The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Palace Of Wisdom
19th November 1998, 11.45 am (Angkor), just before dawn (Firis)
'Right, has everyone got the essentials? Food, water, blankets and some firestarting gear. And we need to make up a couple of stretchers for Loki and Cleitus.'
'I thought you were planning on moving out straight away,' says Ella, still half confused by her dream.
'No, I think we'll have a better opportunity during the ceremony. I've prepared a little... diversion.'
'Are you sure?' asks Daniel doubtfully. He has already started hoisting Loki onto his shoulders ready to dash off. 'I think letting the ceremony go ahead would be really bad.'
'Yes, it makes sense,' says Ella. 'They've probably got lookouts posted on the ways out at the moment. If we leave it until the actual ceremony's under way, most of us drift away then - I can say that as Robert's ex I can't bear to watch, so I can be with Andrew preparing the route - and then the rest of you can grab Robert once the diversion has distracted the villagers. That'll stop the ceremony, so it won't get completed.' She looks briefly wistful. 'Pity - in a way I wish we could see that!'
'What about the other survivors?' demands Greg. 'Our mission was in Kampuchea. Nora will have dealt with it, or not, by the time that we can be any help to her. What we should be doing now is first to get out, and second to learn what we can here of what might be of use to SITU.
'We would be foolish to assume that we just dropped out of the sky here by accident. Someone, or something, wanted us to find the tomb of Cleitus the Black and do something with that knowledge, or his body, or something. We still don't know who or what is behind our being here, and can't expect to learn before we have to act.
'Getting the others out may not matter beyond the simple responsibility that we have as other people who know them and have the ability to help them escape. I'm also still suspicious that whatever power is responsible for bringing us here may be putting us through some sort of trial, and that the way we deal with every problem we face could be important. Not to mention that every one of them may be important.
'So, Iain, you can make your own decisions about what you think our priorities should be. We really are on our own, here. But mine include trying to help the others to get back to civilization.'
Iain shrugs, defeatedly. 'Well, I can't stop you, anyway. And waiting until the ceremony will make that easier, too: they'd be bound to notice such a large group leaving at this time in the morning.'
Ella bursts in excitedly. 'Anyway, about why we're here, I had a dream just now!' She relates it to them. 'Maybe there's some way to resurrect Cleitus, or at least communicate with his spirit!'
'That makes it sound like it was your Goddess who made the plane come down, and maybe it's her making it snow, too' observes Daniel. 'Or at least she wants to take the credit.'
'What, for all those hundreds of passengers being killed?' exclaims Iain.
'If it was her, and she meant us to recover Cleitus, or the information that's here in Firis, then she must have thought it important enough to merit the sacrifice,' says Greg. 'The greater good of the greater number, perhaps... but I don't know a great deal about her ways.'
'I'm still learning, myself,' says Ella. 'But once we get Cleitus's body away from the influence of Alexander in this valley, I'll try to contact him.'
As the morning wears on, the team make unobtrusive preparations. The village is in festal atmosphere, with evergreen laurel leaves strewn all round the place, wreaths for the most important participants. Old George is in a chair on a sort of podium affair at the back of the main stage, which two villagers are carefully sanding down to avoid the risk of splinters troubling the happy couple.
Iain and Ella have sneaked off to discuss the getaway with Andrew. 'Once we leave here are there many villages we can head for? I'm also wondering if there's just one way up to this area for the Chinese army to use? We'd really like to avoid meeting them so it'd be great if you could think of suitable route for us to take.'
Andrew too looks concerned. 'I do not know these Chinese, but from what you say we certainly do not wish to be caught by them. Once we have crossed the bridge we will have to walk for an hour, then we can descend into the next valley and we can follow the river. I hope that these Chinese will be coming on the road, from Abatan - that is the only road.'
Iain nods. 'Yes, if we can try and head for the Brahmaputra River, we can steal a boat and follow the river into India.'
'The next river flows into a bigger one, but I don not know what it is called. It runs south-east.'
'That'll probably do! The border would be a problem, but I can try and get us past any checkpoints as best I can.' Iain grins. 'Right up my street!'
