The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Palace Of Wisdom
Wednesday, 18th November 1998, lunchtime (Firis), 3 pm (Phnom Penh)
'Loki! All you all right?' Iain rushes to check the unfortunate Loki's vital signs. It looks as though he is merely unconscious. Iain does his best to clean and bind the head wound, and then looks about the clearing. There are footprints in the dust - Loki's own small ones, some old mostly-obliterated ones of Iain's own, and several prints from a pair of large bare male feet - presumably one of the locals. There is also another pair of shod male feet, which seems to have been here before the bare pair and possibly before Loki's latest visit. The radio gear has been smashed pretty unscientifically, with a lump of rock judging by the fragments around the impact points. A similar lump of rock was used to lay out Loki.
Iain, standing, surveys the scene, frowning. It looks most likely that Loki was bent over the equipment and did not hear his assailant approach: there are no signs of a struggle, so he was probably knocked out before he knew anything was happening. Then the attacker went on to smash the radio at his leisure.
Pressing his lips together in a grimace, he picks up Loki and heads back down into the village.
'I say! Don't just walk off like that! I want to know what the hell you were doing!' exclaims Robert angrily.
He catches up with her and takes her by the elbow, only for her to furiously jerk it from his hand. 'Look, I'm sorry, all right? It wasn't you, anyway, it was your friend...' Her face is scrunched up.
'Is everything OK?' asks Daniel concernedly, coming across the street, drawn by the argument (as have been a number of interested locals).
'This young lady was...' starts Robert, but before he can get any farther Sarah collapses into the surprised Daniel's arms and starts crying, huge gulping sobs.
Over her shoulder Daniel mouths to Robert 'Leave this to me!'
Robert, who has enough experience never to be surprised by the unpredictable ways of women, shrugs dismissively and fades from the scene. It is not as if he doesn't have enough problems of his own to worry about.
Daniel allows Sarah's paroxysms of misery to abate, then leads her gently back into the hut. 'Hey - come on. Blow your nose - you're all snuffly.'
She tries feebly to laugh and takes his handkerchief. 'Thanks. I'm sorry, I just... it all got a bit too much.'
'I know what you mean. It all started to hit home, mm? The crash...'
'No - well, yes, that, too, the crash, but it was - listen, this is going to sound really stupid.' She looks up at him.
'After some of the things I've heard, I don't think anything's stupid these days,' says Daniel heartfeltly.
'Last night... I had a dream. A friend of mine was in it - someone I used to care about a lot. A real lot.' She is silent for a moment, then looks up at Daniel again. 'He died.'
'I'm sorry,' says Daniel automatically.
'It was quite a while ago now. More than a year. We... we really loved each other. His name was Jack, Jack Callaghan. He was American - in the US Navy. Look - here he is.' She fishes in her pocket and pulls out a credit card holder, into one pocket of which is tucked a passport-sized photograph. It shows a young man with close-cropped black hair: his gaze is confident and steady. 'He was shot dead, while he was on holiday - there was a break-in where he was staying. You don't think that sort of thing will happen in England, do you? Anyway, last night he was in my dream. And it was so weird... he held both my hands, like he used to, and it felt so real. Just like real. And he looked into my eyes, and he said there was someone here who would help me avenge his death. I didn't know what he meant, because the people who shot him - they were some sort of East End gangsters - all died too, the house caught on fire and they were trapped. But he said it wasn't their fault. And that there was someone here who'd been in the Forces who would understand. So... well, you see what I mean, it was pretty weird, right? And I don't believe in dreams or anything like that. But I thought... well, perhaps someone was in the Forces, and that would be a coincidence, wouldn't it? but it might mean that Jack...' her eyes fill with tears again, and her lips stop working properly for speech.
'Hey, listen, I've heard things ten times weirder than that. Even had them happen to me,' says Daniel, stroking her hair. 'As for this dream... I don't know about that. But I've got pretty good reason to believe that there might be something of a person that remains after they've...'
'I don't know, I mean, I suppose I'm a Christian, I'm supposed to believe in the soul, and all that sort of thing, but you know, this sounds more like ghosts and spiritualism, Doris Stokes and all that... "my dead pet returned to save my life" and all that. But you know, I felt so hopeless suddenly, remembering him, that I thought it would be bad not to try and do something, it'd be like letting him down, so I didn't want to say anything to anyone because it would've sounded so stupid, so I thought I'd just have a quick peek and see if anyone had any ID or anything... I thought your friend might be, the one who was fixing the radio. Or perhaps the American guy, he might have been in Vietnam or something.'
