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Excerpt
The following is an excerpt from the book 7 Deadly Wonders
by Matthew Reilly
Published by Simon & Schuster; January 2006;$23.00US/$31.75CAN; 0-7432-7053-3
Copyright © 2005 Matthew Reilly

SUDAN
MARCH 14, 2006
SIX DAYS BEFORE TARTARUS

THE GREATEST STATUE IN HISTORY

It towered like a god above the mouth of Mandraki harbor, the main port of the island state of Rhodes, much like the Statue of Liberty does today in New York.

Finished in 282 b.c. after twelve years of construction, it was the tallest bronze statue ever constructed. At a stupendous 110 feet, it loomed above even the tallest ship that passed by.

It was crafted in the shape of the Greek sun god, Helios -- muscled and strong, wearing a crown of olive leaves and a necklace of massive golden pendants, and holding a flaming torch aloft in his right hand.

Experts continue to argue whether the great statue stood astride the entrance to the harbor or at the end of the long breakwater that formed one of its shores. Either way, in its time, the Colossus would have been an awesome sight.

Curiously, while the Rhodians built it in celebration of their victory over the Antigonids (who had laid siege to the island of Rhodes for an entire year), the statue's construction was paid for by Egypt -- by two Egyptian Pharaohs in fact: Ptolemy I and his son, Ptolemy II.

But while it took Man twelve years to build the Colossus of Rhodes, it took Nature fifty-six years to ruin it.

When the great statue was badly damaged in an earthquake in 226 b.c., it was again Egypt who offered to repair it: this time the new Pharaoh, Ptolemy III. It was as if the Colossus meant more to the Egyptians than it did to the Rhodians.

Fearing the gods who had felled it, the people of Rhodes declined Ptolemy III's offer to rebuild the Colossus and the remainder of the statue was left to lie in ruins for nearly nine hundred years -- until a.d. 654 when the invading Arabs broke it up and sold it off in pieces.

One mysterious footnote remains.

A week after the Rhodians declined Ptolemy III's offer to reerect the Colossus, the head of the mammoth fallen statue -- all sixteen feet of it -- went missing.

The Rhodians always suspected that it was taken away on an Egyptian freighter-barge that had left Rhodes earlier that week.

The head of the Colossus of Rhodes was never seen again.

ANGEREB SWAMP
BASE OF THE ETHIOPIAN HIGHLANDS
KASSALA PROVINCE, EASTERN SUDAN
MARCH 14, 2006, 4:55 P.M.
6 DAYS BEFORE THE ARRIVAL OF TARTARUS

The nine figures raced through the crocodile-infested swamp on foot, moving fast, staying low.

The odds were stacked against them.

Their rivals numbered in excess of two hundred men.

They had only nine.

Their rivals had massive logistical and technical support: choppers, floodlights for night work, and boats of every kind -- gunboats, houseboats, communications boats, three giant dredging barges for the digging, and that wasn't even mentioning the temporary dam they'd managed to build.

The Nine were only carrying what they'd need inside the mine.

And now -- the Nine had just discovered -- a third force was on its way to the mountain, close behind them; a much larger and nastier force than that of their immediate foes, who were nasty enough.

By any reckoning it was a hopelessly lost cause, with enemies in front of them and enemies behind them, but the Nine kept running anyway.

Because they had to.

They were a last-ditch effort.

The last throw of the dice.

They were the very last hope of the small group of nations they represented.

Their immediate rivals -- a coalition of European nations -- had found the northern entrance to the mine two days ago and were now well advanced in its tunnel system.

A radio transmission that had been intercepted an hour before revealed that this pan-European force -- French troops, German engineers, and an Italian project leader -- had just arrived at the Third Gate inside the mine. Once they breached that, they would be inside the Grand Cavern itself.

They were progressing quickly.

Which meant they were also well versed in the difficulties found inside the mine.

Fatal difficulties.

Traps.

But the Europeans' progress hadn't been entirely without loss: three members of their point team had died gruesome deaths in a snare on the first day. But the leader of the European expedition -- a Vatican-based Jesuit priest named Francisco del Piero -- had not let their deaths slow him down.

Single-minded, unstoppable, and completely devoid of sympathy, del Piero urged his people onward. Considering what was at stake, the deaths were an acceptable loss.

The Nine kept charging through the swamp on the south side of the mountain, heads bent into the rain, feet pounding through the mud.

They ran like soldiers -- low and fast, with balance and purpose; ducking under branches, hurdling bogs, always staying in single file.

