The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Palace Of Wisdom
Tuesday 17th November 1998
'Mary. Your uncle George, is he like the town leader or elder or something?' asks Iain as the group starts to descend.
'Oh, aye. He's the oldest man. He'll know what to do.'
'Oh boy, how much you betting 'Uncle George' is 200 years old or something?' Ella mutters to herself.
'As long as he's not a looney,' responds Daniel.
Greg pauses, staring down at the ruins from the elevated prospect. 'The Foro Romano may lie in shambles today, but from the Capitoline Hill you can tell that the forum was originally carefully lain out, and that even the later additions followed a certain logic.' It looks to him as though the ruins were once one large, approximately rectangular structure with attached outbuildings. There is no sign of any additions being later in date: it all seems of an age. It does not even slightly resemble a medieval cathedral in plan. From up here, none of it appears to be in use. He falls back into line, as Mary skips ahead, and says quietly 'The Great Architect of the Universe is the term used by the Freemasons for God. I didn't recognize the sign that she made, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if it was Masonic.'
Robert raises his eyebrows slightly and strokes his chin. That explains why he could think of no relevant anthropological reference. But what would Masonic influence be doing in Tibet? And he is pretty certain that the ruined building at the end of the valley is of Ancient Greek design. He takes Ella's hand as they walk down, she initially slightly surprised but going along with him readily enough.
Iain digs out his camera and snaps some pictures of the valley, which interests Mary greatly. 'A box with an eye! What's it looking at?'
'It's for making pictures,' says Iain hesitantly, not sure if this was a safe admission. 'I'll show you later, maybe.'
Mary's face falls. 'Where's the good of that, when you have the real thing before you?'
Iain has to admit that it does look rather splendid.
Swahn appears to be out of his depth: a worrying development in such a disaster ridden mission, Nora thinks to herself. She has toyed with the idea of totally abandoning the mission and escaping back to Australia. Then she remembers her unlucky SITU colleagues, and despite reservations about their sanity, she still feels that she owes their memories at least an attempt at completing this mission. Anyway the longer she manages to stay on mission, the longer she has to purchase some neat ethnic souvenirs.
She calls SITU again and asks for help with a false identity: someone who fits the details about herself she has told to the Temple representative. Within minutes she has been faxed the description of a woman named Rachel Williams, an Australian woman of 30 married to an American businessman. Nora studies the picture critically: she will have to put her hair up.
As the raggle-taggle group makes its way down into the valley, Mary periodically calls out excitedly to people working in the fields, who straighten up and regard the strangers with interest. Robert notes that to them she is speaking what sounds like a dialect of Pushtu, as might be expected in this region. However, from her fluency in 'Ingrish', she must have been brought up more or less bilingual.
A small procession of locals, mostly looking like ordinary Tibetans but some having the same mix of Asian and Caucasian features as Mary, join on the procession as the girl leads the strangers to the large central building. Iain, looking around alertly, reckons that the huts are all of very sturdy construction, based on reeds and thick felt but cemented together with mud. The thatching is remarkably regular.
Uncle George is indeed a very elderly man, quite how old is difficult to say. Perhaps not 200, but he could well be approaching 100. He seems even more Caucasian than Mary. He is sitting before a dung fire, the acrid smoke from which swirls up and out through a chimney-hole in the roof of the great central hut. Mary, rushing in, cries 'Uncle George! Uncle George!' and, as he turns towards the group, those in the front see that he is blind, his eyes whited with cataracts.
From the shadows behind him glides another, younger man, his face smooth and impassive, and he rests his hand on George's shoulder, whispering into his ear - presumably a description of the new visitors.
'Ladies and gentlemen! Welcome to our humble village!' says George. His voice is surprisingly strong and resilient, and accented like Mary's. 'This is Firis village. I am George Keen. You have met my great-great-niece Mary - this is my grandson Charles.'
Greg steps forward, standing erect, his staff held upright in his right hand, saying, 'We are travellers. Our aircraft has been destroyed and we find ourselves in distress.'
The man introduced as Charles whispers excitedly in George's ear. George nods his head slowly. 'In the name of the Great Architect, you are most welcome to take refuge here, sons of the widow.' He makes a gesture above his own head, putting the tips of his hands together like the sides of a sloping roof. 'What do you seek?'
Everyone else is a little baffled by this interplay, but Greg seems to know what he is about. 'Enlightenment,' he responds simply.
Daniel rather impatiently interjects 'That, and to know where we are, where the nearest city is, that sort of thing...'
'All will be revealed to you,' says Charles quietly. 'Here you are far from any city. We know nothing of any people for many days journey through the high mountains.'
'Yes, it looks pretty remote,' puts in Iain cheerily. 'For a while there we thought we were goners until we saw your goats. I've done some climbing in the Himalayas, but I can't say that your town is anything I've heard of before. Do you have any contact at all with the outside world?'
