The more I thought about it, the more I felt certain my
assumptions were correct. Wasn't one of the Americans sent to the troll
lands, where the aurochs were under threat? How would he or she react
when faced with the choice of preserving an ancient way of life for a few
more years, or saving a species long-dead on his or her own planet from
total extinction? And that massive payment we all received to start with,
20,000 sovereigns: wasn't there an incredibly good chance that at least one
of us would actually turn out to need those kinds of funds for some
Somehow, I had to check.
The moment I arrived back in OLtic, I packed my things, and told SKUP I would be visiting MIkuMIku earlier than planned this week. He wasn't happy about it, but when I demanded to see my dried REKchit he suddenly became more compliant.
Out of courtesy, I had to wait until after the HAIKAG had blessed the field before I could set off, by which time it would be too late to make MIkuMIku by nightfall. I told SKUP that I would therefore be leaving early the following day, as soon as the sun was up. Whether SKUP was up too was immaterial; if he was, I'd take him, and if he wasn't then I wouldn't.
Having berated my poor assistant in this manner through no fault of his own, I followed up with a few enquiries concerning Professor Bosun. This pleased him a little, since it showed I still regarded him as an asset rather than a liability.
What I wanted to know was where Professor Bosun was based, which was easy enough to find out because SKUP wrote to him every so often and had his address: Department of Geology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, Kingsland. I was aware that Kingsland was the name of the continent that New Dulwich was in, and it's fair to assume that the town of Cambridge was so named because it was deliberately founded as a seat of learning, much like Cambridge, Massachusetts on Earth. I could therefore deduce that it was probably one of the oldest, if not the oldest, university on Virginia, and would thus be very prestigious. If the Virginian government had decided to look for sites with a hidden agenda where they could send their hapless visitors, they would almost certainly have consulted Cambridge. If they knew uranium was important to the Americans, as they probably did given that the USS Hawaii was nuclear powered, they would have asked the geology department to recommend a few large but obscure deposits. Even if Professor Bosun hadn't twigged that the HA based their whole ideology on the phenomenon of something that glowed in the dark, any anthropologist listening to his appraisal of the HA would have had a good chance of making the connection.
Yes, it all made depressing sense.
I asked SKUP if he'd written to Professor Bosun since my arrival. He had, several times, but as yet had received no reply.
Perhaps the professor was out on a survey somewhere, I suggested.
Next day, I rose half an hour before dawn. I dressed in my leathers, surreptitiously brushed my teeth, and went out to wipe the dew off my Mullinger Mark III Ox. Sleeping on the ground immediately before the front wheel was SKUP. He looked so peaceful, and was so keen not to offend me by being late, that I didn't have the heart to wake him up.
I returned to my hut and did a little work.
Four hours later, I had finished my work and SKUP was still asleep. He still looked peaceful, but his keenness not to offend me did not, unfortunately, match his keenness to stay in the Land of Nod.
I kicked him heftily on the thigh, and in twenty minutes we were heading for MIkuMIku.
Luckily, the fear of falling off and bouncing along the highway prevented SKUP from nodding back to sleep on the way...
Mike Froggy was very surprised to see me. His wife, Margaret, was away for most of the day visiting the town's school for some minor fund-raising event ("Empty Bottles for Slates"1), but fortunately he himself had no specific duties to perform.
"Listen, Mike," I began, "I have an enormous favour to ask of you: I need you to make a couple of telephone calls for me."
"Are these telephone calls the kind that might lose me by rank?" asked Mike, warily.
"Well the first one probably isn't, and the second one probably is, but if what you find out confirms what I suspect then it probably won't."
"Hmph," Mike grunted. "Well let's start with the first one, shall we? Whom do you wish to call?"
"The editor of the human newspaper based closest to the part of the world where giants live."
"Yes, and I just happen to have the number right here..."
"It's serious, Mike, I need to speak to them. I have reason to suspect that I've been sent here under false pretences, and I want to confirm or repudiate my hypothesis."
"So you want to find out about giants?"
"There's a colleague of mine, Lucy Zweck, who was sent to study them. I want to know if she's somehow become ensnared in their affairs, and a local newspaper would be a good way to find out. It'll probably turn up nothing, in which case I'll try some other places where I know there are people from Earth; if they all turn out to be uncontroversial, I'll know I'm paranoid."
"And if they don't?"
"That's where the second call comes in."
It took Mike almost an hour to get through to someone who could answer my questions. The time difference between MIkuMIku and the place where the giants lived made it quite late there, so when Mike finally put me on the line I didn't have long to speak before the editor went home.
