Threat_ by yaoyufang

VIEWS: 20 PAGES: 314


     Christopher Wharton was born in Guilford and
educated at the universities of Sussex and London. He
 worked as a reporter for seven years and has written
for the Sunday Telegraph, the Spectator and the Daily
Mail, before in 1995 pursuing a varied career of fiction
 writing, moving furniture and painting and decorating.
  He then joined the emergency services in 2003 and
now works as an emergency medical technician for the
   South East Coast Ambulance Service. He lives in
       Brighton with his partner and two children.
 (A comedy)
       You didn’t seriously think that bloke they hanged
in 2006 was the real Saddam Hussein, did you? Not
seriously? Everyone knows Saddam prepared loads of
doubles with plastic surgery, just in case. One's
running a kebab house in Basra now, another's got a
sex shop in Beirut. There are loads of them! Obvious,
really. (You did know this, didn’t you?)
       No. The real Saddam got clean away! He took all
the money with him, and those nasty weapons of mass
destruction too. As for Osama - well, we all know he’s
still alive, don’t we?
       Now. Let’s suppose Saddam and Osama both fled
to a country - let's call it Allyria - with a crazy Muslim
leader who hates the West even more than they do?
And suppose Allyria’s leader - let's call him General
Fallafi - is dying of cancer and doesn't have a whole lot
to lose? You got it? Saddam and Osama have gone to
Allyria and Allyria is ruled by General Fallafi.
       It’s the near future and we’re in trouble. We’re
boiled alive with global warming. There's petrol at £2 a
litre and the US invading anywhere that even smells of
oil - Venezuela, the Caucasus, you name it. And oil's
been discovered in the country next to Allyria. Like,
200 billion barrels of it. Suppose Saddam and Fallafi
and Osama decide to invade, take the oil and get even
with the West too? Really get even. Something that
would make 9/11 look like a vicar's tea party.
       Yes, exactly…Shit.
     THE CHAMBER was sixty feet long, with white
polycarbonate walls for easy neutralisation, designed
by mysterious, clinical German engineers with shiny
steel spectacles and soft voices. They hadn’t been told
its purpose but knew anyway and, frankly, didn't give a
stuff with the money they were on. Vorsprung durch
technik and all that.
     The different components had been purchased by
front companies in south-east Asia and fitted together
in the complex in the desert by people who knew that
forgetting the odd washer or screw here or there was
not a sensible career option. Neon strip lights ran the
length of the room, as did a floor-to-ceiling window
sealed with multiple layers of silicone to protect those
watching on the other side. On the far wall high up
near the ceiling were powerful extractor fans. The
ducts led to huge tanks outside - the atmosphere in
the room could be sucked out and treated before it
was disposed of. Doors at either end resembled those
on a submarine, with viewing windows, pressure
gauges and rubber sealant around the sides. Beside
each door at either end was a smaller panel, a smaller
door, hermetically sealed from the rest of the building.
At one end of the room there was a single white plastic
chair, of the sort sold as garden furniture. On the chair
was a small black plastic box. The room formed a
world of its own, cut off from all life outside. No
chemical, no organism, no life form of any kind could
get in or out. Those protected by the three inch glass
in the viewing room sat and waited in uncomfortable
silence, praying the last bit was true. Most sweated or
licked dry lips, despite the air conditioning. What made
them sweat was not heat but fear. It was always the
same. To be this close, despite all the protection. Very
few people had ever seen what these people were
about to see. Very few people ever would. A theatre of
the dead.
      There was a sliding noise as the panel beside the
left hand door opened. The noise was picked up by
microphones and carried to the watchers on the other
side of the glass. Then came the shriek of an animal -
frighteningly loud in the silence. Several watchers
      The larger female came out first.
      The females were the strongest, the most curious,
the leaders. She was followed by the other female, the
four males behind. All the animals were frightened by
the bright lights, the hum of the extractor fans, the
alien and antiseptic environment. The first female
scuttled over to the far corner of the room, eyeing the
chair but dismissing it as lifeless. The others followed
seeking her protection. The monkeys screeched loudly
with fear but then grew calmer. They crouched
together in the corner, black shining eyes wide. The
window was one-way only; they could not see through
it. The watchers sat in silence. Above their heads, a
digital clock lit up and began to count down from 60
seconds. The atmosphere in the room became heavy.
Nobody breathed. The clock counted down...

      Well, it was quick all right.
      That was what they would all remember. As the
clock struck zero there was an almost imperceptible
click, and a hiss, as the timer mechanism in the black
box broke the seal on a tiny vial of liquid inside. A
small electrical motor spurted a pinprick droplet of the
liquid into the atmosphere of the room, where it formed
a fine nebulised mist. Caught by the fans, it began to
      The monkeys heard the click, and the fan, and
that was pretty much the last thing they ever did,
really. Their eyes widened and their mouths opened to
scream, but only the sound of choking came. They
began to die immediately. Within seconds their throats
had closed and they collapsed, writhing around on the
plastic floor as their bodies went into spasm. They
foamed blood at the mouth and their eyes bled. For a
few seconds they continued to move, the floor now
smeared with body waste and vomit, though no sound
emerged at all. Within half a minute all convulsions
      The clock above the watchers stopped with the
last twitch of the last animal. It showed forty three
seconds. The watchers filed out.

    Twenty four hours later they were back.
      As before, they were joined by a film crew and a
medical team . The scene before them was as they
had left it, the bodies undisturbed.
      This test was different. The main door on the far
left of the room opened and a figure dressed in a white
suit and helmet wheeled a glass box into the room.
The container was the size of a tea chest. Within were
three more monkeys, who could be seen through its
glass sides huddled together, terrified. The technician
wheeled the box to the centre of the room, set the
timer on the top of it, and withdrew as quickly as was
decent. The clock outside started its countdown again.
At zero, the mechanism above the box which held its
sides clamped together sprang them open. The sides
fell away.
      The effect was hardly different, though the nerve
agent was a day old and dispersed around the room.
By the time the monkeys had died in agony, the clock
registered thirty four seconds.

     The following night, with the agent beginning to
weaken, the monkeys took almost a minute to die. In
the room next door, the silence among the watchers
seemed to last forever. They looked at each other.
     Bloody hell. We’ve really gone and done it now.
       And it was getting hotter. In the sultry heat of a
stifling, globally-warmed Washington D.C., the most
powerful man in the world - the President of the United
States - was taking an early morning walk on the White
House lawn with his dog.
       It was his favourite pastime and his favourite
company. The advantage of the dog was that the dog
was dumb, and stopped the President feeling dumb,
which was good because the President was pretty
dumb. A lot of the people around him were even
dumber, which was the only consolation for the rest of
       The President bent down stiffly in the misty air
and threw a stick for the mutt to chase. He had bought
her two years ago. The press had loved it. The
President - needing a friend - had got a dog. If only it
could vote, they said. And how many bitches in the
White House now? He laughed along with them - what
the hell - and called the mutt Senator.
       He set off across the lawn gloomily, feet making
oh-so-temporary imprints on the early morning dew.
       It was the media killing the Presidency, no doubt
about it. The good people no longer even thought of
standing. It was left to the dullards, the middle-rankers,
the no-hopers too dumb to have any skeletons in any
cupboards. He would be the last of the transgressors.
He threw the stick again for the panting dog. There
was blood around the chewed end. He smiled in
wonder. The life of a mutt was not so bad. Maybe he
could make it a Supreme Court Judge. Better than that
motherfucker Johnson Calville he'd appointed a year
     Jack Kennedy had started it all, of course - good
old Jack. Was that irony? The first man to let the press
into the White House had been the greatest adulterer
of them all. He had seen the files - insatiable! Old Jack
had screwed everything - and screwed it up for
everyone else, subjecting the Presidency to such
scrutiny any slip was impossible now. Clinton had put
the last nail in the coffin when he wasn't busy shoving
his dick into anything that moved.
     Calvin Coolidge - now there was a role model for
the Presidency! He had held office long ago. Asked if
he had a message for the American people, Coolidge
had looked at the dumb schmuck of a reporter and
said “no”. No. A different reporter had bet him they
could get more than three words out of him. "You
lose," he'd said. You lose. It was unthinkable now.
     Well. All that was gonna change.
     His place in history had arrived with this Allyrian
business. The intelligence boys said the Allyrians -
whoever the fuck they were - were bound to invade
Estefan- wherever the fuck that was. And he was
gonna be man enough to stop it! Kennedy had got
shot and Reagan had beaten the Reds. Now both
were immortal. Half the goddam country named after
them. Clinton and Bush? Who ever heard of the USS
Clinton? No-one was ever going to fly into George W
Bush International airport…
     The NSC meeting would begin in twenty minutes.
     He called to the dog, savouring the last seconds
of being the most intelligent person present, and
headed for the French doors to the Oval Office.

    The meeting lasted all morning.
     Boy! Treasury Secretary Jim Mullin, thin,
bespectacled, almost invisible, was on form. On and
on and on, he went. On and on and on and on. Help!
The paint was peeling off the walls! The carpet was
curling up! The President wondered how bored you
could be before your heart just – well, stopped. Mullin
spoke in a slow, halting style; a college lecturer
addressing particularly stupid students. Eventually he
sounded like he was winding up.
     "Our problem is the same as it has been for the
past year, Mr President. Wall Street is going through
the floor based on earnings projections which have no
parallel - business profits are falling as they haven't for
a decade or more. It's been going on so long we've
forgotten it. But it goes against economic reality.
We've been helped by the tiny upturn in Europe and
Asia, but that won't last for ever and may be choked
off by endlessly rising oil prices. If it is, our savings and
spending mismatch could plunge us into the mire. It's
1929 all over again."
     Miles away, the president shook his head. "What
happened in 1929?" he asked.
     Mullin paused, looking with sadness at the desk.
     "The Depression happened Mr President."
     "So we have to stop oil prices rising any way we
can or we're in the shit. Is that what you're sayin'?"
     Mullin looked disgusted at this summing up. "In a
nutshell, yes."
     "And if we want to keep 'em low, we can't allow
the goddam Allyrians this oil? If they invade Estefan,
we gotta go in there and kick 'em out so we can have
the oil?"
       The President turned to Kemp Baxendale, the
Defence Secretary. "Kemp?"
       "Situation unchanged, Mr President. The A -
llyrians have stabilised their deployment. They have
about half their army on the border dug in, ready to go.
Thirty thousand men, three hundred tanks, artillery - lot
of hardware. The tanks are Russian T99s."
       "We've been here before, haven't we,
       Baxendale smiled, marshalling his thoughts into a
single, tidy, military train of thought.
       "Yes and no, Mr President. In the first Gulf war
twenty years ago we had advantages we won't have
here. With Iraq we could bring carriers to bear. Ditto
Yemen, Venezuela and the rest. Here, we could use
them against Allyria but the fighters would be out of
range to hit targets in northern Estefan. It's too far
south without refuelling. So air power we deploy will
have to fly from Egypt, Israel, or bases in Estefan. The
Israelis won't be happy with that, nor the Egyptians.
Which leaves us Estefan. The airfields there - well, we
would more or less have to build 'em ourselves."
       "Could it be done?".
       "It could be done in a week, sir, damn right. But
it'll cost."
       The President steepled his fingers wisely. He
narrowed his eyes calculatingly.
       "What else?"
       "There's the question of casualties, Mr President."
       "Casualties? I'm not afraid of casualties!
Vietnam's over, goddamit. Iraq's over. Venezuela’s
over. We ain't afraid of a few body bags."
     He would welcome the body bags. Lots of body
bags. Well, up to a point.
     "No sir, Mr President. I just thought..."
     "Don't think, Kemp."
     "If we commit troops to throw the Allyrians out, we
can't get ships there. The nearest port would be a
thousand miles to the south-west somewhere down in
goddam Africa. Everything, everything, would have to
be flown in."
     "But it could be done?"
     "Yessir. With the whole transport fleet, it could be
done in a month."
     Baxendale was puzzled at the President's
decisive tone. Perhaps the boss had decided this was
his war. If so, it was going to be one hell of a year! The
prospect made Baxendale's mouth water. A shooting
war! The Marines would go in again, like Iraq, like
Venezuela, like Chechnya. Maybe he could lead them
in. Christ! His voice dropped.
     "We have a shit-load of new weapons, sir. Target
selection cruise missiles, stealth helicopters, stand-off
remote bombers, stealth tanks, bunker buster bombs.
Wouldn't hurt to test 'em..."
     "What's a target erection cruise missile?"
     "Target selection, Mr President. It wonders around
over the battle field, beaming back pictures, looking for
a target. When the controller sees one, whammo!"
     "Does it work?"
     "Course it works, Mr President. Well, most of the
     The President turned to his Secretary of State.
"Jack, can we get any coalition going on this?"
     The Secretary nodded violently.
      "Affirmative, Mr President. People are so
desperate for the oil everyone wants in. It's not like the
old days when only the Brits were dumb enough to
come in and we got them to do the difficult bits. Even
the French are coming in this time! And Germany and
Japan say they'll commit combat troops. German and
Japanese troops! We can use them to do the fighting
this time. China will come in, now we've given 'em
Taiwan. And Russia, now we've bombed the
Chechens for them. But Egypt won't play ball. And
without them, none of the other Arab nations. And
there's the UN."
      "A problem?"
      "I don't think they'll back us."
      "Leave the UN to me. If they won't play ball, we'll
stop funding 'em."
      "We stopped funding four years ago, Mr
      "Okay. Then promise to start it again if they play
      "And if they won't pass the resolutions we want?"
      "We'll stop funding 'em again. Easy!"
      The President turned to the Chief of Staff Robert
Lawrence - his oldest friend on the Hill.
      "Mr President, we can't let this stand.
Economically and strategically we can't allow President
Fallafi to have so much oil. Politically, if we allow
aggression to stand, our prestige takes a blow. After
Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela - we would be the
laughing stock of the world. Fallafi would trumpet it to
the heavens - he's already started. He gave an
interview on CNN yesterday, about how magnanimous
he had been to foreign workers in Allyria. And er...
there are certain domestic factors which favour a more
pro-active course of action... The Senate
impeachment vote is scheduled for next week."
     "Do you honestly think I would risk the lives of
American servicemen to benefit myself politically,
     "I would certainly hope so, Mr President.”.
     Donald Grange had said nothing so far. In the CIA
chief's case it was more characteristic. He coughed
politely, yet elequently, like a wise buddha. He moved
a pencil from one side of the pad of paper in front of
him to the other, as if performing a surgical operation.
Eventually he squeezed some words out.
     "There is, of course, the nightmare scenario, Mr
     "Terrorists, Mr President."
     "Tourists?" The President's mid-western drawl
mangled the word.
     "Yes, Mr President. Terrorists. I know we don’t
talk about the “war on terror” anymore or the “Axis of
Evil” but we know Fallafi received all Saddam
Hussein's biological and chemical know-how, plus
whatever Allyria has cooked up itself over the past two
decades. We estimate he has several hundred tons of
low and high grade nerve agent in his arsenal. These
include sarin, tabun, anthrax, VX, all the usual nasties.
He may also have PFIB."
     "PFIB? Sounds like a radio station."
     "Very nasty stuff. A nerve agent of extraordinary
     "Worse than the others?"
     "A lot worse."
     "But our troops would be protected?"
     "There is a suggestion some forms of PFIB make
the protective clothing our troops have redundant. It
penetrates the charcoal in the suits. There is also the
question of how well we can expect troops to operate
wearing that sort of clothing in the middle of the
Sahara. The honest answer is we can't. It would be too
     The CIA director took off his glasses and began to
polish them. "Of course we could do with Fallafi what
we did with Saddam. Warn him if any chemical or
biological weapon is used against us, we nuke Sifolis."
     "Worked last time."
     "Yes," said Grange with a wintry smile. "It did."
     There was a pause, before the President spoke
     "One question, gentlemen. Why now? This
psycho knows we ain't gonna stand for this. He knows
we cannot afford to. He's got Saddam sitting in his
backyard to show what happens when you fuck up. So
what's he got? What's he got that makes him think he
can get away with it? That's what makes me nervous.
And nervous is not my natural state - as you all know."
     Grange finished polishing his spectacles and
replaced them with great care on the bridge of his
nose. Somehow the gesture seemed infinitely sinister.
     "Our Mr Fallafi - or The Leader, as he likes to be
known, has a long history of misjudgements behind
him," he said impassively. "Terrorism, invasions of
Estefan when he was a lot weaker than he is now,
half-assed attempts to unite with other countries. He's
a joke and an old man now, with even less judgement.
He may also be ill. There is some intelligence to that
effect. Allyria is in the shit financially. What more do
you want? And besides..." He smiled slightly. "Nobody
ever put two hundred billion barrels of oil on his
doorstep before."
     It was time for the Environment Secretary,
Jalabiah Sharpton, isolated at the far end of the table,
to make her usual point.
     "Mr President, we could use the trillions of dollars
this war is going to cost to explore alternative energy
sources! It's not like I haven't said this before! Have we
forgotten about global warming? Energy crisis?"
     Did he imagine it or had a collective sigh gone
around the table? The President looked around the
     "That's right, Secretary Sharpton. I believe you
have said that before."
     There was an uncomfortable silence. Buttocks
clenched. The President gave them time to relax.
     "There it is, ladies and gentlemen. We want the oil
in Estefan and so does Fallafi. Looks like we got
another goddam war on our hands. And this time no
fuck-ups like in Iraq, Venezuela, Georgia. We go in,
get rid of Fallafi once and for all, get the oil out as fast
as possible and get out. Pity we cannot suck the stuff
out the ground any faster."
     The Energy Secretary coughed nervously into his
     "Mr President, it's funny you should say that..."
      It got even hotter. In the sultry heat of a stifling,
globally-warmed capital of Allyria - Sifolis - the most
powerful man in - well, Allyria - was waking up after a
bad night. The old man sat up gasping and eased
himself out of bed, the sun streaming in through the
windows of the Palace from across the Mediterranean.
He stood beside the bed, trying to relax before he
summoned the doctor. He'd managed only a couple of
hours of sleep, little islands of calm in the boiling sea
of pain. And they expected him to get up and run the
country! To take decisions and keep things on an even
keel! To be the Leader!
      Absurd! Why couldn't he stay in his bedroom?
Perform official functions from under the sheets? Just
have the bed carried everywhere - to meet foreign
dignitaries, signing decrees in his nightshirt, giving
speeches from under the bedclothes, hosting
conferences propped up on the pillows? It was an
interesting idea. He might give it some thought...
      Oh dear. There was a stain on the bedclothes -
always the same after a bad night. Embarrassing and
unpleasant. The tumour - big as a melon - deep in him
throbbed painfully like a metronome. Inoperable, the
surgeons said. Only a matter of time, a year at the
most. They'd been frightened bearers of such bad
news would be shot.
      Well, he'd had them shot all right - rude not to -
but that didn't solve the problem. The tumour was
invulnerable. You couldn't shoot it, torture it, hold its
family to ransom. You couldn't even bribe it to sod off.
It just sat there, laughing away, growing all the time.
He looked at himself in the mirror and was still
shocked at what he saw. The flesh sagged off him!
Skin ashen grey, his once thick black hair thin and
whispy. Nightshirt crumpled and yellow. He looked like
a peasant. An old and ill peasant. Not the ruler of his
country and soon-to-be the master of the Islamic
      Well - you couldn't judge a book by its cover…
      He sat down with care and rang the bell. The pain
was always worse after little sleep. The body and mind
could not fight it. In truth he was not an old man but
the cancer had aged him. There was a quiet, diffident
knock on the door and the doctor, a small apologetic-
looking physician from Urazi in an immaculate white
coat came in. He reminded the Leader of a crab. He
seemed to walk sideways. The doctor slid along the
wall into the room, like the maitre-d’ in some exclusive
      "Good morning, my Leader. Did you have a
peaceful night?"
      "I haven't had a peaceful night since 1969."
      The physician slid nearer and nodded nervously.
He opened a slim black case and took from it a plastic
dispensing tray. With infinite care, he counted out pills,
yellow, purple and red. They looked like sweets. The
drugs formed a potent cocktail of steroids,
tranquillisers and morphine sulphate, releasing pain-
killing ingredients only over several hours, so as not to
leave the patient zonked out on the floor. The doses
he was on now would have knocked out an elephant.
He would need his wits today of all days.
      The Leader swallowed the pills as the doctor
prepared a shot of morphine sulphate directly into the
blood, an initial boost. He administered it, bowed and
began to slide towards the door. Then he stopped,
turned and cleared his throat nervously.
     "Leader, if the night was bad I must advise you to
cancel the meeting this morning. It would be better to
     The doctor felt his heart hammer in his chest. It
was dangerous to question the Leader and his actions
- he had become more paranoid than ever. This often
had fatal consequences. The Leader looked at the
doctor. The pills had not yet started to have an effect.
     "I must go to the meeting - it is crucial to our
future. You will be there with me."
     The doctor nodded.
     "Of course, Leader. I will be there with you."
     He slid out of the room soundlessly and closed
the door quietly behind him. Within minutes, a servant
came to deposit tea on a table by the bed. The old
man paced slowly around the room, scratching himself
and yawning, pausing before the window to stare out
at the Palace grounds. To the north he could see the
outline of the capital's skyline, and hear the wailing as
the meuzzins called the faithful to prayer. He would
pray too, but first there were other things to be done.
There was another knock at the door and a young
woman in uniform entered.
     "Leader," she said simply, and waited for him.
     This was the worst bit, really. Even with all the
pain and sleepless nights and fear, this was the worst.
Embarrassment. The old man went into the bathroom,
the nurse following. He knelt in the bathtub, pulling his
soiled nightshirt up around his shoulders to reveal
himself from the waist downwards. The nurse went
through her morning routine with the methodical care
of long practise, her face a mask. The whole area
around the backside was a mass of raw flesh
destroyed by months of radiation treatment - the only
thing that held the tumour in check. She gently soaped
the area, ignored the gasps of pain. After she had
rinsed him, she pulled a jar from her bag and started to
annoint him, deft fingers pushing the yellow ointment
in. At first her touch caused agony, but as the
medicine took hold the pain lessened and the Leader
grew quiet. Eventually she was done. She pulled the
nightshirt back over so that he was no longer exposed
and he straightened slowly and stepped out of the
bath. He looked at her.
     After he was dead, she would be killed to prevent
her saying what she had seen. It seemed only
sensible. She knew the secret. General Fallafi, leader,
master, guide, sage and supreme commander of
Allyria - was, in fact...
     ... a woman.

      A woman.
      It had taken years, of course. Years of hyper-
secret visits to expensive Swiss clinics. Years of the
finest surgeons in the world flown to Sifolis and paid
millions to ensure their silence or killed in "accidents"
after the work was done. Years of pain and suffering.
But it had been worth it. The terrible, unsettled,
uncomfortableness of it all had gone. No one could
ever know, of course. But he knew, that was what
counted. He was no longer trapped in the wrong body.
He was free! He still liked women, in that way. The
psychiatrist had said he was a "transsexual with
lesbian orientation". Huh? He hadn't liked the sound of
it, so the psychiatrist had ended up in a cell with his
teeth knocked out and a bullet in the brain. But the
important thing had been taken care of. He was a she.
      And then the cancer had arrived and spoiled
everything. He stared at the nurse.
      "Thank you."
      "Good morning, my Leader." She turned and left.
      General Fallafi was left to complete his
preparations for the day ahead. It would be a
momentous one. He had decided during the hours of
the relentless, unforgiving night. A day that would
assure his place in history!

     The Leader's cavalcade (Fallafi never called
himself President - too American) picked him up after
breakfast and prayers and drove through Sifolis to the
barracks two miles from the city centre. The streets
had been cleared in advance. The bunker three
hundred feet beneath the barracks had been his home
during the years of struggle before. With what he was
about to do, it would be his home again, safe and
untouchable, until victory. He always arrived long
before the members of the People's Committee. An
old trick, it preserved an authority he needed even
more now with the rumours about his health. Doctors
and nurses could be shot, but not rumours. They were
beginning around the city. Fallafi sat staring ahead as
the members of the People's Committee, searched by
the female bodyguard outside, filed into the room. He
shut his eyes and took a breath, holding the pain at
bay. He would be strong this day like no other.
     It was behaviour befitting a great leader of Islam.
     Each member of the government passed him,
bending to kiss the ring of office on his right hand. The
process seemed to take several days. Why couldn't
they just get on with it? The army and airforce
commanders, the Islamic Legion generals, the deputy
leader and party leader of the Jamahirya, the heads of
the secret services, the ministers of finance, foreign
affairs and information, all slobbering away like pigs at
the trough. Fallafi waited, allowing the men to sit down
and the silence to build until it became oppressive.
Another old trick.
     Eventually he began to speak.
     "I have called you here to discuss the oil finds in
the desert which we mentioned last week. It is our
land, and our oil, even if those idiotic unbelievers in
Estefan say different. I mean that we should have it."
     He looked at the faces around the table and
registered reactions. Few could hide their thoughts - it
was always in the eyes. Some welcomed the words.
Others, like the foreign minister - Abdel Wahab - could
not keep the fear hidden. Fallafi turned to the Islamic
Legion commander, General Makhoun.
     "What is the military situation?"
     Makhoun hungered for the Estefanian army,
lusted after it, salivated over it. He courted it with all
the dedication of the most attentive of grooms. He
would smash it with his iron fist.
     "Estefan has moved its entire army into the Tibesti
     "Does this present us with a problem?"
     "Not at all. We expected as much. The important
thing is the French imperialists have sent no
reinforcements in response to our military exercises.
At least none we are aware of."
      "How long to prepare an invasion?"
      Invasion. Fallafi let the words hang in the air,
looking at the faces around the table, registering
reactions. The general's eyes bulged with excitement.
       "Leader, it could be done within a week. There
are no complications. The tank forces we have
mustered would smash the enemy. We can catch the
bulk of their forces in a pincer movement and cut them
off from any help from the south."
      Fallafi - a bedouin himself - thought of the wild
mountainous waste of the Tivesti, deep in the inferno
of the Sahara. A poor place for a guerilla army to hide
out in, even if it could be supplied. The general had
read his mind.
      "If the Estefanians are cut off, we won't even have
to fight them. We'll starve them out. If they're cut off
from the road to the south it would be only days before
they ran out of water."
      "And all our preparations could be kept from the
Yankees and their satellites?"
      "We have worked out ways to disguise
      Fallafi nodded. It was good. The enemy would be
left to die in the desert, in the most inhospitable and
isolated area on earth. Nobody need ever know what
had gone on there. Allyria would have the oil, and
could hold the infidels to ransom with it. The Yankees
would come begging to him.
      The Islamic world would have a new saviour!
      The foreign minister - Abdel Wahab - coughed
gently. He was a grotesquely fat man with between two
and seven chins, depending on the position of his
head. They wobbled urgently.
      Fallafi nodded. "Yes?"
      "Leader, the plan is dangerous. We do not know
what the reactions of the French or the Americans will
be. Even if the French don't fight us, the Americans
will hardly feel happy at our controlling such a vast
supply of oil. Especially now that our brothers in the
former Saudi Arabia have come over to us. They will
attack as they did before. They will be grateful for the
      Fallafi's voice rose, instantly, to a bellow.
      "I am aware of what they did before! We need to
assess what they will do now! The ambassador to the
United Nations must contact them and assess their
      "The Americans will not let an invasion stand,"
said the foreign minister.
      Fallafi stared at him until Wahab and his chins
trembled visibly.
      "We shall see. I aim to have a final reckoning with
the Yankee infidels. We have to find a way in which we
can fight them. I will fight them if they get in my way."
      He allowed the picture of his daughter, murdered
by the Yankee bombers years before, to come into his
mind. It always gave him strength. The seeds of an
idea were growing. There had to be a way of fighting
the Americans. It would be good to die worshipped by
the entire Arab world it had been his ambition to unite,
having revenged his daughter. The prospect of doing it
carrying out Allah's will and crushing the infidels
pleased him. If he had only a year to live, what a year
it might be...
      He blinked and turned to the finance minister - al-
Amin Khalifa. Khalifa was non-committal, as usual.
       "There is no question we need the oil, Leader.
The wells at Darha, Zelten and Gialo are running dry -
down to a thousand barrels a week. We cannot afford
any more exploration. The only solution would be to
sell a concession to a foreign company to explore,
which would break the nationalisation policy we have
pursued for nearly forty years. Without that, there is no
more oil, no foreign exchange, no weapons
programmes. Our enemies would profit. The Tivesti as
we know is rich in uranium, which would mean the
possibility of our own nuclear programme with our own
supply of raw materials as well. The Russians have
said they will provide a reactor."
      Fallafi nodded. A nuclear reactor would be nice.
But the oil was crucial in the short term. He turned
back to Abdel Wahab. "What support could we hope
for if we moved against Estefan?"
      Wahab shrugged.
      "Most Arab brothers would back us, with the
exception of Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. The
Russians might also back us, but what use their
support would be is difficult to assess. They might help
at the United Nations. But the Americans have shown
before they are prepared to ignore the UN, as they did
when they toppled our brother Saddam Hussein."
      Fallafi stared around the featureless walls of the
bunker. Saddam Hussein – loser. The former Iraq
dictator provided an interesting example. Fallafi did not
intend to ignore the lessons of history.
      "The Americans will not wish to do more than
throw us out of Estefan. They have grown soft,
frightened of casualties. Look at what happened in
Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela. They would be too
frightened to invade us."
      "But they will attack, Leader," said Wahab again,
desperately. "They will not allow us such power."
      Fallafi shifted in his seat and ignored the pain.
Wahab was getting tiresome. Maybe it was time he
had an accident. Something serious. He managed a
smile. The idea in his head - like the tumour in his
bowel - was growing all the time. There had been a
report recently. He would have to re-read it. He
cleared his throat.
      "We need to think of something that will act as
insurance. We must assume the Americans will attack
if we take our oil, as they did with Iraq. We need
something that will stop them doing so. We've waited
too long for a victory. Iraq. Afghanistan - always we are
defeated. This time it must be different."
      "What could that be, Leader?" The foreign
minister had begun to sweat.
      Fallafi eyed him with amusement. "We shall think
of something. I shall think of something. I have some
idea already." He flashed his eyes around the room
with a sudden intensity. He brought a fist crashing on
to the table. "I will have my revenge on those who
killed my daughter. I have waited twenty five years!"
      It was enough. He needed time to think alone. He
didn't like shouting anyway - the hormones had done
something funny to his voice.
      "That is all. We will meet again tomorrow to
discuss these issues further. In the meantime, you will
all think on this subject."
     The Committee members were surprised to be
dismissed so soon. They filed out on his queue,
kissing the ring of office as they passed. When he was
alone, he sat lost in thought, staring across the room,
pain forgotten. The attitude of the foreign minister
disturbed him. He wondered if the man had spies who
knew of his illness. Or worse.
     Of course he wanted a confrontation, either with
Israel or the Americans, preferably both - he was not
worried about provoking them. Far from it. The oil was
only a side-issue. He had little time left and he wanted
his place as the man who humiliated the Americans
and the Jews one final time. It could not be done by
force, for they were too strong. But it might be done by
     He sat alone thinking.
     That morning he had looked out of the Palace
windows over the ancient city he had made his own.
But Fallafi was from the desert - the real Allyria. Sifolis
with its imperialist buildings was... foreign. He felt no
love for it. He would take risks with it in return for a
great prize. In the bunker which would become his
home once again, the old man began to make a plan.
     He might be a woman now. But he still had balls…
       It just kept on getting hotter. In the sultry heat of a
stifling, globally-warmed chemical weapons complex
deep in the Sahara desert in Allyria, the silence as
fifteen biologists and assorted scientists looked at the
monkeys their experiment had just killed dragged on
and on.
       It was broken by the man who had gathered them
there to witness what they had been working on for so
long. A 54-year old bio-chemist from the University of
Sifolis. He was one of those earnest hard-working
scientists who invent nuclear bombs and the like and
never question the work they do until it is far far too
late. He was a nervous man at the best of times - and
these were definitely not the best of times.
       Dr Omar Meheishi was beginning to have
       "We will go to the conference room to discuss
what we have seen. I think you will all agree the
demonstration was effective," he said. His voice was
not quite steady. He did not smile as he spoke and
there was no answering sound from those he
addressed. They got up and made their way out the
door. They were relieved to get away. Even though
this was what they had all worked towards for years,
they were overwhelmed. In the conference room there
was coffee and water and they were allowed to smoke.
Talk began again. There were twelve men and one
woman, a small diminutive figure in her fifties.
Meheishi smiled nervously at her as they sat down.
She, more than any of them, had been instrumental in
getting them to this stage, when she had come here
from Iraq with her knowledge years before. As always,
Dr Arifa Malik was impassive and said nothing.
Meheishi quietened the others.
     "What you have seen today represents what we
have all been working towards for the last years."
     He looked around the room slowly and wondered
at the expertise gathered there. Thirteen people, with
over a century of the study of bio-chemistry between
them. Probably the greatest collection of minds on the
subject in one room anywhere in the world. In an
underground complex deep beneath the Allyrian
     "What the tests today are beginning to show is the
breakthrough we have made in durability. In forty eight
hours the agent was still lethal. The increase in
reaction time, from forty three to fifty four seconds,
represents the only level of degradation of the
compound, and some of that may be explainable by
the positioning of the animals, their pathology, and
other factors. We will have to wait for autopsies."
     Abdul Moneim al Houni, a 35-year old bio-chemist
and deputy head of the programme, lit a cigarette.
     "It is a triumph," he said softly.
     "It is indeed," Meheishi agreed, though inside he
was not so sure. "There are still questions to be solved
regarding delivery and dispersal. But that is not our
problem for now. I congratulate you all."
     He looked again at the exhausted and relieved
faces of his colleagues, but found his eyes drawn to
the impassive, pock-marked face of the Iraqi, Dr Malik.
She nodded at him, affirming some unspoken
question, but did not smile.
     "The tests will have to develop, for us to learn
more about the product," she said evenly. "Monkeys
can teach us only so much. There's more work to do."
     "Of course," said Meheishi. He knew what she
meant. Experiments on humans - the more the better.
No doubt she was looking forward to it. He suppressed
a shudder.
     All in all he rather wished he were somewhere

     Later that night he sat at his desk finishing a
report which indicated the stage the researchers had
reached. It took six sides of paper, although Meheishi
could have put what they had done into fewer words.
     They had created death itself.
     Chemical agents are categorised as lethal,
damaging or incapacitating. They are further specified
as either non-persistent or persistent, where their
effects last for hours or days, depending on climactic
conditions. Persistent agents are produced in liquid
form and are normally delivered by aircraft in the form
of a spray which manifests itself on targets in the form
of droplets.
     Different agents serve different functions. Lethal
nerve agents like sarin, tabun, soman and VX attack
the central nervous system after inhalation or on
contact with the skin, leading to convulsions and
death. Lethal blood agents such as hydrogen cyanide
cause almost instant death after inhalation by
preventing the absorption of oxygen into the
bloodstream. Non-persistent lethal choking agents
such as phosgene and chlorine cause asphyxiation,
while non-persistent blister agents, such as mustard
gas, cause severe inflammation and blindness. There
are toxins made from the poisonous bi-products of
      What Meheishi and his team had produced in their
complex under the desert was none of these, however.
With the research Dr Malik had brought from Iraq and
by subjecting teflon to extreme heat under controlled
circumstances, they had produced a concentrated and
refined version of a substance of extreme durability
called perfluoroisobutene, or PFIB. Colourless and
odourless, it caused instantaneous and fatal
pulmonary oedema to those in contact with even a
microscopic particle. Existing chemical warfare
protective equipment was ineffective against it,
because it penetrated the charcoal used in respirators
and NBC suits.
      (It wasn’t very nice.)
      They had seen that a millilitre could kill everything
in a room over a period of two days. By Meheishi's
calculations, with the correct atmospheric conditions, a
litre could probably wipe out a large city.
      It was a nuclear weapon in a bottle.

      Meheishi's report was dispatched to the People's
Committee for State Security, for presentation to the
Leader himself, hundreds of miles to the north in the
capital, Sifolis. The six sheets of paper were handed to
the research facility's head of security, who arranged
for it to be taken by armed escort to Sifolis. The escort
travelled by road that evening. The road was sealed -
nothing else ventured anywhere near it. Above flew a
Russian-made helicopter gunship. If the convoy were
attacked, or deviated from its route for any reason, the
helicopter would annihilate it with napalm. Just so no-
one got to see those six sheets of paper except the
man - or as it turned out woman - they were meant for.
      Meheishi also went north, back to his home on the
coast and his wife and children. The other technicians
remained at the Sabha facility with their families for
security reasons. As head of the programme, Meheishi
was allowed special dispensation. That night, as on all
others, he was driven home with a guard detail in two
Toyota Land Cruisers and a troop truck behind. They
would surround his house through the night, until it
was time for him to be driven back in the morning. The
guards had orders to kill him too, if the convoy was
ever attacked and he was threatened with kidnap.
Meheishi's convoy drove out of the huge complex. The
anonymous, modern buildings were surrounded by a
high electrified fence patrolled by dogs so savage and
hungry they had been known to eat the occasional
unfortunate bedu who strayed here. As the vehicles
turned through the gates to the north, Meheishi looked
behind him at the huge facility which had been his
working base for so long. He had never even walked
around it.
      The cars swept along the dusty road towards the
town which represented the halfway point between the
complex in the desert and the Mediterranean coast.
The night was drawing in and it would be cold soon, as
it always was in the desert at night. The guards stared
straight ahead - they were forbidden to speak to him.
      It was dark by the time they swept through the
gates of the comfortable villa in its own grounds that
had been allotted to him when he had begun work for
the government. The scientist got stiffly out, bade his
guards goodnight, and walked up the drive to his
home. The smell of roasting lamb greeted him.
Normally it would have filled him with a sense of well-
being, but not tonight. Tonight he was a disturbed
      He kissed his tiny mouse-like wife Raisa good
evening, and his two girls, but hardly spoke. It had
been like this for months. He went to the bathroom to
wash. The face that stared back had deep lines
running across the cheeks and under the eyes.
Meheishi could no longer shield himself from the
implications of what he was working on. The others at
Sabha put the thought from their minds. They were
technicians, working on a problem. They didn't just
have their heads in the sand out at the complex - they
had buried themselves in it entirely.
      Meheishi could no longer do that. As so often
nowadays, the gentle face of his son Amil came to his
mind. Gentle, wise Amil, old beyond his years, killed
four years before in a stupid car accident. A car
accident, in the name of Allah, when what his father
worked on could kill half the world... Meheishi would
have liked to talk to the boy now, for he had had a
fierce moral logic which rendered problems simple.
That was why he had disagreed with the work
Meheishi did and had left home. Meheishi had been
left alone, with his silent wife and daughters, with
whom he could discuss nothing.
      There could be few uses for the agent he and his
colleagues had perfected. The report he had submitted
made that clear. As a battlefield weapon it lacked
discrimination and was next to useless. As a weapon
to hit enemy cities, it was dependent on a missile or
plane to deliver it. Its real use could only be terroristic -
the annihilation of civilians; the innocent, the young,
the unfortunate. When he allowed himself to think of it,
he reached a state almost of panic.
     I am responsible for this.
     His son Amil was with Allah now, and what would
Allah think of it? What would Allah think of him? What
would Amil think of him? He shuddered and splashed
water on to his face to hide the tears that were coming.
It was no good to be like this. He had to get a grip
upon himself.
     He dried his face and went downstairs. Raisa put
freshly grilled lamb on the table with rice, bread, olives
and lemon juice. She knew of his work, and that he
could not speak of it. She knew this would be one of
those evenings when he would not talk at all, and
would sit and stare out of the window to the sea to the
north, thinking perhaps of their lost son, whose death
had been the greatest tragedy they had ever faced.
She would not disturb him.
     After dinner, she put the girls to bed and made her
husband coffee as she had done for twenty years. As
he had done for twenty years, he drank it even though
he didn't like coffee. From outside came the sound of a
truck and the murmer of voices. The guards would be
changing - they did every few hours. She closed the
window against the cold of the night. When she turned,
Meheishi was staring not out of the window, but
straight at her. She went over to him and knelt at his
feet. Even after so long, and with so much secrecy
between them, they loved each other very much.
Raisa put her head on his knee. They sat like that for a
long time, the only sound the meuzzin calling out in the
distance, a lonely cry in the dark.

