The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Palace Of Wisdom
From: C M Harris
To: Operatives: Iain Blayne, Robert Montague Flint, 'Loki', Daniel Masterson, Nora McShane, Gregory Wentworth, Ellen Wallace
Subject: Unusual spiritual / economic activity around Angkor
The Angkor Wat temple complex is the most significant historical site in Kampuchea, representing what remains of the late capital of the Khmer civilization who dominated the region in the 9th - 14th centuries CE.
In recent years the Kampuchean government have been keen to develop their tourist industry, focusing on Angkor Wat as the principal attraction. It is their expressed hope that it will come to be seen as a site of global significance and interest on a par with the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal.
A great deal of the money invested in the development of the infrastructure necessary to sustain such a growth in tourism has come from overseas investors: particularly Japanese. SITU's investigation suggest that the largest investor has been the Dai-Mitsu conglomerate (or 'zaibatsu'), operating through a number of its subsidiary companies.
A note on Japanese corporate structure. Many of the largest zaibatsus are not corporations in the sense that Europeans and Americans understand, with shares held by investor institutions and members of the public. Instead, they are much close to what we think of as private companies, with control in the hands of a small number of individuals, sometimes a family. Each zaibatsu is typically heavily integrated, both vertically and horizontally, and operates through a confusing myriad of operating companies in different areas of industry.
Research on the findings of the group of operatives recently active in Norway, some of whom (Operatives McShane, Wentworth, Wallace and Blayne) are on this current investigative team, and the interrogation of the enemy agent Yatsuo Shimaya whom they captured, suggests to SITU that the decisive interest in the Dai-Mitsu zaibatsu is in the final analysis held by one individual, Inoshiro Yashimoto. SITU has firmly identified this Yashimoto as an important top-level member of the Conspiracy we all oppose. Therefore his involvement in the development of Angkor Wat is to be investigate and, if possible, thwarted.
Simultaneously with the growing involvement of Dai-Mitsu, SITU has monitored an increase in 'spiritual' activity around Angkor. The temple of the Buddha of the Tooth, one of the largest in the complex, has announced the imminent rebirth of the Kongwai Lama, one of its spiritual leaders who has been 'out of body' for three decades. Other temples have reported the working of miracles by statues of the Buddha and relics of saints. Furthermore, reports of hauntings, particularly by the historical Khmer king Busan (noted as a great conqueror), have been frequent.
1) Find out what reality lies behind the mystical / magical significance of the Angkor site. I do not say 'if any', because we can be sure that there is some such significance if our enemies are showing this degree of interest. SITU needs to know the nature and potential utility of any magical / mystical powers operant in the area.
2) On the basis of your report on the above 1), SITU may recommend action.
3) Identify agents of Yashimoto in the area. Note that we distinguish business functionaries, of whom there will doubtless be very many, from agents in the Conspiracy. Any you are able to identify firmly will be disposed of.
4) It is vital that you not reveal your investigations early. SITU will, on the basis of your findings 1) and 3), execute a well-timed surgical strike, so it is vital not to show your hand.
Cover: you can decide amongst yourselves how you wish to appear. Tourists, documentarists with Acorn Productions, or business travellers working for a would-be partner company, some combination of these, or anything else you think suitable. You should also decide whether you wish to appear as a unified group or operate a multi-pronged attack.
Travel arrangements: rendezvous will be at London Heathrow, 12.30 pm 15th November 1998. The departure for Phnom Penh (via Paris, Bahrain and Lahore) leaves at 8.05 pm that same day.
Note: the usual arrangements regarding expenses and extra-legal activity will obtain.
'Still in shape, Iain? Stuck at a computer all day's not put the flab on, eh?'
'Oh, I manage to get out every now and then,' says Iain Blayne mildly, grinning. He is used to the ribbing he gets when he meets up with his former Royal Marines reservist comrades. These get-togethers - at present they are in Zermatt, for a climbing week - seem to happen less and less often as time goes on. And fewer and fewer of the patrol seem to attend each one. Of the original team of eight, only four now remain.
'You're in the States now, is that right? How's the woman taking that?'
'That's right - new job this year, in Portland, Oregon. She's - Vouko's - still in Oslo. Staying with her sister for a while until I can get a proper place sorted out over there. No real time to myself yet - this is the first proper break since I started.'
'So you came out here with us instead of going back to Vouko? You must be mad, mate.' There is general laughter.
'Well, these get-togethers are important to me, you know. To all of us. Because of... you know.' Iain takes a swallow of schnapps as the mood swiftly darkens. The Marines never refer explicitly to what they saw that night in the Gulf, but they all know what it was.
'You heard about Mike? They finally found the body. Bastards.'