'No. We have no telegraph here,' smiles Charles. 'We have our own simple way of life.'
George nods heavily. It sees he has had his fill of talking for now.
'How long have you been here? I was surprised by the Christian names you all seem to have,' says Ella.
'Our people have been here for many, many turnings of the wheel,' says Charles. 'But our names are a newer tradition, no more than four generations old.'
'Er, I was rather intrigued by your accents,' says Robert, edging forward into the firelight. 'A remarkable blend of -'
He gets no further, because Charles gasps, his eyes narrowing and one hand flying to his mouth.
'What is it?' yelps George alarmedly, glancing about him blindly.
'Iskander!' hisses Charles, pointing at Robert.
George turns pale. 'The time is come again!'
Robert, his mind racing, knows well that 'Iskander' is the name given in Central Asia to Alexander the Great. Could this remote valley possibly have had contact with the Macedonian's conquering army? It seemed scarcely possible, although certainly there were parts of Alexander's route that were not well known. And that might explain the Greek-looking structure at the end of the valley.
Charles is speaking slowly and worriedly to the agog others, some of whom have moved slightly apart from Robert. 'Many, many times has the wheel turned since Iskander came. Four generations since a man came claiming to be his son, who was false. Now his true son comes, as it was written.'
Everyone stares at Robert, who rather awkwardly says 'Er, I really think there must have been some sort of mistake - I assure you that there's no relationship at all...'
'Haven't I seen this in a film somewhere?' mutters Loki cynically to himself.
'This will need some thought,' says George finally. He looks up at the visitors - or, rather, points his face towards them. 'You are welcome among us. We will help you all we can. Mary, take our guests to the empty house. And then bring your sister Roxana to me.'
'So what have you got for me, Mr Chen?' asks Nora, her dark sunglasses pushed up onto her forehead. Her accent is Australian once more.
Chen smiles. 'Progress, lady, progress. I got two good boys for you.' He indicates the two large (by Kampuchean standards) men sat at a nearby table. They regard her silently. 'And here's that radio equipment you requested. As for the information - making progress! I got some names of army people up there. And some Japanese guys there too, involved in the new buildings there.'
'Oh yes?' says Nora, betraying no more than a casual interest.
'Fellow name of Kawanagi is in charge. They say he likes girls - I mean, young girls. Thai girls' He smiles thinly. 'He pays good money to keep out of trouble with police, I hear.'
Nora nods, and passes over a wodge of dollars. 'Do you know anything about a Major Themat, on General Min's staff?'
Chen frowns, considering. 'Not heard of him, which means he's not a bad boy. I'll look into him for you, no trouble.'
The fourteen survivors find themselves assigned to a spacious and comfortable hut, its floor covered with rushes. Mary busily builds the fire, all the while darting sidelong glances at Robert. She then pours out several bowls of goats' milk.
Once she has departed, Greg clances round, making sure he has everyone's attention. 'We should all behave as guests here, and observe local customs, as they are explained to us, as much as is reasonable, except that we should politely resist efforts to separate us until we have a better understanding of our circumstances, I think.'
There is a chorus of nods.
'Mr Noc Lo, you're the professional diplomat. Would you like to take the lead in dealing with these people?'
Tranh looks doubtful. 'I was only a cultural attaché,' he says quietly. 'But I will do my best. First priority is to establish how these people can help us. Can we get out of this valley? - if so, which direction, can we hire guides, how far to habitation with radio? And then, how can we help them in return?'
'I've been thinking about that,' says Greg. 'You know, I'll bet that until such time as we are rescued, the group of us could be a godsend for these people. Sarah, you're steeped in the most advanced agricultural techniques in the history of mankind. You could show them how to improve the yield from their crops by a huge degree. Arnold, I'm sure that you must have an idea how some of these fallen buildings could be repaired. If they are willing to accept what we have to offer, we should provide them with all the help that we can.'
'I should imagine we have as much to learn from them as they do from us,' says Ella slightly sharply. 'Just because they aren't industrialized, doesn't mean their knowledge is valueless. I intend to try and get to know any wise old women types - who knows what they might be able to teach me?'
Greg glances round again. 'Arnold, you're a mining engineer. Are you - or any of the rest of you - Masons?'
The Kampuchean family look blank, and everyone else shakes their heads, except Maurice Perez. 'I am a member of the Grand Orient,' he says rather reluctantly.
'Maurice! Tu ne me l'avait dit, ça!' exclaims Paulette Bondu, shocked.
'Il nétait pas important... jusqu'à maintenant,' he smiles rather ruefully. 'It might be useful - how? I do not know what connection these people have with Freemasonry, really.'
'Well, we must investigate,' says Greg firmly.
