PART ONE (to be continued in a future blog)
His friends called him Johan. The world, when it remembered him, called him Raja. His full name epitomized 500 years of history: Johan Oliver de Alwis Sri Rajasinghe.
There had been a time when the tourists visiting the Rock had sought him out with cameras and recorders, but now a whole generation knew nothing of the days when his was the most familiar face in the Solar System. He did not regret his past glory, for it had brought him the gratitude of all mankind.
Power had come to him; he had never sought it. And it had always been a very special, limited kind of power — advisory, not executive. He was only special assistant (acting ambassador) for political affairs, directly responsible to president and council, with a staff that never exceeded ten.
It was Ambassador-at-Large Rajasinghe who got all the publicity, as he moved from one trouble spot to another, massaging egos here, defusing crises there and manipulating the truth with consummate skill. Never actually lying, of course; that would have been fatal.
When he had begun to enjoy the game for its own sake, it was time to quit.
That had been 20 years ago, and he had never regretted his decision. Those who predicted that boredom would succeed where the temptations of power had failed did not know their man or understand his origins. He had gone back to the fields and forests of his youth and was living only a kilometer from the great, brooding rock that had dominated his childhood. Indeed, his villa was actually inside the wide moat that surrounded the pleasure gardens, and the fountains that Kalidasa’s architect had designed now splashed in Johan’s own courtyard, after a silence of 2000 years.
Securing this history-drenched piece of land for his retirement had given Johan more satisfaction than anything in his whole career, fulfilling a dream that he had never believed could come true.
Through long and bitter experience, Rajasinghe had learned never to trust first impressions, but also never to ignore them. He had half expected that, like his achievements, Vannevar Morgan would be a large, imposing man. Instead, the engineer was well below average height and at first glance might even have been called frail. That slender body, however, was all sinew, and the raven-black hair framed a face that looked younger than its 51 years.
Rajasinghe knew power when he saw it, for power had been his business; and it was power that he was facing now. Beware of small men, he had often told himself—for they are the movers and shakers of the world.
And with this thought, there came the first flicker of apprehension. As far as Rajasinghe was aware, he and Morgan had no interests in common, beyond those of any men in this day and age. They had never had any prior communication; indeed, he had barely recognized Morgan’s name. Still more unusual was the fact that the engineer had asked him to keep this meeting confidential.
Although Rajasinghe had complied, it was with a feeling of resentment. There was no need, anymore, for secrecy in his peaceful life; the last thing he wanted now was for some important mystery to impinge upon his well-ordered existence.
Yet what upset him most was not the mild secrecy but his own total bewilderment. The chief engineer (land) of the Terran Construction Corporation was not going to travel thousands of kilometers merely to ask for his autograph, or to express the usual tourist platitudes. He must have come here for some specific purpose—and, try as he might, Rajasinghe was unable to imagine it.
Rajasinghe knew that Morgan was linked with T.C.C.’s greatest triumph— the ultimate bridge. He had watched, with half the world, when the final section was lifted gently skyward by the Graf Zeppelin II—itself one of the marvels of the age. All the airship’s luxurious fittings had been removed to save weight; the famous swimming pool had been drained and the reactors were pumping their excess heat into the gasbags to give extra lift. It was the first time that a dead weight of more than 1000 tons had ever been hoisted three kilometers straight up into the sky, and everything—doubtless to the disappointment of millions—had gone without a hitch.
“My apologies, Ambassador,” said Morgan as he climbed out of the electro-trike. “I hope the delay hasn’t inconvenienced you.”
“Not at all; my time is my own. You’ve eaten, I hope?”
“Yes—when they canceled my Rome connection, at least they gave me an excellent lunch.”
“Probably better than you’d get at the Hotel Yakkagala. I’ve arranged a room for the night—it’s only a kilometer from here. I’m afraid we’ll have to postpone our discussion until breakfast.”
Morgan looked disappointed but gave a shrug of acquiescence. “Well, I’ve plenty of work to keep me busy. I assume that the hotel has full executive facilities—or at least a standard terminal.”
“I wouldn’t guarantee anything much more sophisticated than a telephone. But I have a better suggestion. In just over half an hour, I’m taking some friends to the Rock. There’s a son-et-lumiere performance that I strongly recommend, and you’re very welcome to join us.”
He could tell that Morgan was trying to think of a polite excuse.
‘That’s very kind of you, but I really must contact my office…
“You can use my console. I can promise you—you’ll find the show fascinating, and it lasts only an hour. Oh, I’d forgotten—you don’t want anyone to know you’re here. Well, I’ll introduce you as Dr. Smith from the University of Tasmania. I’m sure my friends won’t recognize you.”
Rajasinghe had no intention of offending his visitor, but there was no mistaking Morgan’s brief flash of irritation. The ex-diplomat’s instincts automatically came into play; he filed the reaction for future reference.
Interesting, he thought as he led his guest into the villa; but probably not important. Provisional hypothesis: Morgan was a frustrated, perhaps even a disappointed, man. It was hard to see why, since he was a leader of his profession. What more could he want?
There was one obvious answer; Rajasinghe knew the symptoms well, if only because in his case, the disease had long since burned itself out.
“Fame is the spur,” he recited in the silence of his thoughts. How did the rest of it go? “That last infirmity of noble mind. … To scorn delights, and live laborious days.”
Yes, that might explain the discontent his still-sensitive antennae had detected. And he suddenly recalled that the immense inverted rainbow linking Europe and Africa was almost invariably called the bridge . . . occasionally the Gibraltar Bridge … but never Morgan’s Bridge.
Well, Rajasinghe thought to himself, if you’re looking for fame, Dr. Morgan, you won’t find it here. Then why in the name of a thousand yakkas have you come to quiet little Taprobane?
The cunningly contrived historical pageant of light and sound still had power to move Rajasinghe, though he had seen it a dozen times and knew every trick of the programing.
The little amphitheater faced the western wall of Yakkagala, its 200 seats all carefully oriented so that each spectator looked up into the laser projectors at the correct angle. The performance always began at exactly the same time throughout the year—19:00 hours.
Already, it was so dark that the Rock was invisible, revealing its presence only as a huge, black shadow eclipsing the early stars. Then, out of that darkness, there came the slow beating of a muffled drum; and presently a calm, dispassionate voice:
“This is the story of a king who murdered his father and was killed by his brother. In the bloodstained history of mankind, that is nothing new. But this king left an abiding monument; and a legend that has endured for centuries…”
“His name was Kalidasa and he was born 100 years after Christ, in Ranapura, City of Gold—for centuries the capital of the Taprobanean kings. But there was a shadow across his birth….”
The music became louder, as flutes and strings joined the throbbing drum, to trace out a haunting, regal melody in the night air. A point of light began to burn on the face of the Rock; then, abruptly, it expanded—and suddenly it seemed that a magic window had opened into the past, to reveal a world more vivid and colorful than life itself.
The dramatization, thought Morgan, was excellent; he was glad that, for once, he had let courtesy override his impulse to work. He saw the joy of King Paravana when his favorite concubine presented him with his first-born son—and understood how that joy was both augmented and diminished when, only 24 hours later, the queen herself produced a better claimant to the throne. Though first in time, Kalidasa would not be first in precedence; and so the stage was set for tragedy.
“Yet in the early years of their boyhood, Kalidasa and his half brother Malgara were the closest of friends. They grew up together quite unconscious of their rival destinies and the intrigues that festered around them. The first cause of trouble had nothing to do with the accident of birth; it was only a well-intentioned, innocent gift…”
“To the court of King Paravana came envoys bearing tribute from many lands—silk from Cathay, gold from Hindustan, burnished armor from Imperial Rome. And one day a simple hunter from the jungle ventured into the great city, bearing a gift that he hoped would please the royal family—a tiny snow-white monkey.”