     Back in the complex deep in the desert, the
buildings lay in the cold moonlight.
     No sound disturbed the night, though the guards
patrolled the wire constantly and the arc lights did their
best to turn night into day. Inside the long corridors,
sealed off from the outside world, nothing stirred.
     The observation room was silent now. The bodies
of the monkeys lay where they had fallen undisturbed.
The room and the air within, with the tiny amount of
the agent dispersed there, were left. The experiments
would go on, day after day, to see how effectively the
agent would still kill, days from now. Only when its
effect had worn off would the room be cleaned, the
bodies incinerated and the air pumped into containers
to be taken into the desert and released.
     The woman who had come from Iraq years before
- Dr Malik - sat alone in her rooms deep in the
complex, as she did every night. Those who worked
there were allowed out, under supervision, once a
week. Dr Malik, of the same seniority as Meheishi,
could have lived outside, with a house and family and
neighbours. But she had no family, nor any desire to
see the outside world, so instead she lived alone in the
     Tonight, as on all others, she prayed at the
appointed hour, then ate food that was brought to her.
She could have cooked for herself in the kitchen that
adjoined her living room, but chose not to. Instead she
listened to music. Abba mainly. After she had eaten,
she washed the dishes and stacked them neatly in the
kitchen, for she was a tidy person. She drank coffee,
smoked a cigarette and stared at the wall, perfectly
content, thinking of the man she loved.
     When she had drunk her coffee, she went to the
bedroom, kissed the picture of Saddam that was its
only ornament, undressed, and fell, as every night, into
an untroubled, dreamless sleep.
      And it got even hotter.
      The desert was where the Allyrian leader -
General Fallafi - had come from long ago. It was also
the desert - with a few conveniences like privacy,
toilets, televisions, radios, fridges, air-conditioning,
carpets, fresh food and water, soap, servants,
communications and four-wheeled transport thrown in
- where he felt most comfortable. He no longer
belonged here, of course. Nobody belonged here – it
was sixty in the shade. But because the plan was so
audacious it frightened even him, it was where he was
happiest. Nobody could find him here. And nobody
would see the man he had come to meet.
      The oasis was one of the smallest in Allyria, little
used even by the bedu, about 100 kilometres from
Sabha, the capital of the Fezzan, the dry, arid centre
of a dry, arid country. There were small attempts at
agriculture here, though only for subsistence, and by
the very optimistic, sustained by aquifers beneath the
sand. The children here had never seen rain.
      The encampment formed a semi-circle under the
trees, twenty tents in all. His own, the largest and most
luxurious, could have housed several families. The
scene was a mixture of the modern and the timeless.
Camels and goats were tethered next to Land
Cruisers, army trucks and a Russian T99 tank. The
military vehicles stood to one side, as did the large tent
for the bodyguard detail.
      The Leader sat on a pile of cushions in the awning
of his tent and watched the sun rising for the day. The
pain was not so bad. He fought down the urge to
giggle. The morphine did that to you sometimes. Or
maybe he was just losing his mind? It didn't matter.
The pain was never as bad here anyway. The desert
was hostile and cruel - frightening to any intelligent
man - and pain seemed less important beside it. A
servant brought him tea. The doctor had warned him
off it, but he ignored the man. Some things he could
not give up.
      He sat with Musa Abdul Salam - the head of the
Allyrian Mukhabarat, the secret service - and his
cousin, Fallafi Jalloud, the deputy foreign minister.
Jalloud could be trusted because he was family, unlike
the fat toad of a foreign minister Abdel Wahab. Salam
could be trusted because he was a monster, who
under Fallafi's rule knew he would be able to continue
doing monstrous things to people and getting paid for
it. Apart from three bodyguards out of earshot, they
were alone.
      "There is word of when he will come?" Fallafi
      "His people radioed a few minutes ago," said
Salam. "They will be here within the hour."
      The man who was coming to meet him was
driving south from the coast, from his palatial
residence outside Banazzi. The meeting had been
arranged days before. The men had not seen each
other in two years.
      "You are sure you wish to be left with the man,
Leader?" his cousin asked.
      "Of course. We must talk. The man knows things
of much benefit to us. He has much experience, as
you know. We can learn from him."
      The three reverted to silence, the noise only
broken by the sound of the first of the khamsins, the
hot dusty winds from the south, precursors of the
summer to come.

     The man arrived at midday, his convoy of vehicles
shimmering in the heat haze as it crested the rise
north of them and descended to the depression below.
The convoy stopped at a roadblock a kilometre to the
north, but the guards let it through without delay. A
detachment of the bodyguard detail were drawn up in
formation, rifles loaded, near the tent. The convoy
drove on and stopped at the edge of the encampment.
For a few moments nothing moved, then the doors
opened and the men got out.
     Fallafi recognised the face of the man he had
come to see. A face he had not seen for so long,
although they lived in the same country and had much
to talk about. A face he had last seen at a lonely and
isolated airbase, deep in the desert, in the dark of the
night, long ago. The men, surrounded by accolytes,
family members and guards, moved forward to greet
each other. When they were face to face, Fallafi could
see the man he had invited to Allyria had lost little of
the authority that had commanded millions and held
the world in the grip of its cruelty.
     "My brother," Fallafi said. "You honour me with
your presence and your wisdom. Allah is bountiful
today of all days."
     His guest smiled.
     "It is a great happiness to see you again my
brother, and it is I who am honoured. As you have
protected me, so let Allah protect thee. In his wisdom,
he recognises his own."
      Saddam Hussein stretched out a hand and
      Fallafi could not suppress a smile at the memory.
The Americans - the stupid Americans! – running up
and down Iraq all those years ago, executing almost
any man they came across if he had a moustache,
thinking they had finally got Saddam Hussein. As if a
man like that – a leader – would not have prepared his
escape long in advance! Saddam had told him all
about it. The captured doubles had paid a high price,
but they had known the risks and their families had
been looked after. Fallafi ushered his distinguished
visitor into his tent.They sat alone and when the
pleasantries were done they ate. Fallafi was wary of
the pain he knew would come and came to the point
      "It has been too long since two leaders of men like
us could take pleasure in each other's company," he
      "The pleasure is only mine," Saddam lied back.
      "Yet I wish also to benefit from your knowledge
and wisdom in the struggle against the infidels we
have fought for so long."
      "Indeed," said Saddam quietly. He had not lost the
power to listen.
      Fallafi went on. "You know of the great discovery
of oil in the south of this country - what should be this
country - in the Tivesti region?"
      "Of course."
      "The land, and the oil, is our land, our oil, taken
from us by the imperialists and given over to Estefan.
Historically, it is part of Allyria. I believe it is Allah's will
that it should return to us. That the riches there should
be used by this country to complete the work I have
undertaken here."
      Saddam smiled. "You have achieved great things,
my friend."
      Fallafi bowed. "Unfortunately, my enemies are
your enemies. Allyria's problem is the same as Iraq's
was, when you took what was rightfully yours in
Kuwait, years ago. The Kuwaitis had made friends with
the imperialists - our enemies - and Estefan has done
the same."
      "They are powerful enemies," Saddam replied.
      An idea was forming in his mind, as it had in his
hosts'. But he said nothing more. Fallafi sipped at the
lemon juice in a carafe beside him.
      "If I take the oil, as you took it in Kuwait, the
imperialists will attack me, as they did you."
      "They would be grateful for the excuse. You would
need some means of forcing them not to."
      There was a pregnant silence. With the Iraqis
employed at the Sabha facility, Saddam would know
what progress had been made there. His agents would
tell him. Such breaches of security had not been
discouraged the way others had. Fallafi took a deep
breath. It was time to tell him openly.
      "I have something that will discourage them. A
nerve agent so powerful a flask of it could destroy an
entire city. It spreads rapidly over the area, then sinks,
killing everyone it touches. The tests are still going on
but the results appear astonishing."
      Saddam tried not to show surprise. He had known
that progress was good, but not this good. You could
trust the Malik woman for that. His voice was soft.
      "What do you propose, my brother?"
      Fallafi was silent for a moment, watching
Saddam's face intently. He wanted to know the other
man's reaction badly.
      "I send a man - a trusted man - to the home of
the infidels - London for example - with a flask of this
agent and a bomb to spread it over the city. Then if -
when - the Americans threatened to attack me, I
threaten to destroy London."
      Saddam stared. "They would send nuclear
weapons against you."
      "It would be made clear to them if they did, the
device would be activated anyway. Similarly, if they
attacked me in any way, the Americans or the British
or the French, and I were about to fall, the device
would be used."
      Saddam was stunned. This made 9/11 or
whatever the Yankees called it look like a vicar's tea
party - and he had called that the operation of the
century. He was stunned the man opposite seemed to
be considering it at all. Perhaps he was a genius after
all. Saddam found his voice.
      "It is a dangerous plan. The most dangerous I've
ever heard of."
      Fallafi smiled. "It is indeed. But an old man has
few fears. The struggle is everything to me. The
struggle is everything to us. What have we to fear? We
are doing Allah's will. Imagine the victory. The Jews
toothless, the infidels humiliated. The power of Islam
demonstrated for all the world to see. Imagine!"
      Saddam had been doing very little but imagine
this for some time. He could feel the pang of jealousy
and excitement already. Such a triumph would assure
Fallafi's place in history for all time, as he had once
imagined his own might be. Even so, he would never
have dared try anything such as this. Blimey.
      "You would tell them of this device, when it is in
place?" he asked.
      "Not necessarily. If I take the oil and they leave
me in peace, the bomb can be left in place. The agent
who carries it can stay there until I decide what to do
with him. A weapon hidden for us, the like of which
Allah himself would be grateful for."
      The plan was brilliant. Terrifying, but brilliant.
Saddam could feel his heart race with the excitement
of it. The stakes were the highest imaginable, but the
victory - whichever way it went - would be colossal.
Such a plan would need luck. Such a plan would need
the blessing of Allah himself.
       "And how would the man get to London?" he
      "He could not fly, or travel by any normal route. It
would be too dangerous and discovery would be
catastrophic. I have thought of this. He would walk
across the desert as a bedu. He would cross the
desert into Egypt, where he could move undisturbed.
All Allyria's exits will be watched. But not Egypt's."
      Fallafi smiled. "A bedu, like me. Simple."
      "And what if he were caught, before he was in
      "That's the problem. If he were caught, and his
mission discovered, it would be disastrous. The
infidels might send nuclear weapons anyway." Fallafi
paused and looked away. "But... if he were from
another country, not Allyria, and was prepared to be
martyred like no man before him, that would be
enough. The plan would be safe then. Foolproof, I
     There was a long silence as both men thought.
The heat of the sun burnt down on the ornate designs
of the tent, on the soldiers and trucks and animals, and
on the leaves of the trees whispering gently around the
stagnant water.
     Eventually, Saddam smiled. He was so excited he
needed the loo.
     "I have such a man."
      It just carried on getting hotter.
      The meeting at the UN in New York was a festival
of lying. An orgy of dishonesty. A celebration of bogus,
self-interested deceit. It was surprising it took only an
      Things went cordially enough, with the usual
pronouncements of mutual regard despite the freezing
of relations years before. Americans and Allyrians sat
opposite each other, but it had not developed into a
shouting match as these things often did. The
American Secretary of State had been charm itself.
The United States, he lied, wanted to mend fences
with Allyria after all the troubles of the past. Allyria, he
lied some more, was a bulwark against the terrible and
bloody chaos of the former Saudi Arabia, the former
Iraq, and all the other states in the region American
foreign policy had destroyed. It was time to forget the
rancour of the past.
      Abdul Wahab, Allyrian foreign minister, not to be
outdone, beamed. This was what Allyria wanted, too,
he lied. It was time for a new beginning, he lied some
more. They came to the important part - the reason
Wahab had been ordered to accept the meeting in the
first place.
      "To sum up, foreign minister," the Secretary of
State lied. "Can we look forward to a more positive
relationship in the future, as being what our two
peoples and governments want?"
      "Indeed," lied Wahab. "But there is another
     "The United States wishes for our help and
support, and we are of course only too delighted to
help in any way we can. But we have our own
     "The oil in the Tivesti region threatens to... de-
stabilise the area further. As you know, we regard the
region as part of Allyria. It is historically so."
     "And it is a huge oil find, at a time when the price
is high," said the Secretary of State, forgetting to lie for
a moment.
     Wahab paused. His chins wobbled with
suppressed enjoyment of all the lying.
     "It is a question of whether the international
community, and the United States in particular, would
soften its approach on this issue and look at our claim
to the area with more sympathy than it has done in the
     The Secretary of State smiled before answering.
You want our help - give us a free hand in Estefan. Or
else it's war. Fair enough.
     "The United States government would be forced
to recognise international boundaries as they stand,
and all relevant United Nations resolutions on the
subject. But it may be that the dispute between Allyria
and Estefan might be put towards a special UN
tribunal for arbitration. My government may be able to
lend its support to that. Especially if, having done so,
we could look forward to a more productive
relationship with Allyria." You can have the oil, as long
as you sell it to us. After the war.
     He stared across the table at the Allyrian.
      Wahab was pleased. He tried to keep the smile
from his face. The Yankees were so stupid! There had
been no warnings, no ultimatums. Allyria would have
its oil, whatever happened. Even if the Yankees
stabbed them in the back, as they always did. Indeed
that might end up all the better, if the Leader's strategy
worked. It would be he - Wahab - who picked up the
      Sometimes you just couldn't lose at this game.
     And it carried on getting hotter even more.
     Back in the Allyrian capital Sifolis, the scientist
Omar Meheishi was more nervous than usual, and
three o'clock in the morning knocks at the door didn't
help. Knocks at the bedroom door.
     Meheishi had heard nothing, even though he had
been lying awake beside Raisa as he often did now.
Short stabbing nightmares waking him in a sweaty
panic and leaving him staring upwards with the long
unforgiving night to get through. Already pounding with
a throbbing intensity, his heart heard the knock and
immediately crashed down through the gears,
stamped on the accelerator and took off with a squeal
of rubber. He threw the bedclothes off and got up in a
panic. Raisa stirred and began to wake, but he was
across the room and at the door before she was
conscious. It would not be the children. If they could
not sleep and were frightened, they would come
straight into the room and slip into bed.
     He opened the door to see an army officer with
shoulder flashes of the People's Committee guard
detail. The man was tall and fit-looking, and stared at
Meheishi with eyes that were completely blank. They
registered neither hostility nor warmth, nor anything in
     "Dr Omar Meheishi?"
     Who else did he expect in Meheishi's bedroom?
The prophet?
     "Yes. What is this?" Behind him, Raisa awoke.
Terrified, she said nothing.
     "My apologies, doctor. Your presence is urgently
requested in Sifolis by the People's Committee. I am
instructed to escort you there now. The cars are
waiting. Please get dressed and I will meet you
downstairs." The officer turned and went down without
a further word. His boots made no sound on the
     Raisa sat up. "Omar. What in the name of Allah?"
     Meheishi began to dress hurriedly. "Raisa, go
back to sleep. Do not fear. I have been summoned by
the government."
     "But now? In the middle of the night? Why no
     Why indeed? Meheishi knew. It would be the
report he had submitted the week before. He could
feel the first rush of panic subside, to be replaced by a
different fear. A low dread, like nausea. It was a
change, at least, he thought. Oh well. Here we go. The
wheels of some appalling machine of insanity had
begun to turn. Raisa was out of bed, her mouse face
drawn in the moonlight filtering through the window.
Her black eyes sparkled with fear. He tried to comfort
     "Peace, child. Go back to sleep. It is a meeting
only. It will be a long drive to Sifolis - that is why they
have come now. Have no fear."
     He finished dressing, wondering what level of fear
to permit himself, if such control were possible. Fat
chance. Who knew what sort of 'meeting' this might
be? Raisa sat on the bed and began to cry quietly. He
went to her. I must be strong, even though I do not feel
     "Go back to sleep, my love. Everything shall be all
right. I shall return soon."
     If she believed that she really would believe
anything. He stopped, but his words had no effect.
Because he could say no more and he was anxious to
speed what awaited him, for the waiting was worst, he
went to the door and stepped out, closing it quietly on
the sounds of his wife behind him. The night was cold
and a wind was coming off the sea from the north-
west. The soldier stood beside the captain of the
house's guard, neither speaking. Two black limousines
stood waiting, engines running. Meheishi looked at
them. I am surrounded by machines. They would not
send limousines surely? Not for an arrest? The captain
of the guard detail said nothing, his eyes unreadable in
the darkness. The other officer only opened the door
of the rear car for him, as he would for a senior officer.
Meheishi got in.
     It took four long hours heading west along the
coast to reach the capital.
     The two Mercedes drove fast on the deserted
highway. In the plush interior, the soldier sat fiddling
with the gadgets alongside Meheishi but refused to
speak to him. The towns along the coast - al
Qaddahiyah, Misralah, al Khums - sped by in a blur.
The early dawn sun was breaking over the horizon as
they reached the outskirts. Meheishi looked at the
everyday scenes as the convoy sped through the city
beginning to wake, the shops opening, early morning
prayers, farmers taking produce to market, men talking
on the pavements, oblivious. He wondered if his life
would be as normal ever again.

    An hour later, he knew it wouldn’t. He was sitting
stunned at a conference table joined by the fifteen
most powerful men in all Allyria - ministers, the army
and air force commanders, party chiefs. At the table's
head sat General Muammar Fallafi himself.
     Meheishi, despite his position, had never met the
Leader face to face. All aides and servants had been
dismissed and the doors to the room shut. Engineers
had swept and re-swept the room for bugs, working
with the knowledge that failure was not a sensible
proposition. All those entering, save the Leader
himself, were searched for firearms and weapons. This
time even pens and notebooks were removed.
     The Leader, as so often, surprised them.
     "To begin with we shall pray to Allah for
     He touched his ears with his hands, then clasped
them in front of him, the left within the right. He
lowered his head although he did not, as was more
usual, kneel to lower his head to the floor. He began to
recite the El-fatha. After a few words, the others began
to recite with him.
     "In the name of Allah, the merciful and
compassionate. Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the
Worlds, the merciful and compassionate. The Prince of
the Day of Judgement; Thee we serve, and to Thee
we pray for help; lead us in the right way, the way of
those to whom Thou hast shown mercy, upon whom
no wrath resteth, and who go not astray."
     Fallafi looked up and smiled gently. There
seemed a new quality to him, a new vitality. He
seemed no longer listless and distracted, but calm and
determined, strong and firm. He was focussed and
clear. To Meheishi, he seemed a man in control of his
own destiny. What he was actually in control of was
the morphine pump taped to his stomach, now turned
up to the maximum. His voice rang out.
      "I have gathered you here today before Allah to
tell of a plan that will not only ensure Allyria's wealth
and well-being for generations to come, but inflict upon
our enemies and the enemies of Islam a priceless
defeat, a humiliation that will ring down the
generations. It will banish forever our Arab brothers'
sense of inferiority, and allow them to come together,
confident within themselves of their worth."
      The Leader looked around the room, from face to
      "The oil in the Tivesti would revolutionise our
prospects for generations to come. It would amount to
half the entire production of all our OAPEC brothers,
combined. And the price of oil is rising. I aim to have
that oil, all of it, and the other wealth of the region.
Plans for the invasion in strength have already been
drawn up and cannot fail. Our armed forces are ready
and waiting. Our efforts to take and hold what was
rightfully ours thirty years ago were destroyed by the
West. That cannot happen this time." He paused, as if
inviting comment. None was forthcoming. "Why will our
plans not fail this time? I shall tell you. Our armed
forces are now so strong the French cannot hope to
beat us. The French will not dare to resist us, for the
risk of humiliation would be too great. If the French do
not oppose us, the Americans surely will, you may
think. They will seek to push us out as they pushed the
Iraqi brothers out of Kuwait years ago. But that will not
happen either. Shall I tell you why the Americans will
not dare attack us? They will not dare because they
will know that we can destroy a city of their bastard
friend Britain. If they attack us, oppose us in any way,
we will destroy London."
     The silence, after that, was to say the least
     Oh dear, thought Meheishi. Here we go.
     Fallafi reached a hand under the table to
discreetly scratch one of his surgically-created breasts
and went on.
     "From the reports you have been given you will be
familiar with the work of Dr Omar Meheishi." Fifteen
pairs of eyes swivelled to meet those of the scientist.
     "He has devised a substance, what is known as a
nerve agent, that is unprecedented in its destructive
capacity. A litre of it, disseminated into the air with the
aid of a small bomb, would in a matter of hours kill half
the population of a city. The agent spreads
exponentially in the air and is extraordinarily durable,
almost impossible to combat. Existing chemical
warfare protection is useless against it. It would drift
across the city killing everything in its path. It would be
more destructive than an atomic bomb. The
Americans will never dare to oppose us with such a
weapon in our hands as this."
     Fallafi turned to Meheishi.
     "I have brought the scientist here so that we may
all see him and thank him for his work. He will leave us
now. There is still much work he has to do."
     And that was it. Meheishi sat motionless as those
around the table slowly began to applaud him, stunned
themselves, following the lead of Fallafi. It took him a
minute to realise that he was dismissed. He got
unsteadily to his feet and stumbled towards the door.
Outside, the guards took him to an ante-room where
he could sit down alone and think. They left him there.

      Fallafi resumed speaking - his voice quieter now,
determined. The new morphine pump was fantastic.
He was flying. Pain was a memory.
      "A man I already have in mind will take the agent
to London and will wait to receive instructions. He will
not be captured alive. As he is not Allyrian the
identification of his body should allow us to deny all
knowledge of the plan, should it fail. The Americans
have already indicated they will put our case for the
Tivesti and its oil to international arbitration, but they
must respect international borders as they currently
exist." Fallafi sneered at the words. "What is clear to
me is this. If we invade Estefan, the Americans will use
it as an excuse to attack us and push us out, earning
the gratitude of the Estefanians and control over the
oil. But that will not happen this time as it did with Iraq
and Kuwait. Before they attack us, we will have the
means to destroy one of their cities. One further thing.
The Americans and their friends will be told: If you use
nuclear weapons against us, the device will be
activated automatically. The man will have
      Fallafi looked at the People's Committee around
the table.
      "My friends. Although we do not have nuclear
weapons, we can take the oil that is rightfully ours with
the knowledge we have a weapon just as powerful.
No-one can stop us using it. When we tell the
Americans what we have done, they may not even
dare tell the British for what could they do? If they
evacuate, they start a panic the like of which the world
will never have seen, and our man will simply move to
a different city and threaten that."
      Fallafi sat back and smiled. He had said enough.
Abdul Salam, the Mukhabarat chief who already knew
of the plan, broke the silence.
      "Leader, how is the man to take the device to
      Fallafi spoke not to him, but to the whole room.
      "The man cannot fly, or go by ship, or travel in any
way that passes through normal crossing points. The
risk of discovery is too great and our borders are
watched. I have thought of this. He will cross the
desert as a bedu. The bedu pass across the borders
all the time and are bothered by no-one. He will follow
the oasis route across the desert into Egypt. From
there a boat north. It would be the only way to go to
Europe unobserved. A timeless way."
      Salam smiled. "It is a brilliant plan, Leader."
      Fallafi nodded. "Of course it is - I thought of it. It
cannot fail. And when it succeeds - think of the victory!
The humiliation that will fall on the heads of the
infidels. We will have taken what is ours, and there will
be nothing they can do about it. They will not even be
able to tell their people why there is nothing they can
do to stop us, for if they do, they will start panic. Arab
brothers will see only the triumph and the humiliation
of our oppressors, nothing else."
      Fallafi's eyes blazed as they went from face to
      "Think of the victory, comrades. Think of the
      Still sitting in the ante-room, Meheishi's thoughts
were somewhat different. Victory was rather further
from his mind. He knew now the man who ruled Allyria,
with all their fates in his hands, was mad. He had just
heard the proof. Meheishi knew he, above all others,
was responsible. The plan - the little he had been told
of it - had the logic of the truly insane. It might even
work, in the name of Allah. But that prospect was
perhaps even more appalling.
      If it worked, what then?
      He stared at the blank walls and shuddered in the
coolness of the air-conditioning. He wished he was at
home. As he had left the conference room, he had
caught the eyes of Salam - the secret service chief -
staring at him. Salam had guessed what the scientist
had been thinking. Salam always knew. He fought the
rising panic that welled up in his breast, wondering
what in the name of Allah he had done. And how it
could be stopped.
      Within an hour, he was back in the black
limousine, being driven back to his home and a life
that would never be the same again.

      Back with the People's Committee, Fallafi's voice
was gentle now, cajolling.
      "This is our last chance, comrades. Our last
chance for victory against the imperialists. We have
lost the Russians - they are finished. And so we have
lost Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Islam has few friends
left. The Americans have triumphed with their dollars
and their wealth. This is our last chance to fulfill the will
of Allah."
     His voice grew suddenly stronger. He had to
remind himself not to shout. It too often came out as a
     "We have no choice. If we are Moslems, we have
no choice. If we do not do this, Islam is finished. And
that is too terrible a concept to imagine."
     There was silence. Salam, the secret police chief,
looked around the room. The eyes always told
everything. Only real professionals could mask what
they felt. The army and air force commanders -
champing at the bit - could think only of their own
responsibility; the plan would bring glory and
advancement, without defeat or withdrawal afterwards
- they would back it. For the same reason the finance
and oil ministers would approve. They could see their
domains shrinking by the day, a process that would
only stop if new wells were found. The foreign minister
and party chiefs had no centre of power outside the
Leader's patronage. They would never question it.
     Salam himself thought the plan ludicrous, but as
always you couldn't fault the Leader's logic. The
economy was teetering on the brink, under the
pressures of massive defence spending and falling oil
revenues. Soon it would collapse, and then they would
go the way of Syria and Egypt and Jordan and all the
rest, cap in hand to the imperialists, begging for
dollars, kissing arse. They had to have the oil and if
this was the only way to get it - so be it. He was
annoyed that an Allyrian would not take the device to
London, for then it would be his responsibility to find
and train the man. But he could see that if an Allyrian
were discovered and captured it would be disastrous.
     It was Meheishi who worried him. You could see
the scientist was terrified of the monster he had
created. Technicians were always the same, happy as
long as they got the money to play with their toys,
ignorant and unthinking, and then squealing like stuck
pigs when the chickens came home to roost and the
dirty business had to be done. The man would have to
be watched even more closely. Salam would have had
him killed, now his work was done, but the Leader
would not allow it.
     The silence in the room had become cloying. It
was time to break it.
     "It is a plan blessed by the vision of Allah himself.
But Leader, if the man to accomplish it is not from
Allyria, where is he from?"
      It is the time of the war with the Americans in
1990 - a lifetime ago.
      Osman Sacranie is a young Iraqi soldier
occupying a town called Khafji, in Saudi Arabia, ten
miles south of the Kuwaiti border. All in all, it's a good
time to be a young Iraqi soldier. At least for now. The
army has taken Kuwait, and the fat Kuwaiti whores
with their dollars and blasphemy have been taught
who their real masters are. There are stories of booty
going up to Baghdad and Basra which beggar belief.
One army general had had a whole building
dismantled and crated off to Baghdad! In Khafji, the
tank regiments took the town from its Saudi owners.
Now Osman's unit is based here, and who knows?
Maybe the boss will send them all the way to the sea.
They are waiting for the Americans to come from the
south. Everyone knows the Yankees will come
      Osman has sat alone in a bombed-out house on
the southern outskirts of the town for two days, a
Russian sniper's rifle in his lap. His eyes ache from
staring down the road into the desert. The house has
no windows, and a hot wind blows through it, bringing
dust and heat. But he is grateful, for he has shared the
house with the remains of three Saudi border guards,
killed when the town was taken, and they have begun
to stink. A cloud of flies hangs around each one. The
corpses have had their heads cut off - though not by
Osman, who is still a young man and innocent. He has
amused himself by trying to match up the correct head
with the correct body and he thinks he has got it right
but the game has palled. He has debated dragging
them outside where he would not have to look at them
any more, but they might attract attention. So instead
they sit there with him. He talks to them occasionally
but their conversation is limited.
      "We won't stop at Kuwait. We'll take your country
too," Osman tells them.
      "That doesn't seem impossible," the corpses
      "And then Iraq will rule the world."
      "Well, maybe. Wait and see."
      Osman's unit is spread around the town, keeping
quiet. The Americans come in the afternoon. A single
jeep with four soldiers in it, one a woman! It comes
from the south slowly, stopping and starting. It is
impossible to know if the patrol is hesitant, frightened
of the town's silence, or just lost in the desert. When
they get to within a hundred yards, Osman fires two
bullets into the engine of the jeep, and it comes to a
juddering halt.
      A white flag appears instantaneously. The
pathetic Americans offer no resistance and Osman
and his comrades go forward to take them prisoner.
It's too easy. The woman is crying, and one of the
men has a stain on his trousers where he has lost
control of himself. For Osman and his friends it is a
great triumph. When he thinks of it, the night they
captured the Americans, it is the last time he can
remember being happy.
      His unit are ordered back to Baghdad the
following day, a reward. They drive all night to get
back - taking cover from the American bombers. The
men shout and sing and cheer. When they arrive back
in the south of the city, Osman is met by the colonel of
his regiment, a weak, over-emotional man, as he
jumps from the truck. The man has a tired, kindly face.
He embraces Osman and does not let go, even as the
younger man tries to push away, embarrassed. It
seems a bit much.
      "I have bad news for you, my son." There are
tears in his eyes.
      Osman cannot comprehend what is coming next,
and time stands still.
      "The Yankees bombed an air-raid shelter. There
were hundreds dead. Your parents and sisters among
them. They were burnt. There is nothing left. I'm
      Osman tries again to push the man away, but
finds he has no strength. He can feel it draining from
him. The Colonel releases him and he sinks to his
knees in the dust of the barrack square, his forehead
grazing the dirt, looking like he is praying. The men of
his unit look at him with watchful eyes and move
silently away, for there is nothing to say. They know
this is how it will be now. They do not touch him, for
they do not want the infection of death to pass to
them. The graves are only symbolic, of course. The
bodies were burnt beyond recognition. Some are just
lumps of flesh. The lumps make two, three, four
bodies, fused together. But for Osman and his brother,
the graves are all they have left.
      From then on, he does not forget or forgive,
always remembering where the missiles came from.
His hatred is all he has. He rises up the military
heirachy, becoming more proficient in the skills
needed to protect life, which mainly involve those
needed to take it. From the same town - Tikrit - as the
boss, he and his brother are trusted all the more
because of the tragedy which has overtaken them.
They return that trust. Saddam is the only man who
has had the courage to fight the Americans, the only
one who has tried to hurt the people who destroyed
Osman's family. The logic is not exactly flawless, but
that doesn't matter to Osman. He and his brother
become Saddam's bodyguards, and when the
Americans come again and Saddam flees to his new
home in Allyria, they go with him.

     The old and simple peasant couple knew little of
the foreigner who had bought their land and employed
them. Only that he was called Osman and had come
here, to Allyria and exile, with his master some time
before. The master they had never met, of course. He
was only a shadow in the background, although they
had heard stories. But the foreigner came to the farm
every so often, to work the fields he now owned, and
he worked like only a man a bit simple in the head
     Like this day. All through the boiling afternoon,
with a break only to drink water and pray, he stood in
the dusty olive grove, weeding and hoeing, working the
soil over, a cooling breeze blowing in from the
Mediterranean to the north the only relief. Allah! If that
wasn't barmy they didn't know what was. He was a tall
man, though with the lack of any spare tissue on his
frame he could sometimes look slight. He wore a
simple white galibya in the peasant style, and ignored
the sun beating down above his bare head. It was the
monotonous physical work he enjoyed, the reason he
had bought this plot of land. The farm here, when he
could get away, was the only way he could get peace,
the only way to forget the anger and hatred that he
had carried in his heart for so long.
       As the sun began to set he finished, and Safia,
the wife of Mohammed, the old man he employed to
live on the farm when he was away, brought him tea
and boiled rice.
       He was not like the other foreigners Safia had
seen in the towns. At least while he was with them, he
lived frugally and simply, and was scrupulous in
prayers and observances. He worked the land like a
maniac. They knew there was another, more
sophisticated side to his life, and also that he
harboured some sad bitterness which he would not
share. He never talked of these things. But he was a
kind and generous man, a good employer, and in the
fullness of time they hoped he would marry their
daughter, 13 years old.
       You never knew. One less mouth to feed.
       Had they but known it, Osman had considered
marrying her himself. But not yet. First he would have
to banish the hatred within him, before he could love a
woman. And that was probably going to involve killing
a lot more people.
       The sun fell below the horizon and he was done.
He flexed his aching muscles and walked slowly back
up to the small house. Mohammed was standing in the
       "If you are going to work so hard, soon you will
have no use for me," he said cheerfully.
       "I have no use for you as it is. The goats and hens
still need feeding. Or must I do everything myself while
I am here? Give them plenty. It will be a cold night,
and they go to the market next week," Osman called
after him, but the old man had already gone.
      He turned and was about to go into the house
when he heard the sound of an engine. It was an old
jeep, driven quickly, clouds of dust swarming behind. It
would have come from up the coast, a few miles away.
As the jeep drew level with the house it braked and
turned into the makeshift driveway, pulling to a stop
with tyres crunching on the gravel. The driver got out
stiffly. Like Osman he was tall, though with a heavier,
softer frame, and like Osman he was in his forties, with
heavy black hair and watchful eyes over a thick
moustache. But he wore a smart suit and Western
      Osman watched smiling as his brother came
towards him, brushing dust from his clothes.
      "You look like a pimp."
      "I am a pimp. You look like a peasant."
      "Well, I am a peasant."
      "Not any more you're not. You're wanted," Badawi
said. "The boss sent me to collect you."

     Osman changed into a suit and city shoes, and
said goodbye to Mohammed and the family. They were
used to his disappearances.
     The two brothers drove fast along the coast road,
through Sirte and on in the direction of Bu'ayrat al
Hasun. It was a dead town, on the coast, far from the
city and prying eyes. Few people went there. That was
why the boss had made it his home. The brothers
drove on as the day disappeared before their eyes,
and the dusty road was lit only by headlamps.
     "Why am I summoned?" Osman asked.
     "I don't know," said Badawi. "There is talk that it is
to do with the meeting in the desert. Nobody seems to
know anything. Even Kamel. I was told to come and
fetch you as quickly as possible." Badawi turned to
look at his brother. "All I know is he has been a
changed man since his meeting with the Allyrians.
He's restless. Can't sit still at all. He's driving everyone
crazy. Can’t even concentrate on those stupid books
he writes. You would know more of these things if you
didn't go off and play at being a farmer so often."
     They drove on through Bu'ayrat. On the far side of
the settlement, they turned off onto a dirt track that led
inland for several kilometres. Eventually, they came to
the outside gate and walls of the grounds. Armed
guards - Allyrians - nervously checked their passes
before allowing them through. The house was not a
house at all, of course. More a fortified mansion. It had
acres of grounds, a swimming pool and stables.
Inside, deep underground, the basement could survive
a direct hit from a missile.
     The brothers went up the staircase to a huge
room with a balcony that looked out over the fields to
the Mediterranean in the distance. The room was
Saddam's study. He conducted all his business there.
     Badawi knocked respectfully, then stepped back.
     "You go in alone, brother."
     Osman was surprised to find the room empty
apart from Saddam and his younger son Uday. No
Kamel or Kusay or any advisors. Saddam was sitting
in one of two armchairs, drawn up by the doors to the
balcony, slightly to one side. He was still frightened of
     "Good evening, Osman. Come in."
      He had changed since the last days in Baghdad.
Thinner now, with streaks of grey through the still thick
hair. In many ways he looked more healthy than he
had done in their homeland, when he had fought the
struggle single-handed against the imperialists.
Something had changed since they had gone into the
desert to meet the Allyrian leader. Saddam's eyes
were brighter, staring with an intensity missing for
years. Osman wondered what was coming, and tried
to ignore the feeling of excitement that welled up in
him. The boss's feelings were infectious, as they had
always been. Saddam gestured to him to sit down and
      "How is my simple farmer, who wishes to spend
all his time talking to goats and sheep?"
      "I am well, boss."
      "Would you like tea?"
      Osman said yes. He could not remember sitting
down in Saddam's presence before, never mind
drinking tea. The three sat in silence while Ahmed
brought in a service. After Ahmed's usual joke
pretending the tea was poisoned he went out and
Saddam poured the liquid into cups and handed one to
his bodyguard. Osman took it.
      "Do you remember your mother and father,
      "Of course, boss."
      "And your little sisters, Uma and Halfa?"
      "Of course."
      "Do you think of them every day?"
      "Every day, boss."
      "Do you still hate those who killed them?"
      "Of course."
       Saddam sighed gently.
       "I think of them too, Osman. I think of your mother
and father, your two sisters. I think of all the others
killed by the Americans in our country. I think of our
brothers thrown out of Palestine or enslaved by the
Jews there. I think of those killed right here, in this
country, by the Americans years ago. I think of all the
Arabs murdered by the Yankees." He paused for a
moment, staring at the man before him. "What would
you say if I told you there was a chance to avenge
your family, and inflict a humiliating defeat on our
enemies, on those that killed your family, even now,
when we are in exile, defeated?"
       Osman put down his cup. He looked into the black
eyes of the man he had served so long, who could
read his mind. "I would give thanks to Allah."
       Saddam looked at him steadily, black eyes
brighter than ever.
       "Our brothers in this land wish to inflict such a
defeat on the Americans. It will be a supreme triumph -
if it succeeds. But it is also dangerous and will need a
man who is willing to travel far away into the land of
the enemy and stay there - possibly to die there. The
man would walk across the desert and carry with him a
bomb - a special bomb, like nothing before - which he
would take into the heart of the enemy. I believe you
could be that man, Osman."
       The bodyguard stared. After so long, the chance
to avenge his family. It was more than he had ever
dared hope for. Saddam went on.
       "Our brothers, for obvious reasons, do not wish
the man who carries the bomb to be from this country,
in case he is caught. You would be briefed fully. There
will be much to learn and remember. But there is
something I have chosen to tell you myself." He put
down his cup and stared at Osman. He spoke kindly,
like an uncle.
      "If you were to succeed in this mission, you would
earn the accolades of Allah himself and all our
brothers in the Muslim nation. No man would ever
have been so feted. But if for any reason you should
fail and be discovered, you could not be taken alive.
You would have to martyr yourself. If the bomb was
traced to this country, the West would use their
nuclear weapons against it and the cause of Islam
would die forever."
      Osman thought of Halfa and Uma and their
untended graves a thousand miles to the east. He
could feel tears come to his eyes, tears of sadness for
them, for the thousandth time, and tears of gratitude,
that he should be given what he had craved for years.
      "I understand, boss."
      "You would accept such an assignment?"
      "Yes. With thanks to Allah."
      Saddam smiled, and stood up. "I always knew as
much. I knew you would not pass the opportunity to
avenge us all. You will carry the hopes of Islam." He
took both Osman's hands in his own. "Tomorrow you
will begin preparing for the task. There is much to
learn. But I want to say that we will meet again. If not
here, then when we are both before Allah. May he go
with you, Osman. Go with you and protect you."
      He squeezed the hands in his own, light blazing in
his eyes.
     After the bodyguard had left, Saddam sat staring
out towards the Mediterranean for a long time.
     "Do you think he can do it on his own?" asked
     Saddam shrugged. "What have we got to lose?"
     He went back to the desk and the task in hand –
the final editing of his latest novel – Crusade of
Passion. Now he could concentrate. He would do a
couple a hours, then begin preparing for the evening’s
entertainment – dinner at Osama bin Laden’s with a
very special guest – Diana, the former Princess of
Wales, who had come here to this desert country to
hide even before he had. It should be a lively evening.
     Say what you like about exile – it had its
      The final experiment came one week later. The
guinea pigs this time were murderers, psychopaths,
rapists, thieves, all under sentence of death, plus an
unfortunate taxi driver from Sifolis, who had forgotten
to pay a speeding ticket and got the judge on a bad
      Instead of being taken from Allyria's Central
People's Court to the spectacular filth and horror of the
Atlassi prison for immediate dispatch into the next
world, they went instead to an army base in the south
of Sifolis. Suddenly they were being well fed and cared
for, given medical attention and tests, but no
explanation for their lenient treatment. It was all rather
pleasant. There had been amnesties in the past on
dates like the Leader's birthday. But not for men like
them. They sipped their fresh coffee, smoked their
plentiful cigarettes, ate their really quite respectable
food and wondered what it was all about. Their number
had grown over the past weeks, and now there were
30 of them. It would be enough.
      One morning, the camp commandant announced
they were lucky. They were needed in an important
experiment. They of course were free to make a
choice. They could refuse, and opt for immediate
execution, but those who co-operated could escape
with ten years. The men were stupid, but not that
      From the base one evening they were loaded into
trucks and driven south to the town of Murzuq, eight
hundred kilometres into the interior. They were held on
the outskirts of the tiny, dusty town in another army
camp, this time with wire fences and watchtowers,
dogs and guards. Helicopters flew overhead.
     On the morning of the third day, the first ten were
selected. They were taken in a covered lorry to the
decontamination area, ten kilometres yet further into
the desert. There were no roads here, just fence poles
shimmering in the stupefying heat to show the way to
the test site and give the distance from it. The
decontamination area was another, more temporary
army camp. Its centrepiece was a huge tent, made of
thick, toughened material. Water and chemical tankers
were parked alongside and connected by hoses, ready
to wash down all who went inside. The tent was large
enough for several lorries inside.
     The area was on the edge of the Idhan Murzuq, a
vast plain of sand and rock and utter desolation three
hundred kilometres across and two hundred deep.
There were no wells here, no oases, no roads or
tracks, nothing. The focus of the experiment would be
another hundred kilometres south, at the end of a line
of poles to show the way, in the centre of the plain, a
hundred and fifty kilometres from any living thing.
     Even the bedu never came here. After the tests,
nobody would ever come here again.
     The device had been taken to the site at the end
of the line of markers. It was a simple mechanism. A
one litre flask, made of toughened glass, attached to a
small explosive charge, no bigger than a grenade,
enough to blow the agent into miniscule droplets a
hundred feet into the sky. The device was activated by
remote control receiver, with a range of twenty miles.
Alongside lay equipment that recorded wind speed and
direction. The men who had installed the device, on a
small concrete plinth for support, had detonated it the
night before, from ten miles away, as the sun went
down and the bitter cold of the desert began. The
charge went off as planned, and the agent was blown
into the sky. The men drove off quite quickly.
     If you had been there, you would hardly have
been impressed. That would be only partly because
you were dead. Lighter than air, odourless and
colourless, the micro-particles rose up and were
caught by the wind and disseminated. As they reacted
with moisture even the dry desert air carried, they
became heavier and started to sink down over a wider
area. By morning, outlying particles had already been
carried miles from the test site. With their reaction still
not complete, many more - invisible millions more -
were still lighter than air, and hung within it, waiting,
watching. An area of several miles was now
     At the decontamination area, the ten prisoners
were beginning to have second thoughts about the
whole thing. Both hands were manacled behind their
backs to the sides of an open army truck. Only when
this was done did the two men who would drive the
truck, and the two people who would sit in the back
and monitor the prisoners, appear. They were dressed
from head to foot in white overalls through which the
agent could not penetrate. On their hands were sealed
gloves, on their feet sealed boots, and on their heads
sealed helmets. Each carried an air supply. The agent
could penetrate all conventional protective suits. So
those exposed to it had to insulate themselves
completely. The early morning had been set as the
time for the first test, as it would have been unbearable
later in the day. The survival suits carried no air
conditioning within them.
      When the prisoners saw the strangely clad
creatures coming towards them, the penny finally
dropped. They all decided they’d rather be somewhere
else, thank you very much.Their cries of protest turned
into shrieks - they knew what the suits meant. Some
tried to break their manacles, but to no avail. They
were only quietened by a soldier jumping into the back
of the lorry and pointing his rifle at them.
      Dr Omar Meheishi stared at the prisoners through
the visor of his helmet. He stared for a long time. He
recited a prayer asking forgiveness, fighting the urge
to vomit - unwise in an hermetically sealed suit. This
was madness, and he wanted no further part of it.
Shaking from head to foot, with his anguish and fear
hidden by the suit, he clambered aboard the truck
stiffly, trying to ignore the staring eyes that turned on
him. Beside him, Dr Arifa Malik was more concerned
with how she might test the agent on women and
children - she would have to get hold of some
somewhere. With a roar, the truck set off for its slow,
bumping drive into the wilderness.
      Soon it would be over for these men, Meheishi
      Lucky sods.

