The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Palace Of Wisdom
Tuesday 17th November 1998
Greg shakes his head. 'Nope, no vertigo for me. The view is breathtaking, but not frightening.' He turns to the other two survivors. 'I don't know if you'd agree with me about this, but it seems to me that we've found ourselves a genuine adventure here, like something from a movie or a novel. It's the kind of experience most people never have. We've stumbled into a lost civilization in a hidden valley, and who knows what else we might discover?'
'Dinosaurs? Giant apes?' laughs Terwilliger.
'In these movies, it is always some of the companions are killed, isn't it?' says Bondu. 'Only the lovers survive.' She sounds rather wistful.
Greg turns about, tossing his heavy walking staff into the air and catching it with a flourish. 'You know, I feel young again! Who'd have thought that at my age I'd fall in love again, even if it's with a woman I can never have?' He grins at them delightedly as they gaze back in surprise. 'So now let's tell the others we've found the way out. This could be just the start of our journey!' And with that, he strides back into the camp, limping a little perhaps but not one bit slowed down.
Nora yanks Pinkler off the dance floor and sits him down 'D'ya want in on this story or what? Let's get serious then.'
He calms down and gazes fixedly at her, supporting his chin in one hand. Apparently it will take a full day's drive to reach Angkor Wat from here, assuming the roads are intact. Or they could fly, which would mean chartering a plane or a helicopter.
'I'd prefer that,' says Nora.
'No worries, I can fix that up. Pretty standard way for rich folks to get about. Bit conspicuous, mind.' He regards her owlishly. 'You're not worried about flying then, after what happened to your mate?'
'Lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place,' Nora assures him. 'There must surely be tourist parties that visit the temple on a regular basis - can you get me onto one of them?'
Pinkler looks bemused. 'You and me, sure, and Chen's boy's maybe, but what about the soldiers? They'll look a bit out of place. I'll take care of it, though, don't you worry. Leaving tomorrow morning, right?'
'That's right,' says Nora.
'There you go, that should give us something at least,' says Loki, sitting back from the makeshift radio.
Iain arranges various lumps of metal around it in an attempt to gain directionality. 'I remember there's one of our military comsats up at 72° 15' E, or thereabouts. We should be able to see that from here. I've set the antenna for 2190 kHz, that's one of the common frequencies they use. Here goes, then!'
Loki closes the contact and Iain presses the jury-rigged headset to his ear. He can hear nothing but the faint crackle of the ether. 'Bugger.' He delivers a series of callsigns, with no response. 'Well, back to the drawing board. Let's see if we can improve things a bit.'
Greg returns to the hut to find Ella examining a feebly resisting Robert. She can see no obvious signs of the influence of drugs, no dilated pupils or anything. He does, though, seem highly psychically energized. Greg is the same.
'We've got to get the heck out of here!' exclaims the senator. 'Robert and I are clearly under the effects of some spell or alchemical influence, probably administered, or at least triggered, when we beheld Roxana. I might be a bit giddy just now, but I'm not fool enough to fail to realize that my reaction to that girl isn't natural.'
'Speak for yourself!' retorts Robert. 'There's nothing chemical at work here! I love her dammit - can't you see that! She is what my whole life was destined for. I'm not too happy about spending the rest of that life up here, granted, but if I do leave, as I must, then I intend taking little Roxy with me!'
The other two ignore his protests. 'Did Uncle George put anything strange on the fire? Or did you eat or drink anything?' asks Ella thoughtfully. 'No? Well, perhaps it was a perfume or something that Roxana herself wore.'
'Ella, whatever it was, you've got to figure out some way to counteract it.' says Greg. 'You were telling us about that concoction that the old woman was having you help her with, and Mary said that it was to make men love women. It sure sounds like what they used on us. These people have never had to contend with anyone like you before; you can figure it out.' He sounds as if he has every confidence in the world.
'I certainly want to know how it was done,' mutters Ella.
'If there's something important here, we can always come back later,' continues Greg. 'If our enemies think that they've killed us off, they're almost certainly looking for Nora to finish the job, and we've got to save her.'