'I'm not sure...' prevaricates Daniel. He remembers that Iain wrote something in SITUation Report about his experiences in uniform. He is pretty sure that Robert and Loki do not have Forces backgrounds. As for Greg, he has no real idea. Better check first.
'Well, anyway. Tell that stuck-up guy that I really am sorry about poking around like that. But don't tell him why, will you, please? I'd feel so stupid.' She straightens up, and shakes out her hair. 'Anyway - we'd better get moving. People will start to talk!' Her voice is now much brisker, and she moves away from Daniel, out of the hut.
When Iain appears with Loki's prone form over his shoulder, all is commotion. Ella swiftly gets to work with her herbal unguents: the wound is not a severe one, but the concussion may be. At least there does not seem to be a fracture. 'I think rest'll be the best thing for him,' she says meditatively.
'Not much chance of him getting anything other than that, for the next few days at least,' says Daniel, who is back to his usual acerbic self.
Ella glances around the group. 'We should try and find out where everyone was at the time it happened,' she says.
'If it was one of the locals, that'll be difficult - there's dozens of them. And we don't even know their names,' says Iain.
'We should get everyone together and try and work out who it is!' says Robert wildly. 'One of the fellows gave me a filthy look just now when I was coming out of... when I was on a minor errand down by the river.' He looks around, seeing some of the other crash survivors looking over concernedly. 'We should all stick together, including the others from the flight.'
'Well, if we want to open the tomb, that'll need help, anyway,' says Iain practically. 'It's too big to open with just the five of us now. And I'm going to cut myself a stout "walking stick",' he adds grimly. 'Just in case this bashed head thing starts to get more widespread!'
Greg nods. 'Yes, we need to find out the secrets of this place, and waste no time in doing it. I think that Robert is right about the possibility that the Chinese army could be arriving here at any time.' He explains that he thinks Robert should insist that he be told all the ancient stories and shown all the artifacts that they have, in hopes that his supposedly buried memories will re-emerge. 'Professing further uncertainty about really being Iskander now might make them less angry later on if and when they decide that you're not the real article in time.'
'Oh yes, I'm sure they'll say something like "Well, you did warn us, fair enough, we'll only throw you half way down the ravine",' says Robert rather desperately.
'Look, I think we should still be very worried about being 'rescued' by somebody,' butts in Daniel impatiently. 'I still think a bullet in the back of the head is a likely form of rescue! Maybe we should put someone on watch for the approach of people. It might give us a chance to get away if they're hostile... or at least prepare something.'
'I was going to raise that subject with George,' sighs Robert. 'But if the People's Army turns up, I don't think that digging a few deadfalls will get us very far.'
'What is this?' The young priest Hekkhme runs into the hut, looking distressed. 'Oh dear - an accident? How is he faring?'
Greg is relieved to see that Hekkhme does not appear to have been thumped.
'He'll live,' says Ella.
'Did he hit his head on a rock? Climbing here is dangerous,' says Hekkhme, bending to inspect Ella's handiwork.
'Something like that,' agrees Iain.
'Well, that went pretty well,' says Nora to Pinkler. 'He seemed like a right enough bloke.'
'The Senzo Lama? A right enough bloke? I should say so. He built this sect up to what it is, you know. No-one outside Kampuchea had ever heard of Theravada Buddhism until he got on the case.'
'Well, quite a few people more will have heard of it pretty soon: I've agreed to give him some good coverage, with pictures, in some of the big magazines. Life - Reader's Digest - Hello! - that sort of thing.' And in return the Lama had confirmed her suspicion that the Japanese presence in town was not solely to build hotels. Apparently Dai-Mitsu were sponsoring tomorrow's search for the Kongwai Lama, as well. Nora had been invited to join two lamas and a Dai-Mitsu representative on the helicopter that would be sent out to collect the new Kongwai Lama. The Senzo Lama thought that it would make a good story. Nora had been uncertain whether or not to accept - it would mean being without her bodyguards and troopers for the duration of the flight, not to mention Pinkler.
'Come over here with me and tell me more about the Tooth,' she says, walking over to the spot on the wall Pinkler had indicated earlier.
'It's held in a vault under the temple somewhere. Only the Senzo Lama knows the combination, apparently,' he says. 'You most probably get down there through that sort of admin section over there, where his office is.'
Nora is discreetly tapping and manipulating the wall where the 'ghost' disappeared, but it seems to be completely solid. 'Any idea how busy this place is at night?' she asks, disinterestedly.
'Not very, I shouldn't think. Unless it's a special prayer night. The priests and so on all sleep out the back. I guess there'd be a couple on night duty - they have to keep the place open, for worshippers who get caught short with a bad desire to pray.' He half-smiles.