In their hands, they held guns: MP7s, M16s, Steyr AUGs. In their thigh holsters were pistols of every kind.

On their backs: packs of various sizes, all bristling with ropes, climbing gear, and odd-looking steel struts.

And above them, soaring gracefully over the treetops, was a small shape, a bird of some sort.

Seven of the Nine were indeed soldiers.

Crack troops. Special forces. All from different countries.

The remaining two members were civilians, the elder of whom was a long-bearded sixty-five-year-old professor named Maximilian T. Epper, call sign: Wizard.

The seven military members of the team had somewhat fiercer nicknames: Huntsman, Witch Doctor, Archer, Bloody Mary, Saladin, Matador, and
Gunman.

Oddly, however, on this mission they had all acquired new call signs: Woodsman, Fuzzy, Stretch, Princess Zoe, Pooh Bear, Noddy, and Big Ears.

These revised call signs were the result of the ninth member of the team:

A little girl of ten.

The mountain they were approaching was the last in a long spur of peaks that ended near the Sudanese-Ethiopian border.

Down through these mountains, flowing out of Ethiopia and into the Sudan, poured the Angereb River. Its waters paused briefly in this swamp before continuing on into the Sudan, where they would ultimately join the Nile.

The chief resident of the swamp was Crocodylus niloticus, the notorious Nile crocodile. Reaching sizes of up to twenty feet, the Nile crocodile is known for its great size, its brazen cunning, and its ferocity of attack. It is the most man-eating crocodilian in the world, killing upwards of three hundred people every year.

While the Nine were approaching the mountain from the south, their EU rivals had set up a base of operations on the northern side, a base that looked like a veritable floating city.

Command boats, mess boats, barracks boats, and gunboats, the small fleet connected by a network of floating bridges and all facing toward the focal point of their operation: the massive coffer dam that they had built against the northern flank of the mountain.

It was, one had to admit, an engineering masterpiece: a 110-yard-long, forty-foot-high curved retaining dam that held back the waters of the swamp to reveal a square stone doorway carved into the base of the mountain forty feet below the waterline.

The artistry on the stone doorway was extraordinary.

Egyptian hieroglyphs covered every square inch of its frame -- but taking pride of place in the very center of the lintel stone that surmounted the doorway was a glyph often found in pharaonic tombs in Egypt:

Two figures, bound to a staff bearing the jackal head of Anubis, the Egyptian god of the Underworld.

This was what the afterlife had in store for grave robbers -- eternal bondage to Anubis. Not a nice way to spend eternity.

The message was clear: do not enter.

* * *

The structure inside the mountain was an ancient mine delved during the reign of Ptolemy I, around the year 300 b.c.

During the great age of Egypt, the Sudan was known as "Nubia," a word derived from the Egyptian word for gold: nub.

Nubia: the Land of Gold.

And indeed it was. It was from Nubia that the ancient Egyptians sourced the gold for their many temples and treasures.

Records unearthed in Alexandria revealed that this mine had run out of gold seventy years after its founding, after which it gained a second life as a quarry for the rare hard stone, diorite. Once it was exhausted of diorite -- around the year 226 b.c. -- Pharaoh Ptolemy III decided to use the mine for a very special purpose.

To this end, he dispatched his best architect -- Imhotep V -- and a force of two thousand men.

They would work on the project in absolute secrecy for three whole years.

The northern entrance to the mine had been the main entrance.

Originally, it had been level with the waterline of the swamp, and through its doors a wide canal bored horizontally into the mountain. Bargeloads of gold and diorite were brought out of the mine via this canal.

But then Imhotep V had come and reconfigured it.

Using a temporary dam not unlike the one the European force was using today, his men had held back the waters of the swamp while his engineers had lowered the level of the doorway, dropping it forty feet. The original door was bricked in and covered over with soil.

Imhotep had then disassembled the dam and allowed the swamp waters to flood back over the new doorway, concealing it for over two thousand years.

Until today.

But there was a second entrance to the mine, a lesser-known one, on the south side of the mountain.

It was a back door, the end point of a slipway that had been used to dispose of waste during the original digging of the mine. It too had been reconfigured.

It was this entrance that the Nine were seeking.

Guided by the tall, white-bearded Wizard -- who held in one hand a very ancient papyrus scroll and in the other a very modern sonic-resonance imager -- they stopped abruptly on a mud mound about ninety yards from the base of the mountain. It was shaded by four bending lotus trees.

"Here!" the old fellow called, seeing something on the mound. "Oh dear. The village boys did find it."