There is a moment's reflection, before Robert pipes up again. 'Do any of these words mean anything to anyone - Hekkhme, Tyler? Hekkhme sounds like a typical local name to me. More typical than Charles or George, anyway. And Tyler could perhaps have Masonic connections?' He frowns. 'I could be getting my Masonic stuff muddled up here, but wasn't Hiram the one that was killed IN a temple? I know that the Phoenician Hiram was the one who built the temple of Solomon. And yes the more I think about this the more I think Hiram was the figure murdered in the Temple of Solomon. Could it be that it is the temple of Cleitus built by Hiram?'
'I don't understand that either,' admits Ella. 'Perhaps it's become distorted in their legend.'
Robert nods thoughtfully. 'Conflation of mythic archetypes - you'd expect that in an isolated community that's been exposed to infrequent inputs from outside influences. The new name is grafted onto an old hero...'
Robert has been searching his memory of his family tree for ancestors who might have been in the Indian subcontinent during Victorian times. His great-grandparents had a number of brothers between them, who might have served in the Army: whether any of them were out here, he does not know, or whether any ended in mysterious circumstances. He can just visualize a sepia-toned family group photograph from his grandmother's house: is there a young man in uniform standing stiffly behind the chaise-longue along which the children are arranged about their parents? Maybe.
As he walks towards the central hut he speculates as to what the people of this region might do to the others if they tried to stop the wedding? Stoning would probably be the preferred form of ritual execution - or perhaps exposure to birds of prey, 'giving to the sky'. Hmm, yes, that was the more likely. The offender would be staked out on the mountain top, his or her legs and arms broken to prevent escape, and within a few days, vultures would have reduced the body to a skeleton. He had read an interesting paper on the practice in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Society last year.
He shakes himself, feeling a curious sense of unreality stealing over him. For a moment it had felt as though he were reading about this village, rather than experiencing it - sitting in the library, leafing through some field-worker's account. But no, it is all horribly real, and he will keep pinching himself if that is what it takes to remember the deadly danger that he is in.
Uncle George is staring into his fire, as usual, Charles squatting attentively behind him, and both smile broadly as Robert enters the hut, making the appropriate obeisances. 'If I am Iskander, Uncle George -'
'Oh, there is no doubt about that.'
'- as you say - but I have managed to forget my previous existence. Can you remind me of the tales - my doings - my part in the village?'
'Of course!' George seems delighted. 'Iskander came here many, many generations ago, when the sun was pale and weak, at the head of his army. He came from the West, from the setting sun, and he brought warmth and light with you. Our people were small and weak, then, and we saw that he was more than human. He stayed here in our valley, teaching us the rituals needed to keep the sun alive. His good friend Hiram came then, from the East, to meet with Iskander. They had been friends and brothers long before, in the land of the gods. Here, roaming the mortal world, like all gods, they could not approach each other, for fear of being burnt. But Hiram had the secret, the protection that guarded him safe, and he could meet with his brother Iskander again. Iskander made him welcome here, and we danced to serve. But there was an argument. Hiram had the knowledge of the protection, and he wished to keep it from Iskander, saying "you have your knowledge, I have mine - let us keep it so." Iskander had him inside the temple Hiram had built for him, and he chased him from door to door. At each door he dealt him a mighty blow. At the west door he struck him with a hammer. At the north door he drove a chisel into his side. And at the east door, he drove his compasses clear through Hiram's heart and struck him dead. The sky turned black, and the ground shook. We hid our heads under our hoods and wailed. But Iskander wailed loudest of all when he knew what he had done. He built the tomb over Hiram's body, and sorrowing he declared that the knowledge that Hiram had gained should be lost to the gods, for to come together thus was too dangerous for them. Then he left us, and went back into the West, but he told us that he would come again in another body, and again, and again, to keep the Sun warm. And he fathered a daughter, to be sure that there would always be a wife fit for him on his return. And in each generation since, there has been such a woman. Our Roxana.'
Robert has been agog during the telling of this tale. George's quiet voice is spellbinding in its intensity. In the flickering light he can almost see the scenes unfolding before him. And on the final word, the image of the modern-day Roxana thrusts itself firmly into his mind.
'Yes, your wife, Iskander. You can feel the call, can you not?' George nods. 'You will be happy here with us.'
