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.
At this point there was a rather welcome interruption, as two young acolytes filed into the office, one carrying a tray loaded with small dishes of rice, fruits and what appeared to be thin pancakes, while the other followed with the inevitable pot of tea. There was nothing that looked like meat; after his long night, Morgan would have welcomed a couple of eggs, but he assumed that they too were forbidden. No – that was too strong a word; Sarath had told him that the Order prohibited nothing, believing in no absolutes. But it had a nicely calibrated scale of toleration, and the taking of life – even potential life – was very low on the list.
As he started to sample the various items – most of them quite unknown to him – Morgan looked enquiringly at the Mahanayake Thero, who shook his head.
“We do not eat before noon. The mind functions more clearly in the morning hours, and so should not be distracted by material things.”
As he nibbled at some quite delicious papaya, Morgan considered the philosophical gulf represented by that simple statement. To him, an empty stomach could be very distracting indeed, completely inhibiting the higher mental functions. Having always been blessed with good health, he had never tried to dissociate mind and body, and saw no reason why one should make the attempt.
While Morgan was eating his exotic breakfast the Mahanayake Thero excused himself, and for a few minutes his fingers danced, with dazzling speed, over the keyboard of his console. As the readout was in full view, politeness compelled Morgan to look elsewhere. Inevitably, his eyes fell upon the head of the Buddha. It was probably real, for the plinth cast a faint shadow on the wall behind. Yet even that was not conclusive. The plinth might be solid enough, and the head a projection carefully positioned on top of it; the trick was a common one.
Here, like the Mona Lisa, was a work of art that both mirrored the emotions of the observer and imposed its own authority upon them. But La Gioconda's eyes were open, though what they were looking at no-one would ever know. The eyes of the Buddha were completely blank empty pools in which a man might lose his soul, or discover a universe.
Upon the lips there lingered a smile even more ambiguous than the Mona Lisa's. Yet was it indeed a smile, or merely a trick of the lighting? Already it was gone, replaced by an expression of superhuman tranquillity. Morgan could not tear his eyes away from that hypnotic countenance, and only the familiar rustling whirr of a hard-copy readout from the console brought him back to reality – if this was reality.
“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 which he could now recognise 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 Maha Sangha, dated Vesak AD 854 of your calendar. It defines the ownership of the temple land – in perpetuity. The rights set out in this document were even recognised 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. If they could not find the right answers, a very unpleasant situation might develop one which 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 neighbours create a nuisance, we would have legal redress. This is not the first time the point has been raised.”
“I know. In connexion with the cable-car system.”
A faint smile played over the Maha 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 co-exist. Casual sightseers and tourists are content to stay 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 metres 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 for the sake of the record he had to make it.
“You have a most peculiar sense of humour, 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 is 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 sympathise with your feelings,” Morgan answered. (But was he lying? he wondered.) “We would, of course, do our best to minimise any disturbance. All the support facilities would be buried inside the mountain. Only the elevator would emerge, and from any distance it would be quite invisible. The general aspect of the mountain would be totally 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 payloads would emerge from the mountain at several hundred kilometres 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 gee 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 about 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 to eliminate re-entry booms. The mountain will actually be a quieter place.”
“I understand. Instead of occasional concussions, we shall 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. If I may say so, we're continuing it – all the way to Heaven.”
For a moment, the Venerable Parakarma 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. Do you know the story of the Tower of Babel?”
“I suggest you look it up in the old Christian Bible – Genesis II. That, too, was an engineering project to scale the heavens. It failed, owing to difficulties in communication.”
“Though we shall have our problems, I don't think that will be one of them.”
But looking at the Venerable Parakarma, Morgan was not so sure. Here was a communications gap which seemed in some ways greater than that between Homo sapiens and Starglider. They spoke the same language, but there were gulfs of incomprehension which might never be spanned.
“May I ask,” continued the Mahanayake with imperturbable politeness, “how successful you were with the Department of Parks and Forests?”
“They were extremely co-operative.”
“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 all the authority of the man whose inverted rainbow now linked two continents.
But he knew, and the implacable Parakarma must also know, that absolute certainty was impossible in such matters. Two hundred and two years ago, on 7 November 1940, that lesson had been driven home in a way that no engineer could ever forget.
Morgan had few nightmares, but that was one of them. Even at this moment the computers at Terran Construction were trying to exorcise it.
But all the computing power in the universe could provide no protection against the problems he had not foreseen – the nightmares that were still unborn.