      They began to die at the five kilometre marker,
and the truck slowed to a crawl. It meant the agent had
already dispersed to this distance from the detonation
site. Tests over the next days, before the agent lost its
power, would determine whether this was because of
wind, or its natural dispersal rate.
      The prisoners became hysterical. Their wrists
broke with the effort of escaping from the manacles,
but to no effect. As with the monkeys, it was over
quickly. Meheishi looked on in horror. At first the men
could not breath, but within seconds the agent had a
firmer hold. The prisoners' skin began to blister and
blacken, and their eyeballs bled. By this time they were
speechless, in their own private agony. They began to
cough blood and void themselves. Blood poured from
ears and noses. Then, as quickly as it had begun, it
was over. It had taken less than a minute. Meheishi
signalled the driver to stop and the bodies were
examined, details and symptoms recorded. Then the
driver and his mate released them and dumped them
over the side into the sand. No autopsies here. The
truck turned around and headed back for
      The tests continued for three more days. The
prisoners were taken towards the plinth from east,
west, north, and south. On the first day they died five
kilometres north of the site. On the second, four
kilometres south. On the third day, the men died more
slowly, ten kilometres to the east, and on the fourth the
men approached from the west. By now the agent had
lost much of its power. The prisoners started dying
fifteen kilometres from the site. But it took them over
an hour to die. By the fifth day, the test was over. The
bodies were left in the desert. The marker poles that
showed the four routes to the plinth were collected and
the decontamination site dismantled, its work done.
The area did not have to be sealed off, for no-one
came here anyway.
      Meheishi sat opposite Dr Malik in the plane that
took them away, as he had sat opposite her in the
truck as it rolled into the desert towards the killing
zone. She exhibited the usual clinical satisfaction - the
test had demonstrated the qualities of the agent she
had produced. Of course, thought Meheishi. She has
been here before. Thirty years ago, when her Iraqi
master bombed the Kurds, killing twenty thousand with
an agent far less sophisticated than that which they
had now developed. The woman was really something
      Meheishi felt close to breakdown. He had not
slept during the last four days, mind filled with the
prisoners in their dying agony. They had been
murderers, but no man deserved what they had got.
How many more would die if the agent were used in a
city, as the Leader proposed? The tests they had
completed showed it was perfect for the job. A litre
really would kill millions. He stared out of the plane's
window into the sky as they flew over the desert north
to Sifolis, his face turned away so Dr Malik and the
others could not see his staring eyes and praying
mouth. Over and over again, silently, mouthing the
      Allah, forgive me.
      The airliner banked steeply and began its final
approach to Cairo.
      In a world of sick, evil and depraved men, Allyria's
secret police chief Abdul Salam was a king. There
wasn't a crime he hadn't committed, a debauchery he
hadn't indulged in, a profanity he hadn't uttered. He
was an evil-doer par excellence. A criminal,
delinquent, deviant reprobate. It was a wonder he ever
got any work done at all.
      After the plane had landed, Salam and his
bodyguard - a dim army officer who could be trusted
not to talk - went into the arrivals hall and straight
through the diplomatic gate. The bodyguard carried
their clothes in two small holdalls. Instead of an
embassy car waiting to meet them, Salam hailed an
ordinary taxi. It took them into the city - nowhere near
the embassy compound. The driver drove into the
heart of Cairo and dropped them outside the Pyramid
hotel off Ramses Square. The building had cracked
walls and filthy windows, it was far from the usual
haunt of the diplomatic corps. The two men were
booked into adjacent rooms as businessmen. Unless
there was trouble, the bodyguard would keep to
himself. And Salam did not expect trouble.
      He unpacked and rang room service, ordering a
bottle of the finest Scotch the hotel could lay its hands
on. The waiter carried an envelope for him. He waited
until the man had gone before opening it. Inside was a
plain card, with just a number written on it. Salam
poured himself a large Scotch, downing half of it in one
swallow, before he picked up the phone and asked to
be put through to the room on the card. A young male
voice answered.
      "Your name?"
      "Farsi. Farsi al-Soun."
      Salam knew the name.
      "Come to my room. Number seventeen." He put
the phone down.
      He had refilled his glass by the time al-Soun, 34-
years old and the chief of al-Qeada operations in
England arrived. Salam bade the young fighter take a
seat. Al-Soun was nervous. The older man's
      "Your instructions are simple," the Allyrian said,
handing over a photograph and pieces of paper. "You
will find details of a bank account. It has been opened
in your name in a bank in Kensington. One hundred
thousand American dollars have been deposited. The
money is not traceable to us. You will find pictures of a
man, full face and side on. In the next few minutes you
must memorize the face absolutely. The pictures
cannot leave this room. You may take the bank details
with you, but I recommend you memorize them too
and destroy the paper. It would be safest."
      Al-Soun, eager, earnest and intense, studied the
face in the pictures as Salam continued.
      "The man in the picture will come to London in the
future, within six months, probably less. He will know
how to contact you. You do not need to know who he
is or when to expect him. He may not contact you at
all. But if he does, you will give absolutely anything he
asks for, using the money we have provided. Papers,
passports, transport, arms and equipment - and any
shelter he needs. You will not question him, you are
simply there to help, if he should need it."
      Al-Soun looked up. "We do not need to know what
he is coming for?"
      "Certainly not. You do not need to know who he
is, where he is from, or what he is doing. You will
simply be available should he need you."
      "You can depend on us.," said Al-Soun. Already
he did not like the idea. Salam went on.
      "Furthermore, from now on you will take no further
part in al-Qeada activity. You will go to no meetings.
You will lead a quiet life. If the man has not contacted
you within six months, you may assume he is not
going to. You may then resume operations. Keep the
money for al-Qeada." Salam paused. "If you should
fail, disappear, spend the money, or for any other
reason not be able to afford asistance to this man, we
will find out and you and your family will be hunted
down and killed. You will all die. I will personally cut
your mother's heart out and feed it to a pig."
      Al-Soun stared at Salam. A pig? What on earth
were they planning? There was no question of
disobeying the man whose cash was his organisation's
lifeblood. Salam continued.
      "You will also memorize the coded exchange the
man will use to identify himself. That also may not
leave this room."
      "The man must be very important," said al-Soun.
      "Don't even think of it," said Salam steadily. "Just
be available for him."
      After a few minutes, the al-Qeada fighter had
memorized the pictures and words he would have to
carry in his head. Salam burnt the paper and pictures
in the ashtray, flushing the ashes down the toilet. Al-
Soun got up to leave.
     "There is one other thing, of great importance,"
Salam said. "You must speak of this to no-one, to no
other living person. Not even your brother or your
family. It has to remain secret. No-one in your
organisation must know. Al-Qeada is stuffed with
informers. We are doing something very great. This
man is our insurance."
     Al-Soun reddened at the criticism, but only
nodded. "This man knows my name," he said. "But I
know nothing of him, not even what he shall call
     Salam smiled. "I don't know. Perhaps he will call
himself the insurance man."
     "My insurance man?"
     Salam laughed out loud. "No, al-Soun. Not your
insurance man. Mine."

    When the al-Qeada man had gone to fly back to
London, Salam poured another large drink and
contemplated the evening ahead, his work done. He
had no fear al-Soun would not help. The money al-
Qeada received from him was their lifeline now so
many other sources like Saudi Arabia and Iraq had
been destroyed. They would not bite the hand that fed
them. Their help might not even be needed, if
Saddam's man was as good as Saddam said he was.
      Barren. Forgotten. Godforsaken.
      A thousand miles to the west deep in the desert
other words sprang to Alec Carlisle's mind - not as
polite as these - as he clambered from the small
Cessna on to the desert runway and tried to pull his
recalcitrant underpants from where they had wedged
themselves resolutely between his sweating buttocks
like some re-enactment of the heroic last stand at
Thermopolae. He looked around as he always did
when he came back to this place. A mixture of wonder
and dread. Not wonder at the splendour of the
mountains or the aching natural beauty. More like
wonder at his own bleeding stupidity. It was the middle
of the Sahara, and felt like the end of the bloody world.
      From the airfield in northern Estefan he could look
directly north and west, across the steadily descending
plateau. North; fuck all for six hundred miles until
Allyria and the Mediterranean. West; more of the same
for a ridiculous two thousand miles to the Atlantic. To
the east the huge rock of Kegueur Terbi, ten thousand
feet high, with its brother Emi Koussi to the south-east.
To the south, Tarso Tiri, with - quelle surprise -
another thousand miles of zilch before you got to
central Africa.
      The distances weighed in on the place, crushing it
as if they themselves had pushed the land together to
form these mountains. He looked around him. With the
temperature at fifty three degrees centigrade, he
shivered. The place did that to you. This was his fifth
trip out here. His last. Definitely. Carlisle hated this
      Unfortunately he hated being poor even more.
     His fellow passengers collected themselves and
their bags full of cheap booze and pornography and
walked over to the airport building - a dusty hangar
looking like it might be blown away any minute. They
were mining consultants and drilling engineers.
Carlisle was a geologist. He had worked for British
Petroleum for ten years.
     Mackenzie, the site manager, was a short
pugnacious man with a red face who looked to be
perpetually in the midst of a fit of screaming rage. He
met them all at the hangar with a glare of welcome,
asked after their trip and received the usual obscene
replies. When they were all loaded into the huge
Toyota, drowning in sweat, they set off towards
Louzou, twenty miles to the north. Cradled from the
nothingness by the mountains to the south and the
east, it was the largest town in the northern Tivesti and
the organisational centre for Estefan's burgeoning oil
exploration effort. Which meant it had three bars and a
whorehouse and fuck all else. The biggest of the oil
lakes had been tapped forty miles to the north-east at
Ounlasena, with subsidiary finds at Zouar and Goubon
to the south. The names sounded like there was
something there, apart from the oil under the desert.
There wasn't. The companies had flown in
construction engineers to work on plans for extraction
complexes, and a hotel chain had already flown
surveyors up to look at sites. There hadn't been time
for anything else. It would all change, of course. One
of the ten poorest countries on earth, Estefan was
about to become one of the stinking richest instead. As
were the lucky companies greasing enough palms
lavishly who got granted a concession to extract the
booty lying under the sand. That was why Carlisle and
his colleagues were here.
      Mackenzie, his boiling face even redder than
usual, screamed at them as he drove north along the
pitted sandy road at breakneck pace, through dust and
choking heat, keeping to a road more imagined than
      "The magnetometer survey is almost complete
and then we can get on with geochemical work. Miller
has started drilling down on the flood run-off at Araye
to see if there are any anamolous lakes." Mackenzie
had to shout above the roar of the wind, the engine
and the tyres crashing through the shale on the road,
but he would have shouted anyway. The car was
suffocatingly hot. "Anything happening in London?"
      "The Allyrians are quiet," shouted Carlisle.
"They've said nothing over the last couple of weeks.
Keeping their heads down."
      Mackenzie wrestled with the gearstick as if trying
to break it off as there was a grinding noise from
      "Don't you believe it. No-one trusts that Fallafi as
far as they can spit him. Bloke's as mad as a hatter.
The government's sent even more troops up here.
Place is starting to look more like an army camp than
an exploration site."
      Carlisle saw a truck approaching through the heat
haze along the road. Mackenzie began to slow down.
      "Have to get out of the bastards' way. Even if they
don't stop you for papers, they're as likely to run you
straight off the road. Saharan road rules out here.
Wouldn't think we were here to make the wogs all
      He slowed almost to a stop and pulled off the
road. The truck screamed past without slowing, in a
cloud of choking sand. Carlisle saw black troops,
sitting in rows, in the back. Mackenzie was using the
opportunity to scream at someone else for a change.
      "Wog bastards!"
      "Yeah," bawled Mackenzie. "There's Zaireans as
well, camped out at Bardai south of here, cooking up
their funny food. They have tanks and artillery. Getting
prepared if the Allyrians try anything. If there's any
trouble they'll fuck off sharpish - you know what they're
      "No French?" Carlisle asked. Thirty years ago the
French had thrown the Allyrians out.
      "No, none of the garlic-munching crowd."
Mackenzie's entire world view seemed to encompass
only what people ate. "Typical. They fuck off the
minute there's anything real to fight about. Imagine
fighting over this dump before they even knew there
was oil here. You'd think they'd want to be up 'ere now.
Reckon the Allyrians have got a bit too powerful for
'em. Trust the Frogs not to show when there's trouble
      Mackenzie's voice dropped to a low bellow.
"Anyway, here we are."
      They drove into Louzou. The town reminded
Carlisle of a Wild West movie set. Barracks and
clapboard wooden buildings, dumped down in the
middle of nowhere. Even the flood plain did not start
until three miles north of here. The hotel was
surprisingly modern. Built by the French in colonial
times, when the first minerals were being discovered
here - a clue to the jackpot to come. Mackenzie
shouted at everyone some more and the others
disembarked and plodded with their bags wearily
inside. They were welcomed in the bar by the other
company men. Carlisle felt the low dread earlier turn
into depression. Kate and the boys would be back in
leafy Ealing. They would be rained on and cold. They
would have warm baths and hot fires, and television
and pubs and decent newspapers with tits in them and
walks with the dog in the woods. He was stuck here, a
thousand miles from anywhere. He sat in the bar and
drank ice-cold beer. Already there was the usual,
depressing conversation about what they were going
to watch on telly that night, what they had watched on
telly the night before, what they would watch on telly
for the rest of the week. A guide was open on the table
in front of them. As usual, everyone went straight for
the late-night section.
      "Ooh look. Ten-fifty," bellowed Mackenzie as his
eye went down the schedule. "'Animal Instincts - A cop
becomes obsessed with filming his wife in bed with
other men. Utterly abysmal erotic thriller.' That's the
one for me."
      Carlisle contemplated the book he had brought
with him. Driving over Gherkins. A black comedy about
a couple setting off for a new life in the Ukraine.
Everything that could go wrong went wrong. It was still
probably better than this dump.
      One of the engineers was telling the story of his
brother, a pilot in the Gulf War against Iraq years
earlier. Brits flying over Saudi Arabia and Iraq had
been picked up on the radio by their Yank
counterparts, saying they were entering and flying over
the "MMFA" on bombing runs into Iraq. Pilots would
enter the MMFA, cross the MMFA, leave the MMFA.
The Yanks, the stupid Yanks, with their love of
acronyms, had been desperate to find out about this
new Brit one. MMFA? Military Manoeuvre Forward
Area? Mission Mobile Flying Arc? The Brits said
nothing and the Yanks became hysterical. The Brits
relented. MMFA stood for Miles and Miles of Fuck All.
     Carlisle laughed despite himself. That was this
place all right.

     Three days later the Allyrians invaded.
     The first planes started to come over around mid-
morning, as the engineers and geologists were
finishing first drillings of the day and were heading
back to the hotel for a liquid lunch to escape the worst
of the heat. The planes came in wave after wave,
heading for targets south of Felatio, the unfortunately-
named northern provincial capital where much of the
Estefanian army was based. Only by the evening,
when they had returned to base and refuelled, did they
switch to military targets in the Tivesti where the
engineers were based.
     Carlisle and the others held a conference in the
hotel bar under Mackenzie's deafening direction.
Nobody knew where the planes had come from, for
they bore no visible markings - but nobody needed to
be told either. Mackenzie had phoned the panicked
company head office in the capital, only to be informed
they knew nothing and were attempting to find out
what the hell was going on from the government.
      "They don't need to tell us - we know!" he
bellowed over the tumult in the bar. "The fucking
Allyrians. They're invading. They always said it's their
area. With the oil it was only a matter of time. And if
we don't move quickly, we could get stuck here for the
      "What do you suggest?" Carlisle shouted back.
"We can't get through to Felatio to ask them to send a
plane up here." He was remembering the last time this
had happened. Kuwait, 1990. Westerners trapped
there and in Baghdad had been kept as human shields
by Saddam. He thought of Kate and the boys.
Mackenzie stared at him, and then at the rest of them.
      "We've got to keep calm. Shouting and screaming
isn't going to get us anywhere," he shouted and
screamed. "It's four hundred miles to Felatio by road. If
we set off now, with as much petrol as we can beg,
borrow or steal, we could be there by morning. I'm not
waiting round here to be snaffled up by the Allyrians.
Anybody got any better ideas?"
      "Set off now, in the heat of the day?" This was
from a petroleum engineer, Matthaus, from Germany.
      "Like I said, got any better ideas?"
      Nobody had.
      By one o'clock, they had packed up the Land
Cruisers and were heading south as fast as they could
on the road to the mountain of Ehi Timi. The
temperature was now fifty degrees centigrade. Carlisle
- drenched in sweat - felt like he was being suffocated
with a pillow. It would be hours before it fell. Behind
Ehi Timi lay the main road south to freedom.
      All they could do was drive on and hope to beat
the invasion.
      No chance.
      The invasion plan had been thorough and
achieved total surprise. By the time the oil workers had
seen the fighter-bombers flying over them, Allyrian
troops and tanks had already surrounded them. They
were cut off.
      The Allyrian armour moved south into Estefan in
two seperate military thrusts; one down the western
side of the country, following the existing road, the
other coming from al Khufrah, out of the depths of the
sand seas in the east. The two pincers linked south of
the Tivesti, at Felatio - the dusty provincial capital in
the centre of Estefan - cutting the oil, the mountains,
the whole of north-eastern Estefan off from the rest of
the country. The troops were Allyria's best, the Islamic
      The Legion's commander, General Makhoun, was
in seventh heaven. He was the happiest man in Allyria.
He chuckled as he poured over his clean, simple,
efficient, military maps. He had given much thought
how to achieve surprise. He knew the Yankees had
satellites capable of photographing anything in the
desert, no matter how small. They would spot any
arms build-up. Hah! He was cleverer than that. Over
the course of three weeks, hundreds of tanks and
trucks had been mustered in the desert under huge
sand-coloured canopies near Qatrun, two hundred
kilometres north of the border with Estefan. Huge fuel
and stores dumps were gradually built up under cover.
The tank and truck engines were never started at
night, for fear of the thermal glow being picked up by
      From high in the air, never mind from space, the
force had been invisible. When the time came, the
tanks moved up overnight, and the American satellites
overhead were suddenly seeing hundreds of engine
hot-spots and sending useless pictures to Washington
in a panic.
      It was far too late. The Allyrian thrust crossed the
border in the early hours of the morning. There was no
opposition - there was no border. By mid-day, when
the oil men were making their break for the south, the
armoured column was already well ahead of them on
the same road, the only road south, half way to
      The invaders reached the garrison town by
nightfall, then waited for the easterly thrust to join them
before attacking. The town held out for precisely
seventeen and a half minutes. The Estefanians had no
answer to modern Allyrian T99 tanks and artillery, or
indeed to ancient tanks and artillery for that matter.
Estefanian soldiers resisted, but many from Zaire and
Nigeria surrendered without firing a shot. After the
appalling heat of the day, the Allyrians had control of
the north of the country by the afternoon. Then it was
just a question of mopping up. Units of the Islamic
Legion pushed down the main road to the south for
another ten miles, then stopped. The ring thrown
around the Tivesti, around the oil and the wealth, was
      It was all the Leader required.
      Those left in the Tivesti, inside the ring of
occupying troops in the desert, could be picked up at
will. The Estefanians and others who had been left to
garrison the area, cut off from help, could be left to
surrender or die in the heat. When he heard the news
that Felatio was his, in his bunker a thousand
kilometres north in Sifolis, the Leader wept.
     The plan had gone as if Allah himself had willed it.

      The oil workers driving south over the mountains
found the main road occupied by a column of tanks
and trucks that stretched as far as the eye could see.
It got even Mackenzie whispering. He, Carlisle and the
others debated what to do in the scorching heat, but
there was little to discuss. The one and only road to
the south had half the Allyrian army stretched along it.
They gave themselves up.
      The Islamic Legion had orders to treat captured
westerners with elaborate courtesy. Within two days,
all foreign workers, a thousand in all, had been
rounded up, washed, fed, and given a change of
clothes. They were transferred to trucks heading north
into Allyria. Even with the civility with which they were
treated, it was a nightmare journey. They had to cross
over a thousand kilometres of desert to reach Sifolis.
They were held in a military hospital prepared for the
purpose. The fate of the six thousand Estefanian
prisoners was not unkind either. They were held for
two weeks in camps around Felatio in the desert, with
food, water and medical attention. Then they were put
on trucks, this time heading south. The vehicles drove
to what had become the front line ten miles south of
town, then turned off south-east into the desert. The
massive convoy drove all night, then disgorged its
passengers north of Abeche, deep in Estefanian
territory. The prisoners were told to go home.
      The fate of troops leant from Zaire, Nigeria and
Zimbabwe was more cruel. A week after the invasion,
they were out of water, though they had not fired a
shot in anger. The Allyrians refused to take their
surrender and when troops approached to offer it, they
were fired on and driven into the desert. Most died
within a few days. The Leader had made his point.
Westerners and Estefanians he would treat with
respect. Mercenaries, even if there by invitation, he
would not.
      The Allyrians established positions on a line in the
desert running east-west through Felatio. Over thirty
thousand troops, with tanks, artillery and air support
begin to dig in along the line. The message; they were
there to stay. For the first time in six months, the
Leader - General Fallafi - was seen in public, speaking
to the masses from the balcony of the Palace in Sifolis.
The biggest crowd ever seen in the capital - half a
million - heard him announce the annexation of the
captured territory for all time. They cheered all day.
Several hundred people fainted.
      The Allyrian leader would not make the same
mistakes others had made years before. There would
be no human shields. The oil workers at the military
hospital were taken down to the port and put aboard a
cruise ship. The al-Senussi, flying the Allyrian flag, set
sail immediately, docking at Southampton four days
later, taking them home in a luxury few had ever seen
before. They were hard put to find much to complain of
when they walked off the ship to be greeted by families
and the swarms of reporters.
      Given this behaviour the British tabloid press
performed heroically in a blizzard of lies. There were
stories of looting, pillage, rape, murder and just about
every other offense in the capture of Felatio, with eye-
witnesses in unparalleled numbers, even though
Allyrian troops had been under pain of death to keep
discipline. Most news editors had never heard of
Felatio, in a geographical sense at least - most had
never heard of Estefan. They were not alone. An
opinion poll in the London Guardian found only half a
per cent of the population knew where the country
was. Alec Carlisle was pictured with his family, Kate
and the children, at home in leafy Ealing after his
appalling ordeal. He was paid £10,000 for the
exclusive. Though the stories continued about the rape
and pillage of westerners, there was no mention of the
Zairean and Nigerian troops who had helped garrison
northern Estefan. They vanished into the desert, and
were never heard of again.
     France, as the former colonial power, led off the
howls of protest. With an eye on satellite estimates of
the strength of the Allyrian force involved, she stopped
short of announcing military action herself. The French
UN ambassador called for an emergency session of
the Security Council. Forty eight hours after the
invasion, it met in New York. It unanimously
condemned the move as "naked and unprovoked
aggression" and called on Allyria to pull back to old
borders immediately. The Allyrians refused. Russia's
foreign minister announced he would fly to Tripoli the
following day, to convince the Allyrian leader to do as
the world demanded. General Fallafi refused to see
     The governments of France, Britain, the USA,
Germany, and Italy advised nationals in Allyria to leave
immediately. Almost all did so. They were not hindered
in any way. The Allyrians made extra aircraft available,
and flew them home free of charge.

     In Sifolis, an old man who was now a woman
knelt, giggling, by the grave of a young girl who would
have been a woman now, had she lived. His daughter.
     In a few months it would be the anniversary of her
death. Normally that would have been the day he
would have chosen to visit her grave, but he had
brought it forward this year. He could not have said
why, exactly. He knew he was a sick man, who had
embarked on a voyage of unparalleled danger. In his
more settled moments, when the pain was not so bad
and the thoughts of death not so prevalent, he would
grow frightened of the enormity of what he had set in
     Then he would think; stuff it – who cares anyway?
      The first emergency meeting to be held over the
crisis was not in the corridors of political power in
London, Paris or Washington. It wasn't at the United
Nations, or the Pentagon, or the Kremlin. It was held
that morning in the offices of BBC News in London.
The head of the service, a young, ambitious bald man
with braces and spectacles just too thick to be tasteful
chaired the meeting. The meeting was going to be
difficult. It was about pronunciation.
      "The main problems are the provincial capital of
northern Estefan, Felatio, and the Allyrian foreign
ministry spokesman, this Hasashite fellow. The
tabloids are having a field day, which is all very well for
them, but my presenters are falling apart under the
strain. The newsreaders cracked up last night during
the nine o'clock and it brought on an asthma attack
and the morning news teams aren't doing any better.
They can't stop laughing. There doesn't seem any way
round the problem."
      The head of the foreign pronunciation unit based
out at Caversham, roused from slumber only an hour
before and driven at break-neck pace to the meeting,
      "I'm afraid I cannot see one. Even if we stress the
first e in Felatio, the fact remains it's a soft t. The word
is said just as it is for the act. I cannot really sanction a
deliberate mis-pronunciation. Even if I did, you know
how many letters we're going to receive. All I can
suggest is always calling it just ‘the northern provincial
capital’. But people will want to know and we won't be
doing our job. There's also a town in southern Estefan.
It's called Kh'unt. Pronounced cunt. Hopefully nothing'll
happen there."
      "What about this bastard Hasashite?"
      "Possibly we can work with that. We can go to the
Allyrians and tell them our problem, though I can't see
them replacing him just for us. Just because some of
our news presenters are having fits. We can refer to
him always as just a foreign ministry spokesman -
though again when we get the pictures from Allyria
they have his name on."
      The chairman fought down rising panic. He had a
whole raft of news programmes scheduled for radio
and TV to go out in three hours, News 24 announcers
in a pitiful state hiding in the loos, and the rest of the
news gathering teams in hysterics.
      "Yes, but what about pronunciation? That's
supposed to be your job!"
      "There's no point having a go at me. I cannot
change the words just because they're difficult.
Hasashite we can work with. Huge stress on the first a,
which is technically correct anyway, and shove in a
double stress on the i to confuse things. HAsashi-ite.
That may at least put the viewers and listeners off the
track, though whether it's going to stop your presenters
laughing or not I can't say."
     The news editor rubbed his hands back across his
balding dome, his eyes on the floor, as if the hair that
was lost might have fallen down there.
     "Jesus, this is a nightmare. You don't get taught
about it at journalism school."
     "Of course you do," said the foreign editor.
"Remember the Zimbabwean President Banana?
Thatcher and Carrington warned Mugabe he'd be the
laughing stock but it didn't do any good. Then again,
Mugabe himself was Ebagum backwards, so what did
he care.? Banana didn't last long."
     "Well, Felatio certainly will. It's a fucking town.
What the hell are we going to do?"
     "The only thing you can do," said the
pronunciation editor. "Hide Hasashite behind
spokesman for the time being and Felatio behind
northern provincial capital. Then get all the presenters
and announcers in and have them chant the names
over and over again together until it's no longer funny."
     "If they do it together they'll all be in fits of
     "Initially, yes. But after a while it'll get boring. After
a while it just won't be funny any more."
     The news editor summoned into his mind the
picture of his entire front of camera staff in the
basement chanting Hasashite! and Felatio! together.
Christ! It wasn't funny now. The world really did seem
to be going mad. It wasn't what he had joined the BBC
for. There was silence around the room, apart from the
hum of the air conditioners.
    "Does anyone have anything else to contribute?"
he asked.
    The chief reporter couldn't keep the smirk from his
    "Let's hope the Koreans don't get involved. All we
need are a couple of Bum Suks now."
     Clouds of hypocrisy, cant and insincerity wafted
around the world. Fogs of deceit and pretence met
mists of lies and humbug.
     Everyone piled in.
     The British prime minister, deeply unpopular,
agreed to contribute an armoured division before the
Americans even announced they wanted one. The
French agreed to contribute troops to stop this armed
aggression, and turned over air bases and ports on the
French African coast (kept by armed aggression) to
the effort. With unnerving enthusiasm, Germany and
Japan fell over themselves to agree troops could be
used in a combat role for the first time since the
second World War. Everyone wanted in on the party.
Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Sudan all
expressed support, but would go no further. Middle
eastern states followed Egypt's lead in condemning
everything and everyone; the invasion, and the efforts
to combat it. The Russian foreign minister continued
his shuttle diplomacy to no effect whatsoever. After
two weeks, he had to check into hospital with
exhaustion. Having driven miles into Estefan, the
Allyrians would not move back an inch.
     All US embassies around the world went on full
terrorist alert, with most in the Middle east and Africa
closing for the duration of whatever would happen in
the desert. French and British embassies followed suit.
The military build-up in Estefan's desert remoteness
was a logistical triumph for the US Chief of Staff,
"Hellfire" Charlie Craig Johnson. Within a fortnight of
the decision to take action against Allyria, over forty
thousand men and four hundred tanks, artillery and
personel carriers had been sent. A rota of huge Galaxy
transport planes was arriving in Estefan around the
clock. The planes ferried in men, tanks, guns,
grenades, food, toothpaste, soap, tents, fresh water,
pornography, chemical loos, satellite phones, kitchens
and three mobile cinemas.
     Five US carrier battle groups, including the USS
Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan, stood to in the
Mediterranean north of Allyria to unleash an air
offensive to cripple the country's military infrastructure.
The Americans were planning a demonstration of their
prized tactical doctrine - Full Spectrum Dominance.
The enemy would be smashed and pulverized by air
strikes and carpet bombing before troops went in to
mop up any gibbering idiots still left alive. The doctrine
had worked in Iraq with ninety per cent effectiveness.
This time it would be total. All the latest additions to
the American war machine would be brought to bear.
Target selection cruise missiles, of unsurpassed
accuracy, would be used. Stealth fighters and ships
would destroy the Allyrian command and control
network without exposing themselves to risk.
Helicopter gunships, unmanned and controlled by
cameras, would knock out the army in the desert.
There would be cluster bombs, buster bombs, even
"daisy cutting" duster bombs. US forces on land, sea
and in the air would smash an enemy they didn't even
have to look at. The troops and tanks kept pouring into

     In Israel, the Knesset met to discuss the crisis.
     Mossad reported Fallafi had no missiles capable
of delivering a warhead of any size against Israel,
unlike Saddam in the Gulf War. Any threat, should it
come, would be terrorist in nature. Israeli embassies
and institutions around the world followed the
Americans in closing or moving to the highest security
alert. Israel sealed its borders with everyone.

     In Washington, the House of Representatives
voted to postpone the vote to impeach the President
on charges of abusing his office in the canvassing of
campaign funds from Indonesian businessmen. In a
time of national crisis, congressmen argued, such a
vote would be "inappropriate". The President's poll
ratings soared.

     Three weeks after the build-up had begun, the
offices of the French president and British prime
minister announced a news black-out over the
whereabouts of their respective heads of state. No
reason apart from "security" was given. It lasted two
days, and the media - already in a mad feeding frenzy
- went into overdrive.
     Both men had flown secretly to Washington. Once
the security screen was off, it was announced they had
gone for consultations on the situation in the Sahara.
     In fact the meeting had a rather more specific

