The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
When Christ And His Saints Slept
7.45 am, Friday 28th August 1998
The operatives at the Hawkwell House discuss their plan of action for the trials of the coming morning. There is a phone call from Ned to coordinate (although no word from Vera), and Eric seems to encapsulate the general consensus when he says 'We should not disrupt the experiment unless it becomes clear that it's not following the script that Dr. Rohinder explained - and given Ned's description of the way that she talked about it again in her room last night, the lack of enthusiasm which I would expect for a scientist on the eve of such an experiment, I suspect that she's holding out on us about something.
'That doesn't mean that the Trismegistus Club is playing us false; it might mean that she's playing them for fools too. However, if that's true, they'd be allies on the spot if we decided that we needed to stop her. And if she's on the level, we ought to help her, not interfere.'
'I think we should get to the lecture hall early,' says Steven. 'I also think it would be good to know what Henry Blyth and Edward Lloyd are doing during the experiment. Eric, Lloyd gave you a phone number - the Trismegistus Club wants a contact, so let's give them one.'
Eric hands over the number, and Steven taps it out. It is answered immediately, and Lloyd's rich, firm tones seep into Steven's ear. 'Mr Edward Lloyd? I am Steven Smith, an associate of Dr. Eric Alnes; I understand that you and your club are interested in contact with us and our organization...'
There is a brief and rather discreet exchange, and Steven agrees to meet with Lloyd at 9.30 am, before the experiment starts.
T.R. looks at his watch. 'Well,' he says thoughtfully, 'We have about an hour and fifteen minutes until Anita Rohinder's lecture begins and then two hours after that before the experiment starts. Just in case Rohinder really doesn't know that I am connected with SITU and you folks, I think I am going to stay out of her way until the lecture starts. In the meantime, I'm going to make a few calls to find out how things are progressing with the investigation into Saunders' death.'
He asks to use Eric's phone, and calls Jed Barkley, the reporter he met at the farming conference. After the usual exchange of pleasantries, he asks if Jed has heard about Saunders' death.
'Damn right I have! They're talking about nothing else here, I can tell you. You should get down here - much more interesting than a load of psychic mumbo-jumbo! Yes, the police have made a statement.'
'I had the idea that the murder might have been connected to Saunders' minority report - anything about that? I saw the police arrest Saunders' assistant and another man who were attempting to steal it.'
'Is that right? Right on the scene? Lucky guy! Yes, it all seems pretty cut-and-dried. Apparently Dirkheim's made a confession. The other chap, Brian Carpenter his name is, he's a farmer in Hertfordshire, he's up here attending the conference, was blackmailing Dirkheim over some incident that took place while Dirkheim was holidaymaking on Carpenter's farm - he has cottages that he lets out. So Dirkheim agreed to steal the minority report for Carpenter - Carpenter, like all the wealthy farmers here, reckon that its publication would hurt them. Michael Saunders had a big name, and a lot of good contacts. It would have made a right old stink if it came out that Rowney's report was ignoring a load of the evidence, which is what it looks like. But the funny thing is, Dirkheim won't admit to the killing - swears blind he was nowhere near Iffley at the time, says he was at work in Beaufort College - in fact, he says that's when he stole the report, and when he was arrested it was just because Carpenter wanted to see the office and look for some more notes. But there's no-one who's going to be able to testify that he was where he says he was: apparently the college was deserted.'
'What about Carpenter? Has he confessed?'
'No, he seems to be a hard nut to crack. With Dirkheim singing all three choruses of The First Nowell, though, there doesn't seem to be much point him holding out any longer. Chief Inspector Seymour's happy that it's an open-and-shut case.'
T.R. thanks Barkley and calls the police station, asking for Sergeant Harris. Harris confirms the story. 'Yes, sir, it's all official now. We don't yet have any direct evidence that Dirkheim was the killer - it's all circumstantial - but we're confident that a further confession will ensue, and then Carpenter will admit that he put him up to it.' Harris pauses, and then adds 'This is all off the record, of course.'
'Of course,' soothes T.R. 'When exactly was Saunders killed, then?
'It was around midnight on the night of the 26th, sir. The body was found the next morning, by the lock-keeper.'
'We don't really know if an homunculus is necessarily evil,' muses Eric as the group prepare to set off. 'Or that it must be fed on human blood. We can't rely on the legends to be accurate about such things; we should judge Gulo by its actions.'
