The second novel in the Alexander Webb series is complete. By way of a taster you may like to read the first few chapters.
The Webb of Relics will be published soon.
Chapter 1: Spear of God
1352BC El Minya, Egypt
“The luckiest Prince of all dynasties.” That was how Yuya, his father’s advisor and councillor had described him at his union with Nefertiti.
He couldn’t agree more. Her beauty would take any man’s breath away.
Seeing her now, graceful and self-assured beneath the lotus shaped prow of the royal barque Aten-tjehen, he pondered: Was it too soon to be thinking of children? A part of him was saying definitely not! It was his duty, after all, to provide an heir. The shimmer on her lustrous black hair, tossed carelessly by the Nile breeze, was like witnessing his soul, his Ba bird, dancing with joy. That ripple of happiness echoed on to her billowing gossamer robe, alluringly it fluttered open to reveal a tantalisingly brief glimpse of her breasts, standing pert with the southerly wind’s caress. The sight took his breath away.
The passage of Nuit could not come quickly enough. The prospect of another eight blissful hours of darkness, savouring her supple body as the night goddess gave safe transit to the Aten, made him quiver all over again with shameless pleasure.
So much had happened in the last moon. His father’s mortuary temple on the west bank of Waset had been officially completed. The Nile inundation had been decreed the best of his reign and the Opet festival, culminating in his father’s thirty-eighth re-enactment of coronation, had been a triumph. All of that paled of course compared with his own “Taking a Wife” ceremony.
The quay of El Minya was in sight. The stroking oars were cut by half and the graceful hull kissed the dock with the gentlest of embraces.
‘Prince or no prince, you can’t lie there all day,’ giggled Nefertiti, sprinting to his side and dragging him to his feet. ‘It’s a good job they can’t see you, what impression would that give of their future Pharaoh?’
Parting the portside drapes of the skeletal deck cabin, Amenhotep peered outside. Dozens of waving palm fronds, in the hands of skittish excited children, greeted him. Happy untroubled faces revelling in the sight of a royal barge. It was probably the first time in their lives they’d witnessed such a vessel drop anchor and moor here.
Behind the youthful mayhem, with sombre anxious expressions, a handful of village officials were waiting patiently for him in all of their finery.
Amused at the contrast he smiled to himself as the self-important mayor gave the briefest of nods to indicate that the gathered retinue should begin playing their sistra and drums to greet the prince and his new bride.
‘It would appear that news of our arrival has preceded us!’
‘Of course it has you fool,’ said Nefertiti, a trill of laughter still in her voice. With care she placed a cap crown and uraeus upon his head. ‘Pharaoh sent messengers with scarab seals at the beginning of Akhet, they’ve known for weeks, and if we don’t hurry the musicians will die of exhaustion.’
Amenhotep banged his Was sceptre twice upon the deck, a signal to announce his emergence from the cabin. With a deep breath he assumed the regal posture his father had nurtured in him for state occasions and appeared into the golden light of the setting sun.
Yuya and Moses led the way.
As the ship’s gangplank lowered to the dock the crew dropped to their right knees to begin the chant, ‘All praise Amenhotep, Crown Prince of Egypt. All praise Amenhotep, Crown Prince of Egypt…’
Stepping to the quay the Mayor knelt before them. ‘Illustrious immortal light,’ he bellowed. ‘Son of mighty Amenhotep Heqawaset, divine Nebmaatre, our benevolent ruler. On behalf of the priests of Amun, the council of elders and your loyal subjects of El Minya, I bid you welcome. You bless us with your heavenly presence and may the gods reward your union with many healthy children. A camp and feast has been erected in your honour beside the temple of Amun, and your litters await.’
Amenhotep and Nefertiti in unison accepted the formal greeting with customary shallow waist bows and stepped aboard the pair of canopy-covered armchairs. Six men on each side of the litter raised the gilded poles to shoulder height and marched in step towards the temple a hundred paces east.
‘Nefertiti my dear, remind me to thank our host with some token of our appreciation for his organisation and eloquent greeting,’ stated Amenhotep, just loud enough for the Mayor to hear.