“According to the chronicles, nothing like it had ever been seen before; its hair was white as milk, its eyes pink as rubies. Some thought it a good omen—others an evil one, because white is the color of death and of mourning. And their fears, alas, were well founded…”
“Prince Kalidasa loved his little pet and called it Hanuman after the valiant monkey-god of the Ramayana. The kings jeweler constructed a small golden cart, in which Hanuman would sit solemnly while he was drawn through the court, to the delight of all who watched.”
“For his part, Hanuman loved Kalidasa and would allow no one else to handle him. He was especially jealous of Prince Malgara—almost as if he sensed the rivalry to come. And then, one unlucky day, he bit the heir to the throne…”
“The bite was trifling—its consequences, immense. A few days later, Hanuman was poisoned—doubtless by order of the queen. That was the end of Kalidasa’s childhood; thereafter, it is said, he never loved or trusted another human being. And his friendship toward Malgara turned to bitter enmity.”
“Nor was this the only trouble that stemmed from the death of one small monkey. By command of the king, a special tomb was built for Hanuman, in the shape of the traditional bell-shaped shrine or dagoba.
“Now, this was an extraordinary thing to do, for it aroused the instant hostility of the monks. Dagobas were reserved for relics of the Buddha, and this act appeared to be one of deliberate sacrilege.
“Indeed, that may well have been its intention, for King Paravana had now come under the sway of a Hindu swami and was turning against the Buddhist faith. Although Prince Kalidasa was too young to be involved in this conflict, much of the monks’ hatred was now directed against him. So began a feud that in the years to come was to tear the kingdom apart….
“Like many of the other tales recorded in the ancient chronicles of Taprobane, for almost 2000 years there was no proof that the story of Hanuman and young Prince Kalidasa was anything but a charming legend. Then, in 2015, a team of Harvard archaeologists discovered the 150 foundations of a small shrine in the grounds of the old Ranapura Palace. The shrine appeared to have been deliberately destroyed, for all the brickwork of the superstructure had vanished.
“The usual relic chamber set in the foundations was empty, obviously robbed of its contents centuries ago. But the students had tools of which the old-time treasure hunters never dreamed; their neutrino survey disclosed a second relic chamber, much deeper. The upper one was only a decoy, and it had served its purpose well. The lower chamber still held the burden of love and hate it had carried down the centuries—inside the little golden cart, which still looked as if it had come straight from the craftsman’s workshop, was a bundle of tiny bones.”
Morgan listened to the story with fascination. The years had passed and a complex family quarrel ensued. Then the crown prince Malgara and the queen mother fled to India, and Kalidasa killed his father and seized the throne.
So Kalidasa became the master of Taprobane, but at a price that few men would be willing to pay. For, as the chronicles recorded, always he lived “in fear of the next world and of his brother.” Sooner or later, Malgara would return to seek his rightful throne.
For a few years, like the long line of kings before him, Kalidasa held court in Ranapura. Then, for reasons of which history is silent, he abandoned the royal capital for the isolated rock monolith of Yakkagala, 40 kilometers away in the jungle.
There were some who argued that he sought an impregnable fortress, safe from the vengeance of his brother. Yet, in the end, he spurned its protection—and, if it was merely a citadel, why was Yakkagala surrounded by immense pleasure gardens whose construction must have demanded as much labor as the walls and moat themselves? Above all, why the frescoes?
As the narrator posed this question, the entire western face of the Rock materialized out of the darkness—not as it was now but as it must have been 2000 years ago. A band starting 100 meters from the ground, and running the full width of the Rock, had been smoothed and covered with plaster, upon which were portrayed scores of beautiful women—life-size, from the waist upward. Some were in profile, others full face, and all followed the same basic pattern.
Ocher-skinned, voluptuously bosomed, they were clad either in jewels alone or in the most transparent of upper garments. Some wore towering and elaborate headdresses—others, apparently, crowns. Many carried bowls of flowers or held single blossoms nipped delicately between thumb and forefinger. Though about half were darker-skinned than their companions and appeared to be handmaidens, they were no less elaborately coiffured and bejeweled.
“Once, there were more than two hundred figures. But the rains and winds of centuries have destroyed all except twenty, which were protected by an overhanging ledge of rock.
“No one knows who they were, what they represented and why they were created with such labor, in so inaccessible a spot. The favorite theory is that they were celestial beings and that all Kalidasa’s efforts here were devoted to creating a heaven on earth, with its attendant goddesses. Perhaps he believed himself a god-king, as the Pharaohs of Egypt had done; perhaps that is why he borrowed from them the image of the Sphinx, guarding the entrance to his palace.
“And here he lived, for almost twenty years, awaiting the doom that he knew would come. And at last Malgara came. From the summit of the Rock, Kalidasa saw the invaders marching from the north. Perhaps he believed himself impregnable; but he did not test it.
“For he left the safety of his great fortress and rode out to meet his brother in the neutral ground between the two armies. One would give much to know what words they spoke, at that last encounter. Some say they embraced before they parted; it may be true.”
“Then the armies met, like the waves of the sea. Kalidasa was fighting on his own territory, with men who knew the land, and at first it seemed certain that victory would go to him. But then occurred another of those accidents that determine the fate of nations.”
“Kalidasa’s great war elephant, caparisoned with the royal banners, turned aside to avoid a patch of marshy ground. The defenders thought that the king was retreating. Their morale broke; they scattered, as the chronicles record, like chaff from the winnowing fan.”
“Kalidasa was found on the battlefield, dead by his own hand. Malgara became king. And Yakkagala was abandoned to the jungle, not to be discovered again for seventeen hundred years.”
THROUGH THE TELESCOPE
“My secret vice,” Rajasinghe called it, with wry amusement but also with regret. It had been years since he had climbed to the summit of Yakkagala, and though he could fly there whenever he wished, that did not give the same feeling of achievement. To do it the easy way bypassed the most fascinating architectural details of the ascent; no one could hope to understand the mind of Kalidasa without following his footsteps all the way from pleasure gardens to aerial palace.
But there was a substitute that could give an aging man considerable satisfaction. Years ago, he had acquired a compact and powerful 20-centimeter telescope; through it he could roam the entire western wall of the Rock, retracing the path he had followed to the summit so many times in the past.
Rajasinghe seldom used the telescope in the morning, because the sun was then on the far side of Yakkagala and little could be seen on the shadowed western face.
Yet now, as he glanced out the wide picture window that gave him an almost complete view of Yakkagala, he was surprised to see a tiny figure moving along the crest of the Rock, partly silhouetted against the sky. Visitors never climbed to the top so soon after dawn—the guard wouldn’t even unlock the elevator to the frescoes for another hour. Rajasinghe wondered who the early bird could be.
He rolled out of bed and swung the stubby barrel toward the Rock.
“I might have guessed it!” he told himself, with considerable pleasure, as he switched to high power. So last night’s show had impressed Morgan, as well it should have done. The engineer was seeing for himself, in the short time available, how Kalidasa’s architects had met the challenge imposed upon them.
Then Rajasinghe noticed something quite alarming. Morgan was walking briskly around the very edge of the sheer cliff, not centimeters away from the sheer drop that few tourists ever dared approach. Not many had the courage even to sit in the Elephant Throne, with their feet dangling over the abyss; but now the engineer was actually kneeling beside it, holding on to the carved stonework with one casual arm—and leaning right out into nothingness as lie surveyed the rock face below. Rajasinghe, who had never been very happy even with such familiar heights as Yakkagala’s, decided that Morgan must be one of those rare people who are completely unaffected by heights.