   "Full Spectrum Dominoes? What the fuck are Full
Spectum Dominoes?"
   "Full Spectrum Dominance, Mr President. It
means the enemy's ability to hit back is completely
destroyed. Casualties on our side are minimised. We
can get them down to practically zero per cent.."
      "Why can't ya just say that, then? Full Spectum
      "Yes, Mr President."
      In the silent Oval Office, the three heads of state
sat around the conference table, accompanied by
ministers and advisors. The President was in light-
hearted mode. Yes indeed - his place in history was
beckoning. The British prime minister, earnest,
dominant, committed, more fundamental than the
fundamentalists, took the lead. His years in office had
aged him, so that he was no longer the fresh-faced
politician who had assumed power years before. His
hair had receded while deep lines ran down his thin,
wasted cheeks. Heavy shadows rested under both
eyes, though they still carried something of the
passion they had always had.
      "What strikes me, Mr President, is that we need to
be clear about what we mean to achieve by this build-
up and any campaign we enter into. We need a
political agenda." The French president, who spoke
perfect English but had chosen to have an interpreter
present, nodded but said nothing.
      The President looked from the Frenchman back to
the prime minister.
      "Political agenda? Don't you start. What the hell
does that mean? You mean we decide now whether
we just chuck the Allyrians out of Estefan, or whether
we go for this arsehole Fallafi himself and replace
      The Prime Minister winced. "Yes. Something like
that. There is the example of Iraq to wonder about."
      The President paused. His mind was already
made up on this one, and he would be calling the
shots anyway. No question. Didn't hurt to pretend to
have a discussion about it, though.
      "Perhaps you gentlemen - gentmun - would like to
have a look at these."
      He pushed sheets of paper over to the two
leaders. They had been prepared by the Pentagon,
using the most advanced computer programmes,
historical and current intelligence, and a fair bit of
guesswork. But they had been reasonably accurate in
the past. The two men studied their sheets. Much of it
was in the usual ludicrous Pentagon jargon, but the
figures were clear enough.
      Based on a given start date for bombing and
ground campaigns, with an air war of one month
before the ground campaign started, a strength of fifty
thousand combat troops, and the assumption of Full
Spectrum Dominance, the projected cost of throwing
the Allyrians out of Estefan to the old border was given
as $23 billion with casualties between one hundred
and fifty and two hundred men. Most would be killed by
friendly fire or natural wastage - disease or accidents.
Three US soldiers had already died in Estefan. Two in
a drunken road crash and one in a knife fight outside a
bar in the capital.
      Below these figures came those for the
occupation of Allyria, the deposing of Fallafi and the
installation of a sympathetic regime. The figures were
more dependent on guesswork and intuition, but they
were startling nonetheless. The campaign would last
two weeks longer and the cost would rocket to $50
billion, depending how long garrison troops stayed in
the country. Casualties were estimated at no more
than four hundred men, less than one per cent. The
President chuckled.
     "I don't understand the Pentagon mumbo jumbo
any more than you guys, but the figures speak for
themselves. They're great. Hell, press the right buttons
on the computer, we can go to Allyria, kick the bastard
out and come home with more of our boys than we
started with!"
     "That would indeed represent a startling
achievement," said the Secretary of State dryly.
     "Yeah, well. I don't need to tell you these figures
are speculative. There are variables - especially if we
had to take Sifolis and the coast cities by force. But I
don't think that'll happen. When the Allyrians see we
mean to go all the way, they'll get rid of Fallafi
themselves." He paused for a moment. "I gotta tell you
these figures incline me to a view I held before I saw
     "Which is?" the French president asked
laconically, in English.
     "We can dress it up as all part of the war on terror.
We've all suffered by this man. Terrorist - tourrist -
attacks, bombings, suicide bombers he sponsored. I
think we should get rid of him once and for all.
Terrorist - tourrist - leaders in future will know we mean
     "It'll be difficult to carry the UN on a full invasion,"
said the British prime minister.
     "Now we've started funding 'em again I can
always threaten to stop it. I'm prepared for that."
     The prime minister ran a hand through the
remnants of his hair.
     "My worry is this. Even if we threaten retaliation
for any use of chemical weapons; if we show our hand
- that we mean to topple Fallafi, and it will become
obvious sooner or later - he is more likely to go for
broke and use them anyway. What has he to lose?"
     The President nodded. "They have protection
against most agents. I don't think we can let the threat
of what he might do stop us doing what we want to do,
otherwise he's won already. I think we can ensure the
chemical and biological weapons are never used. We
may be needing your SAS boys for that."
     "You can have them, of course."
     The President smiled. "Then all I need from you
boys is a go-ahead. Do you want the oil or don't you?"
There was silence. Eventually, the President spoke.
He was anxious for a decision.
     "Do I have your agreement, boys? No deadlines,
in case he pulls out at the last minute and leaves us
stuck in the desert with our dicks out. And if we go in,
we go all the way to Sifolis."
     The "boys" looked at each other, then at the
President. The French President sniffed loudly, while
his British counterpart stared out of the window,
contemplating yet another war. Did they ever end?
     Very slowly, both began to nod.
     The President sat back and smiled.
      On the other side of the world, deep in the boiling
heat of the Sahara, Osman was finding the three
camels with him, a white female and two grey bulls,
were as distinct in their characters as any three
humans might be. Camels were like that.
      The white female was the youngest and strongest,
and the most eager to work and follow commands.
The younger of the bulls was smitten, crazy about her,
devoted to her. He followed moon-eyed wherever she
led. The older bull sulked and followed only at a
distance, looking disgusted with life. Osman knew it
would be the first to die, when the going got hard.
      He had walked for only a day, and already he was
having to fight the madness the bedu had warned of.
They had trained him in the ways of the desert, and
warned him the madness came very quickly. A strong
man who controlled his fears - and only a fool was not
frightened of the desert - would grapple with the
madness and subdue it, keeping it at bay but never
entirely banishing it. A weak man would be reduced to
a gibbering wreck within days. It was as well to be
      He walked through the heat of the late afternoon
sun as it died in the west, after resting through the
impossible inferno of the middle of the day. The
madness was gearing itself up, making its maximum
effort to capture him. Imagined sights, imagined
sounds, the constant absurd feeling of being watched,
even though he knew he was two hundred kilometres
from the nearest living thing, perhaps more. Osman
walked on and concentrated on the advice of the bedu
- calling up memories of his life to occupy his mind.
     There was much to fill it. The parting with Saddam
and those who had come to this place with him in
exile. The farewell with those he had lived with for the
past weeks, training him in the ways of the desert. The
parting with Badawi had been the most painful. He
knew it was unlikely they would meet again, even
though it was foolish to think of such things, and
Badawi, of course, had no idea of his mission. Both
men had wept. Like girls. Embarrassing, really.
     Just as there were things you should bring to
mind, there were things you should not, if you wished
to control your fears. Osman had placed the mission
he had embarked on in that category. Its enormity
weighed down on him, alone in the vastness, crushing
him. Instead he pictured the faces of those he had
stayed with the last two weeks, as they had trained
him to navigate in the Sahara. He found their faces
gave him comfort. They were harsh but kind people.
They had welcomed him even though they had no idea
of what he was setting out to do, and would not have
cared a fig had they known.
     He was following the ancient caravan route from
oasis to oasis across the vast and empty desert,
through which he would have to walk over a thousand
kilometres. The route would take him from his starting
point deep in the sand seas of south eastern Allyria on
a course to hit the point where the borders of three
countries all met, at the well of Ain Murr. At times there
was a track to follow, though for most of its length it did
not exist, covered by sand storms and forgotten.
     From Ain Murr he would alter his bearing to walk
directly east along a line in the sand drawn by the
imperialists a hundred years before - another
meaningless border between two countries only
created by people who had ruled over them and then
left. Then he would turn north-east, to follow the line of
ancient wells - two hundred kilometres apart - that led
to the great oasis at el Kharga, with the Nile a few
days walk from there. He would have entered Egypt
without any risk of discovery, unobserved by man or
beast. And what he carried with him would be safe.
      He did not fear death, for he was a man of faith
and he was not afraid to be taken by Allah. But he was
afraid of failure. He wanted martyrdom, but most of all
he wanted vengeance for his family, for his parents
and for his sisters, who had died at the hands of the
infidels. The Koran said that making war on them and
seeking vengeance were holy things, and so he
wanted them with all his heart. But when he allowed
himself to think of his hatred he found, absurdly, that
his pace would speed up and the camels would bleat
in protest and he would have to think of something
else. Patience, the bedu had said. Patience was the
only way to survive in the desert.
      He walked on over the sand and shale, looking for
the jagged escarpment that would appear on his left,
which the bedu had told him to look for. He would take
a bearing from it that would decide his direction the
next day.
      He followed the compass without diverting or
faltering - another discipline his tutors had insisted on -
and got to the escarpment late in the evening. He
reached it hours after he had expected to. The walking
in the desert was hard - the sand absorbed so much of
the energy put into each step - so his progress would
always be less than he thought it should be. And while
he was a fit, strong man, it had been years since his
days in the army, with the endless marches and
parade ground drill. He would get used to the physical
effort, and even the heat, but it would take time.
      He settled the camels in the lee of the escarpment
and gave them food and water taken from packs on
the older bull's back. Yet another lesson - the camels
first, only then yourself. Next to the camels he pitched
his tent quickly, and made a small fire with dried wood
he had also brought with him. He made tea in the
nomad style, thick and treacle sweet. He ate olives
and bread and dried fruit and sat in the open end of
the tent, staring out at the desert that surrounded him.
By now it was dark and cold, and he shivered as he
went to collect his coat from one of the packs. If
anything, the desert was more frightening under the
night sky, with the stars and moon overhead picking
out the alien surface, a wasteland.
      Osman busied himself with unloading the camels
for the night. He had already distributed the packs
according to the differing characters of those who
would be his companions over the lonely weeks. The
young female, the strongest and most willing, had the
most important, for she carried the bombs he was
taking to Europe. The two devices - a smaller
demonstration device and the larger, final weapon,
were carried in a metal suitcase that looked similar to
the sort photographers carried cameras in. The bombs
sat in thick foam rubber, which insulated them and was
cut to their shape, making movement impossible. Even
if dropped from some height, they would be safe until
armed. The suitcase also contained his radio and a
small transmission encryption device. On this he could
record and speed up a coded message, which the
radio would send as one single screech, barely a
second long. It was old fashioned, but reliable. In
another pack the camel carried his weapons and
ammunition; two Glock automatic pistols, both
silenced. On full automatic fire with the larger
magazine and silencer detached the Glock doubled as
a crude sub-machine gun. Like the radio, it was old
fashioned but reliable. With the pistols, he had a
fighting knife and grenades. And ten thousand dollars
in cash.
      The younger bull carried his food and clothing and
tent. Enough food for two months in the desert, if he
was careful, though he did not intend to walk that long.
The two leading camels also carried the water, though
this would have to be replenished along the way. The
older bull carried more food and water, the camel's
own fodder and, since it was already the slowest,
nothing more.
      Osman unpacked the animals, checking they
were tethered, dumping the food and water bottles
beside the tent and pushing the guns and the metal
suitcase inside. It was absurd to be so cautious, he
knew, for apart from the airfield at Al Kufrah there was
probably no man within three hundred kilometres of
him, but he found it comforting nonetheless. He settled
himself inside the tent and prepared for sleep.
      Of course, it did not come easily - another thing
warned of by the nomads.
      His mind, starved of nourishment through the long
day under the sun, now refused to switch off. Images
raced through his conciousness, of the final goodbyes,
of the film he had been shown - experiments
conducted on animals and humans with the agent. The
silence of the desert pressed down on him like weight,
though it was alleviated by the grunts and snorts of the
camels outside, who seemed to be talking to
themselves. He was grateful for their company. When
his mind did begin to slow and rest, he had to go
outside and relieve himself, and the bitter cold woke
him again. Only after an hour of staring into the
blackness inside the tent did sleep come.
      Even then, it seemed, he would be granted no
rest, for the madness could find you there as well. He
dreamed as he often did, of his sisters. The dream
seemed to have a commentary running through it, his
father reciting passages from the Koranic Surahs, very
far away, his voice faint. Osman was running through
the streets of Tikrit, his childhood. He was running
home to his family, and there was something very
wrong, though he did not know what it was. He only
felt a blinding panic, and an awareness already of the
despair and longing that somehow he knew was to
come. He ran on through the souk, where as a boy he
had been forbidden to go, past shops and cafes.
      When he got to where his house should have
been there was nothing. No house, nor any sign one
had ever existed. His family had disappeared. His
parents, his sisters, his brother Badawi with his silly
Sudanese name mocked by the other boys. He was
alone and filled with despair and hatred. The hatred
made it better, for it was less corrosive than fear or
sadness. And when he woke in the morning, he woke
happy, for at last he could do something about it.
      He woke with a start nevertheless, filled with
confusion over his new surroundings. The cold of the
dawn was a wonder, with the light of the sun only
beginning to light the sky to the east.
     He attended to the camels first, giving them water
and food, before re-packing the cases on their backs.
The camels looked at him with bright, lively eyes - they
had realised already he was not a cruel master. Life
was good.
     He washed his eyes with a trickle of water, then
used the same water to boil rice for his breakfast. It
was used again to make tea. Both tea and rice were
sweetened with sugar, and eaten with dried fruit. When
he was done, he packed up the cooking utensils and
the tent, and took a bearing from the escarpment and
the sun.
     He was an adaptable and a strong man, and the
loneliness of the desert was already beginning to
trouble him less. It was still frightening, and would
always be so. But he was no longer terrified. He knelt
on his prayer mat and gave the first of the five
incantations he would give that day, as every other. He
untethered the camels, packed up his mat, and began
to walk.
     It was difficult at first, but got easier. The camels
behind took time to find his pace and modify their own
gangling stride to match it. When they did, he found he
forget about them. He could empty his mind of all
things except the happiness what he was doing
brought him.
     The sun came up, with the first indications of the
fearsome heat to come. Soon it would be a furnace.
He would walk only until it got too bad, then rest
through the worst of it, until the afternoon. It was the
best way to conserve energy. Every few hundred yards
he sipped at his water bottle, just wetting his mouth
with the liquid. The ground was difficult, with steep
slopes between the ridges and thick sand and no rock,
but after an hour it became easier, with patches of
flatness and shale. Several times he thought he saw
movement around him, which was impossible. He did
his best to ignore it.
     He walked on over the desert, thinking of the
     He had no doubt he would be able to do the thing
asked of him. The fact the devices would kill many
people was of no relevance to Osman. It was the will
of Allah - his command. He, Osman, would do his best
to carry out the orders given to him. If Allah did not
wish it done, Allah would ensure he was killed before
he could complete his mission.
     It was not for him to question fate.
      It is the summer when London's highest
temperature reaches forty five degrees and 7,000
people die in the heatwave.
      It is the summer of Mike Cohen's nightmare.
      It is a Sunday, the heat is murderous yet again
and London has gone stark staring mad. Anti
globalisation protesters are rampant and skin-headed,
jack booted English nationalists are targetting them in
turn. Islamic fundamentalists are plotting suicide
bombings, resurgent Irish republicans are plotting
suicide bombings, and not to be outdone, animal rights
activists are in the middle of a spate of suicide
bombings. Global warming protestors are having a
field day in the heat, screaming I told you so at anyone
who'll listen. Road rage and gridlock are mushrooming
across the capital. A fuel price protestor, enraged at
unleaded petrol reaching £2.00 a litre, has set himself
on fire (using white spirit of course).
      And Mike Cohen has gone shopping. Even six-
foot two, thirty-seven year old MI5 agents with a wife
and a seven year old son have to buy a kettle from
time to time. Cohen's had blown up that week and
today - Sunday - is his day off.
      Cohen is sitting sipping a latte outside a cafe on
Oxford Street. Even in London's consumer centre
there is some sort of demonstration going on. A group
of what look like fox hunting types are walking down
the street - about thirty or forty in all. Men and women,
most of them looking about sixty, dressed in tweeds
and sensible shoes. Cohen tries to suppress a smile.
From their placards he can see they are part of
something calling itself the Keep Sunday Special
campaign. Most of their placards are protesting
against rampant consumerism with a smattering of
Christian messages and anti-abortion slogans thrown
in. A grand total of two bored looking policemen
accompany them.
     No-one is taking the slightest notice of them, and
that is when alarm bells start to go off in Cohen's mind.
At the back of the demonstration comes an old man of
at least seventy, carrying a cross. Across the front of
the cross is printed in garish red letters Stop Spending
and Start Praying and at the back of the cross is
printed Suicide is a Mortal Sin. The old man is wearing
a coat, despite the fearsome heat, and the coat bulges
ridiculously and is obviously hiding something. Twice
he looks over his shoulder. He does not look at Cohen,
but Cohen is becoming uneasy without even knowing
     Then there is something else wrong. The old man
detaches himself from the demonstration and walks
towards a crowd of frenzied shoppers coming in and
out of one of London's most successful department
stores, driven mad by the heat and the mid-summer
sales. He walks straight into the centre of the crowd
with a huge grin on his face and waving his banner in
the air.
     Then he disappears in a cloud of blood and bone
and dust and cloth. He has blown himself up.
     Those around him absorb most of the blast, dying,
and Cohen is hurled 50 feet back by the explosion.
The suicide bomb kills twenty four, and Cohen spends
two weeks in hospital. He dreams about it often and
always he thinks; Keep Sunday Special? - fuck that...
      The alarm clock woke him at dawn.
      Cohen woke suddenly, with a start of fear, his
heart pounding like a trip hammer, but the cool of the
dawn bought no sound. Through the window, the
morning light began to creep in, and the fear subsided.
      There was no sound from Finlay's room next door.
Cohen got up and went through to the kitchen. While
he waited for water to boil, he chewed his nails and
ached for a cigarette. He sat at the table and sipped at
the coffee, trying to make his mind function at even
half speed. He went through for a shower. Hot, then
icy cold. By the time he got out, he was awake. He
dressed quickly in dark suit and white shirt, his pistol
underneath the jacket in a shoulder holster. Jacket and
trousers did not quite match. Carter, his boss, had
once asked him if he had a suit.
      "Yes," Cohen had replied.
      "Why don't you wear it?" Carter had asked.
      "I am wearing it," Cohen replied.
      Finlay began to stir in bed. Cohen padded in bare
feet across to his son's room. He lay with arms and
legs outstretched, taking up as much room as possible
- a trick learnt from his mother. Cohen kissed him.
      "Morning, son. You sleep OK?" Cohen asked.
      Finlay nodded. "You won't be late tonight?" The
seven year old was doing his best to reverese the
relationship with his father. "You are going to try and
get home on time this time."
      Cohen's in-laws were celebrating their wedding
anniversary. It had been planned weeks ago.
      Cohen laced his shoes on his son's bed. "I won't
be late. Promise."
     Jo had woken up and was standing in the
     "And you will wear a tie for them, even if you won't
for anyone else?"
     "And you won't drink too much?" Jo pulled back a
lock of hair and stared at him.
     "We shall see."
     The last time Cohen's in-laws had visited, he had
been out with a colleague whose wife had given birth
to twins. Not a great drinker, he had come back
unconscious. His parents in law had never approved of
their daughter marrying a "policeman", as they called
him, and since then they had viewed him with even
greater suspicion.
     "Everything will be all right. Trust me. What do you
think I am? An alcoholic?"
     He bent and kissed his wife. He was looking
forward to the evening, for he got on well with her
parents, despite their disapproval, which he rather
enjoyed and knew was caused by fear rather than
snobbery. His own parents had died years before. It
would be a nice evening.
     Downstairs, he left the apartment block and
walked to his car. The block was an ex-council block
on the edge of Wimbledon Common south of the city.
He took a deep breath and allowed the old instincts to
take over. The day had begun, and there were rules to
     He looked around, scouring the complex for the
unfamiliar. There was nothing. As he got to the car he
took his keys from his pocket and dropped them on the
floor by the driver's door. It looked accidental, but gave
him the excuse to get down on one knee and scan the
underside of the car. Nothing again. The tiny piece of
tape attached to door and body had not come unstuck.
      Cohen got in and drove off into the early morning
      MI5 headquarters was a monumental office block
in the centre of the city by the river. Only when Cohen
drove into the underground car park did it begin to look
different from hundreds of others. Uniformed guards
examined his identity card in minute detail, while
others pushed trolleys with mirrors under the car. He
had to give details of his home, family and his
password. The process took nearly ten minutes - a
ritual every morning to welcome the day ahead.
Eventually he made it to the office on the fourth floor.
A room with bulging filing cabinets, a computer and
files, and a diseased pot plant clinging grimly to life in
the corner. He shared the office with Eric Hoffman, a
former schoolteacher fluent in Arabic.
      "Is it?"
      Hoffman was sipping his first coffee. There would
be a million others. The two men had worked together
for three years, sometimes spending days at a time
together on some stake-out or other, living in each
other's pockets. They liked each other. Hoffman had
come to Cohen's for supper the previous week, and Jo
had liked him. Like many men with violent lives, he
loved children.
      "How's Jo and Finlay?"
      Cohen would trust Hoffman with his life, but felt
uncomfortable with his family meeting him. He wanted
to keep his family separate from work. That was why
he had married Jo. If he was going to fight dirty wars,
he wanted something clean to come back to at night.
He looked at Hoffman.
     "She's decided you're one of the family. Hope
your bank balance is healthy."
     Hoffman shrugged.
     "A shame one so young should suffer such
     The daily department briefing was held in a
conference room at the top of the building. Most of the
agenda was routine, with Cohen, Hoffman, and other
agents giving progress reports on surveillances they
were running and what agents in the field were
reporting. Most of the work was surveillance, although
a few times Cohen had carried out more active roles,
which was the service euphamism for killing people.
Now more of his work was office bound. It didn't make
him feel cleaner, but the hours were a lot better. More
9 to 5 than MI5.
     Carter, the MI5 chief, spoke at the end of the
     "One thing I want everyone to look at is Allyria.
Mossad thinks Fallafi may be planning to make a
move on us as some sort of diversion from what's
going on in the desert and the American build-up. Any
military move doesn't concern us yet, but it could have
repercussions. If he succeeds in getting his hands on
the oil, he may flex his muscles with more funding for
al-Qeada. If he fails, he might fall, especially if the
Americans move against him. Could be good for us, or
bad. It might provoke a general increase in activity
which draws us in, or it might quieten things down.
Either way, we need to keep tabs on any activity."
      "So the Yanks are definitely going in?" Hoffman
      Carter nodded.
      "Yup. And good old poodle Britain will be right up
their arses as usual. Which means we are going to be
in it up to our neck. If there's a shit sandwich going
around, we'll all be taking a big bite. So get going."

      Cohen did office work, had a sandwich with
Hoffman, then drove south out of the city. He drove
past his own home, then continued for another twenty
miles to Crawley. It took him three hours. Crawley was
not the sort of place you would normally drive three
minutes to get to, being a collection of hideous
housing estates and worse offices, but it had one thing
in its favour - a large immigrant community.
      It was here he would meet three of his informants.
      They were all Moslem, all with links to al-Qeada.
The meetings took place every week, although there
were emergency procedures if one had to be changed
or brought forward if information was urgent. He met
the first two in a park in the north of the town. The
third, and most important, he met at a safe house in
the south of the city. The man was Cohen's oldest
contact. He had run him for two years, having handled
the blackmailing operation that entrapped him. A
typical informer - conceited, arrogant, weak, insecure
and dissolute. Now the man was a heroin addict, and
depended on the five hundred pounds a week Cohen
paid him.
      Cohen loathed him, but was forced to minister to
his needs like the most attentive of lovers. His
information had stopped bombings in the past.
    His name was Yasif al-Soun. His brother, Farsi al-
Soun, was the leading al-Qeada operative in southern
England. He was the man who had gone to meet
General Fallafi's secret police chief Abdul Salam in
Cairo the month before.
    Yasif al-Soun was about to earn his keep.
      Two thousand miles south of them, back in the
Allyrian capital Sifolis, the scientist Omar Meheishi sat
alone in his study, drenched in his own weak and
indecisive sweat, willing himself to take an action that
would change his weak and indecisive life. The
windows and curtains of the room were closed, even
though it was not cold and the sun had not yet
dropped over the horizon.
      The computer stared at the bio-chemist
      Well, it seemed to say. What are you going to do?
Not much I can do on my own, you know.
      Meheishi was terrified; the idea that had come into
his mind so appalling even the thought of it set his
heart beating. He had to breathe with shuddering
gasps to get it under control. He hoped his heart was
strong, for it did not feel like it could take much more of
this. Then he wondered if that might not be a relief.
      He had not slept for weeks, not properly. Not
since the meeting with the Leader in Sifolis, when the
man he both reviled and worshipped had made his
astonishing, terrifying revelation. Ever since, the words
had echoed around his head, to such an extent that he
could no longer be sure he had not imagined them.
The tests in the desert had left no room for doubt.
They had simulated not battlefield conditions, but
those of unprotected civilians. Meheishi had not been
able to hide the truth anymore. The Leader meant to
hold the world to ransom.
      That had been a week ago, and the nightmares
had started. Piles of the dead, colonies of the dead,
entire cities of dying and tortured people. All of them
staring at him and none too pleased about the whole
business. And always behind them, the sad, watchful
eyes of his long-dead son, looking at his father with
shame and despair, betrayed. Meheishi could feel the
boy's eyes on him now, a physical presence in the
     And the computer was still staring at him. Come
on, my son.
     This is what it is like to make yourself mad, he
thought. This is what it is like to lose your mind. And
immediately another thought; and he was more
frightened than ever.
     I could do something about it.
     That thought was why he now sat alone, shaking,
in his study with the curtains drawn, having pleaded
illness and asking to be driven back from the complex
early. That was why he sat staring at the computer, his
one possible contact with the outside world. That was
why his eyes kept straying to the picture of his son on
the bookshelf above him. The boy stared at him,
urging him on. He had the house to himself. Raisa was
collecting the girls from school, and there was no
sound from the guards outside. The two plain-clothes
Mukhabarat men - ordered there by Abdul Salam -
continued to sit in their car up the street and watch
with their dead fish eyes.
     He raised a hand like a blind man but it was
shaking so much he could not control it.
     Come on, the computer urged him. You can do it.
     Meheishi wanted to vomit. He had no real idea of
what he would do, except to try, somehow, to warn
somebody of the madness to be unleashed. Who? He
knew nobody in the outside world. There had been
people at conferences he had attended, mainly in
Europe, when he had been under cover and
accredited as anything other than Allyrian. Even then
he had known no-one, mixed with no-one, allowed no-
one even to know his real name. Always, he had been
watched. He pulled his hand back from the keyboard
and told himself to think. He was an educated, logical,
sometimes brilliant man. This was a problem which
could be solved, like any other. He wondered if he
should consult Raisa and reveal all to her? Absurd.
She would be appalled.
     It took an hour, staring into space, but the seeds
of an idea began to come.
     Not much of an idea, the computer said. But it's
     From the bookshelf he selected a volume he had
noticed earlier. A standard text by an acknowledged
world authority on bio-chemical media analysis,
published three years ago. He had even met the
author, at a conference in Luxembourg before that,
just before he had gone to work at the complex, when
no further foreign trips were allowed. The author would
certainly not remember the nervous scientist he had
talked to - even Meheishi could not remember the
name or nationality he had used. But Meheishi
remembered him. Hard not to, when you considered
his expertise and the country he came from, so long
the enemy of Meheishi's own. He turned to the flyleaf
of the book, which gave details of the author's career,
including his post when the book had been published -
Professor of Bio-Chemical Engineering at the
University of Haifa. The picture showed a thin,
aquilline but intelligent face. He would be nearly sixty
     There were so many imponderables. Had the man
moved? Would he believe a word of the message
Meheishi would send? Would he have the sort of
contacts with the Israeli government that might put the
information to use? Would he try and trace the
message, and compromise Meheishi?
     Questions, questions. Could he tell the man
enough to persuade him and the Israelis this was not a
hoax? Probably not. He knew nothing of the plan the
Leader had in mind, except that it existed, it was real.
That the agent would be used against London
somehow. With a missile? A bomb dropped from a
plane? Carried by a diplomat? Smuggled in? He knew
     I’m waiting, said the computer.
     Would he be believed? Probably not. The man
would think it a hoax, at least at first. He could include
technical language in the message that few would
have access to. That might help. Other questions,
always other questions. Would the Israelis, if the man
passed the message on, try to contact him? How
would they know who to contact? He only knew that if
they did try, it would double the risks of discovery. And
what if he were believed? The Israelis might send
nuclear missiles in a panic immediately. He would
have traded one city's destruction for another's. His
own capital city - his own people.
     Come on mate, just do it, said the computer.
     And what if he were discovered? As head of the
chemical programme, Meheishi was allowed access to
the Internet unsupervised. It was necessary for his
work, he had told the security and government officers
who had interviewed him for the post, to keep up to
date with research that was not classified by countries
conducting it. This had proved to be precious little, but
the computer still stood in front of him. At the complex,
all use of the Internet was under the strictest
supervision, usually by himself with the facility's head
of security. His use of the Internet here was probably
monitored too. He had no way of knowing.
     For this difficulty at least, there might be an
answer. Six years before, he had taught a course at
the University of Sifolis. It would be a simple thing to
hack into the computer there and make contact with
the Internet via that. If he sent his message, then
destroyed his own computer so its programmes could
not be read, it should not be traceable to him. Only to
the University.
     It was not much protection, but it was something.
     He could destroy the computer in ways that might
not arouse suspicion. Dropping coffee into its electrical
circuits; knocking it into a bathtub. Things like that
happened all the time. Wasn't he a mad scientist?
Such things were practically expected of you!
     Fuck off, said the computer.
     Then at least he would have done something to
warn the outside world. And he might even live through
     He would have done something.
     The time had spent thinking the problem through
had calmed him. He did not wish to betray his country,
but he could see no alternative. The people had been
whipped into hysteria with the invasion in the south.
Mad with fervour, they were like Western football
hooligans, drunk. They would accept war with anyone,
anywhere, war with everyone, everywhere! Come and
have a go! We'll take you all on! It was clear the
Americans could not now back down from their own
demands. Neither side could lose face, and so an
entire city - London - might be destroyed in the
     His son, it was his son who mattered.
     His gentle, wise son would have wanted him to do
something to end this madness. There was not much
time, for Raisa would be home soon. Meheishi
reached forward to switch the computer on.
     Bloody hell, it said. I was only kidding.
       In Washington as the crisis mounted, in a manner
of speaking so did the President.
       Oh, this one was hot! A stunning little cream and
gold tart. Blonde hair falling to broad shoulders,
sparkling eyes, full mouth and fuller chest and the
cutest, tightest arse you could wish for. Even in jeans
and sweat shirt, she oozed. A politics major from
Massachussetts, campaigning and sex seeping out of
every pore. She would do it on the desk, in the limo, in
a cupboard or a hallway, she would do it anywhere.
Hell, on the map table in the situation room last week
she’d done it over most of South-east Asia! There was
nothing she hadn't done and even less she wouldn't
try. She used up men and spat them out like sunflower
seeds. But not him - hell - he was the President. She
was the latest in a long line of mistresses. He had
resisted for – well, almost an hour, but it had been a
one-sided battle and he had gone down willingly. She
knew she was what he wanted. There had been many
before her. Most of them, used to the late nights and
sweaty rooms of the campaign trail with their grubby
friends, were speechless college girls when they met
him. They stared in wonder at the circular office,
shuddered at the proximity of history, inhaled the
power. They were breathless. But it hadn't touched
       Even this did not touch her.
       He stuffed it into her from behind, pushing her
head hard down on the desk like some cheap Times
Square hooker, dress rucked up around her pretty pink
little arse. Still there was a part of her untouched, a
part he could not reach. She stayed silent, even when
he couldn't stop himself groaning. Silent, frightening,
something dangerous. And that made him want her
more. It had been going on for two months now and he
had no idea how it would end.
    And then, as he began to come and she pulled
away from him and turned to take him in her mouth, he
could think of nothing...

     She left in minutes, of course. No talk of the future
or where they were "going" or any of that crap. She
wouldn't have been interested anyway. She was too
good for that. Just the same assurance that had driven
him mad in the first place. Made him desperate to
know her. He sat at his desk and tried to concentrate
as he worked his way through papers and tried to
ignore the wet feeling in his pants.
     There was a knock at the door. Without thinking
he called out, only then remembering he had not
unlocked the door. He got up and crossed the room
hurriedly. It was his personal secretary with the Chief
of Staff. He did not look at the latter's face, knowing
too well the sardonic look that would be on it.
     "Just to go over the diary for this afternoon, Mr
President. Chief of Staff has this week's polls for you."
     The secretary - a mincing faggot who
unfortunately was efficiency personified - informed him
there would be a meeting with legal advisors that
afternoon. Afterwards he would receive a delegation of
party workers hard at it - from California this time - and
prepare for a reception at the French embassy that
evening, where he and the First Lady were the guests
of honour.
     When the secretary had gone, he was left with the
Chief of Staff.
     Robert Lawrence had the imperious look of so
many moral majority politicians from the South. Holier
than thou. Holier than everyone. Holier than God,
probably. About the only thing he had lost was the
     "More of the same, Mr President. Your rating goes
up as the party's goes down. But those agreeing to
impeachment has gone from fifty seven per cent to
twenty two per cent. That's good. Congress will have
the figures tomorrow. The figure for respondents
worried about personal morality has dropped to twenty
four per cent. Oh, and you'll like this one. The figure
for voters who think we govern too much according to
what the poles say has dropped forty per cent. But the
figure for those worried about the Indonesian
allegations has gone way up to seventy two per cent.
The Washington Post article did that."
     Lawrence handed the sheet of paper over. "We
know the Indonesian thing is bullshit. So does
Congress. But the public don't, and that's what
Congress will be interested in."
     He looked at his boss and smiled without warmth.
     You never learn, he thought to himself. Even with
the glaring example of your predecessor. Even with a
Congress that had decided, after doing nothing for 150
years, to impeach every goddam thing in sight.
     Four years, and you still haven't learnt a thing.
     The President nodded. "Congress won't be
interested in polls now. But it cuts both ways. If my
rating's up, that will deter 'em from going down the
impeachment road."
     "For the time being," Lawrence said. "As long as
we don't get any more... morality issues creeping in."
     "Robert." The President smiled. He could be
charming when he wanted to be. Despite their
tensions, the two had been friends for a long time.
Unheard of in Washington, where if you wanted a
friend, you got a dog, as the President had done. They
even looked alike. The Hill knew them as the
"brothers", harking back to a more simple age. The
Chief of Staff shrugged, giving up on a lost cause.
     "The Secretary of State will be back from Berlin
tomorrow. He can brief you on how things went with
the Europeans."
     "Anything new?"
     "Very little. The Brits want you to visit Northern
Ireland again - things are going from bad to worse
again - fucking Micks. They're going to join this
European currency thing by the end of the year. Can't
afford not to. The Germans are still worried about
unemployment. Nothing much else. Just Allyria."
     "Allyria's gonna be a cakewalk, don't you worry
about it." The President smiled. Lawrence always
made him want to sound facetious. It was the man's
seriousness that told you he knew , he just knew, it
should be him in the Presidency.
     Lawrence looked at him gravely.
     "Don't even go there, Mr President. Jokes upset
people. Like the time you said we were planning an
internment camp on the moon to replace Guantanamo.
On the moon, for Christ’s sake! What was it? Camp
     The President stared at his friend dully. The camp
would go active next year. Cargo bays carried out on
inumerable secret shuttle flights and landed on the
moon – conditions a little, well, cramped. But space for
300 al-Qeada fighters! They wouldn’t be doing the US
any harm in a hurry. No, sir. Not stuck out on the
fucking moon…
     “Bob, that wasn’t a joke…”

     Later it was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs' turn
to annoy him.
     "The northern Allyrian coast is a target-rich
environment, Mr President. US and Brit special forces
have been carrying out ordinance-intensive TALO's
and RALO's to debilitate enemy assets as part of the
drive to Full Spectrum Dominance."
     "What the fuck are you talking about?"
     "Er... they've been blowing things up, Mr
President. Enemy things. TALO stands for tactical air
land operation."
     "You mean they landed somewhere and blew
something up?"
     "Yes, sir."
     "Why don't you just say that, then?"
     "Sorry, Mr President."
     Jesus, what was wrong with these people?
Couldn't they speak English?
      In the ancient and unchanging desert on the other
side of the world, the old bull went triumphantly lame
thirty kilometres from the mountain, where the borders
of three countries met. The borders were meaningless
lines drawn by infidels on maps long ago, but the
mountain was real enough.
      The camel had been well in the morning, though
he drifted behind sulking and miserable and
complaining as usual, but after they rested through the
heat of the day, he developed a limp and started to fall
back further. Osman loosened his tether and let him
go free. Despite his isolation in the domestic
arrangements of the camels, he would follow the
others until he could go no further - he would not want
to be left behind. Osman had transferred his load
      By nightfall, they were approaching the base of
Jeb Uweinat, two thousand rocky metres high. The
well was the other side of the mountain, perhaps
another fifteen kilometres away, perhaps twenty.
Osman had wanted to reach it by nightfall, but he also
wanted to give the camel a last chance. Its right front
foot was hugely swollen, and it was looking older and
even more miserable than usual. He made camp for
the night at the base of the mountain.
      He had been walking for a week through the
desert now and had covered over three hundred
kilometres. The days had assumed a rhythm of their
own and he found the physical strain less and less
taxing. The madness had receded, as he had been
told it would, and what was left was an all-pervading
loneliness that made him think of his family more and
more often. He would spend hours walking across the
sand under the sun, reliving his childhood, savouring
the minutest details. Many times he would be brought
up with a start, realising he had quite forgotten where
he was or what he was doing. Many times he had
forgotten his prayers, and had had to ask for
forgiveness, for the desert was timeless and it was
impossible to remember when to offer them.
      His stocks of food were plentiful still, for himself
and the camels, but water was more worrying. He
drank five litres a day, and by now he was reliant on
hitting the well at Ain Murr, and the well yielding
drinkable water. If it did not, he would die. He thought
this in an abstract frame of mind, finding the prospect
curious rather than frightening.
      From Ain Murr, the next well was due east, more
than two hundred kilometres away, at Bir Misaha.
From there he would turn north-east, to Bir Sahara a
hundred and fifty kilometres further on, and Bir Tarfawi
another fifty kilometres from that. Then would come
the great oasis at El Kharga another three hundred
kilometres on, and the Nile, and Egypt proper would
be only days away.
      His enemies would be only days away.
      The prospect was daunting, but his progress was
now automatic and without conscious effort. Instead
he thought of the past. Most of the memories were
painful, in their different ways. For so many years now,
his brother and his master had been his family, and
the memories of both were sad.
      He and Badawi had fought with each other as
boys, as boys do, until their father had grown tired of
the noise and had beaten both of them until they
howled. He and Badawi had grown up together,
fighting and playing, and then, during the endless war
with the Iranians, they had gone off to war together.
      That had been when he had first known real fear.
      The brothers and their unit had sat shivering in a
freezing trench on the outskirts of Fau, near the
peninsula, an oil town in the south of Iraq he had never
seen before. The people around the town were Shias
and hated Saddam's army. They had more in common
with the troops the army was defending them from, the
invading Iranians. And the army itself hated all soldiers
from Tikrit, the Rais' own town, and so Osman and his
brother were unpopular there too. The Iranians had
attacked, again and again, and had driven the Iraqis
out, and Osman had never forgotten the sight of them.
Tens of thousands of men, screaming lunatics, some
barefoot and without rifles or even any weapons at all,
running at the Iraqis. They had not cared that they
would die, for they welcomed martyrdom. Tens of
thousand of them had died. But the others came on
and on.
      It had taken Osman many years to acquire the
same view of death.

     In the morning, skirting the mountain, he set off
for the final stretch to the well.
     Very soon the older bull was failing again. He fell
behind almost immediately. Osman continued on until
the sun was almost overhead and it was too hot. The
old camel was by then only a speck on the horizon,
following faithfully but miserably and slowing up ever
more as its leg grew too painful. It took two hours to
reach them. When it reached them Osman gave it
extra food and water, but the camel would not eat.
      When the sun had finally passed overhead hours
later, it was time for the last stretch to the well. Osman
led the old bull, hobbling painfully, to a small dry
watercourse that formed a dip in the ground. The
camel stood silently, eyes dulled by misery and pain.
Its leg was hugely swollen and distended. If it followed
them further, it would have to stop anyway, for it would
be too painful to move. Osman looked at the camel
and stroked its ears, and then shot the animal through
the head with his pistol. There was a dry thud of the
silencer absorbing the crack of the shot and a heavier
one as the camel collapsed to its knees, stupefied, and
toppled into the ditch as it died.
      Osman felt sad. It was impossible not to have
feeling for the animal. After so long with it as one of his
only companions it was difficult not to weep.
      He and the other two beasts walked on. If another
of them went lame, it would present him with serious
problems with the water he could carry, but for the
moment he was safe. As he continued over the higher
ground in the lee of the mountain, his feet crunching
on loose gravel, there came an alien sound and he
looked up, shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun.
An aeroplane, far to the south, very low and heading
west. A jet. Probably American, he thought, this far
east. He had no fear of being seen, for the pilot would
see a lonely nomad with his two camels, dressed in
bedouin robes and sandals, a scene as timeless as
the desert itself. He did not feel fear, but he felt his
chest tighten with hatred, for the American build-up
against his adopted country was under way, just as he
had watched them gather against his old country and
seen that country destroyed. It was these people he
wished to destroy and humiliate. If attacking Israel was
the only way to do it, so be it.
     Within an hour, he had reached Ain Murr.
      Back in the situation room of the White House in
Washington, the President looked down the line of
expectant, eager faces that was the Joint Chiefs of
      His eyes rested on the twitching, reddened,
demented face of Major General Bob "Cannonball"
Turner of the US Marine Corps, who would lead US
ground forces in the invasion. General Turner was a
greyhound straining on the leash. That night he would
fly out to Estefan, and it wasn't a second too soon for
him. He was itching to get stuck in. By God,
"Cannonball" Turner was going to get Saddam and
Fallafi and Osaama and any other sonofabitch he
could and kick their arses all the way from one end of
the Mediterranean to the other!
      The President leaned back and stretched his arms
out to the ceiling.
      "The last thing on the agenda, boys. What we
gonna call it?"
      There was a murmering and scratching of heads.
      "We've had Desert Storm and Desert Shield, sir,
and Just Cause and Enduring Freedom - though we
had to change that 'cos the A-rabs didn't like it." The
deputy defence secretary consulted a list on the table
in front of him.
      "What else?"
      "We had Eternal Liberty when we bombed Algeria
two years ago, sir, and Righteous Justice the year
before that. Then there was Moral Superiority when we
bombed the Chechens, and Total Integrity when we
invaded Venezuela.”
      The President scratched his head.
      "What about Deliverance - somethin' like that? I
like the sounda that."
      "We had Lawful Deliverance when we hit Sudan
last year, sir."
      "Shit. That must be why I liked it. What about
Lawful Motive?"
      "We had Faithful Motive last year as well sir, when
we flattened Aden for sponsoring terrorism."
      "What about Ethical Imperative?"
      "We had Rightful Imperative when we whacked
      "Well, what the hell else is there?"
      General Cannonball Turner was staring straight
ahead, miles away, already out in the desert,
deploying men, calling in air support, kicking arse,
making history. He looked... well, insane. He spoke
quietly through gritted teeth.
      "What about Ultimate Democracy? "Operation
Ultimate Democracy". Gotta ring to it."
      There were nods around the table. It did have a
ring to it. It sounded good.
      Ultimate Democracy it would be.

     Later that afternoon, the helicopter lifted off from
the lawn with a jolt and the President stared out below
as the White House and receded into the distance.
The anti-aircraft missiles looked out of place. For a
second, his mind pictured the missiles turning on the
helicopter, launching, smashing into the fragile body of
the aircraft, the machine crashing to earth in a fireball.
     He shook his head to clear it.
     He was heading out of town for an engagement
booked weeks before in New Hampshire. A speech to
campaign workers fighting a massive deficit in the
polls trying to get their man - Jerry Ferndale - to the
       The President's mere presence - he was going up
there once a week now - would have a huge impact,
for which they would be inordinately grateful. He was
looking forward to it. It was about the only time he felt
either popular or useful nowadays. The party was
facing crushing defeat. The President was being
drafted in to bring his unaccountable popularity to
bear. Which would ensure Ferndale was firmly
buttoned up in his pocket from now on. Ferndale was
so stupid he wouldn't have known a goddam train was
up his arse till the bell rang, but with the impeachment
vote only postponed until the troops returned, every
little helped...
       Of course, there was another reason for looking
forward to a little light campaigning. The First Lady
hated it, hated going outside the town she adored -
Washington. So she was staying in the White House
tonight. And if there happened to be a certain New
Hampshire campaign worker he might bump into
tonight? What the hell. He was a man under pressure -
he needed release.
       His reverie was broken by the chief of staff,
Robert Lawrence.
       "Pentagon on blue, Mr President."
       He selected one of the four coloured phones in
front of him. The blue one connected him to the
Pentagon via a secure radio link. The President heard
the voice of "Hellfire" Craig Charles Johnson,
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
     "Mr President. USS Reagan is reporting a contact
with Allyrian fighters in the Mediterranean."
     "Of what kind?"
     "We're only just getting details through but it
appears two MIGs came in on a bombing run -
probably just testing defences. The Reagan sent up
fighters to intercept."
     "Both Allyrians shot down, but one got a missile
off before it went down. It hit one of our planes, and he
had to ditch in the sea. He's OK. They picked him up."
     "What do you think?"
     The clipped tones of the former Marine came over
the airwaves, distorted by the scrambling devices.
     "Seems their tactics are a mite better than in the
past. They took a bit of killing."
     "And brought down one of our fighters," the
President said. He thought for a second.
     "OK. Announce it as a straightforward contact and
say we shot down two of them but for Christ's sake
don't say they got one of ours. We can put it down to
mechanical failure in the next few days. I don't want
this getting out. It might start to panic people, just
when things are getting hot out there."
     He rang off and Lawrence, who had been
listening, shot him a look.
     "Nothin' I can't handle." He knew the facile words
would irritate the Chief of Staff. That was why he used
them. It was like baiting a bear.
     He was frightened and excited in equal measure.
No way the Allyrians with their crap Russki planes
should have been able to shoot down an American
fighter. It would only take one getting through and
hitting a carrier - especially the Reagan, America's
latest - and the whole situation would be different. No
longer a controllable war, fought at his own pace. If a
carrier was hit there would be hundreds, maybe
thousands killed, and they would be in a whole new
ball game. Perhaps the lost fighter was an omen? he
      Well, you couldn’t make an omelette without
breaking eggs.
      Nathaniel Bar Lev was a gifted, even brilliant, man
who was also exasperatingly vague. Over the years,
he had managed at various times to forget or lose
anything and everything that had ever been of any
value to him - glasses, watches, wallets by the score,
even a wife and two kids.
      He sat in his misfiring car, stationary and sweating
in the afternoon heat and traffic. It was the weekend
rush hour in Tel Aviv, with those who had got away
from the city now dragged reluctantly back into orbit
with the thought of work tomorrow. All of them inched
forward, but it was clear the traffic was going nowhere.
Bar Lev's second wife, Eva, sat beside him in sullen
silence. Behind them Aaron and Jane kept up a
continuous barrage of screaming. Eva had given up
trying to control them. Bar Lev was no stranger to such
trials. Thirty years older than his wife, a professor of
advanced bio-chemistry at Tel Aviv University, he had
two children by his first marriage as well. You never
really got used to how much work they were. Soon he
would retire, and be able to spend more time with
them. He didn't know whether to look forward to the
prospect or dread it.
      The family had been up to Haifa for a week with
Eva's parents, which accounted for her sullen silence;
he enjoyed the visits more than she did. She bickered
with her mother constantly, then shouted at the
children, which made her mother more
condescending. Most evenings, Bar Lev and his
father-in-law, who had studied with him at Haifa so
many years ago, sat in a benevolent alcoholic haze,
watching them.
     He turned on to the inner ring road that skirted
northern Tel Aviv and shouted at the children to be
quiet for the millionth time. At this rate he would be
grateful to get back to work in the morning.
     Bar Lev turned down Dereck Haifa and left into
Ramat Aviv to draw up outside their modest, three-
bedroomed villa. Not much for a distinguished - world
renowned, in his own small field - academic with four
books to his name, but all that was practical after a
decade of alimony and four children to support. He
parked up in front of the house and shouted for quiet
one final time. Eva shooed the still arguing children
into the house while he unpacked the car. The children
would be tired. It would be a peaceful night, quiet and
boring, the kind he liked.
     A bag in each hand, he tramped up the drive, a
vision of a whisky bottle swimming in front of his eyes.

       Next morning, Eva got the children off to school
taking the car, while he walked into work.
       Ramat Aviv was only a kilometre from the
university, and the walk was his favourite time of day.
A chance to get his thoughts in order and be alone.
The students would not return until next week, but
there would still be meetings of the faculty and the
timetable of lectures to sort out. Anybody walking past
would have spotted him as an academic from a mile
away - shabby suit, thick spectacles, thinning hair. But
they would not have got his age. He was 60 years old,
but looked 15 years younger. Not that it mattered. Eva
said she loved him for his mind, and he didn't doubt it.
If it was for his body they were both in trouble.
      In his office on the third floor of the chemistry
building his secretary Jackie was in her usual bubbling
state of hyper-efficiency. His mail was already sorted
and ready to open on the desk, a typed agenda for the
day's faculty meeting beside it, coffee ready to be
spilled beside that. He wished the pretty blonde good
morning. As ever, she ignored him.
      "The faculty meeting is at ten o'clock. Mark Weiss
has booked an appointment with you for 12.30 to
discuss the grant application for his research project.
You can fit it in before lunch."
      "If you can look at the post before the meeting, I
can get going on any replies."
      "Right. Anything else?"
      "Don't let your coffee go cold. And don't spill it on
the computer again."
      There was a dryly efficient click as she closed the
door and he was left alone. The post was the usual
mix of boring routine - circulars, memos, a trade
publication, a nagging letter from the publishers and
an invitation to a conference in Zurich. Only the last
was at all tempting. He put it to one side. He sipped
his coffee carefully and switched on the computer to
check his e-mail. There were sixteen messages,
almost all routine; either from students or from faculty
members, discussing department business.
      He would not discover that for some time though,
because he never read them.
      The third message, filed a week ago after he had
left on holiday, was not routine at all.
      He stared at it for several minutes,
incomprehension on his face. After some time, he
turned away and looked around him, his eyes settling
on the door that led through to his secretary's office.
She always closed it - now why did she do that? He
got up and crossed the room and quietly locked it. He
went back to his desk and sat down again and
continued to stare at the message, frowning. For a
quarter of an hour he sat staring at the screen, the
coffee going cold, lost in thought, wondering what to
      It had to be a hoax. Some ultra-stupid, ultra-sick
joke? He had heard of enough of them. The students
were always up to something. It was the last part of the
message that made him stop and pull his hand back
from the Delete key.
      It was not his area, of course, but he knew
enough to know that what came at the message's end
could be known by very few people in the world. It was
so complex. The sort of bio-chemical analysis that
would surely be classified by any government or
institute that dealt in it. Not the sort of thing mentioned
in books. Certainly not the sort of thing the students
would ever know. He sat lost in thought, and his
thoughts grew more unpleasant as the minutes ticked
by. For once they stayed on the same subject and
didn't waver. There was nothing for it. He would have
to talk to someone whose area this was to find out
what the hell it meant.
      Not sure he wasn't about to make an unbelievable
fool of himself, he pressed the save key, stored the
message, and reached for the telephone...
      Osman had thought while he walked he would be
safe from discovery.
      He would be a nomad, continuing an ancient
lifestyle that was a threat to nobody and had gone on
for generations. He would be left to cope with the
different challenges the wilderness presented. Only as
he came out of the vastness of the Sahara would he
swap the danger of the desert for that of discovery.
      Fat chance.
      Osman had walked for three weeks and apart
from the encrypted messages had had no contact with
any living thing apart from the camels. The only signs
of life he had seen were aeroplanes far to the south,
probably American, and some desert sandgrouse,
flying ahead of him, following the lines of the old camel
route to water.
      He had crossed half the desert, following as best
he could the track that ran along the route. Every so
often a section would be identifiable. Most of the time
he used the compass. By now he had walked 800
kilometres. He was on the last leg, to El Kharga 150
kilometres in front of him. The last major well, Bir
Tarfawi, had been 80 kilometres and three days back.
The toenails of his feet had blackened and fallen out
one by one, and he had grown thinner than he had
ever been before. He had lost a third of the weight he
carried into the desert. Had he looked in the mirror
which he carried, he would not have recognised
himself. But he did not look in the mirror, for he
expected as much.
      The two camels had pressed on without
complaint, and he had grown fond of the beasts. It
would be as sad to part with them as it had been the
bedu weeks before. He was surprised to find himself
thinking like this, but the desert did that to you. The
world you inhabited stretched, empty, as far as the eye
could see. In spite of that, or because of it, your world
became insular. You concentrated on what was
important to you - the rest of the world might as well
have been another planet. He knew that many bedu,
even now, had never left the desert, never seen the
sea. He could understand. What did it have to do with
them? Yet he knew, in the back of his mind, that he
could not adopt the nomad view and allow it to rule
him. The bedu welcomed visitors and strangers, for
they had a natural alliance with anyone they met,
against the desert. He had to remind himself he had a
greater enemy than the desert, and against that
enemy he was alone.