As the group disperses, leaving Loki to begin his recovery in peace, Greg takes Robert aside, saying that he gathers that he is a little bit nervous about the public consummation ceremony. 'With your background, you must know that the ancient Babylonians made their kings undergo such ceremonies annually. Having been somewhat in the public eye, I've learned that there are certain things that the public has come to expect of all sorts of celebrities, the first of which is that they give up all rights to privacy. Here, you've being received as the next thing to the Second Coming - you've got to expect that in some sense, you and Roxana will be public property.'
'I never have been in the public eye, though,' says Robert. 'Quite the opposite! One reads about such ceremonies taking place, you're right, but one doesn't imagine ever having to take part in one of them! It puts a rather different complexion on matters. What if it doesn't... you know? I never thought I'd have any need for Viagra, but... the pressure!'
Greg tuts. 'Listen, there is also just the outside chance that you really are Iskander reincarnated. If so, who knows what powers and abilities come with that?' He is expecting Robert to stare at him in disbelief, but instead the other man nods, as though the concept of having a long-dead spirit incarnate in him is not an unfamiliar one. 'And even if the whole reincarnation idea is mistaken, many or all of these people believe in the power of that myth. If Ella can call on the power of her goddess, who is to say that you can't call on whatever power might be generated by the belief of the faithful of Firis? Should the time come, see if you can grasp the power. Maybe you should talk to Ella first, and get some suggestions about how you should go about this.'
'Does she really call on the power of her goddess, then? I'd assumed that was just her being mystical.'
'Well, it seems to work, that's all I can say. Please understand that I don't have the faintest idea what I'm talking about here. This is all speculation. But if there is anything to my theory, it's a potential that we'd be foolish not to exploit.'
It turns out that everyone is keen to go and see the 'skellingtons', once they hear about them. Mary eagerly leads the way, Khem scampering behind her. 'It could be another piece of the puzzle,' says Greg, striding along with his staff, 'and we need all the clues we can find.'
The path leads upwards through a maze of broken rock. It would certainly be difficult to find unless one had a guide. The wind is fresh, but apart from that the mood is very still: the thinnish air forces everyone's lungs to labour.
It is half an hour before the path comes around a ridge onto a broad shelf. Ella, who is first of the group to reach it, gasps involuntarily as she comes out into the light of the setting sun.
The shelf commands a fabulous panorama, looking down not over Firis but over the valley in which the aeroplane crashed. Its silvery body is out of the sunlight now, but the dark scar it created is shockingly visible. Further round, she can also see the rope bridge which is apparently the only way out, looking more like a strand of cotton from this height.
Above her head she hears a harsh calling, and she looks up to see, circling around the very peak, a pair of huge birds - some sort of eagles or something.
Mary and Khem, though, are ignoring all these natural wonders and instead staring at the tableau that makes up the back wall of the shelf. About thirty skeletons are gathered there, standing erect, their joints fastened together with what look like wooden pins, their limbs tied about with red cloth, their skulls set with bright jewels. In the reddish light they look poised, capable and commanding.
Robert, fascinated, starts across to examine them, but Mary takes his hand quickly. 'You mustn't touch - not even you, Iskander. These skellingtons are even older than you!' She is quiet and reverent in her manner, quite unlike her usual self. The still, patient air of the skeletons is rather infectious.
'I won't touch,' promises Robert, and he peers cautiously at them from a yard or so away.
'So what sort of ceremonies do you hold here, Mary?' asks Ella.
'Just to remember. On the holy day. This is where we all came from - many, many generations ago. Before Iskander came, even. Long, long time.'
Robert, squatting, looks through the forest of leg-bones. He is fascinated by the find - the paleoanthropology of the region is far from his speciality, but he can see that these remains are Homo sapiens, dating from probably several thousand years ago. They are all male, and all adult - all well-formed and large, too, probably at least the size of the present-day villagers. None have obviously broken limbs, although that is difficult to tell for certain without closer examination.
Suddenly he exclaims, peering deeper into the tangle. He has caught a glint of metal. He cannot quite make it out... towards the back of the group, one of the skeletons is different. It seems more slender, and there are pieces of metal somehow associated with it. But how can the metal still be bright? Even silver would dull in this length of time. But the wooden pins and the cloth mean that someone must maintain these holy objects... he is about to start forward when he feels Mary's tugging hand again. 'We must go back now. It's getting dark. We shouldn't be here after the sun.'
She is right - before the group has reached the bottom of the path, they are in the sudden near-darkness that has come over the valley.