'So far those have been equivocal, at best,' suggests Steven.
T.R. is still on the phone, dialling the number for Claire Boothroyd's lab, which he has managed to extract from the Department of Plant Sciences. 'Hello, Ms Boothroyd?'
'Yes?' says a rather wary young woman's voice.
'My name's Warren, I'm a reporter looking into the death of Professor Michael Saunders -'
Before he can say any more, she interrupts coldly 'Mr Warren, I really don't want to talk about that. Thank you.'
There is a click, and the line goes dead. T.R. replaces the receiver gently and, grabbing up his jacket, joins the others in the corridor. He says to Belle-Marie 'Weren't you going to try and pretend to be a student, and call on Claire Boothroyd?'
'That's right, I was thinking about it,' she replies. 'I'll pop along after the experiment, how's about that?'
'It might be worth handling her tactfully,' advises T.R.
Vera wakes up at about 7 am, despite the surprising comfort of her suite's couch. Isobelle Kingston is sleeping peacefully. Vera takes a long shower, hoping the steam will help her decide on a course of action. By the time she gets out and wraps up in a large dressing gown, Kingston is awake. The two barely make eye contact and say nothing to each other at first. Vera has no clothes to fit the other woman, but does have a spare toothbrush and other toiletries and leaves them arranged for the medium's use next to the bath.
By the time breakfast has arrived along with a collection of several UK newspapers both women are dressed. Vera scans the newspapers and somehow finds it odd that none of them have much to say this morning about the recent murder, the conference or indeed that mankind may be facing its doom, at least according to what she has learned in recent days. As Kingston and Vera break the ice with small talk, the older woman assures the American that if the Guardian had such a story, the headline would read, 'World Ending: Labour Warns Poor Will Suffer Most.' Vera counters that the USA Today's lead story might say 'Major League Baseball owners rejected suggestions they cancel playoffs scheduled for after the end of the world.'
'I don't think things will get that bad, my dear,' Kingston says between sips of coffee. Then, sensing Vera is going to take too long to speak, she asks, 'Do you want me to contact Aiwass, and through him contact your parents?'
'Yes,' Vera answers. 'Isobelle, there are a lot of wrong things going on during this conference. Not least among them is that hundreds of people have been invited to participate in an experiment under false pretences, and I'm not supposed to explain that so please don't ask me to. It seems so silly. Apparently nothing has been secret about my comrades' mission for SITU from the start, yet those of us at the sharp end of the stick are supposed to rely on blind faith.'
'You don't have much of that, do you, dear?' says the older woman.
'Not when the phrase is used to connote acting like a sheep to the slaughter,' Vera responds.
'I meant, just some faith,' Kingston says.
Vera does not answer. She is looking past Kingston and through the window, at the dappled weak sunlight streaming over the roofs of Oxford. Kingston interrupts again, 'You think evil forces are taking over the good, do you?'
'Yes. And worse, I think I may be involved in more ways than one. But I plan to try and face some of that now, and maybe more later on.'
'Well, at least you believe in evil, and that shows some faith,' Kingston says with a wry smile. 'Why don't we begin.'
Vera makes sure the doors and windows are locked. 'Why are you doing that?' Kingston asks.
'You never know when someone may poke their sloped forehead in uninvited.'
Kingston blinks bewilderedly at this answer, but with good grace goes into her trance, in a manner very similar to the previous day's session.
Almost at once, the voice of Aiwass is heard. 'Vera Goodchild, do you hearken to me?'
The hairs on Vera's neck and arms prickle, but she boldly replies 'Who spoke through Isobelle about my soul last night?'
'I spoke. You should have listened.'
'Who or what power believes it has property of my alleged soul?' Vera asks in a level voice. She tries to speak as the businesswoman she has become since her parents' death. The tone is polite but firm and insistent.
'The dark lord Celebrax, Prince of Blades, has title to your soul. When you die you will become his, to suffer in eternal torment, as your parents are doing now.'
Vera's voice begins to lose a little of its confidence now. 'Mom, dad, are you...uh, in there?'
There is a noise like rending fabric, and at once the voices of Vera's parents can be heard, both speaking at once.