'We really can't let the body of Cleitus fall into the hands of the Chinese, though,' says Ella worriedly. 'Perhaps we should get Andrew to show us a place where we can stash it - away from the valley of course - until we can get SITU to send a proper expedition to recover it'
'No, I think it'll be safer with us,' says Iain. 'We're not planning to get caught by them, and if we leave it here they're bound to search the place.' He looks grim. 'If they're controlled by the Enemy, they might even have some way of detecting it. Anyway, we obviously need to stick together for as long as possible. Hopefully until we get to safety, but we have to accept that if things go completely pear-shaped we'll need to split up into smaller groups. We should pair up first, then get pairs together.'
Oh great! A ghost... err... they don't exist, do they? wonders Nora to herself. 'If it's a ghost, it's harmless!' she calls out. 'Go on, you two - deal with it!' She gestures vigorously at the two nearest monks. She is pretty sure that the alternative, that the apparition is a man in ghost costume, cannot be true. She can clearly discern parts of the scenery through its insubstantial form. 'Get praying, that'll see him right.'
She moves forward and addresses the ghost, as it stands at the front of the platform, its blade raised. 'Er... hey, you. Your Kingship, or whatever. Stay calm, all right?'
The two monks set up a tremendous praying and spinning of their prayer wheels, but it seems to have little effect on the ghost.
The crowd has scattered away from it, which allows the soldiers - Nora is initially relieved to see that they are Kampuchean, not Chinese as she had feared - to forge on through towards the podium.
The baby that is the Kongwai Lama gurgles happily as the Senzo Lama, who is trying to ignore all these extraneous distractions, lifts it up towards the Tooth.
The soldiers fan out across in front of the dais, and the officer leading them barks out a couple of phrases in Khmer.
The Senzo Lama sharply stops what he is doing, staggers slightly, and turns to face the officer, rage and horror mingled on his face.
Greg spends the remainder of the morning moving among the other passengers, telling them that the plan is to vacate the village during the ceremony. Some look perturbed by this idea. 'But I thought the villagers were going to escort us away from here tomorrow, anyway?' says Tranh Noc Lo. 'Why take a risk by leaving by ourselves?' He indicates his wife's broken ankle.
'Well, we're not going to insist, of course,' says Greg. 'But the longer we stay here the more likely it is that we'll be found by the Chinese.'
'What would be so bad about that?' asks Paulette Bondu puzzledly. 'None of us have done anything wrong, after all.'
'It's up to you,' says Greg, arms folded. 'If you'd like to come with us, you'll be very welcome, but if you'd rather stay, that's your decision.' If the team successfully interrupt the ceremony, then those who remain should not have to worry about incarnations of Alexander striding about the place. And the villagers would presumably not seek to exact vengeance on them. But there would still be the People's Army - possibly Ylid-led - to reckon with. And they were certainly ruthless enough to slaughter the entire village and all the survivors if they thought it worth their while. 'All I can do is urge you to come with us.'
'If you say so, I shall do it,' exclaims Marie-Claude, her eyes shining brightly. Greg, the sensation of her lips still fresh on his, smiles.
'Me too,' says Arnold Terwilliger. 'Don't fancy taking my chances with the Chinese, I can tell you. Paulette?'
'I don't know... I suppose so,' says Paulette worriedly. 'But what about Maurice?'
'It would be better not to tell him what's happening, I think,' Greg says gently.
'Are you going to come along with us, Sarah?' asks Daniel.
'I suppose so: can't see much point hanging around here just to see two people getting married. Especially shagging in public. I don't think I could fancy your friend Robert, to be honest.'
'Nor me. Listen, I was thinking about that organization you said your boyfriend was in - I could do some looking into it if you like, when we get back. Have you got any notes he might have made?'
'I don't, I'm sorry, I think he'd only been on this mission a day or so when he was killed. But that Iain guy said just now, he thought he knew a bit about them, knew who they were. He reckons he could make a contact there and find out what happened.'
'That's great,' says Daniel reassuringly. He wonders to himself whether Iain, Ella and Greg, senior to him in SITU, already know about the investigation on which Sarah's boyfriend Jack was killed. Perhaps they even received a debriefing report on it. If so, why have they said nothing? 'I'm sure he'll do a good job, he seems pretty thorough.'
'Pretty anal, you mean,' replies Sarah dryly.
Iain meanwhile is carefully completing a pencil sketch of the village, its terrain and disposition, next to a column of neatly-written notes on its population, technological level and political organization. He takes a GPS reading and moves off along the valley, copying it too into the book, in case the GPS unit suffers a mishap.