Now what was he doing? He was on his knees at the side of the Elephant Throne and was holding a small rectangular box. Rajasinghe could catch only glimpses of it, and the manner in which the engineer was using it made no sense at all. Was he planning to build something there? Not that it would be allowed, of course, and Rajasinghe could imagine no conceivable attractions for such a site.
And then Rajasinghe, who had always prided himself on his self-control, even in the most dramatic and unexpected situations, gave an involuntary cry of horror. Vannevar Morgan had stepped casually backward off the face of the cliff, out into empty space.
THE GOD-KING’S PALACE
Vannevar Morgan had not slept well, and that was most unusual. He had always taken pride in his sell awareness and his insight into his own drives and emotions. If he could not sleep, he wanted to know why.
Until yesterday, he had never heard of Yakkagala; indeed, until a few weeks ago, he was only vaguely aware of Taprobane itself, until the logic of his quest directed him inexorably toward the island. By now, he should already have left; whereas, in fact, his mission had not yet begun. He did not mind the slight disruption of his schedule; what did perturb him was the feeling that he was being moved by forces lbeyond his understanding.
If he succeeded in the task that confronted him, he would be famous for centuries to come. Already, his mind, strength and will were being taxed to the utmost; he had no time for idle distractions. Yet he had become fascinated by the achievements of an engineer-architect 2000 years dead, belonging to a totally alien culture. And there was the mystery of Kalidasa himself; what was his purpose in building Yakkagala? The king might have been a monster, but there was something about his character that struck a chord in the secret places of Morgan’s own heart.
Sunrise would be in 30 minutes; it was still two hours before his breakfast with Ambassador Rajasinghe. That would be long enough—and he might have no other opportunity.
He had already closed the door of his room when he had a sudden afterthought. For a moment, he stood hesitantly in the corridor; then he smiled and shrugged his shoulders. It wouldn’t do any harm, and one never knew.
Once more back in his room, Morgan unlocked his suitcase and took out a small flat box, about the size and shape of a pocket calculator. He checked the battery charge, tested the manual override, then dipped it to the steel buckle of his strong leather waist belt. Now he was, indeed, ready to enter Kalidasa’s haunted kingdom, and to face whatever demons it held.
The fountains along the axis of the gardens rose and fell together with a languid rhythm, as if they were breathing slowly in unison. There was not another human being in sight; he had the whole expanse of Yakkagala to himself.
Morgan walked past the line of fountains, feeling their spray against his skin, and stopped once to admire the beautifully carved stone guttering—obviously original—that carried the overflow. He wondered how the old-time hydraulic engineers lifted the water to drive the fountains, and what pressure differences they could handle; these soaring, vertical jets must have been truly astonishing to those who first witnessed them.
The sun rose, pouring welcome warmth upon his back as Morgan passed through the gap in the massive ramparts that formed the outer defenses of the fortress. Before him, spanned by a narrow stone bridge, were the still waters of the great moat, stretching in a perfectly straight line for half a kilometer on either side. A small flotilla of swans sailed hopefully toward him through the lilies, then dispersed with ruffled leathers when it was clear that he had no food to offer. On the far side of the bridge, he came to a second, smaller wall and climbed the narrow flight of stairs cut through it; and there before him loomed the sheer face of the Rock.
And now ahead was a steep flight of granite steps, their treads so uncomfortably narrow that they could barely accommodate Morgan’s boots. Did the people who built this extraordinary place have such tiny feet? he wondered. Or was it a clever ruse of the architect, to discourage unfriendly visitors?
A small platform, then another identical flight of steps, and Morgan found himself on a long, slowly ascending gallery cut into the lower flanks of the Rock. He was now more than 50 meters above the surrounding plain, but the view was completely blocked by a high wall coaled with smooth yellow plaster. The Rock above him overhung so much that he might almost have been walking along a tunnel, for only a narrow band of sky was visible overhead.
Halfway along the stone gallery, Morgan came to the now locked door of the little elevator leading to the famous frescoes, 20 meters directly above. He craned his neck to see them, hut they were obscured by the platform of the visitors’ viewing cage, clinging like a metal bird’s nest to the outward-leaning face of the Rock. Some tourists, Rajasinghe had told him, took one look at the dizzy location of the frescoes and decided to satisfy themselves with photographs.
Now Morgan could understand one of the chief mysteries of Yakkagala. It was not how the frescoes were painted—a scaffolding of bamboo could have taken care of that problem—but why. Once they were completed, no one could ever have seen them properly; from the gallery immediately beneath, they were hopelessly foreshortened—and from the base of the Rock, they would have been no more than tiny, unrecognizable patches of color. Perhaps, as some had suggested, they were of purely religious or magical significance—like those Stone Age paintings found in the depths of almost inaccessible caves.
The high, yellow-plastered wall gave way to a low parapet, and Morgan could once more see the surrounding countryside. There below him lay the whole expanse of the pleasure gardens and, for the first time, he could appreciate not only their huge scale (was Versailles larger?) but also their skillful planning and the way in which tire moat and outer ramparts protected them from the forest beyond.
No one knew what trees and shrubs and flowers had grown here in Kalidasa’s day, but the pattern of artificial lakes, canals, pathways and fountains was still exactly as he had left it. As he looked down on those dancing jets of water, Morgan suddenly remembered a quotation from the previous night’s commentary:
From Taprobane to paradise is 40 leagues; there may be heard the sound of the fountains of paradise.
He savored the phrase in his mind: the fountains of paradise. Was Kalidasa trying to create, here on Earth, a garden fit for the gods, in order to establish his claim to divinity? If so, it was no wonder that the priests had placed a curse upon all his work.
At last, the long gallery, which had skirted the entire western face of the Rock, ended in another steeply rising stairway—though this time, the steps were much more generous in size. But the palace was still far above, for the stairs ended on a large plateau, obviously artificial. Here was all that was left of the gigantic, leonine monster that had once dominated the landscape and struck terror into the heart of everyone who looked upon it. For springing from the face of the Rock were the paws of a gigantic, crouching beast; the claws alone were half the height of a man.
Nothing else remained, save yet another granite stairway rising up through the piles of rubble that must once have formed the head of the creature. Even in ruin, the concept was awe-inspiring. Anyone who dared approach the king’s ultimate stronghold had first to walk through gaping jaws.
The final ascent up the sheer—indeed, slightly overhanging—face of the cliff was by a series of iron ladders, with guardrails to reassure nervous climbers. But the real danger here, Morgan had been warned, was not vertigo. Swarms of normally placid hornets occupied small caves in the Rock, and visitors who made too much noise had sometimes disturbed them, with fatal results.
Abruptly, the climb was over, Morgan found himself standing on a small island floating 200 meters above a landscape of trees and fields that was fiat in all directions except southward, where the central mountains broke up the horizon. He was completely isolated from the rest of the world, yet felt master of all he surveyed; not since he had stood among the clouds, straddling Europe and Africa, had he known such a moment of aerial ecstasy. This was, indeed, the residence of a god-king, and the ruins of his palace were all around.
Almost forgetting time, Morgan roamed among the foundations of the palace that had once crowned the Rock. He tried to enter the mind of the architect, from what he could see of his surviving handiwork; why was there a pathway here? Did this truncated flight of steps lead to an upper floor? If this coffin-shaped recess in the stone was a bath, how was the water supplied and how did it drain away?
He had virtually completed his exploration of the ruins—though one could, of course, spend a lifetime investigating them in detail. He was happy to rest for a while, on a beautifully carved granite bench at the edge of the 200-meter drop, overlooking the entire southern sky.