‘I will instruct Moses to select something suitable,’ she replied, wondering playfully what was now going on inside the mind of their host.
The camp, surrounded by blazing torches appeared to shimmer as they approached. An ethereal sight complemented by the scent of roasting lamb and spices drifting towards them on the breeze. The enticing aroma made Amenhotep’s stomach rumble with anticipation.
Someone’s clearly researched my culinary preferences, he mused.
Duty and protocol demanded a visit to the temple first to honour the local gods. Selfishly, he vowed he would never forgive them if they were preparing this wonderfully tantalising creation as his offering to Amun. Perhaps, he considered, he should insist on entering the temple sanctuary alone. After all, who would know if he took a bite or two? They would assume the god was hungry. It would cause consternation amongst the priest class. Indeed, the meal would become famous! The only offering ever to have been witnessed as being eaten by a god! He almost laughed aloud at the thought.
The litters were lowered to the ground between the twin limestone pylons. Although small for a temple by Ipet-Isut standards, the structure was exquisitely decorated with triumphant battle freezes displaying the military success of his great grandfather, Tuthmosis Menkheperre.
The grand entrance, a carved cedar-wood doorway had the whiff of new paint about it. The notion, that the town had gone to such lengths to commemorate their visit pleased him enormously.
He stood before the resolutely closed doors and struck them once with his staff to signal his presence. Well greased, they opened silently before him and as though on cue a single drum began to sound with the heartbeat of the temple. A plate of fruit was placed onto his open hands and he and Nefertiti were escorted to the sanctuary entrance through the court and hypostyle hall.
Presented to the golden statue of Amun, resplendent in his two vertical feather plumes, they knelt on the plain linen pillows provided.
As Amenhotep raised the plate in offering a strange sensation began behind his eyes. He scrunched his eyelids together and shook his head to clear it. Instead of having the desired effect, the weird sensation grew to what felt like the shaft of an arrow piercing his brain. A sudden cold flowed throughout his body and his arms became weak. He stretched a hand down to steady himself. His breath became short and the silver plate slipped and crashed like a bell against the marble floor, spilling its contents at the foot of the statue, a pomegranate bursting upon impact.
Instantly aware something was wrong Nefertiti cradled Amenhotep in her arms as he slid collapsing towards her. ‘Husband! What’s the matter?’ she implored.
‘I’m… I’m… cold,’ he stammered, ‘and it’s so… so, bright,’ he said pressing his palms against the sockets of his eyes. Gradually the brightness focused to a beam of light, then a disc and then blackness.
‘I can’t see!’ he whispered, again rubbing his eyes.
Unqualified to touch a Prince of Egypt, the priest ran to the temple wall and collected a burning torch. ‘Breathe gently my Prince,’ he directed. ‘Can you feel the warmth from the flame? Focus on it’s healing powers.’
He could feel the heat quelling the rising anxiety in his breast, in the same way as the Aten banished darkness at the dawn of a new day. His father, over recent years had professed an increasing belief in the life-giving rays of the Aten. A thousand year old deity, who he knew to be more powerful than the priests gave him credit for. Blind, ignorant priests, who favoured instead the traditions of Amun and Amun-re. In the tenth year of his reign, father had built an Aten temple himself in the city of Iunu in an attempt to change the hearts and minds of Amun priests, but its acceptance had been slow and heavily resisted.
With his hands still placed over his eyes Amenhotep decided to pray. He whispered softly, just barely audible to Nefertiti. ‘Please hear me oh Aten. Spread your benevolent and all encompassing warmth, light and Ka over me. Protect me and deliver me from this affliction.’
He gently lowered his hands and carefully opened his eyes. Initially it was just the heat from the flame he could feel, and then gradually his senses seemed to bloom again. His body began to expel the frozen cloud and an orange glimmer grew, imperceptibly at first but steadily until his sight returned to normal and the flickering flame blazed again triumphant in all of its glory.
He turned his face to Nefertiti and said ‘Did you hear my prayer?’
‘I can see you!’
