdom, Egypt, summer, 1923 B.C.
Kheperkare looked around nervously. He could only see the members of their small band, twenty loyal members of the Guard, willing to give their lives to succeed in this mission…and Wosret. He glanced over at the Goddess. She seemed unconcerned, as always. Calm, serene, placid; her dark-skinned, unlined face belied her age. She held her staff, with its twin-pronged end, loosely in her right hand; her left hand rose to shade her eyes, the almost-transparent blue that pierced the minds of those who spoke with her. The mission had been at her insistence; its objective only known to Kheperkare and her.
He hefted the sack slung over his shoulder; its physical weight belying the importance of its contents. He drew his sword, signalling to the soldiers to stop pulling the sled and arm themselves. The wind dropped suddenly. An all-encompassing silence fell. An expectant pause; a prelude to… something.
Kheperkare slowly turned his gaze to the rocks nearby. Surely, that was the only cover from which an attack could emerge. He looked over at Wosret. She had her back to the rocks, her gaze fixed on an area of sand a short distance ahead of their convoy. He looked in that direction but could not make out anything threatening.
Wosret signalled to him. The danger was there, not in the rocks. He whistled softly to his men and signed his instructions. The soldiers split into two groups; six stayed with the sled and its precious cargo, the rest moving forwards, fanning out.
The earth exploded upwards at multiple points in front of them. Reed mats under a thin layer of sand had covered the attackers. There were many of them; Kheperkare hoped that his small force was up to the challenge. The battle was bloody and fierce. Kheperkare dispatched three assailants by the simple expedient of beheading them with broad slices of his sword. He looked over at Wosret to see if he needed to help, but instantly saw she was more than a match for her attackers. She gave no quarter, fighting like the goddess she was, blue sparks issuing from the pronged end of her staff, extinguishing the life of anyone that it touched. Seven bodies lay on the ground at her feet, and as he watched, fascinated, two more attackers died.
The attack was over almost as soon as it had begun. He had lost three soldiers; the enemy lost over forty. Only Kheperkare’s force remained standing. He directed his men to check the bodies of the assailants and finish-off any still living. They complied, removing the heads of the enemy to make certain.
“We need to continue,” Wosret whispered in her raspy voice.
He organised the soldiers and again they heaved at the sled, dragging it and its covered cargo over the sand.
An hour later, the evenness of the horizon was broken by their destination; a fierce speck of orange light. The sun was setting and its rays reflected off the polished limestone making the Per-Neter an awe-inspiring vision. He knew they were all exhausted. They had barely rested since leaving Oun in the north-east several days before, their endurance taken to unsuspected limits by the battle, yet the sight of their destination in the distance renewed their strength.
It was deepest night when they arrived, their torches sending sparks up to mate with the stars in the heavens. Preparations made long before; the down-sloping ramp alongside the Per-Neter completed and camouflaged. They dragged and pushed the sled down into the bowels of the earth. The underground chamber reached, the soldiers dismissed, only Kheperkare and Wosret remained. The Goddess told Kheperkare where to place the contents of his sack as she removed the covering from the sled. When Kheperkare finished his task, he stood back. Wosret touched the prongs of her staff to the Ben Ben and guided it into position. Their mission was almost finished. Kheperkare sighed deeply.
Together they dragged the empty sled up the ramp and once outside, Wosret turned her staff’s prongs towards the beginning of the slope. Blue fire danced and coursed down the slope, until its intensity forced Kheperkare and his soldiers to look away. Several minutes passed. The light went out. As Kheperkare’ eyes adjusted to the night again, he saw all trace of the slope were gone, the melted sand forming a shiny surface. At Wosret’s request, he directed his men to pile more loose sand on top to hide the unnatural mark. The desert winds would provide a more definitive solution.
Hours later, at their campsite erected near their battleground, most of the soldiers slept, as Wosret and Kheperkare sat well apart from the soldiers on guard. Wosret whispered into Kheperkare’s ear.
“Now I must return to Waset and you must return to Oun. You still have much to do there.”
“Yes, I have already put things into motion. Soon it will be finished.”
“Let us hope that this is the correct solution.”
“Too much is at stake for it not to be.”
“Indeed.” Wosret paused and looked at the man before her. Her eyes Paged his mind, seeking, finding. “Kheperkare, from today you will take another name so all will know that you are under my direct protection. You will be known as Senwosret, the son of Wosret.”
Kheperkare inclined his head, knowing that Wosret was bestowing a great honour on him. No mortal man professed a relationship, albeit in name, to the Gods before.
Wosret rose and bade him a safe journey. She turned and walked away. Kheperkare stood, watching her depart, knowing that they would only ever meet again if their plan failed. Deeply saddened by her departure, he walked back to their campsite. She had taught him many skills; had made him what he was today. Known by yet another name, more public: Senusret, “The Man of the Star Walkers”, it meant. Senusret, Pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom.