Morgan let his eyes scan the distant line of mountains, still partly concealed by a blue haze that the morning sun had not yet dispersed. As he examined it idly, he suddenly realized that what he had assumed to be a part of the cloudscape was nothing of the sort. That misty tone was no ephemeral construct of wind and vapor; there was no mistaking its perfect symmetry, as it towered above its lesser brethren.
For a moment, the shock of recognition emptied his mind of everything except wonder—and an almost superstitious awe. He had not realized that one could see the Sri Kanda, the sacred mountain, so clearly from Yakkagala. But there it was, emerging from the shadow of night, preparing to face a new day; and, if he succeeded, a new future.
He knew all its dimensions, all its geology; he had mapped it through stereo photographs and had scanned it from satellites. But to see it for the first time, with his own eyes, made it suddenly real; until now, everything had been theory. And sometimes not even that; more than once, in the small gray hours before dawn, Morgan had awaken from nightmares in which his whole project had appeared as some preposterous fantasy, which, far from bringing him fame, would make him the laughingstock of the world. Morgan’s Folly, some of his peers had dubbed the bridge; what would they call his latest dream?
“You nearly gave me a heart attack,’* said Rajasinghe accusingly, as he poured the morning coffee. “At first, I thought you had some antigravity device—but even I know that’s impossible. How did you do it?”
“My apologies,” Morgan answered with a smile. “If I’d known you were watching. I’d have warned you—though the whole exercise was entirely unplanned. I’d merely intended to take a scramble over the Rock, but then I got intrigued by that stone bench. I wondered why it was on the very edge of the cliff and started to explore.”
“There’s no mystery about it. At one time, there was a floor—probably wood—extending outward, and steps leading down to the frescoes from the summit. You can still see the grooves where it was keyed into the rock face.”
“So I discovered,” said Morgan a little ruefully. “I might have guessed that someone would have found that out already.”
Morgan had now produced the metal box that had allowed him to perform his miracle. Its only features were a few press buttons and a small readout panel; it looked for all the world like some form of simple communications device.
“This is it,” he said proudly. “Since you saw me make a hundred-meter vertical walk, you must have a very good idea how it operates.”
“Common sense gave me one answer, but even my excellent telescope didn’t confirm it. I could have sworn there was absolutely nothing supporting you.”
“That wasn’t the demonstration I’d intended, but it must have been effective. Now for my usual sales pitch—please hook your finger through this ring.”
Rajasinghe hesitated; Morgan was holding the small metal torus—about twice the size of an ordinary wedding ring—almost as if it were electrified.
“Will it give me a shock?“ he asked.
“Not a shock—but perhaps a surprise.
“Try to pull it away from me.“
Rather gingerly, Rajasinghe took hold of the ring—then almost dropped it. For it seemed alive; it was straining toward Morgan—or, rather, toward the box that the engineer was holding in his hand. Then the box gave a slight whirring noise and Rajasinghe felt his finger being dragged forward by some mysterious force. Magnetism? he asked himself. Of course not; no magnets could behave in this fashion. His tentative but improbable theory was correct: indeed, there was really no alternative explanation. They were engaged in a perfectly straightforward tug of war— but with an invisible rope.
Although Rajasinghe strained his eyes, he could see no trace of any thread or wire connecting the ring through which his finger was hooked and the box that Morgan was operating like a fisherman reeling in his catch. He reached out his free hand to explore the apparently empty space, but the engineer quickly knocked it away.
“Sorry!” he said. “Everyone tries that, when they realize what’s happening. You could cut yourself very badly.”
“So you do have an invisible wire. Clever—but what use is it, except for parlor tricks?”
Morgan gave a broad smile. “I can’t blame you for jumping to that conclusion; it’s the usual reaction. But it’s quite wrong; the reason you can’t see this sample is that it’s only a few microns thick. Much thinner than a spider’s web.”
“That’s—incredible. What is it?”
“The result of about two hundred years of solid-state physics. For whatever good that does, it’s a continuous pseudo-one-dimensional diamond crystal—though it’s not actually pure carbon. There are several trace elements, in carefully controlled amounts. It can be mass-produced only in the orbiting factories, where there’s no gravity to interfere with the growth process.” “Fascinating,” whispered Rajasinghe, almost to himself. He gave little tugs on the ring hooked around his finger, to test that the tension was still there and that he was not hallucinating. “I can appreciate that this may have all sorts of technical applications. It would make a splendid cheese cutter ”
Morgan laughed. “One man can bring a tree down with it, in a couple of minutes. But it’s tricky to handle—even dangerous. We’ve had to design special dispensers to spool and unspool it—we call them spinnerettes.”
Almost reluctantly, Rajasinghe unhooked his finger from the ring. It started to fall, then began to pendulum back and forth without visible means of support, until Morgan pressed a button and the spinnerette reeled it in with a gentle whir.
“You haven’t come all this way, Dr. Morgan, just to impress me with this latest marvel of science—though I am impressed. I want to know what all this has to do with me.”
“A very great deal, Mr. Ambassador,” answered the engineer, suddenly equally serious and formal. “You are quite correct in thinking that this material will have many applications, some of which we are only now beginning to foresee.
“And one of them, for better or for worse, is going to make your quiet little island the center of the world. Not merely the world. The whole Solar System.
“Thanks to this filament, Taprobane will be the steppingstone to all the planets. And one day, perhaps—the stars.”
THE ULTIMATE BRIDGE
Professor Paul Sarath and Maxine Duval were two of his best and oldest friends, yet until this moment, they had never met nor, as far as Rajasinghe knew, even communicated. There was little reason why they should; no one outside Taprobane had ever heard of Professor Sarath, but the whole Solar System would instantly recognize Maxine Duval, either by sight or by sound.
His two guests were reclining in the library’s comfortable lounge chairs, while Rajasinghe sat at the main console. They were all staring at the fourth figure, who was standing motionless.
Too motionless. A visitor from the past, knowing nothing of the everyday electronic miracles of this age, might have decided after a few seconds that he was looking at a superbly detailed wax dummy. However, more careful examination would have revealed two disconcerting facts. The “dummy” was transparent enough for highlights to be clearly visible through it; and its feet blurred out of focus a few centimeters above the carpet.
“Do you recognize this man?” Rajasinghe asked.
“I’ve never seen him in my life,” Sarath replied instantly. “He’d better be important, for you to have dragged me back from Maharamba. We were just about to open the Relic Chamber.”
“I had to leave my trimaran at the beginning of the Lake Saladin races,” said Maxine, her famous contralto voice containing just enough annoyance to put anyone less thick-skinned than Sarath neatly in his place. “And I know him, of course. Does he want to build a bridge from Taprobane to Hindustan?”
Rajasinghe laughed. “Is Dr. Morgan a friend?”
“I’ve met him—oh, three or four times. We did a special interview when the bridge was completed. He’s a very impressive character.”
Coming from Maxine Duval, thought Rajasinghe, that was tribute, indeed. For more than 30 years, she had been perhaps the most respected member of her exacting profession and had won every honor that it could offer. The Pulitzer Prize, the Global Times Trophy, the David Frost Award—these were merely the tip of the iceberg. And she had only recently returned to active work alter two years as Walter Cronkite Professor of Electronic Journalism at Columbia.
All this had mellowed her, though it had not slowed her down. She was no longer the sometimes fiery chauvinist who had once remarked: “Since women are better at producing babies, presumably nature has given men some talent to compensate. But for the moment, I can’t think of it.”
