The Prince (The Espionage Novel)

For your reading pleasure, the entire Espionage novel by Damocles in one volume.

Chapter 1: Woods.

The scent of petrichor slowly permeated the air, until it was all CIA Special Operations Group (SOG) Paramilitary Operations Officer Woods could smell.

The spice that usually perfumed the Afghan marketplaces in Kabul slowly receded as rain began to hammer the streets, turning the ground into dark, muddy slush that stuck to cheap boots and the hems of coarse hessian trousers.

Woods aimed his gaze upwards, staring up the street that stretched towards the Hindu Kush mountains that dominated the landscape of the capital city.

In the distance, tiny dots littered the sky, kites being flown by children, as they weaved their creations in deadly dances.

Mock combat being practised by skilled young hands.

Woods watched as a scarlet kite smashed into a green one, crumpling the frame, noting the strong gust of wind that discarded the corpse of the green kite further away than the children expected.

Looking down at the weathered crimson carpet he was sitting on, Woods picked up the small tea cup and tossed back the amber tea, savouring the slightly spicy, sweet taste of Afghan chai, before standing up and adjusting his colourful kufi cap.

Brushing down his Perahan tunban tunic, and buttoning up his sleeveless vest, Woods ambled slowly over to the reception desk and handed over a few afghani into the tin bowl.

The elderly shopkeeper smiled and nodded his head in thanks at Woods. He nodded back and wandered back onto the streets of Kabul, to resume his search for the missing hostages.

It happened, only a month ago. A naive American journalist got herself and her team captured by a local drug running group in the capital of Kabul. The journalist’s name was Karen Matthews, and she was the perfect, toxic combination for a kidnapping: proud, beautiful, morally righteous, arrogant and worst of all, ambitious.

Matthews thought that by shining a light on the opium addiction that ran rampant through Afghanistan, she would be fast-tracked to earning a Pulitzer. Instead, she was captured by one of Afghanistan’s more vicious drug dealing criminal gangs during a particularly brash interview with one of the dealers.

She was lucky … she and her two members left the cafe alive.

The dealer was found with his hands removed and his body hanging from the underside of an overpass, stray dogs taking bites out of his feet. The common punishment for those who dealt with Americans.

Still, what they were doing to her wasn’t pleasant. Woods had watched the kidnapper’s tape and winced upon comparing the beaten woman on a grainy film to the smiling portrait that graced her social media pages.

It was his job to find her, but at the moment he wasn’t having much luck. He felt like he was close, but not close enough.

Making his way through the people of Kabul, Woods ducked and weaved past hundreds of small minivans and bicycles, the endless cacophony of traffic adding to the chaos of colours, smells and wares on display.

The Market Sediq Omar was always busy, with hundreds of goods on display, piled together unceremoniously and without any true reason or logic behind them.

It was atypical of bazaar experiences: claustrophobic, dense, overwhelming and fun. Merchants would rapid-fire Pashto at anyone who would walk by, with a particularly bothersome salesman insisting that Woods examine his electronics.

Woods, politely extricated himself with a firm grasp on the hand that rested on his shoulder and demurred politely in quiet Pashto, before silently disappearing into the crowd.

Situated within a tall structure that housed multiple levels of residents, the marketplace dominated the courtyard of the apartment complex. The decor that surrounded the marketplace was an ugly off-white colour, punctuated only by colourful carpets that were hung out to dry on balconies and the occasional flag of a warlord or drug runner.

The Market Sediq Omar was a hotbed of activity, both illicit and legal and for the people who lived there, they didn’t care. They had more crucial matters to worry about and this market was actually a genuine convience for shopping, despite the shadiness.

Woods had been frequenting this market for the past month, his Taliban source, a certain “spice” merchant whose product had more white than any other colour, a regular at this bazaar. This was the cost of war, turning an blind eye to certain dealings on the streets to fight more effectively in the mountains.

However today, there were going to be no such appearance. The weather was only going to worsen, as the rain would intensify and turn to snow soon.

Gently pushing a tall man out of the way, Woods made his way into the only functioning lift and pressed a button to reach the 4th floor. Silence filled the empty chamber as the doors creaked shut, unconvincingly.

As the elevator groaned slowly upwards, Woods lifted up his vest and checked through a slit in his tunban tunic, that he could still access his trusty Glock 19 in its’ appendix carry holster. Reassured by the weight of the cold steel, he counted down the seconds until the elevator would reach the 4th floor, the average time being around 40 seconds.

At 38 seconds, the doors rasped open, and Woods sidled out, making his way around the floor to room 417, looking down and admiring the view of the marketplace below, as noise and the smell of spice and nuts wafted upwards to the sky.

Taking out a cheap key, he slid it into the wooden door, and carefully scanned the spartan apartment, before locking the door behind him.

It was a bold decision to have a hideout, right atop the market where all sorts did business, but the risk had paid off for the past couple of months.

Actionable intel was genuinely rare to receive, and Woods had managed to score 3 crucial pieces of intel that led to boots on the grounds and bodies underneath the snow. 3 vital pieces of the puzzle in less than 6 months. He had a feeling that another piece of the puzzle would come soon for Karen Matthews.

A high risk, high reward play.

This was why, in spite of the danger, Woods chose to stay and maintain this hideout.

Locking up the door, he slid a deadbolt into place before moving back. Undoing the hooks on his appendix holster, Woods placed the Glock and its’ holster on a table, where a dirty rag that smelled of oil and grease, reminded him of his duties.

Walking over to his bed, he reached underneath and pulled out a military laptop, encased in ballistic padding and equipped with a small secure aerial that allowed encrypted access to the internet.

Typing in a standard report, effectively stating that he saw nothing of note today, Woods spent a moment browsing area reports, and noted that this week was slow and quiet.

Winter was like that.

Sighing quietly, he closed the laptop shut and placed it back underneath his bed, before reaching into a large duffel bag and extracting his pistol calibre carbine (PCC), a venerable MP5A5 kitted out with a sling, a torch and an Aimpoint Micro T-2 optic.

Despite its’ Cold War status and age in comparison to better and more advanced weaponry, Woods still enjoyed using the MP5. Its’ legendary status, sealed with his original unit, the 22nd SAS, had been proven time and time again, with its’ remarkable reliability, accuracy and recoil impulse.

It also helped that the ammunition that serviced the weapon was the same for his Glock 19, thus ensuring lower cost and more ammunition carried if there was ever a firefight.

Picking up the dirty rag, Woods stripped the MP5, carefully putting aside the T-2 optic, the Surefire torch and the sling in neat corners, before taking a screw driver and undoing the weapon. With a tiny plastic bottle of oil, he cleaned the weapon methodically, and caressed each part with care.

Once every part was well greased, he swiftly reassembled the weapon, and leaving the magazine out, flicked the ambidextrous safety to semi before aiming the tiny red dot at a circle on the wall.

Hearing the satisfying click, he flicked up the safety, pulled back the charging handle and inserted a skinny magazine, before slapping the handle forward, allowing it to chamber a round.

Putting the MP5 aside, Woods examined his Glock 19 and had just tucked his weapons away, when he heard a knock on the door and simultaneously feeling his mobile phone buzz.

Staring at the screen, he frowned and moved to the door, where through the peephole, he saw a man dressed similarly to him, nervously scanning the area, his hands falling back his side, as he finished knocking.

Woods opened the door, his right hand concealing the Glock behind his leg and felt his eyes widen in surprise.

Samir?

Khalid. This is urgent. You’ve been reassigned. We need to go now.

Samir, Wood’s local runner in Afghanistan stepped inside the room and handed him a burner phone. A heavyset man, with an impressive beard and dark enigmatic eyes, Samir was one of the many locals that helped SOG Officers like Woods gather extra intelligence, in exchange for money or extradition to the States.

Samir, was one of the very first that had signed up to the CIA informer program, and was extraordinarily good at his job, despite the dangers and lack of training. For him, to break cover and contact Woods in this manner, meant that this was serious.

Woods flipped the phone case open and keyed in the number his handler had reserved for emergencies. After a brief pause, a female voice came over the teeny speaker.

Woods. This is a full priority situation. We’re pulling you out and reassigning you to Europe. More details to follow. Samir will organise extract and sanitation. This is a FSA (Foreign Security Assessment) priority level 5.

Understood. said Woods as he heard the phone click and watched as the screen self-destruct into darkness.

Give me five, Samir.

Samir nodded and waited by the door, anxious. He looked out the tiny keyhole and noted that the weather had begun to worsen. Snow was now drifting lazily across the sky and the temperature was dropping further and further. Samir shivered involuntarily.

Taking out his large carry bag, Woods efficiently shoved the military laptop, his MP5, and spare surveillance equipment in, before zipping it tight. A well-rehearsed move, all traces of espionage equipment was gone in 2 minutes. Woods spent the last 3 minutes checking over his bed, desk and kitchen for anything he might have dropped or any incriminating evidence.

Pleased, he shouldered the heavy bag and walked over to Samir. The two left in silence, threading their way through the market that was closing up, before hopping into a decrepit white Toyota Corolla. As Samir pulled away into the traffic, Woods took a final look back at the place that had served as home for a while.

In doing so, he noted a large Toyota HiLux Ute also start up and begin to follow in the direction they were headed.

Scowling, Woods said quietly. We got company.

Samir looked in the mirror and felt the blood drain from his face.

I’m sorry Khalid. They must have followed me.

It’s alright Samir. said Woods reassuringly. Punch it. We can make it to airport. Go, go.

Samir nodded grimly and put his foot down, the Corolla jerking forward instantly and nearly hitting a donkey as it barrelled down the tight roads of Kabul. Despite its’ appearance, the car was actually well-maintained and had significant upgrades for emergencies such as the one Woods and Samir found themselves in.

Snow continued to pound the windshield. Their breathing fogged the glass and Woods began a breathing exercise, designed to expel stress. He always strove to remain clam, even in the most tense of situations. Samir, on the other hand, was hyperventilating, his eyes wide and fearful, as he wrenched the wheel to and fro through the narrow streets.

With a mixture of tight winding roads and super-highways, Kabul’s landscape was surprisingly modern, with many colourful buildings that were undergoing restoration and dozens upon dozens of stalls and vendors lining the streets, their kaleidoscopic flags and umbrellas forlornly weighed down with fresh snow.

To get to safety, Samir merely had to reach a super-highway and begin high-tailing down the long stretch of road for 5 kilometres, before they could be in the safe haven of the Hamid Karzai International Airport.

A simple task, but then the devil was in the details regarding execution.

Samir yanked on the handbrake, as he drifted the small car around a corner, nearly clipping an old woman, who ignored the reckless driving and continued her way down the alleyway. Even when the HiLux’s side mirror nearly hit her arm as it blasted after the Corolla, the Afghan native merely gave a fatalistic shrug and adjusted the basket of laundry she carried on her hip.

Woods kept his right arm outstretched on the dashboard, securing himself as the Corolla harshly jumped a small hump, and kept an eye on the Ute, who he now noted had 2 individuals inside, with one man gripping an Uzi submachine gun and the other manically concentrating on the chase.

Hold on Khalid! yelled Samir, as he ignored the stop sign at the exit of the road and cut in front of a truck, whose horn blasted angrily.

The Corolla skidded across the highway, smoke shooting from the tyres and brakes squealing in a high pitched whine.

Woods and Samir yelled in unison, as the car came sliding towards a minivan, and they collided with a sickening crunch. Both cars reeled with the impact, shattering the window and causing Samir’s head to lurch into the side of the minivan, effectively knocking him out.

Woods, groaned and looked out his window and saw the HiLux coming out of the alleyway. His eyes narrowing in clinical concentration, Woods felt his hands yank out the Glock 19 and he aimed the pistol at the large front right tyre and pulled the trigger rapidly.

The sudden gunfire immediately sent the experienced people of Afghanistan scrambling for cover. Those who had gotten out of their cars to help, were sent running back and taking cover immediately, their hands over their heads.

The HiLux drove on, intent on ramming the Corolla. However, the driver felt pressure immediately slacken on his front tyre and to his shock, the car lurched to the right and narrowly missed the stricken Corollla. Realising his mistake, the driver tried to brake, but the concrete barrier that separated the two sides of the highway was now too close.

The HiLux smashed into the barrier and both men felt their bodies lurch forward, before being brought to an immediate stop, the pressure of their seat-belts smashing into their chest, and their heads experiencing extreme whiplash.

Both men vainly attempted to get out, but couldn’t, their hands unable to depress the button for the seatbelt. The driver opened his eyes blearily, and saw the damaged Corolla drive away, before blacking out.

~

Woods kept his foot down, the Corolla’s engine ticking over angrily, as he sped down the highway and towards the airport. He looked at Samir, whose head had ceased bleeding, after Woods had dug out his first aid kit and applied battlefield superglue to the gash on his head. It had taken him considerable strength to move Samir from the driver seat and to the back of the car, his eyes wandering over the HiLux constantly but manage it he did.

Minutes later, Woods pulled up to the NATO RSM (Resolute Support Mission, the successor the ISAF in Afghanistan) Base at the Hamid Karzai International Airport, digging out his ID card and allowing the U.S. Marine on guard to call for a medic for Samir.

Squeezing Samir’s shoulder reassuringly, Woods allowed the paramedics take him away. As they wheeled Samir away on a gurney, a young Lieutenant came running up to him, and saluted, her hot breath misting the cold air.

Sir! If you would follow me to the command hub.

Woods nodded and shouldered his bag, following the Lieutenant through the maze of temporary buildings and barracks, refamiliarising himself with the layout of the base. It had been over 4 months since he had last set foot here, his usual stop being Bagram Airfield.

Walking past the mess hall and a platoon of Marines going about their daily exercises, Woods could hear snippets of German, Italian and English accents mesh together through the door, as men and women filed in and out of the hall. There was even a small hint of Australian, his native tongue, rising above the usual chatter.

The Lieutenant knocked on the door of the command hub and in entered Woods, placing his large duffel bag near the entrance of the door. As his eyes adjusted to the perpetual darkness of the room, Woods noted the three men in uniform and a woman in civilian garb standing around, talking to each other animatedly. They all looked up at the sight of Woods.

His CIA handler, an attractive redhead by the name of Jessica, stared at him, initially unsure who the bearded, rough looking Afghan man standing before her was, before walking over and giving him a friendly hug.

Gabriel. I didn’t recognise you for a second there.

Woods gave an ironic smile.

Means the Khalid disguise worked. Good to see you too Jess. Why was my extraction hot?

It wasn’t meant to be that way. But somehow Samir was compromised. I’m not sure how. We’re looking into it though. They were following him, and it was poor timing that we asked him to get you out.

Who is ‘they’?

Our old friends. The Haqqani.

Woods grimaced.

Jess noted his gesture and tried to reassure him. Samir will be on the first flight State-side. We own him that much. Anyway, I’ve got to talk to your about your reassignment. Don’t worry about those boys over there.

Jess gestured to the three men in uniform who were looking over at them, talking quietly to each other. I’ll handle the Colonel. He’s just upset about losing you, due to the quality of intel you’ve provided for RSM this rotation. However, I’ve already stressed to him about the FSA.

Jess walked over to her station, and bought up a PDF file on her screen. The profile of a man came up, but the picture was old. Woods noted his name and raised his eyebrow at the long list of sins that the report showed.

I’ll be uploading this onto a tablet soon. It’ll explain why you’re being reassigned. A C-17 Globemaster is about to finish loading up its’ supply run. That’s your flight out of this shithole.

You’ll be flying to Germany, where you’ll be provided gear and coordinates for a safehouse in London. We want you in as deep cover, thus no direct flight to London, I’m afraid. It’ll be a road-trip for you.

From there, you’ll have to do some detective work straight away to find Hassan Malik, code-named SPHINX. A local contact from SIS will link up and you’ll get more intel then.

Jessica took a breath and looked at Woods seriously.

You can read more about Sphinx in this brief. His resume is FUBAR. I mean it. This guy is serious business. For now, Langley just want close surveillance. Good luck Gabriel and watch your six. I’m staying here to monitor more movement on the Matthews case, so I won’t be joining you.

Woods nodded and took the military tablet from her station before shaking her hand warmly. He felt guilty about abandoning Karen Matthews to his handler, but there was nothing he could do.

Jess hugged him in return and whispered “Good luck” understanding how he felt. Ignoring the military men in uniform, Gabriel grabbed his bag, gave an ironic salute to Jess for a final time before searching for the nearest bathroom and a razor.

It was time to remove the beard, and look human again.

~

10 minutes later, Woods stared at his reflection in the mirror.

At a rugged 31 years of age, Woods’ face was unconventionally attractive, with piercing green eyes and dark hair. His skin was well-tanned and creased, an unfortunate side effect of his job, that would make him stand out in a much paler Europe. His facial hair was shadowy, despite his best efforts with a razor to grant him a clean-shaven look. He had even given himself a rudimentary haircut, lopping long locks of his obsidian black hair off, to resemble that of a crew cut.

His flawless ability to navigate the many dialects of Afghanistan had made him a natural choice for the region, his features almost indistinguishable from a local, once a thick beard was developed. To pull him out, and compromise his cover, meant that this wasn’t an ordinary operation.

Shrugging to himself, Woods slipped into clean civilian clothes that Jess had provided him; a white henley shirt, a thick navy woollen jumper, a grey waterproof jacket and black sturdy jeans to match the combat boots. Shouldering his bag again, Woods looked at the giant hulking military plane that was to take him to Germany.

At a monstrous 53 metres in length, with a wingspan of 51 metres, the dark matte grey plane was as long as it was wide, capable of accommodating a 69 ton M1 Abrams tank, and nearly 85 tons of weight. A true behemoth of the sky, the C-17 Globemaster earned every inch of its name.

This particular airplane housed a pair of Bradley Fighting Vehicles, IED damage evident on their exterior, no doubt being shipped back State-side for extensive repairs. Dozens upon dozens of palleted cargo covered in camouflage netting lined the hull of the Globemaster and an U.S. Air Force loadmaster waved him onboard, handing him a pair of headphones.

Nodding gratefully, Woods made a motion about eating and the loadmaster nodded and shouted:

Over there! Grab yourself some MREs! I’ve already placed a hammock for ya by the mess!

Giving him the thumbs up, Woods secured his bag in the webbing of the plane’s wall and walked over to the mess, ripping open an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) bag. He microwaved the contents, before tucking in to a hot meal of Sausage Peppers and Onions, chasing the main course with a trail mix recovery pack.

Looking over at the mess table, Woods felt the plane begin to move and threw away the packaging of the MRE into a nearby bin, before keeping the unopened food nearby. Strapping himself in the hammock, he closed his eyes and waited for the ride to end.

Chapter 2: The Prince

An anonymous man in a suitably non-descript black suit walked towards Woods, his hand gripping a briefcase.

Gabriel Woods watched from the corner of his eye, as the man stopped nearby and turned to examine the famous tourist square. The movement allowed Woods to see the the man’s hand on the briefcase, in which he was gripping it with just his index finger and thumb. The other three fingers were splayed out.

Three is good, two is bad recalled Woods.

Miming his surprise at seeing an old friend, Woods walked over to the man with a smile and an arm outstretched. The man responded similarly and they mimicked a conversation, whilst the man handed the briefcase in an effusive gesture. Woods smiled and walked away, the grin wiped away, the moment the charade was over.

Walking towards Berlin’s Alexanderplatz Station, past the famous Weltzeituhr (World Clock) which was displaying the current time in 148 major cities around the world, Woods rested the briefcase in one hand and popped the clasps with the other.

Taking out a small key, he walked over to the train lockers that lined the exterior of the station and searched for the number on the key.

Opening the locker, he placed the briefcase inside and looked at the contents proper.

Woods noted the new passport that had been issued to him, proclaiming his name to be Christian Taylor, a UK resident from Cornwall. Noting that the photo featured rather thick framed glasses, Woods looked inside for the pair of spectacles that would accompany him as a disguise. Opening a simple black case, Woods tried the glasses on, and was pleased with the fit.

Tapping the side of the glasses, he noted the thickness of the frame, a feature that allowed tiny pin-sized cameras to be installed on both sides of the spectacles. A simple unidirectional microphone also allowed remote recording of conversations up to 20 metres away, and with its’ wireless capability, it could transmit intel to his phone that would send the audio-visual footage to a CIA station nearby.

Woods also noted the new phone that would replace most of the capabilities of the military laptop he was used to. A nondescript Android design, the phone hid its true potential behind false apps, that Woods would have to explore, to unlock what each function would do.

The final spy-craft item in the briefcase was a pair of headphones, that disguised recording and transmitting abilities, allowing him to talk and report back, or listen in on conversations heard through his glasses. Shaped like any wireless headphones, they were a functional black colour, and fit in his ears snugly.

In addition to the gadgets, Woods found a wallet with 1000 English pounds and 1000 Euros, with plenty of different denominations, a car key fob that also featured another key to the safe-house and to his surprise, a spare pair of smokey lens for his glasses that would double as sunglasses.

Placing all these items into various pockets on his person, Woods left the briefcase in the locker and took out the key. He would head over to the Tiergarten, a huge national park that was near the US Embassy and deposit the locker key in an agreed spot for collection.

As he hopped aboard a yellow-white Strabenbahn tram to the park, Woods recalled the brief he had read onboard the C-17 from Afghanistan, about the target he was meant to observe and eventually stop.

Blessed with a photographic memory and near perfect recall, Woods replayed in his mind the personal call from the Station Chief in the CIA London’s operating centre, as the C-17 flew through the night sky, his hands gripping a headset that the loadmaster had given him.

Woods,

You’re probably wondering why we took you out of Afghanistan and transferred you to Europe. Well, we’re aware of your history there and this is priority one. Our Foreign Security Assessment (FSA) indicates that there is going to be a global terrorist attack happening on UK soil in a week from now.

Intelligence suggests that it will be occurring on the Valentine Day’s weekend where traffic is expected to be at an all time high. We’re putting every major asset in Europe on standby and we’ll be cooperating with your old crew, UKSF and the SIS on this.

The truth is, you were asked to come, because the UK PM specifically asked for your services. We know that you are on loan for us from the Brits, so we couldn’t refuse when they asked for you to come back.

Anyway, the bad news is that we don’t know the exact time of the attack. We suspect it is going to be in the evening because that is where traffic will be high. However, because Valentine Day’s falls on a Friday, we are not exactly sure whether they’ll be hitting Friday, Saturday or Sunday or worst case …. all three fucking days.

In any case, it is imperative that you make contact with your SIS contact and start covert surveillance on Sofia, a courier for Hassan Malik, an operative we’ve nicknamed the Sphinx, due to how well he seems to hide his tracks. We’ve been after this guy for nearly 2 years and have still been unable to properly track his whereabouts and movements. Sounds familar?

We know he is Europe based, because we’ve managed to extract limited intel about him from detainees and low-level HVTs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He’s been responsible for the recent train bombings in Paris, Madrid and Athens and we think it’s only a matter of time before he strikes in England.

As you can already see in the brief, actual photographs and intel on Malik is scarce. The only photo we have is approximately 5 years old, way back when he was in AQ training camps in Iran. At the moment, he’s considered a rogue terrorist for hire, a highly dangerous operative who offers his services to any groups linked to anti-Western agencies and government.

We don’t know who is backing him, as it could be any source ranging from Hezbollah, the Ayatollah or even Saudi backers. All we know is, he’s got a domestic network in Europe, and the logistics and capabilities to strike almost anywhere on the Continent.

Thus the key for you, is to find Sofia. Detainee reporting states that she is one of Malik’s most trusted couriers and sources.

Find Sofia, track her, and then eliminate Malik.

Currently, Sofia is under heavy surveillance. A team from 14th Det is tracking her 24/7. She has not made any suspect moves, but we’ve done the usual bugging and tracking on her phone, apartment and email.

I’m not gonna sugar-coat it Woods, the reason why you were chosen, is because we still think you’re the scalpel, you were in the past.

Europe could use help from a graduate of the Counter-Revolutionary Warfare Wing. The guy known as the Prince only 6 years ago.

Show the Sphinx, why Europe is really the Prince’s domain, not his.

Good luck Woods.

Woods snapped out his reverie when he heard the tram driver announce the stop for Tiergarten. The change from the mountains of Afghanistan to the well-oiled streets of Germany still played with Woods’ mind. He found himself unused to the sensation of comfortable footwear that didn’t drag in the snow and mud. The sharper, cleaner air that didn’t have the faint scent of petrol, oil and spice.

Even the atmosphere was different, the sounds of people chatting softly in German, slower and more measured. Conversations here were relaxed and safe, a far cry from the rapid-fire Dari and Pashto in Kabul, the type of discourse you knew you had to hurry, because you didn’t know when something would end it terminally.

Even the idea of being onboard a functioning tram was alien to Woods, who had spend so many months simply walking everywhere in Kabul.

Acclimatise quickly and blend in even quicker recalled a mantra taught to him long ago.

Hopping off, Woods walked towards the park and began to count down the trees, before hiding the key to the train locker underneath an auspiciously placed rock at the base of the 7th tree.

Walking away and taking the return tram back towards Alexanderplatz, Woods tried to relax slightly, but his mind was occupied on the Sphinx. The enormity of the task ahead of him was daunting. The idea of finding a professional terrorist who was hiding amongst 9 million people, in one of the world’s most densest mega-cities was almost laughable.

As Woods got off the tram at the Alexanderplatz station and began his walk to the long-term carpark for his car, out of the corner of his eye, he noted the odd shuffle of a man wearing a backpack nearby. He was making his way into the main entrance of the train station, pale and murmuring under his breath.

At first, Woods thought that it was just a homeless guy moving around the city. Berlin, whilst prosperous, still had its’ fair share of homeless people.

But usually, due to malnutrition and poor mental health, they would pick a spot and rarely move. They would beg along a popular street, they wouldn’t be out and about if they didn’t have to.

Besides, this man didn’t have the usual ragged clothing of a homeless person. He was dressed like an out-of-towner. A man who didn’t belong. A tourist. An outsider.

Woods frowned as he noted people seemed to subconsciously give this man a wide berth. Women would give double-takes upon seeing him, their eyes coming up from their phones more than once, unsure about why the man had his head down and was shuffling his feet so much.

Men would take an extra step to the right or left, unwilling to brush past closely, as if he smelled bad. They made the extra effort to sidestep him.

The stranger made people nervous.

An alarm bell began to signal in Woods head. The fresh scars from Afghanistan were still bleeding in his mind. He recalled his training, the impressions he had received on his very first tour of Afghanistan, embedded in him by a Israeli IDF Shin Bet operative.

The 12 ways to identify a suicide bomber.

They almost always exhibited the same behaviour.

They were all unprofessional at it.

After all, they’re amateurs at blowing themselves up.

This is their first time doing it.

No one gets another chance at doing it.

Nor does anyone get another chance at stopping it.

Woods dropped his carry bag, lifted his shirt to check the Glock 19 in his waistband and immediately starting running.

Chapter 3: Alexanderplatz

There are 12 ways to identify a suicide bomber, intoned the Israeli captain to the class. Woods recalled looking up at the dot points and the dark commentary that came along with them.

Point 1: If the suspect is male, check for a fresh shave.

Most of these men will be sporting a slight colour difference on their lower jaw. This is because they want to look less suspect. Keep an eye on whether the skin is lighter around the mouth and the jaw. They want to blend.

Point 2: IED-borne insurgents will be wearing suspect clothing.

Vests are awkward and so are belts. Large coats, outdoor jackets, those padded vests, all of them are suspect and are commonly employed to break up the form of the vest underneath.

Point 3: The suspect will have a robotic walk or shuffle awkwardly along.

There are 2 reasons for this. One, they are about to blow themselves up. Psyching yourself up to do something that rationally means not doing it, isn’t easy. But the real reason is because the vest is heavy. All that semtex, is fucking heavy. Not to mention all the other shit they have on there, like ball bearings, glass or even fucking cow-shit. Point is, if they’re walking slowly, or robotically, they’re loaded down and don’t want to detonate the damn thing early.

Point 4: Irritability

Point 5: Profuse sweating

Point 6: Tics

Point 7: Nervous behaviour

All of these are variations on stress. I don’t need to tell you boys, about stress. You know what it does and how it affects people. But combat stress is different to suicide stress. There is a lot to suicidal stress. Most of the time, it will take a normal person a lot of convincing and willpower to commit suicide. I mean, the damn act goes against the human survival instinct. But in this case, it’s about making sure you don’t get detected, it’s about slipping through the security net and not being held up by some well-meaning asshole that will cause you to detonate early.

Point 8: Most suicide bombers have been reported to have irregular breathing

Beyond the obvious weight of the vest, this is a psychological and physiological reaction to their task. Remember, everyone is new to suicide bombing. It’s their first time after all.

Point 9: Almost all suicide bombers have a blank stare before detonation

Opioids. This isn’t some 1000 yard stare because they are afraid of death. It’s the drugs in their system. We only know this, because usually the head is separated from the body in an suicidal blast. Especially with the way how these fuckers shape their charges. After all, the head is held mostly in place by gravity and limited neck muscles. All heads discovered about 100 yards from the site of detonation usually have an opium strip in their mouths. This is to calm them down and gives them extra motivation to go through with the deed.

Point 10: Most survivors report hearing mumbled prayers from the bombers

Prayers are normal. It is normal to hear repeated surahs and phrases from the Bible or the Qu’ran before detonation. It will often be said in a monotone, and serves as an enhanced psychological method to rile yourself into a religious fervour.

Point 11: Almost all bombers carry a large bag

Beyond the vest, there is usually a secondary amount of explosives in a bag. After all, you only get one chance of blowing yourself up. Might as well, go big. You can pack a lot more in a bag, with all the extra shit they love loading in. Shrapnel kills just as much as the explosive does. If you don’t die from the explosion, then it’s the infection that gets you later.

Point 12: Their hands are almost always either in the bag or holding a switch in their pocket.

We used to be able to stop guys from blowing themselves up. Pin them in a bear hug and they can’t reach the detonator. But now, they play it safe. They got it on a dead man’s switch or their hand is already ready to go without reaching for anything.

Woods remembered a student asking the Shin Bet expert on how the IDF dealt with such issues.

Easy said the Israelite with a fatalistic shrug

Gun them down in the head before they blow yours off. If you don’t …. it won’t matter either way then.

Woods felt this advice was keenly impressed upon his mind, as he moved through the Alexanderplatz Station, one of the busiest terminals in Berlin. Looking at his clock, he knew this was prime time.

Rush hour. 1745 HRS. A familiar time to hear IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) go off in Afghanistan.

Not quite so common in the heart of Europe.

The end of your shift. Everyone rushing home, eager to get some R&R, their attention on getting there, causing them to lose crucial awareness. Traffic was flowing hard and fast in both directions. People eager to make the train home and people eager to get out of the station towards home.

With 3 regional trains, 4 inner Berlin S-Bahn and 3 outer Berlin U-Bahn lines, there could be upwards of 2000 people alone in the station at any given time.

Taking out his recently acquired phone and slipping on the new glasses he had received, he activated both, going to a auspiciously named app “Handle Me!” and depressing the frame of the glasses to begin broadcasting his live tracking of the suicide bomber.

Checking that the glasses and the phone were connected, he immediately heard a slight crackle, as he placed the new headphones in one ear, the other one left aside to maintain situational clarity.

G. Woods, Whiskey Oscar Oscar Delta Sierra. Situation: Imminent ITA (International Terrorist Activity). Need TACINTEL on suspect stat. Get German BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst – Federal intelligence Service) up now.

A calm female voice immediately came through.

Wait one, Whiskey. London Station Chief coming online. Patching through your feed now.

Woods scowled to himself at the delay and mentally ran through the list in head one more time, just to be sure he wasn’t targeting a random person. The timing fitted all too well but he had to be sure.

Walking past a couple who were admiring the architecture of the attractive station, he angled his head and aimed his glasses at the profile of the man, before walking quickly further up, stopping down to pretend to tie his shoe and getting a front on view of the man’s face.

Everything screamed suicide bomber. Points 1 down to 12.

Woods felt his fingers brush the Glock 19 in his waistband instinctively.

~

In London, the CIA’s CTC (Counterterrorism Centre) Station Chief, a Machiavellian type political operator and former U.S. Army Ranger Captain, Richard Washington stared aghast at the huge Screen One that dominated the room, displaying Woods’ livestream of the events unfolding in Germany.

With over 50 people in the room, monitoring almost the entirety of Western Europe, the London CTC was home to some of the CIA’s best, brightest and ruthless intelligence analysts and hackers. More coverage, analytics and surveillance footage filtered on and off the 7 huge screens along the wall in a day, than a Wall Street firm, and Washington’s team was as adept as they came at processing raw information.

Give me CCTV’s eyes. I want to see if there are any more at Alexanderplatz. Screen Two.

Copy sir said one of the female technicians as her computer flickered through a dozen surveillance cameras.

I want a direct line to German BND, stat, and immediate coverage of all other major Berlin transport hubs. Screen Three. Patch BND to 2IC.

On it sir! yelled a male technician as his fingers immediately began hacking into a myriad of German transport hubs and bypassing firewalls.

Find out who is that asshole Woods is following. I want everything. Name, phone, emails, give me all of it, and put it on Screen Four. Any contact he’s made in the recent weeks, anyone he’s fucking travelled with. How he got there. Give me all of it.

Washington’s aide came beside him, a fellow Ranger who had served under his command, as a reliable 2IC (2nd in Command) as they came, John Watts.

Watts. I want you talking to BND. See if they got anything.

On it sir. Watts ran over to a technician who handed him a headset as he continued to ping the German intelligence service.

Give me a direct line to Woods. I want to talk to him.

~

Woods?

Sir.

I want you to be my eyes on this guy, follow him. If he tries anything … take him down. We’re gathering immediate actionable intel on him now. BND will be on record in 1 mike. Do you copy?

Copy Sir. repeated Woods robotically. He was too busy navigating the crowds to say any more. His eyes were glued to the bomber.

With his freshly shaven face, the bomber looked young, in his mid-20s. He could have been considered handsome, if it weren’t for the pockmarked acne scarring across his cheeks and mouth.

His brown eyes were glazed over, his jaw heavy as he sucked on an opioid strip and tried to murmur prayers at the same time. Beads of sweat ran down from his temple and onto his collarbone, into his clothes. The jacket looked heavy, and far too warm.

The backpack arced his back slightly, causing him to stoop slightly forward to compensate for the weight. His hands were tucked deep into the pockets of his jacket and there was even a visible wire bulging through the jacket’s sleeves as it led up into his body.

Woods’ every instinct screamed at him to pull the trigger.

Washington’s voice came over the earpiece.

Woods, BND has confirmed that they have been tracking this terror cell for the past 2 weeks, but did not receive any actionable intel on these guys. GSG-9 and SEK are on-route now. ETA 10 mikes.

We don’t have 10 mikes to spare. Where are the station cops?

Wait one.

Woods kept the bomber in his peripheral vision as he tried in vain to look less inconspicuous. However, the bomber seemed too focused on putting one step forward at a time, to notice the CIA operative standing less than 10 metres away from him.

Gun them down in the head before they blow yours off. thought Woods.

The Shin Bet operator’s advice rang clearly in his head.

Don’t stop at double-taps. Shoot them repeatedly in the head. Even the smallest amount of brain functioning, can depress a button. The only way to stop that, is to keep shooting.

Woods? interrupted Washington in his voice. Two undercover SEK operatives are making their way to you now. They should be coming up to your position in 2 mikes. South-entrance.

Copy. Tell them to get their weapons ready. The attack is coming soon. I can feel it.

Signing off, Woods kept following the bomber as he walked up a flight of stairs to the upper level.

To his horror, as the bomber neared the centre of the station, he noted 4 more similarly dressed men start to converge into the middle.

~

Washington’s face immediately paled as he noted Woods’ livestream focus in on the 4 other terrorists.

The entire CTC room grew quiet, as they realised the magnitude of the situation. The silence was a moment of sheer dismay, shock and the dawning of failure.

Then Washington heard Woods’ calm voice come clearly through the speakers and immediately, everyone sprung back into action, their hands moving in a blur across keyboards as they did whatever they could to prevent the incoming catastrophe.

I need execute authority. I can take out 4. But not the last guy. I need it now. Someone give me a sitrep on those SEK boys.

Washington paused. Every instinct screamed at him to hurry the fuck up. He looked over at Screen Four and began scanning the information gathered on the first suicide bomber.

He had to be sure. Executions weren’t decisions to be made in a haste.

Fara Harut.

Iranian born. An orphan. Adopted early by a state sponsored religious school with suspected strong anti-Western indoctrination practices. The perfect candidate for terrorists cells.

Washington skipped ahead to Harut’s last recorded movements, facial recognition placing him entering Germany via Czech Republic. He was last seen with the four other men that were now converging upon each other in Alexanderplatz Station, over a month ago in Athens. They had split up upon crossing the border into Europe and made zero contact with one another until now.

Coincidences in the world of spies didn’t exist. Connections could always be traced back. Deja vu acted as confirmation not coincidence.

5 men, following basic operational security, to prevent detection. A busy train station at the peak of rush hour and nearly a month since the last attack in Spain. Enough time had elapsed to relax security services and thus, slip past the net.

All the hallmarks of a Sphinx’s train station attack.

Washington gritted his teeth and said the fatal words.

Whiskey. You have execute authority.

~

Woods kept his eyes focused on all five of the suicide bombers. They were not identically dressed. But all had the 12 boxes ticked. One of them, even had the decency to look nervous and afraid.

Looking behind him, Woods noted the undercover SEK (German SWAT Unit) policemen coming up the stairs, and was pleased to see how well armed they were with MP5 submachine guns. With their civilian clothing boosted by ballistic armour and balaclavas, they looked more paramilitary than regular armed forces, but that was the idea.

The crowd parted for them like Moses in the Red Sea.

Woods motioned towards them and waved them forwards. The officers, having been briefed by BND, immediately closed in behinds Woods as he pointed out the five men.

Both pairs of the SEK officers’ eyes widened and stiffened into shock. Both men had never dealt with suicide bombers before. One of them, the younger Officer, asked Woods shakily on how to deal with such a threat.

Woods replied coldly back with an echo from his past lesson: Gun them down in the head before they blow yours off.

Motioning that one of the officers had to stay back and warn civilians away, Woods took the other officer and told him to stay at the right flank, whilst he moved left of the group of 5 men. He also stole an extra magazine for his Glock from the officer’s belt as he moved past the crouched policeman.

Anyone I miss … you kill. said Woods firmly to the SEK Officer who nodded nervously and tried to hide his shaking hands.

To his relief, Woods noted that the five men were still standing near each other, their chanting and prayers beginning to pick up in volume slightly.

People were beginning to catch on and whilst panic had not quite set in yet, it was a hair-trigger away from full blown pandemonium.

Woods knew this was his only chance.

In his appendix holster, he had 1 spare magazine. 17 rounds + 15+1 in his actual Glock 19.

Another 15 rounds in his back pocket, from the SEK Officer who didn’t realise he was missing a magazine from his belt.

47 bullets.

This was going to be close.

Woods moved directly towards the five men, as they began to split up. There was no point in detonating all at once. You didn’t kill as many people if you all went up together. Structural damage and psychological terror could only be achieved through multiple blasts that threw people in every single direction.

This would buy Woods time.

Precious seconds.

The closest terrorist began moving closer to Woods, his eyes focused on the floor, his hands coming out of his pocket, as the station’s clock began the final countdown to 6pm exactly. A mental countdown started in Wood’s mind. He had a total of 10 seconds.

Woods felt his Prince persona shine through and without hesitation, he lifted up his henley shirt with his left hand, and gripped the Glock 19 with his right.

The palm of his hand smacked into the butt of the dark pistol, and his fingers curled around and snatched the weapon up and outwards, his left hand meeting both the pistol and right hand halfway through, before they continued in unison into a firing position, elbows slightly crooked, the back sight and front sight lining up level to his green eyes.

4 sharp cracks in rapid succession, echoed dominantly around the central chamber of Alexanderplatz.

Bame! Blam! Blam! Blam!

The atmosphere of the entire station changed in an instant.

The muted German pop music that once dominated the station’s rhythm; aiding in people getting home in a hurry and creating a sensation of safety, was suddenly drowned out by screams, mass hysteria and the sounds of thousands of feet moving in unison.

The sound of hundreds of people running in every direction, activated in everyone a primal urge to flee. It didn’t matter what the threat was, the average brain was locked in a rictus of fear and panic, and that was all Washington could see on the screen, as what was once orderly was now chaotic.

Countless people were screaming, running, jogging, sprinting in every which way, hysterical and panicked. Just as many were standing equally still, frozen before the mass of movement, unable to comprehend the situation before them.

People were bowled over in the stampede. Bags flew in the air, as did bodies, as the crowd tripped and fell atop of each other. A man could be seen desperately tucking his feet up on the station bench, his newspaper torn in two by careless limbs.

Confusion reigned supreme, as the CTC staff looked on in horror. Then one of the technicians noted Woods advancing through the crowd, the lone SEK officer doing his best to follow with his clunkier MP5 submachine gun and placed the CCTV grainy footage on Screen 1.

Washington noted the bleeding corpse that the Prince had casually stepped over, as he moved through the crowd with ease, the blood rapidly spooling out from the four headshots that the Prince had inflicted within a blink of an eye.

Squinting hard, Washington watched with concentrated horror and encouragement as the Prince moved within five metres of the next terrorist.

He cheered inwardly, as another 5 rounds were expelled from the Glock 19 in the Prince’s hands, somehow magically missing everyone that ran in between and beyond, and slamming directly into the second terrorist’s head.

The rounds, snapped the terrorist’s head to the side, flinging him down to the floor, his finger unable to depress the button that would activate the detonator.

By now, the crowd was slowly beginning to thin out, people aware that the action was all occurring in the middle of the station and learning to avoid it.

The SEK officer was still desperately to try and aim at the target Woods had told him to, but his fear of hitting a civilian was too great and he couldn’t press the trigger. He froze, his finger desperate to press inwards, but his mind unable to commit to such a dangerous action. None of his training had prepared him for this moment.

But he kept moving closer towards the threat. His duty overriding his fear.

He looked across at the Prince, gasping as he watched the Prince ruthlessly trip a sprinting woman to the ground, causing her to fall heavily, but open up his line of sight to the third terrorist who was slowly catching on to what was happening and beginning to turn around to face the Prince.

The Prince’s seven rounds crossed the 10 metres that separated them in a split second and impacted heavily across the man’s face, ripping through his eyes, brain, jaw and cheeks, the final round neatly severing the medulla oblongata, causing the terrorist’s outstretched hand to never function again.

With his immediate twelve, two and eleven o’clock target dealt with, there were now only two terrorists left, his original suspect, Fara Harut and the final terrified bomber in front of him.

The execution of the three men had elapsed the Prince’s precious inner timer down to 4 seconds remaining.

An example had to be made. The Prince’s right thumb depressed the magazine catch, as his left hand swept down, and took out the spare magazine in a smooth and robotic motion, a rehearsed manoeuvre that took only a precious second.

The Prince’s left hand swept upwards and into the base of the pistol, before wrapping around the right hand again. His right thumb released the slide catch, and the Glock’s slide slammed forward, chambering the first round.

The green eyes never wavered behind the pistol sights and the Prince kept moving forwards, his right index finger a blur, as the scared terrorist, in a sacrificial gesture, stepped between the Prince’s Glock and Fara Harut behind him.

The entirety of all 17 rounds of the Prince’s Glock slammed into the terrified man’s head, somehow the terrorist’s body staying upright under the onslaught of 9mm rounds. His face completely disappeared under the weight of the fire, chunks of flesh, brain, blood and bone spraying outwards as round after round slammed in a move so fast, that it actually stunned Fara Harut, whose fear was now palatable as he beheld the Prince.

However the Prince’s final reload would take too long. He had reach into his back pocket for the final 15 round magazine he had taken from the SEK Officer.

The SEK Officer in question, who had only just received an emergency call from BND and was looking forwards to a hot dessert after his shift. A man who told his younger partner to take the safer job of warning away civilians.

It was he who noted that it was now too late for the Prince to do anything about Harut. The Officer was only a mere 3 metres away from the S-bomber, having fought his way through the crowd to get a shot in with his MP5.

He knew the Prince’s plan, had prayed that it was going to work without his cooperation, but could see it was going to fail and was resigned for this very eventuality.

With a final look at the Prince, whose hands were blurred in a reload, the SEK Officer gritted his teeth, sprinted forward and tackled the bomber. The momentum slid them towards a support pole, that would take most of the blast.

He closed his eyes, as Fara Harut opened his and screamed despairingly.

The terrified terrorist pressed the button.

The Prince’s persona left Woods as his survival instinct took over the moment, he saw the SEK Officer make his move.

Dropping his pistol, he spun on his heels, dove for the floor, and rolled behind a sturdy food stall selling snacks and drinks.

Clamping his hands over his ears and burying his head as low as it could get into his knees, Woods shut his eyes.

He felt it first in his chest, then he heard a cavernous roar and then nothing.

The Prince sunk into an eternal darkness where nothing could hurt him again nor would anything comfort him for an eternity.

Chapter 4: Londonistan

Richard Washington looked at menu of the high-end London restaurant and found that he couldn’t quite stomach anything rich or hearty.

Grimacing, he ordered the overpriced eggs benedict, with sliced cherry tomatoes and an extra serving of hash browns. It was too filling of a breakfast, but there was nothing else simpler on the menu. Checking his watch, an elegant yet striking all-steel Doxa SUB300 Professional with an orange face, he frowned when he realised that his English counterpart was running a minute late.

Spies, whenever possible did not run late. In a world, where so many things happen so quickly and rapidly with huge ramifications, precision and timing was the key to success.

To be late, was to take chances.

To take chances in this business, was to play with lives.

Washington smiled with relief when he finally saw a man with impeccable English tailoring enter through the front door, his grey hair shorn short for style and ease of maintenance.

His suit was double breasted, and cast in an elegant dark navy blue, with a classic English striped necktie to complete the look. He shrugged off his coat and handed his umbrella to the waiter who nodded and gestured towards Washington.

Washington stood and beheld the head of the SIS (Secret Intelligence Service), James Ashford, a descendant of a legendary Cold War spy now striving to prove his own value.

An old school patrician and classically trained in Oxford, Ashford seemed like the typical public servant, were it not for his own exploits across Asia, where he rose to prominence and notoriety during the handover of Hong Kong in 1997.

He had vehemently opposed the move, having seen the threat China posed to the people of Hong Kong early on, but was overruled.

Incensed, Ashford, under the noses of his masters, continued to operate his secret network of spies and sources, providing the SIS with valuable intelligence on Chinese trade movements and development in Hong Kong.

It was not until one of his most trusted sources finally broke cover that Ashford revealed the extent of his network to his paymasters, who were shocked by the extent of the deception and high grade intelligence.

The daring management of such valuable intel, earned him the most vaunted seat of Chief of the SIS and new headaches. Washington and Ashford got along well, having fast become friends after recognising similar values in each other.

Sitting down, Ashford motioned for the waiter to bring a strong cup of fresh coffee and he swiftly ordered a full English breakfast. The waiter nodded and walked away to fulfil his order.

Richard. You look awful.

Same could be said about you, James.

Ashford smiled wryly. Just as well I don’t have any plans for heirs.

I don’t think any self-respecting woman would consider you Ashford. You’re too much of a hard bastard for them.

Speaking of hard bastards murmured Ashford quietly. How is the Prince?

Washington waited as the waiter came around and delivered a fresh jug of coffee and orange juice. Just as the first waiter disappeared, a second efficiently came from the kitchen, her hands holding aloft their breakfast. With a flourish, she handed Washington his eggs benedict, and Ashford his English breakfast, before asking whether they wanted pepper.

Both men nodded and took appreciative bites out of their breakfast before continuing.

He’s already out.

Ashford’s hands paused mid-fork, momentarily stunned by the three words.

He’s discharged already?