He is approached by Hekkhme, the young priest looking rather nervous. 'Something up?'
'We have received a bad augury,' says Hekkhme. 'Apparently the Iskander is not completely pleased with the way things are going.'
'What - Robert, you mean?'
'No, the god-nature of Iskander - which has not yet entered him fully. It sends us messages. We took the readings and they were not good.'
'That's a shame. Is the wedding off, then?' asks Iain hopefully.
'No, no, it must take place, that is clear. But we will have to do some propitiation first. It may be that your friend Robert is not yet worthy of receiving the god, or that Roxana is not yet worthy to be his bride.'
'What will this... propitiation... involve?' asks Iain warily.
'I do not know. Lulan will decide,' says Hekkhme, and he turns away.
Ella has no difficulty making her way in to see Roxana, who is being attended by Mary's Nan and a number of other women. But getting her alone to ask her about her true feelings is clearly going to be impossible. Well, it will have to be left until the ceremony. She might be more likely to answer frankly then, too, when the full horror of what she is about to do has been borne home.
She heads back to the centre and, moved by an impulse, approaches George, who is sat on his chair, his head nodding gently to the strains of a small band of musicians tuning-up their drums, pipes and horns. 'George, how much difference do you think this wedding - this incarnation of the Iskander - will make to the village? How much better off will you be than if it hadn't happened?'
George turns his blind face towards her. 'Oh, that is not our way of thinking, my dear child. We do not deal in what-ifs. The gods - fate - call it what you will - marks out certain events, and they occur. It is idle to speculate on alternatives, for they were not fated. We have a saying here, "If my aunt had a beard, she would be my uncle."'
Ella puzzles that one for a moment. 'So you are saying that whatever happens here today is what was meant to happen, and whether it's good or bad, you'll accept it?'
'Yes, of course. To do otherwise would be folly. One cannot wish past events not to have happened, any more than one can wish future events not to happen.' He nods. 'But of course we might be fated to be greatly distressed, or annoyed, if all does not go as we expect.'
'When you put it like that, it makes great sense,' says Ella cautiously. 'We shall be sure to bear reports of your wisdom back to our people.'
'We have been uniquely blessed by fate in Firis, for the Iskander has chosen to make this his earthly home,' says George. 'We can take no credit for the wisdom he passed down to us, and it is equally available to you outside - you are all his children, after all.'
'This is priceless!' whispers Pinkler. 'That guy there, that's General Min. He's the military big wheel here. And he's just said that he's come to arrest the baby, on suspicion of murder.'
Nora weighs this up for a moment. 'Does that sound as silly in Khmer as it does in English?'
'The Senzo Lama doesn't seem to think so. He's saying Not on your Nelly - or words to that effect.'
The soldiers as one snap into the ready position, their assault rifles raised. Monks start to back uneasily away from the Senzo Lama, still a picture of outrage and arguing furiously with General Min. The baby seems impervious to the whole dispute.
Nora, glancing quickly around, weighs up the distance to the helicopter, about twenty yards inside the gates. But how to make it without being cut down by fire? She has her own gun, or rather Kawanagi's gun, but she is very reluctant to bring it out in the presence of bigger guns in the hands of the supposed enemy. Her own soldiers are standing by stolidly, not appearing to pay any attention to the proceedings, although Chen's bodyguards are watching her very carefully. Her hand creeps to her own prayer wheel.
As midday approaches, the villagers gather together around the raised dais. There is much music, and much good-natured joshing, but the atmosphere is broadly a respectful one. Robert is being made up by a team of cheery male villagers, led by Hekkhme, who seems to have put his worries behind him. Scented oils are smeared into his skin, and the dark hair on his chest is neatly plucked to present an idealized Grecian torso.
'Here, drink this, Iskander,' says the young priest, handing him a bowl of a spicy-smelling liquid.
Robert obediently downs it, and almost at once starts to feel light-headed and woozy. He is also aware of a curious reaction in the region of his groin, which he sluggishly tries to cover with his hands.
'You will be glad of that later on,' says Hekkhme wisely.
It lacks just half an hour of noon as Robert is brought out onto the dais, and sat down in a chair to one side of it. he is wearing nothing but a loincloth and a golden fillet, but he does not feel at all cold: his skin is positively glowing, despite the gentle snow which continues to drift down, with each flake seeming to melt before it even touches him.