"Francis Bright here," I heard in the earpiece. "I'm the editor of The Novalondinium Tidings. How can I help?"
I affected my best Virginian accent. "Dr Richard Bartle, I'm a lecturer from Cambridge University." Well it was true! "This may sound strange, but I need to know if there have been any big stories about giants recently?"
"Is this some kind of a joke?"
"No? I - "
"You think I don't get clowns calling me all the time asking if there's a `big' story about giants?"
"Oh, I see, no, I'm sorry. What I mean is, could you tell me the most important thing to happen to the giants in the past, say, three months?"
"Three months? Three days is enough! They just bought the entire Temms River from source to delta! 18,000 sovereigns!"
"I wonder where they got that kind of money..."
"An anonymous donor, they say, but the council is keeping tight-lipped. My reporter in Hillacres is trying to find out more, but she's not making much progress. It seems the donor really might be anonymous: the giants themselves have no idea where it came from. You don't have a lead, do you?"
"It wasn't me, if that's what you're thinking," I replied. Well I didn't want to lie to a reporter... "Why did the giants want to buy the river, anyway?"
"Ah, well it's been a problem for some time. Do you know the area?"
"I can't say I do, sorry."
"Well you know that giants are big, though."
"I've heard they're gigantic." Lucy had told me they were the size of tyrannosaurs.
"People that big need lots food, which is just as well or they'd have stomped on everyone else centuries ago. Their valley is probably the most verdant place on Virginia, and they can't really settle anywhere else without having severe difficulties supporting their massive appetites."
"Ahh, and their valley is only verdant because of the River Temms?"
"Exactly. Only some human and halfling farmers up in the mountains have been systematically drawing too much water from the Temms; it's been going on for about 20 years now. Five years or so ago, the giants decided that things had gone far enough, so they marched into the mountains and caused rather a lot of damage to life and property, but the farmers called in the army instead of cutting back on irrigation. Even giants are more than a little wary of hulking great projectile cannon, so they called off their protest. Since then, they've had to watch their fields gradually dry up, their crop yields fall, and their people starve. It's quite sad really."
"Until they bought the river."
"Until they bought the river. Now, it's the farmers who'll be getting less water than they wanted."
"Hmm, sounds good for the giants, but not so good for the farmers."
"Well, they'll just have to start growing wheat instead of rice. Bloody stupid idea in the first place if you ask me."
"I guess you're going to want me to make that second telephone call," said Mike, resignedly, as I put down the handset.
"Well, the proper way to verify a theory's usefulness is to use it predictively."
Mike paused. "Do you actually want me to ask you what you mean, or are you going to carry on no matter what I say?"
"The latter. What I've just found out is that someone who came with me from Earth has been put in an ethical quandary. The clincher is if I can think of an ethical quandary, and someone who came with me from Earth has had it dumped on them."
"An ethical quandary which could reasonably seem to be merely part of an anthropological context?"
"Yes, so no-one but the terminally paranoid would suspect. For this, I'm going to need your globe..."
Mike and I walked over to the table where he kept it.
"Now, roughly speaking, if I were to map this globe onto Earth, then New Dulwich would be somewhere about where Chesapeake Bay is. That means Wilsonia is up here a little West of Canada, and if I look down to where the Amazon would be I see..." I pointed. "An island about the size of Madagascar, capital Manoa."
"That's a continent, not an island."
"Well it would be an island on Earth."
Mike faked concern. "I don't want to startle you, but this is not Earth."
"Do you know anything about who lives in Manoa?"
"Yes, I do as a matter of fact: it's an ancient human colony."
"Ancient as in they predate the English arrival on Virginia?"
"I guess they do, yes, but it's not like I've ever been there, and these guys tend to keep themselves to themselves. I couldn't even tell you if they speak English."
"Do they have a king whom they cover in oil, and dust with gold?"
Mike folded his arms and frowned, thinking. "I have heard something like that about some ancient colony somewhere, but I couldn't tell you if it was anything to do with the Manoans. Gold is pretty scarce on Virginia, though, so dusting people in it isn't something anyone could do very often - well, not unless they have heaps of it stashed away of course." He laughed.
"Can you find out if any of my fellow anthropologists were sent there?"
"You think that maybe there is a lot of gold in the place, and your colleague could have been despatched purely to be tempted?"
"That's what I think, but the only way I can find out if it's true is if you help me."
"Why don't you simply wait until you get back to Earth, and ask around then?"
"Because if I know for certain before I leave that my suspicions are correct, I can talk to someone in authority here myself and let them know exactly what I think of their scheming ways."