Yeah. He just had a mild concussion. That stall he hid behind took the brunt of the damage. The SEK Officer, Bruno Muller, saved the station and his life. The blast was definitely smaller because of Muller’s sacrifice, however Alexanderplatz Station will be undergoing major reconstruction work to replace the support beam.

I’m sure you’ve already seen the footage we’ve sent over. The Chancellor is furious about this whole debacle.

Ashford grimaced and sipped his coffee. The footage captured on CCTV was horrific. But were it not for the actions of Muller and Woods, things would have been catastrophically worse.

As it stood, the death toll was limited only to the 20 people who were nearby the blast at the time. A miracle by all means.

Yet despite rigorous electronic scrubbing, they had been unable to catch all the footage that showed Woods coldly drawing and gunning down multiple terrorists in a hail of rapid gunfire.

It was fortunate for his OPSEC (Operational Security) that most of the footage was extremely blurry and within minutes of random posting on various sites, the NSA (National Security Agency) stepped in. With an advanced program, they effectively scrubbed Wood’s digital footprint off the internet with no-one really being the wiser.

What footage did remain was highly censored and doctored. Political parties on both sides were clamouring for Woods. Most were proclaiming he was a hero and whilst others decried him as a murderer.

Several fringe terrorists groups were eager to claim responsibility for the attack and had already revealed the names of the terrorists, lauding them as martyrs for the cause.

The fallout after the attack, politically wise, was intense. Washington was expected to appear before a Senate hearing within 2 weeks for his actions. He looked forwards to it, as much as he did a kick in the teeth.

But the intelligence community were quick to rally. To obscure and obfuscate the truth and leave the public in blissful ignorance. Already the London CTC had created an alibi and turned the truth of the incident into a digestible lie.

Richard Washington would keep his job, despite the Alexanderplatz debacle.

To aid in furthering cloud Wood’s OPSEC, the NSA even leaked a story about Woods being an Israeli intelligence agent through several Facebook alt-right groups they controlled.

Within hours, the Mossad denied it, fuelling the fire for many of the conspiracy theorists who were all too aware of Israeli techniques when it came to suicide bombers.

The feared Israeli intelligence service’s staunch denial served only to convince the conspiracy theorists that it was the doing of the feared and much vaunted Mossad assassins.

Ashford looked at Washington bemusedly, keenly aware that it was he who cleverly twisted the narrative and pinned the blame on Mossad.

Doubtless there was an angry phone call from Tel Aviv in the morning regarding such political scapegoating, but it was harmless and done out of protocol. After all, the Israelis had created the playbook when it came to terrorists, and privately it was assumed they approved of such tactics and deception.

One could even interpret the phone call as congratulatory instead of a critique.

How’s Schindler? Ashford asked as they continued their breakfast.

Washington dabbed the corner of his mouth and replied.

Rumour has it, he might be stepping down from the BND. But that’s sort of thing always spread after an attack. I doubt it will happen. He’s too important for this fight. Watts is on his way to Berlin now to debrief the TIOC (Terrorism and International Organised Crime).

Ashford nodded approvingly.

Tobias Schindler is too clever to get politically ambushed. I agree with you, Richard. He’ll survive this one. Besides if the stories are to be believed, he has far too much information of the Parliament to lose his seat.

There’s a grain of truth to that. I’ve heard enough chatter to be aware. said Washington wolfishly. What’s new on your end though? Whiskey will be your asset in a couple of hours soon.

Ashford met Washington’s eyes and said coldly, Under no circumstances, are we going to allow something like Alexanderplatz happen in London. We’ve only got 3 days till Valentine Friday and I’ll be damned if the Sphinx is allowed to detonate anything here.

You know that he’s going to be more ambitious right? For him, London is personal.

How so? asked Ashford confused. He’s never struck on British soil before.

Washington looked at Ashford seriously and shook his head.

Never mind. The timing of the upcoming attack, is going to make Alexanderplatz look like a picnic.

Ashford looked at Washington suspiciously, but let strange remark go.

I know. It’s why the Prime Minister has given me special consideration for the Prince.

It was Washington’s turn to pause, his fork frozen in limbo between his plate and mouth.

It’s that serious, is it?

Ashford nodded. Things have not been this tense since 2017 Manchester. The PM is adamant that no terrorist attack on London is to take place under any circumstances.

Washington shook his head. The 2017 Manchester terror attacks were the reason why these two men were so close. Joint failures from both of them, resulted in too many lives lost. It was an unmitigated disaster for both men, their failure to prevent the attacks from happening, bringing them closer in guilt.

Ashford held himself accountable and the subsequent guilt-riddled work lifestyle since, had destroyed his marriage of 20 years. Another sacrifice in the name of Queen and Country.

Washington sighed, knowing that he couldn’t keep important intelligence from his friend and slipped across the table, a thumb drive.

Ashford gave his old friend a puzzled look.

Destroy it after you’ve finished reading. warned Washington. The Sphinx’s Riddle might be a little less puzzling after you’ve read it.

~

Gabriel Woods stared at the small TV screen reliving the moment that had nearly killed him.

Sequestered away from the outside world, in a small flat in East London, Woods was flown into country by a private military contractor whose private helicopter was often requested by the CIA for covert insertion.

Upon landing at Heathrow Airport, Woods had immediately made his way to the long-term parking area and acquired new transportation in the form of an elegant but powerful grey Audi A6 sedan.

A common workhorse in the CIA stable, Audis were favoured for their reliability, ease of maintenance, discreet looks and ample functionality. The boot was one of its most attractive features, large enough to load bodies or weapons in without sacrificing horsepower for quick getaways.

Its’ exceptional handling was a godsend in the maze like streets of Europe and the spacious interior design also meant that comfort for certain SAC (Special Activities Centre) paramilitary types loaded for bear, wasn’t an issue either.

Fleets of these cars were readily available for all type of CIA personnel across Europe.

However, as Woods was reminded when he received his first ping from his new spymasters, he was now serving the SIS, the famed MI6 of English fame and notoriety.

Back under the pay of Queen and country.

Woods wondered what the Queen would make of his actions in Alexanderplatz, as he stared at the grainy image of him, gunning down 4 men in less time than it took for people to board a train home.

His stomach twisted when he saw the SEK Officer, Bruno Muller save his life by diving on top of the final suicide bomber, the original man who had set everything into motion and counter-motion.

Fara Harut.

Woods continued to remain transfixed to the screen, as he saw himself roll behind the stall, and then a second later, a white hot glare from the suicide vest vaporised Harut’s body and Muller was blown apart into disgusting chunks everywhere, his limbs flying in all different directions, as his chest remained on top of the primary blast, protected by his kevlar vest.

The explosion still had enough force to nearly disintegrate the food stall Woods was hiding behind and he watched as the walls folded over and crashed heavily onto his crouched body, knocking him down onto the floor that was beginning to run slick with blood.

He continued to watch as 10 minutes later, paramedics streamed in and began helping the wounded, with another pair of SEK Officers rushing in and identifying Woods. They carried him bodily to a stretcher and the ambulance that took him away, went in a different direction to the others.

The intelligence apparatus at work, eager to hide the involvement of one of their own.

However, there were dozens of grainy doctored images of him floating around everywhere. Already, a huge shitstorm on the internet had erupted over his actions, with people defending and contesting his actions. Thousands of comments on Facebook and Twitter called for him to be arrested alongside the terrorists responsible and hundreds more jumped on those comments to label him a hero.

The news was having a field day, interviewing several university professors who had already come forward, with the overall opinion seemingly expressing disapproval for Woods’ actions.

Woods winced inwardly as he heard a lecturer describe him as a “barbarian, a terrorist in his own right who violated the Geneva conventions and a stain on Western intelligence services.”

“What is the point of paying these intelligence services so much of our taxpayer money when they can’t prevent attacks like this? Are they so desperate and late to the crisis that they have to engage in a gunfight in a public train station? What if he hit an innocent person?” decried an outraged woman.

Uglier scenes followed, with footage of people being wheeled out from Alexanderplatz on stretchers and several eyewitnesses shakily telling their story on the news in unsteady German with poorly dubbed English.

“When I heard the gunshots … I thought it was a car misfiring. But then people came at me, screaming and running. I didn’t know what to do, so I also ran out and then I heard the explosion. It was horrible. I was praying the whole time.” cried a woman as a microphone was shoved in her face.

Switching channels, Woods saw footage from another media outlet, where a bespectacled and dishevelled man waved his arms animatedly and shook his head furiously at the notion whether Woods was a terrorist.

“He saved us, the man with the pistol and the glasses. I couldn’t see him, but he saved us. Wherever you are, thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much. He deserves better than to be called a terrorist”

Sighing, Woods switched off the TV and stared blankly at the empty screen. He recalled the extremely quick debrief that Washington put him through, the London Chief reassuring him that he had made all the right moves.

Woods could only imagine the political snafu (situation normal: all fucked up) that was occurring in Berlin, Washington D.C. and London. Doubtless there would be ramifications for all parties involved, but as Washington had told him

You’ve got a job to do. Prevent the Sphinx from striking again. Focus on that.

Thumbing through the dossier that the SIS had given him on the Sphinx, Sofia and Harut, Woods placed it down and committed large chunks of crucial information to his memory before deciding on a plan of attack for tomorrow. His body had not fully recovered as well as he had liked on the private flight to England, and he knew he had to rest to prepare for the fight ahead.

Leaving the dossier open while he prepared dinner, a simple meal: spaghetti aglio e olio, Woods looked at the open photo of Sofia, the woman who was the courier to one of the most wanted terrorists in the world.

Attractive, svelte and non traditional for a Muslim woman, Sofia Sumarwata’s surveillance photos indicated a lot of independence for a woman who was raised in the oppressive environment of Iran.

She refused to wear a headscarf, was unashamed about baring her smooth, olive skin and was unapologetically Westernised.

However, closer examination of her records indicated that she was extremely devout to her Islamic faith and often practised all the rituals and tenets privately when she thought she was alone. Despite her Westernised appearance, she didn’t sleep around, nor did she spend a lot of time out partying at pubs.

A clever operative then. Perhaps not as classically trained as Woods, but capable of fooling the outside world.

Woods continued to read her profile, as he twirled spaghetti on the end of his fork, appreciating the meal, pleased to get away from Afghan food after months of undercover work in Kabul.

It was the little things that made life more bearable, thought Woods. For him, it was the spice and zest of home-made spaghetti, for Sofia, it was the time when she spent praying, facing Mecca.

Her signs of radicalisation began early, when she was engaged to a suicide bomber who detonated himself during the Iraq War, taking with him, 7 American soldiers guarding a checkpoint. After her betrothed’s death, she was bounced from terrorist camp to terrorist camp, moving all around the Middle East. Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Palestine …. a courier for hire.

It was her skills as a honey pot, and a discreet messenger that caught the attention of Hassan Malik, the Sphinx. She fell under his spell, and it was her skills at managing and handling communication between terror cells that allowed the Sphinx to strike so often and ruthlessly.

The only issue was … there was no real sign of her being a courier for the Sphinx. The usual evidence of emails, phone records and paperwork turned up nothing for the boys and girls at London’s CTC. She was conspicuously clean.

Wood’s job was to discover what method she was using to communicate with terror cells and the Sphinx, then to go after the Sphinx himself directly.

Hearing a buzz at the door, Woods frowned and reached for his Glock 19. Holding it in his right hand and hiding behind his leg, he looked through the peep hole and slowly opened the door to reveal James Ashford with a pair of bodyguards in suits.

Evening Woods. May I come in?

Woods gestured with his head and allowed the head of the SIS into the safe room.

Chapter 5: The Queen’s Assassin

James Ashford looked at Gabriel Woods, aka the Prince, the assassin made famous for the murder of a member of the Royal Family and nodded brusquely before walking into the safehouse.

To explore Wood’s past, was to acknowledge that the best men for this particular lifestyle, had often been the most unsavoury types humanity had to offer. Criminals, dealers, murderers, hackers, assassins … the worst were often recruited for the endless meat grinder. Fringe elements of society that were sharper and smarter than the average citizen.

Not because they were inherently more skilled or blessed in terms of genetics, but because the environment they grew up in, combined with their willpower made them different. Deadlier, more likely to view violence as another means of communication than an abnormal act of aggression.

They survived, thrived even, on violence because only these types of people could survive for that long on the edges of civilisation. It was a life of predator besting another predator. Apex animals battling it out for the ultimate gift of living for another day.

But with Woods, it was a voluntary exile into the wilderness. He chose that life, and had become all the more skilled and terrifying because of it. He had all the opportunities that were provided for any child of a middle-income family.

A prestigious university degree, money to spend thanks to generous parents, popularity amongst his peers and friends, an long-term relationship with a gorgeous woman who had a statuesque figure and brains to match. Woods was even granted entry into the 22nd SAS, the most elite special forces unit in the world …

But the moment he could, he abandoned it all for the dark edges of society. He had a strange twisted sense of justice and he wanted to see it through, to test his mettle and will against something greater.

Woods dove so completely off the radar, it was largely presumed he was dead.

His family gave him a grave in a prestigious cemetery. His girlfriend of 5 years wept for him and maintained a photo of their time together on her study. His friends toasted him mournfully and moved on with their lives.

Woods gave it all up on a dare he made himself.

Years after his death, rumours of a prolific and skilled assassin began to emerge from the shadows.

It took the NSA and the CIA nearly 2 years to uncover his true identity.

2 years is equivalent to generations in the intelligence community. Whole family trees were wiped from memory in a month. To best the Western Intelligence community for 2 years was an achievement in of itself.

But, as a retired CIA Director once stated,

“There’s a reason why he’s called the Prince. He’s the best we’ve ever come across. A prince amongst thieves.”

His mind was blessed with a photographic memory, his tongue could twist languages and hearts with ease. His hands made him a natural marksman and he possessed enough calm temperament and patience to outlast and and outsmart his targets.

He was a once in a generation skilled assassin.

Legends of his kills spread quickly through the underworld. A high-ranking corrupt French officer here. An Iranian terrorist cell leader there. A Columbian cartel leader over there. He was untouchable. Unstoppable.

Both sides turned against him, but desperately wanted to hire him.

Then came his crowning achievement.

The murder of a Prince, and the new nickname bestowed upon him, as befitting one of the most dangerous men in the world. Upon murdering a corrupt Prince, the intelligence apparatus gave him the deceased’s title.

It was one of the most shocking assassinations in the 21st century. Not only was the Prince killed in his sleep next to an unknown woman, who mysteriously disappeared 4 hours later, his entire history was exposed to the world.

A Royal pervert unveiled to the world, a molester of underage children, a secret admirer of the occult and a world class manipulator of facts and lies.

This assassination took more than just his life …. the Prince’s character was torn to shred by the outraged public. A rampaging British public whose love for the Royal family was shaken to the core by the scandal, nearly resulted in a lockdown for London and Windsor Palace.

The SIS wanted Wood’s head on a platter. Airing out the dirty laundry was not the job of a complete stranger, especially because the secrets surrounding the Prince was theirs to keep and maintain and reveal at the opportune moment.

The next 6 months was spent searching under every rock, alleyway and city. Ashford himself headed the manhunt that saw him travel across every continent, always a step behind as he struggled to trace Wood’s movements.

A political rival’s death in Mumbai put Ashford close, literally a second’s hesitation meant Woods gave the SAS grab team the slip.

A Naval Officer’s expose and subsequent suicide in Argentina threw Ashford off completely.

The highly publicised death of a prominent nuclear engineer by his wife, after she found out his indiscretions in Iran shocked Ashford to the core with Woods’ brilliant manipulation of lies, facts and the truth.

The hunt finally drew to a close when a high ranking Politburo from the Xinjiang province mysteriously disappeared after his helicopter crashed mid-flight. Ashford was incredulous when his analysts came back with the report that this was the work of Woods.

The report was waiting from him on his desk, along with a handwritten note from his senior analyst.

Woods just made contact with me. Use this number to talk to him. Be careful boss …

James Ashford remembered how his hand had trembled slightly as he traced the call to a tiny house in rural Victoria, Australia, at a place called Tidal River.

It was as remote a town as could be, near the bottom of the world, a popular retreat for Victorians.

Ashford couldn’t believe it, when he heard the invitation to come down and visit him, Wood’s strange Melburnian accent throwing him off further. His paranoia was overwhelming him, but there was a innate sense of trust. After all, if Woods had willed it, he would have killed Ashford already.

So the head of British intelligence packed an overnight bag, flew down to Victoria, armed with only a single bodyguard, rented a Ford Explorer and drove for nearly 4 hours before reaching the tiny town.

They drove past the tiny retreat with its’ picturesque river cabins and stunning ocean views and onto a private road that plunged deep into the Australian bush. Ashford recalled slamming on the brakes several times for native fauna, as emus, wallabies and full sized kangaroos sped past.

When they finally arrived, they noted the ramshackle fence that separated bush from property and that the metal gate had been opened for them. Driving through, Ashford looked around and noted the twilight hours in which they had arrived. His bodyguard was scanning the surroundings nervously, uncomfortable with how exposed they were, as the car trundled along the dirt road, across flat, burnt grass.

After nearly a kilometre of driving, they noted the large lush green English oak tree that guarded the left side of the house that was perched atop a cliff, overlooking the ocean. A tiny staircase was visible beside the massive tree, no doubt leading down to the docks below where Ashford would later discover a Cessna 206 Seaplane and a Zodiac Milpro dinghy.

The house itself was moderately large, with a modern design aesthetic; large glass walls and a squarish design, the colours and materials matching the ocean. Dark grey stacked stone walls, were intersected with large glass panels to allow maximum visibility to the ocean.

Ashford could even tell that they were able to dim themselves in a instant, to give the house a cloudy look, allowing the occupants to see out but no one could look in. A structural defence mechanism.

It was an impressively contemporary house, a rugged and sturdy design, almost ugly in how it served to stand against nature instead of blending with the surroundings. During a storm, the building would be atmospheric in its brutality.

Ashford and his bodyguard parked the Explorer in front of the garage and walked out cautiously. The bodyguard was taking zero chances and had a compact MP5K on a sling under his outdoor jacket, gripping it nervously as they walked to the front door.

Ashford pushed it open, surprised at the little resistance the door offered and they entered the house of an assassin.

The decor was sparse but tasteful, with minimalist modern styling that made the house more spacious than it seemed. A handwritten note was left on the front desk, with a metal rack next to it.

Please leave your weapons here.

The bodyguard looked at Ashford who nodded. The man reluctantly unslung his MP5K and deposited his Glock service weapon on the metal rack.

As the pair of them walked through into the living room, Ashford noted that the fireplace was roaring and a still figure was tending to the logs.

Gabriel Woods turned and faced James Ashford and said casually.

Evening. Welcome to my humble abode.

Ashford asked slightly breathlessly

Are you the Prince?

Only in name and legend.

Ashford sunk into the comfortable Ottoman lounge and stared at the man who had caused so much chaos with his death. Taking a deep breath, Ashford started down the long list of questions he had built up over the past 6 months of the most intensive manhunt the British intelligence service had ever conducted.

The subsequent conversation covered both men’s upbringing, their history, their skills and Wood’s exploits. The list of crimes that Wood had committed across all 7 continents were almost too many to count. The beauty of death meant that Wood was a ghost, with the ability to breeze through customs and borders with all the ease and benefits of an actual apparition.

It was nearly 7am in the morning when Ashford sipped at the tea provided for him and finally came to the real reason why he had travelled all this way to the end of the world.

There must be a reason why you allowed yourself to get caught Gabriel.

I just wanted to meet my opposition. You came close several times. I can respect that.

You want back into the game again don’t you?

Woods shrugged as if to say What offer do you have?

Ashford laid out his terms. Woods countered. The discussion went on for another night.

But in the end, Ashford got what he wanted.

The Queen got her assassin

Woods also got his wish.

He was allowed to remain dead.

The loan to the CIA occurred after 4 years operating for Her Majesty’s branches, in which Woods would only ever report to Ashford directly. Upon hearing the success the SIS had been having after a mysterious operative had joined their ranks, the CIA pulled several strings and managed to secure the Prince’s services, putting him to work in Latin America before employing him to Afghanistan.

The bureaucracy and mammoth nature of the American war machine however, meant that the CIA could never quite replicate the success their British counterparts enjoyed with the Prince.

To be welcomed back into the arms of the British was something Woods was appreciated. After all, his deal was with Ashford and he much preferred the low-key operating style of the Brits over the Yanks’ more brash approach.

Woods politely greeted the two bodyguards that came with Ashford as they filed into the safehouse, leaving the standard issue Jaguar XJ L SUV outside.

As he followed them in, Woods noted the paper dossier in Ashford’s hands.

Noting Woods’ puzzled look, Ashford handed it over silently.

A gift from Langley. Insight into the Sphinx. Burn it once you are done. I’ll be over here, making some tea.

Woods frowned and sat down in the armchair, opening the dossier to reveal two pieces of paper, all that was left of the Washington’s thumb drive that he had handed to Ashford earlier that day.

James Ashford rummaged through the safehouse’s pantry, grumbling softly under his breath as he realised that it had not been restocked in a while. In the end, after an exhaustive search, he only managed to find a near expired package of McVitie Original Digestive biscuits, and four teabags of some weak English Breakfast brew.

Putting some water into the kettle and waiting for it to boil, Ashford looked over at his top assassin and wondered just how at the tender age of 31, Gabriel Woods had managed to carve such a large slice of history for himself. He wasn’t even near the end of his operational tenancy either, with at least another six more years in the field.

Thank God, he’s on our side thought Ashford. Imagine two Sphinxes or Princes working together.

Bringing the tea over to Woods and his bodyguards, Ashford sipped at his cup patiently as he saw Woods commit the document to memory before heading over to the kitchen stove. Placing a saucepan atop with the papers inside, he set the entire dossier on fire and tossed the ashes into a bin.

Any questions? asked Ashford.

Seems like I’m finding a mirror.

Ashford nodded.

Where can I find William Aitken nowadays?

Dead said Ashford bluntly. I attended his funeral last year. Heart attack.

Left any records of this?

None to my knowledge. William was a different breed of spy. His paranoia was intense, almost Stalinist. I am certain he would have taken this to his grave. He never made any mention of this while I have been running things. But he hasn’t worked for us in a very long time. Left in ’02. He was a strange type of handler. Almost too lenient to a lot of different things.

Sounds like it. A teenage recruit … this was always going to come back to bite you.

It was the 80s, our moral compass wasn’t exactly as strong as it is now.

Woods snorted sarcastically.

Right. Well, I’m shocked Aitken managed to turn him. I thought the Sphinx was too indoctrinated since he was trained in AQ (Al Qaeda) camps at an early age?

Aitken got to him before the AQ camps. He was the guy who told the Downing Street that we got a source in AQ when UBL (Usama bin Laden) was running things. Aitken recruited a young kid, trained him, turned him and let him loose into AQ.

Woods shook his head. A child-soldier … not exactly an asset worth revealing in a COBRA meeting.

I know it’s mentioned in the dossier, but what really went wrong? asked Woods.

We’re not sure, replied Ashford. That’s up to you to find out. Aitken is dead. Whatever relationship he might have had with Hassan Malik, he took to the grave and left us no actionable intel. I’m not even sure how the Americans found out about this. It’s not often Washington gets to pull something over me.

Woods nodded.

Well, whatever Aitken did to Malik, it was damn effective. The guy is just as much of a ghost as I am. Explains his vendetta against the UK though. We made him. What makes you think we’ll find him in a couple of days?

Ashford looked at Woods in the eyes and replied calmly.

You don’t hire a saint to catch a sinner and you’re the Prince amongst them all.

Chapter 6: With Love.

Being invisible in today’s world is not difficult. With the advent of smart-phones, wireless earbuds and ever increasingly feelings of self-isolation, a spy could be wearing an outlandish outfit and still be unnoticed for hours.

Dressed in a smart suit, Gabriel Woods stared out from a cafe on the corner of a busy London street, a newspaper in his hand, with a coffee mug in front of him. As stereotypical a “spy” pose this was, in the city of London, such behaviour was almost obligatory once you entered a English cafe.

With his deep cover now assured by the SIS and stripped of any American gadgetry, Gabriel Woods was now operating as quietly and efficiently as he used to in the days of his Prince career. Anonymously, low-tech and armed only with his instincts and the Glock 19 in a shoulder holster, hidden underneath his dark navy blazer.

Gone were the smart surveillance glasses, the disguised earbuds that acted as a microphone and recorder and the voices of handlers in his ears. The British were stubbornly steadfast in their old-school spycraft, and James Ashford trusted his man to such a level, that he allowed Woods to operate completely on his own and instructed the Queen’s Assassin only to report to him if absolutely necessary.

It was this unique freedom and trust that made Gabriel Woods agree to come back into the intelligence community. Only the British would give him this amount of leniency. There weren’t even any support units to assist him, the 14th Det, the usual grey men that tracked terror suspects across the UK, having been repositioned elsewhere to track other elements of the Sphinx’s cell.

The Prince was finally allowed to operate on his own, to his own discretion and rules.

Woods kept his eyes alert as he scanned the streets, occasionally turning the page of his newspaper to mime the act of reading and relaxing with his morning coffee. Le Petite Cafe made decent coffee, but it was their fresh baked goods that enticed the likes of Sofia Sumarwata, courier to one of the world’s most feared terrorists.

Situated as he was, outside the cafe, with very little opportunities to miss him, the moment Sofia Sumarwata made entry into the cafe, she would notice him. The Valentine’s Day deadline was approaching ever faster and Woods had to be bolder in his attempts to track down the Sphinx.

As his watch ticked over to 10am, Woods saw an attractive woman come down the street, her long shapely legs encased in figure hugging jeans and calf-length brown boots. Her svelte figure was accentuated by a matching brown long coat, and a flattering cream turtleneck.

As she drew closer to Woods, he felt his breath catch slightly, noting that photos of her in the dossier, did little justice to attractiveness of the woman walking towards him in reality. With her curly brown hair, tied loosely in a bun, soft brown eyes, full lips, and an attractive straight nose, Sofia Sumarwata stood out from the more conventional English Rose beauties around her, like a warmer sunrise.

Nodding politely to Woods, she went inside and ordered her baked goods in a English accent that sounded natural. Woods paid an absent ear to the exchange but there was nothing untoward about the conversation. As Sofia waited, Woods continued to look at his newspaper, resisting the urge to look behind him and into the cafe.

Holding her brown bag of baked goods, Sofia walked out and went back in the direction she came. Woods waited patiently for a good minute, when she had almost disappeared in the distance, before folding up the newspaper, and waving goodbye to the shop-keeper, who nodded politely.

For Woods, urban tracking was a skill that came naturally to him. He instinctively understood body language and a key component of ensuring you were never spotted following someone, was to read the target’s behaviour with great skill and perception.

Little gestures like slowing down their pace, hesitating before stops … turning around … Woods could anticipate and predict these gestures and knew how to break line of sight, often dodging into shops or simply hiding behind poles, turning his back on the target.

Such skill was often underappreciated by the target themselves, unless they were a professional, which to Woods’ suspicion, Sofia Sumarwata was. Her elegant pace never changed once, but her alertness was high, as judged by her constant scanning of her surroundings. Woods also noted that she was a taking very circuitous route to her home, which to his concern, was not where she was heading at all.

The distance between her flat and Le Petit Cafe was no less than 4 kilometres, a simple right angle route that would take her only 20 or so minutes to cover.

They were now in the opposite direction to her flat and Woods could sense that Sofia Sumarwata was heading somewhere else, somewhere where her every movement wasn’t observed by UK intelligence services and every single electronic item in her home wasn’t teeming with bugs.

Woods’ original plan was to introduce himself her at her home, stating that he had only just moved in to the flat near hers, using his considerable charm to present himself as the “affable neighbour” but now that plan was scrapped.

As his mind raced to determine where exactly Sofia was going, Sofia herself, made the answer known.

Stopping in front of a completely unknown building to the SIS, Sofia fished out an electronic fob and waved it in front of the card reader.

In the 30 seconds that the entire process had taken Sofia to enter the building, a myriad of things happened in Wood’s mind.

The apartment building that Sofia was entering, was extremely upscale. It was christened the Londowntowne, and was promoting itself to be a home away from home, one of those new fads where people could rent an expensive place out for a week and enjoy luxuries that couldn’t normally be afforded at home.

With its’ contemporary design, all glass, steel, obsidian rock and carefully placed greenery, the Londontowne was a symbol of modernity amidst all the history that ruled much of the capital that had stood for 2000 years.

Naturally, it was an affront of English sensibilities and was an attractive eyesore to all that beheld it.

Owning to the newness of the building, Woods realised that he could still enact his plan.

As Sofia was about to let the shiny, automatic doors close behind her, Woods rushed forwards and banged on the glass.

The sound startled her and she turned around, nearly dropping the bag of baked goods.

Sorry! I forgot my key fob … do you mind letting me in? half shouted Woods.

Sofia nodded, and opened the door for Woods to enter.

Thanks so much. I only just moved in here. said Woods breathlessly, as he mimed a man in panic.

It’s not a problem. replied Sofia as she balanced the bag in her hand, whilst reaching for the elevator button.

Woods and Sofia stared at each other as they waited for the elevator to arrive, before Woods made the first move.

Say …. weren’t you at the cafe earlier today?

Sofia looked at him puzzled.

I only say that, because I recognise that bag. Le Petit Cafe right? queried Woods.

Yeah …. oh wait, you were the guy at the front weren’t you? said Sofia, as recognition dawned in her eyes, along with what seemed to Woods, a trace of suspicion

Yeah that was me. smiled Woods in a placating manner.

Sofia looked at Woods more closely and sighed.

It’s not going to work. she said softly and quietly with an air of resignation.

There was a weariness in her tone, a quiet sadness that hinted at something darker within.

Any good spy knew instantly when their cover was blown. Woods hadn’t anticipated to be uncovered so soon, but then he was dealing with a fellow professional. Coincidences didn’t exist in the world of shadows. Both of them who each other was.

No more lies. Only the truth and a plea directly to the heart.

Woods didn’t reply to her, but merely ushered her in the elevator silently and looked at the buttons expectantly. Sofia pressed the button for the 9th floor. As they rode up in silence, Woods looked at Sofia with a blank expression, revealing nothing that was going on in his mind.

For the first time, in her life, Sofia felt a strange mixture of fear and hope blossom in her heart.

As the doors slid open, Woods checked both aisle of the corridors quickly before taking Sofia by the arm and leading her out gently. As they walked to the room 904, Woods kept his hands loose, ready to draw his pistol at any second.

How many inside? asked Woods intensely.

She shook her head. Woods glared at her and held out his hand for the electronic fob.

As the door beeped open, Woods motioned for Sofia to go in first, as he followed closely behind, his paranoia almost at a feverish pitch.

After a thorough search of the apartment, which was luxuriously furbished with contemporary aesthetics, Woods only found Sofia’s overnight bag. Going back, he motioned her to stretch out her arms. To his surprise, Sofia was completely clean. There was only her phone, wallet and keys.

Everything so far matching the intelligence gathered on her … whatever methodology she was using to communicate with the Sphinx was well-disguised. Her movements might be suspicious, but then so was the behaviour of people who cheated on spouses and that didn’t indicate mass murder on a international scale.

Motioning her to sit on the couch in the centre of the room, Woods took his place opposite her. He adopted a comfortable position, crossing his legs and leaning back. This only seemed to put her on edge further.

It was the tan, wasn’t it? asked Woods with a cold ironic sense of humour.

Sofia looked at him puzzled. She didn’t know how to respond.

Yeah I figured … answered Woods to his own question. Do you mind if I ask you something?

Sofia didn’t respond.

Do you love him?

Her brown eyes widened in surprise. She was unable to hide her true feelings

Of course you do surmised Woods. Why go through all of this if you weren’t in love?

It can’t be out of revenge. Your husband’s ghost has longed been silenced in your mind …

It definitely can’t be out of religious zealotry. I know you pray everyday, but your clothes, your lifestyle … it fights who you see yourself before God.

There’s no real money in all of this either … I mean …. all of this Woods gestured at the phoney apartment they were sitting in. I know you didn’t pay for.

So … if it’s not money, revenge, fanaticism or patriotism … why be a courier Sofia?

Sofia Sumarwata looked at the spy before her, his emerald eyes boring into her own, eager to uncover the truth behind her actions, her long career as a enabler of terrorist acts.

She was certain that he was working for the other side. He was far too well dressed, and had an strange accent that seemed to blend American, English and Australian inflections. Then there was the suspicious timing of their meeting. Why, with only 2 days until the Valentine Day deadline was a person meeting her, at her safehouse?

That was, until Woods asked her in fluent Farsi

When did you fall in love with Hassan Malik?

Sofia Sumarwata did a double-take at the change in language. The man before her was speaking in her mother’s Iranian tongue with a curious dialect that could only be mistaken for a native. Now confusion reigned supreme in her mind. She was unsure how to respond to the man before her.

It’s OK, Sofia, I am a friend. But I need to know that you are still loyal to the cause said Woods beseechingly in Farsi.

He was committed to this lie now. It was the only way forwards.

So tell me … when did you fall in love with Hassan Malik?

Sofia tore her eyes away from Woods, unable to speak. For some compelling reason, she believed him. Of course Hassan would send someone to test her on the eve of his biggest event. She had never felt lonelier than the past 6 months without him and here was a man who was part of the cause and wanted to know, so that he … no, Hassan could trust her still.

Holding back a big emotional sigh, Sofia told the Queen’s Assassin the whole story.

~

My husband was a man who looked after his family. For Hakim, there was nothing more important than his younger brother, Assad who loved to make trouble.

It all started with Assad, when he decided to join the Taliban in their fight against the Americans. Hakim didn’t want any part of it, because he was betrothed to me. He made Assad promise to only join, after we got married so that he could look after him better.

But Assad didn’t listen. Only a week later, he got into a firefight with an American squad patrolling our area. He managed to escape, but was wounded in the fight. This was on the night of our wedding. Hakim heard what happened, kissed me once and ran into the night to rescue his brother.

I was left alone, in my wedding dress, screaming for him to come back. He didn’t once look back at me.

Hakim never returned.

Because when he finally found his brother, Assad had bled out in a ditch, alone. That very night, he marched into the caves and demanded a vest. Of course they gave him one …. and he immediately walked over to the checkpoint that had been set up near where we were getting married and killed seven soldiers.

I heard the blast from my home and at that moment, I knew I had lost him.

My brothers later told me, that he was still wearing his wedding suit when he died.

I knew Hakim for 10 years. We grew up together, played football together, shared tea … He was my first and only ever crush. We kissed each other when we were 16.

Hakim and I made a promise to each other to stay together forever.

Then in one night, he was stolen away from me. By the Americans. By the soldiers who can’t seem to understand us, by men who think they have the right to decide what is good for our people.

Four months after Hakim’s sacrifice … someone came to my family’s home and asked for me.

They told me that if I wanted to honour Hakim, I was to enter the caves and be reborn a fighter.

They gave me a week to consider it.

I only needed two days.

The next six months, changed me forever. By the time I left the caves, I wasn’t a girl anymore. I had become a warrior.

My very first mission was when I first met Hassan Malik.

I never thought I would ever meet anyone like Hakim.

Hassan changed all of that. He knew I would be nervous and afraid. My mission was to lure an American Officer away from the base, so that we could capture him and demand a ransom. But I didn’t know how to.

Hassan showed me the way. How I could be more of a weapon, how I could use my feminine wiles to further the cause. How much of an asset I could be. How I could bring justice to the memory of Hakim.

How I could be loved again.

I’ve never made love to a man as skilled and gentle as him. I felt like a woman reborn under him. Hassan gave me more than purpose, he gave me life.

After that first mission, I didn’t see him again for months. I did what he asked and maintained a low profile. But I missed him terribly.

It was only in the spring of that year, that I finally saw him again. He was just as gentle as I remembered, as beautiful as the green grass that surrounded us and as warm as the desert sun.

I am forever his. I will never love another man, as deeply as I love Hassan now.

We used to chat online, but that became too dangerous.

Now … we just deliver food to each other. It is not the same, but that is the only way I can continue to communicate with my love.

~

The Queen’s Assassin left the latest eyesore of London and the beautiful, grieving, romantic widow only minutes later, his mind racing at the genius of the Sphinx’s terrorist cell communication method.

Before he left, he had comforted Sofia the best he could, with one hand around her heaving shoulders, throughout her lonely sobs. But his other hand was hacking into her cell-phone to extract all the meta-data hidden in her apps.

Somewhere, deep down, he pitied her, but he couldn’t afford to spare any true sympathy for her. Her love made her vulnerable to manipulation and at the end of the day, no matter how tragic her story was, it didn’t give her the right to create more widows like herself.

The genius of their communication methodology could not be denied though.

Through the use of Just Eat food delivery service, Sofia had been coordinating all the individual cells, at their safe houses, with encrypted messages added onto the food delivery in the meals. It would be brief sentences that would contain the encryption key for cells to unlock further instructions online.

This avoided unnecessary online communication that could be intercepted, and also made everything subtle, as delivering food could be seen as a kind gesture.

Even so, as Woods trawled through Sofia’s order history, she only made food deliveries occasionally, no more than once a day, to ensure the operational security was tight.

Hence why everyone missed the significance of this humble food app.

Gabriel Woods smiled coldly to himself. It was still early in the chase but he was closer to the Sphinx than anyone before him.

As he climbed back into his car, Woods checked his tail several times, making random loops around London to ensure no other operatives were following him, before driving back to his safe house in St James.

As Gabriel Woods began to make his dinner for the night and prepare his next steps for the subsequent 24 hours, he wondered what was going on in the Sphinx’s mind right now.

Chapter 7: The Riddle of the Sphinx.

The blue light from the laptop highlighted Hassan Malik’s sharp cheekbones as he stared at the screen intently. Reaching upwards with his left hand, he scratched his freshly shaved cheek thoughtfully, missing the feel of his beard.

With his intelligent brown eyes, olive skin, dark hair and square jaw, Malik was as charismatic as he was handsome. Adept at both charming his way through life and wielding a Beretta 92, Malik was an fervent study of history and military leaders. He almost always led the way in battle, his iconic royal green cloak, a rallying cry for lesser men across the chaos of a battlefield.

Muscular, tall and intelligent, Hassan Malik was the gentleman archetype, a jack of all trades, master of none, his smarts only matched by his prize-fighter like body. Sofia Sumarwata once described her beloved, as a man blessed in all facets of his life, an angel ordained by Allah himself to do His bidding.

As magnificent as a fighter he was, it was spy-craft that really spoke to Malik’s talents. His assassinations and deviously brilliant guerrilla attacks on NATO forces across the bloody fields of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria earned him the moniker of The Sphinx, simply because there was no one better at disguising his intentions and self.

His work set back NATO forces several months alone in their work across the Middle East, and with the backing of his Iranian paymasters, he was soon called to Europe, to strike at the heart of the beast.

A master linguist, he mastered French, German, Spanish and English during his conquest of Europe, and took great pleasure in outwitting the Continent’s finest, disappearing as rapidly as he appeared. His terror cells were so small and well incorporated into society, that it was nearly impossible to predict when or who would strike at any given time.

It was a compliment to his fearsome reputation, when Malik discovered that, within four months of his arrival in Europe, he shot to #4 on Interpol’s Most Wanted list. After 2 more attacks within a fortnight of each other, he claimed the number #1 spot.

It was Malik who devised the food delivery system of communication. For local attacks, Malik would use the country’s most popular food delivery service, but when it came to coordinating cells scattered across Europe, Malik had a much simpler solution.

The phenomenon known as football gripped the entire world with a manic energy that was unmatched in any other sport. But it was in Europe where football obsession hit its’ peak. Leagues in each country could count on scores of talent, passion, money and fans.

To disguise his movements and communicate safely with his cells, without any need for electronic means, Hassan Malik used multiple football games to provide lengthy 90 minute briefings in the safety of the crowd, with a particular short-hand language that was unique only to football. Travelling to and from the Continent, to support his favourite English Premier League team, was a move that thousands of others did with impunity on weekends.

Conversely, his cells could send a man over, sporting a La Liga uniform into England, to discuss any further attacks, with much of their conversation disguised into the vernacular of the game. Dates, times, locations and casualties estimations were disguised with scores, and statistics of the team.

A typical exchange between Malik and his terror cell leader could be:

We shall win in our game on the 12 of August against Madrid. There is no way, it won’t be a huge bloodbath, if we got the numbers on our side. (Strike at the heart of Madrid on the 12th of August)

What sort of numbers are those, mate?

You know, team player 90 and the two rookies, 15 and 7. (90 dead, if you strike at 15 past 7pm)

The meetings would continue onward, with Malik providing precise instructions months in advance at a single game, and the terror cell leader making notes on a piece of paper, that would soon be burnt in the comfort of the safehouse.

By using the 90 minutes of a football match efficiently and disguised amongst thousands of fans that looked exactly like them, Malik could easily slip in and out of countries with ease. In the case of an emergency, the game known as Fantasy Premier League provided an direct means of communication that was completely disguised behind the language of football.

For months now, Hassan Malik had waged war across the Continent, costing hundreds of lives and racking up billions in damages and political capital using food and football as his secret carrier pigeon. His entire campaign however had led up to this moment. His final decisive strike against the British, with the world bearing witness to the price the United Kingdom would pay for its’ hypocrisy.

All the soft attacks he had conducted across Spain, Italy, Belgium, Germany and France and a brief venture into Austria and Portugal had left the British complacent. They felt reassured that the attacks were not happening on their home soil. That the war was a Continent concern only.

Hassan knew all too well the unique cultural psychology behind the British, and was keen to play their ideals of sportsmanship against them.

With each attack, he generated more and more concern amongst the likes of James Ashford and Richard Washington, but soon after months of stress and reassurances, Downing Street began to believe their own lies and dismiss Ashford’s concerns as paranoia.

As a result, security measures across the United Kingdom were relaxed somewhat, and to Hassan’s great pleasure all 7 terror cells that had caused so much destruction across Europe, were able to take a first class train ride into the heart of London, without a single security check.

For 3 weeks, the 14 hand-picked men for the greatest terrorist attack on a Western country since 9/11 stayed in pure isolation across London in their safe-houses, communicating only through bursts of Fantasy Football and one man from every pair occasionally meeting Malik at a football match.

The plan was 3-fold. Each pair were in possession of a rental van that would be fitted with explosives. Targeting specific popular tourists locales and high-end restaurants suburbs, they would trigger the explosives on the van, before taking advantage of the chaos to employ their AK-47 assault rifles, indiscriminately firing into the crowd. With 8 magazines each, and then a final suicide vest, the death toll would be in the thousands.

London would be left burning.

The perfect tribute to a woman he had lost in another life, fighting for a lie, a false country and an apocryphal Queen.

It was also the perfect message for the man who he wanted dead very badly.

With less than 48 hours until the scheduled attack on Valentine Day, Hassan found sleep elusive and wracked with dreams of failures. For months, he had been plagued by a spectral figure in his dreams, whose very presence unnerved him to the core and would leave him jerking awake, gasping for breath.

Malik knew better than to worry anyone about these strange dreams. However, he could not help shake off the ill feelings he had. There was a strange sense of inevitability about the spectre, that this figure would be the death of his work. He could only hope that this phantom wouldn’t stop him before he completed his mission.

Sighing, knowing that he would not find any more sleep, until the attack came, Malik shut the laptop down, closing the Fantasy Football app. Reaching out for his phone, Malik paused before calling Sofia, a strange sense of disquiet rustling his consciousness.

However, his emotional and physical needs overwhelmed the niggling sense of discomfort.

The ringtone sounded harsh in the sterile safehouse. It also went on for far too long.

Malik frowned when he got Sofia’s voicemail. She was always so quick to respond, no matter the hour of the day or night.

Texting her through the Just Eat app, he ordered a simple Lebanese dish that he knew she loved, kibbeh, and sent it through to her apartment. Now his paranoia was spiking furiously.

Could she be compromised? wondered Malik. Impossible. Malik concluded, but he knew deep down what he had to do. This operation was far too important to risk for a woman, no matter how much she meant to him.

Without hesitation, Malik shattered the phone and broke the SIM card, before slipping on a long coat. Looking at his reflection in the mirror, he propped the collar up to shield his face and his grief and walked outside with the remains of the phone, to throw into the Thames.

~

Gabriel Woods had his seat all the way down in his silver Audi A6, lying as flat as possible, watching the movements of Hassan Malik through the feed of a tiny Black Hornet Nano drone.

At only 10×2.5cm in size, the nano UAV was as surreptitious as they come, and could be controlled via a specialised app on a phone. Woods kept the drone as high as he could, aware of the noise it could create, despite the busy soundscape of London.

Woods frowned as he watched Malik made a circuitous route to throw the remains of his phone into the Thames. He was a consummate professional, always scanning his surrounding and pausing frequently to ensure no tails were following him. As Woods watched the splash from the phone recede, he knew that Sofia’s non-communication had alerted Malik.

Will he call it off? wondered Woods, as he kept watching Malik hustle past smiling couples through the tiny feed on his phone.

No. This is too important for him. The attack is too soon. He’s committed now. As is everyone else.

An effusive Ashford had already congratulated Woods on his work. Thanks to Woods’ interrogation on Sofia, the exact locations and timing of the attacks had been worked out. Sofia, herself, was held captive in a safehouse, unable to communicate with the Sphinx any longer. A four man protection detail patrolled the safehouse constantly.

Despite all this though, they were still in the dark where the safe houses that contained these men were.

This meant that they would have to stop the attack at the target. High risk.

It was time to call in Woods’ old unit, the infamous 22nd SAS to come in, and mop up the mess.

If SOP (Standard Operation Procedure) were to be followed, the next 24 hours would have the kill-teams furiously training in mock-ups of the area that they were assigned. 7 targets, 7 different locations, 7,000,000 ways for things to go wrong. The SAS teams would know each area like the back of their hand, aware of the millions of alleyways, sewers, bus routes, traffic patterns and a thousand other variables.

To stop a suicide attack, the men would be sharpening their marksmanship skills. Headshots only.

They would seek to limit the number of civilians around, and ideally take out the terrorists before they detonated the vans. To shoot them in the car, was too risky. Glass had a strange way of disrupting bullets and there was always a chance that there was a switch in the van that could be triggered by a dying body spasm.

This meant that the team had to ID the correct van, wait for the terrorist to jump out, then nail them all in one go, amidst a busy civilian population.

As one of the captains of the kill teams said bluntly in his concluding statement after a briefing.

7 million ways for this to go tits-up boys. So let’s get evil lads.

Woods though, had faith in his old Squadron. They were the best in the world. No other fighting man came close to the warrior that was a Blade. If anyone could prevent a Valentine Day massacre, it would be the 22nd SAS.

It was Malik that concerned him though. Whilst the attacks were going on, what was Malik going to do?

What are you thinking, you bastard? pondered Woods as he watched Malik thread his way effortlessly through London before disappearing from sight.

Woods frowned, confused as to how the Sphinx got away from his drone. Then he noted the London Tube entrance.

Shit.

The Sphinx was gone.

Chapter 8: Counter Revolutionary Warfare

1630HRS GMT – THE SAVOY HOTEL, STRAND, LONDON. 51.5101° N, 0.1205° W

2 Hours before the V-Day Attack.

Sergeant Will Anderson shifted in the seat of the blacked out Range Rover that held his fellow squadmates. As he looked out the window at the masses of people that were celebrating Valentine’s Day, he was reminded of the view he took in from the helicopter, as it inserted them into the capital city of England.

Flying through the darkness of dawn in a large CH-47 Chinook helicopter, Anderson watched as the green hills of Hereford slowly faded before the onslaught of civilization and roads began to appear more in earnest. His body was tired from the endless contact drills they had performed in the Kill House the day before, but his mind was still sharp.