     He saw the dustcloud from miles away, in the
morning, as he was preparing to make camp and
shelter from the worst of the day's sun. At first he
could not tell if it was an isolated dust-storm, or even a
mirage, for there had been many. Only after some
minutes, sheltering his eyes from the glare, did he
realise it was the trail of a vehicle, coming from El
Kharga. He wondered what it was doing here, over a
hundred kilometres into the desert. The vehicle could
not be part of a patrol, for what would one be doing out
here, so far into the wilderness? Whatever it should
be, it would carry strangers, whom he did not wish to
     So it begins.
      He stared at the sand clouds behind the vehicle. It
was moving quickly, judging by the trail. Then he
shook himself, realising he was not thinking at all.
There were precautions to take and preparations to be
made. Instead he had just stood there. It was the
desert again.
      He went quickly to the lead camel and unfastened
one of the packs, taking one of the Glock pistols and
two grenades. He pulled his bedu cloak over his head.
In case anyone in the vehicle had binoculars, he made
sure the camel was between them. He put the strap of
the pistol over his head, so that it would hang down
under his clothes and be available. The grenades he
clipped to his belt. He prayed silently that this would be
a tourist party. If it was not, and things went wrong, he
did not want to have to walk in the heat of the day, for
it was dangerous and exhausting, and he had little
energy left. He pulled the loose robe back over his
head and wrapped the headscarf around his face
again. A regular patrol might know the faces of the
bedu in these parts. He moved to the lead camel again
and made sure his cases were hidden by the rug he
had brought. The packs on the rear camel were only
what a bedu would carry anyway. Then he began to
unpack his tent from the rear camel, as normal. Some
form of activity might discourage a tourist vehicle from
stopping and bothering him.
      His heart sank as he watched the vehicle get
closer out of the corner of his eye - it was obviously
some sort of jeep. It carried military insignia and was
painted in sandy camouflage with a small pennant
fluttering from the bonnet. Egyptian border police,
probably. Not tourists.
      So it begins.
      He was trying to think clearly but his thoughts
were clogged by the desert. Normal processes of logic
were difficult to follow. If it was a military patrol, it still
did not mean his mission had been discovered, for
then the whole Egyptian army would be in the desert,
hunting him. He told himself to relax. He would wait for
it to stop and then see what the faces inside told him.
He would know what to do.
      In fact the Egyptian soldiers were on a regular
patrol, for security had been stepped up automatically
as a result of the expected war a thousand kilometres
away. But it was still a routine patrol, and the border
guards never in their wildest dreams expected to find
      The jeep drew up a few yards from Osman and
four soldiers got out. He relaxed immediately, for their
guns hung from straps around their shoulders and they
made no effort to point them at him. There was no
officer with them and the men looked bored. One
unzipped himself and began to urinate by the car.
Osman knew it would be all right whatever happened.
They were young and inexperienced. Even if the worst
happened, it would be easy. The driver came towards
      "Salam, bedu. Allah be with you. Where have you
come from?"
      Nomads were notoriously unsociable to authority.
Osman knew he could get away with merely pointing
to the south-west.
      "And where do you head for?"
      Osman pointed down the road they had come
     "You travel to El Kharga?"
     "What is there at El Kharga for you?"
     "My family. I am taking these two camels from my
cousins in the west to my family at El Kharga. Also
some rugs."
     The driver nodded, uninterested, looking around
him at the forbidding desert. Behind him, the man who
had urinated did himself up and began to walk towards
the lead camel. The rug, with its ornate Turkish
pattern, had caught his eye. He was looking for a gift
for his wife. Perhaps the bedu had more to sell...
     Osman watched the man with a sinking heart and
realised this would probably only go one way now. He
would know in a second.
     "You have a long way to go through the desert,
bedu. I admire you."
     It was the driver again, still transfixed by the
desolation around him. Osman was barely listening.
The man was now at the camel, running his hand
across the pattern of the rug in appreciation. He lifted it
up, but there were no more underneath. The rug
covered a canvas sack. The sack had been worn away
by three weeks of loading and unloading, and at the
corner the steel suitcase showed through clearly,
shining in the sun. The man touched the metal of the
     Then he frowned and turned to speak...
      Osman had had enough. The soldiers were bored,
and curious, and were obviously not going to go away
and leave him alone. They would not believe any story
about carrying a metal suitcase across the desert. The
man at the camel turned to speak, and the driver in
front of Osman turned to look at him. The knife was in
Osman's left hand, the Glock in its holster under his
      Right, he thought. Let’s get this over with.
      He stepped back and swung his arm in an arc
through ninety degrees. The driver was turning back to
face him. The knife smashed into the side of his neck,
below the ear, disappearing to the hilt. The man's
eyebrows shot up in surprise. Osman stepped back
and reached under his clothes and brought the pistol
out. He moved smoothly, giving himself time, not
rushing. These people were amateurs. He had been
doing this sort of thing for twenty years.
      The driver crashed to his knees. Osman shot the
two men behind him first, both in the chest. The man
by the camel - the last to die - was the only one who
had time to react. He fumbled for his rifle, crying with
fear, but it was slung over his shoulder and uncocked.
Osman had all the time in the world - he could have
brewed up a cup of tea had he wished.
      He moved to his right, to avoid hitting the camel,
and shot the soldier. The sounds from the silenced
pistol were just thuds, and the camels did not react at
all. They had been trained not to. Nothing had been
left to chance. The driver lay in the sand where he had
collapsed, blood spouting from his neck and his body
twitching. He was still alive and his eyes stared at
Osman with horror. He was trying to scream but no
sound emerged. Osman shot him quickly - he did not
wish him to suffer. He stared at the bodies on the
ground, then fired carefully into the head of each of
them. He straightened and checked the horizon all
      Alone again.
      Osman felt nothing. He had been sadder shooting
the old camel days ago. The men would have
compromised his mission. They were Egyptians, who
had made their peace with the Yankees and the Jews
years ago. It was a pity they should die, but Allah had
willed it. Osman was merely the instrument of that will.
      He stayed standing motionless for some time,
continuing a chain of thought he had begun even as
he was killing them. He walked across to the jeep and
peered inside. If they had had a radio, it would be
because they were expected to report on it regularly,
which would mean they would be missed soon and
looked for. If they had broken down, they would have
used it to call for help.
      Osman checked under the seats and in the boot,
but found nothing. He was relieved. With a radio, they
would have been missed too quickly. He would have
had to steal the jeep, abandon his cover and his
camels, and the Egyptian army and police would have
launched a search for a killer who had gunned down
an entire army patrol. Now there was no radio, he
might be able to disguise what had happened. It was
dangerous and he would have to work quickly, for if a
car or plane came now he would be spotted. But it
could be done. The heat would be the worst thing; the
last three weeks had sapped his strength.
      He retrieved his knife and gathered up the
soldiers' caps, rifles, anything that might fall off their
bodies, and threw it all in the back of the jeep. He
dragged all four bodies over behind the vehicle,
dumping them with their feet nearest the fender and
their heads furthest away. He took the tethering rope
from the camel he had killed weeks before and used it
to tie the bodies to the rear of the jeep. The camels he
left tethered to the tent pegs in the ground. He got into
the car and started the engine. He drove very slowly,
to avoid leaving too great a trail of blood.
      There was a patch of high ground to the east. He
drove towards it, scouring the ground in front of him.
Half a kilometre away he found what he was looking
for. A small and ancient watercourse that formed a
trench in the sand and gravel. He got out and set to
work, as quickly as he could under the boiling sun. He
untied the bodies and dragged them into the ditch. The
rifles and caps went in as well. Then he set to work
with a sand shovel he had found in the jeep. Within a
few minutes he had them passably covered. Any wind
would only bury them more effectively. He was
satisfied that only buzzards would find them, and there
were none here. He drove back to the tent and the
      The sun had already dried the blood. He kicked
more sand over it and checked the area for anything
he might have missed. There was nothing. He
collected up the shell cases and pocketed them,
stopping to take a drink of water. He was exhausted,
for the heat was appalling and normally he would have
been resting now. He had to wipe sweat from his brow
and a scum of salt from his mouth. The temperature
was 53 degrees centrigrade.
     He drove the jeep a few hundred yards north and
     Under the bonnet was an inferno. With a spanner
he loosened the starter motor bolts and pulled it off.
He had to grasp the metal through his clothes. He
carried the motor back a hundred yards and threw it
down beside the road, half burying it in the sand. The
bonnet of the jeep he left up. The water cans in the
jeep he emptied into his own bottles, then left in and
around the vehicle.
     He stood back and surveyed the picture he was
trying to create.
     Four young soldiers, deep in the desert. Stupidly
driving with no radio, insufficient water, and no
mechanical knowledge. They had stopped in the
desert for a break, then been unable to start their
vehicle, because the starter motor had worked itself
loose up the road. The picture should work for some
time at least. The abandoned jeep would be found,
and it would look as if the young soldiers, unable to fix
it and with water running low, had panicked and set off
back for El Kharga. Without a compass, it was
impossible to follow the track through the desert.
There would be an air search for them, but they would
not be found. It would be assumed they had died in the
desert, their bodies buried by a sand storm. Osman
was glad. He would not have wanted to steal the jeep,
for he did not want his cover blown yet. There was still
too far to go.
     He walked back to the camels, then along the
jeep's tracks into the desert. He obliterated them by
dragging the rug behind him. The men had vanished.
     He packed up his tent hurriedly and tethered the
camels together and started walking. He would have to
walk through the hottest part of the day, despite his
exhaustion. He had no choice, for he had to get away
quickly. He would follow the line of the road, but
always a few kilometres from it. When the search
parties came, in the next few days, he did not want to
meet them. He walked for eight hours through the
sand, into the night.
     He walked until he collapsed.
      The man in charge of the heating system in the
Foreign Ministry building on Moscow's Kutuzov
Prospect had obviously decided to stoke the fires up
until the place was insufferable, die of suffocation
himself, and leave everything to get hotter. The
building was a typical grey Stalinist monstrosity in a
street of grey Stalinist monstrosities, with the usual
300-lane freeway running down the middle. The United
States Secretary of State hated Moscow. He looked at
his Allyrian counterpart, Abdel Wahab, and decided he
hated him too.
      At least it hadn't been the usual slanging match -
things were a bit too serious for that. At one meeting
Charlie Craig Johnson had come along raving and
done his bull-in-a-china-shop routine, which hadn't
      "If you don't get out we're going to bomb you back
into the stone age!"
      "Most of my country is still in the stone age. They
won't notice."
      That had been last week, and since then there
was a definite feeling, an instinct, and he trusted it and
he was worried. It was the behaviour of the man
opposite. In two weeks of head to head meetings, the
Russians mediating and hoping to pick up some
scraps when the dust settled, he thought he was
getting the man's measure - beginning to understand
him. He was as spineless as an octopuss, of course.
But then Wahab's demeanour would change, and the
Secretary of State would be left where he started,
having no idea what the Allyrian really thought.
     The more nervous Wahab got (there was no
doubt he was) the more intransigent he became. He's
shit-scared, the American thought, but he ain't shit-
scared of us. So he's scared of Fallafi? But the
Secretary wasn't even sure of that, not in the way
Wahab spoke of the Leader, contemptuously, as if it
was the most ludicrous title in the world. The man was
just scared, and it wasn't clear what of. That was what
had stopped them all along the line. Meeting after
meeting, and they got nowhere.
     The Secretary of State cleared his throat once
again. His voice was hoarse from the last week. They
were going through interpreters like it was out of
fashion. But this had to be said, if nothing else.
     "Foreign Minister Wahab. We have talked and
talked and talked over the last two weeks and got
nowhere. And now there is nothing left to talk about."
     The Allyrian looked at him dully out of exhausted
eyes but said nothing. The fat toad looked like a
cornered fat toad. He was sweating like a rapist. The
Secretary of State went on, emphasising each word.
     "There is one thing you must know, and you must
convey to your leader, General Fallafi. We know you
have stockpiles of chemical and biological agents. It 's
illegal for you to have them, let alone use them. You
would break international law doing so. Our troops are
protected from them and cannot be harmed by them."
     He paused to give the next words weight, hoping
the Allyrian didn't know the last ones were bullshit.
     "If any sort of chemical or biological agent is used
against our troops, or the troops of our allies, wherever
they are, we'll respond with tactical nuclear weapons.
Without hesitation. Our response will be immediate
and massively disproportionate. Is that clear?"
     As the sentence was translated, it seemed
something passed across the Allyrian's eyes. But it
was not fear. When he spoke, his voice was strong
and final.
     "You can be assured your message will be
passed on. There is nothing more to say. Goodbye.
Please convey our best wishes to your President."
     The Allyrians filed from the room like some crazy
muppet orchestra, and the Secretary of State sat
pondering what had passed across Wahab's eyes. It
was not fear - that was what bothered him. Only a hint,
but it had been more like... amusement. Jesus Fucking
     What were these people on?
       Well, it was certainly nice to be out of that tube...
       This was what it was all about - freedom at last!
Flying over the shimmering waves with the moon at
your back, the warm air flowing past you, waiting for
the first lights to appear from the coast. And only
minutes before you had them. There! Now things got a
little more complicated, but she wasn't worried. This
was what she had been designed for. She flew along
the coast line, the street lights of the cities and towns
lit up, the dawn just beginning to break over the
       As the twin towers of the oil refinery came up on
the left she tilted just so - just so - and began to head
inland over the city.
       Oh, she was good at this, no question. Sooo
good. Now then, what next? There! The football
stadium on the left, and the TV tower a mile behind.
She flew past the tower, banking sharply, and began
looking for the Post Office. (This was where it got
tricky, because the Post Office was similar to one or
two other buildings in the same area.) But there it was,
with its white ornate colonial facade! She was all right
now - she had her bearings. From now on it was plain
     She went up the main street only just over the
tops of the buildings, swung ten degrees at the traffic
lights at the end, and dropped fifty feet as she flew up
the wide boulevard that branched off the main street,
ripping the leaves off the trees. At the end was a large
and ugly concrete edifice that was the headquarters of
the Allyrian Islamic Legion. The two heavy wrought
iron doors were closed and guarded by sentries.
     Sentries! You had to laugh…
     She sent back a final confirmation to her
controller, got the go-ahead, aimed her nose for the
middle of the doors, flew straight through them and
blew the building all to hell...

     There was no deadline, for the US President had
been scared to impose one, fearful the Allyrians would
pull out at the last moment, leaving the Allies stranded
and he one step short of history. The missiles were
simply launched one morning, sealing everyone into a
war from which there would be no way back. The first
missiles flew nearly 25 years to the day since the last
US bombing of Allyria which had killed Fallafi's
daughter and set the stage for what was to come.
     It was an irony lost on either side. Those who
don't know their history are bound to repeat it.
     The launches went on for two days, before any
allied aircraft even entered the airspace of either
Estefan or Allyria. Jumbo and miniature versions of the
old Tomahawk Cruise were more advanced than
anything yet. The jumbos were used to take out huge
buildings, where the danger of civilian casualties was
less, while miniatures were used in more built-up
areas. Both were programmed only to fall when the
correct target had been selected and identified and
checked against pre-programmed data and reference
points. If these were not found, the missile destroyed
itself in mid-air.
      From aircraft carriers and battleships far out in the
Mediterranean, the missiles piled in to knock out
Allyria's air defence system in one go - so the bombers
could go in unmolested. Once three hundred and fifty
had been launched, there was a stop while the
satellites and spy-planes went to work, feeding back
images to see what damage had been done. It took a
day for this to be assessed as "adequate". The full
force of "Ultimate Democracy" could be unleashed.
      Like the ugliest and unfairest of pub brawls,
everyone piled in to have a go at the defenceless
country. The air attack was scheduled for thirty days.
Fighter bombers from four US carriers in the
Mediterranean hit targets all along the Allyrian coast,
but concentrated on Sifolis and the coastal cities.
Others - British and American - flew from England as
they had done before, re-fuelled in mid-air before
hitting targets on the coast. The practise was soon
stopped - too expensive.
      From the expanded airfield outside the Estefan
capital American, French and British bombers flew
sortie after sortie against the entire Allyrian military
infrastructure, hitting bridges and barracks, military
and command centres, missiles and anti-aircraft gun
sites, roads and electricity stations. The chemical
weapons complex in the desert was not bombed, for
fear of what the bombing might unleash, but the road
to it was pulverised at least once a day, making it
impossible for anything to be moved, day or night. All
the while, above everything, the huge American B2
stealth bombers and B52s, flying from England and
America, began the slow remorseless carpet-bombing
of the occupied zone, where the poor old Allyrian army
sat dug in. Thousands of tonnes of bombs dropped
every morning and every night.
      A punch drunk boxer, the poor Allyrians found
their telecommunications disrupted, radars jammed or
smashed, computers frozen by virus programmes. The
quest for "Full Spectrum Dominance" had begun.
There had been no warning, so the process of putting
Allyria into a security quarantine was only completed
after the first missiles flew. There were no flights from
the airports at Sifolis or along the coast. Ships sailing
from these were boarded and passengers - mostly the
last of the ex-patriates Allyria had hosted - were vetted
and de-briefed for intelligence when they arrived at
their destination port. They reported morale among the
Allyrian people as good.
      Western journalists descended on the war in
droves, hiring land cruisers and flinging themselves
into the arms of the Allyrians in the desert in a
desperate bid to get arrested and secure a world
exclusive. The Allyrians refused to arrest any of them
and told them politely but firmly to turn around and sod
      Around the country the land borders tightened.
      The bloody chaos of Allyria's neighbour to the
west pronounced "undying friendship and solidarity"
with its Arab brother. Given the country had spent the
last two decades in total anarchy, this didn't represent
a huge gain. Allyria's other tiny neighbour to the west
pronounced sympathy with Estefan but stopped short
of an outright condemnation of the invasion. The same
language was used by all Allyria's neighbours to the
south and east. None would condemn Allyria's actions,
nor allow allied forces bases from which to attack her.
But all closed their borders with Allyria for the duration
of the conflict. She was sealed off.
     By then, of course, it was too late.
     "How's the war going, Bobby boy?"
     The Cabinet meetings in the Oval Office were a
regular morning feature now. Unlike meetings before,
the American President was beginning to enjoy these.
He was dressed in a sports jacket with a baseball cap
on his head, in his element, in control, having fun.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
     "We're coming up to a week into the bombing
campaign, Mr President."
     "I can read a calendar, Bob. How we doin'?"
     "Well, there are some slight teething troubles with
some of the hardware, Mr President. We are about 20
per cent towards Full Spectrum Dominance, according
to the latest BDA's."
     "Battle Damage Assessments, Mr President."
     "Ah ha."
     "Then there's the question of collateral damage."
     "Somethin' tells me you're gonna spoil my
morning, Bob."
     "Well, some of the cruise missiles are
misbehaving according to a computer glitch. Blowing
themselves up over the desert because they think it's
the sea."
     "I thought they were supposed to beam back
pictures so our boys could see what they were headin'
     "We tried that, Mr President, but some of the boys
got a little over enthusiastic. One of the controllers was
a specialist from the French Army. Allyria beat France
in the last World Cup. He took out the headquarters of
the Allyrian soccer association day before yesterday."
      "That's not the worst of it. We've hit two hospitals,
a bakery and the Allyrian Chamber of Commerce.
We're moving too quickly. There hasn't been enough
time to get co-ordinates properly filed. I'm doing my
best to keep it quiet but the Allyrians are howling
already, of course."
      "What about casualties?"
      "So far fifteen dead, Mr President. Two
helicopters and a stealth B1 shot down."
      "Any of these friendly fire?"
      "All friendly fire, Mr President. The helicopters
shot each other down. Something to do with their radar
profile. We've had five dead in road accidents so far,
and three fighting with the Germans. And two dead in
live-fire exercises. One man's died of appendicitus.
The new ‘invisible’ stealth tanks keep crashing into
each other."
      "Jesus Christ. We've got fifteen dead already and
the Allyrians haven't caused one of 'em?"
      "No, sir, Mr President."
      "Well look here, Bob. I ain't afraid of casualties,
but they gotta be casualties killed by the right people.
Otherwise we look stupid. Can't we get them to shoot
some of our planes down?"
      "You want the Allyrians to be able to shoot our
planes down, Mr President?"
      "Hell, it's better than doin' it ourselves! We gotta
tighten up on this. Otherwise we won't have anyone
left to go into Allyria. I don't mind casualties - I don't
mind body bags. The American people know I'm not
afraid of them getting killed. But it's gotta be by the
right people."
     "Yes, Mr President."
     There was a pause as the President, his morning
duly spoiled, flexed his shoulders back and frowned at
his Secretary of State.
     "Bring me casualties I can use, Bob. Bring me
casualties I can use."
     After so long in the desert, the city and the station
were a nightmare.
     Osman bought a ticket for the morning train from
Assyut to Cairo. He felt dazed and bewildered by the
sights and the sounds and the smells. His brain had
slowed in the desert, and was attuned to harsh
disciplines of time and distance and water and heat.
Yet here in the crowded station forecourt everything
was so different. In wonder, he took in all the details
around him. The peasants with their dirty galibyas, the
businessmen in their pressed open-necked shirts, the
animals and children and beggars, the hawkers of tea,
coffee, food and gifts. In the confusion, one thought
kept resounding in his head. For all the madness and
the noise and the commotion after the peace of the
desert, it was a comfort.
     In this crowd, I am safe.
     He had arrived in the city, come back into the
world, after a week spent skirting the great oasis at El
Kharga and heading almost directly north. The road
from El Kharga to Assyut was properly metalled and
crowded. He would see vehicles several times a day
as he walked a few hundred yards from it. It had
allowed him some time to adjust. The last night he had
camped only a few miles from the town. In the very
early morning he had gathered up his packs, changed
out of his bedu robes and into a Western suit, and
turned the camels loose. He walked away carrying the
two suitcases, bombs and radio in one, guns, money
and clothes in the other.
     Of course the camels followed him. They didn't
know he was off to try and change the history of the
world. All they knew was that the nice man who
provided the food and water on a regular basis
seemed to have gone mad and was carrying their
loads himself. He had to go back and tether them to a
stump of bush, and they protested loudly. What was all
this about? He walked back to the road, ignoring their
bleats, where he sat on his cases until a lorry gave him
a lift into town where he checked into a cheap hotel.
       Then the real process of transition. Three baths to
get the dirt out of the pores of his skin, where it had
settled and seemed to be ingrained underneath. He
was shocked by the sight of himself when he looked in
a mirror. His beard was wild and straggly, his eyes
sunken back into his face, and he had lost fifty pounds.
       When he had cleaned himself and shaved, he
immediately checked out and found another hotel,
again giving a false name and address. When he had
eaten, he went straight to bed. The clean white sheets
had been a revelation, but the bed had been so
uncomfortable he ended up sleeping on the floor...

     He sat in the crowded second class carriage of
the morning train into Cairo, his two suitcases under
the seat, staring out at the fields and crops and the
farmers as the train plodded slowly north. Even with
the crowds of people, after the heat of the desert, the
carriage was almost cold. In this mass of people, he
felt more lonely than he had been in the desert, more
lonely than he had ever been in his life before. It was
     The radio message he had sent that morning had
given details of his progress and estimated arrival
time. He would travel by train into Cairo. From there,
he would rent a car and drive to Alexandria. He was
pleased with his progress so far, but he was still days
away from his destination, and the newspapers were
full of the bombing campaign begun by the Americans
to the east. He had to force himself to sit still and be
calm, for he was driven mad by impatience. He wanted
to get to England. Only there would he be able to rest.
      Back in the desert, the two camels waited all day
in the sun, indignant and hungry and confused. Where
had the master gone? Eventually that night a passing
thief came and took them. The thief would turn out to
be not such a kind master. It was a hard life.
     "Code White."
     The telephone's harsh ringing had pulled Mike
Cohen from a deep - for once - dreamless sleep. He
woke reluctantly. It was three o'clock. Beside him, Jo
     "Who was it?"
     "No-one. Work. Go back to sleep."
     From experience, his wife knew if he was
summoned at this hour, it would be something he
could not discuss. She was used to night-time
absences and early-morning phone calls. If he had
wanted to have an affair he could probably have kept
five women on the go. Mike wasn't the type and didn't
have the energy. Listening briefly for any sound from
Finlay. Jo went effortlessly back to sleep. Cohen
dressed hurriedly and tried to clear his fogged mind.
     A "white" alert meant the immediate mobilisation
of the entire security service. The only alert more
serious was red. The last red had been the 7/7
bombings. Cohen did not bother to speculate. It had to
be connected with the bombing of Allyria. That nutcase
Fallafi. He drove through the dark deserted London
streets with a sinking heart.
     The meeting was a full scale one of MI5, MI6
department heads. The conference room at MI5
headquarters was not used to holding so many people.
When Cohen went in, he almost tripped over the legs
of the deputy commander of Special Forces, sitting on
the floor cradling a coffee cup in his hand. The man
was a lieutenant general, but wore civilian clothes. Like
Cohen, he looked like he had been roused from sleep.
A buzz of murmured conversation. The other MI5
section chiefs were already sitting too far away to
reach. Cohen raised his eyes questioningly at
Hoffman, but the older man shrugged back.
     The voices quietened as Carter, the MI5 chief,
came into the room. He was a small man in shirt
sleeves who looked like an engineer, coffee in one
hand and a sheaf of papers in the other. He did not
look like he had been home that night. He looked
around him and the voices fell further. He let the
silence spread across the room, and Cohen felt his
heart flip. This was going to be bad. You could tell.
     Carter cleared his throat. Thirty pairs of eyes
stared at him.
     "How's this for a bed-time story?" he said. "Two
days ago, a bio-chemist at Tel Aviv University got back
from a week's holiday and found an e-mail message
on his computer. It came from abroad. He thought it
was a hoax - students having a joke or whatever - and
wasn't going to do anything about it. The only thing
that stopped him were some chemical data at the end
of the message. So he thought: I'll run it by a friend
who is up on these matters - see what he thinks. Then
I can forget about it."
     Carter stopped and sipped at his coffee casually.
     "The friend he ran it by was another bio-chemist in
a different field, who shall remain nameless, though
you all know him anyway. He happens to be the head
of the chemical and biological weapons institute at Nes
Ziona. Another of Israel's not-very-secret secrets."
     "What did the message say?" asked Hoffman.
     "I'm coming to that. Our friend had a look at the
technical stuff at the end of the message and couldn't
believe his eyes. He says it shows a state of
knowledge of research into certain substances at a
level surpassing our own at Porton Down."
     "What substances?"
     "Chemical weapons," said Carter cheerfully, as if
he had just said "tea" or "strawberry jam".
      "Specifically, advanced persistent nerve agents.
Something called PFIB." He paused, as if expecting a
reaction, but carried on when there was only silence.
"Essentially, according to Nes Ziona, if this is a hoax,
or bullshit, or a madman, it's someone who knows an
awful lot, maybe more than us, about what is, you will
agree, a slightly sensitive field."
     Hoffman looked straight ahead. "Do we need to
be told what the message was?"
     "Oh, I think so. It was hardly specific, apart from
the end, but the essence was this: The sender is a
senior bio-chemist working for the Allyrians, obviously
high up. Fallafi's planning to use an advanced nerve
agent - a form of this PFIB - against us in some way.
He's really going to do it. Hold us to ransom, to stop
the Americans pushing him out of Estefan and maybe
out of Allyria as well. We know the Americans are
planning to go all the way to Sifolis this time. Fallafi
obviously thinks so too. This is his insurance policy."
     This time the silence was absolute.
     "John, this sounds like bullshit," said the MI6 Chief
of Staff across the table.
     Carter shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. Nes Ziona
thinks it might be genuine. There are only a handful of
people in the world who could know the data
mentioned. The message asked the recipient not to try
and trace him, because to do so would compromise
him. Sounds reasonable; also very convenient.
Anyway, our computer boys had a look at it. They can
shield some of their searching because the Americans
have inserted so many virus programmes into Allyria,
their systems have crashed. The computer analysts
don't have any doubt. The message came from Allyria
- definitely. Someone at the University of Sifolis. They
couldn't trace further than that."
     The MI6 Chief of Staff was shaking his head.
     "Allyria has no missiles capable of delivering a
nerve agent here. We know that. Your organisation
assured us of it. This is disinformation. Or someone's
idea of a joke."
     Carter nodded. "Yes, we did, and it may be. It may
be the Allyrians trying to panic us and the Americans.
Sounds the sort of thing they might try, and the crude
method they might use to do it. But there's something
that worries me, and it should be worrying all of us."
     He paused, staring at the MI6 chief, then at the
others in the room.
     "What if it's not a hoax? What if they are planning
something? We know from profiling Fallafi's unstable.
We know he's been receiving some sort of medical
treatment over the last year. We don't know what's
wrong with him. We don't know what he's capable of.
We do know he's got years of research into this stuff
behind him, plus all the stuff Saddam took with him.
Who's to say there isn't some chap walking down
Oxford Street with a bottle of this shit in his pocket
right now?"
     There was a deluge of voices protesting the idea
was ridiculous. It took minutes for Carter to make his
voice heard again. Cohen, standing in the corner of
the room, was quiet. Al-Qeada had ceased operations.
Something was going on. Eventually there was quiet.
The MI6 chief spoke first.
      "This nerve agent? What was it?"
      "Something we are familiar with from our own
programme. An advanced and ultra-concentrated
version of PFIB. PFIB is very bad news. The army did
trials with it two years ago."
      "So if the Allyrians have it, they might use it
against the Americans?"
      "Maybe, but unlikely. The Americans have already
told them if any nerve agent is used, they'll nuke Sifolis
and that'll be that. Game over. Not to put too fine a
point on it, it would be far more effective against
civilian targets. A few litres of this stuff could wipe out
a whole fucking city."
      There were more raised voices.
      "What are we supposed to do?" said the MI6
Chief of Staff. "Put the whole country on gas alert
because of some nutcase e-mail message? There
would be the biggest panic in history. Anyway, civilian
gas masks wouldn't do any good against PFIB."
      The room was threatening to go out of control
again. Carter held up his hand.
      "There is one thing. If it isn't a hoax, and that's a
big if, then we have a good idea who sent the
message." His words induced a little quiet and he went
on. "The message said the sender had met the
recipient six years ago. We've been doing a lot of work
on this. We think we may have traced the man. We
know the head of the Allyrian programme is a bio-
chemist called Omar Meheishi. We have pictures of
him - he lives on the coast - we even have an address.
He's the only member of the programme senior
enough to live outside their facility. He's almost
certainly the only one to have been allowed outside the
country six years ago. He's also likely to be the only
one to escape supervision long enough to get access
to a computer and get a message out. I think
Meheishi might be our man."
      "There's another explanation," said Hoffman.
      "Planting disinformation to tempt us to hit the
complex with an air strike and bring us into the war."
      Carter shook his head.
      "We're already in the war - don't you read the
papers? I, along with the rest of you, can't believe
Fallafi would try something like this. But our problem
is: what if he has? What if, after all this time, now he's
an old man, he's decided to go for it and fuck the
consequences? What then? If this turns out to be true,
it's the worst thing we've ever faced."
      "What do you propose?" asked Hoffman. "We
cannot go to the Cabinet with this. They'd roast us
      Carter nodded. "I know. What I propose is this. If
this isn't a hoax, and let's pray it is, then we need to
speak to this Dr Meheishi fast, see if he's the one
sending the message."
      "We go into Sifolis and talk to him. This Meheishi
will be guarded tighter than Fallafi himself, but
apparently he still lives in a private house. He can be
got to. Our man can go in there and talk to him and
see whether he's the one trying to get in contact or
      "And if he isn't and it's a hoax?"
     "We kill him and get out. A warning to the
Allyrians. He should've been killed before as it is. Can't
think why he hasn't been. Unfortunately, Meheishi is
not going to be easy to get to."
     The MI6 chief of staff stared. "You mean..."
     "Yes," Carter smiled tightly. "I think it's a job for Mr
      Osman was close now.
      He could feel it in the way his body and mind
resonated with some low-pitched intensity of tension
that had not been there before. Or maybe there was
just a washing machine operating in the room under
      He was staying in a small hotel in the northern
French port of St Malo. It was a pretty town, but he
would be here only for one night. There was real
danger now, and it would get worse and worse from
now on. He needed to slow down and think and plan
each step he took. There could be no hurry. Tomorrow
would come the Channel ferry and England. With the
war in the Sahara, security could only be tighter. And
all this assumed his mission had not been discovered,
when it was well known Israel had agents in Allyria.
      That was his greatest fear - that he had already
been betrayed.
      His journey by car across Europe had been easy.
He had arrived in Cairo after the desert in the early
evening with plenty of time to find a quiet back-streets
hotel. The next morning he had taken the ferry to
Greece and entered Europe for the first time. His
papers had not been questioned. In Patras, in a run-
down suburb to the west of the city, he found a garage
where he could buy a serviceable car - an anonymous
Peugot. For a fee, the proprietor provided all the
paperwork for the vehicle, no questions asked. Osman
could have hired a car openly but it would have been
easily traceable. Osman's way was not.
      In his hotel room he read western newspapers;
the New York Times and the London Daily Telegraph.
They were days old, but contained more information
about what was happening in the skies over his
adopted country. The Allies were bombing Allyria,
bombing Sifolis, bombing the troops dug in in the
desert in northern Estefan. Allyria's air defences had
been wiped out already, in half the time it had been
forecast the job would take. The American President
was said in private to be planning to topple General
Fallafi if an invasion proved necessary - the troops
would go all the way to Sofoli - despite the opprobium
of the international community that would entail.
     Allyria would be given a "chance for democracy".
     How marvellous! Osman read the papers and felt
the bile rise in his throat. These people used "freedom"
and "democracy" as they used bombs and missiles!
What did they care of such things when it came to the
Arabs and Islam? What did they care for the freedom
of the Palestinians? What did they care for democracy
in Algeria? In Iraq? In Syria? The newspapers gave
him fresh urgency, for they made it clear the war in the
air was going well. Most of the Allyrian airforce had
been destroyed on the ground in night attacks by
fighter bombers. It would be weeks at most before a
land invasion began. The Yankees wanted to be home
by Christmas.
     Driving slowly and carefully so as not to attract
attention, Osman headed north in his Peugot. Sleeping
in the car at night, it took him four days to reach the

     That night, on the sandy beach looking out to sea
towards the country he was heading for, he transmitted
the last message of his journey. The transmission from
his radio would be picked up by monitoring stations he
knew. He would have to send from public places,
encoding and recording in private, then transmitting
from a road, a lay-by, a back alley, a crowded market
square. If he sent from his base, triangulation would
have him in minutes. The message he sent that night
gave his location and estimated time of arrival in the
target city. It explained that he would be silent for a few
days, because he would be crossing the sea to
England. The acknowledgements he usually received
were single words, sent by a radio operator in the
bunker under Sifolis who had no idea who he was
talking to or why.
     This night was different. Once the tape recorder
had slowed the message down and he had decoded it,
he sat on the sand and read the words slowly, with
     We have not met before, and perhaps we never
shall, but I follow your progress with the greatest of
interest. Our fate and our future lie in your hands and
your hands alone. May Allah guide those hands and
keep them safe. Allah be with you.
     There was no signature, of course. There didn't
need to be.
     Three thousand miles away, in the desert south of
Allyria, things were not going quite so well for the
supreme commander of Operation Ultimate
Democracy. But at least Major General Turner had
found a cure for his haemorrhoids.
     General Turner had been plagued for more years
than he cared to remember. It was his bete noire, his
achilles heel, the bane of his life. Piles wasn't the sort
of thing a national hero was supposed to suffer from,
and there was no evidence of other great generals with
such an embarrassing complaint. Napolean might
have had a small penis, and Caesar might have been
an epileptic, but, well, neither seemed as bad. It had
been a worry coming all the way out to this African
dusthole, and he'd had his wife go out to the drugstore
and buy up half their stock of pile cream - they sure as
hell weren't going to sell it where he was going.
     And then - Bingo!
     He had sited Allied headquarters in the crumbling
basement of a crumbling department store in the
crumbling capital of Estefan and the toilets were those
weird ones where there was no seat and you had to
squat and - lo and behold - the piles vanished!
     He called his deputy - Lieutenant General Sterling
Baker - into his office at once.
     "How much of a problem is piles in our forces?"
     Baker adopted a pose of icy reserve and cool,
even under the most harrowing of fire.
     "Yeah. Piles. Haemorrhoids."
      "I have no idea, sir. Would you like me to find
      "Find out! And then get rid of those chemical johns
we've shipped out for the boys. I want them all
squatting in the sand, like the A-rabs do. No more
sitting down on the job. That clear?"
      "Crystal clear, sir."
      Baker allowed a tiny look of disquiet to colour his
normally untroubled face.
      "What is it?"
      "I think we have a bit of a public relations problem,
      "Not another friendly fire accident?"
      "No sir. It's the German and Jap troops, sir."
      For the first time since the second World War,
German and Japanese forces would go into combat. It
was an historic occasion.
      "What's up with them?"
      "They've been using Estefanian civilians as target
practise, sir. In live fire exercises. They seized a
village over on the west side of the line and took all the
men away - nearly a hundred in all. They dressed 'em
up in military fatigues and gave 'em pretend rifles and
had 'em pretend to be Allyrians. It was supposed to be
an exercise. Things got a bit out of hand. They killed
over sixty of them."
      "Jesus H Christ Al-fucking-mighty! They did
      "Killed over sixty of 'em, sir."
      "Holy shit! If this gets out...! I want this hushed up,
okay? Find out who saw it and bang 'em up. Any
journalists know of it yet?"
      "There's one sniffing around up there now, sir."
     "Seize him. Arrest him. Make up some charges -
anything you can think of! And seal the village off, for
Christ's sake. At least until I can speak to the
President. I want it kept completely sealed off. Nobody
goes there. Ship 'em food and water in and all that and
don't let anyone in or out."
     "Yes, sir."
     "Well, what are you waiting for? Get going."
     Baker took off out of the office like a sprightly
private first class, leaving General Turner
     After a while, he couldn't help smiling at the
wonder of it all. The goddam Japs and Krauts! Up to
their old tricks. Who'd a thought it after all these
years? It just went to show: a leopard didn't change his
spots. It didn't take long for the frown to come back.
The Germans and Japs and Brits were here for a
reason - the American troops were about as much use
as a chocolate ashtray. It was a joke. Since even the
possibility of hostilities had raised its head,
applications for transfer out of combat units had gone
up three hundred per cent, applications for discharge
due to religious feeling or conscientous objection five
hundred per cent. Jesus Christ! What was he
supposed to do?
     It was the recruiting officers. They went round the
schools, getting the young to sign up, talking about
training, skill levels, career progression and all manner
of bullshit. Shovelling mud and eating dirt and lead
weren't mentioned. The recruits would have run a
goddam mile, as they were trying to now.
     Even that wasn't the worst of it. Some of the
courses the troops were encouraged to go on now!
Jesus - he'd come across one the other day.
"Awareness-of-Others Training." What the fuck was
that all about? Didn't these people have eyes? It was
the women, of course. Seperate gender identity and all
that crap. What use was that when you were storming
an enemy pillbox? He had a hundred thousand troops
in the desert, and most of them were wondering round
trying to work out what goddam sex everyone else was
or joining the freeking Mormons.
     That's why he needed the Brits and the Krauts
and the Japs out here. Say what you liked about them
but at least they liked a fight…
     In Allyria the chemical weapons scientist Dr Omar
Meheishi sat in the back of a police car once again as
it was driven at insane speed along the deserted coast
highway into Sifolis. I’m going to need a crash helmet,
he thought.
     There had been none of the cold, studied
politeness of the previous summons. This time they
practically bundled him into the waiting cars, before
driving off into the dawn with a screech of rubber. He
was terrified, but in that part of his mind still capable of
logical thought, also confused.
     If the message he had sent to Israel had been
discovered, surely his treatment would be harsher than
this? They were in a hurry, to be sure, but their haste
could as easily be explained by fear of being caught by
American bombers. The whole country had become
hysterical since the bombing had begun. There was an
atmosphere of repressed fear, but also excitement.
The people did not know what would happen. The
policeman who had pounded on the door had been
polite, if urgent. Surely they would have manacled him,
beaten him, then and there? Instead the man had said
nothing, only that he was "wanted". He sat, alone and
sweating, in the heat of the car, thinking desparately.
     The Americans had jammed every computer link
in the country, by hacking into the network and
introducing virus programmes. The computers at the
complex and at the University had crashed. Surely that
would help him? Even if the Israeli had been stupid
enough to try and trace the message, any connection
between that and him would be masked by the general
chaos. He did not know, for he was not a computer
      Then he was terrified for another reason entirely.
      What if something had gone wrong at the
complex? What if there had been a leak, or an
explosion, or the Americans had bombed it? The
consequences would be catastrophic. Meheishi sat
back and tried to get his breathing under control.
There was so much to be frightened of.
      The car sped into the centre of Sifolis on the
Sharia al Fatah towards Green Square. The damage
did not appear great - most of the city appeared
untouched. The police station and main post office to
his left had been hit, that much was obvious. As they
headed down Sharia an Nasr the People's Palace
came into view. It looked intact, but a column of smoke
was rising from its centre. A missile had hit that
morning, dropping through the roof and demolishing
the building from within, so that from the outside it
looked undamaged. They drove across Green Square
and skirted the Old City. The tree-lined Corniche was
deserted, and that was the greatest difference of all,
for at this time it should have been packed with
walkers and sellers.
      Meheishi sat back, drained by a fear that had not
left him since the first meeting with The Leader weeks
ago when the whole idea to use the agent had been
revealed. Sending the message had re-doubled that
fear. What if it had never got there? What if it was not
believed? What if it was believed? What would the
Israelis do? The city flashed past him. How could he
have not known it would come to this? He had been
seduced by the plaudits and the praise, the special
treatment, the sense of being part of things, important.
Now all Allyria might pay the price.
     The damage the American bombers were doing
became far more apparent when they entered the
barracks complex. He had never seen such
destruction. The huge concrete buildings were
smashed, their windows sightless eyes staring out at
the carnage below. Troops hung around idly, looking
shell-shocked. Many of the buildings were still
smoking. He was bundled from the car and led over to
the steps he had gone down three weeks before -
there was no lift now.
     Meheishi imagined they would never end, and he
would walk all the way down into hell itself...