There is much prayer and a call-and-response by Lulan, parts of which are in English, parts in Ancient Greek, and parts in a language Robert does not understand at all. He is not paying much attention, though, he is just eager to see his bride-to-be.
Roxana is brought out at about quarter to twelve, clad in a simple white robe, another golden fillet, and her face made up like a mask of beauty. It is only the firm hands of Charles pressing down on his shoulders which prevent Robert from leaping upon her there and then, without further ado.
Roxana's own feelings are unreadable, and she takes her place docilely, Mary's Nan behind her as Charles is behind Robert. In the centre of the dais, between them, is Lulan, now invoking the blessing of the Sun upon the enterprise. There is little sign of it, though, just a pearly radiance through the low cloud.
'The Iskander has told us that his earthly vessel is not yet ready for him - not yet pure enough,' says Lulan loudly. A murmur runs round the crowd. 'There must be a scourging, to purify him.'
'What?' exclaims Robert nervously.
'Not a scourging of the Iskander's own body, of course. That would be most wrong, to mark it with stripes. Instead a volunteer will be scourged in his place.' He looks out expectantly over the villagers, who shuffle from one foot to the other and try not to catch his eye.
'We have a volunteer!' calls out Hekkhme cheerily, from the back of the crowd. He is leading Maurice Perez by the arm. Perez looks very pale and dazed, and is saying nothing. The musicians strike up a loud, resonant chorus.
'Keep your head down!' Ella hisses at Andrew. They are both stationed above the end of the valley, looking down at the wedding scene, with Cleitus's body, still wrapped in sacks, on a stretcher slung between them. Loki, whom Ella and Daniel moved up earlier, is at their feet. From overhead, above the clouds, she thinks she can hear the drone of a helicopter. 'Do you want them to see you?'
'They are all looking at my Roxana,' says Andrew sadly. 'And at the foreign man.'
Ella peers down herself to see Perez being helped up onto the dais, as Lulan produces a nasty-looking knout from his belt.
Just at that moment, there is a muffled explosion, and the hut to the rear of the dais erupts in flame.
'Go, go, go!' shouts Iain, hitting Greg and Daniel on the shoulders. The villagers are milling around in confusion and fear, the musicians silent, Old George lying prone where his chair has toppled. Robert has seized the opportunity to advance on Roxana, with Charles trying to hold him back. Hekkhme is attempting to calm the crowd. And Lulan is looking sharply around, his mouth a thin line, the knout ready in his hand. Iain darts to the next pyro and touches it off, as he hears Lulan's voice cry 'Stop him!'
Greg and Daniel dash up onto the dais, and Greg with one well-placed right uppercut strikes Robert on the point of the jaw. The ithyphallic Iskander-alike ignores the blow, though, and Greg notes to his disquiet that Robert's eyes are glowing green. Robert shakes off Charles's attentions, the burly villager flying backwards as though flung, and moves forward again, to where Daniel is gently slapping Roxana, to try to bring her out of her daze.
Greg, his eyes narrowing, steps back a pace and kicks Robert hard in the groin. Robert's eyes cross in pain, the light going out of them, and he folds up pitifully.
'Do you want to come with us, with Andrew, or stay here?' shouts Daniel, but Roxana does no more than look blankly at him. He fends off Mary's Nan with one arm and scoops the girl up with the other, trying manfully to stagger to the edge of the dais as another hut explodes in flame.
Lulan steps forward, his face convulsed with rage, and strikes Daniel hard across the side of the head with his heavy knout. But before he can strike again, Greg has raised his gun and fired.
The noise of the shot easily carries to Ella and Andrew, as does the moment of eerie silence immediately after it. Then all hell breaks loose again, with villagers scurrying away from Greg as Lulan collapses, blood spouting from his chest.
Paulette and Sarah are forging up the path towards them, carrying the remainder of the equipment. 'Where are the others?' demands Ella sharply.
'They stopped to help your friends,' pants Paulette.
'Come on, we'd better move, anyway. Head for the bridge!'
One of the soldiers levels his rifle dead at the Senzo Lama's head, and General Min steps up onto the dais, his hands outstretched to take the baby. He is ignoring the still ghost: perhaps he cannot see it, thinks Nora.
There is an angry mutter among the crowd, but no-one does anything.
As General Min steps forward towards the Lama, the ghost drops into a fighting crouch and brings its spectral sword round in a swift, straight, horizontal arc, straight through the General's torso.