The 50 man chalk in the Chinook were armed with a large variety of weapons, most of them sporting the iconic MP5 submachine gun newer and sexier replacement; the Sig Sauer MPX. Other members of the squad were using heavier, longer Sig Sauer MCX rifles and just a designated few, were armed with HK417 DMRs that were going to be crucial to preventing any escapees.

What was strange though, was their civilian clothes. Instead of battle dress uniforms, every single trooper was in casual clothing, with tactical vests, headphones and thigh-rigs strapped over a variety of jeans, cargo pants, hoodies, polo shirts and windbreakers. One man even wore a pair of chinos, a particular source of amusement amongst the lads, as they ribbed him endlessly about it throughout the whole flight.

Whilst some of the men chose to wear baseball caps, many preferred to strap their trusted bump helmets to their vests and backpacks and go without headwear.

Despite the fashion differences though, every single SAS trooper was heavily tattooed, and had on their person, a balaclava to conceal their identity and an IR Union Jack patch that could slapped on their vest to be identified as a friendly. They were all supremely fit men, striking the perfect balance between strength, speed and stamina.

Anderson, looking out the window, beheld the familiar skyline of London. He felt a surge of anger at the idea that someone was going to conduct a terrorist attack on home soil, and looked around the helicopter to see that the men had gone silent, their thoughts preoccupied with the job ahead.

Landing at a private airfield close to London, 50 of the most lethal soldiers on Her Majesty’s payroll strolled off the ramp of the Chinook casually, to split into 4 man teams. A CO and his 2IC peeled off into a fast Jaguar sedan that would take them to the control centre at the SIS HQ.

Anderson looked at his team, Bravo 2 to 4 and they quickly checked their personal radios so that they could hear each other on their discreet earpieces.

Bravo 2. Check.

Bravo 3. Check.

Bravo 4. Check.

Bravo 1. Copy all.

Anderson climbed into his car and stowed his MPX beside his leg, before shimmying in his seat, in a vain attempt to get comfortable.

The 7 SAS Range Rovers peeled off to their respective target areas, with the remaining 5 cars behaving like a QRF to wait in-between targets, ready to assist in any direction.

As Bravo 3 drove Bravo Squad to their target, the Savoy Hotel, Bravo 2 was busy in the rear, checking the squad radio that would allow them to coordinate with the SIS HQ, local Police and the EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) teams waiting on standby for their signal.

It’s going to be a long wait, thought Anderson as they arrived at their spot early, parking the Rover in the best surveillance spot possible.

Nodding at the men, Anderson and his squad stripped off their vests, clipped their radios to their belts and buried their sidearms under shoulders or belts.

Piling out of the car in unison, Bravo 2 and 4 walked out, disappearing instantly into the crowd that would only build to a feverish pitch by 1830HRS.

Anderson pulled out a tablet and patched himself into the myriad of surveillance options that covered the surrounding 5 blocks. Meanwhile, Bravo 3 began to drum his fingers on the wheel, anxiously scanning the crowd around them, a rhythm that would slowly grate on Anderson’s patience, but he was too busy to tell him to shut it.

The tablet flickered constantly, as it flicked through hundreds of live footage, little squares appearing over people’s faces as it scanned them for any distinguishing features.

Thanks to the Prince’s intelligence, the SAS kill-teams had memorised the faces of every single terrorist member that threatened to wreak havoc. Bravo squad’s particular terror cell, comprised solely of 2 men, Abdul Hussain, an Saudi national and Yusuf Amin, a devout Pakistani. Whilst Abdul was tall, handsome and lithe, with a trendy haircut, Yusuf was stockier and quiet, and walked with a limp, the result of a brush with a landmine as a child.

It was also thanks to the Prince, that the SAS teams knew the timing and location of all the attacks. They were even aware of the vans that had been loaded with high explosives, the fact that both men would be armed with AK-47s and suicide vests and the exact timing of when it would all occur. For the SAS kill-teams, this was intelligence of the highest order, the critical difference between mission failure and success.

The only thing now, was to wait for the van to appear.

What made their job highly difficult, was the van. The terrorists had to get to a safe distance before detonating, thus buying the team precious time to defuse. However, Woods had been unable to ascertain the type of bomb that had been placed inside.

Which meant that EOD teams had to work fast. It would not take long for the terrorists to get clear, before remote detonating the bomb. Even then, there was a possibility that it was on a timer and the bastards were just going to run clear and then start shooting everyone on sight.

Anderson didn’t like any of this. His team could handle 2 trigger-happy ragheads, but the van was the real problem. They needed that intelligence on the bomb, but there was no real way to figure it out. The poor EOD boys would have their work cut out for them. There was every chance that they weren’t going to make it.

~

Anderson and his squad rotated throughout the day, as they watched the entrance of the Savoy through various “eyes”, around the area; drones, CCTV and actual eyes on the site. Then, as Anderson’s tactical watch ticked over to 1840, shit got real very fast.

A white Ford Transit Van, one of the common vans in the world, appeared out of traffic like a slow-moving spectre. Bravo 4 clocked it instantly and whispered into his throat mike.

Bravo 4, to all elements. Target Van in sight. Approaching AO from South side.

Bravo 1 copy all. Anderson looked over at Bravo 3 and they both slipped on their tactical vests. Things were happening fast now.

Bravo 4, tracking the van now. It’s driving really slow.

What the fuck?! came the voice of Bravo 2 from the other side. All elements, there’s another van! West junction.

Sergeant Will Anderson’s blood ran cold at the message. He flicked on the surveillance footage from his tablet and audibly gasped. Nearby, Bravo 3’s finger drumming got even more intense as he realised the situation.

There were 4 vans, all converging slowly towards the Savoy Hotel, from all the major compass points. North, East, West and South.

How the fuck are they doing this? screamed Anderson internally. Did we really get bad intel?

It was then, the calm, stern voice of James Ashford came over all of the SAS troopers’ microphones.

All UK elements, we’ve only just received new intelligence from the Prince. The terror cells are using drones to guide their vans to the target area. Remote detonation has been confirmed, as has the type of bomb kit they are using. Schmatics are being uploaded to your tablets now. Hurry lads, you’ve got 10 minutes before these vans detonate. As for the whereabouts to the terror cell, assume they are in the immediate vicinity, using remotes to control the vans.

Anderson watched as his tablet flickered to show the blueprint of the bomb. As it flickered, both men in the Range Rover began setting timers on their watches.

All Bravo Elements, we have 4 vans, 4 bombs. We need to split up and get each one. We now have 9 mikes to defuse. Get aboard that van and get those bombs. Once we get those bombs, rallypoint Charlie. Final things lads, the detonator is your standard IED electronic fuse. Cut Red, Green, Yellow in that order.

Bravo 2, Red, Green, Yellow. Copy all.

Bravo 4 copy. Boarding vehicle now.

Anderson made a call to the control centre.

Control, this is Bravo 1, I need a tech on hand to guide my lads through everything.

Bravo 1, Control. Affirm. Oscar 1 through 4 shall guide Bravo 1 through 4.

Bravo 1, Oscar 1 to 4. Affirm. Out.

Beside him, Bravo 3 gave a final nod to Anderson before dashing out, making his way for the North van. Anderson, clambered out of the Range Rover and yanked his MPX submachine gun around his neck, before he began sprinting for the East van, his breath roaring harshly as he yelled at people to get out of the way.

Move! Police coming through. Move! Move!

A feminine voice came crackling through his mike, her tone serious and emotionless.

Bravo 1, this is Oscar 1. Continue for another 100 metres then turn right, suspect van will be directly at 12.

Anderson didn’t waste his breath, instead pressing a button on his microphone to confirm the message.

Seconds later, the SAS trooper rounded the corner, and beheld the van, which was now idling in traffic, ignoring the chorus of horns that were blaring behind it. Time was running out.

In normal circumstances, Anderson would have gaped at the sight of a driver-less van, powered by an intricate remote steering mechanism. But his training had taken over.

This was the key difference between an ordinary soldier and special forces. The indoctrination and intense training in the SAS, had created an Anderson that could rationalise, identify and assess situations in a split second and perform fine motor skills without hesitation or fear.

Anderson didn’t stop or hesitate. He ran around the back of the van, and unclipped his multitool from his tactical vest.

Using the window-breaker, he smashed open the back windows and roughly brushed aside the shattered glass with a gloved hand, reaching in to open the door latch.

As the door swung open, Anderson caught it before it opened too wide, swearing in a monotone as he noted the wire that was attached to the door to the bomb. Had he not caught it, it would gone off prematurely.

Bravo 1 to all elements. Watch for booby traps. My door was rigged to explode if opened too far. Proceed with caution for defusal.

Bravo 2 copy.

Bravo 3 affirm.

Bravo 4, understood.

As Anderson jumped into the back of the van, shutting the door behind him, he snipped the wire that linked the bomb to his only exit.

The bomb looked bloody big as he crouched before it. Anderson felt fear and nervousness began to course through his body.

Every single SAS trooper had done the same course. But back then, the lads were fucking around and knew that the detonator wasn’t wired up to real explosives. Many guys mimed being blown apart, and the insane number of yelling “BOOM!” as a newbie tried to defuse one was too many to count.

That was in the safety of Hereford. However, the moment when a trooper had to defuse an IED in the real world, nothing felt funny anymore. With each year into the Afghan war, more IEDs were claiming the lives of Blades, and the jokes soon disappeared. Demands for the course became more and more extensive and realistic, to the point where the “bomb” would actually create a wisp of smoke and enter the final phases of detonation to hammer in the stress.

It was this training, constant repetition and quashing of nerves and fear, that ensured Anderson’s gloved hands were steady, as they touched the huge bomb inside of the van.

Occupying the entire back wall of the van, the bomb was crudely but ingeniously designed. There were a dozen cheap blue barrels of stolen ammonium nitrate that lined the walls of the bomb, and were clustered in the centre of the cargo hold. Whilst he couldn’t see inside the barrels, experience warned him that they were doubtless packed with sewage, ball bearings, nails, marbles and glass, to ensure maximum damage and carnage.

After all, the initial blast was small for what it was, because the van’s shell would take a lot of the initial blast within itself. But the millions of frag pieces (fragmentation) was the true destructive force. Dirty shards of glass and metal would fly everywhere, piercing skin at the speed of a bullet, horribly infecting the wound and thus leave any survivors with less chances to survive.

Anderson, like many of his fellow troopers, took some small consolation that if the bomb was to go off, their end would be instantaneous.

Peering at the bomb’s primary unit, and the masses of wires behind it, Anderson silently thanked the Prince for his timely intelligence, as even an EOD team would struggle to defuse the bomb. A part of him wondered how the intelligence asset managed to obtain such intel, but that wasn’t the priority now.

All he had to do, was cut the wires, Red, Green and Yellow.

As he snipped the first red wire that led into the primary detonator, a triangular unit that held the two primary fuses together, he felt his heart accelerate as the small digital readout went from a solid red “ARMED” to blinking scarlet rapidly.

Then to his shock, the van began to roll forwards, throwing him back into door of the van. The terrorists, aware of his plans, and eager to put a stop to it, was now sending the vehicle straight towards the Savoy.

Diving forwards and swiftly cutting the green wire, then the yellow one, Anderson heaved a huge sight of relief when the blinking readout cut out and went completely black.

Gingerly pulling the fuse out, Anderson slowly backed out of the van and shut the door behind him, as uniformed police officers came running up, the infamous SCO19, late to the party.

Anderson pointed at the van and his IR UK patch, emblazoned across his tactical vest, before remembering that he still had 2 murderous terrorists in the immediate area. He yelled at the officers that the bomb was defused, and that the van was inert.

Despite the van still continuing to roll forward, Anderson took off, ignoring the confused cries of the officers behind him, and the fact that one brave SCO19 officer, threw his rifle to the ground and had run alongside the van, smashing the driver window with his elbow and stomped on the brakes, by throwing his body half in the van’s cabin.

Sprinting back to the car, which was designated rallypoint Charlie, Anderson keyed in his throat mike.

Oscar 1, sitrep.

All Bravo elements have defused their bombs. Bravo 2 is already back at rallypoint Charlie, Bravo 3 & 4 are on track to meet you there at the same time. When you are at the rallypoint, check West, we’ve traced the signal from the vans to a building there. Wait, is that you running, no, no, no … Bravo 1, STOP!

Sergeant Will Anderson, Bravo 1, SAS soldier and decorated veteran, heard the warning of his SIS handler, and immediately dove behind a car, as he saw one of his team members, Bravo 2, take a fusillade of bullets that caused explosions of blood to erupt all over his body.

His tactical watch ticked over to 1900HRS.

The attack on London had begun.

~

Enraged that their initial attack had failed, the terror cell poured out of the building that they were hiding in and immediately located the SAS team that had foiled their plans. Seeing one of the members alone, Abdul Hussain tapped Yusuf Amin on the shoulder and together they racked their AK-47s’ charging handles.

Whilst Hussain’s eyes were wide with an incredible narcotic injection of opium and PCP, all designed so that he could fight longer, Yusuf’s religious zeal was more than enough to sustain him through pain, violence and death. With their bomb vests strapped around their chests, and approximately 540 rounds of ammunition on each of their bodies, they were a formidable force to be reckoned with. The Sphinx had even provided the men with primitive ballistic face masks, to ensure that headshots were even more difficult for Coalition forces.

The AK-47s that the Sphinx had smuggled in for them, were also heavily customised. The barrels were skeletal, and the traditionally heavy wooden stock was replaced by a sleeker, folding butt stock. Foregrips granted the two men better accuracy and the weapons were personally cleaned by the Sphinx to ensure that they could chew through all 540 rounds in a matter of minutes.

Even their initial magazines had been modified, with three of the curved banana mags taped together, to ensure that the Saudi and the Pakistani had 90 rounds ready to go straight away, with reloads being a snap of the finger to perform.

In short, the weapons were lighter, harder to fuck-up under stress and more accurate.

It was this army of two that now opened fired on London and Bravo squad.

Anderson roared in anger, as he watched Bravo 2 get ripped apart, under the combined weight of sixty 7.62mm bullets. He danced gruesomely, in a horrible version of a marionette, as round after round tore through his body, before landing with a wet splat on the concrete pavement, unrecognisable.

Anderson looked in the direction of the terrorists who, in under a second, had already finished reloading. Hussain, spotting Anderson from behind a shiny black BMW sedan, grinned manically and began to unload a torrent of bullets towards him.

Yusuf, ignoring his crazy partner, calmly began to fire in punctuated bursts, at innocent civilians. A woman in her mid thirties, spun around, as a round entered her pelvis and came out through her friend’s knee. A man, shielding his son, gasped as a round went through his shoulder and he fell forward, determined to protect his son from more incoming fire.

A boyfriend stood frozen, unsure what to do as his girlfriend laid flat on the floor, her hands over her head. A bullet nearly entered his chest, but he was saved when his girlfriend yanked on his pants leg, causing him to trip and fall on the ground. Elsewhere, a couple showed their true colours when the boyfriend immediately let go of his girl’s hand and sprinted for his car, only to get shot in the back for his trouble.

Valentine’s Day … acts of love, acts of courage … acts of cowardice. All was revealed before the face of death.

People ran every which way. It was pandemonium. Streets away, people heard the gunfire and froze. More worldly restaurants immediately launched their evacuation procedures, scars by attacks that happened years before, now saving lives in the present. Police officers controlled crowds and desperately sought to help their much more lethal SAS brothers restore safety and order.

A poor couple ran from the ugly scene at Bravo’s squad, only to venture into a bigger firefight that had Charlie squad pinned and wounded. One of the SAS troopers saw them, and despite the wound in his leg, sprinted towards them and crash-tackled both, before bullets could find them. He stayed atop the terrified couple, his blood dripping onto the girl’s pretty white dress, shielding them from harm.

Gunfire echoed everywhere. Screams rose above them, as blood, fire and metal merged into the urban jungle, to create a terrifying environment of endless white noise that battered the senses.

London, within the space of 3 minutes had turned into a hellish nightmare that was more commonly associated with Afghanistan.

The war had come home.

~

Anderson was yelling into his microphone.

Bravo 1 to all elements, Bravo 2 is down, KIA. Under heavy suppressing fire. Need assistance now!

Bravo 3, engaging now. said the trooper, his voice strained but professional.

Bravo 4, flanking. replied the Blade, cold and emotionless. There was an edge to this soldier’s voice. Anderson was pleased to hear it.

As he remained crouched behind a car, Anderson waited until he heard Bravo 3’s suppressed MPX whir to life.

The tch, tch, tch sounds of the MPX could barely be heard above the thud of the AKs, but it was enough. Hussain, hit twice in the shoulder, spun around angrily at Bravo 3, who was behind him and began firing in earnest, as the SAS trooper swore and ducked behind a large Mercedes sedan.

All elements, be aware, tangos are heavily armoured. Multiple headshots are required to take them down! My rounds just bounced off their face masks!

Anderson cursed loudly, as he realised that the Sphinx had performed his research. Technology in ballistic face masks offered limited protection, mostly only against 9mm rounds. Using anything higher, was guaranteed to penetrate through.

However, 9mm were the exact type of bullets that the SAS teams were currently rocking in their MPXs, to ensure that their rounds did not over-penetrate and go beyond their targets, as personally experienced by the woman and her friend who got shot by the much more powerful 7.62mm, as they clutched their respective hip and knee in agony.

Simply put, the Sphinx had covered for a lot of the SAS’s capabilities.

However, these men were not one of the most feared and deadly units in the world for all their gear and equipment. They were the best in the world, the ultimate fighting man in mankind’s short history, because of their ingenuity, tenacity, unique training and pedigree.

Their ancestors held back the Romans. Men by their age, had created an island stronghold that have never been invaded since Hastings. Their forefathers established an Empire and could find no equal anywhere on Earth or Water. Their grandfathers played major roles in every single conflict across the globe since the 20th Century.

These fighting men came from the finest fighting stock and regiments in the world.

The turn-around in the flow of the combat, was swift, efficient and terrifying.

Who Dares Wins.

At first, it was Hussain who dominated the streets of London. Pivoting constantly to suppress Bravo 1 and 3, whilst Yusuf was slowly leading the pair through the streets, gunning down civilians cowering behind cars, shops and street-lights, it came to a point where he had to drop the three taped magazines to reach for a fresh one on his chest.

As the three taped magazines fell, Bravo 1 and 3 whipped their guns up, moving fast, and sprayed their MPXs at his legs.

Hussain’s knees exploded simultaneously, and the Saudi roared in pain, the intensity of his injuries even punching through the protective mental layer PCP had created in his mind.

As the Saudi dropped like a stone, Yusuf spun around, astonished by the new tactics. He yelled in agonised Arabic as bursts blasted through his thighs and he joined his fellow terrorist on the ground, his legs mangled beyond recognition.

Hussain and Yusuf looked at each other and desperately sprayed their guns in unison at Bravo 1 and 3, keen to hold the two troopers off, so that they could reach in and detonate their vests.

As they fired at opposite ends, they failed to see Bravo 4 appear in between them, a big Sig Sauer P320 pistol in his right hand and a serrated tanto knife in the other.

Swiftly walking up to the pair of terrorists, Bravo 4 assessed the pair in a nanosecond and noted the intensity of Yusuf versus the drugged out Hussain. As Bravo 4 made his decision, Yusuf turned around and gasped at the sight of the blacked out SAS trooper wearing a balaclava and a baseball cap, with a pistol and knife in each hand.

He tried to turn his AK-47 around with his one hand, whilst the other fumbled for the detonator.

Bravo 4, moving coldly and quickly, kicked the AK-47 away, before firing his Sig at point blank into the terrorist’s fumbling arm. Yusuf wailed as over seventeen 9mm rounds tore his arm to shreds, but the scream was quickly extinguished by a gurgling noise as Bravo 4’s tanto knife ripped through the exposed throat, underneath the ballistic mask.

The move was so savage and heavy, that Yusuf’s neck actually tilted backwards and the two folds of skin flapped gruesomely in the open air, as blood sprayed outwards.

Hussain, entirely focused on his target, Anderson, and hopped on battle rage and PCP, never noticed Bravo 4 reloading his pistol in a single second, rack the slide back. Without hesitation, Bravo 4 reached down and flipped the ballistic mask off Hussain’s face.

Hussain paused in shock as the mask fell off his face and he looked behind him to see who did it. His handsome face registered shock before it melted under the weight of all the firepower Bravo 4 could muster.

By the time the final shot finished echoing loudly off the corridors of London, Hussain’s head was essentially mush. There was nothing left facially, to identify the two men. The SAS trooper had remembered the Prince’s warning.

Gun them down in the head before they blow yours off.

The attack on the Savoy had been stopped.

Anderson and Bravo 3 ran up to Bravo 4 and they assisted each other in disarming the suicide vests. Fortunately these were a lot less complicated than the bombs in the van, just your standard issue s-vests seen everywhere in the Middle East. They had defused hundreds of these over their long tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Bravo 3 spiked the AK-47s and threw all the spare magazines in a dump bag. Bravo 1 and 4 carried the vests away for disposal.

Overall, the attack saw nearly 700 rounds expended in a matter of terrifying minutes.

Leaving the bodies of the terrorists to rot on the street, the SAS kill-team walked over to their fallen comrade, Bravo 2, and respectfully covered him up with a sheet from their damaged Range Rover, now pockmarked with bullets.

Anderson called in the paramedics and trauma crew, and the team set about rendering first aid, tending to the numerous wounded surrounding them. They soon ran out of tourniquets, bandages and gauze, and were relieved when the first paramedics arrived on scene, only seconds after they used up all their medical equipment.

Whilst the terror cell had only managed to walk 100 metres, the carnage they had wreaked was awful. Over 70 people had been shot and wounded, with 34 more dead. Anderson waited with baited breath, as he heard the echos of gunfire slowly dissipated after his own gun battle.

As he applied pressure to a wounded father’s shoulder, he looked over at the small boy, whose face was covered in blood. Smiling kindly at the lad, Anderson took the boy by the hand, as a paramedic took over and fussed over the father. No-one this young deserved to see this.

Reaching into his tactical vest, Anderson cracked a green chem-light and handed it to the boy, watching as the glow of the light slowly removed the shock from the boy’s blue eyes, replacing the traumatized expression with wonder and awe.

Tousling the boy’s head gently, Anderson looked over at Bravo 4, who nodded and took the boy over to the trauma crew, who were dealing with a mass of hysterical people.

Oscar 1, Bravo 1. Sitrep. barked Anderson harshly as he beheld the damage around him.

Bravo 1, situation has now been contained. All terror cells have been eliminated. Estimated death toll, 154, casualties approximately 357. UKSF casualty report is looking like 5 wounded and 1 KIA. It would have been a lot worse if you guys weren’t here.

What happened to the other squads?

Alpha team managed to kill their cell before it got out of hand. Because yours was the first attack, I was able to relay intel to Alpha, whose cell was the last to attack. Alpha 3 got shot in the shoulder, but no-one else was injured.

Charlie squad needed assistance from the QRF, Charlie 1, 3 and 4 all got wounded in their firefight. It turned out, that once they found out about us knowing the van trick, the Charlie, Delta and Echo cells regrouped together to fight. That’s where the bulk of the civilians casualties were inflicted. Echo 4 was also wounded in the fight but they’re all looking stable.

Foxtrot actually found their cell, before the vans. So they nailed the two guys and then disarmed the vans remotely. They got extremely lucky and then went to help the Charlie, Delta and Echo squads.

Golf had a similar story to yours, they got the vans, but had a long fight with their cells. A lot of casualties there too, because their cell fired into restaurants.

I’m sorry, Bravo 1.

Anderson stayed silent, his mind trying to comprehend the enormity of what had just happened. The SAS were not used to failure. Whilst this would be touted as some kind of victory by Downing Street, the men would know better … it was their job to make sure the war never touched down home.

Innocents had died and now, the SAS would go on the offensive. Someone had to pay for the blood spilled today. Already, Anderson was considering what gear he needed for a return tour to ‘Stan.

Anderson’s mind remembered the question he had posed for himself about the intelligence that had saved London from a more devastating attack. If it wasn’t for the Prince’s intel on the van bombs …

Oscar 1, Bravo 1 … thank the Prince for us. Let us know when he’s hunting. We’ll get evil with him. Bravo 1 out.

~

3 Hours before the V-Day Attack

In the hours leading up to the attack, Gabriel Woods was also riding in a helicopter, like the SAS kill-teams. However instead of a powerful Chinook CH-47, his ride was much smaller, nimble and fast. The dark grey sleek outline of the Bell 407 helicopter, melded into the night sky of England, and its rotors had been dampened for sound, giving it a stealthy signature.

A common sight across skyscrapers and civilian utility, the Bell 407 was often used to assist in search and rescue operations or ferrying CEOs from airports to offices. What was uncommon about this Bell 407 was the spindly arm that jutted out from the right cargo door, just underneath the rotors.

Woods looked over at the skyline of London and recalled his prerogative. After losing the Sphinx, Ashford had tasked him with discovering exactly what type of bomb the Sphinx had equipped his terror cells with. To do so, meant going straight to the source, a close associate of the Sphinx, and local bomb-maker, a nasty piece of work, who went by the name Ryan “Jacket” Singh.

Jacket had earned his epithet as an amusing play on “bomber jacket” and his habit of wearing his own custom one everywhere. A garish red, cream and purple combination, the jacket had his name emblazoned across the back, along with a huge explosion going off with an evil smiley face in the centre.

Tasteless and tacky, were just two words that could describe Singh’s brand of humour and style.

Raised in the badlands of New Delhi to English and Indian parents, Singh’s obsession with explosives started early when he first set off a firework that blew open an ex-girlfriend’s toilet. It grew to letter-bombs, then finally her car exploded with her in it one day, causing Jacket to go underground with his new skill-set.

Owning to his extraordinary skill in sourcing explosive materials and placing them together, Jacket soon relocated to Londonistan where his talent was soon put to work across Europe, under the Sphinx’s guidance and recognised for the genius he was.

But like most geniuses, his reign at the top was going to be short-lived.

As the Bell 407 crested past the London Eye, gunning for Croydon, Gabriel looked down at his armament. He was dressed like a terrorist. There was no mistaking the dark jeans, the black combat boots, black v-neck t-shirt and red & white tartan plaid shirt.

It was the universal, functional uniform of military men off-duty everywhere. But instead of rocking the Westernised approved baseball cap, Woods had covered his head with a red/white shemagh, the traditional headscarf worn by men across the Middle Eastern region.

Tying it in a turban style, that covered his entire face, barring his eyes, Woods was comfortable operating in this outfit, owning to his numerous Afghanistan tours. What was surprising though, was him wearing this kit in London. But Woods wanted nothing to be traced back, hence the generic terrorist garb.

It also gave him no small amusement that Singh was about to get a visit from one of his customers.

In addition to this kit, Woods was armed with his trusted Glock 19 on a right thigh holster and a high-tech suppressed MP7A1 personal defence weapon (PDW) with an EOTech sight and PEQ-15 laser designator.

Woods felt, rather than saw the Bell 407 begin its descent, as they neared the target apartment. With his immense resources and connections, Jacket had managed to convert the north-west corner of a poor apartment block into his own personal bomb-making workshop.

According to the SIS, Singh had gutted three floors, to carve out his own twisted version of a penthouse amongst the boroughs in Croydon. The top floor featured his apartment, where a staircase led down to the living area and kitchen, before featuring the bomb workshop itself, and a huge safe/escape room where Jacket kept most of his treasures out of reach from his greedy lieutenants.

Woods would be entering from the roof and snaking his way down, floor by floor.

The pilot held up 2 fingers. 2 minutes to drop.

Putting on fast-rope gloves, Woods checked the coil of rope by his feet and tugged the two guns on his twin thigh holsters.

Woods was running light.

There wasn’t even a tactical vest on him to cover his vitals.

This was an old-school hit and run affair.

The only piece of kit to slow him down was a warbelt that had 3 flashbang grenades, 2 spare magazines for his pistol and 4 spares for his PDW, cable ties, a multitool and a rudimentary first aid kit.

The Bell 407 swooped down to the rooftop of the Jacket’s apartment and moving quickly, Woods kicked the rope out of the door and watched as the spindly arm went taunt.

Leaping out of the helicopter cargo door, Woods fast roped down to the building, wrapping his legs around the rope, and maintaining a gentle pressure with his hands.

As he neared the building, a man opened the door to the rooftop recess, pistol in hand.

Without pausing, Woods slowed his descent with his right hand, whipped the MP7A1 from his thigh holster with his left and zipped him with three rounds.

The scout dropped like a sack of shit.

Landing lightly on the roof, he waved off the pilot, who let the rope tumble away from the helicopter before powering up and away. Woods watched the Bell 407 go, before walking slowly over to the corpse.

It was one of Singh’s underlings. His unseeing brown eyes stared at nothing and Woods kicked away his pistol, before venturing into the dark recess of the Jacket’s workshop.

~

The fight for Jacket’s workshop was slow, intense and fierce. Woods was methodical in his approach, using all his senses to detect enemies before they found him. He was so quiet and smooth, that often Jacket’s men were unable to get a single shot off before they died with multiple 4.6mm rounds in their hearts and minds.

However, by the time Woods had cleared the second floor, Jacket was now all too aware of the bodies that were dropping with loud thuds above him. He only had 3 men left and owning to the timing of the attack, he was in the middle of constructing a bomb, that he was unable to take his eyes off.

Sweat poured down his fat face, as his pudgy but nimble fingers tried to make the bomb inert before the Prince arrived. He eyed the open door of the safe room to his left, but the process was too delicate now. He was trapped by his own creation.

Seconds passed and the 3 men aiming their machine guns at the door were breathing heavily. An assassin to their front and a live bomb behind them. They had nothing to lose.

Singh whelped with delight as he put the finishing touches to the bomb. All he had to do was secure the detonator and all would be well.

It was then, the Prince struck.

The front door to the workshop creaked open, a pair of weakened cable ties popping off their link to swing it outwards.

The doorway was blasted to shit, by the three goons.

As they reloaded, they exchanged nervous smiles when nothing happened

It was at that moment, mid-reload, the window behind them and in front of Singh’s shocked face, was blasted open and a pair of flashbangs sailed through.

BANG! BANG!

With a deafening roar and blinding light, the three henchmen staggered around, as Woods came crashing through the window, having used the rope from the Bell 407 to abseil down the side of the building and make a breach point right in front of the stunned Jacket!

Woods kicked Singh square in the face and using his momentum, unhooked himself over the bomb table and before he landed properly, shot all three henchmen in the head with precise bursts. Before the bodies had even slumped to the floor, Woods spun around and cracked the collapsible stock of the MP7 across Singh’s nose, breaking it instantaneously.

The pudgy man screamed, both in despair and in a weird action, grabbed at the air, towards the bomb, as he fell backwards.

Looking at the bomb and exposed door to the safe room, Woods acted fast and threw the entire package in, before rushing to the door and sealing it shut.

3, 2, 1 … BEEP!

A muffled WHUMP resounded through the entire apartment block, the safe room shuddering as the bomb went off inside its’ all-steel construction, incinerating all of Jacket’s precious stolen goods in an instant.

Singh stared in horror at the green eyes that stared out angrily at him from beyond the shemagh. He began to back up slowly, as the Prince approached him slowly, his MP7 held lazily in his hands.

Jacket had only heard rumours, but never put any trust in them.

He was a believer now.

The Prince was real.

With his back pressed up against the wall, and his right hand cuffed to a table, Singh broke down immediately and told Woods everything he needed to know about defusing the bombs that were about to scorch London.

As Singh grovelled before Woods, his left hand very surreptitiously crept to the small pistol he held in the back of his pants.

Come on man, I told you what you wanted to know. Just let me go. What are you waiting for? I told you everything you needed to know about the Sphinx. I just made bombs for him. I swear by it, I did nothing else. I’m just a bomb-maker … come on bro, let me go.

Woods, inspecting the bombs-in-progress around the workshop and taking photos to send to the SIS, did not see the suspicious hand movement. Jacket continued to blab to keep his attention occupied.

Wait, I know why you haven’t let me go, it’s because I’m still valuable to your bosses aren’t I? You can’t touch me, because I got information they need to know right? Well, come on then, take me in, big man. I’m worth a lot right?

Jacket, smiling at his own cleverness, whipped his hand around the gun and bought it to bear at Wood’s chest.

To his shock, Woods had already clocked the move, and as fast as a rattlesnake, drew his Glock 19 and hip-fired once, drilling a neat hole in Singh’s forehead.

Looking at the fat, dead bomb-maker’s shocked expression and glazed over eyes, Woods holstered his pistol and said softly to himself.

Yes, considerably.

Ignoring the corpse, the Prince turned around and continued his search for clues left behind by the Sphinx.

~

Around the same time, at a SIS black site in Camberwell.

Sofia Sumarwata was strapped to a chair, her wrists and ankles bound with strong tape.

It was pitch black in her room, the sensory deprivation playing with her senses. She didn’t even know if she was awake or not, it was that dark.

She couldn’t even see her hand in front of her face, despite her body moving it.

What she did know though, was that she was shivering furiously, her olive skin still damp after the latest round of torture by her two captors. Whether it was water or sweat, she had no idea.

She no longer cared.

Sofia had lost track of all time and sensation.

This interrogation chamber was limbo and hell rolled into one.

~

The two men were as different as could be.

One was a shorter, vicious type, reminiscent of Joe Pesci if he was Welsh.

The other man was tall, lean and almost gentle in how he treated her.

He was the more terrifying of the pair, because like any attractive woman, Sofia had developed a sixth sense for perversion.

And this asshole was dripping in it.

She nicknamed her two torturers, Dog and Cat.

It made the torture easier to bear in a strange way. With such belittling names, it made their actions seem less painful, less significant.

Dog preferred to beat her, his open handed blows rarely making a mark on her. He was an expert in pain and was more often than not, the man who held her underwater or poured water over her face, as she gagged underneath a mesh.

He was clearly experienced in hurting people without leaving any signs.

The beatings administered by Dog were easier to deal with though. She had dealt with physical pain before. Her upbringing in Iran and the multiple terrorists camps she trained at across the Middle East made her tough.

So Sofia preferred her harsh treatment under Dog. She would prolong it as much as she could, because the moment Dog finished, Cat would come in.

Even now, alone in her black room, her skin crawled at the thought of Cat.

Cat loved to stroke her skin. He would run his fingers across her collarbone, down her back and across her stomach.

She hated it.

She could tell that he longed to go other places and perhaps soon he would.

It was under his administrations that Sofia came the closest to breaking. She couldn’t stand his touch. He made her want him to go all the way, just to get it over with.

Frustration, revulsion and perverse guilt gnawed at her.

These confusing feelings played havoc with her mind and wore Sofia down. She was completely alone, with no ways the Sphinx could find her. Dramatic rescues didn’t happen in reality, especially at black sites like these.

As Sofia sat there, in the perpetual dark void, she wondered at what lead to this moment.

She recalled Hakim, her long lost fiance, his laugh and smile. They way he had lifted her in his arms when she agreed to marry him. The sorrow and rage that had transformed his face when he realised his brother was gone.

Sofia remembered the intense sorrow, the grief that had followed, as she vowed vengeance. Faces of countless men she had seduced flashed before her, all of them gone because they fell for the wrong woman.

She had spent years as the terrorist’s favourite honey pot, her skill at drawing men to their death, unmatched by anyone else. The way how men had treated her was as disgusting as Cat’s behaviour. At times, she wanted to end her life, but she forged on, knowing Hakim would want her to.

All of that changed though when she met Hassan Malik. He reminded her of how it felt to be loved, to be respected. He rescued her from the endless depravity, the menial work that was poisoning her soul.

He gave her a sense of purpose that didn’t involve selling her body. With the Sphinx, she could be whole again, be the proud Arab woman that she always longed to be, and really make a difference in the fight.

In that moment, Sofia knew that, no matter what happened, she would endure for him. Because there was nothing else for her to hold on to. She loved the Sphinx with all her heart and she would rather die than betray him.

Tears ran down Sofia’s cheeks, but she didn’t know whether they were real or not, because the darkness was so complete.

~

Cat smiled as he watched the half-naked Sofia begin to cry.

He was close to breaking her. He motioned to Dog and with cruel swiftness, Dog turned on the harsh fluorescent light that assaulted her like a flashbang after spending so much time in the dark.

Cat began to walk to the interrogation chamber, rubbing his hands in anticipation.

Dog watched, a cold smile etched across his ugly face.

~

The Sphinx looked at the SIS “safehouse”, in reality an interrogation black site, where detainees could be “processed” for information.

It looked like any ordinary private garage in Camberwell. An old-school brick and mortar affair, with a triangular roof and plenty of clearance for a van to pull in.

However, the Sphinx knew better. There were no less than seven security cameras aimed at the garage front door and the van that was parked in the space was blacked out.

The Sphinx climbed out of his car, and walked brazenly to the front door of the garage, kicking it in with his heel.

Inside the garage, the 4 man security detail were playing a game of blackjack, with chips, beer and ciagrettes blazing away. They spun around to the sight of the Sphinx, dressed in a classic tuxedo.

What the fu- said one of the guards before the Sphinx raised his Beretta M9A3 and shot him twice in the face.

Thud! the faceless guard’s upper body crashed onto the table, scattering chips everywhere.

Hands blitzed into motion as the three remaining guards went for their guns, but were all gunned down before they could even process any more irrational moves.

The Sphinx walked up to their table, grabbed the security tag off the head guard, before walking into the back office where a strange elevator beckoned to a disturbing basement secret.

Scanning the tag, the Sphinx reloaded his Beretta and ventured down.

~

The Dog was enjoying the show behind the one way mirror.

His hands were shoveling a packet of chips in his mouth, as he watched Cat ripped Sofia’s bra off and exposed her breasts.

Dog smiled lasciviously as he watched his partner lean forward, his face close to Sofia’s own, smelling her fear and disgust.

For the briefest of seconds, the lights flickered and both Dog and Cat froze.

Cat shrugged when nothing happened and smiled at Sofia. She tried to move her head away from him, straining to be as far away as possible. But there was nothing she could do. Tears began to flow freely down her face.

Dog felt his breath quicken as he watched Cat move onto Sofia. Suddenly the mirror darkened, as the switch turned off and he felt something move behind him.

Spinning around, Dog came face to face with a furious Sphinx.

The Sphinx, his handsome face twisted in a deadly scowl, lifted the small torturer up in the air with one hand, his fingers digging deep into the folds of Dog’s neck. As Dog began to choke for breath, the Sphinx lifted up his other hand, to reveal his big Beretta M9A3 pistol.

Dog’s eyes widened in shock, before shaking his head furiously. He kept shaking, as the Sphinx shot round after round through the small man’s body, emptying the entire magazine, before taking a step back and with two hands, threw the corpse of the vicious torturer right through the mirror.

The explosion of glass, blood and flesh froze Cat instantly, as he was bending over Sofia, his hands hovering over her exposed breasts.

He stared at the corpse of Dog, the torso riddled with bloody holes, and looked up at the broken mirror.

No! No! screamed Cat as the Sphinx vaulted into the room and charged forwards, tackling Cat to the floor.

Cat’s hands came up ineffectually. The Sphinx batted them away and delivered a swift uppercut to the torturer’s jaw. The punch broke Cat’s jaw instantly, blood pouring through and out his mouth, as he tried to scrabble away on the floor.

The Sphinx, moving fast, grabbed him by the hair and kicked at the back of his knees, forcing the lanky torturer down before Sofia.

Pulling a knife out of his pocket, the Sphinx elbowed Cat roughly in the head, as he freed Sofia with four swift cuts.

Touching her cheek gently, the Sphinx kissed Sofia’s forehead tenderly, before opening her hands and placing the knife in her right palm and closing her fingers over it.

With a serious and encouraging look, the Sphinx smiled at Sofia, before resuming his position behind the man.

Sofia looked down at the knife in her fist, before looking over at Cat, cold vengeance etched across her attractive features.

The Sphinx grabbed the man’s dark hair and pulled it back, exposing the bulging neck muscles. Cat began to struggle, his eyes wide in terror as Sofia advanced on him, an angel of death.

No! No! Please! I didn’t do anything! Please! No! No! Urkkkk!

Sofia rammed the point of the knife into Cat’s throat and with all her anger, ripped the knife across. Blood sprayed and hissed out of the wound in an explosive jetstream. Air could be heard escaping from the torn jugular as Cat gagged and gasped at the sensation of blood pouring down into his gullet.

Just as Cat was about to die, Sofia looked down at her troturer and slammed the knife down, right through the forehead.

The Sphinx nodded approvingly and tossed the lanky torturer’s corpse to the floor.

Sofia spat on the dead body, before she ran into the Sphinx’s arms sobbing in relief.

They stayed that way for a good few minutes, before Hassan took out some spare clothes for Sofia, that he had stolen from her apartment.

How did you find me, Hassan? she asked him after she had recovered and they were making their way out of the black site.

Malik, his Beretta held loosely in his right hand, whilst his left firmly clasped Sofia’s hand, replied simply.

They brought your phone here. As stupid as that is to believe. I’m sorry, I didn’t come earlier but I had to lose someone.

Sofia shook her head as they walked past the corpses of the 4 man security detail that guarded the black site.

Thank you, my love.

The Sphinx led his lady out into the night where they were about to get a front row seat to London burning.

Chapter 9: Into the Woods

20 minutes into the V-Day Attack.

Gabriel Woods stared at the crowd surging and pushing towards him, a primal fear coursing through his system, as the stampede of bodies barrelled down the London street, panicked and terrified.

Having rushed from Ryan “Jacket” Singh’s Croydon safe-house to London in the bomb-maker’s car, Woods was eager to assist the SAS kill-teams already operating there. However, he was forced to abandon the car on the A23 when he saw the thousands of police checkpoints that blocked entry to London.

Slipping surreptitiously past the checkpoint, as policemen argued sternly with the hundreds of cars that were lining up for kilometres back, Woods made his way through the millions of alleyways that marked London’s cityscape, before finally entering the CBD properly after a long hour walk.

As he made his way through the city, he could hear the screams and echoes of gunfire. With his MP7A1, Glock 19 and warbelt looking decidedly terrifying, Gabriel wasn’t keen for anyone to see him, as he had no friendly identifying features on him. He regretted the terrorist kit now, and kept the shemagh tucked in his pocket, in a vain attempt to hide his supposed affiliation.

Already several minutes had elapsed in the V-Day attacks as he rounded the corner of a street cautiously. The street sneered emptily at his vigilance for one single minute, when bam! The crowd came rushing down.

Falling back around the corner, Woods ducked into an alcove as the crowd kept running past him. No one saw the quiet assassin watching them, as they ran away in their fear. As he stepped out, one of the stragglers nearly collided into him, a petite woman clutching her arm and looking back in the direction she had came in horror.

She nearly screamed at the sight of Woods, but Woods was quicker, and with a firm but gentle grip, he slowly moved her around the corner. Woods sat her down on the floor and said soothingly in a British accent

It’s OK. I’m UK Special Forces. I’m friendly. Here, let me look at that arm.

The petite woman was shaking heavily, the shock of a terrorist attack still apparent in her nervous system. Tears of relief streaked down her cheeks, as she felt some semblance of comfort at a soldier tending to her wound.

What’s your name? asked Woods softly, as he opened his first aid kit.

Liz. said the woman shakily. Woods nodded and smiled reassuringly.

Hi Liz. My name is George. I’m a medic with the 2nd Paras. We’ll have you patched up in no time OK? Just try to stay calm with me and do not move too much OK? Everything is going to be alright, Liz.

As Gabriel inspected the wound, a nasty piece of frag that had embedded itself in Liz’s arm, a tiny part of him marvelled at how quickly he had lied and created a false military persona.

George from the 2nd Paras …. that was something he would have to tell Ashford later, so that the illustrious 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment, one of Britian’s first airborne troops units founded in the Second World War, could prepare an appropriate story for the press.

It was a typical SAS ploy, to pass off their deeds to the Regiment where most SAS members were sourced from piror to Selection. Anyhow, in most cases, the Paras were all too happy to take the credit.

Gabriel looked at the piece of metal shrapnel that had lodged itself in this attractive blonde’s arm and winced at the flow of blood that was oozing out. To remove this, was to risk further blood loss, but who knew what sort of shit was in that open wound right now.

Taking out some disinfectant, Gabriel maintained gentle eye contact with Liz, as her blue eyes locked onto his green trustingly.

OK Liz, so I can’t remove this piece of metal, because to do so, would mean that you might incur more blood loss. What I am going to do, is disinfect this wound, so it’s going to sting a lot. Then I’m going to bandage you up and get you to a hospital ASAP. Hold onto me Liz, because this is going to hurt OK?

Liz nodded and started to breathe heavily, as she gripped Gabriel’s shoulder with her good hand. Dabbing the disinfectant onto a gauze pad, Gabriel started to clean the wound, ignoring the moans of pain as Liz began to writhe in his grip and tighten the pressure on his shoulder with her fingers.

Come on Liz, nearly there! said Woods encouragingly, as he continued to dab away at the wound and avoid touching the metal.

After what seems like hours, but was in reality, minutes, Liz relaxed as Woods finally stopped and took out his bandage roll.

OK, hold still Liz.

She nodded gamely, as Woods began to bandage the wound, allowing the piece of metal to stick out from beyond the protective white tape. She winced in pain as the bandage pricked at the metal shrapnel but felt a lot better.

OK, all done Liz. Attagirl. Now we got to get you to a hospital. Can you stand?

I … I think so.

It’s only a short hop, and skip away. Let’s go.

Gabriel gently looped Liz’s good arm around his neck and together they began to walk to the nearest hospital, which was the St. Thomas’ Hospital.

As Woods half carried and half supported Liz, he made idle conversation to take her mind off the pain and the sight of white bandages slowly becoming more infused with red.

Tell me more about yourself Liz. What do you normally do for a living?

I’m a bartender. I was serving drinks at the Beaufort, near the Savoy when out of nowhere I heard all this gunfire. At first I thought it was some type of sick joke, but when our bar’s windows got shot through and I saw people falling over …

Liz’s voice trailed off, as she relived the moment.

It’s OK Liz. You don’t have to continue. said Woods softly.

No, I’m OK. But yeah, when I saw what was really going on … I ducked behind the bar, but that was when the terrorists shot at the glasses above me and people starting running out. One of the bullets must have shattered something, because the railing that held up the drinks just fucking broke apart and I got that in my arm as I was hiding.

Liz took a shaky breath, as they continued their slow journey to the hospital.

You know George, I was there in 2017, when the Bridge attacks happened. I thought I was going to die when the van came near me. But this shit is way worse. I can’t believe it happened to me again. I only just got over that damn bridge attack and now .. I’ve been fucking shot. When is this shit going to be over?

Gabriel looked sympathetically at the waiter. She was tough and unlucky. To have 2 terrorists attack occur within the span of 5 years, with Liz at the centre of both, was sheer galactic unluckiness. He didn’t know what to say.

Take it easy Liz, Woods heard himself say We’re nearly there.

God … I’m going to have to spend a ton more on therapy again said Liz half jokingly and half seriously.

Woods smiled. A sense of humour meant that her spirit wasn’t truly broken yet. As they rounded the corner and beheld St Thomas, Woods was relieved to see that the hospitals had not quite gotten full yet. Walking through the emergency doors, Woods looked at a nurse and a security guard who was rushing forwards.

UK Special Forces. I’m here to drop off a casualty. Frag wound to the arm. I’ll leave her in your care. Give me a quick trauma kit, I’ve got to get back out there.

The nurse nodded and yelled at the security guard who immediately ran off to get a fresh trauma kit whilst she looked at Liz.

Liz smiled at Woods gratefully as the nurse fussed over her.

I don’t know how to thank you George.

Just doing my duty ma’am. said Woods charmingly.

Thank you. Oh and one more thing, as I was running out of the Beaufort, I thought I saw something strange.

Woods knelt in front of Liz and looked at her seriously.

What was it? he asked intensely.