     The Leader sat at the head of the table in the
bunker's conference room and surveyed the
assembled members of the government before him.
There was silence, apart from the low hum of air-
conditioning, and booms from an anti-aircraft battery
on the outskirts of the city. The Leader had had a poor
night, the tumour eating away at him so aggressively
that even the drugs had not worked. In the morning,
there had been a lot of blood. He had taken more
     None of it seemed to matter now. Now he was the
calmest person in the room, cool, assured and in
control, despite the carnage within his body and
wreaked by the infidels above. Most of the air force
was gone, destroyed on the ground or shot out of the
sky, and General Yusuf Marak, the air force
commander, sat at the other end of the table, just a
shell now like his headquarters, rings of shock and
exhaustion around his eyes, his role in the state over.
The army to the south that held the captured oil fields
was being pounded and pounded and the atmosphere
in the bunker stank of fear and desperation and defeat.
     But none of this affected Fallafi.
     The plan he had thought of and dreamed of for so
long was coming to fruition. Only he would have had
the audacity to even suggest it, let alone carry it out.
He would tell these people as much of it as they
needed to know. But he would not tell them all.
     He felt...almost sexy. Sensual and erotic. He
wanted to touch things and people. It was rather
strange. His eyes found the terrified gaze of Meheishi,
the chemical weapons technician. The man was
obviously scared. Fallafi smiled warmly at him. The
army and air force chiefs, and the Islamic Legion
commander General Makhoun, gave their situation
reports, briefings that had become a depressing daily
ritual of destruction and failure as the onslaught went
     Then it was Fallafi's turn. His voice was strong
and clear.
     "When I look around the room at your faces,
comrades, I see only fear and defeat." There was
silence, which no man in the room would have broken
for anything, but the Leader went on speaking, his
eyes glittering. "I know what you fear. We are taking
heavy punishment above. Our air force is smashed.
Our troops in the south are suffering. Our capital city is
being destroyed by the barbarians and the infidels.
And you think there is nothing we can do to resist their
      He paused and his eyes settled again on
Meheishi. Again he smiled, and Meheishi's fear of
discovery was replaced immediately by a worse, much
deeper fear. The Leader's voice came again,
controlled and calm, to confirm everything.
      "You are all wrong, my comrades. For last night
we had the greatest news imaginable. News which
proves beyond any doubt that Allah smiles upon us,
and will give us victory in this struggle, though we
suffer now and the odds we have faced have been
great. None of that matters anymore. Some of you
already know of the plans we have put in train to
protect ourselves from this American onslaught.
Others do not. Those plans can now be revealed,
because they are now in place. From this morning, I
can tell you, we have a soldier in London. He has a
bomb which carries a nerve agent so powerful we can
destroy any city we choose. We have Professor
Meheishi to thank for this. I have chosen London, the
poodle of the Yankee infidels. The man will be there
within a matter of days. He is already in England,
      Fallafi's eyes shone with cold, concentrated fire.
The pain, the drugs, the operations, the destruction
above all forgotten.
      "By the end of this week, I will be able to tell the
world: If one American, or French, or British soldier
puts a foot on our soil, we will destroy London. We will
kill every man, woman and child in the city. You cannot
evacuate them. You cannot protect them. And if you
use your nuclear weapons against us, our agent has
instructions to use the chemical bomb anyway."
      Fallafi slammed a hand down on the table. "I will
say to the Americans! We will trade with you, infidels, if
you wish to fight us. An eye for an eye, a city for a city.
If you kill a million of us with nuclear weapons, we will
kill a million of you! A fair trade. Sifolis for London. Ha
ha! Do you think, comrades, the Americans will make
this trade? I do not think so. We will be the winners.
They cannot touch us now. They cannot touch us!"
      He looked at the incredulous faces around him.
He really felt sexy now. It was all he could do to stop
squirming in his seat.
      "So fear nothing, comrades. The Americans
believe they are weakening us so they can attack us
very soon. But they will never attack us. For we have a
weapon in place, in place, that they cannot deal with.
We shall have our land, and our oil, and the Americans
will have to leave and go back to their homes far away.
In good time, we shall organise a little demonstration
for them, so that they will believe what we say. Victory
will be ours. Allah be praised."
      The silence lasted a full minute as the Leader sat
back, his face gaunt but his smile wide and clear. And
then the silence was finally broken. It was the voice of
Musa Abdul Salam, the Mukhabarat chief.
      "Allah be praised," he echoed simply. The
incantation went around the room, louder and louder,
releasing some of the tension. Some of the faces
started to smile, even laugh, as the voices became
shouts. Meheishi stared around him, his heart
thudding in his chest. He felt hands reaching for him,
hands slapping him on the back. They're all mad, he
thought. Raving mad. Deranged, demented. They'd
lost their minds.
    His lips moved along with the rest of them, though
no sound emerged.
    Across the room, Salam stared at him, his eyes
    Within an hour, Meheishi was back in the car,
being driven back to an unquiet home.

      Walking along the dusty road, in rags, half starved
and returning from the market where they had sold the
last of the chickens, Mohammed and Safia, the
peasants who ran the dusty farm Osman Sacranie had
called his home, looked at the convoy with dead,
exhausted eyes. Who knew who was in it? Who
      The chickens had made them a little money. After
that would be nothing – no food, no money, only
suffering. They would go to the city to beg.
      They were in sight of the farm when the Yankee
plane came over. One of the fat slow ones – the ones
that dropped aid, not bombs. Perhaps it would drop
something for them, they thought idly, minds fogged by
hunger and exhaustion. They stopped to watch as the
plane turned in an arc and its bay doors opened. The
plane hung in the air lazily. The huge pallet of flour,
maize and “gifts from the American people” seemed to
fall in slow motion as it slid from the body of the
aircraft. Mohammed and Safia watched in fascination
as it fell slowly and gracefully through the air, clearly
able to see the American flag as the pallet turned over
and over and over and continued to fall and turned
over one last time before falling with a resounding
crash through the roof of their house and smashing it
to smithereens.
That night, they set out for the city.
      Two thousand miles north, in the London offices
of The Sun newspaper, the editor Seb Franklin had
rather more prosaic matters on his mind, buried deep
in the intricacies of the morning editorial conference.
      "What's the splash, guys, what's the splash? We
need to think outside the box, get with the picture,
move the war along! The air campaign's still going -
who cares? People are bored already. What do they
need now? They need to be woken up! There's a war
on! Eh?"
      He often talked like this. It was depressing. The
news editor and his deputy stared at him languidly,
exhausted by weeks of sensational scoops, each more
ludicrous than the last, dug up out of the desert like so
many fantastic lost cities of yore.
      "I like the peace protesters, Seb," said the news
      "Okay, Bob. Talk to me about peace protesters."
      In a move of astonishing professionalism,
seperate groups had occupied both the Ministry of
Defence buildings in Whitehall without a shot being
fired and part of the lower floor of the American
Embassy in Grosvenor Square. They had held out for
a week so far.
      "Get this. They want all world conflicts to be
resolved by the countries concerned playing a sport
that neither of them are any good at."
      "Bollocks. They're taking the piss..."
      "No, they're serious. They've thought it all out.
They want the Allyrian war settled with a game of
cricket, because the Yanks and Allyrians are both shit
at it. They want the India/Pakistan thing settled with a
rugby match and the Russians and Chechens with a
game of darts. They want all the games sponsored
and run by the UN and the results to be binding."
      "What about the Australians and the Indonesians?
Fucking Aussies are good at everything."
      "They've even thought of that. Crown green
      Franklin thought for a moment, staring into space.
      "Nah. I'm bored already. What else?"
      The news editor gulped.
      "Okay, what about this break-in at Max Stifford's?"
      Max Stifford was the world’s leading media guru,
making and breaking celebrities the world over.
       "Yeah, tell me about that."
      "Someone bust into his office - professional job -
took every computer file in the place. Did it over the
weekend. They got all his files and dirt - everything he
knows about all the celebs, top sports people, the
works. Who likes little kids, who's gay, who's straight,
who's got a love child and where. Could be explosive.
Top politicians and everything. We can run all the
rumour pieces off the back of it, denying them all but
making out Stifford might have dirt on 'em. Half the
country's got something to hide and if they have,
Stifford had it on his files."
      "I like it," said the editor. "I like it a lot."
      "Yeah, and we have Stifford's co-operation. He'll
sell the story for half a mill, and give us some tips, as
long as nothing's tied back to him and it's all only
      "Excellent. We'll go with that. Anything else?"
    "Some nutter phoned up saying Fallafi was a
woman. Sex change. Said he had proof. Swiss clinics
and all that."
    "Fuck off. What does he think we are - stupid?"
      Mr F. was the man you turned to if you wanted the
      He was the man if you wanted something
incredibly, appallingly, impossibly difficult done. If you
were hosting the World Cup and you got to the finals
and you wanted the other team to play badly enough
so you won; if you were a world-famous princess
hounded by the press and wanted to fake your own
death and disappear forever; if you wanted to destroy
the World Trade Centre for the insurance and make
believe a Saudi billionaire with a small penis did it; or
you just wanted the offices of the publicity guru Max
Stifford burgled; Mr F. was the man for you. He
brought down governments and installed new ones in
the blink of an eye. He worked for anyone, anytime
and did anything, as long as the money was right.
      This morning he was mystified.
      He sat in the small flat he had hired in Sifolis and
stared at the piece of paper in the privacy of his own
kitchen. He lived alone in a small flat in a block in the
southern suburbs of Sifolis, the owner of a small
house-building concern. He had set the cover up at the
first sign of the crisis in the Sahara. It allowed him
freedom of movement around the city. A good
profession for a deep cover agent in Allyria. He had
businesses like this all over the world.
      The message that morning from London was

    priority one most urgent/professor omar meheishi,
height 160cm, weight 180 pounds, hair black, eyes
brown, heavy build/address, al ahram avenue of the
revolution, sirte/address under heavy guard/extreme
repeat extreme caution advised/meheishi believed
chief sabha chemical biological weapons research
facility/believed may repeat may be initiating
contact/believed still at private address/approach and
ascertain intentions/terminate repeat terminate if

      The message intrigued Mr F. To approach a
heavily guarded house and initiate contact with a man
who only might be sympathetic, in such a senior
position, was a joke. The kind of assignment you were
taught had to be a trap. People didn't do this sort of
thing anymore. The Allyrians had tried entrapments in
the past, more subtly than this. Yet London did not
think that way this time, and the only reason must be
they thought the prize worth the cost. A high-level
agent, deep in the Allyrian chemical weapons
establishment, when the country was about to go to
war with America. London would pay anything for a
coup like that. Why now? MI5 must have had a hint the
Allyrians were planning something, something
connected with the fact that they were shortly going to
lose a war with the most powerful nation on earth. And
that must have frightened London more than anything.
If this man was offering details of what the Allyrians
were planning, he must be a very foolish man, or a
very desperate one. He would already be under
suspicion. It only made Mr F.'s job harder.
      Mr F. was careful. He was an obsessive checker -
that was why he had lived so long. It took him half an
hour to get out of his apartment, checking the gas and
electricity were off. That afternoon, having told the two
men who worked for him he would be out of the city for
a few days, he drove along the coast in his battered
grey builder's van. The journey was dangerous in
itself. The corniche and the coastal strip had become
an armed camp in preparation for an American move
to land troops from the sea. Tanks and artillery were
dug in all along the road and he was stopped every
couple of kilometres.
      With the damage done from bombs and missiles,
his cover was good.
      The soldiers, nervous and ill-at-ease, were neither
interested in, nor surprised to see, a builder having to
make an emergency call. But it only needed an over-
zealous patrol commander to make a phone call to
check his story and he would be in difficulties. Luckily
most private phones had ceased to function. His cover
was good, but by no means impenetrable. He could
live, talk and think as an Allyrian, as he could in more
than twenty other countries of the world. He had
survived this long by following the cardinal rules.
Check, check and check again. Never draw attention
to yourself. Always work at your own pace, so that you
can plan sufficiently. With this assignment he could do
neither. Urgent - the message had said. Urgent agents
ended up dead.
      He followed the coast road east into the desert
before it rejoined the sea. Out in the gulf to his left, the
sun sank and shimmered on the water. Further out, he
knew, lay an armada of ships. Along here, the coast
was less militarised, though there were still tanks and
troops on his right dug in on the hills, and roadblocks
every five kilometres. He reached Sirte in the late
evening, as the last glows of the sun sank below the
horizon. It was the best part of the day, for guards
were coming off shifts, he had learned from
experience, and were least alert.
     Yet the address would be difficult. It was in a
residential area in the small, affluent city. There were
no cafes and restaurants to provide cover here, let
alone ones that would stay open with air raids every
few hours. The other problem he saw as he drove past
the well-lit house. An army truck outside and troops all
around the house. Two Mukhabarat men were parked
in a car further up the street, sticking out like sore
thumbs. The house was practically a fortress, and
even with his cover he stuck out in an area like this.
How the hell did London expect him to get inside?
     Still - that was what they were paying him for...

     He had to wait a night before he began to see the
     He drove back into the town and parked up in a
quiet side street and slept in the back of the van. The
next morning he was back in the target street, parked
several hundred yards from the house, behind the
Mukhabarat car. Now his presence there was obvious,
and dangerous, but there was nowhere else he could
go and keep the house in sight. If the Mukhabarat men
became suspicious, he would have to pretend to have
a problem with the van.
     At eight a car appeared outside the house and
there was activity at the front. A man who might or
might not have been Meheishi - binoculars would have
looked out of place in a builder's van - got into the car
and left. The truck went with them, as did the
Mukhabarat car. An hour later, a woman and children
appeared and were also driven away.
     Mr F. began to see the outlines of a plan. He
made another pass of the house, and this time saw
only two soldiers at the front, bored. It would be
dangerous, but London would not have asked him to
do this if they had not been desparate. With a
truckload of troops outside the house the rest of the
time, there was no other way. He drove several
kilometres from the house, without hitting a roadblock,
and parked up in another side street. In the back of the
van, he opened a large ten-litre paint bucket, taking a
small sealable plastic bag that lay submerged in the
paint. He cleaned it off as best he could before
opening it. The bag contained the things he would
need. He also collected some food, bread and water.
He locked the van and set off back towards the house.
Dressed in his stained, paint-covered overalls, the
guards hardly gave him a look. A man painting a
house is recognisable the world over and excites no
suspicion, as long as his overalls are sufficiently dirty.
     He was able to get a much closer look at the
house. Two guards at the front, but what looked like a
lot of cover around the back. It was a colonial-era villa
on a corner, with an extensive garden at the rear,
walled off from the road. When he got around the
corner, Mr F. scanned all around him quickly to check
he was unobserved, then hopped on to the wall and
     Now everything became much more dangerous.
His mind switched to automatic, a mode instilled by
long hours of training for assignments just like this. He
stood crouched in the bushes in the garden for a full
ten minutes, getting his bearings and making sure he
had not been seen. There were no further guards and
no sign of activity from the house. No lights showed,
even in the early morning dusk.
     Once he was satisfied he moved across to the
rear door of the house and waited for another five
minutes. By this time he was fairly sure the house was
deserted and the guards at the front would stay there.
He did not want to have to kill them and abort the
mission, for that would alert the Allyrians. The back
door took only a moment to unlock, once he had
checked there were no alarm systems. Inside, he
stood in the corner of the kitchen for another ten
minutes, ready to flee, attuning himself to the quiet of
the house. It was important to get the feel of a place.
He checked again for internal alarm systems, but
instinct told him there would be no pressure pads or
heat sensors. This man was a technician - not a spy -
and he had a truckload of troops around the house, at
least when he was there. Presumably he still worked at
the chemical facility, despite the hazardous journey.
But the family might come back any minute. He made
a quick inventory downstairs. It was comfortable, the
house of a successful man who had risen to the
summit of his profession. Mr F. wondered why he
should want to betray his country, then put the thought
from his mind.
     The upstairs was equally comfortable. A large
main bedroom and several children's rooms, a study,
bathrooms, an access panel to a loft. The study was
crowded with a desk, a computer and shelves of bio-
chemical textbooks. This would be where the target
worked. The access panel to the loft was
disappointing, in the hallway outside the study, rather
than in the study itself, but it would do. He stopped to
make sure of an escape route. One of the bedrooms
had a window that gave onto a section of sloping roof
with only a short drop to the garden. If he had to make
an emergency escape, he could use it and kill anyone
in the garden with his silenced pistol. He went back
into the hallway. Standing on the bannisters, he
pushed the access panel back and hauled himself up
into the darkness of the loft above. It was dusty, full of
boxes, and as hot as an oven. But it was safe, and he
had food and water, so he was not worried. He settled
down to wait.
      The wife and children came back in the middle of
the day. He listened to them as they came in, the
mother scolding one of the girls. Apart from the
occasional scream of a bomber coming in from the
carriers out to sea and the anti-aircraft fire that rose to
meet it, it was the only sound he had heard. At one
point came the dull thumps of explosions along the
coast, but apart from that silence. He sat cross-legged
on the floor joists, head bowed and heart slowed,
      This was the trick that took years to learn. The
ability to sit still and silent, sometimes only a few yards
from your enemy, for hours, even days, at a time.

     The Professor came back in the evening. Mr F.
heard the sound of the truck first. He moved silently
across to the access panel in the floor and dropped
through it to the passageway beneath. He crossed
over into the study and took up a position in the corner
of the room.
      This was where things became unpredictable. The
target might not enter the room alone, and if he did, his
first reaction whether he wanted to make contact or
not might be to shout or run. All the time, there were
twenty heavily armed soldiers outside. This was where
luck helped, and Mr F. hated to depend on luck. But
there was no other way. He made sure knife and
silenced pistol were to hand, and stood in the corner.
He carried a grenade as well, more to create a
diversion than anything else. He hoped he would not
have to use it. It was another hour before the
Professor came upstairs. He was alone. He went into
one of the bedrooms first, then came into the study.
He did not turn on the overhead light - instead he went
to the desk and turned on the spotlamp there. He also
opened the window that gave on to the street outside.
Any shouts in the room would be heard by the guards
outside. Mr F. assessed the fact and accepted it. What
followed would have to be quiet, that was all. He
walked silently across the room to stand behind the
      One hand went round the front of the man's head,
to clamp over the mouth, the other pressed the knife
blade into the throat hard enough so only a lateral
movement would slit the throat. The man tensed, but
did not struggle.
      "Be silent. Do not move or you will die," Mr F.
      They stood locked together for a full two minutes.
The scientist was frozen with terror, feeling the knife at
his throat and the hand over his mouth. Mr F. knew he
would be terrified, and knew also it was important to
give him time to calm enough so that when he
released him, the man did not panic. He waited. Finally
he spoke.
     "I have a gun as well as the knife. If you make a
sound, I will kill you, your wife, and your children
downstairs. The gun is silenced. No-one will hear. Nod
once if you understand."
     The scientist nodded and Mr F. thought: maybe
this will come off after all.
     "I am going to take my hand away. Remember the
gun is silenced. Make no sound at all and don't move."
     Inch by inch, feeling for the intake of breath that
would precede a shout, he began to take his hands
away. There was no shout. The scientist didn't even
move. Instead he whispered hoarsely.
     "Who are you? What do you want?"
     Mr F. pulled the gun out and kept it ready. "I wish
only to talk to you."

      It did not take long, for there was little to tell. They
talked for ten minutes, Mr F. memorising everything.
All the time he kept the gun trained on the Professor,
though he realised quickly he would not need it. The
scientist was genuine. Downstairs they could hear the
sounds of the children playing. Meheishi had nearly
done when he paused.
      "There is one thing you must know, you must tell
your government."
      "If either the Americans or your government use
nuclear weapons against Sifolis, the bomb will be
detonated. The man carrying it has explicit
      "And this man is already in London?"
      "Yes. I don't know how he got there, but he's
      Mr F. did not allow the enormity of what he had
been told to sidetrack him. The knowledge was
useless unless it got back to London.
      "Go back downstairs," he said. "Say nothing to
your wife, or anyone else. I was never here. You
      "You can take this information to London?"
      "How will you get out of the house?"
      "Out of the child's bedroom window. Go
downstairs. If you have heard nothing in five minutes,
come back up and close the window."
      "But there are guards in the garden."
      "They will not see me. Go."
      Meheishi did as he was bidden. He felt at peace,
for the first time in months. Whatever happened now,
he had done something. He would be able to look
Raisa in the eyes again, would be able to look at the
picture of his son, knowing he had sought to prevent
the holocaust he had helped create. Five minutes
later, he was closing the window in the bedroom.
There had been no sound - the man had got away
past the guards. How had he done it? Meheishi did not
know. He was still too shocked by the man's presence
to think.
      He went back to his wife and children.
      Three feet above his head, back in his hiding
place under the roof, Mr F. settled down to wait until
morning, when the truck and the troops and the
Professor would have gone and he could make his
getaway unseen. His mind raced. If speed had been
the only consideration, he would have taken the risk of
a getaway past the guards now, so that he would have
been back in Sifolis later that night to broadcast to
London. But not with this. London would pay very good
money to hear this.
     He settled down for a long night.
     In London, the British prime minister stared at the
MI6 chief for a full minute, then cast his eyes out of the
window to the London dawn. The sun was breaking
over Parliament Square, light creeping slowly down the
buildings like a yellow tide. Clive Clements, the MI6
chief, stared down at the notepad in front of him. He
faced his worst, and last, defeat. After this he would
resign. He could never remember a Cabinet so quiet..
     Nobody spoke and nobody looked at one another.
The room was crowded with ministers, service chiefs,
nearly fifty people in all. Yet in the distance a dog
could be heard. If anyone had dropped a pin right
then, the noise would have been deafening.
     Predictably, the prime minister was the first to
recover and react. His voice was soft, reasonable, the
calm before the screaming, apocalyptic storm. It
sounded like he was explaining a problem to moronic
children at school. He stared at the head of MI6, then
down at the desk in front of him.
     "Let's go over this again so that we are absolutely
clear - we can deal with the sackings later on. What
you're saying is that we have a man, already in
London, who is armed with a chemical bomb that can
wipe out the best part of a city? We don't know who he
is; we have no name, no picture, no face. He could be
any age, any shape, any colour. He could be walking
up and down the street outside selling fucking ice
creams. We only know he is not Allyrian. His
designated target is London, though that could
change, and civil defence equipment would be useless
against the device. We know this PFIB agent is
extraordinarily potent, designed to envelope an area of
several square miles within a matter of hours, and
remain persistent for up to six days."
     His voice was icily soft.
     "Anything else I should know?"
     The MI6 chief shook his head like a naughty
     The Prime Minister turned to Professor Walter
Shelling, head of chemical and biological weapons
research at Porton Down.
     "Erm... Just as a matter of interest, how many
could die?"
     The chemical weapons chief, still stunned by what
he had heard, shook his head and tried to gather his
thoughts. He had been looking out of the window.
Odd. There was a man selling ice creams down
     "The problem with this development of PFIB, as
far as we know, is three-fold - its potency, persistence,
and the way it attacks the human system. If it is
disseminated in liquid form via a bomb, the particles
are initially lighter than air, so on first detonation, it kills
only those within an immediate radius of the explosion;
say, a kilometre. The particles rise, reacting with
moisture in the air. The moisture increases the lethality
of the particles, and also their weight, so they begin to
sink. They descend at different speeds, some taking
minutes, some days. Depending on prevailing wind
conditions, they leave the atmosphere within a much
greater area lethal for up to six days. The agent
attacks through the skin and penetrates charcoal, so
conventional protection is useless."
     "How many people?" The prime minister's voice
was flat.
     "Depends on where it was detonated. Prevailing
winds, cloud cover, that sort of thing."
     "How many people?"
     The scientists shrugged and shook his head. "I've
honestly no idea. Without any evacuation, and the
bomber might switch targets if we evacuate, we might
lose a million people. Maybe more. The important
thing is not to panic."

     Everyone panicked. There was no more silence. It
took the Prime Minister five minutes to make his voice
heard. Eventually there was quiet.
     "Our hands are tied in different ways. We can't put
the population in gas masks, for they'll do no good,
and start a panic the like of which we have never seen.
We can't evacuate, because the bomber might
detonate as a response, or he might move in the
chaos to another city. Again, we would have a panic.
Nor can we send nuclear weapons against Sifolis,
because we're assured if we do that, the bomb will be
detonated. So we're left with two options, as far as I
can see. We tell the Americans we are being held to
ransom and we may lose a million people if we make a
move against Allyria. We tell them to call their
operation off - cancel the invasion. Where does that
leave us? Fallafi's triumphant, humiliating the
Americans completely, with a free hand over the oil.
He'll be unstoppable. And we're left with a madman
threatening us. Two fucking madmen. If the Americans
go home, the reason will come out within hours, and
we are left with panic anyway. In other words, no
option whatsoever..."
     "What's the other one?" asked the defence
     The prime minister was staring at Frank Carter,
MI5 chief, his eyes wide.
     "You and your boys find him, Frank. I don't care
how much it costs, who you have to torture, who you
have to kill. Find this man and destroy him. Then we
go in and finish that psychopath once and for all.
Fallafi better hope the Americans get him first. Before
we do."

      Even if they had to look for a needle in a
haystack, some calm descended on the meeting. At
least they had something to work on. It was decided to
mobilise half the army. This could be done within 24
hours, and could be ordered with the excuse it was an
ultra-cautious response to the crisis in the Sahara
without provoking a panic yet. The real problem was
how to hunt for the bomber, using the full resources of
the state, without it getting out what they were hunting
for. Even the most experienced counter-terrorism
forces in the world were not equipped to deal with a
man who, with one flick of a switch, could destroy a
city. Eventually, the meeting came to an end. It was
left to the prime minister to sum up.
      "We have a manhunt on our hands, that has to be
done with almost no leads and on the quiet as well.
What we do with this man when we find him is another
matter. But that doesn't concern us now. We're looking
for a single man, and we have nothing on our side, not
even time. All police leave will be cancelled. You can
draw on them and army reserves for manpower as
much as you need. Find the man." The words seemed
    "Find him."

    When the Cabinet had filed out, the Prime
Minister stared into space for a long time. Then his
eyes lit up. He buzzed his personal secretary.
    "Bring me the file on immigration - the stuff on
new European immigration."
    "You want to look at immigration - now?"
    The Prime Minister nodded, his eyes gleaming.
They might be needing some more people soon...
     Somewhere inside Meheishi he had always known
it would end like this.
     It was supper time in Sifolis and for once there
was no sound of Yankee bombers over the city. Raisa
had cooked a thin vegetable soup for the scientist and
the girls. There were food shortages throughout the
town and the market had ceased to operate under the
bombers. Meat was impossible to come by. They had
barely sat down when a truck drew up outside and the
urgent sound of army boots clattering to the ground
smashed the silence. Meheishi listened and put down
the spoon in his hand. He knew exactly what was
about to happen - he had expected it for some time
now. Perhaps the agent had been from the
Mukhabarat after all. Perhaps he had been caught. It
no longer mattered.
     He tried to picture his son's face; the boy would
give him strength to face what was to come. He had
done his best for him. Allah would protect him now. He
prayed Allah would protect Raisa and the girls. From
outside, there were shouts.
     He stretched a hand over the table to Raisa.
Frowning, she took it.
     "What is it?"
     "Raisa, you have always known I loved you,
haven't you?"
     "Of course."
     He turned to the girls. "And you two. You have
known it too?"
     His daughters looked at him.
     With a child's intuition they were already terrified,
and both were beginning to cry. And then from outside
more shouts, and the noise of boots thumping up the
driveway, and the crash as the door was kicked open
with a splintering roar, and it was the end.

      They took him to the military control centre in the
oasis town of Jufrah, two hundred kilometres south.
No government limousine this time. He lay face down
in the back of an open truck, hands manacled behind
his back, his face pressed hard against the freezing
metal of the floor. He did not feel the cold, for his face
burned with the impact of a rifle butt which had
smashed the cheekbone. It had been wielded by the
commander of the guard detail, and Meheishi had
never known such pain. They gave him a swift,
rudimentary beating, then threw him into the truck.
      He lay in agony for the three hour drive south.
      Twice, through clouds of pain, he heard aircraft fly
overhead, incredibly close. He prayed the truck would
be hit by bombers and he would be spared, but their
targets had already been allotted to them, and they
flew on. Then he passed out. He came to in a large
cell, twenty feet by thirty, manacled to a wall. The walls
and floor were rough stone concrete, with no window,
the light coming from a bare bulb overhead. His cheek
was in agony, grotesquely swollen. There was a kind
of peace in knowing he had only a simple task now - to
die as quickly as possible.
      Of course, there were people to make sure it
wasn't that easy.
      Salam, the Allyrian secret police chief, came in
within an hour. He looked exhausted, deep smudges
under his eyes and above his jowly cheeks. With him
were two men Meheishi had not seen before.
       They wore boiler suits.
       Meheishi's chest seemed to be caving in on his
heart, crushing it. He felt breathless. Everything must
have an end, he told himself. Even this. Salam came
over and knelt by him, smiling gently, looking at him
with curiosity. His voice was gentle, a whisper.
       "What did it say? Your message on the computer.
What did it say, Omar?"
       Meheishi tried to speak, but could manage only a
sigh. Salam smiled.
       "You will tell me what you told them, Omar. You
will tell me. But not yet. Let's have some fun, shall
       He reached out and cupped Meheishi's smashed
face in his hand, ignoring the blood and saliva that
drooled on to his fingers. He wrenched it round so
Meheishi was looking at him. Meheishi gasped.
       "You see Omar, you have simply saved us the
trouble of telling them ourselves. No damage is done.
But I want to know what was in that message. And you
will tell me, Omar, but not before we've had our fun,
eh? We must have our fun. Don't you agree? With a
little music, perhaps?"
       He released his grip, standing up and wiping his
hand on a towel. A doctor came in to administer an
adrenalin shot to keep Meheishi awake. When the
doctor had left, Salam signalled to one of his
assistants who had brought a stereo player into the
cell. The man pressed a button and the strains of
Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries poured out.
       "This is my favourite, Omar!" Salam shouted
above the music. "You're going to love it!"
      And then they went to work. Meheishi was laid out
flat on a bench brought into the room. The two
assistants worked on his feet; Salam concentrating on
the smashed face. The cheekbone had now
disintegrated so much Meheishi's eye socket was
beginning to fall apart. The eye swivelled
uncontrollably in the screaming face, looking
perpetually surprised, as if everything was a new
discovery - which in a sense it was. Meheishi told them
everything of course, within the first minutes, his voice
shouting incoherently. The message to the Israeli
professor, the visit by the agent; what he had told the
man, what he had looked like. Salam had been
shocked by the visit of the agent, and had pressed for
details. The drugs kept Meheishi from fainting. Salam
kept up a running commentary in a cheerful voice
when he was not screaming questions at the scientist,
like a school master trying to jolly up a bunch of bored
      "How are we doing, Omar? Are we enjoying
      They continued for nearly an hour, until Meheishi's
feet had disintegrated and his face was ruined, but
they were experts at this so they wasted no more time
on him. Salam made sure his one good eye still
worked, so he could still join in the fun.
      Raisa and the two daughters were led crying into
the room, screaming when they saw the bloated,
bloodied and one-eyed fish in the corner that was their
father. They were raped, beaten and shot in front of
his one working eye. The interrogators took their time
over it, revelled in it, for they knew he had nothing
more to tell. When it was over, they gave Meheishi
another injection, to keep him awake for the night
before he died. Salam came and knelt by his side. He
was breathing heavily and sweating and his voice was
the intimate whisper of the torturer.
     "Did you really think you could send a message -
even through the university - and we would not find
out? Did you really think that, Omar?" He reached out
a hand, stroking the bloodied hair of the scientist
whose one remaining eye still stared, wide open, at the
wall. "Your betrayal has cost the lives of your family,
Omar. We will kill you tomorrow. But we'll give you the
night to get through first."
     The two assistants, boiler suits soiled and filthy,
dragged the bodies outside.
     They left Meheishi alone for the final time.
     Farsi al-Soun, the al-Qeada agent awaiting
Osman's arrival in England, sat at the wooden kitchen
table in his home in Crawley, southern England. He
was a tough fighter, but also an experienced one. He
was a fighter, a man of action, a man who thrived on
violence. But he knew that sometimes you needed to
wait, you needed to plan, you needed patience.
     He sat at the table, furiously impatient.
     It had been a month since the meeting with Salam
in Cairo, and in that time he had done and heard
precisely nothing. Immediately he returned from Egypt
he had gone into London and confirmed that one
hundred thousand dollars had been deposited in his
account from a bank in Luxembourg he had never
heard of. Never in his life had he possessed so much
money. If his neighbours in Crawley had known they
would have battered the door down to get at him.
     He had done as the Allyrian asked, and
suspended participation in al Qeada operations. It had
raised eyebrows, but as the senior agent, his
judgement was not questioned, at least openly. Over
time, if he had nothing to show for it, it would be. Since
then he had done nothing. It was galling, for the timing
could not have been worse. Al-Qeada was losing the
war with MI5. The British always seemed to be one
jump ahead of them. The organisation's cells around
the city had been destroyed. His plan to disrupt the
2012 Olympics had been foiled all along the line, with
bombs discovered and suicide bombers ambushed
and killed.
     This was a time to step up activity, to keep morale
high, not curtail it. Doing nothing was galling for a man
schooled on action. The war against the infidels was
going badly, and he was sitting on his hands doing
     He was startled from his reverie by the sound of
his brother returning from work. The family owned a
small electrical business in Crawley - useful for certain
supplies bombers sometimes required. The house he
and his brother shared was one of thousands across
the artificial town, knocked up in the sixties and now
providing homes for the poorest of the poor. It had a
front room, a tiny kitchen, two smaller bedrooms, and
a washroom. There were dusty concrete yards to front
and back. The house had few windows, and was dirty.
Al-Soun shared a bedroom with his brother, the other
was for their parents. It was better than one of the
tower blocks, but not much.
     Farsi greeted his brother Yasif. They were
different, but close. Farsi al-Soun had risen fast up the
ranks of al-Qeada because he was not only intelligent
but also not frightened to get blood on his hands. Yasif
had been weaker and more passive, content to build
up the family business and do only low-grade jobs for
the organisation. The arrangement worked well, and
provided Farsi wth a convincing home life - useful if he
had ever been pulled in by the police. He never had
been - and he put that fact down to his skill in evading
     He would have been horrified to know the real
reason. His brother was an informer..
     Farsi had not told Yasif of his meeting in Cairo, for
the Allyrian had warned him not to. But the brothers
had few secrets, and he was wondering whether he
needed to carry on with such silence. He wondered if
the man would come at all. Yasif set about making tea
and an evening meal. Their parents would return when
the shop closed. Yasif looked at his brother.
      "If you sit at that table any longer, you will become
joined with it."
      "What would you suggest?"
      "You could help in the shop more often. It is your
livelihood too."
      It was a familiar argument. Farsi shook his head.
      "The shop runs all right without me. I have other
      "Work that means sitting on your backside for long
      "Our operations are suspended at the moment. I
told you."
      "I don't understand why you should stop
operations now."
      "And I told you before I can't discuss it," said
      Why not? he thought. He is my brother. The man
will probably not come anyway - what harm can it do?
      "Actually it is not the army council's decision. It's
mine. You remember I was away last month?"
      Yasif listened carefully. This might be something
useful. Farsi went on.
      "I went to Cairo. To meet an Allyrian - a powerful
man. They are sending someone here, to complete a
mission of great importance. I am to assist him."
      Yasif stared at his brother. "What mission?"
      "I don't know. To do with the war with the
Americans. I don't know what. I was told to wait, and
remove myself from operations, and help if he needs
me. I was given money for him. If he does'nt contact
me within six months, the money is ours. I'm beginning
to think he won't come - it's been a month."
     "And you know no more than that? You don't
know what he's here to do?"
     "No. Nothing more. That's why I sit here all day,
doing nothing. I am waiting."
     "I see," said Yasif.
     He poured tea for himself and his brother, his
hand shaking. It was not much, but it was something.
He would receive money for the heroin he needed
more than ever. He was due to meet his contact in two
night's time. He could hold out until then. Yasif sipped
his tea, his mind racing. Farsi sat opposite him,
impatience relieved by telling someone. His brother
was obviously impressed and he felt a certain pride.
He asked himself the same question, again and again.
     What harm could it do?
      Cohen nearly aborted the meeting in Crawley. He
met the other two informants in the park south of the
town centre and got nothing. They stared at him like
dumb helpless sheep with nothing to give or offer, but
needing the money anyway, thank you very much.
They gave him information that was funny in its total
uselessness, soap operas of banality in the hope their
meaninglessness would not be apparent. He
wondered if it wouldn't be better to get back to London
and the search for the bomber. The last few days had
been a nightmare, and it would only get worse. MI5 did
not even know where to start. He had cancelled
meetings before. Yasif would show the following week
- he needed the money.
      The very fact the informers told him nothing drove
him on.
      Al-Qeada had closed down operations over the
last few weeks, no question; no attacks on the police,
no bombs, no nothing. They knew something. Either
they were preparing for it, or they had been told to
stand aside. The two things could not be coincidence.
He drove through the town deep in thought, trying to
keep the image of Jo and Finlay from his mind. What
he really wanted was to race back, pick them up and
get them out of the city as fast as possible. In
Wiltshire, or the countryside of Wales or anywhere but
this. The thought of his family still in London made his
heart thud against his chest.
      None of them, from Carter on down, were thinking
quite straight. They had never faced anything like it,
and they were starting to panic. This was the worst.
They had thought they were invincible.
      Like fuck...
      Cohen parked a few hundred yards from the safe-
house and spent the usual half hour on tail-shaking
moves, walking away and boarding buses, jumping off
them, behaving like a madman, feeling absurd. The
exercises got only half his attention. He went into the
safe house, a modest bungalow in a recent urban
development. Yasif al-Soun was sitting drinking coffee
made by the agent who kept the house guarded and
manned. Another agent would be out back, watching.
Agent and informant greeted each other without
warmth. As always, Yasif looked like a paedophile up
for tax evasion; guilt and depravity oozing from every
pore. Cohen wondered how the man kept calm in front
of his brother and the others, who would do horrible
things to him if they found out.
      "Thank you for coming," he said, though gratitude
was irrelevant.
      "Do you have something for me?" al-Soun asked
with a nervous smile. "Because I have something for
      Cohen felt his heart quicken. Yasif had come up
trumps in the past. There was a light in his eyes now
which the MI5 agent had seen before.
      "What is it?" Cohen asked.
      "My brother has been told to withdraw from
operations. The army council has not met in weeks.
That is why things are so quiet."
      "Why?" Cohen spat the word out.
      "Farsi was called to Cairo last month. He only told
me three nights ago, otherwise I would have told you
before now."
      "He was called there to meet a man - a very
senior Allyrian. The Allyrian told him to withdraw and
keep himself from trouble. He gave him a lot of
      "Why?" Cohen tried to control his impatience.
      "Someone is coming to England to mount an
operation. A foreigner. We know no more about him.
My brother is to help him in any way he can. The man
will come from Allyria. It is to do with the war with the
      "But this man has not contacted you yet?"
      "What else?" Cohen nearly shouted the question
and Yasif looked crestfallen.
      "That is all. We know no more."
      "What do you mean, no more? Your brother must
know more."
      "I don't think so. I think he told me everything he
knows. We have to wait for this man to contact us."
      Cohen forced himself to calm down. Too much to
hope the Allyrians would have been stupid enough to
disclose details to al-Qeada when they must know it
leaked like a sieve. Yet if the bomber was already in
London, as they had been told by the scientist, why
hadn't he contacted Farsi already? There were three
possibilities. He wanted help only after the bomb had
been activated, with his escape; he wanted no help at
all; or he would be making contact any time now, from
wherever he was in England. The last sent shivers
down his spine. Finally - something. He could feel
tension grow in his chest. The way it always did when
you had your first break - even when you were
searching for a man who could destroy everything you
loved; everything you had ever known.
    They had contact.
    Yasif looked at him mournfully, wishing he had
made something up as he usually did.
    "I am sorry there is not more information. It is all
my brother knows. I am sure of it."
    Cohen clapped the drug addict's shoulder, and
gave him a smile. It was the first time he had smiled at
anyone in days. "Cheer up, Yasif. Maybe it's enough."
    The drive back to London took only an hour.