Iain nods silently. Mike Childs had disappeared over a year ago from his Bristol home. It had only been that summer though when a badly decomposed body, washed up on the beach near Weston-super-Mare, had been identified as his. Both hands and both feet were missing. 'We've all got to be careful out there. Why d'you think I keep moving?'
'I thought I had someone on my tail, earlier, a month or so back,' says Andy Warren. He shrugs. 'Black car... smoked glass, you know, the cliché. Bloody Mulder and Scully. Gave me the creeps, I can tell you. That was when I was in London. I just skipped straight out, went down to Brighton, to my old man. Felt like a shit for maybe leading them on to him, but... what else could I do? Anyway, so far none of the relatives've been touched.'
Iain is thinking about the 'secure establishment' into which SITU placed Paul Elliott and Yatsuo Shimaya. He joined the Society in the hope of finding out more about the events of 1993, and of gaining safety for himself and his comrades. But he is still not sure if he trusts SITU enough to commit anyone to their care.
Ella Wallace rises from her cross-legged position, her muscles sore, as the newly-risen sun starts to paint the Highland hillside. She unconsciously wraps the tartan blanket around herself, although she does not feel cold. The energy has been strong in her this dawn.
Stretching her arms to relieve the ache, she makes her way slowly back to the cottage, yawning slightly. As the kettle boils she thumbs idly through the morning's post. The latest revisions to a newish manuscript, from Spirit Books: the author has responded well to her suggestions. Good: that might be publishable next time. And a long, brown envelope. As she opens it she sees the SITU logo, and she sits down, feeling a sudden chill. She reads the briefing carefully, her mouth setting into something between a smile and a grimace. It will be good to see the others again. And this time she'll leave her leopard-print coat behind.
'Show me that again?' says Greg Wentworth, watching intently as the older man's hands move quickly and surely together.
'There - see? A little twist and a snap, and that's the muzzle fitted. Then you just slot the grip on like this. Here, you have a go.' He swiftly disassembles the weapon, so that it looks like a camera set once more.
Greg reproduces the sequence of movements, clumsily at first, then with more confidence. 'How's that?'
'Just reverse the grip - that's right.' The man regards him appraisingly. 'Wouldn't have thought you'd have the need for something like this, in your line, young feller. Your pa told me you were some hotshot lawyer now.'
Greg glances amusedly at him. 'Lawyers aren't always the most popular guys around, you know. We sometimes have a nasty habit of asking questions - the wrong questions.'
Later that afternoon, at his desk at Acorn Productions - the former SITU front identity has been turned into a legitimate business, and a successful one - he reads through Johann Kriek's latest report. It is looking more and more as though Erika Mahringer's death was a pure accident. There were no eyewitness accounts of strange events, as Paul Elliot had told the group: that must have been Elliot's delusion, or of the scheme of which he was part. As for the questions hanging over from Heidelberg, Kriek has an interesting new lead. Apparently Uriah Sutherland - the climber who had been Ferenc Molnar's victim - is not as dead as has been thought. At least, his accounts are still in use. Kriek has seen closed-circuit camera footage of 'Sutherland' withdrawing money from a bank in Nassau, and he has enclosed a print. Greg takes it to the window to study, chin in hand. The face is definitely not Uriah's. In fact, it is more reminiscent of James Bowater, who disappeared so mysteriously.
'Coffee, Nora?' asks Claire Oakes, brandishing a yellow mug at her new junior.
'Jut milk, please!' replies Nora McShane brightly. She has been working at Crab magazine for two days now, and is starting to get to know her workmates with the easy camaraderie that journalists share. Considering any or all of them might be in the employ of a vast evil conspiracy designed to enslave humanity, they seem a nice enough bunch. All the staff but her are British, although they take work from a number of freelancers around the globe. Much of her work is going to be rewriting copy received into publishable form: the correspondents' zeal to expose sometimes gets in the way of their command of English.
Paul Elliot had not given a great deal of use away about Crab. As far as he knew - and SITU's interrogation techniques had been thorough enough to convince Nora that he was telling the truth - none of the other staff were anything more sinister than they seemed. But of course they might have been keeping it secret from him, too.
She is less depressed than she had expected to be by the quality of journalism on the magazine. The research is pretty thorough, and the arguments mostly cogent. Crab shuns the lurid end of Strange journalism, concentrating on conspiracy stories: why the FBI killed Monroe, Chinese involvement in British arms trade to Paraguay, Freemasons controlling all the NHS trusts in Liverpool. She could do a good job for the magazine here, as well as for SITU.
'Here you go - and here's some post for you, too. Already!' Claire sets down the mug and a long, brown letter, and takes up her own seat at the editor's desk.