Maybe it was nothing, but just before the attack happened, I was serving this couple. They were this good-looking Middle Eastern couple. The girl looked really nervous, and she also looked pregnant but the guy seemed chill about everything. I only remembered them, because they never ordered any proper drinks, just mocktails and finger food. But they kept looking at their watches and I noticed at around 10 to 7, they left.

As they left, I saw the guy nod to someone who was also eating there.

This guy was the one who later shot up my bar.

Woods looked at Liz, scrutinising her. Are you sure?

Yes.

Which way were they going?

I’m not sure, but I think it was towards the Charing Cross.

Woods smiled gratefully.

Thank you Liz. he said, holding her non-injured hand gently and squeezing it warmly. Now heal up. I’ll be back to visit you sometime.

As Woods ran off, he knew that he would never keep that promise. Such was the nature of this business. She would live her life, none the wiser about the identity of the Prince that had saved her arm from amputation with his quick first aid.

To her, he was just another 2nd Parachute Regiment trooper named George.

~

To cross the River Thames, Woods was going to need to run directly across the famous Westminster Bridge where Big Ben watched over it, ever vigilant. To the North of these iconic institutions, stood equally famous landmarks, like 10 Downing Street, Whitehall and the National Gallery.

To the North-east of Big Ben, sat the Savoy and the Beaufort Bar, where Gabriel and Liz had walked from, as well as Charing Cross Station.

If Woods was any predictor of the Sphinx’s target, it would be any of those key icons or Big Ben itself. However, suicide bombing was not in his nature.

This was the task of his underlings. Soldiers who would die for the cause.

Men who had already set London on fire, as Woods ran across Westminster Bridge, seeing flames and smoke rising from the numerous shops that had been fired upon.

What struck Woods though, was the constant cacophony of noise. Screams of the wounded blended into the whoop, whoop, whoop of emergency sirens. The occasional pop of gunfire echoed through the skyward corridors of London, the sound reverberating harshly as it bounced everywhere.

It was eeriely reminiscent of his experience in Afghanistan.

There were people were running everywhere, as their panicked eyes sought safety anywhere away from the guns and fire. As people ran past him, Woods could see signs of bloodied clothes, torn dresses and abandoned heels down every street.

A man walked past him, his eyes dazed by the horror of what he had just witnessed, a zombie in a neat tuxedo. Nothing was registering on his face, just an empty blankness.

Others were crouched and lying on the floor, as they hyperventilated through the shock and fear, struggling to breathe properly whilst their friends sobbed into their shoulder.

A woman and her child were hugging each other tightly, and as Woods jogged past them, the mother screamed in horror at the sight of his guns and buried her face into her son’s head.

No! No! NO! Don’t take him please!

Woods ignored her and kept moving, his green eyes scanning everywhere for Malik and Sofia. If they weren’t going to attack Big Ben, then it had to be something else. Sooner or later, he would come across them.

~

The V-Day attacks were now at its height.

SAS Kill Teams were engaging the remaining terrorist cells in pitched gunfights.

Woods wanted to help his old unit, but he had to find Malik and Sofia first.

More people ran past him. Shops burned. Woods kept desperately searching for the two lovers.

But he only saw chaos everywhere.

A teen in a hoodie was rummaging through a smashed in store. Woods walked up to him and raised his MP7A1, nudging him in the shoulder.

The teen jumped backwards in fright, and promptly tripped over the broken glass that littered the floor.

Falling over, he instantly banged his hooded head against the floor, knocking him out cold. Woods flipped him over, and with a spare cable-tie, cuffed the teen to a floor-mounted table before sending an anonymous tip to the police.

Pushing on, Woods kept moving through the city that had been touched too many times by fundamentalism. To his great relief, Woods had yet to see any bomb damage, which meant that his intelligence and the SAS kill-teams had saved the city from further destruction.

Whilst it would have been more ideal if all elements of the attack had been stopped, there was only so much that could be done.

After all, the Sphinx had planned for all eventualities. Casualties in every single one of his attacks were to be expected. This was his biggest one, and to assume that they could properly prevent an attack, planned by one of their own, was arrogant and short-sighted.

Woods recalled the conversation he had with Ashford, in the hours before this attack.

~

You know that we can’t stop this attack cleanly right?

I know, Gabriel. There are still too many variables in this scenario. The SAS teams are all prepped and ready to go. They’ll be inserting in ASAP. But …

Ashford’s voice trailed off into silence as he tried to contemplate all of the Sphinx’s moves.

We still know too little.

Yes. said Ashford defeated. The lads at Hereford are the best, but even they are no guarantee.

Woods looked on quietly, as one of the most powerful and intelligent men in the world, buried his head in his hands. Every death that was going to occur in the attack, was going to haunt him for the rest of his career. Not even his American counterpart, Richard Washington had been able to provide much assistance.

The Sphinx was going to strike, regardless of their actions from now till the Valentine Day Attack.

What the hell am I going to do Gabriel?

Woods looked at Ashford and coldly said one word

Retribution.

Ashford looked up sharply at his best asset.

You know sir, it’s time you put me to good use. The Americans never quite understood how to use me to the best of my ability. I gathered intelligence for them, hid amongst the locals and spied on village leaders and warlords.

To be honest with you, I didn’t become the Prince to spy on people. I definitely did not expect months of service to the Americans either.

You found me for a reason. I’m not in the business of preventing attacks.

I’m in the business of hunting

The information I gather is to kill a target, not to be used for any other type of reconnaissance.

Don’t make the same mistake as the Americans. You’re better than that. You have under your command, someone who stalks and kill their prey before they can commit some heinous crime.

I don’t exist anywhere. No-one knows who I really am, or who I work for.

It’s too late to prevent this attack, but you can stop the next one.

Unleash me, sir.

Ashford nodded and realised that he had foolishly categorised this man as another intelligence asset.

What Gabriel Woods should really be designated as, is England’s only assassin.

James Ashford, the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, looked at Woods with a cold fury behind his eyes.

You have execute authority. I want Malik’s head. Bring it to me. Don’t make tomorrow’s chaos be in vain.

Woods looked back at his boss and nodded.

With pleasure, sir.

~

As Woods rushed from Westminster Bridge to 10 Downing Street, following nothing but his instincts, the Sphinx was gripping the hands of Sofia Sumarwata, whose serene beauty was now flushed with excitement.

They looked like any Valentine’s Day couple, well dressed and attractive in their romance. Malik was dressed in a casual suit, with a black collared shirt, matching his black pants and sports jacket. His hair was slicked back, and his clean shaven face showcased his strong jaw and straight nose. The only thing that betrayed his romantic sheen, was the intense focus behind his brown eyes, that scanned the environment intently and displayed a strange excitement.

Sofia’s outfit was startlingly bold. Her red dress plunged daringly at the front and perfectly set off her olive skin. Her dark hair was tossed and tousled just so, giving it volume and bounce, as she ran next to her lover. Sofia’s long legs were brilliantly displayed in a pair of red Louboutin heels, and there was a strange air of carelessness to her that was completely at odds with the chaos surrounding the couple.

They were racing down the Parliament Street, as people screamed and scattered around them. The entire city was gripped in a panic and it was imperative that they use this opportunity to strike.

The Sphinx was armed to the teeth, a collapsible AKS-74U assault rifle with modern Zenitco rails and a compact Aimpoint T-2 affixed towards the front of the gun. In addition, the Sphinx had attached a DBAL-I2 laser designator to the right side of the gun, and in a holster on his belt was his trusty Beretta M9A3 with a suppressor.

It was this large pistol that was currently gripped in the Sphinx’s hands, as he held it low and behind his leg, the AKS-74U hidden just so, underneath his stylish black blazer.

Sofia was unarmed, but there was something strange about the way how she moved, how she clutched at her belly that betrayed her intentions.

At 100 metres away from the checkpoint at 10 Downing Street, the pair of them slowed down, holding each other’s hands tightly, Sofia savouring the moment with Malik.

Then it came into proper view, the simple black gates that protected one of the most iconic residences in the world. Understated and manned by 5 police officers, wielding G36 assault rifles, the gates looked strangely unimposing for so important a residence.

All the officers were at the front of the gate, anxiously looking out at the chaos that was happening all around them, their assault rifles held nervously in their hands.

The Sphinx counted them and rehearsed a move in his head

One of the officers saw the Sphinx and Sofia walking towards them and motioned to them to stop.

Halt!

Sofia stopped and put her hands up, reassuring the officers somewhat. She smiled sweetly at them and for a split second they relaxed, betwitched by her beauty.

It was then, the Sphinx made his move. What happened next was swiftly and violent.

The Beretta whipped up from behind his leg and shooting between the gate’s frame, the pistol spat five rounds in a matter of two seconds.

The officers didn’t even get a single shot off. They all crumpled to the floor, like puppets that had their strings cut, blood seeping out of the holes in their heads. The Sphinx walked over to the gate and peered in, before nodding to himself satisfactorily.

Reaching into his pocket, the Sphinx took out a wad of C2 explosive, a less powerful version of C4, traditionally used for breaching. Lining the strip along the seam of the gate, he stepped back and set it off with a detonator, smiling in delight as the gates swung inward viciously.

With a victorious look on his face, the Sphinx, stepped foot onto hallowed grounds of the British Parliament for the first time.

~

As the two lovers crossed the gate to Downing Street, Woods spotted them, further down the road, on the opposite end of Parliament. He saw the flash of Sofia’s dark hair and her red dress as she disappeared from sight a second later, past the police checkpoint’s gates

Fuck! swore Woods as he switched from a jog to a full blown sprint.

~

Hassan Malik looked at one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen, and pressed her lips to his. Sofia looked deep into his eyes, tears and love mingling together in a coalescence of heavy emotion. They savoured each other for a second, before she began to walk towards the iconic black door of 10 Downing Street.

~

For all it’s importance, as the residence of the United Kingdom’s Prime Minster, Number 10’s black door was classically British in its’ simplicity, elegance and refinement. There was nothing particularly flashy about it, nor ornate. It was perfect in its unobtrusiveness.

But within the doors, housed many different rooms steeped deep in history.

300 years old, with 100 rooms for dignitaries, world leaders and influential folk of all sorts, the house called 10 Downing Street, was home to Britain’s most iconic leaders, Thatcher, Churchill, Pitt the Younger and was in many ways, a true holdover of old English traditions.

Cabinet and War Rooms could be found within its’ halls and in 1991, the place was bombed by the IRA, during a particularly vicious era of British history, leading to the installation of the police checkpoints that the Sphinx had so comprehensively attacked.

In the words of Margaret Thatcher, Number 10 had become “one of the most precious jewels in the national heritage.”

A jewel that would very soon be besmirched by the latest brand of terrorism.

~

Sofia Sumarwata walked slowly towards the centre of 10 Downing Street. The image of such a striking woman standing in the centre of the home for the British Parliament was burned into the minds of all who saw it.

The security officers watching from cameras, their faces aghast at what was to come.

The five other officers who had turned around too late to see what was going on on the other side Downing Street and were now charging forwards to tackle Sofia, unaware of the danger she posed to them.

The Prime Minister and his cabinet who were in the process of diving for the floor as their security guards threw themselves on top of their charges.

The Sphinx taking cover nearby, a sad and proud smile on his face as he beheld his lover take her final steps into oblivion.

And finally the Prince himself, as he dashed past the gate, his weapon up, his eyes affixed through the gun sight.

Sofia knocked on the door of Number 10 Downing Street politely, once.

The sight of such an attractive woman in red, knocking in a picturesque British setting would have beautiful, if not for the intent.

No! Sofia, don’t! yelled Woods as he desperately tried to reach her in time. The image of her standing there, with a sad but content expression was enough for Woods to curl his finger around the trigger. But there was no time left.

She was gone.

~

The explosion that ripped from her stomach was huge. She had worn a modified vest that resembled a pregnant belly. It was directed outwards and immediately blew her apart in two. Nothing remained of her body.

One second she was there, the next she was gone.

Only her actions remained, to be remembered forever in history.

The black door at Number 10 was eviscerated. Vapourised along with anything within 10 metres of the initial blast. Glass melted before the intense heat, bricks shattered and burned along with the carpet that lined the interior of the house. Priceless art dropped from their hooks and blew apart, as did tasteful furniture that was reduced to ash instantly.

The buildings around the explosion buckled heavily, as windows shattered and showered the immediate area with shards of glass and wood splinters, causing the Sphinx to roll from behind a car he was hiding behind to avoid the shower.

The Prime Minister yelled as the roar of the blast could even be felt in his War Room, the reinforced bunker holding up easily to the blast.

The officers who had come running from the other side of Downing Street were flung aside, their bodies rag-dolling against cars, walls and for one poor officer, a hard red London post box that cracked his head open. They all laid still, their heroics rewarded with unceremonious unconsciousness.

Woods was also flung backwards by the concussive force, the shaped charge saving his life in a strange way, as most of the explosive force was directed towards the residence, and the fact that he was further away.

He crashed heavily against the black fence of the gate, the force of the impact stunning him viciously. Groaning, Woods looked up from his prone position to see the sharply dressed Sphinx get up from his position, whip his AKS-74U up and charge headlong into the breach that his lover sacrificed herself for.

What the hell is he doing? thought Woods. He knows he can’t get to the Prime Minister once he is in the War Room. What is he searching for?

Moments later, the gunfire from the building screamed at Woods to get up.

A cold instinct switched on inside his mind.

Gritting his teeth and despite the intense ringing that was shooting through his head and ears, the Prince jumped up and ran into the breach after the Sphinx.

Final Chapter: The Sphinx and the Prince

The Prince charged through the smoke and fire of what remained of 10 Downing Street’s entrance, blown up only seconds ago by Sofia’s bomb, hunting for the Sphinx.

Pulling out the shemagh that he had used on the Jacket raid, he wrapped the bottom half of his face in a smooth motion that would help him to breathe.

Already sirens and alarms were blasting loudly, but above the din was the distinct sound of an AKS-74U rifle clattering and pitched screams following the gunfire.

Gripping his MP7A1 tightly, the Prince moved cautiously through hallowed British ground. The rooms in 10 Downing Street were exquisitely refined and spoke of simple luxury. Everything was comfortable, clean, pristine and without a single element out of place.

A sitting room had comfortable, but expensive mahogany furniture that faced a fireplace which complimented the creamy colour that lined the carpet, and walls. It was marred only by the body of a maid, who was clutching her stomach in agony, as she wept and bled in the room alone.

The Prince, all former traces of the more compassionate Woods extinguished in his mind, ignored the maid and kept moving down the corridor, where he came across a grisly scene only 10 metres later.

Four Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection (PaDP) Officers were in the midst of eating their meal and going for their guns, when the Sphinx chanced upon them. He had sprayed his weapon in an accurate, long burst that raked the entire standby room.

An Officer had his head on the table, his body slumped over a bowl of porridge, as blood seeped through the gaps in his armour. Another was deathly still on the floor, the back of his head blown apart by the powerful 5.45mm round of the Sphinx’s AKS-74U, vainly reaching for his pistol belt that was hanging on a coat-hanger nearby.

The Prince whipped his MP7 up as he heard a gurgling sound. In the corner of a room, an Officer had tried in vain to save his fellow PaDP, his body riddled with holes, as he laid over a severely wounded, gasping fellow Officer who had a MP5 lying forlornly next to him.

The wounded PaDP was clutching at his perforated throat, blood pouring out in buckets over his slowly weakening hands. His eyes widened at the sight of the Prince, in his terrorist-styled clothes and choked once more, before his eyes glazed over.

The Prince moved past the waiting room with a clenched jaw. This was going to end tonight.

Muffled gunfire resonated ahead and the Prince moved faster, leapfrogging the body of another dead PaDP whose corpse was slowly staining the carpet and the precious framed photograph of Churchill leaving Downing Street in WW2.

~

The Sphinx was trained by the best. The poor PaDP, essentially well-trained policemen, were completely outclassed. None of them had much combat experience and despite their rigorous training, they were unable to tap into any of that knowledge, because fear crippled their bodies and clouded their minds.

Speed

Surprise

Violence of action

The key 3 principles of warfare.

The Sphinx was using all his considerable years of war-fighting to maintain the upper hand. Much like the Prince’s terrifying one man army action on Singh’s forces in Croydon, the Sphinx was now unleashing his fearsome skills as a warrior on the PaDP.

Officer after officer fell, as the Sphinx continued his relentless advance towards the War Room. In some cases, the Sphinx even used the bodies he had just kill as a human shield to confuse the Officers who were waiting for him. In their panic, they would shoot at the dead policeman, whilst the Sphinx slotted his AKS-74U on the shoulder of the dead Officer and blazed away, the fight ending in the room almost as quickly it began.

After minutes of vicious CQB fighting, the Sphinx waited for a moment and took his bearings, as he reloaded his gun. If he knew his floor plan, he was only 2 corners away from the security room that guarded the entrance to the War Room.

The Sphinx scowled and began to psyche himself up. Unlike his fanatics, he didn’t resort to prayers to better himself. Instead, he was using a tried and true tactic that was taught to him by his mentor.

Meditation.

By performing deep breathing techniques, it allowed him to quell the overwhelming amount of information that was flooding his brain. In clearing his mind, the Sphinx could react and analyse combat situations more accurately, limiting the amount of mistakes that could lead to his death.

It was a new technique that was slowly gaining ground in the military. Instead of hard and fast charges into combat scenarios, military men were now taught to be more cautious, methodical and limit their exposure to gunfire.

Battlefield meditation allowed soldiers to clear their mind of the chaos happening around them and, with enough training, suppress feelings of fear, anxiety and confusion.

The Sphinx looked around the corner and noted that an officer was holding a riot shield, his MP5 submachine gun outstretched in front of him shakily. Smiling grimly, the Sphinx bought out another wad of C2, and rolled it into a ball. Sticking a blasting cap inside of it, the Sphinx underhand tossed it, and watched as it stuck to the riot shield, whilst the officer let loose with a burst from his submachine gun.

Ducking back coolly, the Sphinx flipped open his detonator and slammed his index finger down.

Whump!

The officer was flung backwards, as the shield combusted into a thousand pieces of reinforced glass, shredding the officer’s face into strips of bloody meat. The scream that came from the officer was horrific, freezing the 7 Officers who were waiting around the other corner, their guns aimed out from beyond the security station’s cage.

Then a small object flew through the air, identical to the last and it affixed itself to the metal cage.

All seven pairs of eyes looked at it.

Whump!

The second ball of C2 was even more devastating than the last. Fragments of metal flew everywhere and the three Officers who were closest to it, were instantly cut down, their bodies lacerated by burns and shrapnel.

The other four weren’t so lucky.

One of the officers, was flung backwards into a computer panel, and in maintaining poor trigger discipline, had inadvertently pulled the trigger as he flew through the air. The Officer next to him was immediately struck in the back of the head and he dropped to the floor, dead with a big hole where his nose should be.

The other two remaining PaDP struggled to get their bearings and were unable to hear or comprehend anything.

It was then, a red visible laser punched its’ way through the cloud of debris and melted frag and found their chests and head.

Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam!

The Officers dropped instantly, and the Sphinx himself came through and looked at the man who had just killed his own buddy, now desperately trying to bring his gun to bear.

The laser found his head and three shots later, the Sphinx was in control of the security station that protected the British Prime Minister in his War Room bunker.

~

The Prime Minister stared at the screen, terrified as the Sphinx walked up to the computers and with a eerie smile at the camera, began to tap away at the laptop, ignoring the blood splatters on the screen.

Everyone in the War Room stared intently the screen that showed what was happening, literally metres away from them.

Minutes passed, then to the extreme shock of everyone inside the War Room, the Sphinx finished up at the computer, gave a final ironic salute to the camera and ran off for the secondary exit out the back of Downing St.

What the bloody hell was that? asked the Prime Minister.

No one could answer him. They just stared at the screen in shock as another terrorist came into view.

~

The Prince had only just come across the corpse of the riot shield officer, when he saw the Sphinx dash away for the back exit.

Cursing, the Prince ran over to the security station and was confused when he saw an GPS map splashed across the screen.

Frowning, the Prince looked more closely at the details and realised that the Sphinx had just performed a search for someone. He had only just saw the name, when suddenly the screen flickered and an ominous timer began to appear on the screen.

20 seconds to upload.

Cyber attack! thought the Prince instantly and he began to look over the computer, to see an innocuous USB sticking out from the side. Yanking it out, the Prince swore when the timer continued to tick downwards.

Shit! said the Prince as he continued to type furiously away at the computer, trying to isolate the virus.

However, despite his best efforts, the timer continued to tick ever downwards.

5

4

3

2

1

Beep!

Nothing happened.

The Prince frowned.

Then a hissing noise began to issue from the all steel door that barred the War Room from the outside world.

In a split second, the Prince realised what had just happened.

The door for the War Room was opening and there he was, in terrorist gear, looking like he was hacking away to gain entry to the British Prime Minister. It didn’t matter to the men inside whether the Sphinx or the Prince had killed the PaDP Officers inside, they were going to go out guns blazing.

The Sphinx had just bought himself some very valuable time from the Prince’s wrath.

The Prince whirled around and began to sprint for all it was worth, as the UK PM’s bodyguards came out of the door, their guns tearing everything to shreds.

~

The Sphinx only had 2 spheres of C2 left, and he used one on the back gate of Downing Street, sprinting as fast as he could for the coordinates he had just hacked from one of the most secure and powerful computers in the United Kingdom.

Using a worm, he had piggy-backed off the greater London’s CCTV surveillance system and intelligence network and began a facial and name recognition search.

The man who had fuelled so much of the Sphinx’s hate and anger came up as a match on the screen, literally only seconds later.

The location?

St. James Square.

A mere 5 minutes run away, if you cut through St. James’ Park.

The Sphinx tucked his AKS-74U underneath his blazer and started running the moment he left the gates, ignoring the sirens and chaos he had left behind.

He began his north-westerly run, as, nearly a minute later, the Prince sprinted out, chased by the furious PM’s bodyguards who were intent on revenge.

Spraying his MP7A1 in an accurate burst, the Prince covered the doorway, that the bodyguards were about to come out from, in bullet holes, causing them to crash into each other and hustle back into cover.

Using those precious seconds to sprint further away, the Prince saw the Sphinx ahead, running furiously through St. James Park, his handsome face etched in a concentrated scowl.

Pulling out the empty magazine for his MP7A1 and reaching down for his warbelt, the Prince realised that he had no more spare magazines for his PDW. Tossing it away as he chased after the Sphinx, the Prince knew he was down to his trusted Glock 19 and 3 spare magazines.

How the hell does this keep happening to me? Never enough ammo for these fucking terrorists thought the Prince as he made his way furiously through the heart of London.

~

The Prince and the Sphinx dashed their way through Pall Mall, the iconic street that led to St James’s Square, the area of London they were currently waging war in, a very posh area.

Beautifully maintained old classic Napoleonic and Regency-era houses and buildings clashed with the more modern brick styles that dominated that Industrial Revolution. This juxtaposition was only further enhanced with the glass and steel aesthetics synonymous with contemporary styles and the effect was as jarring, as it was interesting.

One could literally trace architectural lineage and styles from the 18th Century to the 21st.

However both men’s targets was the singularly drab building, known simply as 22 St James’s Square. There was nothing remarkable about the styling from the exterior.

Endless windows were intersected with fading white concrete in a style that was as anonymous a building could be in London. Glass doors showed the way to a boring, corporate style interior that emphasised taupe as a colour.

A sign outside told people that there were 79 office spaces that could be rented to the public for use.

What it did not disclose was that the first four floors were completely booked out by a shell company, and that the building had three basement levels that were not accessible by normal elevators.

22 St James’s Square also featured a very strange central staircase, which served as the only access to the first basement floor, and then another two set of staircases that led to the final two basement levels. The building also had a few hidden upgrades: it had been soundproofed and there was always a 4-man security team of ex-soldiers guarding the place 24/7.

To men like the Sphinx, it was just one of the many London training facilities that were nicknamed “The Institute.” It was where he learnt how to be the most professional terrorist in the world and how he became the Sphinx.

It was within the bowels of the Institute that the Sphinx planned to end a very private chapter in his life.

Every single attack, had lead up to this moment. Nothing was coincidental. Every station that had burned across Europe, to the timing and date of the Valentine Day massacre was symbolic to a dark history.

The Sphinx looked at the simple glass doors of the Institute and walked in, his AKS-74U up.

~

William Aitken was one of the most formidable men that had ever served the British intelligence apparatus. A former SBS (Special Boat Service) operator, Aitken was as much at home in the sea as he was serving in the shadows.

The beauty of light owns itself to dark places he once famously said, during a training briefing.

A monster borne out of necessity during the Cold War, Aitken had cut his teeth serving for MI6 as a deep cover agent in East Berlin, gathering intelligence on Soviet troop movements and performing assassinations on high value targets. He was also the agent responsible for personally escorting over 200 illegal migrants across the Berlin Wall, to be reunited with their families.

What the heroics failed to discern though, was the sheer number of bodies that Aitken had left behind during these illegal crossings. The Soviet High Command were all too aware of this cruel British agent who would collect personal belongings of soldiers he had killed and mail them tauntingly to the Soviet Army barracks.

The number of rings, watches and precious trinkets ventured into the hundreds by the time the Berlin Wall fell.

The nickname, Volk (Wolf) was soon assigned to Aitken, a call-sign that he would wear with pride for the rest of his life, as did the 9 million dollar bounty than followed him everywhere until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

His years of service though did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Transitioning from the grey, cold climates of Russia and Germany, Aitken went to work once more against the Soviets in Afghanistan and Iraq, where late in the war, he met a young orphan named Hassan Malik.

~

It was 1989, the final year of the Soviet-Afghan War.

The Mujahideen had, in essence, recaptured back their country, save for one formidable stronghold that was protecting the Soviet’s last stand in the bloody conflict that had raged for 9 years.

Aitken was one of the most pre-eminent military advisors to the Mujahideen guerrilla force and had gone completely native.

A strong black beard covered his face and his normally pale skin, was now leathery with a deep tan. He was limping in one leg, a previous engagement with a Soviet sniper, causing him to fall and roll into a deep ditch that cut open his thigh.

However, despite the thick robes that shielded him from the Afghan chill, there was no mistaking the piercing blue eyes, the confident English accent and the professional casualness in which he held his AKM with jungle taped double magazines.

It was Aitken that lead the charge against the stronghold, using heavy cover fire, smoke grenades and accurate mortar strikes to shield their approach. It was an old-school method for an ancient country fighting another conflict that would fell another empire.

50 Mujahideen charged the wall of the stronghold that was etched into the side of a mountain, an ancient fort that had crumbling walls and a big open clearing inside for helicopters and trucks.

Only 30 made it. The men sprayed the upper parts of the wall with gunfire, desperately trying to stop the Soviet troops from firing down at them. One man fell on his back screaming in pain as a Soviet soldier blind-fired wildly over the lip of the wall.

Seconds later, a RPG smashed into the trooper, spraying dust, bricks and blood over the men crouched below, swift vengeance coming in for their fallen comrade.

Aitken placed a satchel charge at the wall and set the timer for 10 seconds.

Running back laterally and firing his AKM furiously at the troops above, Aitken slammed his body against the wall and waited for the blast.

Crack!

Bodies, brick, mortar flew upwards. Even a truck was overturned as the satchel charge blew open a gap in the wall with deafening violence.

Go! Go! Go! yelled Aitken at his troops.

The Mujahideen yelled as one and guns blazing, charged into the breach, where they were instantly met with hyper-machine gun fire from a crazed General, who was manning the side door gun of a large Russian Mil Mi-24 Gunship.

10 Mujahideen were instantly cut down, the bodies blown away by the intense fire. Before Aitken could react to the death of his men, a maelstrom of sand, dirt and debris began to whip at everyone in the fort, as the pilot began to lift off.

Soviet soldiers, seeing their opportunity for escape flying away, abandoned their posts and leapt for the open doors of the gunship, hitting it from all sides.

But they were met with fire from inside as the crazed General in his panic, began to shoot at his own troops, unwilling to let his men weigh down the helicopter. The desperate soldiers were also assaulted outside the helicopter as the Mujahideen regrouped and were now peppering the chopper with rounds.

Men died, screaming and scrabbling to get in the chopper. In a grotesque display, bodies began to fall from the helicopter, as the pilot struggled to concentrate and lift the cumbersome beast away from the ground.

Gunfire raked the entire compound in a 360 degree arc, as chaos reigned over the battlefield. Several rounds punched right through a jail where locals assisting the Mujahideen had been captured and tortured. Their cries of help were overwhelmed by the cacophony that was happening in the clearing.

Just as the Mi-24 was rising above the ancient fort’s wall, a Stinger missile shoomed from the nearby Mujahideen controlled hill and smashed its way into the helicopter, causing the whole thing to reel in midair and fall back into the compound.

Aitken looked up in horror at the helicopter that was about to crash right on top of him.

Just as it was about to decapitate him, someone crash-tackled him out of the way and he was sent sprawling back behind the wall, through the breach point.

The Mi-24 crumpled into the ground, and the rotors snapped, sending huge blades of metal flying every which way. One poor Soviet soldier was literally cut in half as the blade sliced towards him and his legs stood still for a full second, before toppling over, as the upper half of his body slammed against a wall.

William “Wolf” Aitken, a veteran of some of the bloodiest conflicts in the Cold War, looked at the young boy who had saved his life.

The boy looked old for his age. The fact that he was mature, didn’t show on his boyishly handsome face or the strong lean body that still showed fresh wounds from torture …. it was apparent in his eyes.

The brown eyes that looked back at Aitken showed a focus, determination and anger that could only come from a man.

War had accelerated the boy’s mental growth. He had went from being a child to a man in the span of 9 years, a process that would take some 20 years and others their whole lifespan.

Hassan Malik was only 12 when he met William Aitken. The Wolf, out of gratitude and perhaps something else, informally adopted him soon after the assault on the final Soviet stronghold in Afghanistan.

He had plans for the young Afghan boy.

Even in the waning days of the Soviet-Afghan War, Aitken could see a new threat emerging for the heat of the Arabian desert. He was going to need a new breed of soldier to defeat a new breed of terrorists.

By the time Malik left the Institute at age 15, Aitken knew that he had created one of the most dangerous men in the world.

The Sphinx was the Wolf’s crown jewel.

The ultimate result of warfare, distilled and refined by Aitken’s careful tutelage and brutal indoctrination methods.

~

For a man who was almost Stalinist in his paranoia, Aitken trusted Malik completely. It was entirely out of character for the old spymaster and soldier, but he had spent so long on his own, that he needed a release.

In Malik, he found that release. Over the course of 3 years, Aitken honed, shaped and crafted Malik into the ultimate terrorist.

To defeat terrorists meant learning how to be one. The Wolf ensured that the Sphinx was the most professional in the world.

Every piece of knowledge, no matter how trivial, Aitken entrusted to Malik. It was as if Aitken knew that the Global War on Terror was coming soon and he didn’t want to waste any of his experience and lessons learnt.

Malik was the perfect student. He excelled in every aspect of warfare. Marksmanship. Guerrilla training. Enhanced interrogation techniques. Subterfuge. No matter how difficult the training, Malik was aced the test.

Then came the first field exercise.

Aitken took Malik to Alexanderplatz Station and made him practice how to spot a suicide bomber.

Then he told him to kill the target.

Malik, spotted the S-bomber within 2 minutes of the exercise. Armed with a hypodermic needle laced with an enhanced digitalis poison, he stabbed the man through the heart, whilst pretending to trip over his feet.

The S-bomber died with vomit in his throat, within 20 seconds of ingestion.

The whole exercise was over in 10 minutes. Aitken was pleased.

More exercises across Europe were conducted with brazen arrogance. A Spanish target was killed whilst boarding his plane. A Saudi national lost control of his car whilst holidaying in Saint-Tropez. A Russian oligarch and his trophy wife killed each other in a double suicide, whilst relaxing in their Swiss Alps retreat.

But it was the Valentine Day exercise that truly showcased the rigours of the Wolf’s training.

Hassan Malik, for the majority of the years he had spent in England, was allowed to venture out of the safehouse during a strict curfew. What he wasn’t aware of though, was that Aitken had known every time Hassan had snuck out to explore the city and taste the nightlife.

The Wolf was far too smart and cunning to not keep track of his pseudo-son.

However, Hassan was none the wiser. He thought he was getting away with breaking curfew.

One night, whilst it was still early in Hassan’s training, and he was getting bolder with his escapes, he met a beautiful girl his age, who was also escaping from her troubles.

A pretty Irish girl who went by the name Niamh.

Niamh had alabaster skin, cute brown freckles on her cheeks and nose and stunning blue eyes.

When she laughed, her nose would crinkle just so and she had the most disarming smile that revealed her braces.

Hassan was smitten.

Niamh’s story was almost as tragic as Hassan. Her parents were a casualty of the Troubles and its’ bloody history between Ireland and Britain. She was fending for herself on the streets of London and making trouble for the British whenever and with whatever she could find.

Hassan likened her struggles to his own against the Soviets.

Their friendship only deepened as they grew older.

Hassan was 14 when he finally asked her out on a date for Valentine’s Day.

Niamh didn’t even bother answering him. They shared their first kiss that night and more. For once in their young lives, they both felt something different other than hate for the world. They were in love.

The first date was going beautifully. They had dinner together, a simple Chinese takeaway meal that they shared together, sitting at a park. Niamh squealed with joy when she saw the flowers that Hassan had bought her, a bundle of red roses.

It was 7pm when they were walking hand in hand around Hyde Park. Niamh was laughing at a joke Hassan had just told her, her hands wrapped around his arm.

Then it happened.

A black van pulled up alongside the teenagers and four men with Uzis and pistols ran out from the side of the van, balaclavas disguising their features. Hassan tried to go for the Browning Hi-Power pistol that he always kept on him, the weapon that Aitken told him to always wear.

But it was too slow. He had never quick-drawn the Hi-Power in a panic before and especially with a girl slowing down his gun arm.

The men clubbed both of them with the back of their guns and barrelled them unceremoniously into the van.

When Hassan came to, harsh light assaulted his retinas. They were in an non-descript room, with plain tiles for the floor and ceiling. Only a one-way mirror lined the east side of the room.

Hassan saw Niamh bound and gagged before him. Her blue eyes were pleading with Hassan’s brown. He trashed around in his chair, desperate to get out, desperate to do anything to get them out of here.

He couldn’t even fall over, because the chair was bolted into the ground.

From behind him, a door opened and Hassan froze in place.

Niamh’s blue eyes went wide at the sight of the man standing behind Hassan. She seemed to recognise him.

Then two men hovered into view. Hassan recognised both of them immediately. To his right, was Aitken, a scowl across his face. To his left, was a large man with a ruddy complexion and a scar across his right cheek. His name was Paddy Conaill, one of the IRA’s most lethal enforcers.

The two men stood between the teens staring at each other.

Fucking lovebirds. Would be sweet if it weren’t so stupid. drawled Conaill.

Hassan kept wriggling. He didn’t like any of this. Hope flared inside him when he felt one of the bonds, strong duct tape, loosened around his right hand. He kept at it, one minute movement at a time.

I’m sorry to involve you Paddy. But this is a situation isn’t it?

Yes, yes, it bloody is Wolf.

Conaill cuffed Niamh across the face. Tears welled in her eyes and a red mark marked her smooth pale skin. Hassan began to wriggle faster.

You stupid bitch. Fucking fell for one of these Arabs. You should have been more careful. He’s working for the fucking English. You know what we do to traitors?

Niamh’s blue eyes couldn’t control the tears of terror.

That’s right. We’re going to give you the Treatment. No good Irish woman can be consortin’ with the enemy. You’re lucky that the Wolf here is allowing you to go back with me. You’ve got no idea what he would have done to you.

You’re fookin’ lucky we go way back before the troubles started. He found out about you and the raghead here. So he called me in to clean up this fookin’ mess.

You’re done. You’re my mess to clean-up.

Goddamn stupid bitch.

Conaill, with shocking swiftness, pulled a large Beretta 92FS from the waistband of his pants and levelled it at Niamh.

Blam!

Niamh’s blue eyes closed as her head rocked back in the chair, blood slowly dripping from the entry wound like a tear down her cheek.

Conaill snorted dervisively and tucked the Beretta in the back of his pants. Aitken remained silent and looked at Malik with calculating eyes.

Hassan Malik, with a primal scream, ripped through the tape that secured his hand to the armrest of his chair and using brute strength, forced his way out from his captivity and lunged at Conaill.

Conaill, astonished by the move, fell ass over backwards, his hand reaching for the Beretta, but unable to find any purchase on the pistol grip.

He landed awkwardly on his hand, causing him to roar with pain as the wrist broke. But Malik was already all over him. He delivered blow after blow that smashed through Conaill’s pathetic one handed defence.

When Malik couldn’t strike at the throat, he would slam his fist into Conaill’s kidney or liver. The big Irishman would curl up in pain, only to reel instantly back to the floor as another blow slammed into his head.

Bloody sprayed into the air, as Conaill’s nose broke and in his desperation, he made one final move. He rolled and pushed Malik off him.

However, Malik was ready, instead of continuing his hand to hand assault, he grabbed the pistol from Conaill’s waistband and stood up, the Beretta shaking slightly in his anger.

Conailled looked at the young, heartbroken man before him and trembled at the sight of Malik’s brown eyes looking deadly over the sights of the pistol.

Conaill stared at the Wolf. His eyes were pleading. Trying to hearken back to some previous relationship they shared.

The Wolf merely smiled coldly.

Wolf! Please do some-

Blam! Blam! …. Blam!

The Mozambique drill was executed with clinical precision. Two to the chest and one to the head. Conaill’s head listed aimlessly as his eyes sightlessly stared at Aitken.

Malik spun around, the Beretta moving fast. But the Wolf was too quick for him and he disarmed the pistol out of his protege’s hands and tapped him in the side of the head once.

Malik slumped to the floor, losing consciousness. He reached out for Niamh, but all he heard was Aitken’s gruff voice.

Sleep with one eye open. Never trust your enemies or your friends. Remember this lesson, son.

Malik’s final thought was defiant and angry. Any trace of the boy named Hassan Malik was extinguished in its entirety now.

One day, you’ll pay, Wolf. I swear to God, I’m going to kill you.

~

The Sphinx fought to control his emotions as he walked down the familiar white, plain hospital-styled corridors that only served to enhance the unnerving effects of the violence that had been committed within these walls.

The Institute would forever be the darkest chapter of the Sphinx’s history. There was no escaping the fact that he had learned how to torture a man here. Even now, he could recall the way how blood looked brighter against the searingly white rooms, and the sound water made when congealed with blood, as it trickled slowly towards a drainage pipe in the centre of a room.

Those skills had come back to bite the Western forces though. The Sphinx lost count of the amount of Coalition soldiers he had tortured under UBL’s leadership but the information he had amassed was incredible. It was one of the main reasons why UBL had escaped detection for so long.

The Sphinx even remembered his first execution.

A man with a hood over his head, was sitting forlornly in the corner of a room. He was dressed in typical military fashion, with baggy camo pants and a plain brown shirt.

The Sphinx remembered being handed a pistol, a chunky Sig Sauer P226 by the Wolf. It was too big for his hands but grip it he did.

What has he done? he asked.

It doesn’t matter what’s he done. He’s against us. the Wolf had replied coldly.

Who is he?

It doesn’t matter. What matters is the will to make things right.

The Sphinx recalled the way how he stared at the man.

The man was a complete stranger. But he was breathing. He was alive. He might have had a family. Children, even. He could even be him in the future.

But it doesn’t matter echoed the Wolf’s answer in his mind.

The Sphinx had no idea how long it took him, but when he made the final decision, something inside of him clicked.

Something dark. Something apathetic and cruel.

The final necessary mental step that all assassins need to kill a complete stranger without any due reason.

The Sphinx stood up from his chair, wrapped his 14 year old hands around the pistol and without hesitation walked up to the target, who flinched slightly, and pulled the trigger three times.

The Wolf looked at his protege approvingly. He nodded seriously and the Sphinx remembered seeing smallest hint of a smile.

This approval was something that the Sphinx craved. The execution of a stranger conjured up an unique mixture of guilt and pride in his actions. But the feelings of guilt wouldn’t last. To get the Wolf’s approval, he would kill for this man.

The Sphinx felt his breath quicken, as he continued his search for the Wolf in the bowels of the Institute.

Even in this state, the Institute was clean. It was undeniably empty, with only a few trace evidence of the horrors that were conducted here. A stretcher in the corner of an empty room. The reinforced glass that prevented escapees. The keypads that could only be opened from the outside.

But to the uninitiated, it was as bare as could be. Nothing really showed that it was an enhanced training facility for one of the world’s most feared terrorists. The entire place reeked of deniability. It didn’t exist anywhere.

The Sphinx moved with the familiarity of memory. He knew where the Wolf would be. Not dead of a heart attack, that James Ashford had claimed to the Prince.

He would be working in his office. It didn’t matter that the Wolf was in his mid-60s. His commitment to the cause would have him working to his actual death.

Like the Prince, the Wolf also enjoyed anonymity from the grave. The only people who knew of his true existence were a secretive group of influential Englishmen who liked to ensure their secrets remained within their fraternity.

The Sphinx hadn’t known it at the time, but every action and exercise he had undertook was for this elite fraternity. These men would occasionally work with the government, sometimes against, but it was always in their best interests.

Their motto was simple: sunt superis sua iura – the gods have their own laws.

Known simply as The Round Table, they were the shadowy organisation who funded the Institute, the Wolf’s training programs and sponsored his death.

But the Sphinx didn’t care. He was here only for one man. He kept moving through the Institute, his gun up, aware that the 4 man security team could be anywhere and were watching him through cameras.

Approaching the final staircase that would lead to the final 3rd basement floor, he spun around, thinking he had heard something. Silence and emptiness sneered at him and his AKS-74U.

The Sphinx frowned but shook off the feeling of disquiet and began to descend the final flight of stairs to confront the man who had controlled his destiny for so long.

~

The Prince shadowed the Sphinx the entire time as they descended further and further down. He was completely lost and disturbed by the Institute.

Initially, after entering the foyer, they had first gone up into the floors where the building’s empty office spaces had been rented.

Rows and rows of empty cubicles stared at them, devoid of life. The Prince watched as the Sphinx ignored the cubicles and headed to a curiously placed fire-escape in the centre of the building. Silently following him, the Prince caught the door before it fully shut and hugged the wall as he looked down.

The Sphinx was walking down the flight of stairs. They seemed to descend forever into the depths of the ground. It was highly disorienting. He watched as the Sphinx reached the bottom of the stairs and smoothly open the door, his AKS-74U up and ready to confront any threat.

Moments later, the Prince silently opened the same door and was shocked to see a hospital-styled level, with a long central corridor and many rooms with reinforced plexiglass, and one-way mirrors.

It was a classic interrogation wing.

The Prince stayed back, watching the Sphinx professionally clear the area, before disappearing around a corner.

The Prince hurried after him, noting the familiarity that the Sphinx’s body language showed in these strange surrounding. There were no hesitation in his movements. Every corner was “pied” off to perfection. Every door anticipated and cleared professionally.

He’s been here before realised the Prince.

Minutes continued to crawl, as they went through another basement level, this one an advanced gun-range with a Kill-House mock up, similar to the one that the Prince had trained in countless of times during his tenure in the SAS.

However, what set this basement level apart was the sheer height of it, with catwalks running across for observation and examination.

As the Prince watched the Sphinx cautiously move his way through the Kill-House, he became aware of a strange detail in the CQB-training area.

The targets weren’t just cardboard cutouts. They were full blown silhouettes of both terrorist and counter-terrorists units, with realistic images of hostages. Empty chairs also lined the kill-house’s many rooms, with blood-rusted bullet holes behind them indicating that they had used live rounds against live targets here.

The Prince didn’t like any of these ramifications.

Where the hell am I? he thought as he continued to move his way through the Kill-House silently.

As they came across the final staircase that would lead the final floor, in the north-east corner of the training level, the Sphinx nearly spotted the Prince following him.

In a hyper-fast move, the Prince ducked down and was relieved when the Sphinx continued on his way.

Keeping his Glock 19 close to his chest, the Prince continued to stalk the Sphinx, as he ventured deeper into the final level of the Institute.

~

The final floor of the Institute was a constant. An aberration of time and space. It was always perpetually dark and quiet. Day or night cycles weren’t registered here. Only the barely audible hum of supercomputers and the flickering of thousand of TV monitors disrupted the shadows and silence.

This final floor was much smaller than the upper interrogation and training wings. In spite of that fact though, it was still a huge office for a single man. Measuring roughly 20×20 metres, it featured a central hub where the Wolf could observe a wall of large monitors that showcased feeds from operations around the world.

An assassination in Poland. A bombing in Syria. A governmental collapse in Argentina. A turf war between rival gangs in Los Angeles. A chemical factory explosion in Ukraine. A pirate raid on a supertanker off the coast of Africa.

The Wolf watched and processed them all through 4 supercomputers that allowed him to process and analyse data at an incredible rate. Currently, the Wolf was coldly eyeing the progress of the Sphinx and the Prince as they neared his command centre.

Along the east wall was the personal collection of the Wolf’s many escapades. An array of guns, swords, bows and even a large taxidermist Afghan horse were on display. Across from this collection though, along the west wall, was something far more gruesome.

Rows upon rows of index fingers lined the span of the wall. They were all perfectly lined up straight, with only one centimetre separating them. Some were slender and long, others short and stubby. A few had nail polish on them, others were painted. In some cases, the finger had suffered badly with cracked nails, broken bones, shrapnel damage, all left as they had been found when removed. For one specimen, torn flesh billowed softly from an open wound from what looked like a dog bite.

The entire index wall was encased in a yellow fluid, the stench of formaldehyde quickly consumed by strong vents that removed the smell elsewhere in the facility.

All 744 fingers were a memento of one of the Wolf’s kills. Each of them unique, each of them a strong memory.

Behind the central hub was a security station that separated the main entrance to the command centre. A large mounted machine gun provided a final stand of defence and the entire wall that filled most of the central space, except the two sides, was made of bulletproof opaque glass.

This was the Wolf’s lair, the place where he resided for much of his death.

It was the perfect Ops centre for conducting operations and easily defensible.

His loyal 4 man security team were at the security station desk, ready to fight till the end.

One man had his finger on the large mounted M240 Bravo machine gun that could tear through anything in seconds. The other three men were crouched beside him, submachine guns ready, fingers on the trigger.

They all stared at the door and waited anxiously.

Minutes passed when they heard a strange sound, like a suppressed pistol shot.

The Wolf said nothing to his men as he saw the camera feed outside the main door turn to hash.

~

The Sphinx placed his final C2 sphere on the door as quietly as he could.

There was nothing to it, but to go in guns blazing and make sure his fire was more accurate than the men inside.

The Sphinx looked over at his AKS-74U and thumbed the paddle to release the magazine. Looking at the bullets inside, the Sphinx sighed and noted that he had one full magazine left, one full spare on his belt and his Beretta with a half magazine.

It’s enough to finish this fight. thought the Sphinx as he reinserted the magazine into the gun and pulled out the detonator for the C2.

For Niamh

Crack!

The C2 sphere blasted the door open and the four men inside ducked instinctively. Within half a second, the M240B machine gunner instantly began pumping rounds through the door, firing blindly in a panic as his teammates soon unleashed their own torrent of fire.

The walls next to the door was soon perforated with hundred of holes.

As the three men ran dry and began their reloads, whilst the machine gunner continued to pump bullet after bullet, the Sphinx, crouching low near the door, risked a peek through one of the larger bullet holes that was created.

Slotting his AKS-74U in the hole, the Sphinx let loose a burst that chewed off the machine gunner’s head and froze the other three men, as the comforting thump-thump-thump of the M240B ceased.

Seizing his chance, the Sphinx ran through the door and with three bursts put all the remaining men down.