General Min folds up and collapses, a look of horror on his face, just as though he had been cut in two, although there is no blood.
The soldier fires, and the Senzo Lama staggers backwards, his arms spreading wide and spilling the baby.
Nora dives full-length to catch it, then scrambles to her knees and dodges behind the Tooth reliquary as the air fills with noise.
The soldiers are firing indiscriminately at the monks, who are leaping off the dais, either to run away or to engage the soldiers with their hands and their steel pencil-cases. The crowd has erupted into riot at the sight of the Senzo Lama being shot, and clods of earth, cobblestones and bottles are raining down on the soldiers.
John Pinkler is eagerly snapping pictures of the scene, careless of any risk he may be in.
One of the two bodyguards moves, surprisingly quickly for such a bulky man, to take cover alongside Nora behind the Tooth, and as he rolls pulls out two very large handguns and despatches the two soldiers she brought with her from Phnom Penh, whom she had not noticed sneaking up on her from behind.
'Very John Woo,' says Nora admiringly. She indicates the helicopter. 'Cover me, OK?'
The other bodyguard has been killed already, and the ghost is systematically keeping the dais clear of soldiers - any who climb up are smitten with its spectral blade, and collapse like marionettes.
'Hey, this thing's only made of wood, isn't it?' Nora wonders aloud, touching the reliquary as she weighs up her chances of running for the chopper. 'How come it's keeping this fire off us?' But the wood is glowing with a golden radiance, she now sees, a radiance emanating from the Tooth at its heart, and the bullets which strike it are damaging it not at all.
Two soldiers have rushed the end of the platform which the ghost is engaged at the front, and the bodyguard is only able to drop one of them before the other rushes Nora. She holds the baby behind her and readies a kick, but John Pinkler steps quickly in and releases his flashbulb in the man's face. The bodyguard finishes him off with a bullet to the back of the head.
'Go, girl, go now!' shouts Pinkler happily, still snapping away, dancing from one foot to the other.
The soldiers have formed into a square to keep off the crowd, many of whom are lying in blood on the ground.
Nora taps the bodyguard on the shoulder and they both move together, him screening her with his body and with withering fire from both hands, as she tucks the baby under one arm like a rugby ball and hammers over the courtyard towards the helicopter.
She has not gone halfway before she feels a hot fist slam into her shoulder and she is pitched forward onto the ground, rolling twice, trying to avoid crushing the baby as pain surges through her.
Daniel loses his footing and falls of the dais, Roxana spilling from his grasp, as one eye fills with blood and his vision starts to darken.
He is effortlessly caught by the big American. 'Hey, boy, go easy now, huh? Why didn't you guys tell me this was what you had planned?' Terwilliger is smiling.
Marie-Claude Duval dashes to Greg's side, pulling off Mary's Nan, who is clawing and kicking at him furiously. He is doing no more than offering token resistance, his mind full of the enormity of the act he has just committed.
Is the sky darkening? Iain pays it no attention, running to set off his last pyro. Now, time to move. But he sees Charles, who has run to the large central hut, emerging with a long, dark object gingerly cradled in his arms. It looks very like an extremely elderly rifle.
'Go across! Go on, go on! I'll stay at this end!' Ella motions the others over the rickety bridge, which sways precariously two hundred feet above the riverbed below. It is not in the best state of repair. Gritting her teeth, she readies her athame 'Mother, this blade to you, and I to you.' The sky is definitely getting darker, and the snow is turning to rain.
Iain runs hard towards Charles, who is levelling the rifle - in an abstracted part of his mind Iain registers it as a Lee-Metford Mark I .303, standard British infantry issue of the 1890s - at the scene on the dais.
Several things then happen at once.
Marie-Claude, who has pushed Mary's Nan off the platform, sees Charles raise the barrel and leaps to place herself between it and Greg.
Greg, his face dreadful with horror and guilt, seizes her arm to pull her out of the way.
Iain rugby-tackles Charles, his shoulder striking him behind the knees.
The antique rifle goes off, with a fantastically loud report and a huge muzzle-flash.
Roxana shrieks as she is thrown backwards by the impact of the bullet, her white robe at once reddening at the chest.
The sky opens, and huge, cold, hard beads of rain pelt down on everyone.