'If there is anything to the remembered tales that the Ylid can't be in the same place, or one of them dies, it could explain why they are scattered all across the world, and it could also be an important weapon to use against them,' muses Greg. 'We need to learn more about the story behind that myth, any details, any variations or elaborations which have been handed down.'
'If they've been active throughout human history, it might be that other versions of it exist elsewhere, in other well-preserved cultures,' suggests Ella. 'Are there any archaeologists, folklorists, whatever, in SITU?' She can vaguely remember that there were a few on the list of field operatives that SITU had sent out the previous year.
Greg starts up. 'Oh... Sarah?' The blonde girl is just passing the hut.
'Hmm?' She looks at him distractedly.
'Here -' Greg gathers up his belongings into a bundle, and holds it out to her. 'Here - I understand that you've been going through people's things, looking for something that you hope one of us might have. You're welcome to go through mine. We haven't gotten off on the right foot, you and I, but we're still all in this together, near as I can make out. So help yourself.'
She looks at him first with surprise, then with annoyance, opens her mouth as though to say something sharp, then slumps slightly. 'God, news travels fast here, doesn't it? I don't need to look through your stuff, thank you very much for offering. If you can just tell me if you're ever been in the Forces, that's all I want to know.'
'The armed forces? No, I never have - although my father was in the Second World War,' Greg answers, puzzled.
'Oh, well, never mind, then. It's not important.' For perhaps the first time, she flashes him a quick smile. 'I didn't think you looked the military type. You look more like someone off the TV.' She sticks out her hand, awkwardly. 'Friends?'
'Friends,' agrees Greg, shaking it warmly. He is not at all sure what has brought about this change of attitude.
'George, I was thinking that perhaps some people might come to rescue us - what would you do if large numbers of people - soldiers, perhaps - were to come to the village?'
Old George chuckles a toothless chuckle. 'They never could, unless we wished it, Iskander. The only way here is by the rope bridge. If we cut it - no passage in or out.'
Robert is unconvinced. 'But what if they came by helicopter?' George looks blank. 'Er - from the sky? In a metal bird?'
'Like the one in which you and your friends came, Iskander? It was lucky that any of you survived at all. Not luck, rather, but your Iskander nature. Anyone else would surely die. Anyway, we are friendly people. If men came to look for you and your friends, of course they could not take you, for you are our Iskander, but they could take your friends back to their lands, we would not try and stop them. Of course not.'
'But... er, if you had to? If there was violence?'
'Then you would lead us in war against them, Iskander! And blast them with the mighty power of your gaze!'
'Ah, yes, of course,' says Robert wretchedly. 'I was forgetting that.'
He is trying to work out how he can find out what the incident he overheard earlier in the day was, but has no clear ideas for doing so. Old George, or else Charles, seems to always be in this hut. Might there be a back way in? Could someone sneak in at night? Is there anyone else he can ask for help?
'Er, George, Mary showed us your people's ancient holy bones, just now.'
George looks rather embarrassed. 'Ah, Iskander, they are holy, yes, but not half as holy as you, of course. You must not think that we cling to these primitive superstitions with any great force, when we have the living evidence of your divinity among us.'
'Are they what you used to worship before Iskander came, then?'
'That is right. Our ancestors. They represent the people continuing. But now we just revere them, we do not truly worship them still,' George adds nervously.
Nora spends that evening in her element, schmoozing and charming her way around the hotels, bars and clubs of Angkor. Her two troopers have the night off, and the bodyguards accompany her stolidly at a distance. So far she has not even seen them talk to each other, let alone anyone else. Perhaps they do it when she's not looking.
She does not have far to look before she finds drunken Japanese businessmen: only as far as the Sheraton Hotel. A group of them are siting in a circle, porcelain cups of sake in front of them, playing some sort of drinking game that involves ritual humiliation and karaoke. Nora attaches herself to the group, and is claimed by the middle-aged man who seems to be the others' senior - they all have to make do with local women to refill their glasses. He is a sweaty and churlish fellow who is evidently accustomed to being obeyed: his name is Hatamura-san.
Over the course of the next hour or so Nora learns that there are about eighty Japanese working here in some capacity or other, almost all male and almost all associated with Dai-Mitsu or one of its operating arms. Kawanagi-san, the man Chen mentioned to her, is in charge of the overall Dai-Mitsu operation. Hatamura-san is one of his deputies. They tend to think of themselves as being rather above the locals: after all, they are bringing their expertise and money here to help out this rather backward town.
