They say that when
You pick your nose
You have a mortal sin

Old Egypt has
A different take
With a small heated pin

Needle goes up
Your nose with ease
And thus they pick your brain

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It is in times of war, when modern men and modern machines move into uncertain spheres, that the most such strange encounters take place. A few notable ones:

1879: South Africa
A cavalry detachment that was assigned the pursuit of broken Zulu formations after the decisive Battle of Ulundi. The number of men involved are unclear, but 12 men–British soldiers and Zulu warriors with British equipment–eventually appeared in Portuguese Mozambique and were interned there. Despite repeated requests they were never returned, and a perusal of Portuguese records suggests that all 12 were incurably insane and remitted to an asylum in Lourenço Marques. An official report was tendered to the Foriegn Office by the Overseas Ministry in Lisbon, but it was sealed by order of the Prime Minister until 2100.

1915: Egypt
A raiding party of Turkish troops penetrated the Egyptian desert during the larger assault on the Suez Canal. A British force was detailed to follow them. Only five survivors were found despite extensive searches of the high desert, far to the south of the combat near the Dashur necropolis. Reports of strange lights in the desert by Egyptians corresponded with wild tales told by survivors of vicious attacks by luminous beings that could not be driven off with gunfire.

1942: New Guinea
A detachment of Australian troops fleeing toward Port Moresby and pursued by a larger Japanese force disappeared along with their adversaries. In 1945, the remains of a joint Australian-Japanese campside was found high in the Owen Stanley range far from the combat zone. Papers recovered by the investigators reported encounters with shadowy “tribesmen” in the forest. The descriptions matched no known tribes in the Owen Stanley range or the Kokoda Trail areas. No survivors were ever found.

1970: Cambodia
South Vietnamese and American troops moving into the dense jungles of Cambodia reported the discovery of an unknown temple complex from the late Angkor period via radio. There was no subsequent contact aside from a garbled request for close air support that could not be fulfilled. Subsequent searches failed to locate either the temple or the soldiers, with 10 Americans in one squad and a further 50 South Vietnamese troops being listed as missing in action. Examination of North Vietnamese records from the period indicates that an opposing force of 150 troops was also officially unaccounted for.

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At Pelusium, when the Persians and Greeks shattered his lines, did Nakhthorheb have any idea that three thousand years of an Egypt ruled by Egyptians was coming to an end? Or that his defeated kingdom was only to suffer ten years under the Persian yoke before being made part of the largest empire the world had ever seen?

The Egyptians had a story in which Nakhthorheb fled the country, fled to Macedonia, and sired Alexander the Great, his eventual successor in secret. I prefer to think he watched the Macedonians parade through the Siwa Oasis from beneath a cloak, and smiled.

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The Egyptian officer, Hassan, took a deep drag on the stub of his cigarette and ground it into the desert sand. “Make it quick,” he said to me. “Take your pictures and get out. We can’t guarantee the security of this site with the fighting so close by.”

His troops, a dozen or so, had fanned out across the site, the first on that day’s tour. They laughed and joked in Arabic, but there was no mistaking their slung Maadi rifles or the digital camouflage they were wearing. This wasn’t a sightseeing trip to the ruins of Amarna; it was a diagnosis.

The site had largely been flattened aboveground by years of depredations from a conga line of conquerors, a veritable who’s who of emperors, caliphs, and kings. Only dusty foundations and the remaining bases of long-toppled pillars stood out in the desert moonscape below the looming mesas in the distance. Well, only foundations, pillar bases, and shell holes. It had only been two days since the site had been wrested back from the ISIS-aligned fighters who’d occupied it for months, and in that time they’d wasted a disproportionate amount of time and ammunition in an attempt to level the site’s “idols” and finish what time had begun.

Adjusting the aperture of my camera and its monopod, I ducked through the wooden door that Hassan held open for me. Belowground, the temples had been rather well-preserved and even cleaned out back when Mubarak had sought to promote the site as a new tourist destination in his desert despotism. I’d been hired by the UNESCO office out of Cairo to document any damage to the site, and since the pay was good and I was between freelancing gigs, I’d taken them up on it.

Shafts of bitter sunlight penetrated only a small way into the interior of the subterranean temple–or maybe it was a tomb, I’m not an Egyptologist. A clip-on flashlight thrust at my by Hassan in the bumpy ride over provided weak illumination; my flash would have to do the rest. It wasn’t normally kosher to use a strong flash on something close to four thousand years old, but my guess was that a few Swiss photons would do a lot less damage than the few rocket-propelled grenades that the fighters had been chucking at it.

I hadn’t been to Egypt since before the revolution and even then only to the pyramids at Giza like every other tourist from Augustus to Napoleon. But I’d read up on Amarna in a battered Lonely Planet on the way down, a Cairo bookstore special with browning covers curled and blossoming like spring tulips. It had been built from the ground up by the pharaoh Akhetaten, who’d moved the capital there from Thebes. As my light played over the interior I saw him there, carved in stone with what looked like vuvuzelas in his hands (but were more likely flowers) offering them up to a luxuriantly carved sun. The sun, in turn, was reaching out with its rays to embrace Akhetaten and his family–not in a metaphorical sense, either, as each ray of light was tipped with an outstretched hand.