In the middle of the muddy dome, sunk into it, was a tiny square hole, barely wide enough for a man to fit into. Stinking brown mud lined its edges.

You'd never see it if you weren't looking for it, but it just so happened that this hole was exactly what Professor Max T. Epper was searching for.

He read quickly from his papyrus scroll:

"In the Nubian swamp to the south of Soter's mine,
Among Sobek's minions,
Find the four symbols of the Lower Kingdom.
Therein lies the portal to the harder route."

Epper looked up at his companions. "Four lotus trees: the lotus was the symbol of the Lower Kingdom. Sobek's minions are crocodiles, since Sobek was the Egyptian crocodile god. In a swamp to the south of Soter's mine -- Soter being the other name for Ptolemy I. This is it."

A small wicker basket lay askew next to the muddy hole -- the kind of basket used by rural Sudanese.

"Those stupid, stupid boys." Wizard kicked the basket away.

On their way here, the Nine had passed through a small village. The villagers claimed that only a few days ago, lured by the Europeans' interest in the mountain, four of their young men had gone exploring in the swamp. One of them had returned to the village saying the other three had disappeared down a hole in the ground and not come out again.

At this point, the leader of the Nine stepped forward, peered down into the hole.

The rest of the team waited for him to speak.

Not a lot was known about the leader of this group. Indeed, his past was veiled in mystery. What was known was this:

His name was West -- Jack West Jr.

Call sign: Huntsman.

At thirty-seven, he had the rare distinction of being both military and university trained -- he had once been a member of the most elite special forces unit in the world, while at another time, he had studied ancient history at Trinity College in Dublin under Max Epper.

Indeed, in the 1990s, when the Pentagon had ranked the best soldiers in the world, only one soldier in the top ten had not been an American: Jack West. He'd come in at number four.

But then, around 1995, West disappeared off the international radar. Just like that. He was not seen at international exercises or on missions again -- not even the allied invasion of Iraq in 2003, despite his experience there during Desert Storm in '91. It was assumed he had quit the military, cashed in his points and retired. Nothing was seen or heard of him for over ten years . . .

. . . until now.

Now, he had reemerged.

Supremely fit, he had dark hair and laser-sharp brown eyes that seemed perpetually narrowed. Apparently, he had a winning smile, but that was something rarely seen.

Today, like the rest of his team, he wore a decidedly nonmilitary uniform: a rugged caramel-colored canvas jacket, tattered cargo pants and steel-soled Salomon hiking boots that bore the scars of many previous adventures.

His hands were gloved, but if you looked closely at the left cuff of his jacket, you might catch a glimpse of silver steel. Hidden under the sleeve, his entire left forearm and hand were artificial, mechanical. How it came to be that way, not many people knew; although one of those who did was Max Epper.

Expertly trained in the art of war, classically trained in the lore of history, and fiercely protective of the little girl in his care, one thing about Jack West Jr. was clear: if anyone could pull off this impossible mission, it was him.

Just then, with a squawk, a small brown peregrine falcon swooped in from above the treeline and landed lightly on West's shoulder -- the high-flying bird from before. It eyed the area around West imperiously, protectively. Its name, Horus.

West didn't even notice the bird. He just stared down into the dark square hole in the mud, lost in thought.

He brushed back some mud from the edge, revealing a hieroglyph cut into the rim:

"We meet again," he said softly to the carving.

He turned. "Glowstick."

He was handed a glowstick, which he cracked and tossed down the hole.

It fell for twenty feet, illuminating a pipelike stone shaft on its way down, before -- splonk! -- it landed in water and revealed--

Lots of crocodiles. Nile crocodiles.

Snapping, snarling and grunting. Sliding over each other.

"More of Sobek's minions," West said. "Nice. Very nice."

Just then the team's radioman, a tall Jamaican with bleached dreadlocks, a heavily pockmarked face, and tree-trunk-sized arms, touched his earpiece in alarm. His real name was V. J. Weatherly, his original call sign Witch Doctor, but everyone here just called him Fuzzy.

"Huntsman," he said. "The Europeans just breached the Third Gate. They're inside the Grand Cavern. Now they're bringing in some kind of crane to overshoot the lower levels."

"Shit . . ."

"It gets worse. The Americans just crossed the border. They're coming in fast behind us. Big force: four hundred men, choppers, armor, with carrier-launched fighter support on the way. And the ground force is being led by the CIEF."

That really got West's attention.

