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Whatever happened to Leslie Atwood-Long?

In June of 1941 General Erwin Rommel smashed Operation Battleaxe, a British offensive intended to destroy the Afrika Korps, and the race towards Alexandria began. If the Egyptian city remained in British hands supplies could be brought in to keep England in North Africa. If the city fell, Egypt fell, and with it the Suez Canal -- and the thin link to British troops in Asia would be lost. Rommel failed to take the determined resistance at Tobruk into account, or Lieutenant Jasper Maskelyne and the Magic Gang who managed to hide the port of Alexandria from the Luftwaffe. Maskelyne and company would later manage to misdirect the Germans from Bernard Montgomery's preparations for Operation Lightfoot, but in the summer of 1941 Britain's ability to hold Egypt appeared in serious doubt. British troops dug in for an attack, and in the process discovered a cache of writings by the third century theologians Origen and Didymus the Blind -- buried centuries earlier after the pair had been declared heretics in the 7th century.

Less known were the British efforts to find routes for strategic retreat, should Rommel prove successful. While British Palestine represented the obvious direction for retreat its very obviousness made it dangerous. A number of small units, usually a handful of jeeps in each, were sent to scout possible retreat routes if the Germans could not be stopped, or to locate possible sources of strategic materials, such as water, or locations of military values. One ill-fated group found nothing of strategic value as they pushed into uncharted portions of the rocky eastern desert. But they produced a report which brought their intelligence into question. They reported all their vehicles dying at the same point. It was as if a vehicle lost all its electrical power. A second jeep had driven towards the first to give it a jump, but had died at the same point, as did a third, and fourth. As the fifth edged slowly forward it also died. Compasses did not work, nor did the field radios to contact their unit. After several hours working on the engines, and never getting a spark, a private from the Bow Bells district of London suggested pushing a jeep back over to where the vehicles had been working. While the lieutenant in charge ridiculed the idea two sturdy privates pushed back the fifth jeep, which started immediately. The radios also began working again once they had left whatever mysterious region they had trespassed. Muscle, ropes, and chains enabled the unit to recover all vehicles and get back to base. They were roundly ridiculed as incompetent mechanics

It was the report of that scouting unit which forever changed the life of Leslie, who had never quite forgiven his parents for not realizing the name had slipped from the male to the female domain, Atwood-Long. An Oxbridge historian had stumbled across report of the bad-luck patrol while researching for a book on Maskelyne and company. He found the account interesting, even though it contributed nothing to his own project. He photocopied the report, but forgot all about it for a couple years. While reviewing his research to correct galley proofs of The Magic Gang he stumbled across the photocopy and brought it up with a colleague in the geology department. The geologist theorized a huge magnetite deposit, or perhaps iron ore that held a large charge of electrical energy as the most likely cause for the anomaly. Allanite deposits were also known in the eastern desert, although the radioactive material should not effect electro-magnetic fields. The mystery stayed with him and he recommended Leslie, a student in need of a topic for his doctoral dissertation, research the phenomenon.

Leslie Atwood-Long accepted the idea with relish as it provided him an excuse to avoid yet another beastly English winter. The old army report didn't furnish him with exact coordinates, but he remained cheerfully optimistic about his own abilities. He did his initial reconnaissance on a dirt bike, small enough he could push it out of the area of the anomaly if he located it.

Egypt's inner desert, the land just beyond the fertile ribbon of the Nile, was well known. For many centuries ascetics and others at the margin of society dwelt there – literally on the margin of civilization. The more forbidding outer desert beyond the inner desert defended the land of the pharaohs from invasions from either the east or west for eons. Les, as he was known to his friends, had a good idea why as he explored wadis and few relatively flat areas in the area in which he conducted his research. The western desert is largely sand, with the occasional oasis to make life bearable. The eastern desert is largely outcroppings of rock, and even less hospitable. But Atwood-Long maintained his stiff upper lip and persevered.

He called friends and family from Cairo to say he had located the perimeter of the anomaly, and that it appeared vastly larger than he had expected. He planned to return and discover the source of the anomaly, and hoped it wouldn't take long. Following that glowing announcement he disappeared. If the earth had opened up and swallowed Leslie Atwood-Long he could not have been more silent. Concerned family and friends contacted the British Embassy, who contacted Egyptian officials, who contacted local authorities, who knew nothing. His family feared he had been killed or taken hostage by the Muslim Brotherhood.