The flashbulb popped as I snapped a shot. It didn’t look too bad, but then as I drew closer I saw that the carving had been seriously damaged. The pharaoh’s face had been chipped off, as had many of the hieroglyphs surrounding him, presumably the ones with his name. The sun disc had a hieroglyph of its own, crudely cut in with something about as brutal as a latter-day ice pick.

“Trying to erase your name from history, huh?” I asked Akhetaten. He didn’t say anything–his mouth had, after all, been chipped off–but thanks to Lonely Planet I knew the story anyway. Akhetaten had dismissed the pantheon of Egyptian gods, the whole gang of Ra, Horus, Osiris, and the non-terrorist Isis, in favor of a single deity. That was it with the reaching and embracing sun rays; he’d called it the Aten, and it might just have been the first flicker of monotheism in the ancient world. Naturally, that hadn’t sat well with adherents of the old religion, and as soon as a pharaoh croaked his son and successor had presided over a return to the old ways and the kind of defacing I saw on those walls. You might have heard of him; the kid’s name was Tutankhamun, though his dad had called him Tutankhaten, swapping out the old god Amun for the Aten.

The next panel had originally depicted two seated figures under the Aten’s rays, but it had also been defaced. Not just with King Tut’s latter-day chipping out his dad’s memory, but with classical block capitals: CASSIVM ADERAT. I supposed, as I snapped the shot, that was Latin for “Cassius was here,” probably left by the Romans who’d held the area longer than any pharaoh. There were others, too, carved in over Pharaoh Akhenaten’s chipped-out name: IVPITER REX, MATER IVNO, and more. The Romans, it seemed, didn’t like the Aten any more than the Egyptians had, and their graffiti and extolling of their gods was even worse than what I’d seen before.

One of the soldiers protecting me was a Copt, an Egyptian Christian. We’d chatted while filling the troop transport with diesel at Deir Mawas, and he’d showed me the small Coptic Bible he kept in a breast pocket–“just enough to stop a handgun bullet” he’d laughed ruefully. His people, about 10% of the population, had been having a rough time of it lately now that there was no despot to keep the mobs at bay. I recognized the script from the Copt’s Bible on the wall, overriding and defiling the Latin. Several sun discs representing the Aten had been altered to bear Coptic crosses, which were kind of like an old ankh with a cross in its loop. Indeed, many of the ankhs carved on the walls had been so altered through chipping or painting.

Snapping photo after photo, I worked my way around the chamber. Arabic inscriptions began to appear in places, and I recognized the shahada from the flags of Saudi Arabia and ISIS. The human figures bore the brunt of those carvings, with nearly every human figure, including both Akhenaten and every member of his family, chipped away. And that was just the graffiti; the final snapshots I took were of the carvings nearest the door, which were in ruins, illegible and all but annihilated by what looked like an anti-tank mine.

There, in Akhenaten’s temple, those who had occupied the site after the last four thousand years had left their contemptuous marks. There, in his temple, there has been no attempts at understanding or appreciation of beauty. There, in his temple, I knew hate. A mature and insidious hate that knew no understanding, and whose only reaction was destruction.

I clambered back up the steps. “Did you learn anything?” Hassan asked flatly.

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s time to go.”

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“I don’t think you quite understand,” Thomson said.

“I should say I don’t,” replied Manderley. “You’re waving a piece of ancient paper with mucky-muck scribbles on it and somehow expecting this layman to intuit what it is that’s got you hot and bothered”

Thomson sighed. “This is hieroglyphic script, roughly contemporaneous with the Narmer Palette.” Seeing the blank look on Manderley’s face, he quickly added “The oldest hieroglyphics we know of.”

“Sound like it might be valuable,” Manderley conceded. “Sell it and see that I get my cut as financier.”

“No, no!” Thomson cried. “Narmer was the first pharaoh, who united upper and lower Egypt and transformed a loose confederation of tribes into a nation-state. Most of his cities remain lost to us, including the military outpost at Ut and Narmer’s capitol at Thinis.”

“I’m still leaning toward selling it,” said Manderley. “I think I could sniff out a buyer that could keep us fully funded for a year–more if it’s private and not a museum.”

“Then you’d be about as savvy as the people in Twain’s story that burned mummies for locomotive fuel. This papyrus was located in a dig that appears to be the ruins of the Ut outpost. It contains an exact map to the location of Thinis.”

Mössner and Italesi were often cited as examples by believers in spiritualism and the occult, thanks to their deaths so soon after the excavations at the funerary complex of Teti II. Italesi died of scarlet fever while in quarantine at Port Said in December 1913, while Mössner perished the following year of a septic infection contracted after he was jailed by the British after war broke out.