The CIEF -- the Commander-in-Chief's in Extremis Force; pronounced "seef" -- was America's very best special operations unit; a unit that answered only to the president and possessed the real-life equivalent of a license to kill. As West knew from hard experience, you didn't want to be around when the CIEF arrived.

He stood up. "Who's in command?"

Fuzzy said ominously, "Judah."

"I didn't think he'd come himself. Damn. Now we'd really better hurry."

West turned to his team.

"All right. Noddy -- you've got sentry duty. Everybody else . . ."

He pulled an odd-looking helmet from his belt, put it on.

". . . it's time to rock and roll."

And so into the subterranean dark they went.

Fast.

A steel tripod was erected above the pipelike shaft, and, led by West, one after the other, eight of the Nine abseiled down it on a rope strung from the tripod.

One lone man, a dark-haired Spanish commando -- once known as Matador, now Noddy -- remained up top to guard the entrance.

THE ENTRY SHAFT

West sizzled down the drop rope, shooting past three steeply slanted cross shafts that intersected with the main shaft.

His falcon sat snugly in a pouch on his chest, while on his head he wore a weathered and worn fireman's helmet, bearing the badge FDNY Precinct 17. The battered helmet was fitted with a wraparound protective eye visor and on the left side, a powerful pen-sized flashlight. The rest of his team wore similar helmets, variously modified with flashlights, visors, and cameras.

West eyed the cross shafts as he slid down the rope. He knew what perils lay within them. "Everyone. Stay sharp. Do not, I repeat, do not make any contact with the walls of this shaft."

He didn't and they didn't.

Safely, he came to the bottom of the rope.

THE ATRIUM

West emerged from the ceiling at one end of a long, stone-walled room, hanging from his drop-rope.

He did not lower himself all the way to the floor, just kept hanging about eight feet above it.

By the eerie yellow light of his original glowstick, he beheld a rectangular room about 98 feet long. The room's floor was covered by a shallow layer of swamp water, water that was absolutely crawling with Nile crocodiles -- not an inch of floor space was crocodile-free.

And directly beneath West, protruding half out of the water, were the waterlogged half-eaten bodies of two twenty-something Sudanese men. The bodies lolled lifelessly as three big crocs took great crunching bites out of them.

"Big Ears," West said into his throat microphone, "there's a sight down here that's not PG-13. Tell Lily not to look down when you two reach the bottom of the rope."

"Righto to that, boss," came an Irish-accented reply over his earpiece.

West fired a luminescent amber flare down the length of the atrium.

It was as if the chamber came alive.

Deeply cut lines of hieroglyphs covered the walls, thousands of them.

And at the far end of the chamber, West saw his goal: a squat trapezoidal doorway, raised several feet off the watery floor.

The eerie yellow glow of the flare also revealed one other important feature of the atrium -- its ceiling.

Embedded in the ceiling was a line of hand rungs, leading to the far raised doorway. Each rung, however, was lodged in a dark square hole that disappeared up into the ceiling itself.

"Wizard," West said, "I've got hand rungs."

"According to the inscription in Imhotep's tomb, we have to avoid the third and the eighth rungs," Wizard's voice said. "Drop cages above them. The rest are OK."

"Gotcha."

The Eight traversed the atrium quickly, swinging hand over hand down the length of the chamber, avoiding the two suspect hand rungs, their feet dangling just a few feet above the crocs.

The little girl -- Lily -- moved in the middle of the group, clinging to the biggest trooper of the Nine, her hands clasped around his neck, while he swung from rung to rung.

THE LOW TUNNEL

A long low tunnel led away from the atrium, heading into the mountain.

West and his team ran down it, all bent forward. Horus had been set free and she flew out in front of West, gliding down the passageway. Lily ran fully upright.

Water dripped from the low stone ceiling, but it hit their firemen's helmets and rolled off their curved backs, away from their eyes.

The tunnel was perfectly square -- 1.4 yards wide, 1.4 yards high. Curiously, these were exactly the same dimensions as the passageways inside the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Like the entry shaft earlier, this horizontal tunnel was intersected by three cross shafts: only these were vertical and spanned the entire width of the tunnel, cutting across it via matching holes in the ceiling and floor.

At one point, Lily's guardian, the large trooper named Big Ears, misstepped -- landing on a trigger stone just before he leaped across one of the cross shafts.

He knew his mistake immediately and stopped abruptly at the edge of the shaft--

--just as a gushing waterfall of swamp water came blasting out of the upper hole, forming a curtain of water in front of him, before disappearing into the matching hole in the floor.