'My baby - be brave, be strong!' 'We're praying for you, and doing all we can, child.' Both voices are muffled and distant. Vera closes her eyes, to remove the disturbing image of Isobelle Kingston, mouth agape, eyes burning.
'Mom, dad, uh... are you existing like this because you were fighting against this threat to me and others but lost?... or are you suffering because you were on its side and failed?' she asks, her voice rising somewhat.
'We thought we were doing right... but we should have known it was wrong.' 'We made a bad decision, baby, we took the easy answer to what we wanted - to make you perfect, for your sake and for all of our sakes. But it was too easy, and we should have seen that.'
Aiwass's voice cuts in 'The time to talk is passing! Celebrax will return! Your parents forfeited you to him, and he will take you ahead of time if he can!' There is the faint sound of echoing, roiling laughter. Vera snaps her eyes open to see that dark circles in Kingston's eye sockets are widening. Vera's parents go quiet.
Vera's voice cracks, but she is overcome with anger as much as pain. 'Give me something or tell me some way to beat this thing, mom, dad, because it's too damn late for you but you could do something right finally!' She is not shouting, but her anger has her speaking between clenched teeth. She crushes the coffee mug she is holding in her right hand as the words come out.
'Oh, baby, you'll need help! Find a wise, holy man - let God guide you.' 'Our books... ask Fritz, he'll tell you where to look.'
But both voices are spiralling away down a deep, dark well, and then they are sharply cut off with a deep, booming clang.
Kingston is silent, but Vera is unsure if the medium remains in contact with the spirit. She leans closer and asks one more question in a whisper, which after a long pause is answered by the semi-catatonic medium in a like whisper.
Vera bites her lip, pacing by the window, and a few moments pass while Kingston slumps, completely exhausted, in her chair. Vera puts her back to bed and reminds her of the experiment's time, setting the alarm to give the medium time to rise and attend if she wishes.
As Steven leaves, he is hailed by the receptionist. 'Excuse me, sir, are you likely to see Mr Numenor today?'
'I hope so,' Steven says.
'Perhaps you could tell him, sir, that there's a telephone message for him. From America. It's rather urgent, the gentleman said.'
'I'll take it to him if you like,' offers Steven.
'No, sir, thank you, but it's highly confidential, the gentleman said.'
I am not sure how much of this spirit-soul-enemy-of-mankind stuff to believe, thinks Steven to himself as he walks to his rendezvous. But clearly Dr Rohinder, Blyth and Lloyd believe, so...
He meets Lloyd, who is dressed very similarly to yesterday but with a cream shirt and a red-and-black-striped tie, in the bar of the Eastgate Hotel, next to the Examination Schools. The Trismegistus Club's representative has a brandy-and-soda, although the hour is still very early.
Steven tells him about the events of the walking tour. 'Frankly, I have no idea how to help Vera. If we are all 'good guys' who are the 'bad guys'? Not Kingston I think. She seems to be just a kind of conduit if, unfortunately, indiscriminate.'
Lloyd bites his lip, looking more worried than he did at any time during the previous evening's meeting. 'This does sound rather troubling, yes. Assuming the spirit to be correct, and I have never heard of Aiwass being otherwise, Miss Goodchild is in severe danger. Her parents acted rather rashly, when they strengthened her.'
'What do you mean?' asks Steven, puzzled.
'Isn't it clear to you? Miss Goodchild is an augmented human - more physically capable, and more physically attractive, than is normal. This is because her parents beseeched a higher power during her conception. There are a number of rituals which can be used. No doubt they thought they were doing the best for her... but it sounds to me rather as though they were answered by a power which was not the one they sought.'
Steven nods, digesting this disturbing information. 'Anyway, this morning's experiment - it's supposed to charge the cards in some way? Are you and the club going to be doing something to accomplish this while Dr. Rohinder runs the experiment or is it all up to her now?'
'We will just be watching - Anita is very capable, and we have confidence that all will go smoothly. Smaller-scale versions of this experiment, with only a handful of sensitives, have produced high magickal flux in the enchanted objects. We believe that today's exercise will give us a very potent weapon to use against our enemy.' He raises his glass, in a half-toast.
'Well, I guess we'd better be getting along, then,' says Steven.
