Threat! 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. THREAT! (A comedy) BOLLOCKS! 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. Threat! 1 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 jumped. 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 spread. 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 ceased. 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. 2 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 us. 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 before. 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?" "Exactly." 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, gentlemen?" 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 time." 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 President." "Okay. Then promise to start it again if they play ball." "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. "Bob?" "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, Robert?" "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 President." "Yeah?" "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 power." "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 hot." 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 again. "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 room. "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 hand. "Mr President, it's funny you should say that..." 3 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 world. 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 restaurant. "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 rest." 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 region." "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 everything." 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 chance." 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 reaction." "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 guile... 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… 4 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 DOUBTS. "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 desert. "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 else. 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 micro-organisms. 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 man. 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 complex. 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. 5 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 asked. "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 smiled. 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 quickly. "It has been too long since two leaders of men like us could take pleasure in each other's company," he lied. "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." "Indeed." 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 asked. "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 place?" "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 think." 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." 6 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 hour. 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 matter." "Yes?" "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 problems." "Yes?" "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 past." 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 pieces. Sometimes you just couldn't lose at this game. 7 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 between. "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 carpet. 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 warning?" 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 her. "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 it. "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 guidance." 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 face. "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 expectant. 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 instructions." 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 London?" 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 face. "Think of the victory, comrades. Think of the victory!" 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 squeak. "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?" 8 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 eventually. 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 agree. "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 sorry." 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 would. 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 doorway. "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 shoes. 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 snipers. "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 smiled. "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, Osman?" "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 Uday. 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 advantages. 9 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 day. 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 stupid. 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 contaminated. 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 thought. 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 decontamination. 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 else. 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 words. Allah, forgive me. 10 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. "Yes?" "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 reputation. "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 himself." 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. 11 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 place. 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 real. "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 below. "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 rich." 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!" "Estefanians?" "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 like." "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 brewing." 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 duration." "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 Legion. 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 satellite. 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 Felatio. 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 sealed. 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 him. 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 train. Then he would think; stuff it – who cares anyway? PART TWO 12 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, concurred. "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 hysterics." "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 face. "Let's hope the Koreans don't get involved. All we need are a couple of Bum Suks now." 13 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 Estefan. 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 agenda. "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 Dominoes!" "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 him?" 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 'em." "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 business." "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. 14 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 warned. 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 future. 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. 15 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 why. 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 doorway. "And you will wear a tie for them, even if you won't for anyone else?" "Maybe." "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 follow. 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 traffic. 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. "Morning." "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 disappointment." 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 meeting. "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 asked. 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. 16 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 accusingly. 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 room. 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 something. 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 now. 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 nothing. 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 it. 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 process. 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. 17 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 her. 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. "Yes?" "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. "Bob?" 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 accent. "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 Tranquility?" 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? 19 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 already. 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. 20 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 Staff. 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 Damascus." "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 Senate. 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. "Chuck?" "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." "Yes?" "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. "Trouble?" "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 thought. Well, you couldn’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. 21 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." "Right." "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." "Right." 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 do. 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... 22 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 see. 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 anything. 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 him. "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 from. "You travel to El Kharga?" "Yes." "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 case. Then he frowned and turned to speak... 23 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 clothes. 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 around. 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 camels. 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 stopped. 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. 24 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 helped. "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 Christ. What were these people on? PART THREE 25 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 horizon. 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 sailing. 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 off. 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. 26 "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." "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' for?" "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." "Fuck." "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." 27 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 strange. 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. 28 "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 moaned. "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. "Yes?" "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 alive." 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." "How?" "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 not." "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 F.." 29 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 him. 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 Channel. 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 astonishment. 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. 30 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! Overnight! 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. "Piles?" "Yeah. Piles. Haemorrhoids." "I have no idea, sir. Would you like me to find out?" "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, sir." "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 what!?" "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 dumbfounded. 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… 31 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 technician. 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 drugs. 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 on. 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 might." 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, undiscovered..." 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 unreadable. 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 cared? 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. 32 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 editor. "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 bowls." 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 allegedly." "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?" 33 Mr F. was the man you turned to if you wanted the best. 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 worrying. 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 negative 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 answer. 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 over. 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, waiting. 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 Professor. 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. said. 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." "Yes?" "If either the Americans or your government use nuclear weapons against Sifolis, the bomb will be detonated. The man carrying it has explicit instructions." "And this man is already in London?" "Yes. I don't know how he got there, but he's there." 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 understand?" "You can take this information to London?" "Yes." "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. 34 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.. Whoops. 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 schoolboy. 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 there... "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 minister. 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 inadequate. "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... 35 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 we?" 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 children. "How are we doing, Omar? Are we enjoying ourselves?" 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. 36 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 nothing! 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 them. 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." "Work that means sitting on your backside for long periods?" "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 Farsi. 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?" "Yes." 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? 37 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 you." 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." "Yes?" "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 money." "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 Americans." "But this man has not contacted you yet?" "No." "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 work. 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 weren't. 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 risk." 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. 38 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 home. 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 beaches. 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. 39 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 job. "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. 40 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 flat." "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 ashamed. 41 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?" "What?" "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 him." "Yes?" "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. 42 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, anonymous. Ideal. 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. "Indeed." "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 theirs. Mrs Garstein came back in, carrying the coffee pot. 43 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 place. 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 be. 44 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 cared? 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! 45 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 disappeared. "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." "Jesus." "There is one other thing we could try," said Cohen. "What?" "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 opened. 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. 46 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 light. "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 shoulders. "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 question?" Well, if she hadn't known before, she did now. But the eyes looking at him were steady. "Yes." "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 anyone." 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. "Hoffman?" "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 it." "Okay, I'll buy it," said Hoffman. "I'll be there in an hour," Cohen said. 47 Like a floundering and exhausted oil tanker, the desperate, unwashed MI5 masses changed direction lumberingly. 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 bombshell. "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." 48 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 last. 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 evening. And the sweaty, steamy reward he would get for it. Outside the restaurant, a bus went past. 49 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 months. 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. 50 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 cigarette. 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 fatigue. "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 it." "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. "Yes?" "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 smiled. "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?" "Yes." "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 worse. 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 Garden. 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 microphone. "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. "Yes?" "Just got word - he's clean." Cohen sighed as the young women got to them and dropped to her knees screaming. "You mean...?" "Yes." "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. 51 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 fire... 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 frightened. 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 fading. "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?" 52 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?" "Yes?" "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?" "Yes." "And he was tall, thin, of Mediterranean appearance?" "Yes." 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 wife?" "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 hope. 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 morning. 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 night. 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 ha." Cohen, dozing on the settee, was instantly awake. "What?" "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 man. "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 away. 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 another. 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 hostage-rescue. 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. 53 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." 54 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 mind. Eventually, he dozed. 55 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. Remember. 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 flat. 56 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 tonight?" "Yes. This Allyrian thing..." "So you won't be able to get out of town for some time?" "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, teasing. "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... Hallelujah! 57 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... 58 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? 59 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 there. 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 commando. Carter fired. Now it was over. 60 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 frightened. "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 much. "Very well, gentlemen. Let Allah's will be done." 61 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 it. 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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