In a cheap novel the sole survivor of a lost expedition would have stumbled out of the desert and died as he gasped out his discovery to a startled world. In reality Leslie arrived back in Cairo more than two months after he had set out, but he said little. He applied to the Egyptian government for an excavation permit. When pressed by Egyptian officials about where he had been he remained adamantly vague about his exact location in the outer dessert. When the Egyptian government retaliated by being equally stubborn in releasing a dig permit Leslie promised, "After I tell the world what I've seen you'll beg me to lead an expedition back."

"That's not a threat, is it?"

"No, that's a promise. What I've found is more incredible than Tut."

He realized he should never have made that comment. Many people looked at the tomb of Tutankhamun only in terms of the gold buried there. He felt almost certain someone followed him back to his hotel, and couldn't escape the feeling of being watched until long after his return to England.

Back at Oxbridge he began quiet conversations with individuals in different departments, and vague rumors about his discovery began to circulate on the internet. His contact with the Classics Department yielded a number of references Leslie found significant as he prepared his dissertation and report. Cuneiform texts from Sumer mentioned a temple with silver gates in the Egyptian dessert. The most complete version of the Pyramid Texts contained a reference to the gates of the underworld in the outer desert on the east of the Nile. The Greek historian Herodotus made reference to a city built entirely of silver lost in the desert, but he loved gossip. The Roman natural historian, Pliny the Elder, claimed to have talked with a man who had seen the entrance to an underground city. But while the metal had looked like silver it was harder and could not be cut by iron tools. In the life of St Anthony, by Athanasius of Alexandria, the father of monasticism had stumbled across the entrance to hell on his travels in the desert. The various later references to the gates of Hell in early Christian literature seemed to derive from the Life of Anthony. A 16th century Arab trader claimed to have lost his bearings in a sand storm. After the storm passed his compass failed and his caravan almost perished before they were able to find their way out.

Since 1942 four aircraft had been lost in the approximate area, the wreckage of only one of which had been recovered. Some searchers reported equipment failures during their efforts to locate the missing aircraft.

Atwood-Long found the ideal venue to announce his discovery to the world, a conference on extraterrestrial life held in New York. While the conference attracted a variety of crackpots and conspiracy buffs it also hosted some of the leading scientists in astrophysics, astronomy, and other serious disciplines. Rumors of Leslie's discovery earned him a spot as featured speaker on an evening panel the second day of the conference.

Drew Lipsky knew enough about extraterrestrials to skip the conference. Wade Load had enough contacts to obtain special tickets for a reception the first evening and a reserved seat for Atwood-Long's presentation. He also wrangled passes for Jim and Tim to attend the presentation.

The twins, by choice, attended some of the wackier sessions the first day while Wade hit the more serious lectures. Jim and Tim did some sightseeing in the evening while Wade attended the reception. It was easy to spot Atwood-Long at the reception, the crowd around him was almost half large as the one for Stephen Hawkins. Wade couldn't manage to ask any questions of the British geologist, but stayed close enough to listen in to his discussions. If Leslie could produce even half of what he promised it would dominate discussion in the scientific community for years to come.

Wade went to bed happy for the first time since his breakup with Joss. He had a reason to look forward to the next day.

Morning of the second day dawned with rumors that Atwood-Long had disappeared during the night. Many of those repeating the story took the position that his wild claims were bogus and he decided to run rather than attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of real scientists. Wade knocked on the twins' door after breakfast. "Who is it?" Jim complained.

"It's me, Wade. Can I come in?"

"Hold on, let me get the door."

"I heard Atwood-Long is gone," he told them. He turned to Tim, "Anything on the police band?"

Tim turned on his scanner. "Probably part of his hoax," Jim suggested, "just trying to get people to buy his book."

"He really sounded sincere and confident last night. He was eager for the presentation this evening."

"Anyone with Drakken as a partner can't be a good judge of character," Jim scoffed.

"Yeah, and hiring you two."

"Hold on," Tim ordered. "I'm picking up the reports. His room was ransacked. Two hotel employees and a guest saw something the police now think was Atwood-Long being taken out of the building and put in a trunk before being driven off."

"Who would go to the trouble of kidnapping a loon?" Jim asked.

"No one," Wade assured him. "But if he was telling the truth then darn near everyone wants that information – and that includes me. Get your stuff together, we're going home."

"Man," Tim complained, "we just got here. Can't we stay for a while? I bet I can pick up more on the police band."

"Sorry guys, but I want all my computers. And if we can get enough information I want to locate what he found."