The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Palace Of Wisdom
Wednesday, 18th November 1998
'Are you sure you're all right?' a concerned Iain asks Ella.
She nods, blinking up at him. 'I'm fine... really.'
Somewhat mollified, Iain joins Robert, rooting around the sarcophagus. It looks as though the lid should lift straight off, although you'd probably need about eight strong people to manage it. It cold be smashed, but there's no other apparent way in.
'I'm not sure whether we should open it or not,' whispers Robert.
'Until we can work out how, there's no use worrying about that,' replies Iain. He moves off to search the remainder of the complex, and finds a number of other carvings which Robert translates as paeans to Alexander's glory and to the wonders of Hellenistic civilization. There are also more modern structures, dating from a range of many centuries, such a offering tables, altars, and votive sculptures: these have a firmness of line, and are made from a variety of materials, but they are clearly mere pale imitations of their originals, the features of the Macedonian building.
Greg, deep asleep, dreams, bewitched and elated as he is. Of Roxana, doubtless; of the other women in his life no doubt as well. And, as always when he dreams of Mary, somewhere deep inside his mind the determination to find the truth about her death is renewed.
He can never do that in this valley. Roxana can never be his, any more than Mary could. He must do what there is to do here, and be gone.
Daniel also sleeps, dreaming of an Irish girl with cheekbones like knives and hips like a boy's. You're not going anywhere, are you? she says to him, holding both his hands, in her small cosy room on Lake Froson. I feel if you go out of my sight something terrible might happen to you. We've got provisions enough to stand a siege of two weeks. Why can't we just stay here, until things get normal?
Daniel smiles. All right. Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere.
You're lying, she says.
The memory of her lying in an Oxford hospital bed, pale, fierce surges into the dream. My God, once I get back to you, I'll never let you go again, I swear.
Iain, Robert and Ella sleep in late, and Greg, impatient to learn of their discoveries, paces about the village, greeting amiably the locals he meets.
He meets Maurice Perez, stomping irritably down the path. In response to Greg's hail, Perez merely says 'Pah! How is it we are still here? Waiting for the Englishman to marry the girl? Why must it take so long?'
'We're in these people's hands: we can't get out of here without their help,' points out Greg. 'We'll just have to put up with the wait.'
'Well, I am not satisfied just to enjoy the scenery, I can tell you. There is important business going on at home! My people must think I am dead!' And he stomps off again, towards the central hut.
Further along the trail, by the side of a mountain stream, Greg finds Paulette Bondu, sitting staring into it, lacing her fingers into each other. From the geography of the situation, Greg suspects that she and Perez have just had a row. She starts at his approach. 'Oh! Mr Wentworth. You surprised me.'
'How are you today?'
'Oh, fine, yes.' She nods emphatically. 'This is very charming, is it not? I am trying to think of it like a holiday. I have been on holiday to places that were not as nice as this!'
As Greg moves on, he passes Arnold Terwilliger, about two hundred yards down the track. The man has a set look on his face, and is heading up towards where Paulette is.
Back at the hut, everyone is now awake, and Robert is expounding. 'It's beginning to look like we've stumbled upon evidence of some ancient, or even alien culture. So much of this stuff about Iskander and Hiram, or Cleitus, sounds like 'Highlander' - they can't be in the same area or one will die. It's a little bit more severe than them having to fight though! It sounds like they are kind of matter / anti-matter - but there's something in the sarcophagus that stops them from 'blowing'.'
'The riddle, in the inscription, about his family being the gods and all around the world is easy to unravel, it seems to me,' says Greg. 'They're the alien potentates we know to be dispersed all around the world, and who have a level of power and ability which makes them like unto gods in relation to us.'
'What alien potentates?' asks Daniel puzzledly.
Greg looks at him surprisedly. 'They're called Ylids - SITU told us about them.'
Robert and Loki also look blank.
'Oh, well, I guess it won't do any harm to share this information. The conspiracy which SITU opposes, right? - is made up of a fairly small number of supremely powerful beings, who can pass as human but are not. The comparison to the Egyptians that you gave us, Bob, is particularly apt. I've been reading our briefings on other teams' investigations. One group was in Egypt recently, and in the debriefing SITU writes that Nefertiti was a name by which one of these alien beings was known. I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that the handsome man you beheld, Ella, was Alexander, and that he was one of those divinely handsome aliens.'