Amenhotep picked at his food like a sparrow. Although beautifully prepared and succulent to taste he no longer had an appetite. The attack on his body inside the temple of Amun troubled him, but not as much as the answer to his prayer. As son of Pharaoh he was by divine right soon to be god’s representative on earth. But which god?
He took Nefertiti’s hand. ‘In the morning my dear I wish to rise to see the birth of the new day. Will you please ask the guardians to wake us?’
‘Of course,’ she replied.
‘Is it much further?’ Nefertiti asked of Panehesy, the high priest of Amun, who had ably assisted her husband in the sanctuary the night before.
With crackling torch in hand he pointed at a small valley slowly becoming visible directly east of their current position. ‘Amun-Ra rises first between the two sides of the gorge ahead. Have no fear, we will be there in time.’
Their guardian escorts laid the ground beside the stream running from the valley with carpets and pillows. Frequently a raging torrent, swollen by flash floods, the babbling brook sounded almost musical on its path to the Nile. Amenhotep helped Nefertiti to rest and joined her cross-legged to face the slowly emerging crescent of the sun.
The sight was in a way both wonderful and peaceful at the same time.
Just as the golden orb passed a hemisphere a bright prick of brilliant light appeared at its centre. ‘Do you see, what I see?’ asked Amenhotep.
Spellbound, Nefertiti squinted to better make out the detail in the rising glare. ‘What is it?’
‘It’s getting closer,’ stated Panehesy, with an edge of urgency in his voice.
‘Take cover!’ shouted one of the guards, rushing to protect the Prince with his body and shield. Others rushed to the aide of the Princess and priests to do the same.
Above the distant mountains they could see the earth visibly shake and a dust channel plume skywards like raised ibis wings. The air filled with a mighty roar as barely a hundred feet above them a white-hot projectile thundered past, leaving a trail of heat, dust and a smell of ozone in the air.
They looked back towards the Nile, fearful for the camp behind the temple of Amun. Barely a thousand paces before it, the object hit the ground. An explosive radiant burst filled the horizon. Blinding in its intensity as a halo of brilliance bloomed above the site. Stunned to silence they began to stand, and then it came. A force none of them had experienced before. A rolling shockwave of unbelievable strength, throwing them bodily through the air and showering them with sand, rocks and fragments of what appeared to be glass.
Minutes passed and finally the unearthly shower subsided.
‘Are you alright?’ asked Amenhotep of the guard spread-eagled on top of him.
‘Yes my Prince. You?’
‘I think so.’ All of a sudden a terrifying jolt of anxiety cut through. ‘Nefertiti?’ he shouted.
‘Over here! I’m unhurt.’
Relieved, but still with a frantic heart, Amenhotep stood and scanned the small party looking for casualties. Most looked to be dusting themselves down, only Panehesy appeared to be nursing a wound to his forehead. He rushed to his side.
The cut was superficial, but bled profusely. In his experience from the Nubian campaign head wounds needed swift and immediate attention. He slipped off his linen vest and began tearing it into strips. Soaking one with water he gently stroked at the man’s face to get a clearer view of the gash.
‘Nothing to worry about, we’ll soon have you fixed up,’ he said reassuringly. Then calling over his shoulder to one of the guards, ‘Bring me some honey from the breakfast basket will you?’
Taking a handful of the nectar he quickly made a poultice, pinched the gash together and pressed the healing pad gently against Panehesy’s wound. ‘Hold this there while I run a bandage around your head,’ he said. An image of a future camp fire formed in his mind and with it a chuckle rose to colour his voice. ‘Just imagine the stories you can tell about this in your old age. Eh?’
‘Nursed by the son of Pharaoh. Who would believe me?’
Touching Amenhotep’s arm to get his attention, Nefertiti stooped at his side. ‘We had better get back to camp,’ she said. ‘Who knows what we will face when we get there.’
As they approached the village the evidence of destruction was everywhere. Having taken the full force of the blast, the complete rear face of the sanctuary of Amun had been obliterated. The official residences either side showed significant damage but all appeared still to be standing. People walked about as if in a daze.