Had he jumped, the rush of water would have taken him and Lily down into the unknown depths of the lower hole.

"Careful, brother dearest," the team member in front of him said, after the water had passed. She was the only woman in the group and a member of the crack Irish commando unit, the Sciathan Fianoglach an Airm. Old call sign: Bloody Mary. New one: Princess Zoe. Her brother, Big Ears, was also a member of the SFA.

She reached out and caught his hand and with her help he leaped over the cross shaft, and with Lily between them, they took off after the others.

THE WATER CHAMBER (THE FIRST GATE)

The low tunnel opened onto a chamber the size of a small chapel. Incongruously, the floor of this chamber seemed to be made up of a lush carpet of green grass.

Only it wasn't grass.

It was algae. And beneath the algae, water -- a rectangular pool of perfectly flat undisturbed water.

And no crocs. Not a single one.

At the far end of the chamber -- beyond the long placid pool, just above the waterline -- were three low rectangular holes burrowing into the far wall, each roughly the size of a coffin.

An object floated in the pool near the entrance. West recognized it instantly.

A human body. Dead.

The third and last Sudanese man.

Breathless, Wizard came up alongside West. "Ah-ha, the First Gate. Ooh my, how clever. It's a false-floor chamber, just like we saw beneath the volcano in Uganda. Ah, Imhotep V. He always respected the classic traps . . ."

"Max . . ." West said.

"Ooh, and it's connected to a Solomon's Choice of spike holes: three holes, but only one is safe. This is some gate. I bet the ceiling is on rollers--"

"Max. You can write a book about it later. The state of the water?"

"Yes, sorry, ahem . . ." Wizard pulled a dipstick from a water-testing kit on his belt and dipped it into the algae-covered pool. Its tip quickly turned a vivid red.

Wizard frowned. "Extremely high levels of the bloodworm Schistosoma mansoni. Be careful, my friend, this water is beyond septic. It's teeming with S. mansoni."

"What's that?" Big Ears asked from behind them.

"It's a microscopic bloodworm that penetrates the body through the skin or any exposed orifice, then lays eggs in the bloodstream," West answered.

Wizard added, "Infection leads to spinal cord inflammation, lower body paralysis, and, ultimately, a cerebral aneurysm and death. Ancient grave robbers went mad after entering places like this. They blamed angry gods and mystical curses, but in all likelihood it was the S. mansoni. But at these levels, gosh, this water will kill you in minutes. Whatever you do, Jack, don't fall in."

"OK then," West said, "the jump-stone configuration."

"Right, right, Hessler found it in Imhotep's sarcophagus . . ." The older man hurriedly pulled out a dog-eared notebook from his jacket pocket, started flipping pages.

A false-floor chamber was a fairly common booby trap in the ancient Egyptian world -- mainly because it was very simple to build and exceedingly effective. It worked by concealing a safe pathway of stepping-stones beneath a false layer of liquid -- which could be anything really: quicksand, boiling mud, tar, or most commonly, bacteria-infected water.

You defeated a false-floor chamber by knowing the location of the stepping-stones in it.

Wizard found the page he was after. "Okay. Here it is. Soter's Mine. Nubia. First Gate. Water chamber. Ah-ha. Five-by-five grid; the sequence of the jump stones is 1-3-4-1-3."

"1-3-4-1-3," West repeated. "And which spike hole? I'm going to have to choose quickly."

"Key of life," Wizard said, consulting his notebook.

"Thanks. Horus, chest." On command, the falcon immediately whizzed to West's chest and nestled in a pouch there.

West then turned to the assembled group behind him: "Okay, folks, listen up. Everyone is to follow me closely. If our friend Imhotep V follows his usual modus operandi, as soon as I step on the first stepping-stone, things are gonna get frantic. Stay close because we won't have much time."

West turned and contemplated the placid pool of algae-covered water. He bit his lip for a second. Then he took a deep breath.

Then he jumped out into the chamber, out over the surface of the pool, angling his leap way out to the left.

It was a long jump -- he couldn't have just stepped that far.

Watching, Wizard gasped.

But rather than plunging into the deadly water, West landed lightly on the surface of the flat green pool -- looking like he was walking on water.

His thick-soled boots stood an inch deep. He was standing on some kind of stepping-stone hidden underneath the algae-covered surface.

Wizard exhaled the breath he'd been holding.

Less obviously, West did, too.

But their relief was short-lived, for at that moment the trap mechanism of the water chamber came loudly and spectacularly to life.

Copyright © 2005 Matthew Reilly