T.R. heads for Lecture Theatre C, where technical staff are setting up the closed-circuit link to the main lecture hall. They are being supervised by Gulo, the enigmatic homunculus. T.R. introduces himself as a reporter (Gulo smiles gently) and takes down some details about the equipment being used. It seems pretty straightforward: each theatre will have a TV set carrying a live image of what is happening in the other theatre, ad the cameras will pan back and forth across the audience. He can see nothing at all unusual in the setup.
Taylor, dressed today in a less businesslike outfit, with appropriately 'softer' make-up, has also headed to the ICIP early. She looks for Jackley and, seeing him in conversation with Anita Rohinder, waits to catch his eye and then gives him her best smile.
Jackley at once breaks away from the surprised Rohinder and comes over, taking both Taylor's hands in his, beaming. It seems he has no wish to make a big secret of their liaison.
'How are things looking for the experiment?' asks Taylor after they have lightly kissed.
'Pretty good! Should all be pretty straightforward, I think. Anita's very competent at this sort of thing.'
Taylor frowns, worriedly. 'I don't know what it is, but I've got some sort of vague feelings... I don't know, like a feeling of unease about it.'
'Really? Perhaps that means you're sensitive to the build-up of psychic flux, or something,' says Jackley lightly.
Taylor shrugs and smile a little sheepishly. 'It's probably nothing.'
Just before 9, all the operatives except Steven meet up, the first time that such a large combination has occurred for what seems like several days. Unfortunately, it is not a happy reunion. Belle-Marie, her face pale and pointed with anger, strides up to Vera and Ned. 'You make me sick!'
'What?' exclaims Ned in surprise, dropping his cookie.
'You, you swan around arrogantly treating me like I'm this frail little nutcase. So Vera gets into a bit of trouble - I decide, that, though she's never actually been overly friendly towards me, even after I explained why I'd been behaving the way I had, she might need a bit of help - so I help! And what thanks do I get? None at all. And why? Because a bit later, when I've had a chance to think about events... hindsight - ever heard of it, or are your heads so far up your rear ends that once you've made a decision you never change your mind? - as I was saying, once I'd had a chance to think about it, it could have been a warning. At the time, I didn't have much of a chance to ponder the intricacies of what was going on... obviously my poor addled brain isn't as razor sharp as yours! Please, in future, if I ever have a thought or opinion to voice, just ignore it totally!'
Even the rebarbative Vera blenches in the face of this tirade. Taylor, her expression unhappy with sympathy, moves to take Belle-Marie by the arm, but the Irish girl shakes her off. 'Oh, and by the way I had nothing whatsoever to do with JFK. You two have been watching far too many episodes of the X-Files! Concentrate on the real enemy... and that's not a threat... that's common sense.'
With that, she stalks away, to join Cosmo Landesman as he enters the small lecture theatre.
The two rooms are separated by about a hundred yards of corridor. The subjects for the experiment are to be in the small room, supervised by Gulo; Eric, Belle-Marie and Landesman join this group. The other operatives are all in the larger Lecture Theatre B, together with the bulk of the delegates, the various press representatives and Anita Rohinder. Ned is on the front row for once, poised near the corner of the dais, occasionally scanning the faces of the audience. He looks as though he has had very little sleep: noises kept waking him, and he spent most of the night scurrying back and forth checking the two empty rooms.
Vera sees Mary Gration strolling down the aisle towards where she sits on the front row. The academic does not come too close, but just nods.
'You wanted to speak about something last night?' Vera asks in her business tone.
'I'd like you to visit me after this has all finished,' says Gration quietly. 'At the Sephiroth Centre. There are some things I'd like to try with you.'
I'll bet there are, thinks Vera. 'What sort of things?'
'Just some... ideas I've been having. You're a remarkable person, did you know that?'
As if she has not been listening, Vera asks 'Do you believe in good and evil?' and without waiting for Gration to answer adds, 'I believe the most dangerous thing in the world is a good person with an evil idea.' She is staring over Gration's shoulder, at Anita Rohinder, who for once is without her homunculus. Suddenly a memory from last night passes through Vera's mind, of the footsteps that moved when she moved, and stopped when she stopped through the streets of Oxford in the dark. She thinks of the cat. But surely a pile of animated filth can't change back and forth into an animal?
Of course, a few days ago she did not know there was even a single homunculus in the whole world.