Of her femininity, there had never been any doubt; she had been married four times and her choice of REMs was famous. Whatever their sex. Remotes were always young and athletic, so that they could move swiftly despite the encumbrance of up to 20 kilos of communications gear. Maxine Duval’s were invariably very male and very handsome; it was an old joke in the trade that all her REMs were also RAMs. The jest was completely without rancor, for even her fiercest professional rivals liked Maxine almost as much as they envied her.
Rajasinghe released the pause button on the projector and the frozen statue came instantly to life.
“My name is Vannevar Morgan. I am chief engineer of Terran Construction’s Land Division. My last project was the Gibraltar Bridge. Now I want to talk about something more ambitious.”
Rajasinghe glanced round the room. Morgan had hooked them, just as he had expected.
He leaned hack in his chair and waited for the now familiar, yet still almost unbelievable, prospectus to unfold.
“The Space Age is almost two hundred years old. For more than half that time, our civilization has been utterly dependent upon the host of satellites that now orbit Earth.
“Global communications, weather forecasting and control, land and ocean resources banks, postal and information services—if anything happened to their space-borne systems, we would sink back into a dark age and most of the human race would be dead within a week.
“And looking beyond the Earth, now that we have self-sustaining colonies on Mars, Mercury and the Moon, and are mining the incalculable wealth of the asteroids, we see the beginnings of true interplanetary commerce. Though it took a little longer than the optimists predicted, it is now obvious that the conquest of the air was, indeed, a modest prelude to the conquest of space….
“But now we are faced with a fundamental problem—an obstacle that stands in the way of all future progress. Although generations of research have made the rocket the most reliable form of propulsion ever invented ”
(“Has he considered bicycles?” muttered Sarath.)
“Space vehicles are still grossly inefficient. Even worse, their effect on the environment is appalling. Despite all attempts to control approach corridors, the noise of take-off and re-entry disturbs millions of people.
“Yet if we project traffic growth to the end of the century, we find that Earth- to-orbit tonnage must be increased almost fifty percent. This cannot be achieved without intolerable costs to our way of life.
“What is the alternative? For centuries, men have dreamed of antigravity or of ‘space drives’ No one has ever found the slightest hint that such things are possible; today we believe that they are only fantasy.
“And yet, in the very decade that the first satellite was launched, one daring Russian engineer conceived a system that would make the rocket obsolete. It was years before anyone took Yuri Artsutanov seriously. It has taken two centuries for our technology to match his vision.
“Go out of doors any clear night and you will see that commonplace wonder of our age—the stars that never rise nor set but are fixed motionless in the sky. We—and our parents, and their parents—have long taken for granted the synchronous satellites and space stations, which move above the equator at the same speed as the turning Earth, and so hang forever above the same spot.
“The question Artsutanov asked himself had the childlike brilliance of true genius. A merely clever man could never have thought of it—or would have dismissed it instantly as absurd… .
(If the laws of celestial mechanics make it possible for an object to stay fixed in the sky, might it not be possible to lower a cable down to the surface— and so to establish an elevator system linking Earth to space}
“There was nothing wrong with the theory, but the practical problems were enormous. Calculations showed that no existing materials would be strong enough; the finest steel would snap under its own weight long before it could span the thirty-six thousand kilometers between Earth and synchronous orbit.
“However, even the best steels were nowhere near the theoretical limits of strength. On a microscopic scale, materials had been created in the laboratory with far greater breaking strength. If they could be mass-produced, Artsutanov’s dream could become reality… and the economics of space transportation would be utterly transformed.
“Before the end of the Twentieth Century, superstrength materials—hyperfilaments—had begun to emerge from the laboratory. But they were extremely expensive, costing many times their weight in gold. Millions of tons would be needed to build a system that could carry all Earth’s outbound traffic; so the dream remained a dream.
“Until a few months ago. Now the deep-space factories can manufacture virtually unlimited quantities of hyperfilament. At last we can build the Space Elevator—or the Orbital Tower, as I prefer to call it. For, in a sense, it is a tower, rising clear through the atmosphere and far, far beyond…”
Morgan faded out, like a ghost that had been suddenly exorcised. He was replaced by a football-sized Earth, slowly revolving. Moving an arm’s breadth above it, and keeping always poised above the same spot on the equator, a flashing star marked the location of a synchronous satellite.
From the star, two thin lines of light started to extend—one directly down toward the Earth, the other in exactly the opposite direction, out into space….
“When you build a bridge,” continued Morgan’s disembodied voice, “you start from the two ends and meet at the middle. With the Orbital Tower, it’s the other way around. You have to build upward and downward simultaneously from the synchronous satellite, according to a careful program—so the whole structure is always balanced in orbit.
“The total height must be at least forty thousand kilometers—but the lowest hundred, going down through the atmosphere, may be the most critical part, for then the tower may be subject to hurricanes. It won’t be stable until it’s securely anchored to the ground. “And then, for the first time in history, we will have a stairway to heaven—a bridge to the stars. A simple elevator system, driven by cheap electricity, will replace the noisy and expensive rocket, This is one possible design.”
The image of the turning Earth vanished as the camera swooped toward the tower and passed through the walls to reveal the structure’s cross section.
“You’ll see that it consists of four identical tubes,” continued Morgan’s voice, “two for up traffic, two for down, so that all services are duplicated. Think of it as a four-track vertical subway, from Earth to synchronous orbit—and beyond.
“And there’s virtually no limit to the traffic it could handle, for additional tubes could be added as desired. If the time ever comes when a million people a day wish to visit Earth—or to leave it—the Orbital Tower could cope with them. Alter all, the subways of our great cities once did as much ”
Rajasinghe touched a button, silencing Morgan in mid-sentence. “The rest is rather technical—he goes on to explain how the tower can act as a cosmic sling and send pay loads whipping off to the Moon and planets without the use of any rocket power at all. But I think you’ve seen enough to get the idea.”
“My mind is suitably boggled,” said Professor Sarath. “But what on Earth—or off it—has all this to do with me? Or with you, for that matter?”
“Everything, in due time, Paul. Any comments, Maxine?”
“Perhaps I may yet forgive you, this could be one of the stories of the decade—or the century. But why the hurry—not to mention the secrecy?”
“There’s a lot going on that I don’t understand, which is where you can help me. I suspect that Morgan’s fighting a battle on several fronts; he’s planning an announcement in the very near future but doesn’t want to act until he’s quite sure of his ground. He gave me that presentation in the understanding that it wouldn’t be sent over public circuits. That’s why I had to ask you here.” “Does he know about this meeting?” “Of course; indeed, he was quite happy when I said I wanted to talk to you, Maxine. Obviously, he trusts you and would like you as an ally. And as for you, Paul, I assured him that you could keep a secret for up to six days without apoplexy.”
“Only if there’s a very good reason for it.”
“I begin to see light,” said Maxine Duval. “Several things have been puzzling me, and now they’re starting to make sense. First of all, this is a space project; Morgan is chief engineer, land “So?”
”You should ask, Johan! Think of the bureaucratic infighting, when the rocket designers and the aerospace industry get to hear about this! Trillion-dollar empires will be at stake, just to start with. If he’s not very careful, Morgan will be told, ’Thank you very much—now we’ll take over. Nice knowing you.”
“I can appreciate that, but he has a very good case. After all, the Orbital Tower is a building—not a vehicle.” “Not when the lawyers get hold of it, it won’t be. There aren’t many buildings whose upper floors are moving at three kilometers a second, or whatever it is, faster than the basement.”
“You may have a point. Incidentally, when I showed signs of vertigo at the idea of a tower going a good part of the way to the Moon, Dr. Morgan said, ‘Then don’t think of it as a tower going up—think of it as a bridge going out.’ I’m still trying, without much success.