Nora, surprised, slits the envelope. 'Hmph. Looks like I'm going to have to go abroad for a few days.'
'What? You've only just started!' Claire raises her eyebrows. 'Not bad news, I hope - your family?'
'Something like that,' replies Nora uneasily.
Loki's breath is shallow as he hunches over the keyboard in the dim light. He knows that he is putting too much of himself into this hack: too many hours. Much longer and he will start seeing things. But he has a better lead now than ever before. We are not alone, Zeus had said, before he disappeared. And over the months since his return from Sweden, Loki had been probing at the British government's most secret systems, convinced that they had been responsible for his friend vanishing. He had learnt of the existence of a highly secret Ministry of Defence department, named Air Staff 2A, which existed to investigate reports of alien sightings. And just three days ago, using a complex reverse Trojan Horse, he had managed to obtain the passwords of Nick Pope, a highly-placed civil servant in Air Staff 2A. Now he is searching through the files to which Pope has access, looking for mention of Zeus and the rest of the hacking group of which he used to be part.
He skims quickly through a report on the investigation of a supposed alien artefact on the Scottish island of Clachantyre, as a result of which an Air Staff 2A employee named Sarah St John was disciplined and dismissed. The name of Chief Inspector Stewart, who headed the police investigation into the deaths at Clachantyre, appears again in relation to a series of sightings in Pembrokeshire earlier this year. Loki pages down impatiently. Then his finger pauses. Hold on - what's this? He has pulled up a scanned photograph. The image quality is dreadful, but...
Loki peers at the image, trying to make out the details. Suddenly, there is a beep, and a flashing icon appears on his screen. One of the alarms he set to cover his tracks has been triggered by a security program. Pausing only to grab a copy of the image, he rapidly shuts down the files, one after the other.
>UNAUTHORIZED ACTIVITY DETECTED
>SECURITY MEASURES IN OPERATION
Swearing, Loki types in the final password to pull out of the system.
>IMPROPERLY AUTHORIZED USER NICK POPE ACCOUNT TERMINATED
>INSECURE LINK K-316.32 TERMINATED
>REMOTE USER PLEASE REPORT STATUS
Loki leans over and pulls the mains plug from the wall. He is bathed in sweat and feels dreadfully tired.
Time to move on. He'd left enough marks here now that staying in the country might not be safe for much longer.
'Well, look, at least you're still in this country: it could be a lot worse. At least we can talk on the phone,' says Daniel soothingly.
His fiancée continues her expostulation, and he holds the receiver slightly away from his ear, wincing.
'Well, it's only for a few days, isn't it? I'm sure when you get to know them you'll get on OK. It's always difficult at first when you're meeting foreign people, no matter how nice they are: the body language's different, that sort of thing.' He grimaces, remembering the body language he encountered in Sweden.
Since coming to England, SITU's demands had meant the couple had seen less of each other than they would have liked. This latest absence was a particularly difficult one. Daniel had found himself standing in the window of his London flat, watching the drinkers coming out of the pub on the corner. But that was not a way he was ever going to take again, however bad things got, he had promised himself. She had saved him from that.
There is a rattle at the letterbox. 'Hold on a sec, there's the post.' Daniel's phone is by the front door, so he reaches out and picks up the long, brown envelope. 'Oh.' He leans back against the wall. 'It looks like they want me again. No, not this country. Quite a long way away. A very long way.' A brief silence while he listens. 'Well, it might not be for very long. I'll bring you something back, OK?'
'Mr Fotheringay? This is Claire Oakes, Crab magazine.'
'Oh, Claire, hello. How are you?' Robert Montague Flint, speaking into the phone, rolls his eyes and grins across at the young woman on the other side of the bed.
'Thanks for the latest story: very good piece. We'll be carrying it in the November edition. I was wondering if you'd be interested in a new commission: some new Egyptian-style cult that we've come across, in Buckinghamshire. The strange thing is that they're being funded by some group of City businessmen.'
'Not really my line,' says Flint crisply, 'but I'll have a think about it.'
'Thanks! I'll get the dossier to you in the post right away.'
As Flint hangs up the woman asks teasingly 'Why do you use that dreadful pseudonym? "Marcus Fotheringay" indeed!'
Flint grind ruefully. 'These magazines... you wouldn't want the kind of people who read them to know you're real name, dear, that's for certain.'
'So only I know your secret identity, is that right?' She leans across towards him.
'I hope it's safe with you! Now, where were we...?'
There is a rattle from the hallway as something drops through the letterbox. Flint starts reflexively.
'You've been so jumpy lately! Ever since you came back from Sweden. What's wrong with you?'