Once both lecture halls have been filled, Rohinder prepares herself to speak. For her initial address, the people in Lecture Theatre C will be seeing and hearing her over the video link.
She is a calm, precise speaker, and quickly and clearly expounds the principal tenets of the Duke group's history and work over the last sixty years. The audience are not exactly spellbound, but they are attentive.
In the other room, Gulo merely stands motionless by the TV screen which shows its mistress.
'Keep an eye on people's auras,' whispers Belle-Marie to Landesman. He nods alertly. 'You know something's going on, don't you?' she continues.
'I had a little suspicion, yes,' he says drily.
'I might need your help.' I think I'll contact SITU, and ask them to approach him for membership, she thinks.
Edward Lloyd and Steven arrive, and slot themselves quietly in at the back of the hall, as Rohinder moves towards the break by outlining the form that the experiment will take. She will display one of the five symbols, chosen at random, out of sight of the camera. The audience with her are then to concentrate firmly on it, maintaining its shape clearly and distinctly in their minds. At the same time, under the supervision of her assistant (Gulo), the group in the other room, the subjects, are to open their minds and become receptive. They each have a pad of paper, and once they feel that they have telepathically received a symbol, they are to draw it. This process will be repeated fifty times. Gulo will then gather up the papers and firstly tot up what the consensus sequence of received symbols was, then compare with Rohinder how many of the fifty trials were right.
There is a short break for coffee, and Eric buttonholes Mary Gration. 'What do you think about this experiment, Doctor?'
'I'm rather looking forward to it, I must say,' says Gration calmly, pouring herself a cup. 'We might see some rather interesting results. So many sensitives gathered together!'
'Can you tell me anything about the Trismegistus Club, and its various subdivisions?'
At this she pauses, turns and looks him directly in the eye. 'Doctor Alnes, be careful when you use that name. Say it aloud only with caution. They don't like it being taken in vain.'
'You know them, then?'
'I know of them. I've not had a great deal to do with them myself. They've funded our Centre, to some extent - the Alexandria Trust has, that is. I think that the various operative arms are just different guises for the same aims, really. They're all businessmen, or pretty much so - it's the way they think. Diversify.'
'And what are those aims?'
'Knowledge. Power. That sort of thing. It's a very masculine organization.' She smiles ruefully as they separate, to file back in to their respective rooms.
As the experiment starts, T.R. takes up a position against the wall, near the dais. Rohinder glances at him briefly, but says nothing as she puts up the first symbol - the triangle. 'Now, everyone, concentrate - just hold that symbol clearly in the front of your mind.' Taylor concentrates, and struggles to hold the triangle firm. Her mind keeps slipping away from it.
In the other room, the subjects hear Rohinder's voice, but cannot see the symbol. 'Now, all of you, open your minds,' says Gulo softly, its voice expressionless.
Eric can feel a tangible tension coursing around the room. All about him the subjects, including Belle-Marie and Landesman, are creasing up their faces with effort, while some doodle on their paper. He does not feel himself to be receiving anything at all.
After a minute has passed, Rohinder blanks the symbol in the main room, and in the other room Gulo asks the subjects to turn to the next page of their pads, which is numbered '2'.
In the main room there is also an edgy air of tension. Rohinder is pacing back and forth nervously.
Within a few minutes, Belle-Marie can feel a slight headache starting, and the uncomfortable sensation of something scrabbling at the edges of her consciousness. To the watchers in the other room, as the camera pans across her and her fellow-subjects, she looks even more pale and wan than usual. Next to her, Landesman has an expression of deep concentration on his face. Isobelle Kingston is also there: she must have struggled out of bed for it.
Fifteen minutes in, and Rohinder glances up inquiringly to where Edward Lloyd sits in the audience. Steven sees him nod slightly as if in confirmation. She pulls out of her bag a black velvet pouch, and removes from it a set of Zener cards - presumably those to be enchanted. They do not look remarkable in any way.
As she spreads the five cards out on the dais, it is as though an electric jolt has surged through both rooms. Isobelle Kingston gasps, and Vera feels the hair stand up on her neck and arms again. Ned and T.R. are both poised ready by the electrical equipment, but Lloyd and Rohinder are still calm.