Skirting the side of the temple, Amenhotep was the first of the small party to see the extent of the damage wrought upon the camp. The tents were all gone, blown away by the impact. Evidence of medical activity, attending to the effects of flying masonry, was everywhere. The strangest thing that met his eyes though was the absence of laid out corpses.
The Mayor, distraught, rushed to his side. ‘Thank the gods you are alright!’ He fell to his knees and kissed the prince’s feet, with tears in his eyes. ‘We thought you had perished in the explosion!’
‘How many dead?’ he asked.
The Mayor shook his head in disbelief. ‘None.’ His voice was barely a whisper. ‘It’s a miracle.’
‘We have one casualty, your priest Panehesy. He has a head wound, could you please see that he gets immediate attention?’
‘As you wish, my Prince.’
‘Good. Now where are my advisors Yuya and Moses?’
‘I believe they went to look for you.’
‘I’ll find them. And forgive me, I never asked your name.’
‘It’s Ramose, my Prince.’
‘Well Ramose, you are doing an excellent job. See to your people, they need you now. We will talk at dinner aboard the royal barque. I would like to invite you, the guardians who accompanied us this morning and Panehesy of course to be my guests at table this evening.’
Striding to the rear of the temple Nefertiti and Amenhotep scanned the irrigated lands to the cliffs.
‘Yuya! Moses!’ she called.
‘Over here!’ came the reply, from the edge of the parabola shaped impact crater. ‘You need to see this!’
Standing on the southern edge of the crater they glanced down at an unusual sight, a tightly clustered field of metallic debris. Moses was sat on the ground at the base of the impact channel examining a sheet of fabric that appeared to have been woven from filaments of gold. Between him, and what remained of the temple rear wall, ran a clearly defined groove; it extended beyond the wall into the religious complex. And there at his feet, radiating heat, lay a heavily dented but surprisingly unbroken man-sized shaft, its front had peeled open like the petals of a flower.
Leaving Moses to study his material, Amenhotep followed the groove into the temple. The Sanctuary was all but destroyed. The rear wall had collapsed with the impact. The sacred barque, built to house the statue of Amun, appeared scattered in a fan of splinters embedded in the plaster walls inside the entrance. But strangest of all, was the Statue of Amun itself. It stood, five feet above the ground, face flattened against the cedar doors, impaled through the heart by an immense triangular tipped javelin.
Chapter 2: Hear Say
15th December. Global Design, Worthing, UK.
Alexander Webb was stunned, speechless. All he could do was ease himself into the back of the chair and stare in disbelief.
Impossible? No. That was the wrong word; he’d witnessed it himself.
Incredible? Perhaps that came closer.
The potential applications for travel, commerce, not to mention military were endless. The world as he knew it, as everyone knew it, would undoubtedly change from this single moment in time.
Typical of JR, cheeky bugger. He’d led him along. Made him think it was some kind of posh hearing aid, and for the last five days he’d believed him.
Five days ago.
The project started just like any other, by all accounts a “run of the mill” prototyping job. Greg Matthews, the Managing Director of Global Design had invited him to the boardroom to meet the firm’s latest clients and to take down the design brief.
He sat quietly for a moment reading the text on the two business cards before him. He’d met John Harrison “Call me JR” the Chairman of Harrison Electronics twice before on a vehicle instrument pack project. A bear of a man with the charisma you would normally associate with powerful politicians. A no nonsense engineer with a gift for levity and seriousness at the same time. He liked JR.
The other card belonged to Lewis, JR’s seventeen year old son. At first sight he appeared the antithesis of his father. He was quiet, reserved, and had an aura of nervousness about him.
Seated at Alexander’s right, JR reached into his inside blazer pocket and drew out a pair of FM radio sunglasses. He placed them carefully at the side of his open blank white notepad, paused for a moment’s thought, then raised the Global Design complementary pencil and wagged it at his son.
‘Don’t let Lewis’ demeanour fool you,’ he said. ‘He’s quite brilliant.’ There was more than a hint of pride in his voice. ‘Sharing his ideas with mere mortals makes him anxious; he thinks we’re all luddites. Compared to him I suppose, we probably are. No doubt, he’s what “Doctors” derogatively term a savant.’