The baby opens its wise eyes once more, still making no noise, and blows a milky bubble. Nora can see the helicopter twenty yards away, and can hear pounding feet behind her. The bodyguard is lying nearby, his head split by a bullet.
As the baby holds her gaze she feels energy and warmth surge through her, and she rises to her knees, then to her feet. She does not know how she reaches the door of the helicopter, but she does, and she puts the baby on the seat before turning to coolly dispatch the soldier who is chasing after her. Then she clambers in and starts the rotors.
'Come on, hurry!' urges Ella from the mouth of the bridge. Greg, Marie-Claude, Daniel, Iain and Arnold Terwilliger struggle up the path towards her, the latter two struggling with Robert's unconscious form.
Not far behind them she can see an ugly mob of villagers, led by Hekkhme, Charles bringing up the rear. The path has become very muddy very rapidly, and a small stream is now rushing down it, hampering everyone's progress.
'Where's Roxana?' she demands as they reach her, but Greg's ashen face tells her everything she needs to know. 'Go on, get across, quickly! Move, move!'
'What about you?' asks Iain wearily as the tattered group start to cross.
'Don't worry about me,' says Ella grimly. 'I'll give that lot something to think about.'
She sings softly to herself, as she awaits the pursuers, moving a handful of steps backwards onto the swaying bridge. Yes, I am wise, but it's wisdom born of pain. Yes, I've paid the price, but look how much I've gained.
As Hekkhme comes out onto the lip of the gorge, he pauses, seeing her standing there confidently. Ella takes a quick glance back over her shoulder to check that the others have cleared the far end of the bridge. 'Don't come any closer, Hekkhme.' She shows him the knife in her hand. You can bend but never break me, because it only serves to make me more determined to achieve my final goal.
Holding his gaze, she backs away slowly, until she is near the middle of the gorge. The bridge is now swinging widely, and the rain is still pelting down. 'You wouldn't dare!' calls out Hekkhme angrily, and he puts one foot onto the bridge.
Ella, still smiling, places the blade against the rope of the bridge, and cuts through one of the handrails. If I have to, I can do anything.
At once the bridge swings crazily, all the tension now on one side of it, and the footway cants. Ella has her other arm wrapped tightly around the other handrail, and does not fall. Hekkhme steps rapidly back off the bridge.
Charles shoulders his way through the crowd, as Ella glances back again. The others are well out of sight now.
She sees that Charles is still carrying the rifle.
He levels it at her, and calls out 'Come here to this side, and you will live. We will cross anyway, whether you come here, stand, or flee. If you stand, I will shoot you. If you flee I will shoot you in the back before you reach the other side.'
'You'd never hit me,' calls Ella, but she is not sure. Not sure enough. 'If I come to you, will you let the others live?'
'Of course we will,' says Hekkhme soothingly.
Charles slaps him angrily. 'She's trying to buy time, you fool.' He cocks the rifle. 'I will count to three. One... two...'
The world has become a very narrow place to Ella, the black circle that is the end of the rifle barrel, the feel of the rope under her feet and in the crook of her arm, and the blade in her hand. And the song in her head, a woman's voice, singing. 'I am strong, I am invincible!' she calls out, and as Charles fires she cuts through the other rope, and the bridge is severed.
There is no pain, just a rushing wind, a warm rush of air. Ella is aware of the bullet striking her body, and her body striking the wall of the gorge, but only very distantly after the first instant, like a voice calling her name across a wide hall - a faint echo of sensation. She feels herself rushing upwards as the bridge falls, borne up, bursting through the clouds into sunshine.
The Queen of Heaven is there, the Mother, who gives birth to all and to who all return at the end. Her face is unsayably bright, and great, and full of love, and her arms are spread to receive her daughter come to join her.
The others, watching from the trees, see Ella's body fall into the gorge. But as it falls, a great white bird launches itself up from the rocks, and with fast, powerful wingbeats drives upwards into the sky. It passes through a gap in the cloud, and is seen no more.
A FEW DAYS LATER
No-one has felt much like talking, and now the river has carried them into India. I suppose we'll have the papers to talk to, thinks Daniel. Miraculous escape of aircrash victims. 'How are the ones who stayed behind - the Noc Los, Perez - going to get out?' he asks aloud.
'I expect the Chinese'll be able to bridge that gorge, now the weather's cleared,' says Robert quietly. He has returned more or less to his normal self now.