'That might explain the similarity of theme in the art,' says Robert excitedly. 'One can see how these beings, coming as supremely powerful individuals to communities of primitive - to them - humans, might have solar cults established about them. Where else in the world might their influence have been?'
'We know of one in Norway... and one in Japan,' says Iain.
'What, this Yashimoto guy we were supposed to be investigating at Angkor? SITU just told us he was "an important top-level member of the Conspiracy",' says Daniel annoyedly. 'Nothing about him being a super-powered alien being!'
'And one in Mexico, do you remember - Diana and Maddy talked about her. The Black Madonna,' says Ella.
'Are you sure they're alien?' asks Loki curiously.
'Well, I don't know, we haven't been told that they're alien in the sense of bug-eyed monsters from outer space - but they're not human, which is the main thing,' says Iain.
'What the three of you uncovered in the Temple is of tremendous potential importance,' continues Greg earnestly. '"That which might bring them together remains here with him, that they might remain sundered" - if we are talking about alien potentates, there is almost certainly an alien artifact inside that sarcophagus, and if we could take it back to SITU it could be the sort of breakthrough we urgently need.
'That said, we don't even know if it would be safe for us to so much as touch the artifact. It could be radioactive; it could be imbued with what, for lack of a better term, I will call an enchantment which could have an adverse effect on any human who touches it, or even comes near it - it could kill us in an instant.'
'What might it be? How can we use it?' muses Robert. 'Regardless of whether or not we get out of here now - we must come back suitably armed and protected to recover it.'
Greg turns to Ella, gravely. 'We need information we just don't have, and I can think of only one way that we might be able to obtain it. Ella, have you ever tried to commune with your goddess?'
'Not yet,' admits Ella.
'Your goddess?' asks Loki incredulously. Ella glares at him.
'Surely we must surely expect some kind of rescue attempt at some point,' continues Robert hopefully. 'Given our geographical location, surely we are talking about Chinese soldiers - and we know how they treated the Buddhists in Tibet. Can we afford to let whatever this thing is fall into their hands? I think not. If everyone approves I'd like to go see George and warn him of an imminent danger from vast forces. I'll ask him if he has any way of protecting the community.' He looks from face to face. 'And saying "You can do it, Iskander" will not be a good enough answer!'
'You're probably wondering why I changed the travel plans,' suggests Nora.
'Yes, I was a little, actually,' says Pinkler drily, his arms folded as he looks at her across the narrow helicopter.
'I was trying to avoid targeting by the forces that took down that other plane,' she explains.
'Eh? What's that got to do with you?' asks Pinkler in puzzlement. 'I thought it was just that one of the crew was the husband of a friend of yours, or something?'
Nora thinks quickly, cursing his good memory. 'Er... there are wheels within wheels, John. I don't understand all of it, and you'd have no chance.'
He grunts and settles back into his seat, seemingly satisfied, but occasionally during the voyage she looks up to see him regarding her with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity.
If I am Iskander, doesn't that mean I'm in trouble if I meet the other 'half'? Or is the return of Iskander stuff just nonsense? wonders Robert to himself as he heads back to the centre of town. He concludes that he is terribly confused - a confusion not aided by the sight of three men assembling a large wooden dais in the open area before the central hut. 'This is where the marriage will be consummated,' explains Hekkhme, who is supervising them.
'What? I'd rather assumed that would take place in private,' says Robert alarmedly.
Hekkhme looks at him in surprise. 'No, that would never do! Is that the way you were taught? No, it must be for all to see, then we will know that we are blessed once more and that the sun will stay warm.'
'Ermm... in broad daylight? With everyone looking on?'
'Of course! In two days' time. The wedding will be at noon, and then -' he indicates the dais, with an expressive gesture.
Robert, his guts suddenly churning, heads into the hut to talk with George once more.
Ella, at Greg's suggestion, has sought out Charles, and finds him working in a field of something that looks like sugar-beet but presumably is not. 'Charles, I wanted to know a little more about Roxana.'
He straightens up and looks sideways at her. 'He is already in love with her, you know. I know this is hard for you, but...'
'Oh, I know that, that's fine,' says Ella, with a sincerity she has no real need to feign. 'I understand all that. But what's she like as a person? What sort of life has she had up till now?'
Charles puts down his hoe and scratches his head. 'A good life... it was always known that she was Roxana, of course. So we took care of her, as we always do. She has no scars or markings on her.'
'And was she kept apart from the other children - did she have friends?'