Ella seizes a moment to draw the other operatives aside as their fellow passengers explore the corners of the hut for sleeping arrangements. 'I've been thinking about the crash,' she says. 'If it wasn't an accident, it's unlikely that the Conspiracy could have agents at every airport watching out for them. So I've reached the conclusion that SITU has at least a leak, may even be run by one of the Ylid factions and at the very worst may even have arranged the accident themselves to get rid of the team.' She glances from serious face to serious face. 'I don't really believe that last option, but it's worth bearing in mind.'
Iain has ventured outside, together with Robert and Ella. 'Would it be OK to explore the ruins?' he asks Mary, who is lurking outside, clearly eavesdropping.
'Of course!' she grins.
'Is there a wise woman, or a healer, Mary, in the village?' asks Ella earnestly.
'My Nan,' says Mary. 'Come with me!'
Iain and Robert hike down towards the ruins. Now they are closer, Robert can clearly see that the main structure is a temple, on debased Classical Greek lines, much as might be expected from the Macedonian conquering party. But why build such a large structure, so far from home? He know that Alexander founded several cities on his journey, including one on the Indus not far south from here, but surely this remote valley would be a rather unlikely location.
Iain takes pictures from all angles as Robert pokes around. It looks to him as though the collapse has been largely through natural causes. The central sanctuary of the temple is still intact, and peering in through the columns he can see two crimson-robed priests carrying out a ritual over the altar. Behind the altar is what looks like an ancient tomb, with before it a small heap of broken stones like a cairn. He tries to get closer, but one of the priests turns and glares at him, and he draws back apologetically. All he can see is that carved deeply into the wall of the tomb is the following word:
Daniel has left the other operatives alone, and is trying to chat to Sarah Martin. 'So - you were travelling the world, eh? Where'd you been so far?'
She casts him a withering glance from under long, very pale lashes. 'Nowhere much. Just India and Pakistan.'
'Sounds interesting! I was abroad earlier this year, in Sweden... not exactly a pleasure cruise, though,' he adds thoughtfully. 'Lovely scenery, though, beautiful mountains. Not as big as these of course.'
Sarah merely snorts.
Daniel, frustrated and annoyed, puts his hands to his knees to rise and depart, and Sarah sees the ring on his finger. 'Oh - you're engaged?'
'Yes, that's right.' Daniel smiles at the thought. 'To the loveliest girl in the world.' And what must she be thinking now? The news of the crash must have got back to England.
'Oh, well, sorry - that's all right, then - I thought you were... you know. Sorry.' She seems much warmer and more friendly as a result of this information.
Ella is led by an excited Mary to one of the outlying huts, where a wizened old woman is sitting shredding dried herbs into a bowl. She kneels opposite, meekly, while Mary jabbers to her grandmother in the local tongue. This woman appears pure Tibetan.
'You want to learn?' she says, in a harsh, cracked voice.
'Yes,' says Ella humbly.
'Crush these!' She hands across a mortar full of small dark brown seeds, but there is no pestle. Ella glances about, puzzled, but can see none. Is this some sort of test?
Nora returns to find Pinkler as usual in the hotel bar. He raises a glass in her direction. 'News on your mate's plane, mate - the Chinese reckon they've got a fix on it. Up in the high Himalaya. Just getting to the site'll take quite a while, they reckon. Quite a few bigwigs on the flight, Air France are saying - diplomats, business types, some sort of American politician. Lots of interest.'
'Well, what I' after could be bigger news than that,' says Nora crisply. 'And you can have a piece of it, if you help me out.' She sits down opposite and pours him another shot.
Pinkler snaps to alertness. 'Oh yeah? It's not just a few dodgy miracles, then?'
'Stick with me and you'll learn what it's really about. But for now I want a contact for your friend Major Themat.'
'Well, it's probably best if I speak with him,' says Pinkler reflectively. 'No offence, but these army boys're a bit funny with sheilas - know what I mean?'
Nora frowns. 'Well, I guess so. What I want is to arrange safe passage to the Temple, and some extra security while we're there. Make it clear I'll make it worth his while.'
'Oh, I shouldn't think he'll need much persuading,' says Pinkler. 'Apart from the cash, he won't want anything nasty happening to a rich tourist on his beat, will he? You do know that any men he gives you will be reporting back to him, though, don't you? - he's no fool, Themat, and he'll want to keep an eye on what you're up to. But I should think I could fix it for us to set off in the morning, if you're ready that soon. It'll take all day and we won't want to be on the road at night, so it's one morning or another.'
'Maybe - I'll have a think about that. Anyway, I've got an appointment now, so catch you later.' She rises and heads to the taxi rank outside the hotel. 'The Theravada temple, please,' she tells the driver, and as he pulls out into the traffic she sees the car occupied by Chen's two men pull out as well. Now, what to say to the Theravada representative?