‘A savant?’ quizzed Alexander.
‘Well, not in the normal sense of the word. Most savants have an exceptional ability at the expense of some physical or mental defect. Lewis is quite normal, if you consider gaining a PhD in physics at sixteen in any way normal. His true gift lies with nano electronics, software design and programming. Believe me when I say, it’s a gift like no one has ever seen before. The project we are here to talk to you about today, it’s his brainchild. That brings me to these glasses.’
JR passed the sunglasses to Alexander. ‘I picked them up in China about twelve months ago. Pretty crappy if you ask me, however, they’ll serve to give you an idea. We need you to develop something similar.’
‘Okay,’ said Alexander, briefly examining them before reaching for a pen to take notes. ‘Shoot.’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll keep it brief. Let’s start with the frame. This needs to be in two parts, a front and a back to trap the lenses. Between the two parts we need a two-millimetre square section trough. This will house an eyeball tracking circuit. The side arms must also have a cavity inside them for further power circuitry and at the end of each arm “in-ear” monitors. Microphones will be placed at the front of the arms, so this is where we would like you to put small holes.’ JR sketched the idea as he spoke. ‘For our demonstration we will of course need two sets. How long will it take you to make us a couple of prototypes?’
Alexander examined the sunglasses as he listened. They had the appearance of vintage Ray-Ban Bohemian rip-offs. The lenses were cheap plastic and the radio mechanism bulky with little finesse. Already ideas were gelling in his mind based around a sleek face contoured form.
‘A day, perhaps two for concept design. Another to produce a computer based solid model and a further day for rapid prototyping. We’ll make the prototypes with our laser deposition machine.’
JR gave him the “What?” look. Narrowed eyes and cocked head, a gesture that indicated he should elaborate.
Alexander clarified; ‘It’s new kit. The CAD model is cut into microscopic layers. Polymer, melted by the laser, is tracked and cured on each strata. As one layer is finished it drops a fraction and another layer is built on top of it to build up the structure. It takes just a matter of minutes to make each component. We polish the model by hand, for a nice smooth finish. The main advantage is that we get to use the same materials and achieve the same properties as we would if we moulded with production tooling. We’ll start work this afternoon. May I suggest we meet again in five days time?’
‘You’ll need these,’ offered JR passing over a small package.
Lifting the lid Alexander could see several small zip lock pouches containing lenses, microscopic electronics, earphones and small switches. His first consideration was that the shape of the lenses would compromise his design freedom, but thought better of mentioning it. It was of course the first prototype.
‘What can you tell me about the invention JR?’ asked Alexander.
‘For the moment all I can say is that our product is a kind of hearing aid. We have coupled the hearing technology with eye controlled focussing. Each voice source your eyes focus on, you’ll be able to hear, as clear as a bell, even over quite some distance. Peripheral noises will be subdued, attenuated to enable you to hear that person without interference. One major benefit is that it works equally well with radio and television.’
Alexander looked at Lewis who’s gaze now met his own. ‘This could be quite something.’
Lewis smiled coyly and spoke for the first time. ‘You have no idea.’
One hour ago.
The last four days had passed in a blur. The Harrison’s would be here at noon and God willing, he would be ready.
Alexander’s border collie Maverick rested his head upon the edge of the desk staring intently at an open packet of chocolate digestive biscuits. Frequently he would nudge his muzzle at Alexander’s arm suggesting a change of focus away from the fiddly assembly of the spectacles. Six months separation, with Alexander in Japan and Maverick with Greg’s family in Worthing, had had little effect on the bond between them. Their brotherhood if anything was now stronger. Every waking moment was spent in each other’s company.
His hand jerked involuntarily as the telephones’ shrill ring disturbed the perfect peace of the office. He pressed the hands-free button and continued with the second microphone’s installation.
‘They’re early!’ It was Greg.
‘That’s just what I need. Stall for me will you, I need about fifteen minutes.’
‘No problem. Come to the boardroom when you’re ready.’