'Oh, yes. She is a very friendly girl.'
'Any... special friends?'
At this Charles's face loses some of its usual smooth impassivity. 'Not really - not what you would call special.' He will say no more on the subject.
Clearly SITU's much vaunted security has been breached, Nora thinks to herself. She thinks back to her days working at SITU HQ, considering who seemed the most dodgy. Celine Coombes's assistant, Alistair Thwaite, was a real creep, always smarming around. And Paula Derrow, the newsletter editor, was incredibly scatty - there was no chance at all that she'd be able to keep a secret. But the bosses rarely told Paula anything of much use. The 'big three' who seemed to run the UK operation - Andre Swahn, Geoff Blaize, and Celine Coombes - all seemed capable and had been rather distant with the lowly Nora. Martin Hazelton had been very friendly, and as head of recruitment he would have the opportunity to infiltrate enemy agents into the staff... she shakes herself, annoyedly. This is hopeless! Whoever the traitor was - or traitors were - they were bound to be cunning and subtle. And what if it was one of the field operatives, as Blaize had suggested? She had had very little contact with them, but if they were all like her erstwhile companions - completely loopy - then they might be capable of just about anything.
'I heard a bit more news about your mate's plane, before we came out,' says Pinkler, breaking into her reverie. 'The Chinese have an idea where it's come down, now. They say it's in rebel-held territory near the Nepali border.'
'What rebels?' asks Nora. 'I've not heard anything about any rebellion.'
'Me neither. But you know what the Chinese are like. Anyway, they've handed the search over to the military now; that area of the mountains is going to be swarming with troops by the end of today.'
'Excuse me,' Daniel says to Hekkhme as he heads away from the dais. 'Could you tell me something, please? Who is Cleitus?'
'Who?' The young priest looks baffled.
'Cleitus. It's written on the tomb, there.' Daniel points.
'Have you been at the tomb? It is very beautiful, but very holy. I hope you did not touch anything.'
Daniel shakes his head vigorously.
'The writing on the tomb tells the tale of Hiram and Iskander, we know this. But it is in a forgotten tongue, the tongue of the ancients who lived before man. No-one can read it.'
Daniel opens his mouth, then shuts it again. Finally he says 'I don't suppose you know who "M" is, then?'
'"M"?' repeats Hekkhme blankly.
'I'll take that as a "no", then,' mutters Daniel as he strolls off.
'George, you know that my memory is faulty - I told you so yesterday.'
'This is one aspect in which you still fall below the divine level, Iskander. Never fear, once you have been married, all your memories will return to you in a flash.'
'Yes, maybe, but - for now - I have some memories of an "M" - someone, or something, called "M". What might that be?'
George looks blank. 'The thirteenth letter of the alphabet? I do not know of what you speak, Iskander.'
At that point the older of the two priests, who was seen with Hekkhme the previous day, comes out into the chamber from one of the back rooms. He darts a glance at Robert, then speaks quickly to George in the native tongue. Robert can discern nothing except that he seems angry about something.
George answers him with a short phrase and a chopping motion of the hand, and the priest, nodding, backs away into the darkness. As he pulls the curtain back across the chamber, Robert hears a thud and a muffled yelp, a male voice. Then there is silence.
Iain, also wandering about the village, finds the young Kampuchean boy, Khem Noc Lo, playing a game much like marbles, with Mary. Both have their tongues stuck out with concentration as they toss the large brown seeds into the ring drawn in the dust.
Iain bends down to join them for a minute. 'Are you going up the mountain to look at the bones?' Khem asks him.
'What bones is that?' asks Iain slightly nervously.
'The skeletons. Bones of dead people. At the top of the mountain.' Khem points up to the peak which heads the valley's eastern wall. 'Mary told me.'
'Skellingtons,' confirms Mary solemnly. 'They're very old and very holy. We go up there on the holy day to remember them. Charles used to carry me on the steep bits, but I'm big enough to walk by myself now.'
'Maybe I'll check them out some other time,' says Iain. 'When's this holy day?'
'Oh, not for ages yet. In the spring.'
The descent to Angkor Wat is absolutely breathtaking, even for a hard-bitten hack like Nora. The lush green of the jungle parts to reveal a riot of gold, domes, towers, giant Buddhas clustering together. The profusion and variety of spectacle is curiously reminiscent of a more tasteful version of Disneyland.