One man, his chest ripped apart, looked at the Sphinx in fear. The Sphinx smiled coldly, and with the final rounds in his AKS-74U’s magazine, shredded the man’s face, before dispassionately reloading.

As the Sphinx stood there, breathing heavily, on the cusp of entering the Wolf’s Lair, the Prince watched as he rolled swiftly to duck a 40mm grenade that was launched from the centre of the room.

The Prince swore as he realised that it was aimed at him. He dove under the grenade and tumbled down the stairs, as the staircase above him exploded spectacularly and a large chunk of debris slammed into the side of his head.

The Prince laid face-down, seemingly dead, as blood slowly crept out of the side of his head.

~

The Sphinx glared at the Wolf, who stood still in the middle of his command centre, a M4A1 rifle with a smoking underslung M203 grenade launcher aimed right at the Sphinx who was still crouched after his desperate roll.

Hassan. said the Wolf coldly.

The Sphinx chose to say nothing. Words were a waste of time. Instead, he was desperately trying to think of a way to get the upper hand from his vulnerable position.

You saved my life once Hassan. Consider this mercy as us, even.

If you make one foolish move, don’t think I won’t kill you. You were stupid to come here. Look at you, repeating history again, bringing an outsider into our world. You didn’t even know that the Prince was following you the whole time.

I once thought you to be my greatest student.

Perhaps, a long time ago, I might have considered the notion that you would be my son.

But you’re sloppy. You let your emotions control you again. Revenge has clouded your decision-making.

It’s pathetic. Have you learned nothing from me?

The Wolf tightened his trigger finger and coldly blew off the Sphinx’s left index finger which was by his hip.

Blood sprayed from the Sphinx’s hand as he roared in pain. He looked down at his hand in shock. It was mangled beyond recognition, blood oozing from the wound and he could see the white hint of bone where the finger had been separated.

The feared terrorist looked around in morbid fascination for the missing digit as he gripped his bloody hand angrily.

There it was, only 2 metres away, his severed index finger, another trophy for the Wolf, weeping blood unceremoniously on the dark floor. For some odd reason, it was only when he saw the finger, the pain really started to hit him.

The Sphinx began to breathe heavily, as he prevented a scream from coming out. He wasn’t going to give the bastard, Wolf, the satisfaction. Instead, he glared up at the Wolf defiantly.

The Wolf allowed himself the smallest of smiles in respect as he tilted the M4A1 up and aimed at the Sphinx’s head. His finger closed around the trigger and was about to pull it all the way …

When the Prince groaned.

The sound was enough.

It distracted the Wolf for the smallest of seconds.

The Sphinx lunged into action and swept up the AKS-74U he dropped when the Wolf blew off his finger.

Gritting his teeth, the Sphinx loosed everything he had in the magazine at his enemy, at the man he once called a father. He didn’t even fire in bursts, he just held down the trigger, desperate to kill the big, bad Wolf.

But the Wolf was too quick. He was already moving when he realised his mistake. The Wolf dove out of the way and gasped as one of the Sphinx’s bullets slammed into his M4A1, rendering the weapon useless.

The Sphinx’s crazed burst lasted for 4 seconds. The rounds echoed in the small room viciously, joined soon after by the sounds of computers and monitors sparking into death.

Fuck! yelled the Sphinx as the AKS-74U ran dry and began to click uselessly.

Whipping out his Beretta, the Sphinx rolled for cover, adrenaline-soaked revenge causing him to forget his wound, as the Wolf pulled out a big and rare Arsenal AF2011A1 pistol and let loose.

A very odd pistol and the personal favourite of the Wolf, the Arsenal AF2011A1 wasn’t just any ordinary 1911 clone. It featured another .45 barrel next to the original, making it a weapon that had twin barrels that could be pulled with one trigger. With a special double magazine, the weapon featured 16 rounds and could easily blow fist-sized holes in a target.

Which is exactly what the Sphinx discovered when the flimsy table he was hiding behind blew open in a shower of wood and plastic, and nearly took his head off. Peering through the hole and ignoring the splinters that had raked his face, the Sphinx loosed several rounds from his puny Beretta that caused the Wolf to duck.

They traded rounds after rounds, the ops centre viciously reporting each crack of gunfire at a headache inducing volume.

Suddenly, the exchange of fire stopped as both men ran dry.

Metallic clangs were heard as magazines were dropped to the floor and new ones were inserted with a sharp click.

Both men were breathing heavily, the Sphinx looking down at the blood that was dripping from his left hand hitting the floor, only for another drop to follow from the frag wound to the side of his face.

This ends now Wolf! called out the Sphinx.

The Wolf only snorted derisively.

Join her in hell … Sphinx.

With a primeval battle-cry, the Sphinx whirled from behind the table and raced towards the Wolf, just as the Wolf did the same.

Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! … Blam!

The Sphinx and the Wolf stood stock still in the centre of the room, mere metres apart, their guns outstretched.

The Sphinx collapsed first, his head blown apart by the final round that the Wolf fired.

The feared terrorist who had wreaked so much havoc across Europe because of revenge was dead. His chest was blown open by three powerful shots from the Wolf’s Arsenal.

No-one was getting up from that, not even the Sphinx’s desire for revenge. But ever the professional, the Wolf executed his protege with a headshot that created a huge exit wound, spraying brain matter everywhere in a gruesome, grisly grey-red mist.

The Wolf looked down at his own body and saw that the Sphinx had gotten him twice. Once in the left shoulder and another in the stomach.

Sinking to one knee, the Wolf looked at the Sphinx and shook his head.

Revenge. So petty. he said disdainfully as he clutched at his stomach.

Such a waste …

The Wolf breathed calmly as he began to assess the situation. The stupid emotional little shit was dead. He was wounded but nothing a Round Table medical team couldn’t patch up. Everything should be under control …

It was then the Prince arrived, his head bloody, his cold green eyes emanating curiosity, his Glock 19 aimed straight at the Wolf’s head.

~

The Wolf spat on the ground disrespectfully.

Gabriel Woods. 31 years old. Australian. Former member of the 22nd SAS. Now an assassin. 79 confirmed kills in 4 years.

Renowned for killing a member of the Royal Family. Earned the sobriquet “The Prince” because of it. Two fucking years later, through some quirk of fate, ends up working for Her Majesty anyway.

Talk about irony.

The Wolf laughed.

You know, we thought about hiring you. But when you killed one of us in Argentina, we figured you were too principled for our taste. Such a pity. We were big fans of your kill on the Prince. Probably one of the best we’ve ever seen and trust me, I’ve seen plenty to be impressed. We could have used a man like you.

The Prince looked down at the Wolf and cocked his head.

Could?

The Wolf smiled coldly.

You didn’t really think that I was going to tell you everything as I laid here dying did you? Who do you take me for?

The Prince looked up at the monitors that dominated so much of the room. His green eyes widened in anger and shock.

Depicted across the massive wall of monitors, was live footage of a 12-man SWAT team was making their way through Institute. They had just cleared the interrogation wing. In minutes, they would be at the training floor, where the Kill-House was.

The Wolf began to laugh.

You’ve got nowh-

Blam! Blam! Blam!

The Prince shot him three times in the head.

The Wolf’s head lolled lifelessly and then fell over, meeting the same fate as his protege.

Master and apprentice, dead in the same room, their brains missing.

It was almost poetic if one knew their history. But the Prince didn’t, nor did he care.

They were just two more dead assholes.

Staring at the screen and seeing the Round Table SWAT team get closer, the Prince gritted his teeth and walked over to the Wolf’s weapon arsenal on the east wall.

~

The 12 man SWAT team was anything but ordinary. For starters, their uniform was entirely black, instead of the normal dark navy blue that normal Police teams would wear.

Large, bulletproof gas masks covered their faces, and they were armed to the teeth with breaching shotguns, assault rifles, submachine guns and large calibre pistols. Two of the men out front were holding large assault shields, with rare fully automatic Glock 18 machine pistols.

Whilst a normal SWAT team would be carrying cable-ties, non-lethal grenades and equipment for arresting suspects, the Round Table team was suspiciously absent from any such kit. Instead they were carrying large body bags, and were equipped with thermite grenades, which, when activated, would burn anything to ash.

They were here for one purpose … the complete destruction of the Institute.

Sanitize and sterilize all traces of evidence.

The team leader, call-sign: Gawain, stepped up to the door that lead to the training floor. Placing a breaching charge, he waited until the men were safely behind the riot shielded men before counting down.

3, 2, 1 … Mark.

Crack!

The door blew open and the men rushed in to begin their assault on the Kill House, where the Prince was waiting for them.

~

Having taken a spare backpack and stuffing it full of hard drives from the supercomputers that lined the back wall of the Ops Centre, the Prince was moving quickly. He knew that he didn’t have enough energy, nor firepower to defeat this SWAT team.

So this was all going to hinge on how stealthily he could sneak past the team.

Grabbing the quietest gun on the Wolf’s arsenal and his personal favourite, a familiar MP5SD, and stuffing his war-belt with 4 spare magazines, the Prince also grabbed a suppressor for his Glock 19, stowing it in a pocket, before grabbing 3 big packets of C4 explosive and a detonator.

Taking position on the far side of the Kill House and recalling the layout, the Prince crept forward as he heard Gawain blow open the door. He was making his way for the catwalk that was high above the Kill-House. But to get there, he had to go through the Kill-House’s North-west corner.

The Kill-House was atypical of those seen in training facilities everywhere. Sturdy plywood lined with bulletproof material were used for walls, and the doors had multiple holes in them to practice breaching. This one featured over 20 rooms that were variously conjoined and interconnected.

The Round Table SWAT Team moved swiftly through the Kill-House. They were evidently well trained, leap-frogging one another with precision and speed. They were already a third of the way through the Kill-House.

The Prince set down one of the C4 explosives in one of the rooms closest to the entry of the staircase that lead to the Ops Centre before moving into the Kill-House, where he waited in the adjoining room that would lead to the catwalk.

Bang!

With shocking swiftness, the door swung inwards to the room the Prince was waiting in. An assault shielded man came through, with 2 men behind him shooting over the shield into the corners of the room.

But what they didn’t anticipate was the Prince lying on the floor and he shot the shit out of their legs.

Slit! Slit! Slit! Slit! whispered the MP5SD.

All three men collapsed on the floor, their shins exploding in sprays of blood.

The Prince, acting quickly, grabbed the riot shield, flipped it and rammed all three men back through the way they came, causing them all to stack on top of each other.

The Prince kicked away their guns before ramming the edge of the shield into each of their heads, knocking them out cold.

Sprinting for the catwalk staircase, the Prince pulled out his detonator and pressed the trigger viciously.

Shoom!

The C4 explosive blew apart the southern end of the Kill House, launching the remaining nine men backwards with the blast.

As they staggered to their feet, Gawain looked around blearily and saw the Prince sprinting above them, gunning for the staircase entrance that would lead to freedom.

Gawain bought his HK416 assault rifle to bear, only for the Prince to dive off the catwalk and onto the ground, where he rolled across the floor and to the only exit out of the training ground.

Fuck! swore Gawain. All elements! Back to the south entry now!

The Prince placed his second C4 at the door, before sprinting all the way up and placing his final one on the top of the staircase.

Then he ran right through the interrogation wing and at the end of the hall, smiled coldly and pressed down on the detonator.

Chunk!

From the Prince’s angle, fiery smoke billowed out through the open doorway he had just run through.

From Gawain’s angle, his team were launched backwards once more and they stared at the destruction the Prince had wreaked upon them, ensuring that they were stuck down here for a long time. They couldn’t even go to the Ops Centre, because his initial C4 blast had destroyed the staircase leading to it.

Now with two more blasts, he had trapped the entire Round Table SWAT team and gotten away scot-free.

Gawain furiously punched the wall of the Kill-House and radioed in a report that was met with an angry but cold response.

Mediocre, Knight. Very mediocre.

~

The Prince ran outside, and saw the driver of the SWAT van that had just deposited the team sent in to kill him. He had just heard Gawain and his team request assistance and was climbing out of the van.

Not one to waste time or opportunity, the Prince whipped up his MP5SD and blew out the driver’s kneecaps with two shots.

Slit! Slit!

The man staggered face first onto the floor, where the Prince shot him again through the top of his head for good measure.

Pulling out his phone, the Prince called James Ashford as he walked away from the Institute, his head reeling from everything that had just transpired.

It was imperative that he go underground as soon as possible.

Ashford answered on the second ring.

Make me disappear, now.

~

Epilogue

It was shaping up to be another beautiful day in Tidal River, rural Victoria. The bright golden sunshine was cresting the horizon, the orange sky complementing the yellow grass that ended on a cliff that jutted out to the Pacific Ocean.

Iconic Australian waves crashed against the cliff and the noise they generated created a soothing natural soundscape to the stunning vistas.

Gabriel Woods looked out from the second floor balcony of his house and sighed quietly. He could hear the TV behind him, reporting on the brave rescue of Karen Matthews and her news team from an Afghan drug-running group by the elite U.S. Army Delta Force.

Karen Matthews reminisced Woods. The original mission way back in Afghanistan. Good on you, Jess. You got her out.

His CIA handler’s mission to find the American journalist who got kidnapped, seemed so long ago and quaint.

It was now nearly six months since the V-Day Attacks in London, and the world had not quite recovered.

The immediate aftermath of the Valentine Day Attacks was extensive and invasive for the secret world of espionage.

After all, this was one of the biggest failures in Western security services since 9/11.

James Ashford was simultaneously praised and criticised for his role. Publicly, he was lambasted for not stopping the attacks altogether, but privately he was considered safe, because of a powerful testimony from his friend and counterpart in the CIA, Richard Washington.

The subsequent investigation held into the actions of the SIS and whether they could have done more, proved that Ashford did everything in his power, but was simply outsmarted by a much more cleverer terrorist.

A terrorist who became the latest global celebrity for all the wrong reasons.

Much was discussed about Hassan Malik for months and years after.

A leaked photo, stolen from Woods’ surveillance footage, became the most famous photo of a terrorist leader since UBL.

It looked more like a Burberry advertisement, than a professional spy photo by one of the world’s most dangerous assassins.

The snapshot depicted Malik looking over his shoulder, his black coat obscuring his cheek, the strong profile of his nose, intense brown eyes and stylised haircut, looking sharp against the backdrop of an London street.

Even in death, the Sphinx cut a dangerous and exotic figure.

When placed together with Sofia Sumarwata’s photos, the news agencies ate it up. This was too good to make up. They were the “Romeo and Juliet of Terror” proclaimed one particularly enraptured tabloid on page one.

Forums, fan-pages, and terrorists groups sprung up after his death.

University experts wrote theses and books about his life and impact on Western society.

Copy-cat groups tried to replicate his success in Europe, but were unable to get anywhere, their ambitious plans lacking the Sphinx’s genius and networks.

One particularly, uninventive terror cell called themselves the “New Sphinxes of Iraq.”

Literally a month after their formation, they were all unceremoniously gunned down in a gun-battle with the 22nd SAS. The Reigment was now mobilising against terrorist groups faster than ever before in the unit’s history. Demand for their services were now at an all time high.

The gloves were off.

Troops were now deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq in greater numbers than ever and rumours of a special “hunter-killer unit”, called Task Force: 10th Legion spread across the Middle East.

Task Force: 10th Legion, named after Julius Caesar’s legendary cohort, was unofficially comprised of the best Tier One units found in the US and UK military. Their status was highly secretive and were often denied by all involved.

However their effectiveness spoke for itself. For within a month of deployment, the 10th Legion carved out a vicious path from Syria to Kuwait in some of the most dangerous and deadly raids of the war, with the body count numbering in the thousands.

No-one questioned their thirst for revenge.

Back home, the image of Sofia in her red dress knocking on 10 Downing Street, moments before her death, became one of the most haunting images of the renewed war of terror.

Inspired by feelings of paranoia and infuriated with his brush with death, the British PM rode a wave of popular nationalism. British Army recruitment stations recorded historically high numbers, and the PM’s hardline stance on immigration and domestic terrorism ensured that he would stay on for another term.

When people questioned his leadership, the PM would milk the destruction of his home for months after, stoking Islamophobic fears across the nation whilst avoiding blame.

For the next six months, the poor Islamic community in England suffered horrible racial abuse and alienation. Muslim women had their hijabs torn off their heads, innocent men and women were barred from entering shops and restaurants, and ugly fights between young angry men of all denominations were now all too common.

Embittered by these injustices. some of those angry men would sign up to fight elsewhere, further feeding the war abroad with more bodies.

London, despite the extensive repairs and pleas to return to the city, would remain a little emptier.

For years after, people would feel conflicted about the Valentine Day holiday, with a petition to change the date recieving over 2 million votes.

It never passed.

~

The Institute was never revealed to the public. They were too busy looking at the public war on terror and the death and destruction that had occurred at so many iconic British institutions.

No-one was any the wiser about the private gun battle that happened between the Wolf and the Sphinx or the Round Table and the Prince at 22 St James’s Square.

In fact, the Prince’s raid on Singh’s bomb-making workshop in Croydon barely got a passing mention in the newspaper. And it was the only time an actual suicide vest went off on the day of the attack.

In a strange quirk of fate, the circumstances surrounding the Sphinx’s actual death and what happened at 22 St James’s Square was deliberately vague and understated.

It was better that way.

To further disguise the issue, the public was informed that the Sphinx died in a Syrian drone attack months later.

~

It had taken all of Ashford’s considerable powers and resources to hide Woods from the new threat he had uncovered.

The Round Table.

Only Gabriel Woods and James Ashford were aware of their existence. Ashford couldn’t even trust his own beloved SIS, assuming, rightly so, that the entire intelligence agency was compromised.

At first, Ashford didn’t know what to make of the intelligence that Woods had secured off four supercomputer hard drives that once belonged to a man named Wolf.

It was too extensive, too shocking, too deep. The data was too unbelievable and outlandish.

It took five separate one-on-one meetings between Woods and Ashford, but it slowly dawned on the old spymaster just how bad the situation was. The truth was undeniable.

A rogue organisation of British origins was directly responsible for the creation of the Sphinx. They had a hand in all the key elements of society. From politics to the military, they had controlling stakes in it all.

They wanted the Sphinx to attack London, so that they could have their war.

What the bloody hell are we going to do? asked Ashford incredulously, in their final debriefing.

You know what you have to do. Woods had replied evenly to the question.

A long silence followed, as Ashford looked at the man standing before him with a sense of despair, hope and faith. Rare emotions for any spook.

A sense of finality hung over the two men. The spy and the assassin at a crossroad.

The head of British Intelligence would nod once and leave, never to contact Woods again.

He would do what he had always done for the Prince for so many years.

Protect the Queen’s only assassin remotely and leave him alone.

If the Prince needed help, he would ask. Ashford would do nothing to hinder him, until he made that call.

The ultimate sign of trust amongst men who operate in the dark.

~

As he leaned on the balcony of his home, taking in the fresh ocean spray, Gabriel Woods felt a sense of relief that he was now truly alone in the fight.

The Prince was now back in the shadows and eager to rule once more.

Staring out at the end of the world, the Prince turned his back to the view and walked back inside his dark house.

It was time to begin research on his latest target: Gawain of the Round Table, a Maltese Knight.

With the death of a Knight, the Prince would establish his reign once more.

Let the hunt for the Arthurian Knights begin.

~ The End

Author’s Note: Found here!

The Sphinx and the Prince …. (Espionage 10: Finale)

The Prince charged through the smoke and fire of what remained of 10 Downing Street’s entrance, blown up only seconds ago by Sofia’s bomb, hunting for the Sphinx.

Pulling out the shemagh that he had used on the Jacket Malik raid, he wrapped the bottom half of his face in a smooth motion that would help him to breathe.

Already sirens and alarms were blasting loudly, but above the din was the distinct sound of an AKS-74U rifle clattering and pitched screams following the gunfire.

Gripping his MP7A1 tightly, the Prince moved cautiously through hallowed British ground. There rooms in 10 Downing Street were exquisitely refined and spoke of simple luxury. Everything was comfortable, clean, pristine and without a single element out of place.

A sitting room had comfortable, but expensive mahogany furniture that faced a fireplace that complimented the cream interior of carpet, walls and coffee tables. It was marred only by the body of a maid, who was clutching her stomach in agony, as she wept and bled in the room alone.

The Prince, all former traces of the more compassionate Woods extinguished in his mind, ignored the maid and kept moving down the corridor, where he came across a grisly scene only 10 metres later.

4 Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection (PaDP) Officers were in the midst of eating their meal and going for their guns, when the Sphinx chanced upon them. He had sprayed his weapon in an accurate, long burst that raked the entire standby room.

An Officer had his head on the table, his body slumped over, a bowl of porridge, as blood seeped through the gaps in his armour. Another was still on the floor, the back of his head blown apart by the powerful 5.45mm round of the Sphinx’s AKS-74U, vainly reaching for his pistol belt that was hanging on a coat-hanger nearby.

The Prince whipped his MP7 up as he heard a gurgling sound. In the corner of a room, an Officer had tried in vain to save his fellow PaDP, his body riddled with holes, as he laid over a severely wounded, gasping Officer who had a MP5 lying forlornly next to him.

The wounded PaDP was clutching at his perforated throat, blood pouring out in buckets over his slowly weakening hands. His eyes widened at the sight of the Prince, in his terrorist-styled garb and choked once more, before his eyes glazed over.

The Prince moved past the waiting room with a clenched jaw. This was going to end tonight.

Muffled gunfire resonated ahead and the Prince moved faster, leapfrogging the body of a dead PaDP whose corpse was slowly staining the carpet and the precious framed photograph of Churchill leaving Downing Street in WW2.

~

The Sphinx was trained by the best. The poor PaDP, essentially well-trained policemen, were completely outclassed. None of them had much combat experience and despite their rigorous training, they were unable to tap into any of that knowledge, because fear crippled their bodies and clouded their minds.

Speed

Surprise

Violence of action

The key 3 principles of warfare.

The Sphinx was using all his considerable years of warfighting to maintain the upper hand. Much like the Prince’s terrifying one man army action on Malik’s forces in Croydon, the Sphinx was now unleashing his fearsome skills as a warrior on the PaDP.

Officer after officer fell, as the Sphinx continued his relentless advance towards the War Room. In some cases the Sphinx even used the bodies he had just kill as a human shield and confuse the Officers who were waiting for him. In their panic they would shoot at the dead policeman, whilst the Sphinx slotted his AKS-74U on the shoulder of the dead Officer and blazed away, the fight ending in the room almost as quickly it began.

After minutes of vicious CQB fighting, the Sphinx waited for a moment and took his bearings, as he reloaded his gun. If he knew his floor plan, he was only 2 corners away from the security room that guarded the entrance to the War Room.

The Sphinx scowled and began to psyche himself up. Unlike his fanatics, he didn’t resort to prayers to better himself. Instead, he was using a tried and true tactic that was taught to him by his mentor.

Meditation.

By performing, deep breathing techniques, it allowed him to quell the overwhelming amount of information that was flooding his brain. In clearing his mind, the Sphinx could react and analyse situations more accurately, limiting the amount of mistakes that could lead to his death.

It was a new technique that was slowly gaining ground in the military. Instead of hard and fast charging into situations, military men were now taught to be more cautious, methodical and limit their exposure to gunfire. Battlefield meditation allowed soldiers to clear their mind of the chaos happening around them and, with enough training, suppress feelings of fear, anxiety and confusion.

The Sphinx looked around the corner and noted that an officer was holding a riot shield, his MP5 submachine gun outstretched in front of him shakily. Smiling grimly, the Sphinx bought out another wad of C2, and rolled it into a ball. Sticking a blasting cap inside of it, the Sphinx underhand tossed it, and watched as it stuck to the riot shield, whilst the officer let loose with a burst from his submachine gun.

Ducking back coolly, the Sphinx flipped open his detonator and slammed his index finger down.

Whump!

The officer was flung backwards, as the shield combusted into a thousand pieces of reinforced glass, shredding the officer’s face into strips of bloody meat. The scream that came from the officer was horrific, freezing the 7 Officers who were waiting around the other corner, their guns aimed out from beyond the security station’s cage.

Then a small object flew through the air, identical to the last and it affixed itself to the metal cage.

All 7 pairs of eyes looked at it.

Whump!

The second ball of C2 was even more devastating than the last. Fragments of metal flew everywhere and the three Officers who were closest to it were instantly cut down, their bodies lacerated by burns and shrapnel.

The other four weren’t so lucky. One of the officers, was flung backwards into a computer panel, and in maintaining poor trigger discipline, had inadvertently pulled the trigger as he flew through the air. The Officer next to him was immediately struck in the back of the head and he dropped to the floor, dead with a big hole in his forehead.

The other two remaining PaDP struggled to get their bearings and were unable to hear or comprehend anything.

It was then, a red visible laser punched its way through the cloud of debris and melted frag and found their chests and head.

Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam!

The Officers dropped instantly, and the Sphinx himself came through and looked at the man who had just killed his own buddy, now desperately trying to bring his gun to bear.

The laser found his head and 3 shots later, the Sphinx was in control of the security station that protected the British Prime Minister in his War Room bunker.

The Prime Minister stared at the screen, terrified as the Sphinx walked up to the computers and with a eerie smile at the camera, began to tap away at the laptop, ignoring the blood splatters on the screen.

Everyone in the War Room stared intently the screen that showed what was happening, literally metres away from them.

Minutes passed, then to the extreme shock of everyone inside the War Room, the Sphinx finished at the computer, gave a final ironic salute to the camera and ran off for the secondary exit out the back of Downing St.

What the bloody hell was that? asked the Prime Minister.

No one could answer him. They just stared at the screen in shock as another terrorist came into view.

~

The Prince had only just come across the corpse of the riot shield officer, when he saw the Sphinx dash away for the back exit.

Cursing, the Prince ran over to the security station and was confused when he saw an GPS map splashed across the screen.

Frowning, the Prince looked more closely at the details and realised that the Sphinx had just conducted a search for someone. He had only just saw the name, when suddenly the screen flickered and an ominous timer began to appear on the screen.

20 seconds to upload.

Cyber attack! thought the Prince instantly and he began to look over the computer, to see an innocuous USB sticking out from the side. Yanking it out, the Prince swore when the timer continued to tick downwards.

Shit! said the Prince as he continued to type furiously away at the computer, trying to isolate the virus.

However, despite his best efforts, the timer continued to tick ever downwards.

5

4

3

2

1

Beep!

Nothing happened.

The Prince frowned.

Then a hissing noise began to issue from the all steel door that barred the War Room from the outside world.

In a split second, the Prince realised what had just happened.

The door for the War Room was opening and there he was, in terrorist gear, looking like he was hacking away to gain entry to the British Prime Minister. It didn’t matter to the men inside whether the Sphinx or the Prince had killed the PaDP Officers inside, they were going to go out guns blazing.

The Sphinx had just bought himself some very valuable time from the Prince’s wrath.

The Prince whirled around and began to sprint for all it was worth, as the UK PM’s bodyguards came out of the door, their guns tearing everything to shreds.

~

The Sphinx only had 2 spheres of C2 left, and he used one on the back gate of Downing Street, sprinting as fast as he could for the coordinates he had just hacked from one of the most secure and powerful computers in the United Kingdom.

Using a worm, he had piggy-backed off the greater London’s CCTV surveillance system and intelligence network and began a facial and name recognition search.

The man who had fuelled so much of the Sphinx’s hate and anger came up as a match on the screen, literally only seconds later.

The location?

St. James Square.

A mere 5 minutes run away, if you cut through St. James’ Park.

The Sphinx tucked his AKS-74U underneath his blazer and started running the moment he left the gates, ignoring the sirens and alarms he had left behind.

He began his northwesterly run, as, nearly a minute later, the Prince sprinted out, chased by the furious bodyguards who were intent on revenge.

Spraying his MP7A1 in an accurate burst, the Prince covered the doorway that the bodyguards were about to come out from in rounds, causing them to crash into each other and hustle back into cover.

Using those precious seconds to sprint further away, the Prince saw the Sphinx ahead, running furiously through St. James Park, his handsome face etched in a concentrated scowl.

Pulling out the empty magazine for his MP7A1 and reaching down for his warbelt, the Prince realised that he had no more spare magazines for his PDW. Tossing it away as he chased after the Sphinx, the Prince knew he was down to his trusted Glock 19 and 3 spare magazines.

How the hell does this keep happening to me? Never enough ammo for these fucking terrorists thought the Prince as he made his way furiously through the heart of London.

The Prince and the Sphinx dashed their way through Pall Mall, the iconic street that led to St James’s Square, the area of London they were currently waging war in, a very posh area.

Beautifully maintained old classic Napoleonic and Regency-era houses and buildings clashed with the more modern brick styles that dominated that Industrial Revolution. This juxtaposition was only further enhanced with the glass and steel, synonymous with contemporary styles and the effect was as jarring as it was interesting.

One could literally trace architectural lineage and styles from the 18th Century to the 21st.

However both men’s targets was the singularly drab building, known simply as 22 St James’s Square. There was nothing remarkable about the styling from the exterior.

Endless windows were intersected with fading white concrete in a style that was as anonymous a building could be in London. Glass doors showed the way to a boring, corporate style interior that emphasised taupe as a colour.

A sign outside told people that there were 79 office spaces that could be rented to the public for use.

What it did not disclose was that the first 4 floors were completely booked out by a shell company, and that the building had 3 basement levels that were not accessible by normal elevators and it had been soundproofed and that there were always a 4-man security team of ex-soldiers guarding the place 24/7.

To men like the Sphinx, it was just one of the many London training facilities that were nicknamed “The Institute.” It was where he learnt how to be the most professional terrorist in the world and how he became the Sphinx.

It was within the bowels of the Institute that the Sphinx planned to end a very private chapter in his life.

Every single attack, had lead up to this moment. Nothing was coincidental. Every station that had burned across Europe, to the timing and date of the Valentine Day massacre was symbolic to a dark history.

The Sphinx looked at the simple glass doors of the Institute and walked in, his AKS-74U up.

~

William Aitken was one of the most formidable men that had ever served the British intelligence apparatus. A former SBS (Special Boat Service) operator, Aitken was as much at home in the sea as he was serving in the shadows.

The beauty of light owns itself to dark places he once famously said, during a training briefing.

A monster borne out of necessity during the Cold War, Aitken had cut his teeth serving for MI6 as a deep cover agent in East Berlin, gathering intelligence and performing assassinations on high value Soviet targets. He was also the agent responsible for personally escorting over 200 illegal migrants across the Berlin Wall, to be reunited with their families.

What the heroics failed to discern though, was the sheer number of bodies that Aitken had left behind during these illegal crossings. The Soviet Command at the time were all too aware of this cruel British agent who would collect personal belongings of soldiers he had killed and then mail them tauntingly to the Soviet High Command barracks.

The number of rings, watches and precious trinkets numbered in the high hundreds by the time the Berlin Wall fell.

The nickname, Volk (Wolf) was soon assigned to Aitken, a callsign that he would wear with pride for the rest of his life, as did the 9 million dollar bounty than followed him everywhere.

His years of service though did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Transitioning from the grey, cold climates of Russia and Germany, Aitken went to work once more against the Soviets in Afghanistan and Iraq, where late in his career, he met a young orphan named Hassan Malik.

It was 1989, the final year of the Soviet-Afghan War. The Mujahideen had in essence recaptured back their country, save for one formidable stronghold that was protecting the Soviet’s last stand in the bloody war that had raged for 9 years.

Aitken was one of the most pre-eminent military advisors to the guerrilla force and had gone completely native. A strong black beard covered his face, and his normally pale skin, was now leathery with a deep tan. He was limping in one leg, a previous engagement with a Soviet sniper, causing him to fall and roll into a deep ditch that cut open his thigh.

However, despite the thick robes that shielded him from the Afghan chill, there was no mistaking the piercing blue eyes, the confident English accent and the professional casualness in which he held his AKM with jungle taped double magazines.

It was Aitken that lead the charge against the stronghold, using heavy cover fire, smoke grenades and accurate mortar strikes to shield their approach. It was an old-school method for an ancient country.

50 Mujahideen charged the wall of the stronghold that was etched into the side of a mountain, an ancient fort that had crumbling walls and a big open clearing inside for helicopters and trucks.

Only 30 made it. The men sprayed the upper parts of the wall with gunfire, desperately trying to stop the Soviet troops from firing down at them. One man fell on his back screaming as a Soviet soldier blind-fired wildly over the lip of the wall. Seconds later a RPG smashed into the trooper, spraying dust, bricks and blood over the men crouched below, swift vengeance coming in for their fallen comrade.

Aitken laid a satchel charge at the wall and set the timer for 10 seconds.

Running back and firing his AKM furiously at the troops above, Aitken slammed his body against the wall and waited for the blast.

Crack!

Bodies, brick, mortar and even a truck was overturned as the satchel charge blew open a gap in the wall with deafening violence.

Go! Go! Go! yelled Aitken at his troops.

The Mujahideen yelled as one and with war cries, charged into the breach, where they were instantly met with hyper-machine gun fire, from a crazed General who was manning the side door gun of a large Russian Mil Mi-24 Gunship.

10 Mujahideen were instantly cut down, the bodies blown away by the intense fire. Before Aitken could react to the death of his men, a maelstrom of sand, dirt and debris began to whip at everyone in the fort, as the pilot began to lift off.

Soviet soldiers, seeing their opportunity for escape flying away, abandoned their posts and leapt for the open doors of the gunship, hitting it from all sides.

But they were met with fire from inside and outside as the crazed General in his panic, began to shoot at his own troops, unwilling to let his men weigh down the helicopter and the Mujahideen who had regrouped and were now peppering the chopper with rounds.

Men died, screaming and scrabbling to get in the chopper and in a grotesque display, bodies began to fall from the helicopter, as the pilot struggled to concentrate and lift the cumbersome beast away from the ground.

Gunfire raked the entire compound in a 360 degree arc, as chaos reigned over the battlefield. Several rounds punched right through a jail where locals assisting the Mujahideen had been captured and tortured. Their cries of help were overwhelmed by the cacophony that was happening in the clearing.

Just as the Mi-24 was rising above the wall, a Stinger missile shoomed from the nearby Mujahideen controlled hill and smashed its way into the helicopter, causing the whole thing to reel in midair and fall back into the compound.

Aitken looked up in horror at the helicopter that was about to crash right on top of him.

Just as it was about to decapitate him, someone crash-tackled him out of the way and he was sent sprawling back behind the wall, through the breach point.

The Mi-24 crumpled into the ground, and the rotors snapped, sending huge blades of metal flying every which way. One poor Soviet soldier was literally cut in half as the blade sliced towards him and his legs stood still for a full second, before toppling over, as the upper half of his body slammed against a wall.

William “Wolf” Aitken, a veteran of some of the bloodiest conflicts in the Cold War looked at the young boy who had saved his life.

The boy looked old for his age. The fact that he was old, didn’t show on his boyishly handsome face or the strong lean body that still showed fresh wounds from torture …. it was his eyes.

The brown eyes that looked back at Aitken showed a focus, determination and anger that could only come from a man.

War had accelerated the boy’s mental growth. He went from being a child to a man in the span of 9 years, a process that would take some 20 years and others their whole lifespan.

Hassan Malik was only 12 when he met William Aitken. The Wolf, out of gratitude and perhaps something else, informally adopted him soon after the assault on the final Soviet stronghold in Afghanistan.

He had plans for the young Afghan boy. Even in the waning days of the Soviet-Afghan War, Aitken could see a new threat emerging for the heat of the Arabian desert. He was going to need a new breed of soldier to defeat a new breed of terrorists.

By the time Malik left the Institute at age 15, Aitken knew that he had created one of the most dangerous men in the world.

The Sphinx was the Wolf’s crown jewel.

The ultimate result of warfare, distilled and refined by Aitken’s careful tutelage and brutal indoctrination methods.

~

For a man who was almost Stalinist in his paranoia, Aitken trusted Malik completely. It was entirely out of character for the old spymaster and soldier, but he had spent so long on his own, that he needed a release.

In Malik, he found that release. Over the course of 3 years, Aitken honed, shaped and crafted Malik into the ultimate terrorist.

To defeat terrorists meant learning how to be one. The Wolf ensured that the Sphinx was the most professional in the world.

Every piece of knowledge, no matter how trivial, Aitken entrusted to Malik. It was as if Aitken knew, that he would die soon and he didn’t want to waste any of his experience and lessons learnt.

Malik was the perfect student. He excelled in every aspect of warfare. Marksmanship. Guerrilla training. Enhanced interrogation techniques. Subterfuge.

Aitken even took Malik to Alexanderplatz Station and made him practice how to spot a suicide bomber. Then he told him to kill the target.

Malik, spotted the S-bomber within 2 minutes of the exercise. Then with a hypodermic needle laced with an enhanced digitalis poison, he stabbed the man through the heart, pretending to trip over his feet.

The S-bomber died with vomit in his throat, within 20 seconds of ingestion.

Aitken was pleased.

More exercises across Europe were conducted with brazen arrogance. A Spanish target was killed whilst boarding his plane. A Saudi national lost control of his car whilst holidaying in Saint-Tropez. A Russian oligarch and his trophy wife killed each other in a double suicide, whilst relaxing in their Swiss Alps retreat.

But it was the Valentine Day exercise that truly showcased the rigors of the Wolf’s training.

Hassan Malik, for the years he had spent in England, was mostly allowed to venture out of the safehouse at his whim. What he wasn’t aware of though, was that Aitken had known every time Hassan had snuck out to explore the city and taste the nightlife.

The Wolf was far too smart and cunning to not keep track of his pseudo-son.

Hassan however was none the wiser. He thought he was getting away with it.

One night, whilst it was still early in Hassan’s training, and he was now getting bolder with his escapes, he met a beautiful girl his age, who was also escaping from her troubles. A pretty Irish girl who went by the name Niamh. She had alabaster skin, cute brown freckles on her cheeks and nose and stunning blue eyes.

When she laughed, her nose would crinkle just so and she had the most disarming smile that would reveal her braces.

Hassan was smitten.

Niamh’s story was almost as tragic as Hassan. Her parents were a casualty of the Troubles and its bloody history between Ireland and Britain. She was fending for herself and making trouble for the British whenever and with whatever she could find.

Hassan likened her struggles to his own against the Soviets.

Their friendship only deepened as they grew older.

Hassan was 14 when he finally asked her out on a date for Valentine’s Day.

Niamh didn’t even bother answering him. They shared their first kiss that night and more. For once in their young lives, they both felt something different other than hate for the world.

The date had gone beautifully. They had dinner together, a simple Chinese takeaway meal that they both shared together, sitting at a park. Niamh had squealed with joy when she saw the flowers that Hassan had bought her.

It was 7pm when they were walking, hand in hand around Hyde Park. Niamh was laughing at a joke Hassan had just told her.

Then it happened. A black van pulled up alongside the teenagers and 4 men with Uzis and pistols ran out the side, balaclavas disguising their features. Hassan tried to go for the pistol that he always kept on him, that Aitken told him to always wear.

But it was too slow. He had never quick-drawn in a panic before and with a girl slowing down his gun arm.

The men clubbed both of them with their guns and barrelled them unceremoniously into the van.

When Hassan came to, harsh light assaulted his retinas. They were in an non-descript room, with plain tiles for the floor and ceiling. Only a one-way mirror lined the East side of the room. Hassan saw Niamh bound and gagged before him. Her blue eyes were pleading with Hassan. Hassan trashed around in his chair, desperate to get out, desperate to do anything.

He couldn’t even fall over, because the chair was bolted into the ground.

From behind him, a door opened and Hassan froze in place.

Niamh’s blue eyes went wide at the sight of the man standing behind Hassan. She seemed to recognise him.

Then two men hovered into view. Hassan recognised both of them immediately. To his right was Aitken, a scowl across his face. To his left was a large man with a ruddy complexion and a scar across his right cheek. He was Paddy Conaill, one of the IRA’s most lethal enforcers.

The two men stood between the teens staring at each other.

Fucking lovebirds. Would be sweet if it weren’t so stupid. drawled Conaill.

Hassan kept wriggling. He didn’t like any of this. Hope flared inside him when he felt one of the bonds, strong duct tape, loosened around his right hand. He kept at it, one minute movement at a time.

I’m sorry to involve you Paddy. But this is a situation isn’t it?

Yes, yes it bloody is Wolf.

Conaill cuffed Niamh across the face. Tears welled in her eyes and a red mark marked her smooth pale skin. Hassan began to wriggle faster.

You stupid bitch. Fucking fell for one of these Arabs. You should have been more careful. He’s working for the fucking English. You know what we do to traitors?

Niamh’s blue eyes couldn’t control the tears of terror.

That’s right. We’re going to give you the Treatment. No good Irish woman can be consortin’ with the enemy. You’re lucky that the Wolf here is allowing you to go back with me. You got no idea what he would have done to you. You’re lucky we go way back before the troubles started. He found out about you and the raghead here. So he caled me to clean up this fookin’ mess.

You’re done. You’re my mess to cleanup.

Goddamn stupid bitch.

Conaill, with shocking swiftness, pulled a large Beretta 92FS from the waistband of his pants and levelled it at Niamh.

Blam!

Niamh’s blue eyes closed as her head rocked back in the chair, blood slowly dripping from the entry wound like a tear down her cheek. Conaill snorted dervisively and tucked the Beretta back in his pants. Aitken remained silent and looked at Malik with calculating eyes.

Hassan Malik, with a primal scream, ripped through the tape that secured his hand to the armrest of his chair and using brute strength, forced his way out from his captivity and lunged at Conaill.

Conaill, astonished by the move, fell ass over backwards, his hand reaching for the Beretta, but unable to find any purchase on the pistol grip.

He landed awkwardly on his hand, causing him to roar with pain as the wrist broke. But Malik was already all over him. He delivered blow after blow that smashed through Conaill’s pathetic one hand defence.

When Malik couldn’t strike at the throat, he would slam his fist into Conaill’s kidney or liver. The big Irishman would curl up in pain, only to reel instantly back to the floor as another blow slammed into his head.

Bloody sprayed into the air, as Conaill’s nose broke and in his desperation, he made one final move. He rolled and pushed Malik off him.

However, Malik was ready, instead of continuing his hand to hand assault, he grabbed the pistol from Conaill’s waistband and stood up, the Beretta shaking slightly in his anger, his brown eyes looking deadly over the sights of the pistol.

Conaill looked at the Wolf. His eyes were pleading. Trying to hearken back to some previous relationship they shared. The Wolf merely smiled coldly.

Wolf! Please do some-

Blam! Blam! …. Blam!

The Mozambique drill was executed with clinical precision. Two to the chest and one to the head. Conaill’s head listed aimlessly as his eyes sightlessly stared at Aitken.

Malik spun around, the Beretta moving fast. But the Wolf was too quick for him and he disarmed the pistol out of his protege’s hands and tapped him in the side of the head once.

Malik slumped to the floor, losing consciousness. He reached out for Niamh, but all he heard was Aitken’s gruff voice.

Sleep with one eye open. Never trust your enemies or your friends. Remember this lesson, son.

Malik’s final thought was defiant and angry. Any trace of the boy named Hassan Malik was extinguished in its entirety now.

One day, you’ll pay, Wolf. I swear to God, I’m going to kill you.

~

The Sphinx fought to control his emotions as he walked down the familiar white, plain hospital-styled corridors that only served to enhance the unnerving effects of the violence that had been committed within these walls.

The Institute would forever be the darkest chapter of the Sphinx’s history. There was no escaping the fact that he had learned how to torture a man here. Even now, he could recall the way how blood looked brighter against the searingly white rooms, and the sound water, congealed with blood made as it trickled slowly towards a drainage pipe in the centre of a room.

Those skills had come back to bite the Western forces though. The Sphinx lost count of the amount of Coalition forces he had tortured under UBL’s leadership but the information he had amassed was incredible. It was one of the main reasons why UBL had escaped the detection for so long.

The Sphinx even remembered his first execution. A man, with a hood over his head, was sitting forlornly in the corner of a room. He was dressed in typical military fashion, with baggy camo pants and a plain brown shirt.

He remembered being handed a pistol, a chunky Sig Sauer P226 by the Wolf. It was too big for his hands at the time, but grip it he did.

What has he done? he remembered asking.

It doesn’t matter what’s he done. He’s against us. The Wolf had replied coldly.

Who is he?

It doesn’t matter. What matters is the will to make things right.

The Sphinx remembered the way how he stared at the man.

A complete nobody. But he was breathing. He was alive. He might have had a family. Children. He could have been him in the future.

But it doesn’t matter echoed the Wolf’s answer in his mind.

It took him nearly 5 minutes, but when he made the final decision, something inside of him clicked.

Something dark. Something apathetic and cruel.

The cold inner workings of any assassin.

The Sphinx stood up from his chair, wrapped his 14 year old hands around the pistol and without hesitation walked up to the target, who flinched slightly, and pulled the trigger three times.

The Wolf looked at his protege approvingly. He nodded seriously and the Sphinx remembered the smallest hint of a smile.

This approval was something the Sphinx had craved. He remembered the unique mixture of guilt and pride in his actions. But the feelings of guilt wouldn’t last. To get the Wolf’s approval, he would kill for this man.

The Sphinx felt his breath quicken, as he continued his search for the Wolf in the bowels of the Institute.

Even in this state, the Institute was clean. It was undeniably empty, with only a few trace evidence of the horrors that were conducted here. A stretcher in the corner of an empty room. The reinforced glass that prevented escapees. The keypads that could only be opened from the outside.

But to the uninitiated, it was as bare as could be. Nothing really showed that it was an enhanced training facility for one of the world’s most feared terrorists. The entire place reeked of deniability. It didn’t exist anywhere.

The Sphinx moved with the familiarity of memory. He knew where the Wolf would be. Not dead of a heart attack, that James Ashford had claimed to the Prince.

Instead, he would be working in his office. It didn’t matter that the Wolf was in his mid-60s. His commitment to the cause would have him working to his actual death.

Like the Prince, the Wolf also enjoyed anonymity from the grave. The only people who knew of his true existence were a secretive group of influential Englishmen who liked to ensure their secrets remained within their fraternity.

The Sphinx hadn’t known it at the time, but every action and exercise he had undertook was for this elite fraternity. These men would occasionally work with the government, sometimes against but it was always in their best interests.

Their motto was simple: sunt superis sua iura – the gods have their own laws.

Known simply as The Round Table, they were the shadowy organisation who funded the Institute and the Wolf’s training programs and sponsored his death.

But the Sphinx didn’t care. He was here only for one man. He kept moving through the Institute, his gun up, aware that the 4 man security team could be anywhere and were watching him through cameras.

Approaching the final staircase that would lead to the final 3rd basement floor, he spun around, thinking he had heard something. Silence and emptiness sneered at him and his AKS-74U.

The Sphinx frowned but shook off the feeling of disquiet and began to descend the final flight of stairs to confront the man who had controlled his destiny for so long.

~

The Prince shadowed the Sphinx the entire time as they descended further and further down. He was completely lost and disturbed by the Institute. They had first gone up into the floors where the building’s empty office spaces had been rented.

Rows and rows of empty cubicles stared at them, devoid of life. The Prince watched as the Sphinx ignored these cubicles and headed to a curiously placed fire-escape in the centre of the building. Silently following him, the Prince caught the door before it fully shut and hugged the wall as he looked down.

The Sphinx was walking down the flight of stairs. They seemed to descend forever into the depths of the ground. It was highly disorienting. The Prince watched as the Sphinx reached the bottom of the stairs and smoothly open the door, his AKS-74U up and ready to confront any threat.

Moments later, the Prince silently opened the same door and was shocked to see a hospital-styled room, with a long central corridor and many rooms with reinforced plexiglass, and one-way mirrors.

It was a classic interrogation wing. Only like the Sphinx had noted, it was studiously clean.

The Prince stayed back, watching the Sphinx professionally clear the area, before disappearing around a corner.

The Prince hurried after him, noting the familiarity that the Sphinx’s body language seemed to exhibit in these strange surrounding.

