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26. The Night Before Vesak

It was still, after twenty-seven centuries, the most revered day of the Taprobanean calendar. On the May full moon, according to legend, the Buddha had been born, had achieved enlightenment, and had died. Though to most people Vesak now meant no more than that other great annual holiday, Christmas, it was still a time for meditation and tranquillity.

For many years, Monsoon Control had guaranteed that there would be no rain on the nights of Vesak plus and minus one. And for almost as long, Rajasinghe had gone to the Royal City two days before the full moon, on a pilgrimage that annually refreshed his spirit. He avoided Vesak itself; on that day Ranapura was too crowded with visitors, some of whom would be guaranteed to recognise him, and disturb his solitude.

Only the sharpest eye could have noticed that the huge, yellow moon lifting above the bell-shaped domes of the ancient dagobas was not yet a perfect circle. The light it gave was so intense that only a few of the most brilliant satellites and stars were visible in the cloudless sky. And there was not a breath of wind.

Twice, it was said, Kalidasa had stopped on this road, when he had left Ranapura forever. The first halt was at the tomb of Hanuman, the loved companion of his boyhood; and the second was at the Shrine of the Dying Buddha. Rajasinghe had often wondered what solace the haunted king had gathered – perhaps at this very spot, for it was the best point from which to view the immense figure carved from the solid rock. The reclining shape was so perfectly proportioned that one had to walk right up to it before its real size could be appreciated. From a distance it was impossible to realise that the pillow upon which the Buddha rested his head was itself higher than a man.

Though Rajasinghe had seen much of the world, he knew no other spot so full of peace. Sometimes he felt that he could sit here forever, beneath the blazing moon, wholly unconcerned with all the cares and turmoil of life. He had never tried to probe too deeply into the magic of the Shrine, for fear that he would destroy it, but some of its elements were obvious enough. The very posture of the Enlightened One, resting at last with closed eyes after a long and noble life, radiated serenity. The sweeping lines of the robe were extraordinarily soothing and restful to contemplate; they appeared to flow from the rock, to form waves of frozen stone. And, like the waves of the sea, the natural rhythm of their curves appealed to instincts of which the rational mind knew nothing.

In timeless moments such as this, alone with the Buddha and the almost full moon, Rajasinghe felt that he could understand at last the meaning of Nirvana – that state which can be defined only by negatives. Such emotions as anger, desire, greed no longer possessed any power; indeed, they were barely conceivable. Even the sense of personal identity seemed about to fade away, like a mist before the morning sun.

It could not last, of course. Presently he became aware of the buzzing of insects, the distant barking of dogs, the cold hardness of the stone upon which he was sitting. Tranquillity was not a state of mind which could be sustained for long. With a sigh, Rajasinghe got to his feet and began the walk back to his car, parked a hundred metres outside the temple grounds.

He was just entering the vehicle when he noticed the small white patch, so clearly defined that it might have been painted on the sky, rising over the trees to the west. It was the most peculiar cloud that Rajasinghe had ever seen-a perfectly symmetrical ellipsoid, so sharp-edged that it appeared almost solid. He wondered if someone was flying an airship through the skies of Taprobane; but he could see no fins, and there was no sound of engines.

Then, for a fleeting moment, he had a far wilder fancy. The Starholmers had arrived at last.

But that, of course, was absurd. Even if they had managed to outrun their own radio signals, they could hardly have traversed the whole solar system – and descended into the skies of Earth – without triggering all the traffic radars in existence. The news would have broken hours ago.

Rather to his surprise, Rajasinghe felt a mild sense of disappointment. And now, as the apparition came closer, he could see that it undoubtedly was a cloud, because it was getting slightly frayed around the edges. Its speed was impressive; it seemed to be driven by a private gale, of which there was still no trace here at ground level.

So the scientists of Monsoon Control were at it again, testing their mastery of the winds. What, Rajasinghe wondered, would they think of next?

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