He pressed the button again. ‘Typical eh Mav, never enough time. When I was late as a kid my brother used to belt me with his camera, I still have flash-backs!’
After much cursing and frustration a faint snap and the circuit board cover finally clipped into place. There, all done. He slipped the two sets gingerly into the foam cavities of a presentation box and closed the lid.
Cupping Maverick’s head in his left hand he stroked him with the right. ‘Tracy will be here in half an hour; she’ll take you for lunch. You will be good won’t you?’
Maverick knew instinctively Tracy was a soft touch the first time he had sniffed her pockets. Hired by Alexander within a week of landing back from Tokyo for her finance and secretarial skills, he had known instantly she had a weakness for Maltesers.
‘Ummm?’ A mixture between a whine and a hum vibrated in Alexander’s left palm.
An air of anticipation filled the boardroom as Alexander entered. Coffee cups lowered to a tinkle of china.
‘How’d it go? Did they come out okay?’ asked JR expectantly.
Alexander nodded and gently eased the box open to reveal the two pairs of gloss black spectacles he’d begun to think of as “Headsets”. With earphones, microphones and focus tracking they were obviously more than just glasses.
Lifting one of the sets Lewis placed them over his eyes and nodded in appreciation. ‘Comfortable,’ he said, before taking them off again to a place beside a strange looking apparatus on the table surface.
No bigger than a shoebox the contraption resembled a miniature MRI or CT scanner. A box of electronics surmounted by a doughnut shaped ring.
‘Have you tried them?’ asked Lewis.
‘I’ve switched them on, but they don’t appear to do anything yet.’
‘Quite so, they need to be programmed. That’s what this machine is for.’
Lewis fed one of the headset arms into the centre of the doughnut toroid and switched on the power. A faint buzz could be felt through the whole structure of the table.
‘The machine code used for programming can only be transmitted with this device. The diamond-wafer master circuit, in the right arm of the glasses, receives a burst of VHF radio and microwave pulses. These pulses contain the huge amounts of data we require to inform and control the unit. It takes but a few seconds.’
He repeated the exercise with the second headset.
JR caught Alexander and Greg’s attention. He spoke sincerely and with an uncharacteristically sombre voice. ‘We chose your company on it’s reputation for uncompromising security and confidentiality. It is essential that you treat all that you see today with the utmost secrecy. I have no doubt that these devices represent the beginnings of a billion dollar business.’
Alexander couldn’t help scoffing to himself and raising his eyebrows. How could a posh hearing aid possibly fulfil such a claim?
The machine drone died as Lewis killed the power. ‘Are you ready for a demonstration?’
He passed Alexander one of the headsets and placed one on his own head.
As Alexander switched on, the noise gradually muted in the room. He looked up to see Lewis begin to speak to him.
‘Can you hear me Alex?’ he asked.
‘Loud and clear.’
‘Can you hear my father and Greg talking?’
‘They are a little muffled but yes, I can hear them.’
Lewis pointed at the microphones. ‘Tap the right mic twice, it will turn it into an omni directional unit.’
Alexander did as he was instructed and the sound levelled out, so that he could hear all conversations clearly. Through the corner of his eye he could see a mask of disbelief on Greg’s face, it was puzzling, he was positively animated.
‘The microphones were chosen so that you can decide if you would prefer to hear all conversations or just the one of the person facing you. That is the reason for the eyeball tracking circuitry. Move your eyes from one person to another and that person’s voice is boosted. Good eh? We took the idea from a Canon camera, the EOS Elan 7NE to be exact’
‘It works well. Now I have to be frank with you. It’s a good gadget I’ll grant you, but I don’t understand the need for super secrecy and your claim that these units will develop into a Billion dollar business.’
A hint of gloating entered Lewis’ voice. ‘You haven’t got it yet have you? Watch my lips. How are you with foreign languages?’
The lip-sync was strange. ‘I speak good French, a little German and some Japanese,’ he answered.
‘How about Russian, Swedish and Spanish.’
Alexander was perplexed, ‘Why?’
‘I’ve been swapping and changing between those three for the past few minutes!’