30. The Legions of the King
Vannevar Morgan was used to setbacks – even disasters – and this was, he hoped, a minor one. His real worry, as he watched the flare vanish over the shoulder of the mountain, was that Narodny Mars would consider its money wasted. The hard-eyed observer in his elaborate wheel-chair had been extremely uncommunicative; Earth's gravity seemed to have immobilised his tongue as effectively as his limbs. But this time he addressed Morgan before the engineer could speak to him.
“Just one question, Dr. Morgan. I know that this gale is unprecedented – yet it happened. So it may happen again. What if it does – when the Tower is built?”
Morgan thought quickly. It was impossible to give an accurate answer, at such short notice, and he could still scarcely believe what had happened.
“At the very worst, we might have to suspend operations briefly: there could be some track distortion. No wind forces that ever occur at this altitude could endanger the Tower structure itself. Even this experimental fibre would have been perfectly safe – if we'd succeeded in anchoring it.”
He hoped that this was a fair analysis; in a few minutes, Warren Kingsley would let him know whether it was true or not. To his relief, the Martian answered, with apparent satisfaction: “Thank you; that was all I wanted to know.”
Morgan, however, was determined to drive the lesson home.
“And on Mount Pavonis, of course, such a problem couldn't possibly arise. The atmospheric density there is less than a hundredth -”
Not for decades had he heard the sound that now crashed upon his ears, but it was one that no man could ever forget. Its imperious summons, overpowering the roar of the gale, transported Morgan halfway round the world. He was no longer standing on a windswept mountainside; he was beneath the dome of the Hagia Sophia, looking up in awe and admiration at the work of men who had died sixteen centuries ago. And in his ears sounded the tolling of the mighty bell that had once summoned the faithful to prayer.
The memory of Istanbul faded; he was back on the mountain, more puzzled and confused than ever.
What was it that the monk had told him – that Kalidasa's unwelcome gift had been silent for centuries, and was allowed to speak only in time of disaster? There had been no disaster here; indeed, as far as the monastery was concerned, precisely the opposite. Just for a moment, the embarrassing possibility occurred to Morgan that the probe might have crashed into the temple precincts. No, that was out of the question; it had missed the peak with kilometres to spare. And in any event it was much too small an object to do any serious damage as it half-fell, half-glided out of the sky.
He stared up at the monastery, from which the voice of the great bell still challenged the gale. The orange robes had all vanished from the parapets; there was not a monk in sight.
Something brushed delicately against Morgan's cheek, and he automatically flicked it aside. It was hard even to think while that dolorous throbbing filled the air and hammered at his brain. He supposed he had better walk up to the temple, and politely ask the Maha Thero what had happened.
Once more that soft, silken contact against his face, and this time he caught a glimpse of yellow out of the corner of his eye. His reactions had always been swift; he grabbed, and did not miss.
The insect lay crumpled in the palm of his hand, yielding up the last seconds of its ephemeral life even as Morgan watched – and the universe he had always known seemed to tremble and dissolve around him. His miraculous defeat had been converted into an even more inexplicable victory, yet he felt no sense of triumph – only confusion and astonishment.
For he remembered, now, the legend of the golden butterflies. Driven by the gale, in their hundreds and thousands, they were being swept up the face of the mountain, to die upon its summit. Kalidasa's legions had at last achieved their goal – and their revenge.