"You like it here so much that you want to stay, then..." He sighed. "Very well, I'll make your call for you. It's not like there are many worse places than here that they could post me to when they find out. This may take some time; I'll have to pull in a few favours..."
It's infuriating when you're listening to someone on the telephone, and can only hear one side of a conversation that's important to you. You get all the yes, I sees and the well can you give me their numbers, but you never find out what's going on except in the brief run-downs the caller gives you while they're dialling the next number and waiting for someone to answer.
Mike had been going at it for nearly two hours. I'd made him a cup of tea, found him a tin of home-made biscuits to attack, and supplied him with fresh sheets of paper when he was frantically writing things down and needed more. Now, though, he was getting close.
"That's very interesting, eyelids you say, right. Well, thank you very much, troop-leader, yes, I appreciate it's late. I'll make sure that Officer Wash understands how helpful you've been..."
He put down the handset, and blew out a long, slow breath.
"So, what's the verdict?" I asked, with more than a little trepidation.
"You were right," replied Mike. "There's an American there, Dr Jennifer Wong. Apparently, they assigned her the project late because she has the same kind of eyes that the people there have, with an extra fold of skin over them that makes them look narrower. I guess someone figured that the locals would take to her better since she looks a bit like them."
"Asiatic eyes, well, that settles it." Theory confirmed.
"Where have they really sent her, then?"
I spent the last week or so of my allotted six months back among the HA, collating my research and undertaking a few minor interviews to support some of my conclusions that might otherwise have seemed weak; all standard fare for the end of a period of fieldwork.
I had made up my mind what to do when the time came to leave. My instructions were to report to the Governor in MEKTO, where travel arrangements would have been made for me to get back to New Dulwich and thence to Earth.
Yes, of course they would have...
Nevertheless, it would give me the opportunity to make my feelings of indignation known. This "let's test the anthropologists" idea had to be a unilateral ploy by the Virginians, because if the Americans knew that their people were to be examined for signs of morality then they would never have agreed to allowing reprobates from Britain to tag along. This being the case, then, I could reasonably assume that the American government would be rather displeased to learn that they'd been had, and the Virginians would therefore be somewhat keen to keep their little game a secret. That gave me a bargaining chip.
Then again, the fact that I had to rely on the Virginians to get me home gave them a rather bigger one.
The problem still remained of what to tell the HAIKAG, if anything, about the cave. Were I simply to inform him that there was a perfectly rational physical explanation for the glowing walls, and oh, by the way, it was killing him, it would be equivalent to telling the Pope that I had cast-iron evidence for the non-existence of God, and that all this praying business only served to do his knees in and lead to fatal thrombosis.
Also, I knew in my heart of hearts that for this HAIKAG at least it was probably too late; he'd already been exposed to the radiation for more than long enough to develop terminal cancers.
What about the next HAIKAG, though?
I summoned SKUP.
"SKUP, do you know how the HAIKAG's successor is chosen?" I asked.
"Yes, thanks. It was explained to me some time ago." He turned to leave.
"No, no, I don't mean that I want to explain it to you; I want you to explain it to me."
"Well, it's simple enough. The current HAIKAG visits villages all the time, and comes across plenty of people who would make very good successors. On the 731st day since becoming HAIKAG, two possible replacements are chosen, and they are both trained in the ways of HAIKAG. When the HAIKAG's period of office ends, one is selected to become the new HAIKAG."
"What about the other one?"
"The other one might get chosen again next time."
"I see. So this means that the current HAIKAG has already chosen his possible successors?"
"Yes, he has."
"Anyone from OLtic?"
"No. No-one from OLtic has been HAIKAG since MOllok's grandmother's time - and that's a lot of time."
Well, that ruled out nobbling the next generation, then.
"Would you ever want to be HAIKAG, SKUP?" I asked, curious.
"Me?" He laughed. "I want to be a lawyer! I did think I might make a good HAIKAG once, but I was soon talked out of it."
"By Professor Bosun."
Professor Bosun? So the old fox did know, then!
I couldn't, given the time left to me, suggest to the HAIKAG's potential successors that maybe spending too long in the cave was a bad idea. This gave me a stark choice: tell the HAIKAG the truth, or keep quiet. I knew what the Virginian government thought was the best course of action: keep quiet. However, I was not the Virginian government...