      Within a day Cohen was running the most
intensive surveillance operation in MI5 history. He
could not be sure the bomber would make contact. But
if he did, it would be their only chance to find him. In
rubbish bins, the boots of cars and in a variety of
disguises, MI5's best began a round-the-clock
surveillance of the al-Soun house. Two teams of
watchers worked twelve hour shifts. Another two
teams watched the small electrical store in the city
around the clock. Other teams followed anyone who
visited the shop back to wherever they were going,
then watched their homes and anyone who visited
them until they could be discounted. Teams in London
monitored telephone lines into both house and shop,
and the mobile phone used by the father for the shop's
business. Before long they had over 100 operatives at
      Within 24 hours, they had come up with...

    ... nothing.
      The search for the bomber went on. Police, MI5
and where there were not enough of either, army
intelligence were called in to visit and check every
hotel, guest house, pension and boarding house the
length and breadth of the country. Even brothels got a
visit. After the second day, Carter did some
calculations and figured out how long it would take. He
added campsites and bed and breakfasts to the list
and worked out they would finish around 2017. London
alone would take months.
      If the bomber had killed someone, committed any
crime, forgotten to pay a parking fine; his picture could
be used and the search revealed. In the meantime, it
could not be risked. The one advantage they had was
that he might not know his mission had been
discovered. They were hampered even by the season.
It was late spring - there were thousands of travellers
working their way around London; tourists,
businessmen, students, travellers, religious freaks,
hippies, journalists. Any one could be the person he
was looking for.
      The last problem was the worst.
      What would they do if they found him?
      All searchers, even though they did not know who
they were looking for, had been told on no account to
challenge anyone. Better to lose the target than
challenge unprepared. But the list of tourists,
businessmen and travellers whose stories could not be
checked without their knowledge was growing. It didn't
mean they were the bomber, but it didn't mean they
      Even discounting a suspect was a nightmare. An
MI5 agent visiting hotel X, and told there was
businessman Y staying, on a passport from country Z,
could take the details and check them. His business,
his family, the immigration authorities of his country
could be contacted to see if his story added up,
without his knowing. There were plenty of cases where
it was not so simple. For holidaymakers, in particular,
the details on their passport might be the only ones to
hand, and passports could be stolen or forged. Unless
MI5 could find the family, or immigration authorities of
the home country had details of departure, it was
impossible. Within another twenty four hours there
were several thousand names who could be the
bomber but whose stories had not checked out.
     Carter was beginning to despair.
     Cohen and Hoffman, running the Crawley
operation, were called into his office that evening. All
three were exhausted, with drawn faces and stinking
clothes that had not been changed for days. The
watch on the brothers and the shop had achieved
nothing, except that all visitors had been checked and
were harmless. Friends, relatives, customers. Only
one al-Qeada operative, low grade.
     Carter looked at his two subordinates.
     "We don't have a date yet - the prime minister is
having to go softly in asking in case he seems too
keen, but the Americans will launch Total Itegrity within
two weeks, maybe sooner. The air war is nearly
complete, so is the build-up in Estefan. Within a week
of the invasion, they'll land troops on the coast and it'll
be obvious they are going for Fallafi. They'll only give
us a go date a few days before the invasion." He
sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "So - ten days
at the most. That is the best deadline we can hope to
get. Ten days." He looked at Cohen. "You are sure al-
Soun is telling all he knows?"
       Cohen tried to think. His brain was fogged by lack
of sleep. He was still sure Yasif wasn't lying to him. But
it didn't mean Farsi wasn't lying to Yasif. Someone was
bound to be lying to someone.
       "I think we give it two more days. If we've nothing
then, we pull Farsi in and find out what he knows for
sure. I don't think it will do us any good. Give it two
more days - I think the benefits would be worth the
       Carter nodded, paused, nodded again. He, too,
was reluctant to blow their only hope of a contact.
There was something else he had to say.
       "Another thing. I've been saying this to everyone,
although remember - you never heard it from me. I'll
say it only once. If you want to get people out of the
city in the next week, I understand. Do it quickly and
quietly. Absolute security essential. But if you want to
do it - it's understood."
       He got up and went out. Hoffman stared at
Cohen. Hoffman had no family in the city, only a
girlfriend. He looked at Cohen.
       "What?" said Cohen.
       "Dammit, man. Are you going to get them out?
You have family out west, don't you?"
       Cohen thought of what he could tell Jo that would
make her go. Talk of terrorist threats would be
useless. A new branch of Cath Kidston opening in
Bristol? Maybe. He shrugged.
       "In a couple of days. Like the man said." If they
still had nothing then, he thought, he'd tell her
everything and make her go.
Fuck security. In two days they might all be dead.
     While Cohen pondered this, far out in the
Mediterranean, Admiral John "Hammer" Hornby, USS
Ronald Reagan captain and commander of the Sixth
Fleet, was putting the finishing touches to the knockout
blow that would bring Ultimate Democracy to a
triumphant climax in time for independence day back
     A week after the land battle commenced, when
troops and tanks from Estefan would have pushed into
Allyria heading for the coast, 10,000 US Marines
would land a hundred kilometres from Sifolis. If there
was any attempt at a last stand in front of the capital,
the Marines would come in from behind and smash it.
Operation Rabbit Punch. A force of three thousand
Marines took part in a live-fire, top-secret rehearsal on
a deserted shore off the coast of northern Israel. All
went well right up until the moment the boys hit the
     Absolute secrecy was needed, but of course
everyone knew.
     The Marines never stood a chance. Like a modern
Gallipoli, they struggled heroically but were beaten
back by wave after wave of journalists and Russian
prostitutes with a mixture of blowjobs, knee-tremblers
and - in the case of journalists - on-the-spot live
interviews. The Marines never got off the beaches.
The whole thing was a farce. Casualties were heavy -
twenty three cases of VD, two cases of HIV
transmission, and a Marine broke an ankle tripping
over a TV crew's camera box. Two others disappeared
and were never seen again.
     Admiral Hornby surveyed the carnage and after
six hours, called it off. The Marines re-embarked and
sailed back to the fleet.
     It had been a disaster.
     It wasn't exactly the Hilton.
     Buried shamefacedly in the back streets of
London's King's Cross, the hotel was a shambling
wreck on its last legs threatening to fall into the street
below at any minute. Through the open window, the
early morning sounds of a city groaning into life filtered
into the room. The building was buried in the station
smog. From the balcony, Osman could look out along
the narrow, bustling street to the main road leading
into the centre of the city. He almost felt at home here.
     Almost, but not quite.
     He turned to look at the silver metal case that lay
under the bed. Now he was within walking distance of
his objective, he was filled with conflicting emotions.
Pride, that he had made it this far. Loneliness, for he
was in a foreign country and among foreign people,
and he hated them. He could not get used to the
alienation, not did he want to. If he did he would relax,
and there was still work to do. He sat staring out over
the city, and ate a room-service breakfast of coffee,
danish and yoghurt. He was still eating far less than he
expected to, for his stomach had shrunk in the desert
and his body had wasted away. But the ache in his
legs was at last beginning to leave him, without an
hour's walk in the morning to get rid of it. He got up
and put on a dark jacket, part of a western suit he had
bought in Cairo, from which he had removed all labels.
After so long in the desert, hotels made him
uncomfortable. He was happier in the open. He had
preferred sleeping in the car on the journey across
Europe. He had checked into the hotel the night
before, using one of several forged Israeli passports
he had carried over the desert with him. It had excited
no interest, giving his profession as salesman - which
the suit matched. The Israeli address on the passport
did not exist. He had cropped his hair and shaved off
his beard in Cairo.
      After he had prayed, he sat at the table, sipping
more coffee, and studied a newspaper he had bought
the evening before. With a pen he moved down a list
of adverts in the back. Occasionally he would come to
one he would circle, and twice he underlined one
heavily. He was pleased - there were several
examples of what he was looking for. It was a simple
idea, but the best ones usually were. When he was
done, he packed and prepared to leave. The silver
metal case, with the bombs and the radio, he carried in
his left hand. The other hand, carrying the case with
his money, clothes and spare pistol, was free to drop it
at any time and reach for the pistol in a holster under
his left armpit. Now he was so close, he would leave
nothing to chance.
      The sad-looking old man at the gloomy reception
desk had been replaced by a woman of the same age
- presumably his wife. The daughter who had served
him breakfast was nowhere to be seen. He paid his bill
with cash, then went outside into the morning sun and
the crowds. It was another boiling day and London was
roasting. A hundred yards up the street, he caught a
taxi to the bus station.
      The policemen arrived nine minutes later. They
weren't hurrying, for this was one of a million calls and
already the fourth hotel on this street. They were
presented with the hotel register, and took the details
down. Two of the guests were single men - still in the
hotel - who might have qualified. Details of their
passports were taken, though they were not disturbed.
They would be checked out that day. The searchers
were more interested in guests who had already
checked out. They took the details of Osman's
passport and a description of him. Then they left.

     The strain was not just beginning to tell on MI5
faces - it was written all over them. The air in the office
turned sour with sweat, failure, fear, and cheap
aftershave. They reviewed progress which did not take
long since there had been none. Just a growing list of
possibles it was difficult to check, or not yet looked at -
there were not enough men and computers to do the
     "The thing I am worried about is a cross-over,"
said Carter wearily. "Even if we pick up his details in
one hotel, if he moves and checks into one we've
already visited, we get no correllation and we miss
him. It means we are going to have to check places
more than once."
     The others in the room said nothing. They had not
seen families or slept properly for four nights and there
wasn't much prospect of it happening any time soon.
     They were making no progress at all.
     Twenty miles south of them, in the rather less
salubrious surroundings of the Broadfield Estate in
Crawley, south of London, Rachel Garstein was busy
in the kitchen when the telephone rang, watching the
latest news about what was going on in the desert.
     Everything, everything, seemed to be about the
war nowadays. There was a piece about American
troops landing on the coast of Israel for some reason,
which didn't seem right but didn't concern her. The
Americans were friends and besides, nobody seemed
to be actually shooting at anything. Then there was a
story about all the scares about chemical weapons. It
had really taken off now. There were envelopes criss-
crossing America, criss-crossing Europe, criss-
crossing the world, filled with sugar, salt, talcum
powder, rat poison, bicarbonate of soda, cocaine,
washing powder, apple tea, you name it. Everyone
was getting in on it, trying to scare their friends and
have a joke. The government were talking about
making it illegal. Over on the other channel she
watched Ricki Lake. Even that was about the war.
Soldier Boy - I'm Dumping You - a selection of women,
most of whom seemed to be outlandishly fat, came on
to tell their boyfriends or husbands out in Estefan they
had been unfaithful - often with other women! - and
wanted a divorce. The programme had a live video
link-up (whatever that was) with the boys out in the
desert, to get their reactions on being dumped. It didn't
seem very fair, what with the war and all. A lot of the
boys cried.
     If it wasn't this war, it was the last one. Films
about the Iraq wars 10 and 20 years ago and all the
other wars the silly Americans had got themselves
involved in since they stopped fighting the Russians.
Rachel remembered the Russians.
       The whole world seemed to be obssessed by war.
       She was cooking a sumptious supper the whole
family would enjoy. The occasion was the graduation
of her son Benjamin. The boy had done well, and was
leaving with his girlfriend on a three-month tour of Asia
the following morning - a reward for hard work. She
would miss him terribly, but you had to let them go,
she knew that. So tonight was going to be special. She
wiped her hands free of olive oil and ran for the phone.
The man at the other end had been about to hang up -
she only just made it.
       "Hello. Who is this?"
       "Good afternoon," said Osman. He was standing
in a call box in the centre of the museum area of
London. "I am calling about the advertisement for the
       "Goodness. Already?" Mrs Garstein put down the
dishcloth. The advert had only gone in that morning.
With the money Benjamin's trip was costing, she was
anxious to get the flat they had bought for the boy
rented out as quickly as possible. That was why she
would not use an agency. They took fifteen per cent,
and did nothing for it, everyone said so. It was more
risky too. Agencies were less fussy - they took anyone,
criminals, lunatics, you name it. She sat down.
       "Well, how can I help?"
       "Is the flat still available?" The man had a gentle
voice, with a lilt to it she could not quite fathom. It was
a pleasant voice.
       "Oh yes, dear. You're the first caller."
     Osman felt relief. He went into his cover story,
trying not to appear too keen. There would be others.
     The thing was, it was only fair to tell her, he was
not having much luck with the rental agencies he was
trying. It was difficult because he had been abroad - in
Egypt actually - for the past ten years, working for a
computer firm. Consequently, he had no Israeli
employment references, and the English firm he
worked for were being slow about forwarding them.
Mrs Garstein said nothing, staring at the television
where an American soldier, learning that his wife was
divorcing him, collapsed into copious tears. Poor boy.
     He had had to come back to London
unexpectedly, Osman went on, because his father had
been taken ill. He let this hang in the air a little. He
only anticipated being here for six months - then he
would be returning to Egypt. He left the implication
clear. In six months, his father would be dead.
Because he and his wife could not supply references
immediately, they were looking for a place where they
could pay six month's rental and deposit in advance,
and none of the agencies seemed interested. Could
Mrs Garstein help? Would an arrangement like that be
suitable? He was mentioning all this now, of course,
because he would not have wanted to waste her time if
it wasn't. But she could see his problem?
     With the prospect of seven month's rental in
advance, Mrs Garstein could not only see the
television, but also his problem, its solution and
everything else besides, very clearly indeed. She
clucked sympathy.
     If he was willing to pay the money up front, she
was sure they could work something out. He wished to
move in immediately? Of course he did, what with the
difficulties of his father to sort out. That would suit her
and her husband perfectly, with Benjamin off in the
morning. As she listened to the quiet, softly-spoken
voice at the other end, she felt sure. He might have
been the first caller, but sometimes it just went that
way. You got lucky. Why didn't he and his wife meet
her at the flat the following morning, after she had said
goodbye to Benjamin at the airport? They could take a
look. If they liked it, they could sign a tenancy
agreement right then and there, give over the money,
and she could give them the keys?
      Osman, thinking quickly, said allas, that would not
be possible, as he had an appointment at the hospital.
He pretended confusion, then asked if he could ring
back in a few minutes while he tried to sort out the
problem. When he did so, after drinking a leisurely cup
of coffee in a cafe across the street, it was to tell her
that, yes, he had found a solution. His wife would
make the appointment at the hospital, while he would
be free to meet Mrs Garstein and see the flat, before
going on to the hospital himself. His wife would trust
his judgement. It was agreed. With assurances she
would be thinking of him in his time of trouble, he took
down the flat's address - in the north-east of the town -
and said goodbye. Mrs Garstein put down the phone,
having already decided he was suitable - you could
just tell - and went back to her cooking. Osman walked
back towards the bus station, near which he had
rented a small hotel room to store his bags. After
decades of terrorism, there was no left luggage at the
station. It might be only days before he was called on
to activate the devices he carried with him, and
destroy perhaps half the population of this alien city.
He would do it if ordered, and would be glad to do so,
for the hatred would never leave him.
      Yet he had lied to an old woman, and he felt
     Only a few miles away, Cohen was drowning.
     He would struggle to the surface, only to be
dragged down to the depths by an unknown assailant
who had him by the ankles and had been doing a lot of
weight training. An equally unknown benefactor had
him around the waist and was trying to pull him up, but
the benefactor was one of those puny sorts who
couldn't pull the skin off a rice pudding. Only when he
knew this did he panic, and only when he panicked did
he realise he was dreaming and wish to wake up, and
so he did so.
     It was to find Hoffman shaking him. He had fallen
asleep in the office.
     "I think we may have something," Hoffman said.
     "What?" Cohen felt clouds of sleep vanish at the
tone of the other man's voice.
     "An unidentified male, travelling as Jonathan
Silwan, staying in a hotel at King's Cross two nights
ago. The same man stayed at a hotel in St Malo two
nights before that. Passport forged, not stolen."
     Cohen thought. "Which means we have got one
bit of hard fact and one bit of loose theory. Both apply
to this man."
     "What do you mean?"
     "Well," said Cohen. "The illegals we have picked
up so far have been travelling on false passports. But
the passports have always been stolen. They were
issued all right - but not to the people using them. But
this Silwan passport number does not exist - it's a
forgery. The passport was never issued."
     "Which proves?"
     "Not much, but something. Most people don't go
to the trouble of forging passports - it's too difficult and
complicated. They steal them."
     "True enough. What's the loose theory?"
     Cohen passed a hand across an unshaven chin,
trying to get his exhausted mind to work.
     "How did this bastard plan to come here in the first
place? He knew he couldn't come by air - far too
dangerous, far too likely to be stopped and searched,
and impossible to get any sort of bomb through.
What's this in your bag, sir? - a fucking great bomb.
The same goes for any land crossing point, or most
ship ones, unless he came on a cargo boat. More to
the point, how did he get the fuck out of Allyria?"
     "Well..." Cohen sighed. "How did he? Allyria was
sealed off. This is going to sound a bit fanciful. But
Fallafi comes from a bedu family. It might appeal to
     "He comes across the desert, disguised as a
bedu. It's the only surefire way of avoiding border
controls, between Allyria and the rest of the world.
Think of it. There's twenty five thousand bedu walking
around the desert every day of the week - there's no
way the patrols would spot him if he was careful.
What's one bedu among twenty five thousand?"
     Hoffman stared, and Cohen went on.
     "And then Egypt, and Europe, and St Malo. A
straight line, all the way to London..."
     "It's possible," said Hoffman. "In fact, it's more
than possible."
     Cohen swung his legs from the desk. "The
bastard's here already." He took off out of the office at
a run.
      In London, Osman found the flat was in
somewhere called Elephant and Castle - just south of
the city centre. He spent some time trying to
understand the reasons for the name, then gave up.
These people were weird.
      It was a simple place with a front room and tiny
attached kitchen, a bedroom, bathroom, and a small
balcony which gave a view on to similar low-rise blocks
built around a small patch of dusty grass. Mrs Garstein
had done her best to clean it up after Benjamin's
departure, but there were still textbooks on the shelves
and student posters on the walls. With the university
only half a kilometre away, it was like a campus
apartment anyway. Simple, unremarkable,
      Osman sat in the lounge with the silly landlady,
drinking endless cups of awful coffee and finalising the
details. Without being asked he showed her his
passport and identity card, and she shoved his hand
away as if she were insulting him. She had looked into
his sad dark eyes and known right away that it would
be all right. Osman signed the tenancy agreement
according to the name on his second passport and set
of papers (he had five) so there was no link between
the hotels he had stayed at and this place. He handed
over six month's rental in cash and the month's deposit
and Mrs Garstein couldn't believe her luck. She went
into the kitchen to wreak more havoc with the coffee
pot and Osman sat back on the cheap settee. Mrs
Garstein had turned the television on to show him it
worked. As ever, the news was from the war.
     "It's awful. That lunatic Fallafi up to his old tricks
again," she shouted through from the kitchen.
     "Yes," said Osman.
     "They should have got rid of him years ago. He
was never anything but trouble." Cups and the kettle
clanged together.
     "And now they're saying he might have chemical
weapons and things and he might use them if they try
to get rid of him. You don't think he'd do that, do you?"
     "Probably not."
     He would move into a hotel tonight, reverting back
to his old passport, then move in here tomorrow, with
two sets of keys, a six month lease, and no questions
asked. Jonathan Silwan would have disappeared off
the face of the earth, and he - Osman - would have a
base. Tonight, he would contact Sifolis again. He
allowed himself a thin smile. He was in London - safe.
He had done his job. Now it was up to others to do
     Mrs Garstein came back in, carrying the coffee
     In the boiling heat of the Sahara and on the waves
of the Mediterranean the fastest and most
comprehensive military build-up in history was almost
complete. After only two months, everything was in
     Deep in the Allyrian desert an eight man team
from the British SAS was preparing for its third week
high on a mountainside. The men had fashioned a
shelter from a small fissure in the rock, and here they
lived, keeping an unseen round-the-clock surveillance
on the buildings - the Sabha chemical complex - far
below. They were not interested in individual comings
and goings. Their job was to report any sign stockpiles
of weapons kept at the facility were being moved. If
any fleet of trucks appeared, to negotiate the shattered
remnants of the road, their job would be to call air
strikes down on them. They kept up their vigil at night
with thermal imagers and night vision goggles.
     It was with surveillance like this the Allies hoped
their chief nightmare - that Fallafi would go down the
chemical or biological road - was not going to happen.
The SAS had been called out in regimental strength
for the first time since the Gulf War twenty years
before. Over fifteen patrols were dotted around the
country on surveillance missions, ready to call down
the wrath of the Allies should it be needed.
     It wasn't. A teenage computer hacker in Japan
more used to spending evenings in furious
masturbation over downloaded porn had got bored
one evening and hacked into the files of the US
Department of Defence. It only took five minutes to
mess up all the coordinates. Rather than keeping
Allyria's chemical weapons network under watch, the
SAS were monitoring three factories that made
washing powder, two olive oil processing plants, three
machine tool manufacturing facilities, a clothing sweat
shop and the headquarters of the Allyrian Vegetable
Growers' Union. Day after boiling day, night after
freezing night, nothing happened.
     For the SAS, it was a quiet war.

     For others, it was anything but.
     American, British, French, German, Japanese
tank crews practised live fire drills and skirmishing in
the sand marshes south-east of the Estefanian capital.
The American, British and French crews used live
ammunition, but after unfortunate incidents with
Estefanian civilians, it was thought prudent for the
German and Japanese to use only blanks. The
German and Japanese protested at this and sulked.
They drove back into the capital and on up the main
road north to Felatio eight hundred kilometres away,
forming up in a line on the road level with a dot on the
map called Koro Toro, champing at the bit for the first
action they had seen in 63 years. The rest followed
two days later. The tiny roadside town of clap-board
houses had previously had a population of two
hundred. It now played host to over fifty thousand
men. There were tanks and trucks and tents and
soldiers as far as the eye could see.
     Swarms of journalists, crazed by the heat, lack of
action and alcohol, swept up and down the town and
then up and down again, interviewing anyone and
everyone they could lay there hands on, many several
times over, until the local residents - never having
seen anything like it in their lives - were exhausted.
The man who owned Koro Toro's one hotel -
interviewed 47 times in 16 different languages - gave
up and fled south. He had been to the capital fifteen
years before - to the cinema to see James Bond. Even
the film had been nothing like this...

     In Estefan, General Turner, free from the scourge
of haemorrhoids, tore around his headquarters like a
whirling dervish in an ecstasy of military efficiency as a
round-the-clock service of transport planes continued
to pour in (minus their chemical lavatories). Giant
American container ships after their long journeys over
the Atlantic disgorged tens of thousands of tonnes of
supplies - food, water, ammunition, tools and spares,
mail, anything and everything an army needed. These
were loaded on to huge Galaxy transporters and flown
from the coast a thousand kilometres north-east to
Estefan. The runways at both airbases had been
doubled in length to take the huge planes. The airlift
was moving more than four hundred tonnes of
supplies up country every twelve hours.
     General Turner was in heaven. This was what he
had been born for.

     Over the heads of the troops, the AWACS
electronics planes, helicopters, fighters, bombers,
tankbusters and spy planes entered the last phase of
the air war.
     Fighter-bombers from Estefan and from carriers in
the Mediterranean flew sortie after sortie, the
symphony of destruction reaching a crescendo as they
targeted communications lines, transport networks,
troop and aircraft concentrations, and then when they
ran out of targets bombed them all again. Huge B2
aircraft continued to carpet-bomb the by-now
miserable excuse for an occupying army in northern
Estefan and what had been the two main roads from
Allyria, disrupting the few pitiful supplies sent south.
The Allyrians had allowed the foreign troops they had
defeated to die of thirst in the desert. Now they were
getting a taste of their own medicine.
     It was about the only thing they were getting a
taste of...

     In Washington, the Oval Office was tense with
suppressed excitement as the situation briefing drew
to a close. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was
winding up. His words painted the picture on which the
President would base his decision to go.
     "Mr President, the air force needs one more week
to establish Full Spectrum Dominance. Allyrian armed
forces will be crippled and resistance at the lowest
level we can get it to, consistent with casualty
projections for the campaign following. There's a trade-
off obviously. The longer the bombing goes on, the
better off we are."
     The President's voice was calm, measured,
statesmanlike, a man making history.
     "Give them an extra week to get this... Full
Spectral thing. But after that we go! I want this all
wrapped up and the boys home by the fourth of July."
     He looked around the room at the Cabinet. All
eyes were on him. No longer with that goddam
supercilious look they had! He'd wiped that off their
faces all right. It felt good. He paused for a moment,
thinking of the book he was currently struggling with - a
biography of Eisenhower.
      "In ten day's time it will be June 6. That'd be
fitting. June 6. D Day."
      There was a murmer of laughter. June 6 it would
     A world away in Allyria, in the bunker below
Sifolis's now heavily scarred face, a man who was now
a woman dined alone.
     It seemed to him he spent more and more time
alone these days. He liked it that way. It gave him time
to think and plan for the glorious future. Oh, how
glorious it would be! The leader of the Islamic world!
     He felt better than he had in months. With the
bombing, it had proved impossible to move safely
around the city, impossible to go to the hospital in the
south he had come to know, and loathe, so well. The
chemotherapy had therefore been suspended. The
tumour was unchecked by radiation or drugs. It was
taking full advantage, thank you very much, and taking
an even greater hold, a hold which would reduce the
already shortened life-span the doctors had estimated
for him.
     In the meantime, he no longer had to suffer the
effects of the treatment. The sores had almost healed,
and while there was still blood, the pain from the
growth was controlled. He had been warned the
release was artificial, but he no longer cared. To be
free of pain was enough.
     And now this!
     A simple message, sent by radio burst, all the way
from London He could no longer communicate with
what was left of his army, yet could now talk directly to
his agent in London.
     How... amusing! The targets over Sifolis had been
hit once, twice, many times. The place was a
bombsite. His family had long ago moved down to the
bunker with him. Their house, and the barracks around
it, was rubble. But none of it mattered anymore. Who
     The message in front of him had been translated
by one-time pad. It was short and it wasted no words,
but it was a kind of poetry all the same. Perhaps he
should have it framed - when all this was over! He
smiled and touched the slip of paper with his fingertips
again, gently.
     His insurance man was in London. The bomb was
in London.
     The end-game could begin!
     The message from London to Sifolis was picked
up by triangulation stations at GCHQ in Cheltenham.
The trackers pinpointed the sender to the rail station of
Redhill, a short train ride from London. It had been
sent at six o'clock in the evening, when the station
would have been full.
     Cohen and Hoffman and the rest digested this
spectacularly useless information. The bomber might
have been anywhere in the station or near it, and only
had to be there moments. Nobody was likely to
remember him. They sent teams to check anyway.
     For two days, the search effort had been
concentrated on London, now they knew the city would
be the target. The news was not encouraging. Hotels
and boarding houses, youth hostels and the like, even
campsites and nearby farmers had all been visited,
some twice, some three times. The bomber had
     "He's switched to a new ID," said Cohen. "We're
going to have to go back to first principles. Checking
new IDs as they come up. He'll have several."
     "Thank you, brain of Britain. How long will that
take?" asked Carter.
     "Fucked if I know. The rest of our lives probably.
There are new arrivals coming in all the time, from
different parts of the country, from abroad. Hundreds
every day."
     "There is one other thing we could try," said
     "I think it's time we pulled al-Soun in. I think we
give up on him. Our man's not going to contact him
before it's too late. He probably wants him only as an
escape route, if that. I don't think we have any choice.
The possibility he knows more than he told his brother
is the only break we're likely to get."
     "Do it."

     There were elaborate techniques and tricks for
grabbing a man in secret, and MI5 knew most of them.
It wasn't that sort of night.
     A squad drove down to Crawley in a battered old
Toyota Land Cruiser. The surveillance team told them
they were lucky. Yasif al-Soun was still at the shop.
Farsi was in the house alone with his parents.
     Cohen went straight up to the front door and
knocked politely. He had a gun in his right hand. The
gun fired flechettes carrying a tranquilliser. If the dart
penetrated anywhere on the torso of the victim, he
would be incapable within seconds and unconcious
within a minute. The massive dose spread around the
blood stream in seconds. It was dangerous to use it
against anyone other than a fit young man, and lethal
to anyone with a heart condition. Farsi was the one to
open the door. His parents were in the front room
watching television. They never even realised he had
been taken.
     Cohen fired straight into his chest as the door
     Hoffman stood to his side, to prevent the door
being slammed on them. But the al-Qeada fighter
obligingly went immediately for Cohen's throat with a
snarl of rage. He had expected this for many years.
      Cohen let him come, grappling with him only to
protect himself, pulling him away from the door which
was pulled closed. Hoffman grabbed the fighter's arms
and pinned them behind his back. The drug was
already beginning to work, adrenaline doing half its job
for it, the snarl of rage turning into a rather surprised
groan. Within seconds, al-Soun was out cold on the
floor. The squad bundled the inert body up in the
darkness and threw it into the back of the Toyota,
covering it with a sack, then drove swiftly down the
road to get out of the housing estate, and on around to
the safe house.
      It didn't take long to become apparent they were
wasting their time.
      Farsi's inert body was taken into the house, where
a doctor was waiting. MI5 didn't bother with violence,
for they knew such methods were slow and inefficient.
The doctor injected the young man with a huge dose
of adrenalin, combined with an antidote to the
tranquilliser. When he was almost concious, another
injection followed. This was sodium pentathol - the
"truth" drug which long ago made torture and beating,
for the purpose of extracting information at least,
redundant. Al-Soun was connected to a lie detector
which measured his pulse and heart rate. The sodium
pentathol and the tranquilliser dulled the responses,
but an experienced operator could still get useable
indications. Then the interrogation team went to work.
      In an hour they knew he could tell them nothing. It
was impossible to resist the drug, even with training,
yet all the man could tell them was that a large sum of
money had been deposited in a bank account, and he
was to await the stranger's arrival. The team tried
every trick in the book, but it was hopeless.
     After another hour, they gave up. They took
details of the bank account and money, the name the
security chief Salam had used in Cairo and the hotel
he had stayed at, and the names of Farsi's contacts in
al-Qeada, most of whom they knew anyway. Two men
held al-Soun's arms down, though he was too weak to
resist, while the doctor administered an injection of air
straight into the heart. Within seconds, the organ
stopped functioning, and the young man died. The
snatch squad and interrogation team gathered up their
equipment and set off back to London. The doctor
stayed behind, to await the ambulance that would take
the body to the morgue.
     They were back at square one.
      Time was getting short. Jonathan Silwan had
disappeared, probably never to be heard of again.
Hotel checks on new arrivals were yielding nothing. In
a city of eight million people they might carry on for
weeks. Even if triangulation isolated another radio
squirt, it would not reveal the bomber's whereabouts,
only where he transmitted from. Not likely to be
outside police headquarters. The invasion could not be
long now. Fallafi might choose any moment to tell the
Americans what he had done, and force them to hold
back. If he didn't, the Israelis would do it for him. The
news would come out, and there would be panic. And
the bomber would be free in London.
      Cohen took a long-overdue decision.
      It was three in the morning when he drove out of
MI5 headquarters and turned south to the
development on the outskirts of the city that was his
home. It was a familiar route, even at that time of the
morning. Especially at that time of the morning.
      Jo had family in Suffolk, in a market town far away
from London. He would take her and Finlay there. Jo
would raise hell but she would go. After not seeing him
for a week, she would know something was wrong.
      He let himself in to the darkened flat and stopped
a moment. His home seemed alien now, he had been
away so long. He shook himself. He was so tired he
was almost asleep on his feet. He made coffee before
going through to take a shower and change into clean
clothes that felt like silk. He wanted to look strong for
her, though he no longer felt strong. He went into the
bedroom. She was awake before he turned on the
       "Mike. What is it?"
       They had spoken on the telephone for the last five
nights, but he had told her very little. He sat down by
the side of the bed, kissed her, and held her
       "Jo, I need to know something."
       He looked into her eyes, willing her to understand.
       "Do you trust me to do what is right for us? Will
you trust me enough to do something for me without
       Well, if she hadn't known before, she did now. But
the eyes looking at him were steady.
       "Good," he said. "Pack a bag for you and Finlay.
For a week at least. You'll need money, clothes,
everything. We're going to Suffolk."
       "What are you mixed up in. What's happened?"
       "I thought I said no questions?"
       "So sue me."
       "I cannot tell you now. You have to trust me."
       If she assumed it was something to do with him,
she might not guess the truth. He went round the flat,
picking up things she would need, wondering if he
would ever see it again. Jo came through with Finlay,
still sleeping. His wife was crying softly, but he ignored
it. He carried the bags down to the car while Jo
brought Finlay. They set off through the darkened,
sleeping city. Jo continued to cry.
       "Why can't you tell me why we have to do this?"
       "You have to trust me. This time, you have to trust
me. I cannot talk about it. All I can tell you is that you
have to get out of the city."
       They drove out to the east on the road to
Chelmsford, Cohen pushing the car as hard as it
would go on the deserted motorway. They drove in
strained silence for most of the way. An hour later, as
they passed through Colchester with the first hints of
dawn to come, Jo started to cry again. Cohen looked
at her.
       "Everything'll be all right in a few days. I just want
you out of the city for the time being."
       "Why? Who's threatening us?"
       There had to be a way of making sure she did not
know the real truth. The best lies always had the truth
in them.
       "The terrorists are planning a huge bomb
campaign, over the next few days. Bigger than
anything they've ever tried before. But we can't find the
bombers. They're already in the city but we cannot find
them. It's going to be bad."
       It was thin stuff, but he was tired.
       "And you're worried about us in a city of eight
million people? Piss off."
       "Just trust me. I have a bad feeling about it. That's
all. I can't talk about it." Cohen looked out of the
window, cursing the woman, then regretting it. He
turned to look at her. "You cannot talk about this, to
       Jo was no longer crying. "So you're hunting for
someone, someone with something nuclear or
chemical, but they've disappeared in the city?"
       "Yes," said Cohen. What did security count for
now, anyway? "We're checking everywhere, but
getting nowhere."
     "What about the university? That would be the
best place to hide. All those students."
     What did she think he'd been doing the last week.
Walking round the streets with a fucking loudhailer?
     They drove on in silence. It was ridiculous, to
discuss an operation with your wife. Breaking the first
rule. Cohen no longer cared.

     He dropped her and Finlay with her mystified and
frightened relatives, swearing them to secrecy and
leaving. He drove back to the main road, then stopped
for petrol at a gas station. He stood waiting impatiently
at the counter to pay, as the attendant ran his card
through the machine. In front of him, copies of the
morning paper were laid out. A banner headline across
the top announced the week's property section -
houses and flats to buy, sell and rent.
     It didn't announce that week's Bingo, but it might
as well have done.
     He stared at the headline, Jo's final words in the
car ringing around his head. Students. Renting a flat.
Untraceable. It couldn't be that simple, surely? Like a
maniac, he grabbed his card from the startled cashier
and ran back to the car. He got through to Hoffman on
the mobile in seconds.
     "Where the fuck are you?"
     "Doesn't matter. Listen. If you wanted to
disappear for months what would you do? How would
you make sure you couldn't be traced by a trawl
through the hotels and all the rest of it?"
     "You got any ideas, I know a man who'd like to
hear them..."
     "You'd hire a flat. Completely private. Out of the
fucking newspaper! Just ring a number and pay the
money and you've got an anonymous address. No-one
can trace you. That's what our man's done. I'm sure of
     "Okay, I'll buy it," said Hoffman.
     "I'll be there in an hour," Cohen said.
     Like a floundering and exhausted oil tanker, the
desperate, unwashed MI5 masses changed direction
     Hundreds of agents stopped calling foreign
embassies and companies, immigration offices and
private addresses. They began phoning every advert
for accomodation of any kind that had appeared in a
newspaper or magazine around London over the past
three weeks. They would try three weeks, then move
backwards from there.
     Under the guise of a routine inquiry, callers asked
rather less than routine questions. They were hunting
a man who had murdered two backpackers in France
and was believed to be Israeli. Sooner or later now the
search would get out to the press. Two backpackers
had been murdered in the Dordogne a month before,
though there was no suggestion of any Israeli being
involved. What the hell. Many of those called were
suspicious, and seemed to think it was an exercise to
see if tax was being paid on their rental. Some hung
up. They were promptly visited by a hefty policeman
and told they'd better co-operate or else. All were
surprised by the questions asked. Who had they
rented their property to and for how long? What did the
man look like and was he alone? Was he thin? (A man
who had walked over the desert would not be fat.) Did
the man show papers? Did he pay in cash? What
luggage was he carrying, if any? And had he wanted to
move in straight away? All the questions had to be
answered. By evening, the first results were coming in.
     Not encouraging. The vast majority of rentals
were to people who couldn't possibly be the bomber.
Groups of students, young or old women, families,
holidaymakers, a host of others. Everybody had
something which discounted them.
     The closest had been one Joseph Menin who had
taken a six month let on a flat owned by a Rachel
Garstein in Elephant and Castle south of the city
centre. The detective felt his pulse quicken as he ran
through the questions. A thin tired-looking man with an
Israeli passport, paying in cash and wanting to move in
straight away. The man had been in Israel, he had
said. He had carried no bags. The detective, who had
not been home in days, leant forward in his seat.
     "This man, Mrs Garstein. Was he alone? Was he
single?" The answer came straight back. "No, dear. He
had a wife. They're here to look after his father. The
poor man's ill. I don't think he's the one you can be
looking for at all."
     Shit! The detective sighed. He was tired. As
quickly and politely as he could, he thanked her and
rang off.

     That night, the prime minister called the second
emergency Cabinet meeting in a week. He demanded
an update from the intelligence officers. It did not take
long, for progress was nil. When the exhausted Carter
finished his report, the prime minister dropped his
     "The Americans have finally coughed. They'll
begin ground operations on June 6, in one week. This
alters the situation. We have a deadline."
     He looked around the room. The Cabinet was
again silent, happy with their posts of Under secretary
for the Environment or Post Master General or
whatever. Nobody wanted to take decisions now - they
were fine where they were, thank you very much.
     "Here's what I propose we do," the Prime Minister
went on. "You have five days in which to catch this
man. Five days only. If you have been unsuccessful by
then, I inform the Americans they have to call it off.
     "If they postponed a week, that would give us
another week to find the bomber," said the defence
secretary. The PM stared at him.
     "And if brains were dynamite you wouldn't have
enough to blow your eyelids open in the morning.
Postponement? Someone's going to ask why. What'll
they say? We forgot to bring the ammunition? The
Americans will leak it, or someone here will find out, or
Fallafi will call a press conference and tell the world
what a clever boy he is. Then we have a panic like
we've never had before. Everyone will get out of
London and we won't be able to stop them, including
the bomber. In the chaos of a panic we can never
hope to find him. And if we nuke Sifolis he'll use his
device anyway."
     He turned to the MI5 chief.
     "You have five days. Failure, as they say, is not
an option. Find him and do something very nasty and
very permanent to him."
      At that moment, in the sort of London restaurant
where they don't have prices on the menu, Stephen
Freud, a fifty year old film producer with a production
company, a fat bank balance and an even fatter family
back home in Los Angeles, had far weightier concerns
on his mind. He was staring into the eyes of his blonde
mistress, a film researcher two decades younger than
him, whose qualifications for the position bulged
mightily out of her dress and threatened to cascade
into the loganberry jus any minute. He had been
seeing her for a month.
      She was the latest of many, and unlikely to be the
      Not that the affair was over yet. Two days before,
he had taken a lease on an appartment just south of
the city centre. Six months, cash up front. It was
simple and small - it wouldn't strain him financially at
all. He would tell her over the coffee. She hated the
place she shared and was desperate to get out, but
property in the city was too expensive. Now she would
have her own place, and he would pay for it, and he
could see her whenever he chose. He sipped at the
fruity white wine and relished what he would say that
      And the sweaty, steamy reward he would get for
      Outside the restaurant, a bus went past.
      The big red London bus was packed. The quieter
kids played with computer games or texted. Most were
not quiet and the noise was deafening. Few paid any
attention to the thin, tired-looking man who sat quietly
at the back. The man hardly moved, only his eyes
scanned constantly from side to side, watching the
road up ahead, checking things off. Perhaps he
thought he was driving the bus himself.
      "Piss off, fucking Arab cunt," said one boy, by way
of introduction. He looked at Osman, but something
about Osman looking back at him persuaded him not
to labour the point. He walked away.
      At the station Osman was first off, but rapidly
overtaken by kids as they ran screaming towards town.
He walked off in the opposite direction, towards the
park with its lake and beach and the deserted
marshland that lay beyond it. Soon he was alone.
      Osman breathed a sigh of relief.
      He had boarded the bus when it was empty, and
almost enjoyed the ride south through the city. He
viewed it with morbid fascination. So foreign. Modern
ugly buildings, boxes stacked on top of each other as
far as the eye could see. It aroused in him no feeling at
all, except alienation. The buildings had been built with
money from those who had killed his family. The
people had no right to be here at all. Well, soon they
wouldn't be. He had been thinking of this when the
children had got on, and he became nervous. If the
bus was regularly used by children at this hour, surely
there would be an armed guard to accompany them?
He had the silenced Glock with him, but no desire to
use it - not now the end of his mission was so close.
     There was no guard, and he offered a prayer in
thanks. The bus drove out of the south of the city, and
the children ignored him. When he looked at them, he
tried to stop himself thinking of Uma and Halfa.
     In the park he walked down to the lake and across
the beach. After a kilometre, he entered woods with
bracken between the trees. It was very quiet and
beautiful here. There was nobody within sight. He
looked like any other walker, except for the silver metal
case he carried.
     What he had to do now was simple. He snapped
open the locks. The two bombs sat in foam pouches
on the left side of the case, the radio on the right. The
message he had prepared already, encoded on a one-
time pad, recorded on to tape, and the tape speeded
up and fed into the radio. He unfurled the aerial and
switched the radio on. Within eight seconds it had
acquired the correct frequency and locked on. The
message, lasting less than a second, was transmitted
automatically. The case had to be open for fifteen
seconds or less.
     Osman waited for acknowledgement - also
automatic - then switched the machine off, refurled the
aerial, and closed the case. He set off back towards
the town, where he would catch the bus back to the
city and his flat. He would buy food on the way.
     There was little risk of being caught. The English
would have listening stations for sure, but all they
would pick up would be a message impossible to
decode. By the time they got men here, he would be
long gone.