Lisbon, Portugal, Wednesday, 16th May 1956
The boy crossed the concrete esplanade of the airport. His small hand disappeared in the huge fist of the man at his side. This was not his father. The boy would have been overjoyed if his father had accompanied him today, but, as usual, his father had other, more important tasks, to attend to in Lisbon. He woke the boy from a deep sleep, early that morning before dawn, and after a quick wash and breakfast, they drove to his office. The boy now sat in a chair with a piece of paper and crayons, told to draw an aircraft flying through the skies. His father ignored him, spending over two hours on the telephone, making call after call to faraway places, starting deals, closing deals. Then, as boredom brought on restlessness, he asked the boy if he wanted to go for a ride. The boy hesitated. His father pointed to the boy’s drawing and smiled. The man wished him well on his seventh birthday then, and then spoke to him of the treat in-store. The flight to northern Spain in the newly acquired Cessna 182, the first one in Europe, his father had told him. The plane, delivered the week before, was on its premier voyage as part of the company’s fleet. They would be taking cargo to Ondarroa, on the northern coast. The cargo was special, said his father, something from Africa. Its final destination would be Hamburg in Germany.
The boy peered up at the man by his side, as he trotted to keep up with the adult’s strides. The Pilot smiled down at him. He was an American who had fought in the Spanish Civil War, on the losing side. He sought refuge in neighbouring Portugal, and now worked for his father’s company there. His conversation with the boy limited; his command of Spanish oriented more towards his military experience in the Civil War and the words he needed to satisfy his baser needs. As English was the international language of his profession, he had not even bothered to learn Portuguese in the fifteen years he had lived in Lisbon.
The Pilot was nervous. Not because of his passenger though. Taking the boss’s boy for a ride was a piece of cake. He had not flown the 182 before, but its predecessor, the 180, was familiar to him. His misgivings were firmly rooted in the cargo that they carried that day. It was contraband, sure, and neither the first time, nor, he was convinced, would it be the last, that his cargo needed to avoid inspection by the authorities. This time it was different, a favour that his boss was doing for a friend in Germany.
The cargo, loaded half an hour ago, consisted of one crate with the word “LIVE” stencilled on all sides. He told the handlers to put it in the small cargo bay in the fuselage behind the cabin, but the crate’s dimensions dictated, only just, that it had to ride behind the passengers. Its contents were silent, no grunts or growls, but occasional scraping sounds confirmed that it was indeed “LIVE”.
The Pilot led the boy past the front of the plane, around the wing struts and back towards the passenger door on its right side. He reached up and opened the door. Then he turned, took hold of the boy by the armpits and hoisted him into the cabin. As the Pilot strapped him into his seat, the boy’s eyes roved over the instrument panel in front of him. To his left, in front of the Pilot’s seat, the light brown panel housed eleven dials. On his side there were only nine, three large, round dials and two rows of three smaller rectangular indicators, as well as a couple of large, round holes where others dials could be installed. Below and to the right of the dials, a black tube protruded from the panel. A white tennis ball crowned it. This was where the co-Pilot’s joystick would be, had there been a co-Pilot. The boy glanced over at the joystick to his left. Briefly, he closed his eyes, extending his arms in front of him, imagining himself Piloting the aircraft through the blue skies of the Iberian Peninsula.
His reverie abruptly broke by the opening of the door on the Pilot’s side of the plane, as the American climbed aboard. The man looked nervously behind him at the crate. As though sensing the attention, the crate’s contents shifted audibly. The big American shivered once, then turned his attention to the instruments before him. Switches flicked, dials tapped, pedals pushed, and the joystick put through its range of movements. The boy’s eyes never left the Pilot’s movements. His imagination substituted the Pilot’s hands with his own. Finally, the Pilot placed a set of earphones on his head and spoke into the attached microphone to the Control Tower. The boy leant to his right to look down at the tarmac. The aircraft’s motor roared into life and he could no longer hear the Pilot talking to the Tower. With a noticeable jerk, the plane started to move forwards. They taxied to the runway and, without slowing, the 170kW Continental flat six-piston engine powered them at increasing speed down the runway, until the twin blade propeller grasped at the air, and pulled them off the ground.
The boy realised that he was holding his breath and forced himself to exhale. He looked over at the American, but the Pilot was engrossed in his conversation with the Tower and in flipping switches, ignoring him. The boy turned his attention to the world outside the cabin as the plane climbed steadily. He watched, eyes squinting, as the sun traversed from right to left as they headed north-east. He felt the Pilot tapping his arm and looked down. The Pilot was handing him a pair of sunglasses, far too large for him, but they matched the Pilot’s own and he donned them as though they were a Rite of Passage awarded him by the big American. The Pilot smiled at him and turned his attention back to the dials.
The flight passed from novelty into routine then rapidly degenerated into boredom for the boy. The view outside was the same; browns and greens below, the occasional river, blue-green, slashing across the fields, with even fewer towns, white, grey, black and dark-brown against the ground, breaking the monotony. As they headed north, the Pilot gained altitude. It was colder in the cabin now. The boy shivered. He looked at the Pilot who seemed unaffected by the drop in temperature, and pulled his jacket tighter around his small torso. The terrain below slowly changed. Now the green turned grey; rocks substituting grass; mountains in place of fields.