Of course, that was patently ridiculous: British jails in Cairo weren’t known for their high levels of sanitation, much less if the prisoner was a suspected enemy alien, and there had been sporadic outbreaks of scarlet fever throughout the 1910’s on the Mediterranean coast. A pharaoh would have had to be far-seeing indeed to arrange a world war and an outbreak of unknown disease to kill those who violated the sanctity of his poorly-built rubble mound of a pyramid, and Teti II was a mediocre, forgotten ruler at best.

Nevertheless, when the entranceway to his pyramid collapsed a week after the death of Mössner, entombing 16 workers and two Europeans, the legend of the pharaoh’s wrath was established in the popular imagination, eclipsed only when Tutankhamen’s tomb was unearthed a decade later.

Hollister had a Sphynx for a secretary; she was filing her long claws–red not from blood but from polish–with an emery board. She glanced up at me through heavy rouge and a delicately coiffed perm.

“I need to see Mr. Hollister at once,” I said, withdrawing the Smith & Wesson from my shoulder holster. “Here’s my heater.”

“I talk, but I do not speak my mind,” she said with a nasal twang–a Brooklyn sphynx. “I hear words, but I do not listen to thoughts. When I wake, all see me. When I sleep, all hear me. Many heads are on my shoulders. Many hands are at my feet. The strongest steel cannot break my visage. But the softest whisper can destroy me. What am I?”

I sighed. Sphynxes love their riddling talk–it’s a cultural thing, I suppose–which is why they’re in such demand as bouncers and secretaries. Easy enough for someone who doesn’t want to be disturbed to have their sphynx riddle all comers, even though it’s technically illegal. These days they’ll just turn you away for a wrong answer, mostly. But in the old days, and in some dark alleys now as the scuttlebutt has it, they’d strangle and eat you. Hell, their name comes from the old Greek word for ‘strangler.’ Same root as ‘sphincter,’ too; appropriate, since I’d yet to meet a sphynx who wasn’t an asshole.

“An actor,” I said. “Can I go in now?” Teddy Roosevelt loved that one, and a lot of the dimmer or less imaginative sphynxes used it. But you don’t get to be where–or what–I am without knowing all the old sphynxy standbys.

A red claw descended on the intercom. “Someone to see you, Mr. Hollister.”

“You understand, the translation will have to be approximate,” Smiths said. “A lot of heiroglyphs is context and inferential.”

“Just read it.” The revolver was argument enough.

“The Aten had no form, no voice, only will. Arising from the darkness of all which exists outside the Maat, the divine order of the cosmos, it first manifested as a weak and guttering spark. Only by associating itself with the bright disc of the sun was the Aten able to attract the notice of mortals, who came to view it as an aspect of their sun god, Ra. In this way, the Aten was first able to whisper into the ears of the chief priest, the Pharaoh. Over a generation, the whispers grew strong enough for the Pharaoh, and by extension his people, to allot the Aten a place in their great pantheon of deities. And when an aged and infirm ruler gave way to a young and impressionable one, the whispers grew ever louder.”

“Keep going.”

“In those days, the Aten was possessed of a great love for those whose belief had allowed it to escape from the darkness of the Duat, the underworld, but also a terrible jealousy. Through the Pharaoh, it insisted that the old gods were to be swept away–the whispers so insistent that the young ruler soon came to be preoccupied with his new religion alone, to the ruin of the nation. The Divinity, which existed in the guise of the many local gods at that time, reacted by withdrawing itself from the land. The Aten was unable to cope with the subsequent widespread famine, plagues, political upheaval, and general chaos, great though its powers had become. With the death of the Pharaoh from illness, the Aten was cast down from its lofty perch, and the light which represented it faded once more as successive rulers ought to erase it from their history.”

Smiths paused. “S-shall I keep going?”

The gun again, flashing in the torchlight. “Please do.”

“Cast once again into darkness, the Aten grew bitter at its fate, and came to resent the mortals on whom it had depended and whom it had once tried to love. It gathered its strength once more, slowly, and resolved to complete what the long-ago Pharaoh had once begun – the sweeping away of the old world for a new. Rather than co-opting, it would create anew. But although its strength returned, the Aten could not set its plan in motion.”

“For it yet needed mankind: its beliefs and its aid.” The words came from the darkness before Smiths could translate them.

She always signed the name Bir Tawil when one was required, since the term had meaningful, if esoteric, relationship to her perception of reality.

When the Brits had been busily carving up Africa like a choice turkey, they’d drawn a border between Egypt and Sudan–ruler-straight, as such externally imposed lines tended to be. A few years later, they’d gone back and, with uncharacteristic attention to native concerns, adjusted it to give Egypt a little plot of land south of the line and Sudan a little plot north of it since local tribal shepherds used the land to graze. Egypt and Sudan had fallen to fighting over the larger part, called Hala’ib, but the border was such that whoever claimed Hala’ib had to deny ownership of the smaller part at the same time. Called Bir Tawil, the patch of land was unclaimed by either one in favor of something they valued more.

So when Bir signed something with her name of choice, she was symbolically casting in her lot with that wretched 800 square miles of desert that nobody wanted. There had even been a time she’d harbored a dream of moving there–an act of solidarity with something as abandoned as she.