As the night wears on Nora is able to probe a little more about Kawanagi. Apparently he too is staying in this hotel, in the penthouse, but he never socializes with the juniors. He has a bodyguard who is very scary, apparently, and he travels around in a large Lexus with the windows blocked out. Although Hatamura is clearly used to not giving a great deal away, Nora is good enough at reading character to gauge that he is rather scared of Kawanagi - this despite the other being twenty years younger.
Nora takes pictures of all the group - earlier she found a service that would scan and fax them for her from the negative or from print - and then sees Pinkler waving to attract her attention from across the bar.
Excusing herself, she goes to him. He is rather drunk, not surprisingly. 'Hey, sheila, how's it going? All right?'
'Not too badly, thanks. What have you got?' She steps aside quickly to prevent his arm descending on her shoulders.
'These rebels the Chinese're so scared of - well, I've been talking to a few people I know, in Beijing and in Lhasa, and they're all saying it's a load of dingo's... they're saying it's not true. No rebellion there at all. It's just mountains, that part of the country, they don't even think it's inhabited except perhaps by half-a-dozen hillmen. So how comes there's a whole battalion of infantry, with air support and artillery, being deployed up there? The Nepali government are jumping up and down about it, but who cares about them, eh? I have a theory,' he looks at her wisely, attempting to lay a finger alongside his nose but missing, 'which I'll share with you if you care to hear it, ma'am.'
'Come on - amaze me,' says Nora calmly.
'I reckon there was something on that plane - either secrets, or else some VIP incognito, or else some sort of high-tech device. And the Chinese are dead keen to get their hands on it. I had another look at the passenger manifest. There's one guy on board who's a Senator - right? Not a US senator, but a Californian state one, and you know what that means. It means he's tied in with Lockheed, McDonnell-Douglas - that whole crowd. What about if he was carrying the specs of some new fighter plane to the US's allies in Pakistan? Eh?'
'The plane had already been through Pakistan,' says Nora automatically. 'It was on the way here, remember? Kampuchea isn't exactly a US ally, and I don't suppose it can afford new fighter planes either.' But her mind is racing on. The Chinese deployment sounded serious, and surely it could only be explained by Conspiracy involvement. As far as she knew her late comrades had not been carrying anything that would be useful to the enemy, but...
'We should keep an eye on them,' says Ella, pointing to the distant figures of Paulette Bondu and Arnold Terwilliger, who are siting very close together on the bank of the river.
'Why?' asks Robert. 'They seem to be enjoying each other's company - what's wrong with that?'
'I don't suppose Maurice would see it that way,' says Ella darkly.
'Well, I don't suppose Charles or George or whoever would be too keen to see you and me stood here like this,' says Robert. 'Come on, let's get back inside and do this ritual, if we're going to.' And he turns and walks in to the abandoned hut Ella has chosen, his shoulders set.
Ella looks after him for a moment, sighs and follows. 'Look, it'll help a lot if you can be open-minded about it, you know?'
'Will it not work if I don't believe, then?' asks Robert, sitting down cross-legged.
'Maybe not,' says Ella. 'Or on the other hand maybe she'll just rip your mind open regardless. You never know, do you?'
The candles are burning, the sigils have been drawn, Robert has been washed and prepared. She sits opposite him, and starts to breathe deeply.
'Are you going to strip off?' asks Robert interestedly.
'Shut up,' replies Ella without opening her eyes. She has no wine, no olives, and no white cockerel, but she has wild honey and she has laurel, and she has three owl's feathers. Setting light to the twigs, she throws on the feathers and breathes deeply of the acrid smoke.
She can feel the sensation of immense space under her, as she gingerly extends her perception. It is as though she is sitting atop a huge bubble, which may burst at any moment. Lady Athena, Minerva, Pallas Athene, do you hear your daughter? There is no more than the faint sensation of the familiar presence - it feels very distant. Robert's aura is very apparent - it seems nothing at all like that of the 'Alexander' she saw last night. But just as she has that realization, the bubble bursts, and she feels herself falling, plunging towards a golden barge far below. On the barge, she knows, is Alexander's corpse, being carried to the lands of the dead, and she is to join it. Mother, help me!
She is sharply conscious again, retching at the smell of the burning feathers.
'Are you all right?' asks Robert concernedly.
'I think so... ugh.' Ella spits to clear her mouth. 'Water.'
'You went very pale, and then...' he gestures.
Ella is surprised to see that her upper body is bare. She pulls her shirt back on, seeing that all the buttons have been pulled off.
'You just wrenched it open. I was quite worried,' says Robert. 'Anyway, what did you get?'
'I'm not sure... I don't know if that was a very safe thing to do. It may be that his influence here is too strong...'