“Morgan’s come up against an obstacle he doesn’t know how to handle. He discovered it only a few days ago, and it’s stopped him dead in his tracks.”
“Let me go on guessing,” said Maxine. “It’s good practice—helps me keep ahead of the pack. I can see why he’s here. The Earth end of the system has to be on the equator; otherwise, it can’t be vertical. It would be like that tower they used to have in Pisa, before it fell over.” “I don’t see . . said Professor Sarath, waving his arms vaguely up and down. “Oh, of course. . . .” His voice trailed away into a thoughtful silence.
“Now,” continued Maxine, “there are only a limited number of possible sites in the equator-—it’s mostly ocean, isn’t it?—and Taprobane’s obviously one of them. Though I don’t see what particular advantages it has over Africa or South America. Or is Morgan covering all his bets?”
“As usual, my dear Maxine, your powers of deduction are phenomenal. Though Morgan’s done his best to explain the problem to me, I don’t pretend to understand the scientific details.
“Anyway, it turns out that Africa and South America are not suitable for the Space Elevator. It’s something to do with unstable points in the Earth’s gravitational field. Only Taprobane will do— worse still, only one spot in Taprobane. And that, Paul, is where you come into the picture.”
“Matnada?” yelped Professor Sarath, indignantly reverting to Taprobani in his surprise.
“Yes, you. To his great annoyance, Dr. Morgan has just discovered that the one site he must have is already occupied—to put it mildly. He wants my advice on dislodging your friend Buddy.” Now it was Maxine’s turn to be baffled. “Who?” she queried. Sarath answered at once.
“The Venerable Anandatissa Bodliidharnia Mahanayake Thero, incumbent of the Sri Kanda temple,” he intoned, almost as if chanting a litany. “So that’s what it’s all about.”
There was silence for a moment; then a look of pure mischievous delight appeared on the face of Paul Sarath, emeritus professor of archeology of the University of Taprobane.
“I’ve always wanted,” he said dreamily, “to know exactly what would happen when an irresistible force met an immovable object.”
SHADOW AT DAWN
Morgan had left his hotel in Ranapura at four a.m. on a clear, moonless night. He was not too happy about the choice of time, but Professor Sarath, who had made all the arrangements, had promised him that it would be well worth while. “You won’t understand anything about Sri Kanda,” he had said, “unless you have watched the dawn from the summit.”
Sri Kanda itself was still completely invisible in a darkness that as yet bore no hint of the approaching dawn. Its presence was revealed by a thin ribbon of light, zigzagging back and forth under the stars, hanging as if by magic in the sky. Morgan knew that he was merely seeing the lamps set 200 years ago to guide pilgrims as they ascended the longest stairway in the world, but in its defiance of logic and gravity, it appeared almost a prevision of his own dream. Ages before he was born, inspired by philosophies he could barely imagine, men had begun the work he hoped to finish. They had, quite literally, built the first crude steps on a road to the stars.
No longer feeling drowsy, Morgan watched as the hand of light grew closer and resolved itself into a necklace of innumerable twinkling beads. Now the mountain was becoming visible, as a black triangle eclipsing half the sky. There was something sinister about its silent, brooding presence; Morgan could almost imagine that it was, indeed, the abode of gods who knew of his mission and were gathering their strength against him.
These ominous thoughts were entirely forgotten when they arrived at the cable- car terminus and Morgan discovered to his surprise—it was still only five a.m.— that at least 100 people were milling around in the little waiting room. He purchased his ticket, did a quick calculation and estimated that he would be in the third or fourth load of passengers. He was glad that he had taken Sarath’s advice and slipped a thermocloak into his pocket; at a mere two-kilometer altitude, it was already quite cold. At the summit, three kilometers higher still, it must be freezing.
At last, Morgan got a seat in the car, and with a considerable creaking of cables, they were on their way. Once again, he felt that eerie sense of anticipation. The elevator he was planning would hoist loads more than 10,000 times as high, as this primitive system, which probably dated right back to the 20th Century. And yet, when all was said and done, its basic principles were very much the same.
Outside the swaying car was total darkness, except when a section of the illuminated stairway came into view. It was completely deserted, as if the countless millions who had toiled up the mountain during the past 3000 years had left no successor. But then Morgan realized that those making the ascent on foot would already be far above on their appointment with the dawn; they would have left the lower slopes of the mountain hours ago.
As they began the final ascent, there came the first intimation of the approaching day. The eastern stars still shone with undiminished glory—-Venus most brilliantly of all—but a few thin, high clouds began to glow faintly with the coming dawn. Morgan looked anxiously at his watch and wondered if he would be in time. He was relieved to see that daybreak was still 30 minutes away.
One of the passengers suddenly pointed to the immense stairway, sections of which were occasionally visible beneath them as it zigzagged back and forth up the mountain’s now rapidly steepening slopes. It was no longer deserted; moving with dreamlike slowness, dozens of men and women were toiling painfully up the endless steps. Every minute, more and more came into view; how long, Morgan wondered, had they been climbing?
A moment later, he saw the first monk—a tall, saliron-robed figure moving with a gait of metronomelike regularity, looking neither to the right nor to the left, and completely ignoring the car floating above his head. He also appeared capable of ignoring the elements, for his right arm and shoulder were bare to the freezing wind.
The cable car was slowing down as it approached the terminus; presently, it made a brief halt, disgorged its numbed passengers and set off again on its long descent. Morgan joined the crowd of 200 or 300 people huddling in a small amphitheater cut in the western face of the mountain. They were all staring out into the darkness, though there was nothing to see but the ribbon of light winding down into the abyss.
Morgan looked again at his watch; ten minutes to go. He had never been among so many silent people; camera-toting tourists and devout pilgrims were united now in the same hope. The weather was perfect; soon they would know if they had made this journey in vain.
There came a delicate tinkling of bells from the temple, still invisible in the darkness 100 meters above their heads; and at the same instant, all the lights along that unbelievable stairway were extinguished.
Now they could see, both to the north and to the south, that the first faint gleam of day lay on the clouds far below; but directly to the west, the dawn was still held hack by the immense bulk of the mountain.
Second by second, the light was growing on either side of Sri Kanda, as the sun outflanked the last strongholds of the night. Then there came a low murmur of awe from the patiently waiting crowd.
One moment there was nothing. Then it was there, stretching half the width of Taprobane—a perfectly symmetrical, sharp-edged triangle of deepest blue. The mountain had not forgotten its worshipers; there lay its famous shadow across the sea of clouds, a symbol for each pilgrim to interpret as he pleased.
It seemed almost solid in its rectilinear perfection, like some overturned pyramid rather than a mere phantom of light and shade. As the brightness grew around it. and the first direct rays of the sun struck past the flanks of the mountain, it appeared by contrast to grow even darker and denser: yet through the thin veil of clouds responsible for its brief existence, Morgan could dimly discern the lakes and hills and forests of the awakening land.
The apex of that misty triangle must be racing toward him at enormous speed, as the sun rose vertically behind the mountain, yet Morgan was conscious of no movement. Time seemed to have been suspended; this was one of the rare moments of his life when he gave no thought to the passing minutes. The shadow of eternity lay upon his soul, as did that of the mountain upon the clouds.
Now it was fading swiftly, the darkness draining from the sky like a stain dispersing in water. The ghostly, glimmering landscape below was hardening into reality; hallway to the horizon, there was an explosion of light as the sun’s rays struck upon some building’s eastern windows. And even beyond that—unless his eyes had tricked him—Morgan could make out the faint, dark hand of the encircling sea.