Up in her hotel room, having dismissed Pinkler for the night (to her slight pique, he does not look especially disappointed), Nora places a call to SITU.
As soon as the functionary on the other end realizes who she is, she is put through to a new person, a man with a deep, reassuring and rather hearty voice. 'Hello there - Geoff Blaize here. Good to hear from you, Nora. Hope you're bearing up well out there.'
Nora conveys her travel plans to him. 'Any advice?'
'Sounds good to me. But be careful. The chances are you're being watched by the enemy. No point trying to give them the slip altogether, you're too conspicuous. But try and stay out of their site at the moments of greatest exposure.'
'Is it likely that Conspiracy agents I might meet in this area will also be members of the Yakuza?'
'Quite possibly - or ninja, like that fellow Shimaya who you and your colleagues so ably captured in Oslo.'
'Has there been any news of the others?'
'The Chinese think they've got a pretty good idea where the plane went down. Tomorrow they're sending out an expedition overland, and also overflying the area looking for wreckage, apparently. But there is a possibility that the recovery attempt has been infiltrated, of course. If our enemies brought down that jet, which we're pretty certain about, then they might want to make doubly sure.' He pauses. 'But, realistically, the chances of the other operatives having survived a crash in the mountains are nil.'
Nora nods. 'OK then, what is SITU going to do about that traitor Ned Numenor, who has placed a lot of SITU secrets on the Internet! Any chance of sending a squad to neutralise him before the conspiracy finds out about us?'
'It's a real security breach, that's for sure. It's almost certainly contributed to the danger that you're in. But we have a bit of a puzzle about Numenor. He's a very low-ranking operative - but some of the things on that site are things he couldn't possibly know. Unless he'd been leaked them. We suspect that someone higher up int he organization is feeding him material.'
'Someone at SITU HQ?' exclaims Nora.
'Good God, no! That really is unthinkable. No, one of the more senior field operatives, I mean. None of your group are under suspicion, of course, you've all proven your dedication and loyalty more than thoroughly. But we intend to find out who it is...'
Greg, approaching George's hut at Ella's suggestion, is passed by Robert, walking with a dazed look on his face. Greg watches him concernedly as he heads down to the stream, then enters the hut.
Old George is no longer visible, having presumably gone into the back, but Charles is there. 'What would have happened to Roxana if we hadn't arrived now? Did she have a sweetheart of her own?' Greg asks him.
'Oh, no, that would never do,' says Charles, but there is something shifty about him. 'She was keeping herself for the Iskander, as our Roxana always does - we have one in each generation.'
'So they never marry, never have children?' asks Greg.
'Er, yes, they do, eventually... when it is clear that the Iskander is not coming for them... when the next Roxana is ready... but before then they must keep themselves clear of attachments, yes.' he nods firmly. 'Or else be prepared to relinquish any, er, pale, fleeting attachments they may have formed.'
Ella meanwhile is back at Mary's Nan's hut. 'Can I have samples of the herbs and things you use?'
The old woman laughs at her, toothless mouth wide open. She utters a sharp phrase and makes a gesture whose meaning is apparent. It seems she has no great wish to help Ella win Robert back.
Ella, masking the annoyance she feels, sets off towards the edge of the valley to start hunting on her own behalf. She saw a good deal of material inside the hut, and she knows what the seeds were that she ground for the aphrodisiac. By the time darkness falls she has gathered a double handful of assorted vegetation. Perhaps Mary might be induced to help her make a selection - as she's probably too young to know what's going on? Or perhaps a ritual of some sort will be needed to guide her as to what to do.
On her way back to the hut she asks a man carving wood to cut her off two pieces. He politely if puzzledly complies, and Ella stows the pieces away in her witch's kit.
Shortly before what they guess to be midnight, Robert, Iain and Ella make their silent way through the sleeping village towards the ancient complex at the end of the valley. Iain, in concession to secrecy, has put a red filter over his torch, and he illuminates the rocky path.
The temple is deserted, standing stark in the moonlight like the memento mori it was presumably intended to be. Its broken and tumbled pillars only add to its quiet majesty.
'Hopefully there's something in here that might help get you out of this mess,' Ella whispers to Robert. Although I imagine he is quite enthusiastic about it all now, she adds silently to herself.