Nora disembarks at the airport a little way out of town, her bevy of hangers-on fluttering about her, and starts issuing orders. Before very long two taxis are whisking the group towards the temple complex.
Angkor itself is a decent-sized town, but it seems to revolve entirely around the tourist industry. There are a few sawmills and such like, but mostly the businesses are hotels and shops, Nora notes as the taxi scoots along. The army presence is noticeable, as it was in Phnom Penh - there are uniforms on every corner, and they definitely look like soldiers rather than police. She feels some reassurance from the presence of the two troopers, sitting stolidly behind her. Not sure what they can do for me now, she thinks, but they might be useful if a quick escape is required. The new construction which the Japanese are supposed to be funding is evident. A huge concrete apron spreads across two acres of freshly-felled jungle, and excavators, graders and other machines trundle across it like so many giant insects, busily building the access road. A painted board depicts the site as it will be: sun-kissed white buildings, happy holidaying families, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, all blended harmoniously in with the surroundings. At the foot of the board is the Dai-Mitsu emblem, together with a logo which Pinkler tells her is that of the provincial administration. The development is called Shining Heights. A few men in suits, with hard hats on, are directing the operations - might they be Japanese? It's too far away to tell.
The Temple of the Tooth is one of the largest structures of the complex - an immense, four-square building, topped with a giant golden onion dome in the pot-bellied Kampuchean style, steps leading up to it through a set of golden gates, fabulously ornate, inlaid with coloured tiles spelling out what are presumably sacred texts. There do not seem to be a huge number of tourists about, but there are plenty of locals slopping up and down the steps, including a dazzling array of monks, and more than a few soldiers.
Inside the building is cool and spacious, the internal arches, doorways and beams leading the eye cleverly off to suggest that it is even larger than is the case. The gentle smell of incense, the faint sounds of monks chanting off in the distance, the beatific Buddha gazing down from all sides, all combine to invoke a tremendous tranquillity. At the centre of the northern wall is the tabernacle which is used to display the holy tooth itself, currently empty - the tooth is kept in a safe apart from on high holy days, a hovering bonze informs Nora.
Nora, her bodyguards silently shadowing her, strides about the temple, taking pictures of all and sundry - they bear the indignity stolidly. Pinkler is acting as her guide and translator, and throws himself enthusiastically into the part, reciting long expositions about each artefact they see, in servile tones - Nora suspects that most of it is made up.
'So where's this ghost been seen?'
'All over, apparently. He walked through this temple just a fortnight back - late at night.' Pinkler indicates a diagonal path across the floor. 'Disappeared through that wall over there. Had a mean expression on his face, they say.'
Nora nods. 'And what's that they're doing over there?' She points to where some monks, their robes tucked up into the loincloths to allow freer leg movement, are erecting a small scaffolding tower, opposite from the tooth tabernacle.
Pinkler speaks to an attendant, and reports 'That's going to be the throne for the new Kongwai Lama, when he's invested. Apparently he's going to be born tomorrow! That should be something to see. They're not sure where yet, but they'll send some guys out as soon as they know and bring him back here for investiture the day after tomorrow, that's the plan.'
'Mrs Williams?' inquires a polite bonze, bowing at the waist.
'That's me,' says Nora crisply.
'His Sublimity Senzo Lama will be pleased to see you now,' the bonze suggests, indicating a small door that leads towards the administrative offices of the temple.
'Excellent. Shall we?' says Nora, waving up her entourage.
The bonze looks shocked. 'Oh no madam, is not right to take bodyguards in to see Senzo Lama. He is very holy man!'
Robert returns to the hut from some sort of errand, his face glowing and looking about two inches taller, to find Sarah Martin rooting through the group's possessions. 'Hey! What are you up to, young lady?'
She starts guiltily and jerks round. 'Er... nothing. I was just...'
'You were looking through my things! Don't bother trying to deny it, my dear.'
Sarah straightens up and gains a sulky expression. 'All right, so I was. What about it? I thought one of you might have something I needed.'
'And what might that be?'
'Never you mind. You wouldn't understand!' And she barges past him back out into the sunlight.
Iain continues walking, to the point where he has left Loki trying to pick up a radio signal.
To his horror, though, when he arrives he finds the young hacker sprawled on his face, an ugly patch on the back of his head matted with the blood that spills over the dust. Loki looks very small and weak.
The radio equipment has all been broken, stamped on and smashed, and scattered about the clearing.