He’s been here before realised the Prince.

Minutes continued to crawl, as they went through another basement level, this one an advanced gun-range with a kill-house mock up, similar to the one that the Prince had trained in countless of times during his tenure in the SAS. However what set this basement level apart was the sheer height of it, with catwalks running across for observation and examination.

As the Prince watched the Sphinx cautiously move his way through the kill-house, he became aware of a strange detail in the CQB-training area.

The targets weren’t just cardboard cutouts. They were full blown silhouettes of both terrorist and counter-terrorists units, with realistic images of hostages. Empty chairs also lined the kill-house’s many rooms, with blood-rusted bullet holes behind them indicating that they had used live rounds against live targets here.

The Prince didn’t like any of these ramifications.

Where the hell am I? he thought as he continued to move his way through the kill-house silently.

As they came across the final staircase that would lead the final floor, in the north-east corner of the training level, the Sphinx nearly spotted the Prince following him.

In a hyper-fast move, the Prince ducked down and was relieved when the Sphinx continued on his way.

Keeping his Glock 19 close to his chest, the Prince continued to stalk the Sphinx, as he ventured deeper into the final level of the Institute.

~

The final floor of the Institute was a constant. An aberration of time and space. It was always perpetually dark and quiet. Only the barely audible hum of supercomputers and the flickering of thousand of TV monitors disrupted the shadows and silence.

This final floor was much smaller than the upper interrogation and training wings. In spite of that fact though, it was still a huge office for a single man. Measuring roughly 20×20 metres, it featured a central hub where the Wolf could observe a wall of large monitors that showcased feeds from operations around the world.

An assassination in Poland. A bombing in Syria. A governmental collapse in Argentina. A turf war between rival gangs in Los Angeles. A chemical factory explosion in Ukraine. A pirate raid on a supertanker off the coast of Africa.

The Wolf watched and processed them all through 4 supercomputers that allowed him to process and analyse data at an incredible rate. Currently, the Wolf was coldly eyeing the progress of the Sphinx and the Prince as they neared his command centre.

Along the east wall was the personal collection of the Wolf’s many escapades. An array of guns, swords, bows and even a large taxidermist Afghan horse were on display. Across from this collection though, along the west wall, was something far more gruesome.

Rows upon rows of index fingers lined the span of the wall. They were all perfectly lined up straight, with only one centimetre separating them. Some were slender and long, others short and stubby. A few had nail polish on them, others were painted. In some cases, the finger had suffered badly with cracked nails, broken bones, shrapnel damage, all left as they had been found when removed. In one case, torn flesh billowed softly from an open wound from what looked like a dog bite.

The entire index wall was encased in a yellow fluid, the stench of formaldehyde quickly consumed by strong vents that removed the smell elsewhere in the facility.

All 744 fingers were a memento of one of the Wolf’s kills. Each of them unique, each of them a strong memory.

Behind the central hub was a security station that separated the main entrance to the command centre. A large mounted machine gun provided a final stand of defence and the entire wall that filled most of the central space, except the two sides, was made of bulletproof opaque glass to shield the Wolf from any damage.

This was the Wolf’s lair, the place where he resided for much of his death.

It was the perfect Ops centre for conducting operations and easily defensible.

His loyal 4 man security team were at the security station desk, ready to fight till the end.

One man had his finger on the large mounted M240 Bravo machine gun that could tear through anything in seconds. The other 3 men were crouched beside him, submachine guns ready, fingers on the trigger.

They all stared at the door and waited anxiously.

Minutes passed when they heard a strange sound, like a suppressed pistol shot.

The Wolf said nothing to his men as he saw the camera feed outside the main door turn to hash.

~

The Sphinx placed his final C2 sphere on the door as quietly as he could.

There was nothing to it, but to go in guns blazing and make sure his fire was more accurate than the men inside.

The Sphinx looked over at his AKS-74U and thumbed the paddle to release the magazine. Looking at the bullets inside, the Sphinx sighed and noted that he had one full magazine left, one full spare on his belt and his Beretta with a half magazine.

It’s enough to finish this fight. thought the Sphinx as he reinserted the magazine into the gun and pulled out the detonator for the C2.

For Niamh

Crack!

The C2 sphere blasted the door open and the 4 men inside ducked instinctively. Within half a second, the M240B machine gunner instantly began pumping rounds through the door, firing blindly in a panic as his teammates soon unleashed their own torrent of fire.

The walls next to the door was soon perforated with hundred of holes.

As the three men ran dry and began their reloads, whilst the machine gunner continued to pump bullet after bullet, the Sphinx, crouching low near the door, risked a peek through one of the larger bullet holes that was created.

Slotting his AKS-74U in the hole, the Sphinx let loose a burst that chewed off the machine gunner’s head and froze the other three men, as the comforting thump-thump-thump of the M240B ceased.

Seizing his chance, the Sphinx ran through the door and with three bursts put all the remaining men down.

One man, his chest ripped apart, looked at the Sphinx in fear. The Sphinx smiled coldly, and with the final rounds in his AKS-74U’s magazine, shredded the man’s face, before dispassionately reloading.

As the Sphinx stood there, breathing heavily, on the cusp of entering the Wolf’s Lair, the Prince watched as he rolled swiftly to duck a 40mm grenade that was launched from the centre of the room.

The Prince swore as he realised that it was aimed at him. He dove under the grenade and tumbled down the stairs, as the staircase above him exploded spectacularly and a large chunk of debris slammed into the side of his head.

The Prince laid face-down, seemingly dead, as blood slowly crept out of the side of his head.

~

The Sphinx glared at the Wolf, who stood still in the middle of his command centre, a M4A1 rifle with a smoking underslung M203 grenade launcher aimed right at the Sphinx who was still crouched after his desperate roll.

Hassan. said the Wolf coldly.

The Sphinx chose to say nothing. Instead he was desperately trying to think of a way to get the upper hand.

You saved my life once Hassan. Consider this mercy as us, even. If you make one foolish move, don’t think I won’t kill you. You were stupid to come here. Look at you, repeating history again, bringing an outsider into our world. You didn’t even know that the Prince was following you the whole time.

I, once thought that you were my greatest student.

Perhaps once, I might have even thought you would be my son.

But you’re sloppy. You let your emotions control you again. Revenge has clouded your decision-making.

It’s pathetic. Have you learned nothing from me?

The Wolf tightened his trigger finger and coldly blew off the Sphinx’s left index finger which was by his side.

Blood sprayed from the Sphinx’s hand as he roared in pain. He looked down at his hand in shock. It was mangled beyond recognition, blood oozing from the wound and he could see the white hint of bone where the finger had been separated.

The feared terrorist looked around in morbid fascination for the missing digit as he gripped his hand furiously.

There it was, only 2 metres, his severed index finger, another trophy for the Wolf, weeping blood unceremoniously on the dark floor. For some odd reason, it was only when he saw the finger, the pain really started to hit him.

The Sphinx began to breathe heavily, as he prevented a scream from coming out. He wasn’t going to give the bastard Wolf, the satisfaction. Instead, he glared up at the Wolf defiantly.

The Wolf allowed himself the smallest of smiles in respect as he tilted the M4A1 up and aimed at the Sphinx’s head. His finger closed around the trigger and … was about to pull it all the way …

When the Prince groaned.

The sound was enough.

It distracted the Wolf for the smallest of seconds.

The Sphinx lunged into action and swept up the AKS-74U he dropped when the Wolf blew off his finger.

Gritting his teeth, the Sphinx loosed everything he had in the magazine at his enemy, at the man he once called a father. He didn’t even fire in bursts, he just held down the trigger, desperate to kill.

But the Wolf was too quick. He was already moving when he realised his mistake. The Wolf dove out of the way and gasped as one of the Sphinx’s bullets slammed into his M4A1, rendering the weapon useless.

The Sphinx’s crazed burst lasted for 4 seconds. The rounds echoed in the small room viciously, joined soon after by the sounds of computers and monitors sparking into death.

Fuck! yelled the Sphinx as the AKS-74U ran dry and began to click uselessly.

Whipping out his Beretta, the Sphinx rolled for cover, adrenaline-soaked revenge causing him to forget his wound, as the Wolf pulled out a big and rare Arsenal AF2011A1 and let loose.

A very odd pistol and the personal favourite of the Wolf, the Arsenal AF2011A1 wasn’t just any ordinary 1911 clone. It featured another .45 barrel next to the original, making it a weapon that had two barrels that could be pulled with one trigger. With a special magazine, the weapon featured 16 rounds and could easily blow fist-sized holes in a target.

Which is exactly what the Sphinx discovered when the flimsy table he was hiding behind blew open in a shower of wood and plastic and nearly took his head off. Peering through the hole and ignoring the splinters that had raked his face, the Sphinx loosed several rounds from his puny Beretta that caused the Wolf to duck.

They traded rounds after rounds, the ops centre viciously reporting each crack of gunfire in a headache inducing volume.

Suddenly, the exchange of fire stopped as both men ran dry.

Metallic clangs were heard as magazines were dropped to the floor and new ones were inserted with a sharp click.

Both men were breathing heavily, the Sphinx looking down at the blood that was dripping from his left hand hitting the floor, only for another drop to follow from the frag wound to the side of his face.

This ends now Wolf! called out the Sphinx.

The Wolf only snorted derisively.

Join her in hell … Sphinx.

With a primeval battle-cry, the Sphinx whirled from behind the table and raced towards the Wolf, just as the Wolf did the same.

Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! … Blam!

The Sphinx and the Wolf stood stock still in the centre of the room, mere metres apart, their guns outstretched.

The Sphinx collapsed first, his head blown apart by the final round that the Wolf fired.

The feared terrorist who had wreaked so much havoc across Europe because of revenge was dead. His chest was blown open by three powerful shots from the Wolf’s Arsenal.

No-one was getting up from that, not even the Sphinx’s desire for revenge. But ever the professional, the Wolf executed his protege with a headshot that created a huge exit wound, spraying brain matter everywhere in a gruesome, grisly grey-red mist.

The Wolf looked down at his own body and saw that the Sphinx had gotten him twice. Once in the left shoulder and another in the stomach.

Sinking to one knee, the Wolf looked at the Sphinx and shook his head.

Revenge. So petty. he said disdainfully as he clutched at his stomach.

Such a waste …

The Wolf breathed calmly as he began to assess the situation. The stupid emotional little shit was dead. He was wounded but nothing a Round Table medical team couldn’t patch up. Everything should be under control …

It was then the Prince arrived, his head bloody, his green eyes cold and strangely curious, his Glock 19 aimed straight at the Wolf’s head.

~

The Wolf spat on the ground disrespectfully.

Gabriel Woods. 31 years old. Australian. Former member of the 22nd SAS. Now an assassin. Never worked for any bidder. 79 confirmed kills in 4 years.

Renowned for killing a member of the Royal Family. Earned the sobriquet “The Prince” because of it. 2 fucking years later, through some quirk of fate, ends up working for Her Majesty anyway.

Talk about irony.

The Wolf laughed.

You know, we thought about hiring you. But when you killed one of us in Argentina, we figured you were too principled for our taste. Such a pity. We were big fans of your kill on the Prince. Probably one of the best we’ve ever seen and trust me, I’ve seen plenty to be impressed. We could have used a man like you.

The Prince looked down at the Wolf and cocked his head.

Could?

The Wolf smiled coldly.

You didn’t really think that I was going to tell you everything as I laid here dying did you? Who do you take me for?

The Prince looked up at the monitors that dominated so much of the room. His eyes widened in anger and shock.

Through the security camera footage, a 12-man SWAT team was making their way through Institute. They had just cleared the interrogation wing. In minutes they would be at the training floor, where the Kill-House was.

The Wolf began to laugh.

You’ve got nowh-

Blam! Blam! Blam!

The Prince shot him three times in the head.

The Wolf’s head lolled lifelessly and then fell over, meeting the same fate as his protege.

Master and apprentice, dead in the same room, their brains missing.

It was almost poetic if one knew their history. But the Prince didn’t, nor did he care.

They were just two more dead assholes.

Staring at the screen, and seeing the Round Table SWAT team get closer, the Prince gritted his teeth and walked over to the Wolf’s weapon arsenal on the east wall.

~

The 12 man SWAT team was anything but ordinary. For starters their uniform was entirely black, instead of the normal dark navy blue that normal Police teams would wear.

Large, bulletproof gas masks covered their faces, and they were armed to the teeth with breaching shotguns, assault rifles, submachine guns and large calibre pistols. Two of the men out front were holding large assault shields, with rare fully automatic Glock 18 machine pistols.

Whilst a normal SWAT team would be carrying cable-ties, non-lethal grenades and equipment for suspects, the Round Table team was suspiciously absent from any such kit. Instead they were carrying large body bags, and were equipped with thermite grenades, which when activated would burn anything to ash.

They were here for one purpose … the complete destruction of this Institute.

Sanitize and sterilize all traces of evidence.

The team leader, going by Gawain, stepped up to the door that lead to the training floor. Placing a breaching charge, he waited until the men were safely behind the riot shielded men before counting down.

3, 2, 1 … Mark.

Crack!

The door blew open and the men rushed in to begin their assault on the Kill House, where the Prince was waiting for them.

~

Having taken a spare backpack and stuffing it full of hard drives from the supercomputers that lined the back wall of the Ops Centre, the Prince was moving quickly. He knew that he didn’t have enough energy, nor firepower to defeat this SWAT team.

So this was all going to hinge on how stealthily he could sneak past the team.

Grabbing the quietest gun on the Wolf’s arsenal and his personal favourite, a familiar MP5SD, and stuffing his warbelt with 4 spare magazines, the Prince also grabbed a suppressor for his Glock 19, stowing it in a pocket, before grabbing 3 big packets of C4 explosive and a detonator.

Taking position on the far side of the Kill House and recalling the layout, the Prince crept forward as he heard Gawain blow open the door. He was making his way for the catwalk that was high above the kill-house. But to get there, he had to go through the kill-house’s south-west corner.

The Kill House was atypical of those seen in training facilities everywhere. Sturdy plywood lined with bulletproof material were used for walls, and the doors had multiple holes in them to practice breaching. This one featured over 20 rooms that were variously conjoined and interconnected.

The SWAT Team moved swiftly through the Kill-House. They were evidently well trained. They leap-frogged one another with precision and speed, already they were a third of the way through the Kill-House.

The Prince set down one of the C4 explosives in one of the rooms closest to the entry of the staircase that lead to the Ops Centre and moved into the Kill-House, where he waited in the adjoining room that would lead to the catwalk.

Bang!

With shocking swiftness, the door swung inwards to the room the Prince was waiting in. An assault shielded man came through, with 2 men behind him shooting over the shield into the corners of the room.

But what they didn’t realise was the Prince was lying on the floor and he shot the shit out of their legs.

Slit! Slit! Slit! Slit! whispered the MP5SD.

All three men collapsed on the floor, their shins exploding in sprays of blood.

The Prince, acting quickly, grabbed the riot shield, flipped it and rammed them all back through the way they came, causing them all to stack on top of each other, before ramming the edge of the shield into each of their heads, knocking them out cold.

Sprinting for the catwalk staircase, the Prince pulled out his detonator and pressed down viciously.

Shoom!

The C4 explosive blew apart the southern end of the Kill House, launching the remaining 9 men backwards with the blast.

As they staggered to their feet, Gawain looked around and saw the Prince sprinting above them, gunning for the staircase entrance that would lead to freedom.

Gawain bought his HK416 assault rifle to bear, only for the Prince to dive off the catwalk and onto the ground, where he rolled across the floor and to the only exit out of the training ground.

Fuck! swore Gawain. All elements! Back to the north entry now!

The Prince placed his second C4 at the door, before sprinting all the way up and placing his final one on the top of the staircase.

Then he ran right through the interrogation wing and at the end of the hall, smiled coldly and pressed down on the detonator.

Chunk!

From the Prince’s angle, fiery smoke billowed out through the open doorway he had just run through.

From Gawain’s angle, his team were launched backwards once more and they stared at the destruction the Prince had wreaked upon them, ensuring that they were stuck down here for a long time.

Gawain furiously punched the wall of the Kill-House and radioed in a report that was met with an angry but cold response.

Mediocre, Knight. Very mediocre.

~

The Prince ran outside, and saw the driver of the SWAT van that had just deposited the team sent in to kill him, who was in the midst of getting out.

Not one to waste time or opportunity, the Prince whipped up his MP5SD and blew out the driver’s kneecaps with two shots.

The man staggered face first onto the floor, where the Prince shot him again through the top of his head for good measure.

Pulling out his phone, the Prince called Ashford as he walked away from the Institute, his head reeling from everything that had just transpired. It was imperative that he go underground as soon as possible.

Ashford answered on the second ring.

Make me disappear, now.

~

Epilogue

It was another beautiful day in Tidal River, rural Victoria. The bright golden sunshine complemented the yellow grass that ended on a cliff that jutted out to the Pacific Ocean.

Big waves crashed against the cliff and the noise they generated created a soothing natural soundscape to the environment.

Gabriel Woods looked out from his brutally modern house from the second floor and sighed quietly.

It had been nearly 2 months since the V-Day Massacre in London, and it had taken all of Ashford’s considerable powers and resources to hide Woods from the new threat he had uncovered.

The Round Table.

Only Gabriel Woods and James Ashford were aware of their existence. Ashford couldn’t even trust his own SIS team, assuming, rightly so, that the entire intelligence agency was compromised.

At first, Ashford didn’t know what to make of the intelligence that Woods had secured off the 4 hard drives that once belonged to a man named Wolf. But it slowly dawned on him just how bad the situation was.

What the hell are we going to do? asked Ashford, aghast at the entire situation.

You know what you have to do. replied Woods evenly to the question.

Ashford looked at the man standing before him. Then the head of the British Intelligence nodded once and left, never to contact Woods again. He would do, what he had done for Gabriel for so many years, protect the Queen’s only assassin remotely and leave him to his devices.

The ultimate sign of trust amongst men who run in the shadows.

Gabriel Woods was now all alone in the fight.

The Prince was back and eager to rule once more.

Staring out at the landscape, the Prince turned his back to the view, turned on his laptop and began to research the latest target’s death:

Gawain of the Round Table, a Maltese Knight.

Let the hunt begin.

~

Author’s Note

And … I’m finished!

I know I let it end on a sequel-bait, but honestly, it’s more fun that way.

I might revisit this character later, but for now I’m pretty happy with the way how everything went.

I shall be writing a post-mortem entry for this whole short story, so hopefully that will be up soon! I can’t believe that this is only the second one I’e finished on this blog. Anywaw I hope you guys have had a blast reading it, as much as I did writing it.

I shall also be compiling and editing the entire thing into one big blog post, so you can read it from end to end!

Stay tuned for the reflection post on this story!

Big thanks to those who have been following this story since Espionage 1, way back in 2020!

I hope this ending was fun for you!

~ Damocles.

Into the Woods …. (Espionage 9)

20 minutes into the V-Day Attack.

Gabriel Woods stared at the crowd surging and pushing towards him, a primal fear coursing through his system, as the stampede of bodies barrelled down the London street, panicked and terrified.

Having rushed from Ryan “Jacket” Malik’s Croydon safe-house to London in the bomb-maker’s car, in a vain attempt to assist the SAS kill-teams already operating there, Woods was forced to abandon the car on the A23 when he saw the thousands of police checkpoints that blocked entry to London.

Slipping past surreptitiously the checkpoint, as policemen argued sternly with the hundreds of cars that were lining up, Woods made his way through the millions of alleyways that marked London’s cityscape, before finally entering the CBD properly after a long hour walk.

As he made his way through the city, he could hear the screams and echoes of gunfire. With his MP7A1, Glock 19 and warbelt looking decidedly terrifying, Gabriel wasn’t keen for anyone to see him, as he had no friendly identifying features on him.

As he rounded the corner of a street cautiously, it was then he was confronted with a crowd.

Falling back around the corner, Woods ducked into an alcove as the crowd kept running past him. No one saw the quiet assassin watching them, as they ran away in their fear. As he stepped out, one of the stragglers nearly collided into him, a petite woman clutching her arm and looking back in the direction she had came in horror.

She nearly screamed at the sight of Woods, but Woods was quicker, and with a firm but gentle grip, Woods slowly moved her around the corner, sat her down on the floor and said soothingly in a British accent

It’s OK. I’m UK Special Forces. I’m friendly. Here, let me look at that arm.

The petite woman was shaking heavily, the shock of a terrorist attack still apparent in her nervous system. Tears streaked down her cheeks, as she felt some semblance of relief at a soldier tending to her wound.

What’s your name? asked Woods softly, as he opened his first aid kit.

Liz. said the woman shakily. Woods nodded and smiled reassuringly.

Hi Liz. My name is George. I’m a medic with the 2nd Paras. We’ll have you patched up in no time OK? Just try to stay calm with me and not move too much OK? Everything is going to be alright Liz.

As Gabriel inspected the wound, a nasty piece of frag that had embedded itself in Liz’s arm, a tiny part of him marvelled at how quickly he had lied and created a false military persona. George from the 2nd Paras …. that was something he would have to tell Ashford later, so that the illustrious 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment, one of Britian’s first airborne troops units, founded in the Second World War, could prepare an appropriate story for the press.

It was a typical SAS ploy, to pass off their deeds to the Regiment where most of the SAS members had come from, and in most cases the Paras were all too happy to take the credit.

Gabriel looked at the piece of metal shrapnel that had lodged itself in this attractive blonde’s arm and winced at the flow of blood that was oozing out. To remove this, was to risk further blood loss, but who knew what sort of shit, bacteria wise, was in that open wound right now.

Taking out some disinfectant, Gabriel maintained gentle eye contact with Liz, as her blue eyes locked onto his green trustingly.

OK Liz, so I can’t remove this piece of metal, because to do so, would mean that you might incur more blood loss. What I am going to do, is disinfect this wound, so it’s going to sting a lot. Then I’m going to bandage you up and get you to a hospital ASAP. Hold onto me Liz, because this is going to hurt OK?

Liz nodded and started to breathe heavily, as she gripped Gabriel’s shoulder with her good hand. Dabbing the disinfectant onto a gauze pad, Gabriel started to clean the wound, ignoring the moans of pain as Liz began to writhe in his grip and tighten the pressure on his shoulder with her fingers.

Come on Liz, nearly there! said Woods encouragingly, as he continued to dab away at the wound and avoided touching the metal.

After what seems like hours, but was in reality minutes, Liz relaxed as Woods finally stopped and took out his bandage roll.

OK, hold still Liz.

She nodded gamely, as Woods began to bandage the wound, allowing the piece of metal to stick out from beyond the protective white tape and she winced in pain as the bandage pricked at the metal shrapnel.

OK, all done Liz. Attagirl. Now we got to get you to a hospital. Can you stand?

I … I think so.

It’s only a short hop, and skip away. Let’s go.

Gabriel gently looped Liz’s good arm around his neck and together they began to walk to the nearest hospital, which was the St. Thomas’ Hospital.

As Woods half carried and half supported Liz, he made idle conversation to take her mind off the pain and the sight of white bandages slowly becoming more infused with red.

Tell me more about yourself Liz. What do you normally do for a living?

I’m a bartender. I was serving drinks at the Beaufort, near the Savoy when out of nowhere I heard all this gunfire. At first I thought it was some type of sick joke, but when our bar’s windows got shot through and I saw people falling over …

Liz’s voice trailed off, as she relived the moment.

It’s OK Liz. You don’t have to continue. said Woods softly.

No, I’m OK. But yeah, when I saw what was really going on … I ducked behind the bar, but that was when the terrorists shot at the glasses above me and people starting running out. One of the bullets must have shattered something, because the railing that held up the drinks just fucking broke apart and I got that in my arm as I was hiding.

Liz took a shaky breath, as they continued their slow journey to the hospital.

You know George, I was there in 2017, when the Bridge attacks happened. I thought I was going to die when the van came near me. But this shit is way worse. I can’t believe it happened to me again. I only just got over that damn bridge attack and now .. I’m fucking shot. When is this going to be over?

Gabriel looked sympathetically at the waiter. She was tough and unlucky. To have 2 terrorists attack occur within the span of 5 years, with Liz at the centre, was sheer galactic unluckiness. He didn’t know what to say.

Take it easy Liz, Woods heard himself say We’re nearly there.

God … I’m going to have to spend a ton more on therapy again said Liz half jokingly and half seriously.

Woods smiled. A sense of humour meant that her spirit wasn’t truly broken yet. As they rounded the corner, Woods was relieved to see that the hospitals had not quite gotten full yet. Walking through the emergency doors, Woods looked at a nurse and a security guard who was rushing forwards.

UK Special Forces. I’m here to drop off a casualty. Frag wound to the arm. I’ll leave her in your care. Give me a quick trauma kit, I got to get back out there.

The nurse nodded and yelled at the security guard who immediately ran off to get a fresh trauma kit whilst she looked at Liz.

Liz smiled at Woods gratefully as the nurse fussed over her.

I don’t know how to thank you George.

Just doing my duty ma’am. said Woods charmingly.

Thank you. Oh and one more thing, as I was running out of the Beaufort, I thought I saw something strange.

Woods knelt in front of Liz and looked at her seriously.

What was it? he asked intensely.

Maybe it was nothing, but just before the attack happened, I was serving this couple. They were this good-looking Middle Eastern couple. The girl looked really nervous, and she also looked pregnant but the guy seemed chilled about everything. I only remembered them, because they never ordered any proper drinks, just mocktails and finger food. But they kept looking at their watches and I noticed at around 10 to 7, they left.

As they left, I saw the guy nod to someone who was also eating there.

This guy was the one who later shot up my bar.

Woods looked at Liz, scrutinising her. Are you sure?

Yes.

Which way were they going?

I’m not sure, but it was towards the Charing Cross.

Woods smiled gratefully. Thank you Liz. he said, holding her non-injured hand gently and squeezing it warmly. Now heal up. I’ll be back to visit you sometime.

As Woods ran off, he knew that he would never keep that promise. Such was the nature of this business. She would live her life, none the wiser about the identity of the Prince that had saved her arm from amputation with his quick first aid. To her, he was just another 2nd Parachute Regiment trooper named George.

~

To cross the River Thames, Woods was going to run directly across the famous Westminster Bridge where Big Ben watched over it, ever vigilant. To the North of these iconic institutions, stood equally famous landmarks, like 10 Downing Street, Whitehall and the National Gallery.

To the North-east of Big Ben, sat the Savoy and the Beaufort Bar, where Gabriel and Liz had walked from, as well as Charing Cross Station.

If Woods was any predictor of the Sphinx’s target, it would be any of those key icons or Big Ben itself. However, suicide bombing was not in his nature.

This was the task of his underlings. Soldiers who would die for the cause.

Men who had already set London on fire, as Woods ran across Westminster Bridge, seeing flames and smoke rising from the numerous shops that had been fired upon.

What struck Woods though, was the constant cacophony of noise. Screams of the wounded blended into the whoop, whoop, whoop of emergency sirens. The occasional pop of gunfire echoed through the skyward corridors of London, the sound reverberating harshly as it bounced everywhere.

There were people were running everywhere, as their panicked eyes sought solace anywhere. Woods could see bloodied clothes, torn dresses and abandoned heels. A man walked past him, his eyes dazed by the horror of what he had just witnessed, a zombie in a neat tuxedo. Nothing was registering on his face, just an empty blankness.

Others were crouched and lying on the floor, as they hyperventilated through the shock and fear, struggling to breathe properly, their friends sobbing into their shoulder.

A woman and her child were hugging each other tightly, and as Woods ran past them, the mother screamed in horror at the sight of his guns and buried her face into her son’s head.

No! No! NO! Don’t take him please!

Woods ignored her and kept running, his green eyes scanning everywhere for Malik and Sofia. If they weren’t going to attack Big Ben, then it had to be something else. Sooner or later, he would come across them.

More people ran past him. Shops burned. Woods kept desperately searching for the two lovers.

But he only saw chaos everywhere.

A teen in a hoodie was rummaging through a smashed in store. Woods walked up to him and raised his MP7A1, nudging him in the shoulder.

The teen jumped backwards in fright, and promptly tripped over the broken glass that littered the floor. Falling over, he instantly banged his hooded head against the floor, knocking him out cold. Woods flipped him over, and with a spare cable-tie, cuffed the teen to a floor-mounted table and sent an anonymous tip to the police with his phone.

Pushing on, Woods kept moving through the city that had been touched too many times by fundamentalism. To his great relief, Woods had yet to see any bomb damage, which meant that his intelligence and the SAS kill-teams had saved the city from further destruction.

Whilst it would have been more ideal if all elements of the attack had been stopped, there was only so much that could be done. After all, the Sphinx had planned for all eventualities. Casualties in every single one of his attacks were to be expected. This was his biggest one, and to assume that they could properly prevent an attack, planned by one of their own, was arrogant and short-sighted.

Woods recalled the conversation he had with Ashford, in the hours before this attack.

~

You know that we can’t stop this attack cleanly right?

I know, Gabriel. There are still too many variables in this scenario. The SAS teams are all prepped and ready to go. They’ll be inserting in ASAP. But …

Ashford’s voice trailed off into silence as he tried to contemplate all of the Sphinx’s moves.

We still know too little.

Yes. said Ashford defeated. The lads at Hereford are the best, but even they are no guarantee.

Woods looked on quietly, as one of the most powerful and intelligent men in the world, buried his head in his hands. Every death that was going to occur in the attack, was going to haunt him for the rest of his career. Not even his American counterpart, Richard Washington had been able to provide much assistance.

The Sphinx was going to strike, regardless of their actions from now till the Valentine Day Attack.

What the hell am I going to do Gabriel?

Woods looked at Ashford and coldly said one word

Retribution.

Ashford looked up sharply at his best asset.

You know sir, it’s time you put me to good use. The Americans never quite understood how to use me to the best of my ability. I gathered intelligence for them, hid amongst the locals and spied on village leaders and warlords.

I didn’t become the Prince to spy on people. I definitely did not expect months of service to the Americans either.

You found me for a reason. I’m not in the business of preventing attacks.

I’m in the business of hunting

The information I gather is to kill a target, not to be used for any other type of reconnaissance.

Don’t make the same mistake as the Americans. You’re better than that. You have under your command, someone who stalks and kill their prey before they can commit some heinous crime.

I don’t exist anywhere. No-one knows who I really am, or who I work for.

It’s too late to prevent this attack, but you can stop the next one.

Unleash me, sir.

Ashford nodded and realised that he had foolishly categorised this man as another intelligence asset.

What Gabriel Woods should really be designated as, is England’s only assassin.

James Ashford, the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, looked at Woods with a cold fury behind his eyes.

You have execute authority. I want Malik’s head. Bring it to me. Don’t make tomorrow’s chaos be in vain.

Woods looked back at his boss and nodded.

With pleasure, sir.

~

As Woods rushed from Westminster Bridge to 10 Downing Street, following nothing but his instincts, the Sphinx was gripping the hands of Sofia Sumarwata, whose serene beauty was now flushed with excitement.

They looked like any Valentine’s Day couple, well dressed and romantic in their attractiveness. Malik was dressed in a casual suit, with a black collared shirt, matching his black pants and sports jacket. His hair was slicked back, and his clean shaven face showcased his strong jaw and straight nose. The only thing that betrayed his romantic sheen, was the intense focus behind his brown eyes, that scanned the environment intently and showed a strange excitement.

Sofia’s outfit was startlingly bold. Her red dress plunged daringly at the front and perfectly set off her olive skin. Her dark hair was tossed and tousled just so, giving it volume and bounce, as she ran next to her lover. Sofia’s long legs were brilliantly displayed in a pair of red Louboutin heels, and there was a strange air of carelessness to her that was completely at odds with the chaos surrounding the couple.

They were racing down the Parliament Street, as people screamed and scattered around them. The entire city was gripped in a panic and it was imperative that they use this opportunity to strike.

The Sphinx was armed to the teeth, a collapsible AKS-74U with modern Zenitco rails and a compact Aimpoint T-2 affixed towards the front of the gun. In addition, a DBAL-I2 laser designator was affixed to the right side of the gun, and in a holster on his belt was a large Beretta M9A3 with a suppressor.

It was this large pistol that was gripped in the Sphinx’s hands, as he held it low and behind his leg, the AKS-74U hidden just underneath his stylish black blazer.

Sofia was unarmed, but there was something strange about the way how she moved, how she clutched at her belly that betrayed her intention.

At 100 metres away from the checkpoint at Downing Street, the pair of them slowed down, holding each other’s hands tightly, Sofia savouring the moment with Malik.

Then it came into proper view, the simple black gates that protected one of the most iconic residences in the world. Understated and manned by 5 police officers, wielding G36 assault rifles, the gates looked strangely unimposing for so important a residence.

All the officers were at the front of the gate, anxiously looking out at the chaos that was happening all around them, their assault rifles held nervously in their hands.

The Sphinx counted them and rehearsed a move in his head

One of the officers saw the Sphinx and Sofia walking towards them and motioned to them to stop.

Halt!

Sofia stopped and put her hands up, reassuring the officers somewhat. She smiled reassuringly and for a split second they relaxed.

It was then, the Sphinx made his move. Swiftly and violently.

The Beretta whipped up from behind his leg and shooting between the gate’s frame, the pistol spat 5 rounds in a matter of 2 seconds.

The officers didn’t even get a single shot off. They all crumpled to the floor, like marionettes that had their strings cut, blood seeping out of the holes in their heads. The Sphinx walked over to the gate and peered in, before nodding to himself.

Reaching into his pocket, the Sphinx took out a wad of C2 explosive, a less powerful version of C4, traditionally used for breaching. Lining the strip along the seam of the gate, he stepped back and set it off with a detonator, watching as the gates swung inward viciously.

Smiling victoriously, Hassan Malik, the Sphinx stepped onto the hallowed grounds of the British Parliament.

~

As the two lovers crossed the gate to Downing Street, Woods spotted them, further down the road, on the opposite end of Parliament. He saw the flash of Sofia’s dark hair and her red dress as she disappeared from sight a second later, past the police checkpoint’s gates

Fuck! swore Woods as he switched from a jog to a full blown sprint.

~

Hassan Malik looked at one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen, and pressed her lips to his. Sofia looked deep into his eyes, tears and love mingling together in a coalescence of heavy emotion. They savoured each other for a second, before she began to walk towards the iconic black door of 10 Downing Street.

~

For all it’s importance, as the residence of the United Kingdom’s Prime Minster, Number 10’s black door was classically British in its simplicity, elegance and refinement. There was nothing particularly flashy about it, nor ornate. It was perfect in its unobtrusiveness.

But within the doors, housed many different rooms steeped in history. 300 years old, with 100 rooms for dignitaries, world leaders and influential folk of all sorts, the house had long been the home to Britain’s most iconic leaders, Thatcher, Churchill, Pitt the Younger …

Cabinet and War Rooms could be found within its halls and in 1991, the place was bombed by the IRA, during a particularly vicious era of British history, leading to the installation of the police checkpoints that the Sphinx had so comprehensively attacked.

In the words of Margaret Thatcher, Number 10 had become “one of the most precious jewels in the national heritage.”

A jewel that would very soon be besmirched by the latest brand of terrorism.

~

Sofia Sumarwata walked slowly towards the centre of 10 Downing Street. The image of such a beautiful woman standing in the centre of the home for the British Parliament was burned into the minds of all who saw it.

The security officers watching from cameras, their faces aghast at what was to come.

The 5 other officers who had turned around too late to see what was going on on the other side Downing Street and were now charging forwards to tackle Sofia, unaware of the danger.

The Prime Minister and his cabinet diving for the floor as their security guards threw themselves on top of their charges.

The Sphinx taking cover nearby, a sad and proud smile on his face as he beheld his lover take her final steps into oblivion.

And finally the Prince himself as he dashed around the gate, his weapon up, his eyes affixed through the gun sight.

Sofia knocked on the door of Number 10 Downing Street politely, once.

The sight of such an attractive woman in red, knocking in a picturesque British setting would have beautiful, if not for the intent.

No! Sofia, don’t! yelled Woods as he desperately tried to reach her in time. The image of her standing there, with a sad but content expression was enough for Woods to curl his finger around the trigger. But there was no time left.

She was gone.

~

The explosion that ripped from her stomach was huge. She had worn a modified vest that resembled a pregnant belly. It was directed outwards and immediately blew her apart in two. Nothing remained of her body, one second she was there, the next she was gone.

Only her actions remained, to be remembered forever in history.

The black door at Number 10 was eviscerated. Vapourised along with anything within 10 metres of the initial blast. Glass melted before the intense heat, bricks shattered and burned along with the carpet that lined the interior of the house. Priceless art dropped from their hooks and blew apart, as did tasteful furniture that was reduced to ash instantly.

The buildings around the explosion buckled heavily, as windows shattered and showered the immediate area with shards of glass and wood splinters, causing the Sphinx to roll from behind a car he was hiding behind to avoid the shower.

The Prime Minister yelled as the roar of the blast could even be felt in his War Room, the reinforced bunker holding up easily to the blast.

The officers who had come running from the other side of Downing Street were flung aside, their bodies rag-dolling against cars, walls and for one poor officer, a hard red London post box that cracked his head open. They all laid still, their heroics unrewarded with unceremonious unconsciousness.

Woods was also flung backwards by the concussive force, the shaped charge saving his life in a strange way, as most of the explosive force was directed towards the residence, and the fact that he was further away.

He crashed heavily against the black fence of the gate, the force of the impact stunning him viciously. Groaning, Woods looked up from his prone position to see the sharply dressed Sphinx get up from his position, whip his AKS-74U up and charge headlong into the breach that his lover sacrificed herself for.

What the hell is he doing? thought Woods. He knows he can’t get to the Prime Minister once he is in the War Room. What is he searching for?

Moments later, the gunfire from the building screamed at Woods to get up.

Gritting his teeth and despite the intense ringing that was shooting through his head and ears, Woods jumped up and ran into the breach after the Sphinx.

Author’s Note

I’ll keep it brief …

I’ve already started on the next and final installment of this series.

Till then!

~ Damocles.

The Matrix Resurrections (2021) – Cinema Review

Y/N? No.

Director: Lana Wachowski

Stars: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jada Pinkett Smith, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jonathan Groff, Neil Patrick Harris, Jessica Henwick & Priyanka Chopra Jones.

Review by Damocles

Red pill or blue pill? I’m going blue, because I wished this film never existed and I was happy in that world where it never came out.

I’ve seen my fair share of “artsy” films. Most of them are French, because only they seem arrogant, pretentious and talented enough to pull it off. They make strange films that take you along for a ride, with gorgeous visuals of the European coastline and cities and strange dialogue that is both whimsical as it is poignant.

However, the difference with these films, and something like the Matrix Resurrections, is that you can tell they are thought experiments. They’re not designed to break box office records, but give you a different experience and perhaps dazzle with the filmmaker’s mastery of the cinematic language, whilst saying absolutely nothing at all.

But when you have a franchise as unique and ground-breaking as The Matrix, you need to come in with different sensibilities. The first film married high sci-fi concepts, novel film-making techniques and classic Hong Kong martial arts in a highly enjoyable package.

The sequels were evidence of diminishing returns, perhaps a sign of things to come with this latest film, considering the concepts only got more and more philosophical, whilst failing to provide any meaningful answers.

In Matrix Resurrections, there are simultaneously too much going on and too little. There are a lot of intriguing concepts, as there are normally in a lot of bad films, but just like a B-movie, they don’t bother expanding or explore those ideas.

Perhaps the worst sin that this Matrix film performs, is the constant callback to the previous films in the franchise. Footage plays constantly from previous films, whether in the flashback format or to accentuate what is going on currently.

Beyond being very distracting and disorienting, as these flashbacks only last blinding seconds, they also have this unwelcome effect of reminding just how much better those films were in comparison to the swill you are watching now.

Especially in the first two thirds of the film, the constant sense of deja vu elicited by seeing the familiar, only made a lot worse with cheap sets, costumes and poor aesthetic choices, made you question why did they even bother with making this film.

Dialogue is a particularly troublesome issue, with a lot of it being extremely unsubtle, ham-fisted, awkward and exposition heavy. It didn’t help the cause when a lot of the actors seem to be phoning it in, with so much of the delivery being flat, toneless and clunky, due to a strange lack of direction by Lana Wachowski.

In particular, the line about Warner Bros forcing a sequel to the trilogy, seemed like a strange protest, considering that the franchise was never high art, despite the visuals desperately trying to give that impression. Film-making, especially in Hollywood has always been a marriage between large corporations and artists. It is what makes the films over there unique, in comparison to the endless smaller fare of Europe, India or Asia.

Larger and more ambitious projects are allowed to be what they are, because a corporation agrees to the risk of financing it and creating a spectacle. For the film to protest against corpos, seems disingenuous to me, when they should be all too aware of the system and mechanism put in place to support such a film being created. After all, it is this unique situation of corporations investing … gambling, heavily in arts that makes Hollywood …. well, Hollywood.

So it is strange watching this hollow shell of a film, knowing that one of the original creators wrote, directed and was the creative force behind this film. So much of what defined the original trilogy is absent here.

The famous action sequences that once featured so much kung fu and gun-fu … is now neutered and flat, with gun-fights lacking any intensity and creativity, and kung-fu now being replaced by … Keanu’s jazz-hands.

Here you have, one of cinema’s greatest action stars, a veteran in the industry, a man who is committed to stunt training, choreography and has proven, even at his age, he can kick arse with the best of them and you make him do jazz-hands, sport the same look as his John Wick character, sans style and male grooming and rob him of any agency throughout the whole film.

To the action sequences were disappointing, would indicate that I expected them to be good. I didn’t and somehow I was still disappointed. Not even Shang-Chi let me down this hard when it came to action scenes and martial arts choreography.

Speaking of style, I struggled to find any in this film. What made the Matrix so undeniably cool was the strange BDSM-inspired outfits that emphasized sleek lines and the black and green tinge to the world. I thought the incorporation of today’s awful trend of wearing searingly bright colours did nothing to match the oppressive tone of what the Matrix was supposed to represent.

For example, the agents have always been defined by their plain, anonymous suits, accentuated by sharp sunglasses. In contrast, Trinity’s sleek, leather outfit causes her to stand out yet blend in with her environments. Neo’s long coat showcases a humility and monk-like approach to his title as The One. Morpheus’ style is old-school, a representation of an aging fighter, just still powerful and mentorly. His long coat, unique sunglasses, vest and tie shows that he still treats his role like a job but still showcases his individuality from the ones who haven’t seen the real world.

In this film, Smith wears bright, fashionable clothes. Morpheus is always bedecked in colour, from head to toe. Jessica Henwick’s character has blue hair. The Matrix outfits worn by the secondary characters are just more or less modern trends that tend to violate fashion styles instead of adhere to them.

There is nothing to differentiate these people from each other. What they wear in the Matrix is the same as the people who are still asleep in the Matrix. What make these people different?

It is these small details that doesn’t add substance to the poor plot. Neo as a game designer, creating a trilogy of games that emulated the events of the first three movies? Struggling with mental issues, thus warranting an awful insertion of the White Rabbit song? It’s all desperately trying to be creative whilst recycling the greatest hits of the first film.

There are many cringe-worthy moments, from the game development sequence, to the performance of Neil Patrick Harris as the big bad. All of it, in service of a film whose plot meanders constantly, doesn’t have a good flow in between scenes and do away with big changes in the world through clunky dialogue.

Worse, the cinematography doesn’t do anything. We live in an age of Dune & Blade Runner 2049 which pushes the envelope of reality when it comes to CGI. Here, the CG is as equally ear searing as the costumes worn by the characters and look so cheap compared to the original film. How could a franchise that developed and pushed the envelope of CGI, fall into the same trap that so many other film-makers do constantly … use CGI as a crutch instead of a means to tell a story.

I need only look at the random inclusion of a Tokyo train to hate on this film. Nothing about the set nor the CG backdrop is convincing. Everything has a cheaper feel to it, and it shows on camera, especially when the cinematographer is not really trying. Gone are the steady camera that defined the HK action cinema. Now it has been replaced with quick-cutting, blurry footage that shows how lazy the choreography is and the poor CG effects.

Such a shame.

So if characters are horrible, cinematography bland, plot confusing and bland, and the costumes are ick … how about the music?

To sum up in one word: non-existant.

Nothing about the score is in my mind. Not a single note, melody or hum. I cannot remember any of it. Was there even a score? Where was the iconic electronic score that used to punctuate every action scene? Who even made the score? I got no idea, nor do I care. It was that blended, that invisible that I don’t think it ever existed.

On all levels, Matrix Resurrections fails to engage. It never delves deep enough into the rabbit hole it has created to explore its’ theme and story beats, and so much of its execution is lacklustre.

When are people going to learn to leave a franchise with a conclusive ending alone?

Why chance a loss a the box office for mediocrity?

Enough with the things we know, it’s time for the unknown.

A scene to recall: Was I blinded by gunfire sparks? Yes. Was I also blinded by Jessica Henwick’s blue hair? Yes. But only a second, because … there was nothing in this film. Absolutely nothing.

THE CRAP LIST (SPOILERS AHEAD!)

This list seems to be a recurring phenomena when I discuss bad films, so from now they shall be referred to as the Crap List. Spoilers will be everywhere and will categorise all the personal gripes and issues I’ve had with the film.