The three stand in the portico, looking forwards to where the great sarcophagus dominates the central portion of the temple. To either side chambers lead, their walls carved with nothing more than decorative flower imagery, and stylized suns pouring beneficent rays over all and sundry. Robert is put in mind of the reliefs unearthed at Tell El-Amarna on the Nile, depicting the Egyptian sun god Aton shedding light over the pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti. The style of carving is quite different, of course, but the theme is similar. Then, in XVIII Dynasty Egypt, the sun was similarly portrayed as a life-giver, personally blessing the royal couple. Here a stylized pairing of man and woman, presumably Iskander and Roxana, are similarly blessed. Their features are purely emblematic, though, and do not depict individuals.
Ella, motioning the others to stillness, sitting cross-legged, spreads her arms in front of her, palms flat, eyes closed, her face slightly upturned. She takes a moment to extend her senses, flexing her fingers, visualizing her third eye opening and rays from it permeating and pervading the scene before her. She can feel a warmth pressing against her hands, and draws on it.
The tomb recreates itself before her, only intact and new, the sun of its creation shining brightly on it. Standing before it is a man, wearing a Greek-style kilt and a cuirass, dark-haired, his back to her. His form is compact and powerful-looking, and his poise is alert. His head is bowed, and the way the hair curls at the back of his neck makes her ache to reach out and touch. Suddenly, he spins on his heel, turning to face outwards, and Ella gasps in shock. His face is utterly radiant with beauty - a quite unearthly perfection of form. Its brightness is like a blow to the senses. This is the visage of divinity, and on it is a terrible sadness.
Iain and Robert, watching in puzzlement, only know that Ella suddenly keels over, knocked flat onto her back as though by an unseen assailant.
Both swiftly kneel to help her back up. She is groggy, dazed, and rubs her eyes repeatedly. Her vision is filled with flashing after-images, as though she had stared at a light bulb.
'Are you all right?' asks Iain.
'I think I'll just sit down here a moment,' Ella replies, getting her back against one of the pillars.
Robert gives her another concerned glance and then heads towards the sarcophagus itself. It is a massive structure, about as big as a Transit van, and is basically in the form of a large box with a flat lid resting on it. The sides are carved with reliefs of sorrowing maidens and the like, as is standard for the debased Hellenic style of this period. At the foot, underneath the large 'Cleitus', is a longer inscription, which Robert kneels to decipher.
'"Here lie the mortal remains of Cleitus the Black, beloved friend and trusted general to his Alexander the Great"... dum de dum, many honorifics... "let his body remain here even as his soul is with the gods, his family"... hmm, that's strange. It seems as if Cleitus is being said to be of divine nature himself. "His family mourn him all around the globe"... now that is odd. Surely they didn't know the Earth was a globe at this time? And are his family gods, or are they all around the globe? I don't see how they can be both. "That which might bring them together remains here with him, that they may remain sundered."... that ties in with what George told me, although goodness knows what it means. "have fear of the gods, you who would disturb him, and of the legacy of M."'
'Of M?' asks Iain.
'That's what it says.' Robert points to the inscription.
'M who was James Bond's boss?' Iain muses. 'Or the murderer in that Peter Lorre film?'
The next morning Nora rises early and, without alerting Pinkler or her bodyguards, makes private arrangements to charter a plane for later that same morning. She has reasoned that between Pinkler, Chen and SITU there is bound to be a leak... and she has no desire to end up like her fellow operatives.
Pinkler arrives, looking a little bleary, and she and the bodyguards join him. They wait only a few minutes before a black Toyota Landcruiser appears, with two uniformed soldiers inside it. They regard her stoically as she and her entourage pile in.
Halfway along the journey to the airfield, while Pinkler is busily giving instructions for how to join the tourist party he has (with great effort) booked them all on, Nora interrupts. 'No, actually, we're going to Cho Lap heliport instead. I've booked us on a different flight.'
Pinkler regards her open-mouthedly, clearly thinking of several things he might say, but eventually he turns forward again and starts to redirect the driver.
Before what seems like any time at all has passed, Nora, Pinkler, the two bodyguards and the two soldiers are in a helicopter rising above Phnom Penh. They should be in Angkor Wat in time for lunch.