    An hour later he was back in the flat.
     The radio he set up on the balcony first, to check
it was capable of receiving. There was no danger of
being discovered receiving, only transmitting. All being
well, he would make no more transmissions. From now
on, once a day and once a night, he would switch on
and wait to receive the message that Sifolis would
send when it was finally necessary.
     He had been warned; it might be weeks, or even
     He closed the case, careful not to be seen by
anyone watching on the other balconies, and carried it
back inside. The message would only be transmitted
at the allotted times. Only then would the radio have to
be ready.
     Inside, he laid his prayer mat on the floor and
kneeled down. He had brought the bombs and the
radio all the way from Allyria but the mat had come
with him all the way from Baghdad, all those years
ago. It was his most precious possession. He bent his
head to the floor, and recited the incantation. He
wished he was somewhere where he could have
prayed properly, rather than here, surrounded by the
unbelieving. Afterwards, cleansed, he ate supper
watching the television.
     The news was full of the war. It was clear the
Americans were only days from an invasion, and
equally clear they would go all the way to Sifolis. He
hoped his brother was all right. He thought of his
master - the man he had protected for so long.
Osman's position should have been at his side. Of
course, he was doing a more effective job here. He
had to remind himself of the fact.
   He wondered if his master was fearful, now his
enemies were close.
      The bags under Hoffman's eyes were threatening
to drop off his face and go home to bed on their own.
The whole of MI5 was running on a mix of nervous
energy, cigarettes and body odour - if the atmosphere
was anything to go by. It was five in the morning -
another night without sleep. Cohen looked down the
list of interviews in front of him and lit another
      He no longer counted how many a day. There
were no longer days.
      "A one-bedroom flat in Elephant and Castle.
Single man, cash up front. The woman said he was on
his own and seemed nervous, reluctant to show ID at
all. Signed the tenancy with a false name - we've
checked. The correspondence address doesn't exist.
And he wanted to move in immediately."
      "Appearance?" Hoffman's voice cracked with
      "Thin all right. Looked tired."
      "I know how he feels."
      "No baggage apart from a briefcase."
      "Let's take a look."
      They were beyond excitement - they were too
tired. One problem only led to another.
      "If this is our man, how do we approach him?"
said Cohen. "If he knows he's blown, he won't hesitate
to blow the bomb, if he's carrying it. Even if he's not,
he may have the means to to do so."
      "What are you thinking?" said Carter.
      "If we can get him outside the flat, in the open, we
can do it two ways. If he's carrying anything, we
assume it is the device and he can initiate by pressing
a button. In which case we drop him then and there.
No warnings and no challenge. It won't be a mercury
switch - not if he's carrying the bomb. He might drop
       "Fair enough."
       "If he's not carrying anything, we still assume he
can remotely initiate. We can try and take him alive,
but it's his call. Any movement and he's dropped."
Cohen paused for a moment. "I'd like to be on the
surveillance team."
       "This isn't the movies."
       "I know."
       Carter shrugged.
       "Your funeral. What if he doesn't come out of the
flat? I'm not leaving him in there. No way."
       "An assault?" said Cohen.
       "Jesus. Any alternatives?"
       "Whatever the agent's stored in, we can't assume
it would survive a bomb blast so we can't just blow him
up. Even without initiation, if the agent's leaked
because of fracture damage, we're going to have an
impossible contamination problem. And if he's got the
initiator in his hand, even an SAS bust-in with stun
grenades and gas isn't going to be quick enough. He'll
still have time to press a button."
       Carter sighed. "So we can't bust-in, because he
might still initiate, and we can't send a rocket through
the window and blow him to hell because that might
damage the bomb."
       "Which leaves two alternatives," said Cohen.
       "A sniper, firing through the window, if he can get
a good head shot."
     Hoffman shook his head. "He might miss."
     "The only other thing is a covert entry break-in.
One man sneaks in alone. I've done it before." Cohen
     "Have you done refresher training?"
     "Two months ago."
     The chief stared, lost in thought.
     "If we go down that road, I want you on the firing
range first, and a day's simulation. We'll get a mock-up
of the flat laid out for you to have a look at. Would you
be up for it?"
     "There's one other thing," said Hoffman.
     "What's that?"
     "What if he's not our man? Could be a million
reasons why he rented a flat on a false passport."
     Carter shook his head. "I've already talked to the
prime minister. If we hit the wrong person, he'll take
the flak. If there's even a chance this is our man, he
gets taken out. Nothing more to say. Let's go and have
a look at the flat."

      It was not encouraging.
      Already under surveillance, the flat would be
difficult. On the second floor of a two storey block, its
front room had two windows that gave on to the street,
with - the only encouraging sign - a flat roof above.
The front door was buried deep within the building
along a corridor. Assaulters going through it would
have to cover the length of the hallway to make the
front room.
      Anyone coming through the front windows from
the roof, even with stun grenades, was unlikely to be
quick enough. If the bomber was sitting with the
initiator in his hand, assaulters or no, he could
detonate it. If it went off in the confines of the flat, the
spread of the agent would be limited. But tens of
thousands would still die. There were other
alternatives, like poison gas or breaking through walls,
but nothing that looked likely to work
      It left only a covert entry, one man picking a lock
and sneaking in alone. Cohen sat in one of four team
cars parked in an adjacent road, in view but a hundred
yards away. He felt his heart sink.
      Then the target came out of the building.
      Cohen had already collected the landlord, an
elderly man, and had him in the rear car, binoculars
clamped to his face, studying who came in and out. He
identified the mark immediately, startling the men in
the car with him.
      "That's the man, all right. He just came out."
      The mark stood on the pavement, looking around
openly. He was dark-skinned and nearing middle-age,
dressed in a dark suit with an open-necked white shirt.
He looked fit. He carried a brief case in his hands.
Cohen felt his heart pound as he reached for the radio.
      "All units. Target acquired. Rolling surveillance.
Slim build, dark skin, dark hair, dark blue suit. On my
lead and challenge. Go."
      Cohen checked his pistol, got out of the car, and
settled in behind as the mark started to walk down the
street, the others behind and out of sight, bringing the
cars up. They would swap over with him if it looked like
he might be spotted. It was well-practised routine.
      The mark went ahead, without a care in the world.
He walked up the street and swung left down towards
the bus station. He didn't look into shop windows, he
didn't tie a shoelace, didn't light a cigarette, didn't
practise any counter surveillance techniques at all.
     He's fucking good, thought Cohen savagely. Or
fucking innocent. The man didn't even look Arabic. He
did look thin and tired though, like he's walked over a
desert. That was how the bomber had arrived, Cohen
was sure now. Mossad had had a report through from
Cairo. Four Egyptian soldiers found dead in the desert,
shot with a Glock pistol. It had been the bomber,
Cohen was convinced.
     He felt fear and hatred in equal measure. The
disaster at Covent Garden and the old man was like a
film playing in his head. The endless aftermath, the
endless debriefings, the endless analysis of what had
gone wrong. This would be so many million times
     They were walking past smart shops now. He
would not make the same mistake again, whatever the
cost. He reached under his jacket and cocked the
pistol. They walked on down to the bus station,
Hoffman behind Cohen, the others behind Hoffman.
The street was busy with travellers, shoppers, all the
sights and sounds of a normal life. The voice in
Cohen's head grew louder all the time. Don't make the
same mistake twice. Two shots, straight into the back
of the head. It would be over. Over. Remember Covent
     He walked on, on the verge with every step. He
was drawing the pistol, hardly able to think any longer,
when the man saved his life. He hailed a taxi. Cohen
brought his sleeve up to speak into the tiny
      "Mark is in a taxi. Pick me up."
      They followed through the late morning traffic into
the West End. Over the river and into theatre land.
Why would he come here, thought Cohen, into the
smart centre of the city? Maybe this was it. This was
the day, the hour. The device was already here, in the
heart of the thriving city, primed and ready to go.
      Remember Covent Garden.
      The taxi drew up, and the man got out and paid
for it, and Cohen thought: what the fuck... He jumped
out of the car, drew his pistol, walked up and fired
three times into the back of the mark's head. He
dropped without a sound. Job done.
      Pandemonium broke out, and from along the
pavement came the wailing scream of a pretty blonde,
not away but towards them, face contorted by shock.
Whoops. The bomber probably wouldn’t know many
pretty blondes. The radio crackled in his ear.
      "Cohen?" It was Carter.
      "Just got word - he's clean."
      Cohen sighed as the young women got to them
and dropped to her knees screaming.
      "You mean...?"
      "Fuck it," said Carter.

     Back at headquarters, the MI5 chief was
philosophical. Money would be paid and the family
looked after.
     Anyone could make a mistake.
      Nobody quite knew what to make of it. The
broadcast came from the Allyrian state television
service ANA, put out with transmitters not yet blown
apart by Allied bombers and repeated throughout the
day. By evening, whether sheltering in homes or
venturing out into the street, most people had seen it.
The Leader and the government were in consultation,
in the bunker. The theme was obviously business as
usual. The ministers looked calm and unhurried, and
the Leader looked fit, alert and in control. Several
times he smiled. Once he laughed aloud.
      Then, speaking to the camera in a steady voice,
he addressed the nation.
      They were suffering now, he knew. The
Americans and their friends had dropped many bombs
on the country, and the people's state had been badly
damaged. Schools and hospitals had been smashed,
roads and bridges obliterated. They were suffering,
and he apologised. He knew what it meant to suffer,
for had he not lost his own daughter, twenty five years
before, when the infidels had last come to wreak
havoc from the air? Had he not cradled his own
daughter's head in his hands; seen her blood leak
through his fingers to fall to the soil below? He knew
what it was like. But it would end soon, and there
would be a reckoning and peace.
      There should be no doubt. What they were
fighting for was theirs by right. The land to the south
with its oil, its uranium, its resources, by the gift of
Allah. No-one would ever take it from them. The
Americans were even now, he said, coming to the end
of the air war. Soon their troops would begin to march
from the south. They had come to conquer, but they
would be smashed.
      No American boot would fall on the sands of
Allyria. He assured them of it. If the Americans dared
come a terrible vengeance would be taken. In the
meantime, they must be strong, trust in Allah's divine
will, and wait.
      Victory would be theirs.

      Those who watched were struck not only by the
strength of the message but the change that had come
over the messenger. They had no knowledge of the
cancer growing inside him. Nor the endless operations
to make the change from a man to a woman. But they
could see he (or rather she) looked ten years younger
and spoke with the animation of a young man (or
woman). His eyes glittered with the same messianic
zeal of the young army officer who had taken power
nearly forty years before. The same ideological
strength that had permeated the White Book, the
rambling and more or less unreadable treatise which
had bequeathed his philosophy to a slightly
embarrassed and confused nation. The ground war
that pushed Saddam Hussein from Kuwait had lasted
only four days. Yet the Leader looked nothing like a
man only days from defeat. The people felt reassured
by his words. Somehow he would pull them from the
      When the cameras and the technicians had gone,
Fallafi sat in his private quarters with Abdul Salam, his
cousin Jalloud the deputy foreign minister, and
General Makhoun.
     "We must assume the Americans have yet to be
told by the English of what we've done," said Salam. "If
indeed the English believe it themselves."
     "It is possible."
     "How long before we tell them? The invasion may
come any day now."
     Fallafi sat back in his chair and steepled his
fingers in the age-old manner of one contemplating.
He smiled.
     "The humiliation must be total. We must wait. We
must hold our cards close to our chest, as the gambler
does. We tell them only at the last second, when their
invasion is imminent to all the world. Let them play
their games. It's their lives they play with."
     "They have not told the Americans because they
hope to catch our man before the invasion starts,
surely?" Salam said.
     "Perhaps they think they will. Who can say?"
     The Leader smiled at Salam, and the secret police
chief had the disconcerting feeling that even he, who
had spies in every home and every organisation, had
no idea of the real game the Leader was playing. Part
of him was reassured by the feeling.
     And part of him, for the first time, rather

     On the other side of the Atlantic, in the Oval
Office, the CNN broadcast was watched with
undisguised glee. There were whoops and high fives
around the table. The American's greatest fear - a last
minute pull-out by the Allyrians leaving them stranded
in the desert with no excuse to invade - looked to be
     "Well, that's it," said Robert Lawrence, as the
broadcast ended. "Doesn't sound like he's offering
anything. He's certainly not softening the people up for
a pull-out. What a moron!"
     "He isn't," said the President.
     He stared intently at the screen, as if there he
might find an answer to the nagging disquiet building
in his stomach, far, far too late.
     "I wonder why not?"
     Back in London Cohen sat at his desk, exhausted,
too tired to slip properly into panic.
     Three days and two nights before the prime
minister's deadline, and the man he was looking for
had disappeared off the face of the earth. Cohen could
not even be sure he was still in England. Suppose the
Allyrian scientist had been wrong about the target?
Suppose Hoffman and he had been wrong about
Jonathan Silwan? Suppose the four dead Egyptians in
the desert were nothing to do with this?
     Suppose his aunt had balls – she’d be his uncle.
     The bomber might have come in by sea, by land,
by air, anywhere. He might be safely holed up now, not
in a rented apartment, but in a house bought for the
purpose, years ago. In a sense as horrifying, suppose
he did not exist at all? Suppose this was all a trick,
disinformation; Fallafi's last laughing mockery before
the Americans destroyed him?
     Cohen held his head in his hands. The worst thing
was the feeling that this was in some way pre-
ordained. The British had allied themselves with the
stupid Americans, and the stupid Americans had
fucked up all along the line, ever since 9/11 had given
them the greatest diplomatic opportunity they would
ever have to sort out the Middle East once and for all.
And what had they done? Launched half-cocked
invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and half the rest of
the Middle East like a particularly moronic bull in a
china shop. And now another madman threatened
them with the unthinkable once again. Perhaps it will
always be like this, he thought.
     It was getting beyond a joke.
     The manhunt had begun to go around in circles.
No-one who could have fitted the profile of the bomber
had rented property in or around the city over the last
two months, unless he had brought his wife and
children with him, was a homosexual theatre director
or a famously vacant reality TV star. The search had
switched back to hotels and guest houses, but was
getting nowhere. MI5 had put out feelers, very quietly,
abroad, but had come up with nothing. Most of the
active service of al-Qeada known to them had been
picked up, but again nothing. The press, finally, had
got hold of the story, and were being fended off with
the idea it was a conventional attack al-Qeada were
planning. Sooner or later they would smell a rat.
     What else could be done? Sealing off the city?
Ludicrous. It would be child's play for the bomber to
evade controls, and the press would know for certain
they had lost control of the situation and this wasn't
just another bomber. Cohen ran his eye down the list
of rental interviews already completed and discounted.
Over two thousand houses, flats, caravans rented out,
and just over the last two months. Nothing.
     He had no knowledge of the bomber, no feel for
the person. When you were hunting a man - or woman
- who you knew wanted to blow up a bus, or kidnap a
diplomat, or even just climb onto Buckingham Palace
dressed in a Batman costume, you got a feeling for
them. You could understand something of their
motives, their personality, how they might behave and
react. Whether they would be brave and fanatical, or
cold and calculating, kind and sentimental, or just
ridiculous. But the bomber was a shadow, a ghost.
Cohen could not be sure he even existed, let alone
what he was like. It made it impossible. He picked up
the list of rental interviews and started to phone them
again, double checking.
      He could think of nothing else to do.

       Because she had rented a flat to a man who had
paid cash and wanted an immediate move-in, Rachel
Garstein was on the list. Her only disqualification had
been she had rented to a couple. She was his
twentieth call, an hour later.
       "Mrs Garstein?"
       "My name is Lieutenant Mike Cohen. I'm calling
from police headquarters."
       "I talked to one of your colleagues the other day."
       "Yes, I know. I'm just double checking down the
list. It's important we get it right."
       "Well, I'm glad to know you're thorough." A laugh.
       Cohen fought the urge to scream appalling
obscenities down the line. Cunt! Fuck! Anus! The
telephone in his hand seemed to be impossibly heavy.
His movements were slow, stifled, as if he were
swimming through molasses. Sleep beckoned. Could
you sleep through a chemical bomb and your own
death? It might be worth a try.
       "Mrs Garstein, can I just check the details you
gave to my colleague?"
       "I didn't lie."
       "I know Mrs Garstein. I'm just being thorough - like
you said I should be." Cohen felt his head sag.
Bollocks! Whore! "You rented to a couple who paid
cash and wanted to move in straight away. A Mr
Joseph Menin. Is that right?"
     "Yes. The poor man's here to look after his father.
He's very ill."
     "And he was here with his wife?"
     "And he was tall, thin, of Mediterranean
     He was already thinking of bringing the interview
to a close. He couldn't even think of any sensible
question to ask. Did the man have bomber tattooed on
his face?
     "What did his wife look like?"
     "How should I know?"
     Cohen blinked. "What?"
     "How should I know? She wasn't there."
     "But you said he was with his wife?"
     "Yes, but she wasn't there. She had to take his
father to the hospital. That's how he could come see
the flat. Poor man. So sad."
     Cohen heard a rushing sound in his ears. She
wasn't there. If there was no wife, this was a match.
     "Mrs Garstein. This is very important, so I have to
be clear. You are saying you never actually saw the
     "No, she was at the hospital."
     His mind raced.
     "Mrs Garstein. Do me a favour. Stay there, and
don't ring anyone. You must not ring anyone. We will
have a car with you in a moment."
     "But why? What's wrong?"
     Cohen put the phone down on the desk without
hanging up, so the connection could not be broken, in
case she took it into her head to phone her tenant up
and ask him what was going on.
     He wouldn't have put it past her. He took off out of
the office at a run.

      It was a small single bedroom flat, anonymous -
one of hundreds. It was in a block in a small estate of
previously poor, now quite sought-after, workers flats
just south of the river. The flat was on the fifth floor,
two floors down from the roof.
      The perfect place. A short walk to the north and
the river. Alternatively, he could blow the device from
the roof of the building. Set the timer, lock the door to
the roof, walk away. God knew, he could blow it from
his own balcony. For the first time, Cohen began to
      The blocks were arranged in rows around
communal dusty gardens, each flat with a glass front
on to a small balcony. The Garstein flat had its
curtains firmly drawn in the middle of the day: another
sign. The balcony could be seen clearly from any one
of five identical flats on the same level on the next
block down. Cohen wasted no time in taking one of
them over from the mystified tenant. The student was
politely but firmly checked into a hotel under police
guard, for however long it would take. The surveillance
teams went to work, watching the flat and all exits to
the building.
      They settled down to wait.

     A check of the name used on the rental
agreement revealed a passport had never been issued
to Joseph Menin. The home address on the lease was
phoney. A check of every hospital in and around
London revealed no man of the name of Menin being
treated for anything. He might be registered under a
different name.
     Cohen doubted it.

      The confirmation came at four the following
      The watchers in the student's flat sat in silent,
tense darkness, keeping a constant eye on the flat
with thermal imagers and night vision goggles. Since
they had begun the surveillance twelve hours before,
the curtains had not moved, yet a chink of light
showed to the left of them. Either someone had left the
lights on, or someone wasn't sleeping. The thermal
imagers and directional microphones pointed at the flat
revealed movement from time to time. Someone
wasn't sleeping. Poor thing. The lights stayed on all
      Just before four, they went out. The MI5 watcher -
almost insane with lack of sleep and keeping up a
laughing, whispered commentary - was reaching for
his tape recorder to note the time and event, when,
through night vision goggles, he saw the curtains
pulled back.
      "Ha. You bastard. Woken up, have we? Hello. Ha
      Cohen, dozing on the settee, was instantly awake.
      "Subject on the balcony. Taking a breath of air.
Hee hee hee."
      Cohen scrabbled for his goggles on the floor,
fitted them, and looked out into the night. The man
opposite had come silently on to the balcony. His
ghostly features were indistinguishable in the dim
green glow of the goggles. At first he did nothing,
staring around at the darkened buildings opposite and
the night beyond. For a brief moment, he seemed to
be looking directly at Cohen, and the MI5 agent fought
down panic.
     But the gaze was already moving on. The
watchers - sitting in darkness - were invisible. When
the man was satisfied, he bent down and opened a
case on the floor. Part of the view was obscured by the
balcony railings, but Cohen could see the case was
open and the man was operating something within it.
Cohen had a second moment of panic. But the man's
demeanour did not suggest urgency. He appeared to
be waiting. Then Cohen understood.
     "He's checking in - it's a radio."
     "Huh! He couldn't send from there - the bastard.
We'd get him with triangulation," whispered the other
     "He's not sending - he's receiving. That's why he's
on the balcony - better reception. That's why he's
doing it at four in the morning - in case he's seen."
     He stared at the lone figure, a few hundred yards
     The man closed the case and went back inside.
No message had come.
     Got you, thought Cohen. Hee hee hee.

     They had solved one problem. Now they had
     Cohen, Hoffman and Carter, with four other MI5
officers, sat on the floor of the flat as dawn
approached, looking like students at the arse end of a
low-grade party. Cohen had taken the light bulb from
the socket above their heads, in case anyone switched
it on accidentally. The men sat in darkness as the
room slowly began to grow light. They were joined by a
major and the commanding officer of the SAS. This
was the unit that normally handled siege-breaking or
      There were various techniques available to them.
Open assault with stun grenades. Covert entry assault,
favoured when only one or two terrorists were involved
and stun grenades would warn rather than disable.
There were endless variations. Entry could be made
through a wall, from which the bricks have been
removed under cover of a blaring TV set, down a
chimney, up through the floor. In other cases, when no
hostages were involved, the house could be blown up
with the terrorists inside.
      For MI5 none of these could work with safety.
      In any hostage rescue, there is risk. If the terrorist
has his finger on the trigger and a hostage at the other
end of the gun, whatever happens, he will have time to
pull the trigger, even if blinded and deafened by a stun
grenade. If the windows to the room are closed, the
glass will break before the grenade comes through,
and he has a split-second of warning.
      The bomber in Mrs Garstein's flat could not be
allowed that split-second. If the bomb was armed and
primed, and he had the initiator in his hand; even if he
were shot, he might still press it. In the confines of the
flat, Porton Down technicians had said, that would still
mean thousands dead. Yet covert entry would be just
as dangerous. The bomber would have booby traps on
windows and doors. If the lock of the front door was
picked, there might still be a chain behind it. And the
flat was small - noise would travel.
      "The way I see it," said Carter. "We can wait for
him to come out, but he might not come out. We can
wait for him to prime it and make a getaway, but he
might have a manual remote override. And he might
be planning to go up with the blast himself. Either way,
I don't think we can avoid going in there."
      The darkened outlines of the faces around him
were tense. Carter looked at them.
      "The trouble with an assault is he can't have any
warning - not even a micro-second. How the fuck do
we ensure that?"
      It was a second before Cohen spoke. He was
thinking aloud.
      "The best way would be a straight knock-on-the-
door. He opens the door and bang! No warning at all.
The trouble is, the flats have peepholes. He might not
open the door, even if the assaulter was dressed as
the gas man, pizza delivery man, whatever."
      "What about this Garstein woman?" said Carter.
"He knows her face."
      Cohen shook his head. "No chance. I've spoken
to her. She's already hysterical, and she doesn't even
know what's going on. If we ask her to do it she'd blow
it. The bomber would know something was wrong the
minute he sees her."
      "You got any other suggestions?"
      Cohen took a breath.
      "Two assaulters abseil from the roof and wait level
with the balcony out of sight. They only go in on my
signal. I walk up to the front door and ring the bell. He'll
get up and come to the door to have a look, whether
he means to open the door or not. I give him ten
seconds to get up, cross the room and get down the
hall, and look into the peephole. Then I give it to him
with an AK47 or something on full automatic. That sort
of calibre should have enough punch to get through
the door and take him down. The assaulters go in
through the windows on the signal of my firing. The
watchers have probes into the flat already. We know
he's alone."
      "You make it sound simple," said Carter.
      "It is."
      "OK. What about timing?" said Carter. "It'll take
half an hour for the commandos to get here and be
briefed. By then it will be morning. They might be seen
abseiling down the side of the building. There might be
people in the hallways."
      "If we can, I think we should leave it until tonight."
      "What about if he's sleeping?" said Hoffman. "If
he's asleep, he might not get to the hallway before you
fire, in which case we've given him his micro-second's
warning and a lot more besides."
      "Fuck," said Carter. "I hadn't thought of that."
      "There are two times of the day when we know
he's not," said Cohen. "Radio check in time - four in
the morning and afternoon. That's when all the squirts
have been picked up. That's when he'll be awake."
      "Jesus," said Hoffman.
      Carter stood up.
      "That's it then - that's our time. If he hasn't shown
by four this afternoon, that's when we go in. I'll talk to
the prime minister. We'll need an army brigade ready
to seal the area as best they can and begin evacuating
if we fuck up."
     He stared at Cohen for a moment.
     "Try not to fuck up."
     His eyes unreadable, he left. Cohen looked out
into the morning dawn. If they fucked up a lot of people
were going to die. He swallowed.
     "Ha ha ha," laughed the MI5 watcher.
       All through the day preparations went on. Cohen
would have been grateful for more to do, but there was
little. His role would be simple, and it would either work
or it would not.
       A single helicopter arrived at MI5 headquarters
and disgorged six SAS commandos. Three would be
held in reserve. Two would abseil from the roof to land
on the balcony and come through the window at the
instant of Cohen's firing. The sixth would be alongside
Cohen. As he fired through the door the commando
would take out the hinges with a shotgun and kick in
the door. Cohen briefed the commandos on who the
man might be, what he might be carrying, and the
layout of the flat.
       "We have to make absolutely sure about the
device," he told them. His voice sounded unnatural to
him in the silence of the flat. "That's why I'm trying to
get him to the front door, so he doesn't get a micro-
second to react. That's all he might need."
       The commandos nodded, asking direct questions.
Even if they had not seen it all, they liked to pretend
they had. Cohen was not so sanguine. Even now,
there were so many imponderables. God knew, they
still didn't even know for sure they had the right man. If
they didn't, he was about to kill another innocent man.
And the only excuse was the alternative might be so
much worse. He had a vision of himself, slowly
working his way through the population of London,
until only he and the bomber were left.
       He thought of Jo and Finlay. At least they would
be safe.
     Hoffman and Carter were briefing a team from
Porton Down who would take control of any device
found in the flat. It would be moved by road to the
chemical weapons facility. To take it by air would be
too dangerous.
     The prime minister was warned of the worst-case
scenario. If the bomb went off, all mobile units of the
army and security services, waiting on standby, would
begin emergency evacuation as best they could. The
greater evacuation - of the whole city - would have to
come afterwards. Even if the bomb went off inside the
apartment, casualties would be appalling. The other
scenario was almost as bad. If they had the wrong
man, it would mean MI5 had not caught the bomber
and were not likely to. The Prime Minister would inform
the Americans immediately and request they cancel
the invasion, then declare martial law across the
country to counteract panic when the reason leaked
out, as he felt sure it would. They could not be sure
what the bomber would do.
     They could not be sure of anything.
     In the flat, minutes somehow ticked by. Cohen
would knock on the door at ten minutes before four
that afternoon. There might be students or residents
about in the corridors, but it was a risk they would have
to take.
     He checked the identical AK47s the SAS had
brought with them. He had chosen the ancient,
Russian-made rifle for its reliability, rate of fire, and
calibre. It used a far heavier bullet than modern
automatic rifles. Cohen wanted the heaviest rounds
available, to punch through the door and do
irreversible damage to anyone behind it. He would
carry the spare Kalashnikov under his jacket.

     He and Hoffman and the rest sat and waited all
through the long terrible hours of the day, and time
seemed to slow and stop. The two agents sat in the
darkened front room, staring across to the flat which
held their prey, and words were redundant. Cohen
prayed silently. They were in God's hands now. He
noticed the other man staring at him.
     "What is it?"
     Hoffman shook his head. His voice was soft -
Cohen could barely hear it.
     "You have Jo and the kid. It should be me going
over there and taking this bastard out. What am I
going to say to her if anything happens?"
     Cohen smiled. "If anything happens, you won't be
around to say anything to anyone. You know that.
Besides, I want to do this. I've got ghosts to lay to rest.
You haven't. Let me do it."
     "Like the boss said, this isn't Covent Garden."
     "Let me do it anyway."
     "You're mad."
     "It's the only way to be."
     A few hundred yards and a lifetime of experience
away, the man they sought felt almost as uneasy. The
tension in Osman could find no release. He could only
sit and wait.
     He had no appetite for the newspapers that lay on
the kitchen table, nor the food he had bought. The
television news, which he kept on all the time, had no
interest for him when it was not reporting the war in
Allyria. Even there, there was a hiatus. The Allies were
on the verge of the ground campaign, that much was
obvious, though no deadlines had been set. It would
be days only, and in the meantime a news blackout
had been imposed. With no knowledge of what was
going on, the stations kept interviewing an endless
supply of military experts, correspondents and
analysts, all of whom predicted a swift and easy
campaign and occupation.
     Listening to their smug self-assurance, Osman
was filled with hatred.
     Twenty years ago the Americans had killed tens
of thousands of his countrymen, dropping bombs from
the safety of their aircraft, when his friends had no
cover at all. The planes were so high, the men could
not even see them. It had not been war, in any
imaginable sense of the word. It had been slaughter,
on a scale the victorious Americans had not even
bothered to discover. Tens of thousands of Iraqis had
disappeared in the desert. Then Venezuelans,
Georgians, Yemenis. Now Allyrians were doing the
same in the Sahara. This time it would be different.
     This time there would be a price to pay. Oh yes.
       At midday he managed to eat, forcing the food
down. He was tired also, although too tense to sleep.
He knew this might go on for months, and he would
have to be prepared. So he lay back on the sofa and
close his eyes. He could at least rest. His pistol was
still in the holster under his arm, the bombs on the
floor beside him. He settled himself back. His mind
and imagination ran riot. He saw his sisters again,
riding on his father's lap, a child on each knee,
pretending to ride elephants. He could hear their
laughter. He saw his brother Badawi, saying goodbye
for the final time. He was as likely to see again those
who were dead as those who were alive.
       He prayed to Allah to take the thoughts from his
       Eventually, he dozed.
     Somehow the day passed.
     Twenty minutes before the bomber's check-in,
Cohen got up, shook Hoffman's hand, and with the
three SAS walked down the stairs to ground level and
across the grass to the block opposite. He wore a
raincoat, too big for him, uncomfortable in the
afternoon heat. The two AK47s swung by straps from
his shoulders. Underneath, he wore a vest of bullet
proof kevlar.
     He was sweating, and there was a hissing in his
ear from the speaker that gave radio contact. The men
with him were similarly dressed - four men off to a dirty
old man convention. The abseilers would take off their
coats before they slid down the side of the building.
They went up the stairs to the floor above the
bomber's flat. The two abseilers continued on to the
roof. It would take moments to be ready. Cohen waited
in the stairwell with the man who would blow the door.
They did not speak. Within minutes, the abseilers
signalled they were stripped of their coats, clipped up
to ropes, ready to go. Cohen looked at his watch:
3.45pm. Five minutes.
     Still looking, he whispered into the sleeve
microphone on his arm.
     "On my mark, in five minutes. From... now."
     The abseilers silently slid over the side and began
their descent down two floors, to stop level with the
balcony, where they would wait for the first gunshots.
Cohen and the doorman walked down one level and
stopped again. He looked at his watch: 3.48. Two
minutes. He screwed his eyes shut. The voice in his
head was back. Remember four years ago.
      Shut up, said Cohen.
      Another thirty seconds, the abseilers in position.
Level with the balcony, either side, clearly visible to
anyone that chose to look up. With one kick out from
the wall, they would swing in.
      Cohen looked at his watch for the millionth time.
He stuck his head out the stairwell door to check the
corridor was empty for the thousandth time. It was.
      "One minute," he whispered. "One minute."
      Cohen cocked both AK47s, his hands damp.
      The two men stepped out into the corridor and
began the long walk to the front door of the bomber's
      The President was a happy man.
      The speech had gone down well. That moron
Ferndale crying - crying! - with gratitude because his
Commander in Chief, weighed down by crisis, had
come out of Washington to help an old buddy. If it
didn't get Ferndale on to the Hill, and it probably
wouldn't, nothing would. A good evening, about to get
even better...
      Oh boy!
      He sat alone in his suite at the convention centre,
tie loosened, jacket off, sipping Jack Daniels.
Presidential, a serious man, making history.
      He had had a word with Johnson - blank faced
and unreadable - in charge of the Secret Service
detail. The man had nodded gravely. There would be
no problem - they were used to it. This was what
Presidents did. There was a knock at the door.
      She came in and stood there, like a maid waiting
for instructions. He had gone through a quarter of the
bottle and he sat back in his armchair surveying her.
Breathtaking. Business-like, with the padded jacket,
and erotic, with the low cut black dress underneath. He
felt his chest tighten.
      "I wanted to thank you for all the work you're
putting in for Jerry. It was a great evening."
      Talking business made him even hornier.
      "Thank you, Mr President. Are you flying back
      "Yes. This Allyrian thing..."
      "So you won't be able to get out of town for some
      "Not for a few days at least." His voice was thick.
      Jesus! She was walking across the enormous
expanse of the room.
      "But you might be able to spare a few hours if I
come down?"
      "It's possible."
      "So if the mountain won't come to Mohammed?"
      Christ! She had stopped right in front of him.
      "A good analogy. Something like that. Will you?"
      "We'll have to see, won't we?"
      Mother! She knelt and looked into his eyes,
      "We have half an hour?"
      Mamma Mia! He nodded.
      She took off her jacket and threw it to one side.
She pulled down her dress to the waist. She wore no
bra, and her breasts, those magisterial, authoritative,
commanding breasts, those domineering, imperious,
glorious orbs, swung free. Huge nipples. She cupped
both in her hands, kneeling before him, bringing them
up to lick each in turn...
      He could hardly breathe...
      She reached out and undid his belt, pulling down
his fly. He eased himself up and with a quick
movement, she pulled the pants down to expose him.
Hungrily, greedily, she took his cock in her mouth...
      It was time. Osman had the radio at his feet,
checking it before he took it on to the balcony. The
frequency was low. The switches to the bombs were
six inches from his fingers, protected by plastic guards.
He was straightening up to walk across to the curtains
when there was a firm, repeated knock on the door
and his senses sharpened to a peak of alertness.
      His mind raced. The Garstein woman calling to
check he was settling in? Some domestic matter?
Religious freaks? Have you considered Jesus, Sir? A
door to door salesman? A delivery? Here’s your
double pepperoni with extra cheese, sir!.
      It had to be a mistake. He tried to calm himself.
The police did not knock politely on doors. Whoever it
was, he wouldn't answer. He closed the case and drew
the Glock from the holster under his arm.
      In absolute silence, he padded softly across the
room, down the hallway to the front door, and bent to
apply his eye to the spyhole...
      The Leader sat staring at the men across the
table. His visitors stared back, no longer seeking to
hide the admiration in their eyes. One finally spoke.
      "You're leaving things late, brother. When do you
plan to tell them?"
       Fallafi smiled. "My agent will be waiting for my
command now. I have issued orders that he provide
a... demonstration of what we are capable of." He leant
back in his chair. "The English and the Americans will
know by tonight what we have. Tomorrow, I will tell
them what I plan to do with it."
      "And then...?"
      "Then? Then, my brother, we will have the victory
we have awaited for so long. Victory at last!"
      Fallafi looked at the two men before him. So many
years and so much suffering, yet now here they were,
victory at their finger tips.
      Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and General
Fallafi all alive and undefeated.
      Who would have thought it?
      The first bullets began to smash through the door.
      The shells were stitched across from side to side,
in case the target was to one side. Three seconds
later, Cohen was reaching for the second gun. Osman
had flung himself away, but too late.
      He was falling backwards, so he was only hit three
times. The first bullet took him in the left arm. The
second went through his left shoulder, spinning him
round. The third went through the right side of his
mouth, smashing teeth and jawbone. A visit to a very
skilful dentist would be on the cards. Osman's stunned
mind felt no pain. Just shock and a burning hot
sensation around his body and face.
      And a great sadness...
      He turned over on the floor and began to crawl
towards the front room and the suitcase on the floor. It
was difficult - his left side did not function anymore,
and he could hardly see. This carpet! What an odd
pattern it was! And what a terrible colour. He knew he
had to reach the case, though he no longer
understood why. He crawled on, without thought.
      From behind there was more noise, as more
bullets smashed through the door, passing over his
head, and the shotgun took out the hinges.
      In front of him the windows to the balcony rattled
and there was a muffled thump as the abseilers threw
stun grenades into the apartment next door and kicked
the windows in. The old couple who lived there were
watching afternoon television and both fainted.
      Still Osman drove himself on.
      All he could see were the faces of his brother and
his long dead sisters. And behind, the face of Saddam
himself, beckoning him towards the case and his
destiny. Come on! He was nearly there. With infinite
effort, he crawled on, dragging his ruined body. Nearly
     He was still moving, with the faces on his mind's
eye clearer than ever, when the man above him took
careful aim with the shotgun and fired once, twice,
three times.
     Then there was nothing.

     Cohen was about to fire again when the SAS
commando, looking at the red mess that had been the
bomber's head, stopped him.
     "Er, I think he's dead now, mate. Where the hell
are the others?"
     Cohen handed the shotgun back to the
commando as his eyes took in the details through the
smoke. Even in the gloom, his ears deafened, he
could make out the outline of the bomber's case lying
on the carpet. Metal, like a photographer's. Cohen
stepped over the body and reached down to open it.
Inside, it was as he expected, thank God. He closed
the case slowly and shivered, screwing his eyes shut
and shaking.
     "It's over, thank God," he whispered.
     "And no-one must ever know, apparently," the
commando said from the other side of the room.
     Some tone in his voice made Cohen look up, to
see the shotgun pointing straight at him.
     "Hush hush and all that bollocks." said the
commando. "Following orders, mate. Sorry."
     He fired, and Cohen was spat up against the walls
of the room, his eyes staring in surprise and his
mangled body crumpling to the floor. So much for
gratitude, he thought as he died. The commando
stared at him a moment, gave a rueful shake of the
head, then started as there was a sound from the
doorway. Carter stood in the doorway, his gun levelled
at the SAS man. Oh for fuck's sake, thought the
     Carter fired. Now it was over.
       Or perhaps not.
       On the morning of June 6, 2012 General Turner
launched the final act of Ultimate Democracy.
       The men and tanks waiting in the desert had
moved up to jumping-off points overnight. Tank-buster
planes and helicopter gunships would go with them. In
the freezing desert morning they began to move
towards the dug-in positions of the Allyrians a hundred
kilometres to the north.
       The skies over Allyria were quiet, for the planes
that had tormented them were now concentrating
attacks in support of troops moving up from the south.
Marines waiting to land from the Mediterranean would
have another week, if all went according to plan. With
the bombing over, the people came out on to the
streets again. They talked of the war being over soon.
They talked of a new beginning. The people had hope
in their hearts. Basically, the people were stupid. A few
brave souls whispered about a new government.
       In his bunker under the city, the Leader sat
listening calmly as the army chiefs of staff gave what
little news they had, most garnered from CNN.
       The first contacts between the two ground forces
could be expected later that day, when Allied columns
got within sight of Felatio and the few crazed and
starved Allyrians still alive scrambled over the bodies
of their pulverized comrades to surrender and fling
themselves into the arms of the enemy. (The generals
didn't put it like that of course.)
       When they had been shown out, Abdul Salam, the
secret police chief, was left alone with Fallafi. For the
first time he could remember, Salam was really
      "The agent has not reported for three days,
Leader. Six times we have contacted him and asked
him to report. Each time he has failed to do so. There
has been nothing."
      Fallafi shrugged carelessly. "We must assume the
English have found him."
      Salam stared. "Then we have nothing, Leader.
The Americans will come all the way to Sifolis - we
can't stop them. If the agent is lost we have nothing to
fight with!"
      Fallafi sighed. He pressed a buzzer on the desk in
front of him.
      "Don't be so sure."
      There was a click, and Salam turned at the sound
of the door opening. Saddam Hussein and Osama bin
Laden stood there, smiling.
      Saddam spoke.
      "It would appear it's time for the last act to begin."
      Osama nodded.
      "It is time."
      Fallafi stared at the men who had given him so
      "Very well, gentlemen. Let Allah's will be done."
      In Tel Aviv Dr Arifa Malik sat on a plush sofa in
the ornate living room of a smart one-bedroom
apartment she had taken on a six-month lease two
weeks earlier. The flat's tall windows looked over the
expanse of the city. She sipped tea and stared intently
at the television screen in front of her.
      Soon it would be time to turn the radio on.
      Grunting with discomfort, she adjusted her
position on the sofa. The enormous 36GG breasts
were uncomfortable. But it had been a magnificent
idea of Fallafi's. Two litres of the PFIB agent, stored
where no-one would ever think to look for it, released
by valve implants in the nipples. Easy! She would not
live to see the destruction it caused, of course, but that
was only a small sacrifice.
      She would be pleasing her master - the only man
she had ever loved...

     Five hundred miles to the west, at a campsite
outside Pompeii, in Italy, Saddam's son Uday Hussein
sat at the controls of his smart new Mercedes camper
van and turned the radio on. It was time to leave the
camp site and make the drive up the autostrade to
Rome. It would be so easy. Just change into the suit
they had provided, open the special valves on the
tyres, and take a liesurely drive around the city. The
tyres had cartridges in them, so they would reflate
once the agent had been delivered. Another brilliant
idea of Fallafi's. He should have been in Rome
already, of course, but he had wanted to stop off here -
in Pompeii.
    He liked seeing the destruction. The destruction
and the bodies.
    Still, best to be getting on.
    He reached forward to turn the ignition on...

     To the north, in London and not far from the
Elephant and Castle, Mr F. - the man who worked for
anyone, anytime, just so long as the money was right -
was dressed in a red baseball cap and eating a huge
hamburger with bits of onion and tomato and lettuce in
     He sat in his lofty apartment just off Hampstead
Heath, the metallic suitcase on the sofa beside him,
watching the TV. Soon it would be time to change into
his special suit.
     After all, money was money.

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