What would happen if I did tell the HAIKAG, or somehow got him to deduce for himself, the nature of the glowing rocks? Well either he'd not believe me, in which case I'd have wasted my time, or he would believe me and find that his spiritual foundation was explicitly and irrevocably undermined. That would almost certainly prevent him from undertaking his duties, which in turn would directly affect the entire society. Could he resign in favour of a trainee HAIKAG, knowing that he was sentencing the man to death? Well perhaps he could, if he believed that a stable society was more important than a few mere mortals, although I couldn't accept that and I wasn't even a member of the society in question.
This ethno-centrism lark was turning out to be much more difficult than I found it in Dublin. Was I right not to tell the HAIKAG anything, when he might find it perfectly acceptable to keep his successors ignorant? Was I therefore right even to worry about telling him at all, since in my position he perhaps wouldn't.
What if I could find a means to keep the HAIKAG out of the cave, but in such a way that it strengthened his faith, rather than weakened it? Some way to keep him in the dark...
I had an idea.
Two days later, I was again on the HAIKAG's mountain. I crossed the stream, still somewhat out of breath after my long hike, and found the HAIKAG sitting on a boulder.
"Hello," he said. "I've been expecting you."
"Expecting me?" I panted. "News travels fast..."
"Oh, no-one told me you were coming, but anyone who runs screaming from my cave and leaps into a stream is not acting normally. I thought you'd probably want to talk about it before you left."
"I do so like to be unpredictable."
"Come to my place, we'll have a chat and something to eat."
Thoughts of trays of goat penises standing up like a forest unexpectedly rose in my mind. "Well, later maybe, I just want to sit down for the moment."
"You humans hurry too much..." He gestured: "have a nice, comfy rock."
I chose a nice, round, definitely not radioactive one.
"What is the significance of the glowing cave?" I asked. "I know it's the crucial physical evidence that from darkness comes light, but why do you enter it?"
"When new HAIKAGs are appointed, the appointment takes place in the cave."
"How long does that last? Longer than I was there?"
"Well the ceremony itself is only a few minutes, depending on how quickly the out-going HAIKAG takes to say his lines, but when I was appointed I spent several hours there afterwards, meditating."
"And when you go in these days, is it to meditate?"
"In a way, yes, but it's so awesome in there that, well, it nearly takes my breath away, so I don't go in very often at all. When I do, I just stand within, soaking it all up; I feel as if I am absorbing it into my being."
Strictly speaking, he is...
"When I was in the cave, I had a vision," I said.
"A vision?" The HAIKAG perked up.
"I touched the wall, and it was as if the glowing dust on my fingers sprang to life. It took the form in my mind of an orc, a very old orc."
"What did he look like? Did you recognise him?"
"You knew it was a male orc?" I felt like a fairground fortune-teller, doing a cold reading.
"No female has ever been in the cave."
"It was a male orc. I recognised him as JaSEP, who I knew, and who died recently, but when he spoke he said he was not JaSEP, but a spirit taking JaSEP's form that I might not be afraid of him."
"A spirit? But not of an earlier HAIKAG, surely?"
"No, their spirits are at rest." Phew, that was close - I was going to suggest it was the first HAIKAG. "The spirit was of a man named, er, RAZ Dallan."
The HAIKAG's eyes opened wide in astonishment. "What do you know of RAZ Dallan? His name is from before the time of darkness!"
More to the point, what did the HAIKAG know?! Perhaps the HA's past had not been erased, but entrusted to the office of HAIKAG; perhaps the HAIKAG's brief was to steer the HA according to the tenets of their ancient MILAKtar ancestors, so that although his people didn't know their true heritage, they could still benefit from it?
I cleared my throat. "I only know that his name was RAZ Dallan. He told me that I did not understand the cave of the MILAKtar" - at this point, the HAIKAG's eyes nearly popped from their sockets - "and that I should leave and cleanse myself."
"All you say is true; it must be true," gasped the HAIKAG. "You cannot have known..." His voice trailed off.
I seized my chance. "But as I fled, with the dust still on my fingers, RAZ Dallan continued to speak to me. He told me that the intentions of the MILAKtar had been misinterpreted over the course of time, and that the majesty of the cave had been diluted. It is not to be visited by anyone, even a HAIKAG, except for the ceremony of... I'm not sure what he called it."
"MArak HAIKAGsk?" offered the HAIKAG.
"Well I think it did contain the word HAIKAG, but the whole term wasn't anything I'd ever heard before."
"It is uncommon, yes."
"By then, I had reached the stream. I washed my hands, and the image of JaSEP gradually faded, until eventually it was gone. That's when you arrived."