Another day had come to Taprobane.
Morgan continued upward, followed by many curious glances, along the short flight of steps that led to the monastery and to the very summit of the mountain. By the time he had reached the smoothly plastered outer wall – now beginning to glow softly in the first direct rays of the sun—he was very short of breath and was glad to lean for a moment against the massive wooden door.
Someone must have been watching; before he could find a bell push or signal his presence in any way, the door swung silently open and he was welcomed by a yellow-robed monk, who saluted him with clasped hands.
”Ayu bowan. Dr. Morgan. The Mahanayake Thero will he glad to see you.”
As the massive door, carved with intricate lotus patterns, clicked softly shut behind him, Morgan felt that he had entered another world. This was by no means the first time he had been on ground once sacred to some great religion; he had seen Notre Dame, Saint Sophia, Stonehenge, the Parthenon, Karnak, Saint Paul’s, and at least a dozen other major temples and mosques. But he had viewed them all as frozen relics of the past—splendid examples of art or engineering, but with no relevance to the modern mind. The faiths that had created and sustained them had all passed into oblivion, though some had survived until well into the 22nd Century.
But here, it seemed, time had stood still. The hurricanes of history had blown past this lonely citadel of faith, leaving it unshaken. As they had done for 3000 years, the monks still prayed, and meditated, and watched the dawn.
During his walk across the worn flagstones of the courtyard, polished smooth by the feet of innumerable pilgrims, Morgan experienced a sudden and wholly uncharacteristic indecision. In the name of progress, he was attempting to destroy something ancient and noble, something that he would never fully understand.
They were walking past a huge boulder, up which a short flight of steps led to a gilded pavilion. This, Morgan realized, was the summit of the mountain.
He was led along a short cloister that ended at an open door. The monk knocked but did not wait for any response as he waved the visitor to enter.
Morgan had half expected to find the Mahanayake Thero sitting cross-legged on a mat, probably surrounded by incense and chanting acolytes. There was. indeed, just a hint of incense in the chill air, hut the Chief Incumbent of the Sri Kanda vihara sat behind a perfectly ordinary office desk, equipped with standard display and memory units. The only unusual item in the room was the large head of the Buddha on a plinth in one corner. Morgan could not tell whether it was real or merely a projection.
Despite his conventional setting, there was little likelihood that the head of the monastery would be mistaken for any other type of executive. Quite apart from the inevitable yellow robe, the Mahanayake Thero had two other characteristics that, in this age, were very rare, indeed. He was completely bald: and he was wearing spectacles.
Both, Morgan assumed, were by deliberate choice. Since baldness could be so easily cured, that shining ivory dome must have been shaved or depilated. And he could not remember when he had last seen spectacles, except in historical recordings or dramas.
The combination was fascinating, and disconcerting. Morgan found it virtually impossible to guess the Mahanavake Thero’s age; it could be anything from a mature 40 to a well preserved 80. And those lenses, transparent though they were, somehow concealed the thoughts and emotions behind them.
“Ayu bowun, Dr. Morgan,’ said the prelate, gesturing his visitor to the only empty chair. “This is my secretary, the Venerable Parakarnia. I trust you won’t mind if he makes notes.”
“Of course not,” said Morgan, inclining his head toward the remaining occupant of the small room. He noticed that the younger monk had flowing hair and an impressive beard: presumably, shaven pates were optional.
“So, Dr. Morgan,” the Mahanayake Thero said, “you want our mountain.” ‘I’m afraid so, your—er—Reverence. Part of it, at any rate.”
“Out of all the world—these few hectares?”
“The choice is not ours, but nature’s. The Earth terminus has to be on the minor elliptical axis of the equator, and at the greatest possible altitude, to minimize wind forces.”
“There are higher equatorial mountains in Africa and South America.”
Here we go again. Morgan groaned silently. Bitter experience had shown him that it was almost impossible to make laymen, however intelligent and interested, appreciate this problem, and he anticipated even less success with these monks. If only the Earth were a nice, symmetrical body, with no dents and bumps in its gravitational field. . ..
“Believe me,” he said fervently, “we’ve looked at all the alternatives. Cotopaxi and Mount Kenya—and even Kilimanjaro, though that’s three degrees south— would he fine except for one fatal flaw. When a satellite is established in the stationary orbit, it won’t stay exactly over the same spot. Because of gravitational irregularities, which I won’t go into, it will slowly drift along the equator. So all our synchronous satellites and space stations have to burn propellant to keep them on station; luckily, the amount involved is quite small.
“But you can’t keep nudging millions of tons—especially when it’s in the form of slender rod tens of thousands of kilometers long—hack into position. And there’s no need to. Fortunately for us ”
Not for us,” interjected the Mahanayake Thero, almost throwing Morgan off his stride.
“There are two stable points on the synchronous orbit. A satellite placed at them will stay there—it won’t drift away. Asymmetries in the gravitational field and the effects of the sun and moon will cause minor wandering, but this is easily corrected. The satellite will be as stable as if it were stuck at the bottom of an invisible valley… .
“One of those points is out: over the Pacific, so it’s no use to us. The other is directly above our heads.”
“Surely, a few kilometers would make no difference. There are other mountains in Taprobane.”
“None more than half the height of Sri Kanda—which brings us down to the level of critical wind forces. High-altitude jet streams are no problem, due to the design of the structure. But at ground-terminus level. …
“True, there are not many hurricanes exactly on the equator. But there are enough to endanger the structure, at its very weakest point.*’
“We can control the winds.”
It was the first contribution the young Secretary had made to the discussion, and Morgan looked at him with interest.
“To some extent, yes. Naturally, I have discussed this point with Monsoon Control. They say that absolute certainty is out of the question—especially with hurricanes. The best odds they will give me are fifty to one. That’s not good enough for a trillion dollar project.”
The Venerable Parakarma seemed inclined to argue. “There is an almost forgotten branch of mathematics called Catastrophe Theory, which could make meteorology a really precise science. I am confident that…
“I should explain,” the Mahanayake Thero interjected blandly, “that my colleague was once rather celebrated for his astronomical work. I imagine you have heard of Dr. Choam Goldberg.”
Morgan felt that a trap door had been suddenly opened beneath him. He should have been warned! Then he recalled that Professor Sarath had. indeed, told him. with a twinkle in his eye. that he should “watch out for Buddy’s private secretary—he’s a very smart character.”
Morgan wondered if his cheeks were burning, as the Venerable Parakarma, alias Dr. Choam Goldberg, looked back at him with a distinctly unfriendly expression. So he had been trying to explain orbital instabilities to these innocent monks; the Mahanayake Thero had probably received much better briefing on the subject than he had done.
As he quickly checked back on his conversation. Morgan decided that he had not made a fool of himself. Indeed, the Mahanayake Thero might have lost a tactical advantage by revealing the identity of the Venerable Parakarma. Yet it was no particular secret: perhaps he thought that Morgan already knew.
“I thought you might like a souvenir of your visit,” said the Mahanayake Thero.
As Morgan accepted the proffered sheet, he was surprised to see that it was archival-quality parchment, not the usual flimsy paper, destined to be thrown away after a few hours of use. He could not read a single word: except for an unobtrusive alphanumeric reference in the bottom-left-hand corner, it was all in the flowery curlicues that he could now recognize as Taprobani script.
“Thank you,” he said, with as much irony as he could muster. “What is it?” He had a very good idea; legal documents had a close family resemblance, whatever their languages—or eras.
“A copy of the agreement between King Ravindra and the Malta Sangha. dated Vesak 854 a.d. of your calendar. It defines the ownership of the temple land—in perpetuity. The rights set out in this document were even recognized by the invaders.”