Andre Swahn meets the group at Dibrugar, at the hospital. He has lost weight since Greg and Iain last saw him, and looks as though he has not had a great deal of sleep lately. 'Here - new identities. You're Anthony Marwood, Sacramento lawyer. You're John Hamilton, chemical engineer.'
Daniel is examining this smallish man with receding hair carefully. 'So you're the boss of SITU, is that right?'
Swahn smiles thinly. 'Not at all. I work for the same people you all work for. Here - you've all got a briefing pack. That'll tell you more about what's going on. And for you, Daniel, I've got Andrew Carter, a computer programmer.'
'What about me?' asks Robert warily.
'You don't need one. It was Mr Locke who was killed on the plane, remember? And Loki doesn't need one either, no-one knows who he is at the best of times. Now as far as the world knows, you all died in the crash. I've spoken to Terwilliger, Bondu and Duval, and they're happy to go along with that. It's to our advantage to have you all dead - that should get the Enemy off your back.'
'I hope you're going to give us a proper idea of the big picture, now,' says Greg. 'We're headed toward a showdown, and it seems to me ignorance is a liability that can no longer be afforded.'
'It's all in the briefing, Mr Marwood. Geoff Blaize, who's in charge of operations now, feels the same way you do. No more secrets.'
'No more secrets?' echoes Robert.
'That's right. For starters, I'll tell you now that your next mission is going to be in Japan, striking directly against Inoshiro Yashimoto himself.'
'The Ylid, you mean?' asks Iain.
'That's right. The gloves are off.'
Daniel is skimming through his briefing, but he feels a faint tug on his jacket. 'Daniel?' Loki's voice is faint, but clear. 'I've got a hell of a headache. Did I miss anything?'
'First thing is to get you back together with Operative McShane. She should be in Singapore by now,' says Swahn crisply.
Andre Swahn has told Nora to wait in Singapore for her next instructions, and she monitors the news there. The Chinese Army have found the site of the plane crash, a remote unpopulated Himalayan valley, but as expected there were no survivors. The Chinese seemed to be pretty busy in those parts: there was another report saying they'd tested a low-yield nuclear device in a remote unpopulated Himalayan valley, on the 20th of November. The international community is up in arms, of course. Nora spares a thought for her colleagues, especially that weirdo witch Ella. This latest escapade has weakened her scepticism somewhat.
Even stranger, she has gotten used to pretending to be married... maybe she'll give it a try sometime... there was that guy Alexander back in Aus...
As she sits in the hotel sunlounge she starts to drift off to sleep, thinking about the letter M, of all things... M for murder, M for mountain, M for millennium, M for McShane...
She is woken by a familiar voice. 'Hey there, Sleeping Beauty.' Iain smiles down at her.
From: Andre Swahn, Briefing / 99
To: Executives: Iain Blayne, Nora McShane, Gregory Wentworth; Agents: Robert Montague Flint, 'Loki', Daniel Masterson.
Subject: Unusual spiritual / economic activity around Angkor, and discoveries in Firis
First of all, my commiserations on the tragic loss of Operative Wallace. I know that some of you were very close to her. If it is of any consolation, the information which her sacrifice allowed you to retrieve from Firis is of tremendous value, and may make the difference between the success and failure of our struggle against the Ylids.
We have been able to establish, from your accounts and from tests on the body of Cleitus, that Ylids are in general not able to approach each other. We surmise that they experience a heat reaction like that witnessed at the ICIP in Oxford, on which you have all received briefings. The presence of this metal in Cleitus's bloodstream - whether a natural phenomenon or engineered - allowed him to overcome this disadvantage. The metal in question is an alloy of ytterbium, and it exhibits the same curious physical properties as the ytterbium samples recovered from Heidelberg and from Transylvania. We have not yet been able to establish how and why it differs from ordinary ytterbium, but it does. What the link is between Cleitus and The Master, the Ylid responsible for ytterbium mining and experimentation in Europe, we do not know, but we hypothesize that The Master may be trying to artificially reproduce the 'Cleitus effect'. If this is so, it puts into our hands a tremendous weapon to use against our enemy, and we plan to test it within a few months in Mexico, where we see our way clear to potentially destroying up to three Ylids at once.
The metal skeleton observed among the Firis ancestral remains is also of great interest to us, and it is unfortunate that it could not be recovered. The whole area has now been reduced to a radioactive crater, with the presumed deaths of all the Firis villagers and the remaining air crash survivors, unfortunately.