The HAIKAG's eyes were full of wonder. "RICHard," he said, at length. "I never dreamed... Of course, what RAZ Dallan said must be acted upon at once! I shall amend the records so that they clearly state that entry to the chamber of the MILAKtar is forbidden under all circumstances except for the ceremony of MArak HAIKAGsk."
"That includes any meditation afterwards," I added, hastily.
"Of course it does. To be honest, I often wondered if I was doing the right thing; each time I entered the cave, its magnificence seemed to diminish a little, and it worried me."
"Because of its familiarity, yes. It's better to be left with one, glorious memory than to have it fade into something commonplace."
"RICHard, you are indeed a wise man."
No, just someone who's read a lot of the right books...
When I arrived back in OLtic, I found a worried SKUP. At first, I thought I'd forgotten to tell him that I was visiting the HAIKAG, and he'd concluded that I'd gone back to Earth prematurely without paying his last set of expenses, but when I realised that Lakka hadn't moved any of his various wives into my hut I knew that this couldn't have been the case.
"RICHard," said SKUP, earnestly, "I have some news."
"You don't say?" He wasn't interested in how I'd got on traipsing across what passes for HA countryside (and when you're travelling across mountains, passes is all you get); this must be important.
SKUP followed me into my hut. I was used to this sort of thing by now: the HA find notions of privacy completely alien. I'm sure that if it weren't for my status as man-who-faints-at-women I'd have occasionally woken up in the night to find a complete stranger next to me. In fact, come to think of it, there was that time in my old hut when the guys carrying a drunken Lakka back to his compound were too drunk themselves to make it that far, so they threw him in with me; mind you he did make a fantastic draught excluder when I laid him out across the bottom of the door, so I didn't complain.
"Well, SKUP, are you going to tell me why you've been camped outside my hut awaiting my return, or are you going to help me unpack my bag?"
"While you were away, I went to MIkuMIku with SHApiNA."
"You've killed my motorbike, haven't you..."
"No, no, it's fine." He stopped abruptly when he suddenly realised that I'd tricked him into admitting he'd taken the bike in the first place.
"It's OK, SKUP, I knew you wouldn't be able to resist it; I even left the key, so you wouldn't dismantle the engine trying to make it start. But why take SHApiNA - doesn't she have a crush on you? I know she's good looking2, but I'd have stayed well clear of her if I'd have been in your boots!"
"She wanted to buy some cheese, she's been saving up; she wouldn't tell me what it was for."
"So what did your girlfriend in MIkuMIku say when she saw you riding into town with a beautiful woman on the back of a motorbike?"
"She asked me to marry her."
I was stunned. "Did you say yes?"
"I did. Then SHApiNA asked me to marry her."
"Ah. Er, did you ever get around to telling LIMInador that the HA allow people to have several spouses?"
"I didn't, no."
"So you turned down SHApiNA."
"Well, not exactly."
"You said you'd think about it."
"You said you'd marry her."
"That's what I seem to remember saying, yes."
I sighed. "How did LIMInador take the news?"
"I didn't tell her. I speak to her in English, because she doesn't understand HAish; SHApiNA doesn't speak English, and she only asked me to marry her when I explained what LIMInador had just said about my marrying her. She seemed so sweet about it that I couldn't bear to turn her down."
"You're in a rather awkward situation, aren't you, SKUP?"
"A very awkward situation. Lakka is one of SHApiNA's fathers, and if I turn her down he'll get rather sullen."
"Why don't you turn down LIMInador?"
"RICHard, she runs a bar!"
Oh yes, silly me...
I considered SKUP's plight. "Well, she doesn't speak HAish so she can't come to live here; also, you can claim that you have property in OLtic that it's essential you look after, so you can't go live in MIkuMIku, either. She won't like it, but you can tell her it's only until you finish your studies to be a lawyer, hopefully by which time SHApiNA will have found herself a second husband."
"That's what I was thinking, only..."
"When are the weddings?"
"SHApiNA wants to invite relatives from other villages, so prefers to wait until Spring. LIMInador has been planning this for months, and she wants to marry as soon as possible."
"How soon is `as soon as possible' in days?"
"19. Those are real days, too; she means business."
I put my arm around SKUP's disconsolate shoulders. "Well, after giving this matter my full consideration, I can honestly say I'm glad I have to leave here on Tuesday..."
"But, but, you have to help me!"
I smiled. "Oh, I think I can do that. You can have my motorbike as a wedding present; it seems likely you're going to need it."
1 It rhymes in SHEPKATmiMEK Orcish...
2 Remarkably, I was by now so accustomed to seeing orc faces that I actually meant it; she really did look rather attractive.
21st January 1999: ltlwo11.htm