“By the Caledonians and the Hollanders. I believe. But not by the Iberians.”
If the Mahanayake Thero was surprised by the thoroughness of Morgan’s briefing, not even the twitch of an eyebrow betrayed the fact.
“They were hardly respecters of law and order, particularly where other religions were concerned. I trust that their philosophy of might equals right does not appeal to you.”
Morgan gave a somewhat forced smile. “It certainly does not,” he answered. But where did one draw the line? he asked himself silently. When the overwhelming interests of great organizations were at stake, conventional morality often took second place. The best legal minds on Earth, human and electronic, would soon be focused upon this spot. II they could not find the right answers, a very unpleasant situation might develop—one that could make him a villain, not a hero.
“Since you have raised the subject of the 854 agreement, let me remind you that it refers only to the land inside the temple boundaries—which are clearly defined by the walls.”
“Correct. But they enclose the entire summit.”
“You have no control over the ground outside this area.”
“We have the rights of any owner of property. If the neighbors create a nuisance, we have legal redress. This is not the first time the point has been raised.”
“I know. In connection with the cable-car system.”
A faint smile played over the Mahanayake Thero’s lips. “You have done your homework.” he commended. “Yes, we opposed it vigorously, for a number of reasons—though I admit that now it is here, we have often been very thankful for it.” He paused thoughtfully, then added, “There have been some problems, but we have been able to coexist. Casual sight-seers and tourists are content to slay on the lookout platform; genuine pilgrims, of course, we are always happy to welcome at the summit.”
“Then perhaps some accommodation could be worked out in this case. A few hundred meters of altitude would make no difference to us. We could leave the summit untouched and carve out another plateau, like the cable-car terminus.”
Morgan felt distinctly uncomfortable under the prolonged scrutiny of the two monks. He had little doubt that they recognized the absurdity of the suggestion, but he had to make it.
“You have a most peculiar sense of humor, Dr. Morgan,“ the Mahanayake Thero replied at last. ‘‘What would be left of the spirit of the mountain—of the solitude we have sought for three thousand years—if this monstrous device were erected here? Do you expect us to betray the faith of all the millions who have come to this sacred spot, often at the cost of their health—even their lives?“
“I sympathize with your feelings,“ Morgan answered. (But was he lying? he wondered.) “We would, of course, do our best to minimize any disturbance. All the support facilities will be buried inside the mountain. Only the elevator would emerge, and from any distance it would be invisible. The general aspect of the mountain would be unchanged. Even your famous shadow, which I have just admired, would be virtually unaffected.“
The Mahanayake Thero turned to his colleague as if seeking confirmation. The Venerable Parakarma looked straight at Morgan and said, “What about noise?“
Damn. Morgan thought; my weakest point. The pay loads would emerge from the mountain at several hundred kilometers an hour—the more velocity they could be given by the ground-based system, the less the strain on the suspended tower. Of course, passengers couldn’t take more than half a g or so, but the capsules would still pop out at a substantial fraction of the speed of sound.
“There will be some aerodynamic noise,“ Morgan admitted. “But nothing like that near a large airport.“
“Very reassuring,“ said the Mahanayake Thero. Morgan was certain that he was being sarcastic yet could detect no trace of irony in his voice. He was either displaying an Olympian calm or testing his visitor’s reactions. The younger monk, on the other hand, made no attempt to conceal his anger.
“For years,“ he said with indignation, “we have been protesting the disturbance caused by re-entering spacecraft. Now you want to generate shock waves in . .. in our back garden.”
“Our operations will not be transonic, at this altitude,” Morgan replied firmly. “And the tower structure will absorb most of the sound energy. In fact,” he added, trying to press what he had suddenly seen as an advantage, “in the long run, we’ll help eliminate re-entry booms. The mountain will actually be quieter.” “I understand. Instead of occasional concussions, we will have a steady roar.“ I’m not getting anywhere with this character, thought Morgan; and I’d expected the Mahanayake Thero to be the biggest obstacle—.
Sometimes, it was best to change the subject entirely. He decided to dip one cautious toe into the quaking quagmire of theology.
“Isn’t there something appropriate,” he said earnestly, “in what we are trying to do? Our purposes may be different, but the net results have much in common. What we hope to build is only an extension of your stairway. We’re continuing it—all the way to heaven.“
For a moment, the Venerable Parakarnia seemed taken aback at such effrontery. Before he could recover, his superior answered smoothly: “An interesting concept—but our philosophy does not believe in heaven. Such salvation as may exist can be found only in this world, and I sometimes wonder at your anxiety to leave it.
“May I ask how successful you were with the Department of Parks and Forests?”
“They were extremely cooperative.”
“I am not surprised; they are chronically under budgeted, and any new source of revenue would be welcome.
The cable system was a financial windfall, and doubtless they hope your project will be an even bigger one.“
“They will be right. And they have accepted the fact that it won’t create any environmental hazards.”
“Suppose it falls down?“
Morgan looked the venerable monk straight in the eye. “It won’t,” he said, with authority.
But he knew, and the implacable Parakarma must also know, that certainty was impossible in such matters.
Morgan had few nightmares, but that was one of them. Even at this moment, the computers at Tenan Construction were trying to exorcise it.
But all the power in the universe could provide no protection against the problems he had not foreseen—the nightmares still unborn.
THE GOLDEN BUTTERFLIES
Despite the brilliant sunlight and the magnificent views that assailed him on every side, Morgan was fast asleep before the car had descended into the lowlands. Even the innumerable hairpin bends failed to keep him awake—but he was suddenly snapped hack into consciousness when the brakes were slammed on and he was pitched forward against his seat belt.
For a moment of utter confusion, he thought that he must still be dreaming. The breeze blowing gently through the half-open windows was so warm and humid that it might have escaped from a Turkish bath: yet the car had apparently come to a halt in a blinding snowstorm.
Morgan blinked, screwed up his eyes and opened them to reality. This was the first time he had seen golden snow.
A dense swarm of butterflies was crossing the road, headed due east in a steady, purposeful migration. Some had been sucked into the car and fluttered around frantically until Morgan waved them out; many more had plastered themselves on the windscreen. With what were doubtless a few choice Taprobani expletives, the driver emerged and wiped the glass clear; by the time he had finished, the swarm had thinned out to a handful of isolated stragglers.
“Did they tell you about the legend?” he asked, glancing back at his passenger.
“No,” said Morgan curtly. He was not at all interested, being anxious to resume his interrupted nap.
“The Golden Butterflies—they’re the souls of Kalidasa’s warriors, the army he lost at Yakkagala.”
Morgan gave an unenthusiastic grunt, hoping that the driver would get the message; but he continued remorselessly.
“Every year, around this time, they head for the mountain, and they all die on its lower slopes. Sometimes you’ll meet them halfway up the cable ride, but that’s the highest they get. Which is lucky for the vihara.”
“The vihara?” asked Morgan sleepily.
“The temple. If they ever reach it, Kalidasa will have conquered, and the bhikkus—the monks—will have to leave. That’s the prophecy—it’s carved on a stone slab in the Ranapura Museum. I can show it to you.”
“Some other time,” said Morgan hastily, as he settled back into the padded seat. But it was many kilometers before he could doze off again, for there was something haunting about the image that the driver had conjured up.
He would remember it often in the months ahead—when waking and in moments of stress or crisis. Once again, he would be immersed in that golden snowstorm, as the doomed millions spent their energies in a vain assault upon the mountain and all that it symbolized. Even now, at the beginning of his campaign, the image was too close for comfort.