Rohinder puts up the next symbol and again invites the audience to concentrate. This time Taylor can feel the star leaping boldly into her mind, blazing brightly and impossible to avoid. She feels sure that everyone must be able to read what she is thinking, as clearly as if it were blazoned on her forehead.
Belle-Marie can feel the star burning into her mind, as if someone were standing before her with a blazing brand in its shape. She is more frightened than she has been since Sweden. What's happening to me? She scrunches down in her seat and wraps her arms across her eyes, but they do not keep the image out. Beside her, Landesman moans and slumps. Blood starts to trickle from his ears and eyes. The air seems to have become as hot as an oven.
In the large room, the scene on the TV screen pans across the audience in Theatre C, and Taylor gasps in horror. Half of them are clutching their heads, others crying silently in pain. 'My God!' cries Rohinder as she sees what is happening. She looks beseechingly up at Lloyd.
Lloyd himself is clutching a hand to his face, pale. He stands up and shouts out 'Stop! Stop concentrating, everybody! Blank your minds!'
Taylor struggles to obey, but the image of the blazing star is too compelling. Try as she might she cannot wrench her awareness away from it.
For T.R., thought is action. He is unaffected by the compulsion, and he immediately pulls out the mains plugs serving the TV equipment. At once the screen blanks.
'It's no good!' shrieks Rohinder, her own hands to her head. To T.R., it appears as though half the people in the room are acting as though they were suffering a simultaneous deafening noise and a blinding light. The other half are just panicked.
Ned, who is subject to the effect himself although not as badly as Taylor, staggers forward and lunges for the set of Zener cards. As he touches the first he cries out in pain - they are red hot, and the table on which they are resting is smouldering heavily.
Fortunately for him he cannot now see what is happening in the other room, where those who are still conscious are making desperate efforts to scramble for the exits. Gulo has torn down the TV monitor and is panickedly smashing all the equipment, but to no avail. With one of the last scraps of her consciousness, Belle-Marie sees Gulo's form start to blur and soften in the intense heat.
With a whoosh the fire sprinklers go off, in both rooms simultaneously. The five Zener cards are now glowing as brightly as the sun, and though Ned manages to bat them off the table with a sweep of his arm, they continue to blaze.
Anita Rohinder is attempting to complete a series of magical passes over the cards, and Edward Lloyd surges down to the front of the room to help her. Both are driven back from the cards as though from the open door of a furnace.
Belle-Marie is faintly aware of Landesman giving a terrible cry and convulsing beside her. Then his body bursts into flame. Shrieking in terror, she beats at him with the last of her strength. The water cascading down from the ceiling seems to have no effect. Several other subjects have also spontaneously burst into flames. Eric can feel a choking heat clutching at him, as though a fiery fist is squeezing his heart, and with a faint groan he knows no more.
Alarm bells are clanging all over the building, and the fire exits are bursting open, the front area of the stage now ablaze. T.R. turns an extinguisher onto the table, but to no avail. All the electrical equipment is now also burning.
There is a high keening noise, which races up the scale to the point of inaudibility. Then there is a series of sharp, flat detonations.
The five Zener cards, in quick succession, explode, in a fountain of energy. There is a terrifically strong smell of sulphur. All at once the image of the star disappears from Taylor's mind, and those of the others, and she collapses forward as though suddenly plunged into darkness.
It is more than an hour before the fires are under control. The front of Lecture Theatre B and the entirety of Lecture Theatre C, are gutted. There are fifteen casualties, including Cosmo Landesman. Everyone else who was in the smaller room, including Belle-Marie and Isobelle Kingston, is suffering from smoke inhalation; and five, including Eric, have had heart attacks. A steady stream of ambulances ferries them to the John Radcliffe Hospital, two miles away. There is no sign at all of Gulo.
In the larger group the main problem is shock. Ned, Rohinder and Lloyd are suffering from severe burns. Rohinder seems catatonic: she sits, staring forward, and does not respond to stimuli. Lloyd is very pale and weak, and is put onto a drip in the ambulance.
Steven, T.R. and Vera are the only operatives in reasonable physical shape: Taylor is in shock. Mary Gration, who seems to have recovered quickly, is leading those who are willing to take part in a meditative prayer for healing of the soul. Henry Blyth dashes into the coffee lounge, where they are all sitting, wrapped in blankets, and comes straight over to Steven. 'My God - what happened? I came as soon as I felt the shock.'