Without warning, the small aircraft dropped sharply. The boy felt his stomach heave, tasting acid bile in his throat. The Pilot pulled back on the controls, as the plane’s nose dipped. The engine noise changed note, higher, more insistent. A couple of chug-chugs, then silence. The boy looked forwards over the rim of the instrument panel and saw the tip of the stationary propeller. At his side the Pilot, speaking, no, yelling into his headset. The boy did not understand the language but the tone was clear; they were in trouble.
The Pilot repeatedly tried to restart the engine but to no avail. He gazed down, looking for somewhere to glide into an emergency landing, but only rocks greeted his eyes. He gently pulled back on the controls, lifting the nose of the aircraft, trying to gain altitude. Without power, the result was minimal, and in the ensuing minutes, the aircraft had descended several thousand feet according to the large dial on the top row in front of him that now occupied his entire attention.
He turned to the boy and spoke in halting Spanish.
“Voy abajo. Suelo. Agarrar fuerte.” (I’m going down. Ground. Hold tight).
The boy grabbed the sides of his seat fiercely, his fingers soon aching with the effort. He closed his eyes, swallowing hard to keep from throwing up. He could feel the sweat, cold, bitter, running down his face.
With a shrieking growl, the engine fire up again. The boy’s eyes flew open, taking in the sight of trees rushing towards them, too close! As the aircraft’s wings crashed into the trees, the brusque movement threw the boy first hard left then right. Something crashed mightily into the back of his seat. His head whipped against the doorframe. Then, blackness!
A buzzing, insistent, awoke him. The buzzing changed, its tone softening. He forced his eyes to open. It was night. Darkness surrounded him. He looked up at the night sky, so many stars, no moon. He was cold, ever so cold. His breath misted on the air in front of his face. He lifted his right hand; pain, intense, unwelcome, and a grating feeling in his shoulder. He felt his consciousness slipping; the dark night became total blackness again.
Voices! Far away but getting closer. He felt the warm rays of the sun caressing his eyelids. His mouth was bone dry; his throat ached. He parted his eyelids. A dark, round eye in a reptilian head stared back, fewer than four centimetres from his head. He started. A new wave of pain ran through his shoulder. The reptile raised its hooded head, its forked tongue slipping between its jaws; its eyes never leaving his own. He felt movement on his legs. Another serpent! Big, brown; raising its broad snout to peer away from him, towards the source of the noise.
He was lying on his back. The serpent near his head, curled on his chest. Now it moved its head towards the direction its mate indicated, its tongue sensing the air. The boy did a stupid thing. He reached out with his left hand and took a gentle hold on the serpent’s neck. Strangely, the snake did not protest; did not turn its deadly fangs on him. Instead, it slid from his body on to the rock beside him, soon to be joined by its mate. He tried to raise his body. The pain said No, stay where you are! He persisted. He moved his eyes to the left. There was the plane, what was left of it. There had been a fire. The charred remains of the Pilot hung from the space where the front windshield had been. He lay over twenty metres away. How had he distanced himself from the fire? He had no recollection of anything.
“¡Madre de Dios, mira esto!” A gruff voice nearby. The upper body of a man came into his vision.
“¿Estás bien, chico?” He tried to nod that he was ok, but again his shoulder sent ripples of extreme pain towards his neck.
The man approached, speaking into a large walkie-talkie. He skirted a large, dark-brown shape on the ground some ten metres away, his eyes never leaving the two snakes. In turn the snakes, watched his approach, their upper torsos raised, hoods extended, the light colour of their necks offset by two dark bands. Naje Haje, Egyptian Cobras, one of the deadliest snakes in the world, their neurotoxin venom more than capable of killing him in a few minutes. This they explained to him later, back in Madrid, in the hospital, while they placed his broken collarbone in plaster. They had been the LIVE cargo. And they had seemingly saved his life.
The plane crashed, mortally wounding the Pilot, and throwing him from the cockpit. The Pilot bled profusely and the scent of his blood attracted an opportunist predator. A male brown bear, fully 180 kilos of vicious teeth and claws, looking for dinner. By then the fire had razed the plane and the body of the Pilot, so the bear turned its attention to the unconscious form of the boy. It approached. The snakes attacked it, both injecting prodigious quantities of venom into the beast’s unprotected snout. The rest was history. The rescuers surmised all this. It was a miracle, they said. The boy was special, charmed in some mysterious way. Destiny had something special prepared for him, they said.
Enjoy the start of the novel?
This is only the prelude to the tale, and it has an ending you won't forget...
(HUGE SPOILER ALERT: read Winks 9, but only after reading the whole novel).
Buy 2012 as an e-book or in paperback from Amazon or through your local bookstore..
An interview with Eric about writing 2012