Meanwhile, in Angkor, at the original mission, it seems clear that the Ylid Yashimoto is trying to seize control of this important site of spiritual energy, and that he saw the Kongwai Lama's incarnation as a threat to this plan. The Lama and the ghost of King Busan resisted the Ylid's power, and it is clear to us that these two entities represent a class of being which may well be happy to aid us in our struggle. We may hypothesize that the Kongwai Lama, or the power of the Buddha that is within him, resents the selfish distortion the Ylid wished to put on the energies his worshippers had accumulated over the years. And perhaps King Busan resented the subjection of the Khmer people to Japanese economic hegemony: we can only speculate about that. But we may imagine that their aid is in the same terms as that of the Goddess who it seems claimed to be responsible for the air crash and for your survival to make the discoveries you made. These spirits might be thought to have a vested interest in the preservation of humanity, and recognize SITU as striving for that same goal.
The Kongwai Lama himself has been returned to the Theravada Centre in London, as we have learnt all we can from him now.
Thank you once more, and we fervently hope that all of you will be able to continue working with us. The time of trial is approaching.
From: Alistair Thwaite, Debrief/84
To: Agents: Robert Montague Flint, 'Loki', Daniel Masterson
Congratulations on successfully having completed your second investigation with SITU! As a mark of the respect and trust we place in you, you are now to be admitted to Illumination Level 3 and the rank of Executive. As stated previously, the information herein is highly secret and must on no account be communicated with those of lower security clearance.
You already know that SITU exists to thwart an ancient, evil conspiracy against all of humanity. This is not the whole story, though. The members of the conspiracy, known as Ylids, are independent persons or beings each with their own geographical area and sphere of operation. We estimate there to be no more than 40 or so of them worldwide. Individual Ylids appear to be extremely long-lived - they may be functionally immortal. They are also extremely powerful, both temporally and 'magically' / 'psychically'. An Ylid is an extraordinarily dangerous adversary. Fortunately, although they are in conspiracy together, they appear never to be encountered other than individually. Each Ylid seems to have a number of human agents, such as Kawanagi. Alexander and Cleitus were Ylids, and the legend Alexander built up about himself is typical of their self-aggrandisement.
In general, low-level SITU investigations aim to identify the areas of influence of Ylids, to establish their locations, and to ascertain which unexplained phenomena are attributable to them and which not. For example, we were not sure whether the investigation of Lake Storsjon concerned Ylid activity, and were relieved to find it did not.
Now that you are more highly Illuminated you can be expected to be working more closely on investigations we believe central to the Ylid scheme.
Thank you again!
From: G M Blaize, Chief of Operations
To: Executives: Iain Blayne, Nora McShane, Gregory Wentworth
As Andre has said, it is time to lay the facts of the matter, as SITU understands them, before you. These Ylids whom we fight seem to have once lived happily together, a very long time ago, but they became sundered somehow and have had to stay apart since. They have spent their time until now squabbling amongst themselves, and manipulating and shaping human thought and endeavour so that it suits their purposes - what those purposes might be, we are still not entirely clear. It seems to us that Ylids in general want to increase the amount of mystical belief among humans, hence we often find them inspiring cults, magical works, drugs, vampire activity and so on. However they also seem to be keen to back space research - you will remember that the group of 'organized Ylids' under Yashimoto were killing off the 'rogue Ylid' Krillikhesh's agents, and we think his hostility to the space program may have been part of this. Furthermore there is at least one Ylid, The Watcher, active in Britain, who seems keen to make contact with extraterrestrial lifeforms.
Our main weapons while learning about the Ylids have been their division and their lack of knowledge of our existence. That phase is now coming to an end - The Master's destruction of our Boundary Row headquarters shows that they know us to be their enemies. However we doubt that all of them yet know the extent of the threat we pose to them, so we now plan to send our most senior Operatives, including yourselves, on a series of missions to take out individual Ylids and weaken their overall power considerably. By that stage, of course, the gloves will be off, but we hope we will have taken the maximum possible advantage from what we have larnt so far.
It need hardly be said that we rely on you to achieve these goals. It will not be easy, and some of you may be called upon to make the supreme sacrifice, as Operative Wallace did in Firis. But this is the only way to save humanity from slavery.