  • To start the film in the same way as the original, but with a lot less atmosphere and flair already puts a sour taste in my mouth.
  • The scene is very confusing to start with, and only ends with more confusion as characters throw around terms that have no explanation nor any obvious connotations. What the hell is a Modal? Why is Trinity played by someone else? What happened to that Trinity anyway?
  • Why are the Agents so lame? They don’t do anything in the film …. gone is the menace. If they have been replaced by this “swarm” mode … what is the point?
  • I thought humans were batteries for the machines, so why would the Matrix waste their batteries with a “swarm” mode? Seems a bit superfluous innit?
  • If the Matrix can just fucking resurrect human beings … you would think their technology wouldn’t need human batteries anymore.
  • Bugs, as a name … isn’t very good. Neither is Bunny, but then … why would you name your main character, the audience’s eyes and surrogate after a cartoon character. I would find it difficult to salute a Captain “Bugs”
  • Morpheus as a fucking Agent does not make any goddamn sense at all. Why introduce him as one, only to have him, minutes later, turn into a good guy? It would have been fun to see an evil Morpheus take on the of Neo and Trinity, as a spin on the original formula.
  • Do people just carry goddamn blue and red pill everywhere? They just seem to whip them out whenever its convenient.
  • I’m a big gun nerd, so to see Bugs whip out a pistol, empty it … note that the slide is locked to the rear … then release the slide and then aim at Morpheus … as if it was loaded …. confused the shit out of me.
  • For so much gunfire at the beginning, it sure as shit seems like no-one can hit anything at fucking 5 metres away. You would think Agents with superior programming can hit something …. and multiple AR-15s firing at 600 rounds per second.
  • The idea of doors opening everywhere isn’t very …. interesting. It only makes things more confusing.
  • I did not understand a single word between Morpheus and Bugs. Their conversation was nonsensical.
  • I felt that Neo’s introductory shot should have been either more heroic or more depressing. It was smack bang in the middle, which is something I dislike. As the hero of the story, he deserves more than that. The first look at a character should always make a strong impact.
  • Smith …. Smith … Smith … what a shitshow. A parody of a legendary performance by Hugo Weaving and I disliked immensely how casual he sounded when addressing Neo. “Tom” this, “Tom” that … he’s meant to be robotic, machine-like … there shouldn’t be any human traits to him. You take one look at his ridiculously modern outfit with his loafers, burgundy colours and slick style and he seems more human than Neo.
  • Morpheus … Dorpheus … Orpheus … Seashells by the Seahorpheus …. Hannibal Burress was a better depiction of the legendary character than the character seen in this movie. It wasn’t even necessary to make these 2 characters the same as the original.
  • The game designer element of Neo was strange. It didn’t really go anywhere nor add anything interesting.
  • The game company’s aesthetic is something that I fear, on a deep personal level. I hate all those garish colours and bizarre choices that are synonymous with contemporary tech companies like Facebook or Google. The forced nature of these bright colours is so hypocritical and false and when I saw it, in the film, an irrational fear overtook me.
  • Equally terrifying was the depiction of the Matrix’s sequel game development group. Their buzz words and brainstorming elicited an equally terrifying reaction from me. I will never work in the corporate world if there is anything like this in reality.
  • The therapist played by Neil Patrick Harris was a bizarre choice for a villain. His blue glasses were annoying, as was his overall demeanor. I felt like there were too many villains in this film and did the main one REALLY HAVE TO BE THE ONE WITH THE CAT????? Look what you did to Mr, Bigglesworth!
  • I don’t think I have cringed and hated a scene as much as I did, when I saw the recreation of the iconic blue/red pill scene in a dark-lit, stormy room with a mirror. The sheer pretentiousness and artsy presentation of the set was enough to make my skin crawl. To have Neo walk between curtains playing the scene from the original movie, being projected onto them, was so distasteful. It was so bizarrely fourth-wall breaking and modern art that I think I reflexively tried to banish it out of my mind.
  • We REALLY keep retreading same old material here, don’t we? Another unplugged moment, only a lot less interesting because it’s the same thing done twice.
  • The reveal of IO was done rather poorly. In addition did they really just chop off “Z” and “N” off Zion to give this new place a name? Was there any real reason why we couldn’t go to Zion?
  • At any point, were the real humans in danger? I didn’t recall any scenes explaining why they had to hide and scurry away from the Machines.
  • Strawberries …. filmmakers’ favourite fruit after fucking apples. I hate this cliche.
  • ROBOTS are helping humans now and these weird magnetic projections. You could have chosen to film that part, where machines and humanity fought and an easy peace was established. Just like Terminator Salvation (2009). It could have been great. Interesting. But instead we get a lame flashback and an exposition dump. To quote David Lynch and a million others: What the hell?!!? ….
  • So they just bust outta Io, that easy huh? Great security for a place that is supposed to be hidden. Also great job still allowing a mutinous crew access to their bloody ship. Slow clap. Slow … fucking … clap.
  • ANOTHER poorly filmed fight scene, only this time they bought another character from the archive and made him shit … again! The Merovingian deserved better than this.
  • The callback to the original fight between Smith and Neo is amazingly forgettable due to poor camera work and well … it’s the same shit but dressed in a clown outfit.
  • The atrocious overuse of bullet time/slow-mo looked awful. NPH’s smugness made me laugh more than anything else.
  • Swarm mode …. reminded me more of the F8’s zombie cars and that wasn’t good. It was bad in F8 … it was worse in Matrix. Also, it completely nullifies the concept of Agents so why have them in the movie? It would have been more intriguing to see this bot swarm attack faux-Trinity and Bugs at the very beginning.
  • I still cannot believe that the whole movie boils down to Neo wanting his old flame back …. why the hell would the other characters help him for that? There’s no promise of a better world with Trinity back …
  • It’s amazing that film-makers these day still rely on aging old actors to carry a film … and simultaneously rob them of any agency and magic that made them special, thus creating a shit sandwich.
  • Where did this Indian chick come from and why do I not care anymore …
  • Also her plot to get Trinity back is needlessly convoluted.
  • The finale …. held in the coffee shop was meant to be symbolic. I thought it looked fucking cheap and weird with so many people in it.
  • You call THAT a fight scene!?!?
  • Oh God …. Smith’s entrance to rebel against the Analyst was so lame.
  • What is with the finale …. just a lame getaway to a roof top!?!!? Also, if this swarm mode was that vicious there would be people throwing themselves at the pair all the way to the top.
  • Trinity being the one to fly … was just uninspired.
  • I hate this ending. Their costumes look cheap, shit and bland. Their lines are equally terrible.
  • Rainbows …. Fucking Rainbows.
  • My final thoughts: I can’t believe critics are praising this film. Please stop being pretentious and buying into this Warhol mentality of “trash = genius.” If you make something intentionally craaaap guess what? IT’S STILL FUCKING CRAP. THERE’S NOTHING GOOD ABOUT IT. Do you want to intentionally poop? Do you think a pile of shit is popular because it’s surrounded by flies? Intentionally making something bad isn’t something to be lauded over … it’s to be shamed. It’s the equivalent of public defecation. Lock them in a brig and shame them forever.
    • Fucking nihilists these days man. Depreciating art with their crap attitudes and praising stupid decisions.
    • Crap is crap. Stop giving the Wachowskis money to make movies. They’re terrible directors.
  • I can’t believe this was the last movie I watched for 2021. A shit film to end a shit year. Poetic, really.

Counter Revolutionary Warfare …. (Espionage 8)

1630HRS GMT – THE SAVOY HOTEL, STRAND, LONDON. 51.5101° N, 0.1205° W

2 Hours before the V-Day Attack.

Sergeant Will Anderson shifted in the seat of the blacked out Range Rover that held his fellow squadmates. As he looked out the window at the masses of people that were celebrating Valentine’s Day, he was reminded of the view he took in, from the helicopter as it inserted them into the capital city of England.

Flying through the darkness of dawn in a large CH-47 Chinook helicopter, Anderson watched as the green hills of Hereford slowly faded before the onslaught of civilization and roads began to appear more in earnest. His body was tired from the endless contact drills they had performed in the Kill House the day before, but his mind was still sharp.

The 50 man chalk in the Chinook were armed with a large variety of weapons, most of them sporting the iconic MP5 submachine gun sexier, newer replacement; the Sig Sauer MPX. Other members of the squad were using heavier, longer Sig Sauer MCX rifles and just a designated few, were armed with HK417 DMRs that were going to be crucial to preventing any escapees.

What was strange though, was their civilian clothes. Instead of battle dress uniforms, every single trooper was in casual clothing, with tactical vests, headphones and thigh-rigs strapped over a variety of jeans, cargo pants, hoodies, polo shirts and windbreakers. One man even wore a pair of chinos, a particular source of amusement amongst the lads, as they ribbed him endlessly about it.

Whilst some of the men chose to wear baseball caps, many preferred to strap their trusted bump helmets to their vests and backpacks and go without headwear.

However, despite the fashion differences, every single SAS trooper was heavily tattooed, and had on their person, a balaclava to conceal their identity and an IR Union Jack patch that could slapped on their vest to be identified as a friendly.

Anderson, looking out the window, beheld the familiar skyline of London. He felt a vague surge of anger at the idea that someone was going to conduct a terrorist attack on home soil, and looked around the helicopter to see that the men had gone silent, their thoughts preoccupied with the job ahead.

Landing at a private airfield nearby, 50 of the most lethal soldiers on Her Majesty’s payroll strolled off the ramp of the Chinook casually, to split into 4 man teams. A CO and his 2IC peeled off into a fast Jaguar sedan that would take them to the control centre at the SIS HQ.

Anderson looked at his team, Bravo 2 to 4 and they quickly checked their personal radios so that they could hear each other on their discreet earpiece.

Bravo 2. Check.

Bravo 3. Check.

Bravo 4. Check.

Bravo 1. Copy all.

Anderson climbed into his car and stowed his MPX beside his leg, before shimmying in his seat, in a vain attempt to get comfortable.

7 Range Rovers peeled off to their respective target areas, with the remaining 5 cars behaving like a QRF to wait in-between targets, ready to assist in any direction.

As Bravo 3 drove Bravo Squad to their target, the Savoy Hotel, Bravo 2 was busy in the rear, checking the squad radio that would allow them to coordinate with the SIS HQ, local Police and the EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) teams waiting on standby for their signal.

It’s going to be a long wait, thought Anderson as they arrived at their spot early, parking the Rover in the best surveillance spot possible.

Nodding at the men, Anderson and his squad stripped off their vests, clipped their radios to their belts and buried their sidearms under shoulders or belts.

Piling out of the car in unison, Bravo 2 and 4 walked out, disappearing instantly into the crowd that would only build to a feverish pitch by 1830HRS.

Anderson pulled out a tablet and patched himself into the myriad of surveillance options that covered the surrounding 5 blocks. Meanwhile, Bravo 3 began to drum his fingers on the wheel, anxiously scanning the crowd around them, a rhythm that would slowly grate on Anderson’s patience, but he was too busy to tell him to shut it.

The tablet flickered constantly, as it flicked through hundreds of footage, little squares appearing over people’s faces as it scanned them for any distinguishing features.

Thanks to the Prince’s intelligence, the SAS kill-teams had memorised the faces of every single terrorist member that threatened to wreak havoc. Bravo squad’s particular terror cell, comprised solely of 2 men, Abdul Hussain, an Saudi national and Yusuf Amin, a devout Pakistani. Whilst Abdul was tall, handsome and lithe, with a trendy haircut, Yusuf was stockier and quiet, and walked with a limp, the result of a brush with a landmine as a child.

It was thanks to the Prince, that the SAS teams knew the timing and location of all the attacks. They were even aware of the vans that had been loaded with high explosives, the fact that both men would be armed with AK-47s and suicide vests and the exact timing of when it would all occur. For the SAS kill-teams, this was intelligence of the highest order, the critical difference between mission failure and success.

The only thing now, was to wait for the van to appear.

What made their job highly difficult, was the van. Whilst the terrorists had to get to a safe distance before detonating, buying the team precious time to defuse, Woods had been unable to ascertain the type of bomb that had been placed inside.

Which meant that EOD teams had to work fast. It would not take long for the terrorists to get clear, before remote detonating the bomb. Even then, there was a possibility that it was on a timer and the bastards were just going to run clear and then start shooting everyone on sight.

Anderson didn’t like any of this. His team could handle 2 trigger-happy ragheads, but the van was the real problem. They needed that intelligence on the bomb, but there was no real way to figure it out. The poor EOD boys would have their work cut out for them. There was every chance that they weren’t going to make it.

~

Anderson and his squad rotated throughout the day, as they watched the entrance of the Savoy through various “eyes”, around the area, drones, CCTV and actual eyes on the site. Then, as Anderson’s tactical watch ticked over to 1840, shit got real very fast.

A white Ford Transit Van, one of the common vans in the world, appeared out of traffic like a slow-moving spectre. Bravo 4 clocked it instantly and whispered into his throat mike.

Bravo 4, to all elements. Target Van in sight. Approaching AO from South side.

Bravo 1 copy all. Anderson looked over at Bravo 3 and they both slipped on their tactical vests. Things were happening fast now.

Bravo 4, tracking the van now. It’s driving really slow.

What the fuck?! came the voice of Bravo 2 from the other side. All elements, there’s another van! West junction.

Sergeant Will Anderson’s blood ran cold at the message. He flicked on the surveillance footage from his tablet and audibly gasped. Nearby, Bravo 3’s finger drumming got even more intense as he realised the situation.

There were 4 vans, all converging slowly towards the Savoy Hotel, from all the major compass points. North, East, West and South.

How the fuck are they doing this? screamed Anderson internally. Did we really get bad intel?

It was then, the calm, stern voice of James Ashford came over all of the SAS troopers’ microphones.

All UK elements, we’ve only just received new intelligence from the Prince. The terror cells are using drones to guide their vans to the target area. Remote detonation has been confirmed, as has the type of bomb kit they are using. Schmatics are being uploaded to your tablets now. Hurry lads, you’ve got 10 minutes before these vans detonate. As for the whereabouts to the terror cell, assume they are in the immediate vicinity, using remotes to control the vans.

Anderson watched as his tablet flickered to show the blueprint of the bomb. As it flickered, both men in the Range Rover began setting timers on their watches.

All Bravo Elements, we have 4 vans, 4 bombs. We need to split up and get each one. We now have 9 mikes to defuse. Get aboard that van and get those bombs. Once we get those bombs, rallypoint Charlie. Final things lads, the detonator is your standard IED electronic fuse. Cut Red, Green, Yellow in that order.

Bravo 2, Red, Green, Yellow. Copy all.

Bravo 4 copy. Boarding vehicle now.

Anderson made a call to the control centre.

Control, this is Bravo 1, I need a tech on hand to guide my lads through everything.

Bravo 1, Control. Affirm. Oscar 1 through 4 shall guide Bravo 1 through 4.

Bravo 1, Oscar 1 to 4. Affirm. Out.

Beside him, Bravo 3 gave a final nod to Anderson and dashed out, making his way to the North van. Anderson, clambered out of the Range Rover and yanked his MPX submachine gun around his neck, before he began sprinting for the East van, his breath roaring harshly as he yelled at people to get out of the way.

Move! Police coming through. Move! Move!

A feminine voice came crackling through his mike, the tone serious and emotionless.

Bravo 1, this is Oscar 1. Continue for another 100 metres then turn right, suspect van will be directly at 12.

Anderson didn’t waste his breath, instead pressing a button on his microphone to confirm the message.

Seconds later, the SAS trooper had rounded the corner, and he beheld the van, which was now idly in traffic, ignoring the chorus of horns that were blaring behind it. Time was running out.

In normal circumstances, Anderson would have gaped at the sight of a driver-less van, powered by an intricate remote steering mechanism. But his training had taken over. This was the key difference between an ordinary soldier and special forces. The indoctrination and intense training in the SAS, had created an Anderson that could rationalise, identify and assess situations in a split second and perform fine motor skills without hesitation or fear.

Anderson didn’t stop at anything. Without pausing he ran around the back of the van, and unclipped his multitool from his tactical vest.

Using the windowbreaker, he smashed open the back windows and roughly brushed aside the shattered glass with a gloved hand, reaching in to open the door latch.

As the door swung open, Anderson caught it before it opened too wide, swearing in a monotone as he noted the wire that was attached to the door to the bomb. Had he not caught it, it would gone off prematurely.

Bravo 1 to all elements. Watch for booby traps. My door was rigged to explode if opened too far. Proceed with caution for defusal.

Bravo 2 copy.

Bravo 3 affirm.

Bravo 4, understood.

As Anderson jumped into the back of the van, shutting the door behind him, he snipped the wire that linked the bomb to his only exit and as he crouched before it, he felt fear and nervousness began to course through his body.

Every single SAS trooper had done the same course. But back then, the lads were fucking around and knew that the detonator wasn’t wired up to real explosives. Many guys mimed being blown apart, and the insane number of yelling “BOOM!” as a newbie tried to defuse one was too many to count.

That was in the safety of Hereford. However, the moment when a trooper had to defuse an IED in the real world, nothing felt funny anymore. With each year into the Afghan war, and with more IEDs claiming the lives of Blades, the jokes soon disappeared and the course became more and more extensive, and realistic, to the point where the “bomb” would actually create a wisp of smoke and enter the final phases of detonation to hammer in the stress.

It was this training and constant repetition and quashing of nerves and fear, that ensured Anderson’s gloved hands were steady, as they touched the huge bomb inside of the van.

Occupying the entire back wall of the van, the bomb was crudely but ingeniously designed. There were a dozen cheap blue barrels of stolen ammonium nitrate that lined the walls of the bomb, and were clustered in the centre of the cargo hold. Whilst he couldn’t see inside the barrels, experience warned him that they were doubtless packed with sewage, ball bearings, nails, marbles and glass, to ensure maximum damage and carnage.

After all, the initial blast was small for what it was, because the van’s shell would take a lot of the initial blast within itself. But the millions of frag (fragmentation) was the true destructive force. Dirty shards of glass and metal would fly everywhere, piercing skin at the speed of a bullet, horribly infecting the wound and thus leave any survivors with less chances to survive.

Anderson, like many of his fellow troopers, took some small consolation that if the bomb was to go off, their end would be instantaneous.

Peering at the bomb’s primary unit, and it masses of wire behind it, Anderson silently thanked the Prince for his timely intelligence, as even an EOD team would struggle to defuse the bomb. A part of him wondered how the intelligence asset managed to obtain such intel, but that wasn’t the priority now. All he had to do, was cut the wires, Red, Green and Yellow.

As he snipped the first red wire that led into the primary detonator, a triangular unit that held the two primary fuses together, he felt his heart accelerate as the small digital readout went from a solid “ARMED” to blinking rapidly.

Then to his shock, the van began to roll forwards, throwing him back into door of the van. The terrorist, aware of his plans, and eager to put a stop to it, was now sending the vehicle straight towards the Savoy.

Diving forwards and swiftly cutting the green wire, then the yellow one, Anderson heaved a huge sight of relief when the blinding readout cut out and went completely black. Gingerly pulling the fuse out, Anderson slowly backed out of the van and shut the door behind him, as uniformed police officers came running up, the infamous SCO19.

Anderson pointed at the van and his IR UK patch, emblazoned across his tactical vest, before remembering that he still had 2 murderous terrorists in the immediate area. He yelled at the officers that the bomb was defused, and the van was inert. Despite the van rolling forward momentum, Anderson took off, ignoring the confused cries of the officers behind him, and the fact that one brave SCO19 officer, threw his rifle to the ground and running along the van, had smashed the window with his elbow and stomped on the brakes, by throwing his body half in the van’s cabin.

Sprinting back to the car, which was designated rallypoint Charlie, Anderson keyed in his throat mike.

Oscar 1, sitrep.

All Bravo elements have defused their bomb. Bravo 2 is already back at rallypoint Charlie, Bravo 3 & 4 are on track to meet you there at the same time. When you are at the rallypoint, check West, we’ve traced the signal from the vans to a building there. Wait, is that you running, no, no, no … Bravo 1, STOP!

Sergeant Will Anderson, Bravo 1, SAS soldier and decorated veteran, heard the warning of his SIS handler, and immediately dove behind a car, as he saw one of his team members, Bravo 2, take a fusillade of bullets that caused explosions of blood to erupt all over his body.

His tactical watch ticked over to 1900HRS.

The attack on London had begun.

Enraged that their initial attack had failed, the terror cell poured out of the building that they were hiding in and immediately located the SAS team that had foiled their plans. Seeing one of the members alone, Abdul Hussain tapped Yusuf Amin on the shoulder and together they racked their AK-47s’ charging handles.

Whilst Hussain’s eyes were wide with an incredible narcotic injection of opium and PCP, all designed so that he could fight longer, Yusuf’s religious zeal was more than enough to sustain him through pain, violence and death. With their bomb vests strapped around their chests, and approximately 540 rounds of ammunition on each of their bodies, they were a formidable force to be reckoned with. The Sphinx had even provided the men with primitive ballistic face masks, to ensure that headshots were even more difficult for Coalition forces.

The AK-47s that the Sphinx had smuggled in for them, were also heavily customised. The barrels were skeletal, and the traditionally heavy wooden stock was replaced by a sleeker, folding butt stock. Foregrips enabled the two men better accuracy and the weapons were personally cleaned by the Sphinx to ensure that they could chew through all 540 rounds in a matter of minutes.

Even their initial magazines had been modified, with three of the curved banana mags taped together, to ensure that the Saudi and the Pakistani had 90 rounds ready to go straight away, with reloads being a snap of the finger to perform.

In short, the weapons were lighter, harder to fuck-up under stress and more accurate.

It was this army of two that now opened fired on London and Bravo squad.

Anderson roared in anger, as he watched Bravo 2 get ripped apart, under the combined weight of sixty 7.62mm bullets. He danced gruesomely, in a horrible version of a marionette, as round after round tore through his body, before landing with a wet splat on the concrete pavement, unrecognisable.

Anderson looked in the direction of the terrorists who, in under a second, had already finished reloading. Hussain, spotting Anderson from behind a shiny black BMW sedan, grinned manically and began to unload a torrent of bullets towards him.

Yusuf, ignoring his crazy partner, calmly began to fire in punctuated bursts, at innocent civilians. A woman in her mid thirties, spun around, as a round entered her pelvis and came out through her friend’s knee. A man, shielding his son, gasped as a round went through his shoulder and he fell forward, determined to protect his son from more incoming fire.

A boyfriend stood frozen, unsure what to do as his girlfriend laid flat on the floor, her hands over her head. A bullet nearly entered his chest, but was saved when his girlfriend yanked on his pants leg, causing him to trip and fall on the ground. Elsewhere, a couple showed their true colours when the the boyfriend immediately let go of his girl’s hand and sprinted for his car, only to get shot in the back for his trouble.

Valentine’s Day … acts of love, acts of courage … acts of cowardice. All was revealed before the face of death.

People ran every which way. It was pandemonium. Streets away, people heard the gunfire and froze. Worldly restaurants immediately announced that evacuation procedures, scars by attacks that happened years before, now saving lives in the present. Police officers controlled crowds and desperately sought to help their much more lethal SAS brothers restore safety and order.

A poor couple ran from the ugly scene at Bravo’s squad, only to venture into a bigger firefight that had Charlie squad pinned and wounded. One of the SAS troopers saw them, and despite the wound in his leg, sprinted towards them and crash-tackled both, before bullets could find them. He stayed atop the terrified couple, his blood dripping onto the girl’s pretty white dress, shielding them from harm.

Gunfire echoed everywhere. Screams rose above them, as blood, fire and metal merged into the urban jungle, to create a terrifying environment of endless white noise that battered the senses.

London, within the space of 3 minutes had turned into a hellish nightmare that was more commonly associated with Afghanistan.

The war had come home.

~

Anderson was yelling into his microphone.

Bravo 1 to all elements, Bravo 2 is down, KIA. Under heavy suppressing fire. Need assistance now!

Bravo 3, engaging now. said the trooper, his voice strained but professional.

Bravo 4, flanking. replied the Blade, cold and emotionless. There was an edge to this soldier’s voice. Anderson was pleased to hear it.

As he remained crouched behind a car, Anderson waited until he heard Bravo 3’s suppressed MPX whir to life.

The tch, tch, tch sounds of the MPX could barely be heard above the thud of the AKs, but it was enough. Hussain, hit twice in the shoulder, spun around angrily at Bravo 3 who was behind him and began firing in earnest, as the SAS trooper swore and ducked behind a large Mercedes sedan.

All elements, be aware, tangos are heavily armoured. Multiple headshots are required to take them down! My rounds just bounced off their face masks!

Anderson cursed loudly, as he realised that the Sphinx had performed his research. Technology in ballistic face masks offered limited protection, mostly only against 9mm rounds. Using anything higher, was guaranteed to penetrate through.

However, 9mm were the exact type of bullets that the SAS teams were currently rocking in their MPXs, to ensure that their rounds did not over-penetrate and go beyond their targets, as personally experienced by the woman and her friend who got shot by the much more powerful 7.62mm, clutching their hip and knee in agony.

Simply put, the Sphinx had covered for a lot of the SAS’s capabilities.

However, these men were not one of the most feared and deadly units in the world for all their gear and equipment. They were the best in the world, the ultimate fighting man in mankind’s short history, because of their ingenuity, tenacity, unique training and pedigree.

Their ancestors held back the Romans. Men by their age, had created an island stronghold that have never been invaded since Hastings. Their forefathers established an Empire and could find no equal anywhere on Earth or Water. Their grandfathers played major roles in every single conflict across the globe since the 20th Century.

These fighting men came from the finest fighting stock and regiments in the world.

The turn-around in the flow of the combat, was swift, efficient and terrifying.

Who Dares Wins.

At first, it was Hussain who dominated the streets of London. Pivoting constantly to suppress Bravo 1 and 3, whilst Yusuf was slowly leading the pair through the streets, gunning down civilians, behind cars, shops and street-lights, it came to a point where he had to drop the three taped magazines to reach for a fresh one on his chest.

As the three taped magazines fell, Bravo 1 and 3 whipped their guns up, moving fast, and sprayed their MPXs at his legs.

Hussain’s knees exploded simultaneously, and the Saudi roared in pain, the intensity even punching through the protective mental layer PCP had created in his mind.

As the Saudi dropped like a stone, Yusuf spun around, astonished by the new tactics. He yelled in Arabic as bursts blasted through his thighs and he joined his fellow terrorist on the ground, his legs mangled beyond recognition.

Hussain and Yusuf looked at each other and desperately sprayed their guns in unison at Bravo 1 and 3, keen to hold the two troopers off, so that they could reach in and detonate their vests.

As they fired at opposite ends, they failed to see Bravo 4 appear in between them, a big Sig Sauer P320 pistol in his right hand and a serrated tanto knife in the other.

Swiftly walking up to the pair of terrorists, Bravo 4 assessed the pair in a nanosecond and noted the intensity of Yusuf. As he made his decision, Yusuf turned around and gasped at the sight of the blacked out SAS trooper wearing a balaclava and a baseball cap, with a pistol and knife in each hand.

He tried to turn his AK-47 around with his one hand, whilst the other fumbled for the detonator.

Bravo 4, moving coldly and quickly, kicked the AK-47 away, before firing his Sig at point blank into the terrorist’s fumbling arm. Yusuf wailed as over seventeen 9mm rounds tore his arm to shreds, but the scream was quickly extinguished by a gurgling noise as Bravo 4’s tanto knife ripped through the exposed throat, underneath the ballistic mask.

The move was so savage and heavy, that Yusuf’s neck actually tilted backwards and the two folds of skin flapped gruesomely in the open air, as blood sprayed outwards.

Hussain, entirely focused on his target, Anderson, and hopped on battle rage and PCP, never noticed Bravo 4 reloading his pistol in a single second, rack the slide back and without hesitation, flipping the ballistic mask off Hussain’s face.

Hussain paused and looked behind him. His handsome face registered shock before it melted under the weight of all the firepower Bravo 4 could muster.

By the time the final shot finished echoing loudly off the corridors of London, Hussain’s head was essentially mush. There was nothing left facially, to identify the two men. The SAS trooper had remembered the Prince’s warning.

Gun them down in the head before they blow yours off.

The attack on the Savoy had been stopped.

Anderson and Bravo 3 ran up to Bravo 4 and they assisted each other in disarming the suicide vests. These were much less complex than the bombs in the van, just your standard issue s-vests seen everywhere in the Middle East. Bravo 3 spiked the AK-47s and threw all the spare magazines in a dump bag. Overall, the attack saw nearly 700 rounds expended in a matter of terrifying minutes.

Then leaving the bodies to rot on the street, the SAS kill-team walked over to their fallen comrade, Bravo 2 and respectfully covered him up with a sheet from their damaged Range Rover, now pockmarked with bullets.

Anderson called in the paramedics and trauma crew, and the team set about rendering first aid, tending to the numerous wounded. They soon ran out of tourniquets, bandages and gauze, and were relieved when the first paramedics arrived on scene, only seconds after they used up all their medical equipment.

Whilst the terror cell had only managed to walk 100 metres, the carnage they had wreaked was awful. Over 70 people had been shot and wounded, with 34 more dead. Anderson waited with baited breath, as he heard the echos of gunfire slowly dissipated after his own gun battle.

As he applied pressure to a wounded father’s shoulder, he looked over at the small boy, whose face was covered in blood. Smiling kindly at the lad, Anderson took the boy by the hand, as a paramedic took over, and fussed over the father. No-one this young deserved to see this.

Reaching into his tactical vest, Anderson cracked an green chem-light and handed it to the boy, watching as the glow of the light slowly removed the shock from the boy’s brown eyes and replaced them with wonder and awe.

Tousling the boy’s head gently, Anderson looked over at Bravo 4 who nodded and took the boy over to the trauma crew, who were dealing with a mass of hysterical people.

Oscar 1, Bravo 1. Sitrep. barked Anderson harshly as he beheld the damage around him.

Bravo 1, situation has now been contained. All terror cells have been eliminated. Estimated death toll, 154, casualties approximately 357. UKSF casualty report is looking like 5 wounded and 1 KIA. It would have been a lot worse if you guys weren’t here.

What happened to the other squads?

Alpha team managed to kill their cell before it got out of hand. Because yours was the first attack, I was able to relay intel to Alpha, whose cell was the last to attack. Alpha 3 got shot in the shoulder, but no-one else was injured.

Charlie squad needed assistance from the QRF, Charlie 1, 3 and 4 all got wounded in their firefight. It turned out, that once they found out about us knowing the van trick, the Charlie, Delta and Echo cells regrouped together to fight. That’s where the bulk of the civilians casualties were inflicted. Echo 4 was also wounded in the fight but they’re all looking stable.

Foxtrot actually found their cell, before the vans. So they nailed the two guys and then disarmed the vans remotely. They got extremely lucky and then went to help the Charlie, Delta and Echo squads.

Golf had a similar story to yours, they got the vans, but had a long fight with their cells. A lot of casualties there too, because their cell fired into restaurants.

I’m sorry Bravo 1.

Anderson stayed silent, his mind trying to comprehend the enormity of what had just happened. The SAS were not used to failure. Whilst this would be touted as some kind of victory by Downing Street, the men would know better … it was their job to make sure the war never touched down home. Innocents had died and now, the SAS would go on the offensive. Someone had to pay for the blood spilled today. Already, Anderson was considering what gear he needed for a return tour to ‘Stan.

Anderson’s mind remembered the question he had posed for himself about the intelligence that had saved London from a more devastating attack. If it wasn’t for the Prince’s intel on the van bombs …

Oscar 1, Bravo 1 … thank the Prince for us. Let us know when he’s hunting. We’ll get evil with him. Bravo 1 out.

~

In the hours leading up to the attack, Gabriel Woods was also riding in a helicopter, like the SAS kill-teams. However instead of a powerful Chinook CH-47, his ride was much smaller, nimble and fast. The dark grey sleek outline of the Bell 407 helicopter, melded into the night sky of England, and its rotors had been dampened for sound, giving it a stealthy signature.

A common sight across skyscrapers and civilian utility, the Bell 407 was often used to assist in search and rescue operations or ferrying CEOs from airports to offices. What was uncommon about this Bell 407 was the spindly arm that jutted out from the right cargo door, just underneath the rotors.

Woods looked over at the skyline of London and recalled his prerogative. His job was to discover exactly what type of bomb the Sphinx had equipped his men with. To do so, meant going straight to the source, a close associate of the Sphinx, and local bomb-maker, a nasty piece of work, who went by the name Ryan “Jacket” Malik.

Jacket had earned his epithet as an amusing play on “bomber jacket” and his habit of wearing his own custom one everywhere. A garish red, cream and purple combination, the jacket had his name emblazoned across the back, along with a huge explosion going off with an evil smiley face in the centre.

Tasteless and tacky, were just two words that could describe Malik’s brand of humour and style.

Raised in the badlands of New Delhi, Malik’s obsession with explosive started early when he first set off a firework that blew open an ex-girlfriend’s toilet. It grew to letter-bombs, then finally her car exploded one day, causing Malik to go underground with his new skill-set.

Owning to his extraordinary skill in sourcing explosive materials and placing them together, Malik soon relocated to Londonistan where his talent was soon put to work across Europe, under the Sphinx’s guidance and recognised for the genius he was.

But like most geniuses, his life was going to be short-lived.

As the Bell 407 crested past the London Eye, gunning for Croydon, Gabriel looked down at his armament. He was dressed like a terrorist. There was no mistaking the dark jeans, the black combat boots, a black v-neck t-shirt and red & white checkered plaid shirt. It was the universal, functional uniform of military men off-duty everywhere. But instead of rocking the Westernised approved baseball cap, Woods had covered his head with a red/white shemagh, the traditional headscarf worn by men across the Middle Eastern region.

Tying it in a turban style, that covered his entire face, barring his eyes, Woods was comfortable operating in this outfit, owning to his numerous Afghanistan tours. What was surprising though, was him wearing this kit in London. But Woods wanted nothing to be traced back, hence the generic terrorist garb.

It also gave him no small amusement that Malik was about to get a visit from one of his customers.

In addition to this kit, Woods was armed with his trusted Glock 19 on a right thigh holster and a high-tech suppressed MP7A1 personal defence weapon (PDW) with an EOTech sight and PEQ-15 laser designator.

Woods felt, rather than saw the Bell 407 begin its descent, as they neared the target apartment. With his immense resources and connections, Jacket had managed to convert the northwest corner of a poor apartment block into his own personal bomb-making workshop.

According to the SIS, he had gutted three floors, to carve out his own twisted version of a penthouse amongst the boroughs in Croydon. The top floor featured his apartment, where a staircase lead down to the living area and kitchen, before featuring the bomb workshop itself, and a huge safe/escape room where Malik kept most of his treasures out of reach from his greedy lieutenants.

Woods would be entering from the roof and snaking his way down, floor by floor.

The pilot held up 2 fingers. 2 minutes to drop.

Putting on fast-rope gloves, Woods checked the coil of rope by his feet and tugged the two guns on his twin thigh holsters. Woods was light. There wasn’t even a tactical vest on him to cover his vitals. This was an old-school hit and run affair. The only piece of kit to slow him down was a warbelt that had 3 flashbang grenades, 2 spare magazines for his pistol and 3 spare for his PDW, cable ties, a multitool and a rudimentary first aid kit.

The Bell 407 swooped down to the rooftop of the Jacket’s apartment and moving quickly, Woods kicked the rope out of the door and watched as the spindly arm went taunt.

Leaping out of the helicopter cargo door, Woods fast roped down to the building, wrapping his legs around the rope, and maintaining a gentle pressure with his hands.

As he neared the building, a man opened the door to the rooftop recess, pistol in hand.

Without pausing, Woods slowed his descent with his right hand, whipped the MP7A1 from his thigh holster with his left and zipped him with three rounds.

The scout dropped like a sack of shit.

Landing lightly on the roof, he waved off the pilot, who let the rope tumble away from the helicopter before powering up and away. Woods watched the Bell 407 go, before walking slowly over to the corpse.

It was one of Malik’s underlings. His unseeing brown eyes stared at nothing and Woods kicked away his pistol, before venturing into the dark recess of the Jacket’s workshop.

~

The fight for Jacket’s workshop was slow, intense and fierce. Woods was methodical in his approach, using all his senses to detect enemies before they found him. He was so quiet, and smooth, that often Jacket’s men were unable to get a single shot off before they died with 4.6mm rounds in their hearts and minds.

However, by the time Woods had cleared the second floor, Jacket was now all too aware of the bodies that were dropping with loud thuds above him. He only had 3 men left and owning to the timing of the attack, he was in the middle of constructing a bomb, that he was unable to take his eyes off.

Sweat poured down his fat face, as his pudgy but nimble fingers tried to make the bomb inert before the Prince arrived. He eyed the open door of the safe room to his left, but the process was too delicate now.

Seconds passed and the 3 men aiming their machine guns at the door were breathing heavily. An assassin to their front and a live bomb behind them. They had nothing to lose.

Malik whelped with delight as he was just about to put the finishing touches to the bomb. All he had to do was secure the detonator and all would be well.

It was then, the Prince struck.

The front door to the workshop creaked open, a pair of weakened cable ties popping off their link to swing it outwards.

The entryway was blasted to shit, by the three goons. As they reloaded and exchanged nervous smiles when nothing happened, it was then, the window behind them and in front of Malik’s shocked face, was blasted open and a pair of flashbangs sailed through.

BANG! BANG!

With a deafening roar and blinding light, the three henchmen staggered around, as Woods came crashing through the window, having used the rope from the Bell 407 to abseil down the side of the building and make a breach point right in front of the stunned Jacket!

Woods kicked Malik square in the face and using his momentum, unhooked himself over the bomb table and before he landed properly, shot all three henchmen in the head with precise bursts. Before the bodies had even slumped to the floor, Woods spun around and cracked the collapsible stock of the MP7 across Malik’s nose, breaking it instantaneously. The man screamed, both in despair and in a weird action, grabbed at the air, towards the bomb, as he fell backwards.

Looking at the bomb and exposed door to the safe room, Woods acted fast and threw the entire package in, before rushing to the door and sealing it shut.

3, 2, 1 … BEEP!

A muffled WHUMP resounded through the entire apartment block, the safe room shuddering as the bomb went off inside its steel construction, incinerating all of Malik’s precious stolen goods in an instant.

Malik stared in horror at the green eyes that stared out angrily at him from beyond the shemagh. He began to back up slowly, as the Prince approached him slowly, his MP7 held lazily in his hands.

He had only heard rumours, but never put any trust in them.

He was a believer now.

The Prince was real.

With his back pressed up against the wall, and his right hand cuffed to a table, Malik broke down immediately and told Woods everything he needed to know about defusing the bombs that were about the scorch London.

As Malik grovelled before Woods, his left hand very surreptitiously crept to the small pistol he held in the back of his pants.

Come on man, I told you what you wanted to know. Just let me go. What are you waiting for? I told you everything you needed to know about the Sphinx. I just made bombs for him. I swear by it, I did nothing else. I’m just a bomb-maker … come on bro, let me go.

Woods, inspecting the bombs-in-progress around the workshop and taking photos to send to the SIS, did not see the movement. Malik continued to blab to keep his attention occupied.

Wait, I know why you haven’t let me go, it’s because I’m still valuable to your bosses aren’t I? You can’t touch me, because I got information they need to know right? Well, come on then, take me in, big man. I’m worth a lot right?

Malik, smiling at his own cleverness, whipped his hand around the gun and bought it to bear at Wood’s chest.

To his shock, Woods, had already clocked the move, and as fast as a rattlesnake, drew his Glock 19 and hip-fired once, drilling a neat hole in Malik’s forehead.

Looking at the fat, dead bomb-maker’s shocked expression and glazed over eyes, Woods holstered his pistol and said softly to himself.

Yes, considerably.

Ignoring the corpse, the Prince turned around and continued his search for clues left behind by the Sphinx.

Author’s Note:

This one was in the works for a very long time. I knew that I liked this series enough to continue it, (unlike my poor Sol series, which I will try to revive one day to complete) but I was struggling on where to go with it.

Enter Matthew Reilly, whose book One Impossible Labyrinth was just released this year and is the epic conclusion to his Jack West Jr. series.

I had waited patiently for nearly 7 years for this extraordinary author to finally pen the series, so that I can continue where I left off, The Four Legendary Kingdoms and then blitz through all of his books down to the last one.

Ever since I was young, I have loved Matthew Reilly’s imagination, pace and language to showcase his incredible action set pieces. They’ve never really been topped either, on the big screen or otherwise, simply because my imagination and mental film I conjure up of his action have been impossible to recreate anywhere else.

It was his books that I’ve been reading through that gave me the mojo to finish this chapter in my espionage series. If you found any of the violence excessive, I pin the blame entirely on one of my favourite authors of all time. I am weirdly proud of how I describe and italic certain words to give them more oomph, a technique that Reilly has done for many of his books now.

This is the longest chapter in the series thus far. I actually considered splitting the segment where Woods go on a solo CQB mission into another chapter, but I was already so amped up from the SAS kill-team part, I just decided to add it on anyway, just to contrast and showcase how Woods is another level above, the already elite SAS.

A lot of this chapter was dedicated to my favourite special forces unit in the world, the SAS, because I wanted a break from writing from Woods’ perspective and showcase how he is such an invaluable intelligence asset that can turn the tide in a war. This is also the most violent aspect of the series so far, with heavy inspiration taken from the Piccadilly Circus mission in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019).

However, I didn’t want too many of my favourite fighting men to die, so I made sure that the attack was horrible (but not awful), and at least one of them paid the ultimate sacrifice in a big way. After all, I can’t write a story where everyone makes it out, it’s no fun that way.

Lastly, as an Easter Egg, the final line of this chapter was a call back to the cold line that Daniel Craig delivers in Casino Royale (2006) one of my favourite movies. In fact, that how quick draw set up was a homage to the gun-barrel sequence.

I hope I don’t take too long to write the next chapter of this series. Nearly at the end!

~ Damocles.

We Don’t Need No Education.

Formal education should and will always be best, when it teaches you how to harness information instead of learning it.

In today’s world there is arguably too much information available for people to consume. One can go to a library and find multiple books written by experts on a single subject, each with slightly different viewpoints on the topic. Then you can hop onto your computer and find 4,000,000 subreddits, wikipedia, forums and news articles also debating the subject matter.

The wealth of information is huge nowadays. Granted, probably 80% of those 4,000,000 providers of information are useless, inaccurate and barely compelling reading, but even 20% of that is still an immense resource.

The thing that education should be teaching you, is discerning the 80 from the 20, the good from the bad, the reliable to the unreliable.

Perhaps one of the biggest defining regrets I’ve ever experienced in my life, was the decision to finish my Bachelor Degree at university. I spent 4 years of my life studying Marine Biology for my Science degree, an incredible waste of time that has helped shaped my urgent nature nowadays.

A degree that should have ended a year early, I was unable to finish it due to my lack of motivation, commitment and overall care for the degree and the institution itself. Passing grades became my norm, a clear indication of my lack of enthusiasm for my tertiary degree.

It was a far cry from my distinction level average held in high school, but then being disillusioned will do that to you. I was lacking friends, willpower and interest and that proved so costly, that I failed 2 units, thus forcing me to do another year.

With such a horrific experience, what made me agree to sacrifice another 2 years to do another Bachelor, this time in Arts and specialising in Journalism and Ancient History?

Because, those two topics were something I cared about. Something I was genuinely interested in.

But what made those 2 years enjoyable and fast paced was the change in learning style.

It was journalism that made me really sit up and notice how, and what education should be.

The teacher, a hardened veteran who had cut her teeth at multiple papers, was no-nonsense, generous and efficient. She didn’t bother with the theoretical. Her advice to us was simple:

If you want to write a story, get out there and find one.

We were all daunted by the task, but there was a simple truth to that statement. You weren’t going to find a story sitting behind a desk. The simple matter of the fact was … you had to go out, you had to be the nosy arsehole and you had to ask all the right questions, whilst appearing not to twist people’s words.

I grew good at it. I excelled in this environment. My grades shot back up, to my usual distinctions and high distinctions. I felt reinvigorated because, simply put, the environment wasn’t a university anymore, it was a workplace.

What also sold that impression was that the journalism faculty was one of the most impressive and immersive work-spaces I’ve ever been to on campus. Situated in the heart of the building, was a huge media room, complete with recording equipment, cameras, microphones and a desk for news-reading. On the other side where classes were held, rows of desks had Macs instead of regular PCs, and along the roof, was an array of TVs showcasing every major news channel broadcast, from CNN, Sky News and the BBC.

I loved working there. One of my fondest memories of my entire university experience, was working alone late at night, in that very room, with a bag of Maltesers, writing up my long investigative piece on young Asian-Australians mental health, with the news bulletin issuing various soft lights across the darkened room..

In 2 years, the course and its teachers taught and impressed me more than any of the other dozens of lecturers I had come across in my science degree.

This stemmed from one singular difference … these were industry professionals that were guiding us. They weren’t interested in the theory of journalism, only the practice. I left that degree feeling confident I could apply myself in the workforce.

Which brings me back to the original discussion.

In today’s world, rote learning is remarkably archaic and almost useless by the time the year is out. Information is discovered, processed and assimilated into fact so quickly, that by the time you realise Pluto is no longer a planet, the world has already moved on to caring about the proposed Artemis program to put man on the moon again.

Which means that the focus should be more on learning how to acquire information and discern it from fact to fiction and remember the basics that will always outlast the textbooks. These basics and fundamental are drilled into you best, when put into application, when placed in the context of the real world, instead of the academic.

The irony of the current Australian higher education isn’t lost on me. In fact it’s so bizzarely terrible that here I am, writing an editorial style piece on it.

The irony, is that the system is designed to prepare you for the workplace, however almost nothing you learn is used in the actual workplace and the way how grades and exams are designed, actually ensures that you forget a lot of the knowledge you learn throughout a semester.

A frequent occurrence, is that students will trundle along their way through semesters, stumbling past assignments, before knuckling down for 2 weeks to cram 6 months worth of information in their mind, sit their exams and then anxiously wait for results throughout the holidays.

Holidays, in which the students spent 3/4 of it blind drunk, partying, determined to forget their anxious times, and thus by the time the next semester rolls around, they’ve forgotten everything they’ve learned in the past 6 months, except how to create terrible study habits and hangover tips.

This vicious cycle continues for the entirety of the Bachelor degree, cynicism, and weariness encroaching the student’s mental state with each passing year, until finally they are spat out of the tertiary system, having wasted 3 years of their lives, learning absolutely nothing, with no connections or relations to the industry they studied for and now forced to face a terrifying reality that was previously hidden behind a university emblazoned shield.

Confronted with such a harsh reality … either continue to study and pray that networking opportunities arise with even further study or completely abandon what they studied for so long and find an entirely different career, starting from the beginning again, only more disenchanted with life than before they started.

This tragic choice is hidden from view, by that aforementioned shield. The shield is deceptively attractive. It presents itself as thus.

Welcome to university, where you will meet lifelong friends, join exciting and thrilling clubs and study in the field you always wanted to. Here, at this prestigious university, in its hallowed halls, you will join thousands of other students in becoming the best academics you can be. It is an honour for us to welcome you to this enormous campus, with its sparkling facilities.

The reality though is markedly different.

Welcome to uni, where your friends shall be as disposable and displaced as your empty bottle of beer. Join uni-student run clubs, which will lack proper guidance, rules and management due to raw inexperience.

Feel free to choose any faculty, as you are doubtless fresh out of high-school, with zero clues on how to decide what is a monumental decision for any adult, let alone a fresh-faced child … where you want to be and go for the rest of your life.

Here at this university, you shall be just one, amongst thousands who are equally lost, equally poor, equally deprived of experience, know-how and personal growth. Enjoy the smelly, old, slightly dilapidated equipment that were kept barely to a reasonable standard, the musty libraries and the sheer lack of computers available for the thousands on campus.

It’s a chore to welcome you with the thousands of other faceless and nameless applicants, but here are the basics and enjoy getting lost on campus. Hope to see you at another dull graduation that we endure every year, until then leave our staff alone, because they’ll always be exceedingly bored, passive aggressive and understaffed at all times.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this shield being lowered and the spawning of my eternal bitterness to higher education came in the final year of my first bachelor degree in science. At the time, the entire marine biology cohort was relaxing, after a day of experimentation, just having finished our dinner on our first field trip. We were all listening to the head lecturer who started innocuously about the plans for the next few days.

It was then, just as we were getting excited, he dropped the truth, about how much longer this degree would need from us, if we were to get a job in the field; “a minimum of a Masters” and … that none of the jobs were here in Victoria, but instead were found in our northern neighbours, Queensland and New South Wales.

Upon receiving this news, I silently fumed with resentment, as I looked around angrily, to only see relaxed faces around me. It floored me how calm everyone seemed to be taking this news.

What’s was the fucking point of the past 3 years then? my mind screamed at the impassive professor.

Whatever motivation I had for my studies, vanished from then on, and I passed my degree with all the reluctance of Hercules with his famous 12 Labours and presumably as much struggle, though I doubt I had to face any Nemean Lions or tame the Augean Stables. That said, I still faced my despicably smug and guilt-free King Eurystheus (my professors and lecturers lumped into one authoritarian figure) after all my assignments and I never quite recovered from the multiple barely passing grades nor the incredible indifference they offered me.

What has always surprised me, is the fact that often, you do your own learning about your passions. That knowledge you attain through self-learning, is usually more extensive, more comprehensive and driven than anything you learn in a formal education setting.

Thanks to my interest in F1, I have a rudimentary knowledge of aerodynamics, engine parts and the effects of G-Forces on the human body, and which workouts are necessary to counteract those forces.

My extensive research into all things militaria has been so exhaustive, I can discuss weapon systems with actual trained soldiers, debate geopolitical flash-points, identify guns and their common calibre rounds, and know which languages are popular in certain troublesome regions.

Then there’s my useless knowledge about all things pop culture, from Warhammer 40K, Star Wars, Star Trek, Dune, NASA, Mad Max … the list goes on and on, and all them have proven to provide little nuggets of knowledge in the most unexpected of ways, such as the warp drive being one of the most feasible ways of achieving FTL travel or creating artificial gravity through thrust, as depicted in the Expanse.

I can’t forget to mention my small knowledge of American Football (NFL), EPL (English Premier League) and now recently my burgeoning know-how in tennis and card tricks.

Classical music, jazz, house, soundtracks, kitchen techniques, fine dining, table manners, first aid, event work, shooting, … the general knowledge list goes on and on

All of this information, all of this research was found for free, through vigorous and diligent research. I didn’t pay a single cent for this education. I just went out and sought information.

I look at my friends, and see a similar story. They’re low-key experts in their passions, simply because they went through the trouble of educating themselves on the subject matter.

So what is the point of formal tertiary education? Why can’t all places simply be a simulation of the workplace you want to engage in?

I’ll be honest, I don’t know. I don’t have the answer to that weighty question.

What I do know, is that there needs to be a shift in how we view, grade and learn through tertiary education. The method of rote learning is perfectly adequate for high school and younger. To still employ such an archaic method at a tertiary level and accelerate it, is foolhardy. Adults need different learning styles beyond boring power-points and a lecture hall.

Information is simply growing too fast to allow such slow, inefficient and brute-force style learning methods. People need to learn how to read information and recognise that some fundamentals are eternal and worth remembering. You don’t need to learn the fundamentals, you can just experience them.

When you enter the work-force, that is exactly what happens.

At its core, tertiary education should be about simulating the workplace. The fundamentals have been drilled into you in secondary school. Now it is time to experience them and see them in action. Whatever else you need to learn, you’ll find out whilst working and getting paid to do so.

It is already the case, that you will forget any superfluous information you learn anyway, because the moment you get a job, they’ll train you and teach you everything. So why fill your head with extra rubbish? Better to fill it with the information about your passions and hobbies.

This is why I valued my journalism course so much, because it simulated the work environment I was expected to be working in. I didn’t have to be taught how to write …. I did that in high school already. What I needed was a place that would prepare me for the stress, intensity and speed in which I had to write, for a professional news network.

For all their money, facilities and supposed brain-power, university academics are woefully out-of-touch with how to best prepare their students for the reality outside of school. In today’s world, I feel strongly that education needs to adjust to the demands of jobs. There needs to be a stronger reflection of job prospects within the context of education.

The old “here’s my degree, so here’s my job” is no longer a reality for so many here in Australia. Nowadays, it is who you know, how you network, how to engage with future bosses and how hard you work. The degree is a formality that millions possess.

It matters little how you got the degree, because if an reluctant, recalcitrant and rebellious arsehole like me can struggle through and get a Bachelor of Science degree, it also sadly invalidates the hard work of a studious, bright-eyed student who also got the same degree.

So it comes down to who got the more sparkling personality.

No-one in university can teach you that, except yourself and the hobbies you engage in.

But at the very least, they should teach you how to network, how best to find a job in your field, instead of tossing you out, after bleeding you dry and emptying your heart and mind.

If only I knew any of this, before I joined … I would have taken my time and really plotted out the course of my life and wasted a lot less time.

They say that education is an investment … they never said which part of education you need to be invested in.

Consider this long rant, this editorial, knowledge that you should be aware of before going any future in your tiertary education.

Forewarned is forearmed.

So make sure you know yourself and do your research about everything, before committing to anything that will take 3-6 years of your life away.

Because you might find out like me, that after 6 years studying, you are still unemployed, immature and with no connection to the world nor any memory of the supposed knowledge you obtained during that period.

And that is the irony of tertiary education in a nutshell, that you end up back where you started, when you left high school, only a lot more cynical, jaded and mad.

What a joke.

~ Damocles.

Dune: Part One (2021) – Cinema Review

Y/N? Yes?

Stars: Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgard, Dave Bautista, Zendaya, Javier Bardem and Jason Momoa

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Review by Damocles.

I should never read the book before I watch the film.

I have always traditionally struggled to review films that have been adapted from source material that I’ve read. That is because, in a lot of ways, the way how the book flows, reveals the twists in the narrative and showcases all the different viewpoints is a lot easier for me to digest.

I am a bookworm first, before I am a film critic. If you placed a DVD and a book in front of me … my hand would automatically wander towards the first page of the book, no matter how trashy it is.

It also doesn’t help that I direct a lot of the scenes from the book in my head and normally what a director has in mind, is vastly different to my aesthetic.

My favourite case in point, being Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban where I walked out of the theatre, furious at the changes in plot and decrying books were always going to be superior to the films.

I think there should be a fun exercise held every 5 years, where 3 or 4 famous directors get together and make a small competition to film a short story and see whose version comes out on top.

The Dune film adaptations, a showcase for 2 visionary directors, David Lynch and Denis Villeneuve are both markedly different to the version I have in my head.

This is where I am going to struggle with the review for the film. Because I am also going to insert something of a review for the book as well in here.

It’s been said that Frank Hebert’s Dune is near impossible to translate on screen. I don’t know where that impression came from, because the story is eerily similar to Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and to use that epic as a baseplate on where to go is a good start.

I would argue, something like The Lord of the Rings was a much more difficult task to film, especially considering it’s multitude of races, fictional languages and epic quest across Middle Earth and her many factions.

The way how The Lord of the Rings trilogy introduces itself though, and the template it created for adapting the dense book, is impressive and perfect for fans of the book and non-readers.

Which is why I was very perplexed by the approach Villeneuve took to adapting the plot of Dune. Whilst watching the film, I was left with a feeling of alienation and distance from the plot and characters.

Perhaps this is a strange issue to have, but I have always valued clarity in my narratives whilst watching films, because it enables me to appreciate the visuals more. Maybe it is the bookworm in me, because I often find myself being more engaged in a film, if the characters are built well, and I can easily discern the plot.

With Dune, it was difficult to truly engage with the incredible visuals and details, because without a clear motivation behind the shots, I couldn’t live vicariously through the film.

When I think back on the film, so much of it seemed to lack that proper cinematic language. So much of the film, seemed to me, more like a long montage of all Villeneuve’s favourite parts of the book, put forwards on the big screen, instead of an adaptation of the book itself.

I can see Villeneuve’s obsession and love for the source material. It is apparent in every aesthetic and and detail. From the worm-inspired heighliner, to the subtle intricacies of the still-suits, it is obvious that Villeneuve has an incredible passion for the world of Dune and how it should look.

In particular, the wardrobe for this film is incredible, but it lacks a greater context as to why they are designed in such a way.

Which is emblematic of the entire film. Throughout so much of the film, Dune lacks that fascinating political intrigue that Herbert designed to showcase why Arrakis is such a key component in galactic politics. At no point in the film, is there a greater discussion or showcase as to why the whole universe deems spice as so important.

The very thing, that every major faction in the world of Dune clamours over, kills and obsess over, is barely discussed in the film.

As a fan of the book, which I only just recently finished, I couldn’t help but get a strange bereft feeling whilst watching, confused as to why Villeneuve never emphasised more on the politics at play, instead choosing to focus on Paul, but in a very strange restrained way that made it difficult for the character to be relatable.

So much of the film, seemingly felt rushed, despite its’ length, and never really slowed down to truly emphasise key emotional moments.

A lot of what I deemed as crucial elements in the book were also ignored, such as the dinner scene which creates a fascinating whodunnit element before the Harkonnen attack, Paul’s instinctive and strangely natural use of the thumper to draw the worm, despite having no prior experience, Kynes’ death, which was changed to a less impactful version in the film, or Leto’s awareness and discussion with his men about the trap that the Emperor has bequeathed to him in the form of ownership over Arrakis.

In a strange way, I felt that Villeneuve repeated, to a much lesser degree, the same error Lynch was forced into with his adaptation …. cramming too much into 1 film. Dune is a very dense book, with a lot of parts that can be fleshed out further, had perhaps, Villeneuve been confirmed and locked in to do a trilogy.

The fact that a sequel only got green-lit after this Part One was released is something akin to madness. Dune, logically would always need a Lord of the Rings style adaptation. The book is already conveniently split into 3 sections. Had I been in charged, the first movie in a three parter, would actually end at the tent scene, just like in the novel.

From a design standpoint though, Dune is an excellent looking film. The visual artistry on display is incredible, especially the use of CG which has a wonderful weight and scale behind them. In a time where every film has excellent CGI, it is the director’s flair and shot placement that makes all the difference.

I particularly loved all the designs for the Sardaukar, the Harkonnens and the Fremen, there is a wonderful level of detail behind every element for the costumes that I know I shall be looking up the concept art for.

What I was less enamoured by however, is Hans Zimmer’s score for the film.

Is it sad that I miss the old-school, romantic scores of the past? To me, having been conditioned to adore Middle Eastern inspired music, whilst viewing footage of rolling sand dunes and ruins, I was left very nonplussed by the usual Zimmer’s loud percussion sounds and lack of any proper melody work.

His score is not something you can just listen to, for a vibe or atmosphere, instead it is solely tied to the film, in a way that lack real character to the sounds. This is such a shame, because for a film set in the desert, it is so crucial to have a strong melodic element that runs throughout the whole film.

When you think of Lawrence of Arabia, the score is a portal to a world, that Westerners were unfamiliar with. Maurice Jarre transport you into the exoticness of the Middle East with his overture.

Similarly, Jerry Goldsmith’s score in the classic The Mummy (1999), is beautifully evocative and adventurous, showcasing the beauty of the desert, the mystery of the dunes and the danger hidden beneath the sands.

To take more recent examples, I can point to Henry Jackman’s score in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (2011) where his song, Atlantis of the Sands is a wonderfully fun and grand tune that really ramps you up for an adventure.

Conversely, you could do away with more Middle Eastern sounds and go for a more Western approach, such as Ludwig Goransson’s score in the hit series, The Mandalorian (2019), which beautifully blends a Western twang with the grand sci-fi soap opera that Star Wars is known for.

Which is rather apt for Dune.

I just wished Zimmer would stop relying on his usual gimmicky loud sounds in his scores and actually create more interesting melodies again. It seems ever since his work with Nolan, he has constantly fallen back on his same tricks and I’m tired of it. Scores are meant to evoke emotions, not impress you with how good the cinema’s bass and reverb is.

Overall, it’s difficult to love Dune. I think I largely found the film decent, only due to the fact that I had read the book prior and could follow along, despite the big missing chunks and lack of clear motivations, from characters and narrative.

In a sad way, this film only reinforces my love for David Fincher whose two book adaptations, Gone Girl (2014), and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) I have truly adored and found it matched perfectly with the version in my head.

Dune is a complicated movie, based on a complicated book, that I think should have paced itself better from a narrative perspective, to really engage an audience that is unlikely to have read the Frank Herbert novel.

To enjoy Dune, I suspect that you need to be armed with knowledge of the world (to wikipedia you go) and go in expecting to see a spectacle that looks incredible but rings, ever so slightly hollow.

It is on the strength of the film-making alone, that I am barely recommending this film. Even then, I am hesitant.

I cannot however fully adore this film, on account of the disappointing score, lack of narrative thrust and for removing a lot of the world-building Herbert placed in the world of Dune.

Villeneuve … for Part Two, you better not have a lot of clumsy exposition dumps, due to all the big parts you’re missing in Part One.

Also, for the love of God, tone down the flashbacks.

A scene to recall: Any time the Sardaukar turned up on screen, I was mesmerised. Mostly because I wanted to be one of these badass sci-fi special forces swordsmen.

Things I wished were more prominent in the film or were inserted.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

This list isn’t to say that I could do a better job than Denis Villeneuve, but more to satisfy the version I have playing in my head with his production design.

  • Starting the film with a guerilla attack on the Harkonnens seem unnecessary, as is the voice-over by Chani, whose role in the overall story is light.
  • Had I a choice, I would have elected to start the film with a scene, not set in the book anywhere. I would have begun in the Emperor’s throne room, where he has called for an important meeting with all the crucial factions involved. This has multiple benefits.
    • Firstly, it introduces all the key factions like the Bene Gesserit, the Sardaukar, the Suk School, the Spacing Guild, the Mentats, the Harkonnens, the Atreides, the Emperor himself, and all the other characters. It establishes and introduces the hierarchy and political machinations of the galaxy that the audience needs to be aware of.
    • Secondly, it showcases the importance of Dune and why spice melange is such a crucial element to the workings of the universe.
    • Thirdly, you can establish the motivations behind the Emperor’s intentions to kill Duke Leto and his secretive relationship with the .
  • Spice and it’s role in the workings of the universe, needs to be emphasised more. Beyond Paul’s supernatural ability to see into the future and past, there needs to be an example of why spice is so valued. People buying milligrams of spice for recreational purpose at exorbitant prices could be shown, or the Guild Navigators themselves using it to navigate through time and space.
  • I would have less black uniforms and perhaps have the Atreides bedecked in a different colour, a dark green or blue to showcase their home-world of Caladan. This is just to contrast them more, as heroic, versus the Harkonnens’ villainous black.
  • The dinner sequence in the book would have added a wonderful element to the betrayal later.
    • Firstly, it would have been an excellent time to showcase why Duke Leto is so beloved and thus a threat to the Emperor. You want to build up more emotional connections with the Duke, so that his death near the end of the film is all the more tragic.
    • Secondly, Stilgar and a host of other characters would be there (smugglers, Fremen, Guild members etc) to create a fascinating whodunnit element for the audience to guess who betrayed the Atreides family.
    • Thirdly, you could add Dr. Yueh’s motivation for betrayal here, with a conversation about his past and family. In the film, it is so abrupt and sudden, that you do not really get anything from him.
    • Fourthly, you flesh out the side characters like Gurney Halleck, Duncan Idaho and Thufir Hawat. Beyond seeing them in their roles, you can also get more of a sense of who they are, unlike in the film.
    • Fifthly, you show the workings of a royal family, the customs and attitudes they need to adhere to in the universe, thus adding another world-building element, that will contrast with the Fremen.
    • Lastly, it slows the movie down a bit, and shows the changes that Leto was undertaking on Arrakis before his untimely demise.
  • Kynes should have been captured, tortured by the Harkonnens and left to die in the desert like in the book, embittered by the fate that had befallen the character.
    • In addition, her character’s role amongst the Fremen should have been expanded and touched more upon. There should have been scenes where Fremen treated her with awe for the vision she instilled in them.
  • I would have never shown any footage of the Fremen riding the sandworms. In the book, it was such a revelation, such a powerful moment to discover that the Fremen could genuinely control these creatures. To have it spoilt so early, with lame footage that lasted 3 seconds, is so disappointing from a narrative standpoint. Paul’s first attempt to ride a worm, is a key foundation in his character and it should have been reserved for that, not for a lame line: “desert power.”
  • The Harkonnens weren’t grotesque enough. There needs to be more disgusting-ness to their character and behaviour that I thought Lynch nailed rather well, in comparison to the Villeneuve version.
  • Chani is too prevalent in this version of the film, with continuous flashbacks to her …. a move that I think is a bit odd, considering for most of the book, Paul is more obsessed with preventing a holy war in his name, that will spread across the galaxy than some attractive desert girl. I wished there were more flash-forwards to his fear of a jihad spreading, due to his myth and power instead of repeated footage of Zendaya looking over her shoulder in different costumes.
  • So much of this film could have been fleshed out and explored further, had Villeneuve stopped at the section of the book where Herbert ended Part 1. The character of Piter De Vries for example, was worth exploring and expanding, as is a deeper exploration of the concept for the Kwisatz Haderach and how the many factions involved
  • I wished a lot more of the fun side characters were fleshed out more, because of how they create this intriguing extra world-building element. In particular, Gurney Halleck, should have had more screen time versus Duncan Idaho, as his songs and skills and post-betrayal role is much more significant and interesting.
  • Finally, I would love to see all the deleted scenes and see whether there is an almost 4 hour version of the film, that really sticks the landing of adapting the novel.

The Riddle of the Sphinx …. (Espionage 7)

The blue light from the laptop highlighted Hassan Malik’s sharp cheekbones as he stared at the screen intently. Reaching upwards with his left hand, he scratched his freshly shaved cheek thoughtfully, missing the feel of his beard.

Muscular, tall and intelligent, Hassan Malik was the gentleman archetype, a jack of all trades, master of none, his smarts only matched by his prize-fighter like body. Sofia Sumarwata once described her beloved, as a man blessed in all facets of his life, an angel ordained by Allah himself to do His bidding.

With his intelligent brown eyes, olive skin, dark hair and square jaw, Malik was as charismatic as he was handsome. Adept at both charming his way through life and wielding a Glock 17, Malik was an fervent study of history and military leaders. He almost always led the way in battle, his iconic royal green cloak, a rallying cry for lesser men across the chaos of a battlefield.

As magnificent as a fighter he was, it was spy-craft that really spoke to Malik’s talents. His assassinations and deviously brilliant guerrilla attacks on NATO forces across the bloody fields of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria earned him the moniker of The Sphinx, simply because there was no one better at disguising his intentions and self.

His work set back NATO forces several months alone in their work across the Middle East, and with the backing of his Iranian paymasters, he was soon called to Europe, to strike at the heart of the beast.

A master linguist, he mastered French, German, Spanish and English during his conquest of Europe, and took great pleasure in outwitting the Continent’s finest, disappearing as rapidly as he appeared. His terror cells were so small and well incorporated into society, that it was nearly impossible to predict when or who would strike at any given time.

It was a compliment to his fearsome reputation, when Malik discovered that within 4 months of his arrival in Europe, he shot to #4 on Interpol’s Most Wanted list. After 2 more attacks within a fortnight of each other, he claimed the number #1 spot.

It was Malik who devised the food delivery system of communication. For local attacks, Malik would use the country’s most popular food delivery service, but when it came to coordinating cells scattered across Europe, Malik had a much simpler solution.

The phenomenon known as football gripped the entire world with a manic energy that was unmatched in any other sport. But it was Europe where football obsession hit its’ peak. Leagues in each country could count on scores of talent, passion, money and fans.

To disguise his movements and communicate safely with his cells, without any need for electronic means, Hassan Malik used multiple football games to provide lengthy 90 minute briefings in the safety of the crowd, with a particular short-hand language that was unique only to football. Travelling to and fro Germany, to support his favourite English Premier League team, was a move that thousands of others did with impunity on weekends.

Conversely, his cells could send a man over, sporting a La Liga uniform into England, to discuss any further attacks, with much of their conversation disguised into the vernacular of the game. Dates, times, locations and casualties estimations were disguised with scores, and statistics of the team.

A typical exchange between Malik and his terror cell leader could be:

We shall win in our game on the 12 of August against Madrid. There is no way, it won’t be a huge bloodbath, if we got the numbers on our side. (Strike at the heart of Madrid on the 12th of August)

What sort of numbers are those, mate?

You know, team player 90 and the two rookies, 15 and 7. (90 dead, if you strike at 15 past 7pm)

The meetings would continue onward, with Malik providing precise instructions months in advance at a single game, and the terror cell leader making notes on a piece of paper, that would soon be burnt at the comfort of the safehouse.

By using the 90 minutes of a football match efficiently and disguised amongst thousands of fans that looked exactly like them, Malik could easily slip in and out of countries with ease. In the case of an emergency, the game known as Fantasy Premier League provided an direct means of communication that was completely disguised behind the language of football.

For months now, Hassan Malik had waged war across the Continent, costing hundreds of lives and racking up billions in damages and political capital using food and football as his secret pigeon. His entire campaign however had led up to this moment. His final decisive strike against the British, with the world bearing witness to the price the United Kingdom would pay for its’ hypocrisy.

All the soft attacks he had conducted across Spain, Italy, Belgium, Germany and France and once a venture into Austria and Portugal had left the British complacent. They felt reassured that the attacks were not happening on their home soil. That the war was a Continent concern only. Hassan knew all too well the unique cultural psychology behind the British, and was keen to play their ideals of sportsmanship against them.

With each attack, he generated more and more concern amongst the likes of James Ashford and Richard Washington, but soon after months of stress and reassurances, Downing Street began to believe their own lies and dismiss Ashford’s concerns as paranoia.

As a result, security measures across the United Kingdom were relaxed somewhat, and to Hassan’s great pleasure all 7 terror cells that had caused so much destruction across Europe, were able to take a first class train ride into the heart of London, without a single security check.

For 3 weeks, the 14 hand-picked men for the greatest terrorist attack on a Western country since 9/11 stayed in pure isolation across London in their safe-houses, communicating only through bursts of Fantasy Football and one man from every pair occasionally meeting Malik at a football match.

The plan was 3-fold. Each pair were in possession of a rental van that would be fitted with explosives. Targeting specific popular tourists locales and high-end restaurants suburbs, they would trigger the explosives on the van, before taking advantage of the chaos to employ their AK-47 assault rifles, indiscriminately firing into the crowd. With 8 magazines each, and then a final suicide vest, the death toll would be in the thousands.

London would be left burning.

The perfect tribute to a woman he had lost in another life, fighting for a lie, a false country and an apocryphal Queen.

With less than 48 hours until the scheduled attack on Valentine Day, Hassan found sleep elusive and wracked with dreams of failures. For months, he had been plagued by a spectral figure in his dreams, whose very presence unnerved him to the core and would leave him jerking awake, gasping for breath.

Malik knew better than to worry anyone about these strange dreams, however, he could not help shake off the ill feelings he had. There was a strange sense of inevitability about the spectre, that this figure would be the death of his work.

Sighing, knowing that he would not find any more sleep, until the attack came, Malik shut the laptop down, closing the Fantasy Football app. Reaching out for his phone, Malik paused before calling Sofia, a strange sense of disquiet rustling his consciousness.

However, emotional and physical needs overwhelmed the niggling sense of discomfort.

The ringtone sounded harsh in the sterile safehouse. It also went on for far too long.

Malik frowned when he got Sofia’s voicemail. She was always so quick to respond, no matter the hour of the day or night.

Texting her through the Just Eat app, he ordered a simple Lebanese dish that he knew she loved, kibbeh, and sent it through to her apartment. Now his paranoia was spiking furiously.

Could she be compromised? wondered Malik. Impossible. Malik concluded, but he knew deep down what he had to do. This operation was far too important to risk for a woman, no matter how much she meant to him.

Without hesitation, Malik shattered the phone and broke the SIM card, before slipping on a long coat. Looking at his reflection in the mirror, he propped the collar up to shield his face and his grief and walked outside with the remains of the phone, to throw into the Thames.

~

Gabriel Woods had his seat all the way down in his silver Audi A6, lying as flat as possible, watching the movements of Hassan Malik through the feed of a tiny Black Hornet Nano drone.

At only 10×2.5cm in size, the nano UAV was as surreptitious as they come, and could be controlled via a specialised app on a phone. Woods kept the drone as high as he could, aware of the noise it could create, despite the busy noisescape of London.

Woods frowned as he watched Malik make a circuitous route to throw the remains of his phone into the Thames. He was a consummate professional, always scanning his surrounding and pausing frequently to ensure no tails were following him. As Woods watched the splash from the phone recede, he knew that Sofia’s non-communication had alerted Malik.

Will he call it off? wondered Woods, as he kept watching Malik hustle past smiling couples through the tiny feed on his phone.

No. This is too important for him. The attack is too soon. He’s committed now. As is everyone else.

An effusive Ashford had already congratulated Woods on his work. Thanks to Woods’ interrogation on Sofia, the exact location and timing of the attacks had been worked out. However, they were still in the dark where the safe houses that contained these men were.

This meant that they would have to stop the attack at the target. High risk.

It was time to call in Woods’ old unit, the infamous 22nd SAS to come in, and mop up the mess.

If SOP (Standard Operation Procedure) were to be followed, the next 24 hours would have the kill-teams furiously training in mock-ups of the area that they were assigned. 7 targets, 7 different locations, 7,000,000 ways for things to go wrong. The SAS teams would know each area like the back of their hand, aware of the millions of alleyways, sewers, bus routes, traffic patterns and a thousand other variables.

To stop a suicide attack, the men would be sharpening their marksmanship skills. Headshots only.

They would seek to limit the number of civilians around, and ideally take out the terrorists before they detonated the vans. To shoot them in the car, was too risky. Glass had a strange way of disrupting bullets and there was always a chance that there was a switch in the van that could be triggered by a dying body spasm.

This meant that the team had to ID the correct van, wait for the terrorist to jump out, then nail them all in one go, amidst a busy civilian population.

As one of the captains of the kill teams said bluntly in his concluding statement after a briefing.

7 million ways for this to go tits-up boys. So let’s get evil lads.

Woods though, had faith in his old Squadron. They were the best in the world. No other fighting man came close to the warrior that was a Blade. If anyone could prevent a Valentine Day massacre, it would be the 22nd SAS.

It was Malik that concerned him though. Whilst the attacks were going on, what was Malik going to do?

What are you thinking, you bastard? pondered Woods as he watched Malik thread his way effortlessly through London.

Author’s Note

And I’m back again with another chapter in this short story!

It took even longer this time to write but I finally found a way forwards!

Let’s hope the next chapter isn’t too far around the corner.

If you forgot the past chapters, simply use the search bar on my page and type in espionage and they’ll turn up!

~ Damocles.

En Garde

The Duellists (1977)

Note: This short story uses a lot of technical fencing terms. Please refer to this key for further clarification.

Prime, Seconde, Quarte, Quinte, Sixte, Septime, Octave and Neuvieme shall all be referred to in this story. They are merely references to the areas where the blade attacks the body.

“A slight has been perceived.” intoned the droll referee. “The two parties are to engage in an honourable duel to settle the matter. As is ordained by God, the winner shall settle down once quarter is asked.”

Francois Dubois stared at the blue eyes of the man before him, and saw not a powerful Lord, but a deadly fighter.

Likewise, Lord James Allister glared into the green pearls of Matthew and beheld a formidable Officer instead of a commoner.

Both men, striking in their appearances, turned away and motioned to their seconds. The “second” was their most trusted ally, in charge of inspecting their weapons, and ensuring that the honour of the duel was respected.

Dubois looked at his long-time friend Hubert who solemnly handed him his French light cavalry sabre. Heavy, strong and brutal in its simplicity, the cavalry sabre was a fearsome weapon wielded in the right hands. Designed primarily to be used on horseback with long sweeping strokes, the sabre was designed around the principle of speed and momentum to inflict a devastating single hit.

Unsheathing his weapon, Dubois looked at the dull steel, and ran a hand along the blade, pleased to see that it had been recently sharpened. The weapon felt comfortable in his hand, his body moulded to its’ shape, after years of combat in Spain.

Hubert leaned in and took the sheath back before whispering. Are you sure about this Francois?

Dubois looked back at Lord James Allister and felt his jaw hardened in response to his resolve. I must Hubert. He slandered Esme. Her honour and mine is at stake.

Hubert frowned at the stubbornness from his childhood friend. Francois, you know, as well as I do, that Esme is allowed to do as she please. She is not your betrothed! Do not throw your life away, honouring that woman. That English Lord … there are thousands of rumours about how skilled he is.

Francois smiled ruefully at his friend’s pleas. I’m sorry Hubert. But my mind is made up. You know all too well, when it comes to women, how I am. Besides, you should have a bit more faith in your commanding officer! I am one of the Emperor’s most feared cavalrymen. How many charges have we survived?

Justice, God and Luck are on our side Hubert. Vive Le Empereur!

Dubois sharply turned around and ignored the forlorn Mon Dieu from his friend, eager to test his mettle against the English Lord who was still talking to his second, and testing the balance of his weapon.

Lord James Allister flexed his fingers over the slim handle of his English small sword, enjoying the way how the grooves prevented any signs of slippage in his hands. An left-handed fencer, Allister possessed an unusual advantage over many opponents, due to the simple fact that the two blades were pointed directly at each other, instead of having to scythe inwards towards the body for a thrust.

This evolutionary advantage over many right-handed swordsmen, meant that Allister preferred a lighter, faster blade. The English small sword he favoured was perfect, a dancing, shimmering blaze of sharp steel, that enabled more dexterity from the sword hand.

Whilst it lacked the power and cleaving ability of the French cavalry sabre, the small sword made up for this, in precision and speed. This was a weapon made to wound, slow down the opponent, then adjust for a killing stroke.

Taking off his heavy coat, Allister rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, to reveal an unfashionable tan. Handing his coat to his second, Allister inspected the square upon which they were to duel.

Flat grey cobblestones paved the ground, upon which spots of water had been splashed by the sardonic priest to ordain the duel, ensuring the sacrosanctity of the entire matter was observed by God.

Around the square, lined attractive, brick houses, that were now lightly misted by the early fog that characterised so many towns in the Napoleonic era. The fog was an indication of early dawn, the only time where privacy could be expected in a busy district like Plymouth.

Allister kept his thoughts to himself, but inside he was seething at the temerity of the whole affair.

That French bitch. Had I known … To blazes with her. Focus on this, man!

Recalling his nobleman training, he pushed the emotional thoughts of his mind, and concentrated fully on the duel. He had spilled much blood, with his skill and ruthlessness. There wasn’t a swordsman yet who could match his pace and calm efficiency.

Perhaps this Frog bastard will be different. thought Allister, relishing the idea.

Stepping forward, almost dancing on his feet, Allister held his small sword out to the side and sharply flourished it in a salute, as Dubois returned the gesture, his cavalry sword rotating slightly in a more military fashion.

The referee, an sanguine man whose dull intonation denoted that he had seen many duels before, stepped forward, away from the priest who was too busy muttering in Latin to notice.

Gentlemen, upon my call, you shall retreat 7 paces, before engaging each other. Any movement before is strictly prohibited and shall be punished most severely. This is a matter for God to observe and show his will.

Allister felt his heartbeat start to increase, his body prepping itself for his first initial attack. Dubois found himself beginning to sweat, as he realised that the English Lord before him, was genuinely excited.

If you will, gentlemen … take your 7 paces back.

Dubois walked away, his hand already preparing for a defensive manoeuvre. He would bide his time and wait for the perfect killing stroke. Just one hit … one hit would be all it took to kill this arrogant bastard who had wronged his darling Esme.

Allister stopped dead at 7 steps and spun around sharply, his heeled shoes clicking on the cobblestones.

En garde. announced the referee.

The Latin prayers began in rise in volume, as the priest provided a strange melody to the proceedings.

Pret.

Allister and Dubois stared at each other, their eyes clashing already over their swords.

Allez!

The first sign of emotion came from the referee as he forcefully expelled the word out of his mouth and stepped back to watch the deadly dance.

Within seconds, Allister crossed the 14 paces that separated the two men, and Dubois found himself retreating instantly, side-stepping furiously, astonished by the ferocity of the English Lord.

Allister lunged forward, his left foot stamping on the ground, as his blade darted forward to Dubois’ quarte side. Dubois, sensing the feint, ignored the sword dancing to his left breast, rotated his body away and moved his sabre across his chest, as Allister scythed the point of his sword across.

Metal scraped on metal, and Allister, whilst outstretched in a full lunge, made a circular motion downwards to Dubois’ leg.

Reacting instantly, Dubois snapped his leg away from the blade and took a few more steps back.

The opening gambit played out, Allister took a breath and took up his normal en garde position, smiling grimly, his left hand moving the small sword in a distracting manner.

Francois Dubois kept his eyes on Allister, breathing heavily after the initial exchange.

Merde. He’s fast! So damnably fast. I need to be very careful here.

Allister weaved to and fro, before sweeping his small sword to Dubois’ octave, going for his right calf. Dubois panicked and swept his sabre down. The moment he moved, Dubois knew instantly it was the wrong decision.

Without any effort, Allister flicked the point of his sword upwards and scored Dubois’ hip, along the sixte line. It would have been worse, were it not for Dubois violently twisting his body out of the way.

Touching his right side and noting the blood, Dubois felt relieved it was a small cut. Gathering his wits and remembering the speed upon which his blade worked best, Dubois charged forwards, his sabre outstretched to ward off the dancing English small sword.

Allister frowned as he beheld the charging Frenchmen and braced himself for a parry riposte that he knew would work to his advantage.

To his astonishment, the French sabre was outstretched towards his head and Allister moved awkwardly, pronating his left wrist, to sweep the sabre to the side of his body, and whilst his hand was over his head, jabbed downwards.

Dubois, sensing the danger, shifted his leg and allowed the blade to pass by him harmlessly.

The two men, were now inches away from each other, Allister’s mien reflecting one of frustration, whilst Dubois’ features were fixed in a battle scowl.

Balling his left hand in a fist, Dubois shortened the distance even more and punched Lord James Allister squarely in the face.

Allister reeled back, his nose broken and bleeding. Smearing at it with his right hand, and looking at the crimson stain on his palm in astonishment, he was almost caught unaware by the follow-up attack by Dubois.

Dodging quickly to the side of the sabre that was coming down, Allister felt rage creep into his sword arm and he arrogantly directed the sabre point that was aiming at his chest to the side, with a mere flick of his wrist, a quarte parry that immediately turned into a riposte aimed at Dubois’ sixte.

Dubois smoothly retracted his sabre blade into his en garde position, and took a step back that left the small sword’s tip a mere inch from his body.

Allister swore internally inside as he sized up his opponent once more.

Frog bastard!

The pause in the fighting grew longer, as both men drew in heavy breaths to recuperate their exertions. Allister’s en garde was becoming sloppier, whilst Dubois’ sabre grew heavier with each parry, slowing down the potent weapon’s swing.

As Dubois reeled back from a flurry of attacks from Allister, he felt a second wind come in, as he learned to read the English Lord’s favourite move, which was to feint to Dubois’ quarte, then circle his parry and thrust towards octave, in the hopes of wounding Dubois’ legs.

The only obstacle that stood in the way of that attack, was Dubois’ low centre of gravity and his instinctual desperation to protect his legs, a habit garnered from years as a cavalryman. Dubois had seen too many of his compatriots’ legs sawn off by the doctor, after wounds became infected on the battlefield and gangrene set in.

The duel continued, with both men slowly getting more tired, only their desperation and anger fueled their sloppy swordsmanship.

But unlike Allister, Dubois kept his cool. He had too many years charging into battle to waste his energy. His strategy from the beginning of the duel was about to pay off.

A neuvieme attack was launched by Allister, whose finesse was beginning to wear off, the small sword clashing with a metallic tang, as Dubois blocked the blade from hitting his head.

Batting the lighter sword away, Dubois gathered all his energy and with a roar, brought his heavy cavalry sabre down in a diagonal motion that went from quarte to octave, mirroring Allister’s favourite combination.

Allister staggered backwards, his shirt ripped across his torso, his face aghast at the devastating killing blow.

Falling on his back, Allister stared up at the sky, only to be disappointed that he would not see the blue horizon, as the fog was still thick enough to obscure everything. Taking a ragged breath, he closed his eyes and felt the fog envelope him into nothingness.

Dubois sank to his knees, as the priest and doctor rushed forward and inspected the dead English Lord. Checking his pulse, the doctor shook his head at the referee and stepped aside, doing the sign of the cross, as the priest took over the last rites.

The referee looked at Allister’s second, a humble servant, who merely nodded coldly and walked away with his dead Lord’s belongings.

Scoffing at the back of the second, who he knew was going to pilfer everything that was valuable in his dead master’s house, the referee motioned the graveyard men forward, who were keen to take the body and see what they could sell.

It is done, by God’s will. I will leave you gentlemen now. Have a good morning.

With a tip of his hat to Dubois, the referee shuffled off into the town, no doubt unhappy to be the tiding of bad news to the local magistrate who was going to be apoplectic that a nobleman had died in a duel in his town.

Hubert rushed forwards to Dubois and looked at the wound on his hip. It was nasty, but nothing too serious, despite the huge red patch that had spread across Dubois’ white shirt.

Doctor, over here now! yelled Hubert at the doctor, who was startled out of his stare at the dead Allister, being carried unceremoniously away by graveyard men.

As the doctor bandanged the wound, Dubois looked at Hubert cockily.

I told you my friend. We had everything on our side to win. But mon dieu, he was fucking fast.

Hubert shook his head at his friend’s bravado.

To nearly die for the affections of Esme … you are aware that she was invited to that Lord’s party right?

Dubois looked at Hubert in shock. No, I thought she was taken by force …

Hubert shook his head sadly. Francois, you fool. How many times have I warned you to stay away from Esme? Now an English Lord is dead because of her and you, a fugitive.

But this was a fair duel, Hubert shook Dubois in consternation and dawning realisation.

A dead Lord is still worth more than a dead French officer. said Hubert forlornly.

The magnitude of what had happened hit Dubois instantly, and his adrenaline was filled with dread. This was not going to go unpunished. Fair duel or not, noble blood was spilled and such matters wasn’t going to be taken lightly. His beloved Emperor would have to exile Dubois immediately or risk further English wrath.

Merde whispered Dubois.

Author’s Note.

Drawing heavily from my own experience as a past fencer and my obsession with the Hawkwood series of book by James McGee, this was surprisingly difficult to write, with only a vague idea on how I should pace the fight. I also struggled to insert technical terms whilst still making the flow of the swordplay exciting.

I will probably come back and write more fight scenes, which I think I have a decent grasp on, but still need a lot more practice.

Onto the next one!

~ Damocles.

Hallow-Winged

Modjo’s Acknowledgement was playing softly in the background, as the penthouse Halloween party began in earnest.

Situated on the 59th floor, the penthouse was exquisitely designed, with the perfect amount of glass permeating and off-setting the dark metallic interior. Moonlight flooded the two storied apartment complex, shining through every glass window that overlooked a busy metropolis.

Nowhere was the light stronger than on the sheer glass balcony, that offered thrills in any direction. Left, right, up … down, there was a floating sensation that only those without vertigo could withstand for long periods of time.

Leaning on a skinny dark railing that seemed to blend with the night, with a glass of whiskey in his hand, Michael stared out at the view alone in his thoughts.

At an excessively tall 195cm, Michael had dark features that excited and terrified in equal measure. His piercing blue eyes glittered from under his swept back blonde hair, and his tanned skin only served to accentuate the strong, sharp jawline. His face was aquiline, with shallow cheeks, that showcased cheekbones that could cut through butter.

It was startlingly attractive, in a way that seemed too perfect. Like he was designed with an artisan’s eye for detail, crafted without any flaws. Nothing marred his skin, and absolutely naught could take away his breath-taking looks that were perfect at any angle.

As he raised the glass with long, slender manicured fingers, the music in the background changed to Blue Monday by HEALTH. The lights inside the penthouse changed to a neon blue and yellow scheme, as the DJ signalled the audio-visual jockey to time his flashes to the beat of the song.

The pulses and flushes of 65 people dancing rhythmically together, gave the party a strange zombie like feel. Every single person there, was slightly drunk, riding the depressive high of excellent quality agave tequila, their bodies clashing, shaking … before breaking apart and coming together again.

Confusing scenes were everywhere as the lights changed once more to accommodate the brutal sounds of Casey Edwards’ Bury the Light. Purple hues slashed through rays of electric blue. Heads began to bob, as the monsters at the party began to ramp up their throes of ecstasy.

Mike Myers was conjoined at the hip with Juliet Starling. It, the infamous clown, was now furiously grabbing at Harley Quinn. Elsewhere, Joker was staring balefully at the bizarre couple, before distracted by a sensational Freddy Krueger. Maleficent was desperately locking lips with a Fembot as two approving Grady twins nodded in conjunction to the beat of the music.

Everywhere, depravity ruled the swanky apartment, which only magnified the scenes, by reflecting every single guest’s actions, a million fold as they stared at their mirror selves echoing their motions.

Only Michael, remained mirror-less and costume-deprived. Indeed with his elegant dark blazer, white shirt and loafers, he cut a desolate figure of elitism amongst all the fun, cheaper costumes.

It was only until STONEFIST by HEALTH came on, and the lights poured in red, and dark that Michael turned around to face his twin, Samael, who had seemingly appeared out of nowhere.

The two stared at each other, before Samael smiled charmingly and went over to the small table in the corner. Gripping the alcoholic decanter, he poured himself three fingers of whiskey, before taking his place beside Michael.

If Michael was blindingly pure in his beauty, Samael boasted a much darker, intense attractiveness. Despite possessing the same bone structure, Samael’s jet-black hair and obsidian eyes with crimson irises warped the beauty into a much more intense seductiveness. He was made to induce reckless abandon, and wanton lust. Samael was irresistible.

Whilst Michael was serious, Samael was always perpetually smiling, his dark eyes piercing through people’s facades and armour with ease, encouraging them to indulge in their dark hidden desires.

Together, they watched, as the lift to the penthouse arrived, the solitary yellow “UP” light failing to pierce the crimson atmosphere inside.

The 66th guest had arrived.

Stepping out, he paused long enough for the vibe to change once more.

Kavinsky’s Odd Look blazed to life across the penthouse. Smoke began to issue from dry ice machines, the thick clouds pooling around ankles, then knees … then waists. Soon, the entire room was covered in smoke, with light strobes flashing brilliant, pure white, to stimulate lightning. Dark blue spotlights began to focus on random guests.

Imhotep appeared out of the gloom. Only to be replaced by a Hellboy over there. A werewolf snarled menacingly, before its fangs were replaced by a Dracula’s. The Invisible Man, unaware of the paradox, shone brightly under the spotlight, his startlingly white bandages soon juxtaposed with the pale skin of a Hellraiser.

But the blue and black eyes of Michael and Samael were transfixed on the latest guest.

He was monstrously big, taller than the twins that stood outside on the balcony. Like a boulder come to life, the 66th guest was muscular in the extreme that only added to his already towering height of 2.2 metres. His chest seemed to dwarf the tiny people dancing mindlessly beneath him, and the huge rifle he hefted in his hands seemed to weigh nothing at all.

Decked out in an iconic red/white varsity jacket that showcased a white singlet beneath, dark navy jeans, and thick cream boots, the costume was hardly horror inspired, beyond its high-school throwback vibes.

But it was the head that screamed at the world. Disturbingly white and blank, bar for crimson sabre-tooth tiger styled fangs that protruded out from the jawline of the mask, there was nothing to see. No eyes, no sign of a nose, nothing human could identify the giant beneath the mask.

The 66th guest’s head was entirely, glaringly, pure metallic white.

Standing absolutely still, the fanged blank giant waited until the first person looked at him.

It was an inadvertent touch. A Wolfman softly nudged a dazed zombified woman, who then swayed into the 66th guest.

Looking up, to apologise, she froze when she saw the black rifle and the terrifyingly vacant face that loomed over her.

Stumbling back, she began to whisper “No, no, no, no, not this party. Not tonight. Oh God, please no … not here, please, please, please …”

A bloodied Crusader Knight spun around in anger, as the zombified girl crashed into him, causing him to drop his drink.

“What the fu …” said the knight, as the curse word choked in his throat and died out before the visage of an armed lifeless statue. Soon, within minutes, the entire party was paralyzed before the feared serial killer, who had haunted the city for the past month.

VOID.

The giant’s name was uttered in complete fear. Massacres followed in his wake, merciless death haunted his presence and the screams of the dead and dying whispered unheard warnings to the living.

Every year, despite the warnings, Halloween parties were held, despite the grip of fear that VOID wielded over the populace. Without fail, they were punished for their insolence, always through the same means … by blood, bullet, blade and blunt trauma.

Michael and Samael looked on dispassionately, as VOID unslung the huge rifle from his broad shoulders and levelled it at the crowd of holiday celebrators.

The DJ was the first to receive a flurry of bullets, that dropped him on the stage of his set and set the final song for the evening.

Jeff Rona’s Crimson Cloud began its’ malevolent melody, the screams of Rachel Fannan soaring high above the chatter of gunfire, as the songstress’ wails merged with the genuine screams of the VOID’s victims.

Scores of costumed people fell in a heap, as the floor became slick with glass, blood and the sweat of the fearful. VOID never moved from his post, as he indiscriminately raked the crowd with more gunfire, pausing only to reload.

A foolish Jason Voorhees rushed the VOID, knife arms outstretched in desperation. The gunfire paused in respect, and the survivors looked on with hope. Perhaps this machete wielding killer could save them.

Letting the rifle hang loosely by his size, VOID allowed Jason in close, before his arm shot out at blinding speed and gripped the head of the hockey-killer, lifting him clean off the ground.

With minimal effort, VOID began to apply pressure, his immensely strong fingers causing the skull to crack and splinter apart, as the pained screeches of Voorhees tore to shreds, any vestige of hope the survivors had.

Bringing the struggling, writhing costumed killer closer to his blank face, VOID looked at dying Jason curiously, before lifting his head and in a violent downward thrust, buried both of his fangs into the skull of his victim.

All movement immediately ceased, and the hockey-masked corpse was unceremoniously let go, to crumple lifelessly onto the ground. Raising his rifle up once more, VOID fired into the immobile crowd, their lack of hope rendering them unable to move, struggle or resist any more.

Death was now just an inevitability. Acceptance was now rendered apart by bullets.

After what seemed like an eternity, but was only 6 minutes of carnage, VOID began to slowly walk around, inspecting victims. Any signs of life was promptly extinguished with a clubbing motion from the huge rifle, the butt of the weapon slowly becoming bloodier and grey with brain matter as savage blows were rendered without compassion into people’s heads.

His work completed, VOID looked out at the balcony and saw nobody there.

With a casual grace, VOID slung the rifle over his shoulder once more and walked back into the elevator where he disappeared as quickly as he had arrived.

Michael looked at his twin brother Samael.

How many are yours? he asked.

Samael, the eternal smile flitting across his lips, shrugged. 40 or thereabouts.

Michael nodded grimly. Out of mine, only 5 went straight up. The rest are in limbo.

I’ll probably be collecting them sooner or later. said Samael teasingly.

I wonder when you’ll be collecting him. replied Michael as he finished his whiskey.

Samael gave a nonchalant flick across his broad shoulders. You never question it, do you brother?

We’ve had this discussion before. replied Michael curtly.

Same old Michael, always steadfast in his belief in the Path. Forever loyal. mocked Samael as he stretched his broad shoulders, allowing the pure white wings to unfurl.

Michael, looking at his fallen brother, felt the familiar twinge of jealousy as he beheld the huge 7 metre wingspan of pure, dazzling white wings. Samael was always the one that their father had laboured the most on.

Be seeing you soon Michael. called out Samael, in sing-song, as he flicked his wings downwards and soared high into the sky. Don’t go blaming me for tonight … you chose to believe, I just dared to asked questions.

Michael scowled at the insolence of Lucifer, his brother’s new christened name and looked back at the room full of dead bodies.

Putting aside his reservations, Michael revealed his own wings, a dark obsidian colour that contrasted Lucifer’s pearls.

Floating high above the world, Michael heard his brother’s voice in his mind once more, the siren song of skepticism.

I’ve always spoken the truth … that’s why Father set me free.

Shaking Lucifer’s seductive logic out of his mind, Michael aimed himself downwards and flew to the next soul collection point. Clouds rustled his black wings, as he shot around the world, unable to do anything, except claim more people for a home that he had not seen in an eternity.

Perhaps he’s right, we’re all in our own Hell. Lucifer just chose to make it his own.

Author’s Note.

This one was meant for a Halloween release, but unfortunately work waylaid me. I actually struggled to create this one, as I originally meant for it to have an angel/devil be revealed as the monster. However, inspiration struck when I listened to the dark synth of Carpenter Brut and I tweaked the story so that the angels and demons were forced to watch a massacre, unable to do anything, except pick up the pieces at the end.

Only Lucifer take pride in this work, because to him, it has become fun to tease his more upright brother about the whole situation and only he sees the truth behind the actions they take.

As for VOID, I was originally inspired by the latest helmet design rocked by Bloodsport in The Suicide Squad (2021), which is a clear reference to the Xenomorph. However, I wanted to make it white, in homage to how a pure white room, creates too much noise and anxiety in people when stared at for too long.

White is actually a highly piercing colour, hence I made VOID’s mask/helmet design in honour of that sharp, disturbing quality. The fangs were an idea I had, just to contrast the mask and add an extra element to the brutal nature of the serial killer. I originally toyed with the idea of teeth and elongated jaw, just like Bloodsport, but I preferred an even more minimal approach to the mask. I really just wanted to strip away any recognisable human elements to the mask.

As for the music, I hope you enjoyed the links. It was a lot of fun re-creating a dark synth, Halloween playlist for this short story. I wanted to add more songs, but figured they didn’t mesh well with each other.

Until the next one!

~ Damocles.