home   |   -   |   A-Z   |  

2. The Engineer

His friends, whose numbers dwindled sadly every year, called him Johan. The world, when it remembered him, called him Raja. His full name epitomised five hundred years of history; Johan Oliver de Alwis Sri Rajasinghe.

There had been a time when the tourists visiting the Rock bad sought him out with cameras and recorders, but now a whole generation knew nothing of the days when he 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. But it had also brought vain regrets for the mistakes he had made and sorrow for the lives he had squandered, when a little more foresight or patience might have saved them. Of course, it was easy now, in the perspective of history, to see what should have been done to avert the Auckland Crisis, or to assemble the unwilling signatories of the Treaty of Samarkand. To blame himself for the unavoidable errors of the past was folly, yet there were times when his conscience hurt him more than the fading twinges of that old Patagonian bullet.

No-one had believed that his retirement would last so long. You'll be back within six months, World President Chu had told him. Power is addictive.

Not to me, he had answered, truthfully enough.

For 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-eleven, if one included ARISTOTLE. (His console still had direct access to Ari's memory and processing banks, and they talked to each other several times a year.) But towards the end the Council had invariably accepted his advice, and the world had given him much of the credit that should have gone to the unsung, unhonoured bureaucrats of the Peace Division.

And so 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. Without Ari's infallible memory, he could never have kept control of the intricate webs he was sometimes compelled to spin, that mankind might live in peace. When he had begun to enjoy the game for its own sake, it was time to quit.

That had been twenty 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 kilometre 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 two thousand years. The water still flowed in the original stone conduits; nothing had been changed, except that the cisterns high up on the rock were now filled by electric pumps, not relays of sweating slaves.

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 really believed could come true. The achievement had required all his diplomatic skills, plus some delicate blackmail in the Department of Archaeology. Later, questions had been asked in the State Assembly; but fortunately not answered.

He was insulated from all but the most determined tourists and students by an extension of the moat, and screened from their gaze by a thick wall of mutated Ashoka trees, blazing with flowers throughout the year. The trees also supported several families of monkeys, who were amusing to watch but occasionally invaded the villa and made off with any portable objects that took their fancy. Then there would be a brief inter-species war with fire-crackers and recorded danger-cries that distressed the humans at least as much as the simians who would be back quickly enough, for they had long ago learned that no-one would really harm them.

One of Taprobane's more outrageous sunsets was transfiguring the western sky when the small electrotrike came silently through the trees, and drew up beside the granite columns of the portico. (Genuine Chola, from the late Ranapura Period-and therefore a complete anachronism here. But only Professor Sarath had ever commented on it; and he of course invariably did so.)

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 considerably younger than its fifty-one years. The video display from Ari's BIOG file had not done him justice; he should have been a romantic poet, or a concert pianist or, perhaps, a great actor, holding thousands spell-bound by his skill. 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. Almost every week, old friends and old enemies came to this remote spot, to exchange news and to reminisce about the past. He welcomed such visits, for they gave a continuing pattern to his life. Yet always he knew, to a high degree of accuracy, the purpose of the meeting, and the ground that would be covered. But 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 met, or had any prior communication; indeed, he had barely recognised Morgan's name. Still more unusual was the fact that the engineer had asked him to keep this meeting confidential.

Though Rajasinghe had complied, it was with a feeling of resentment. There was no need, any more, for secrecy in his peaceful life; the very last thing he wanted now was for some important mystery to impinge upon his well-ordered existence. He had finished with Security for ever; ten years ago or was it even longer? his personal guards had been removed at his own request. 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 kilometres 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.

Even in his days as a public servant, Rajasinghe had never had occasion to deal with TCC; its three divisions Land, Sea, Space huge though they were, made perhaps the least news of all the World Federation's specialised bodies. Only when there was some resounding technical failure, or a head-on collision with an environmental or historical group, did TCC emerge from the shadows. The last confrontation of this kind had involved the Antarctic Pipeline that miracle of twenty-first-century engineering, built to pump fluidised coal from the vast polar deposits to the power plants and factories of the world. In a mood of ecological euphoria, TCC had proposed demolishing the last remaining section of the pipeline and restoring the land to the penguins. Instantly there had been cries of protest from the industrial archaeologists, outraged at such vandalism, and from the naturalists, who pointed out that the penguins simply loved the abandoned pipeline. It had provided housing of a standard they had never before enjoyed, and thus contributed to a population explosion that the killer whales could barely handle. So TCC had surrendered without a fight.

Rajasinghe did not know if Morgan had been associated with this minor dbacle. It hardly mattered, since his name was now linked with TCC's greatest triumph.

The Ultimate Bridge, it had been christened; and perhaps with justice. Rajasinghe had watched, with half the world, when the final section was lifted gently skywards by the Graf Zeppelin 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 gas-bags to give extra lift. It was the first time that a dead-weight of more than a thousand tons had even been hoisted three kilometres straight up into the sky, and everything doubtless to the disappointment of millions had gone without a hitch.

No ship would ever again pass the Pillars of Hercules without saluting the mightiest bridge that man had ever built or, in all probability, would ever build. The twin towers at the junction of Mediterranean and Atlantic were themselves the tallest structures in the world, and faced each other across fifteen kilometres of space empty, save for the incredible, delicate arch of the Gibraltar Bridge. It would be a privilege to meet the man who had conceived it; even though he was an hour late.

My apologies, Ambassador, said Morgan as he climbed out of the 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 cancelled my Rome connexion, 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 kilometre 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.

Rajasinghe laughed. 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-lumire performance that I strongly recommend, and you're very welcome to join us.

He could tell that Morgan was hesitating, as he tried 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 only lasts an hour. Oh, I'd forgotten you don't want anyone to know you're here. Well, I'll introduce you as Doctor Smith from the University of Tasmania. I'm sure my friends won't recognise 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.

I'm sure they won't, Morgan said, and Rajasinghe noted the unmistakable tone of bitterness in his voice. Doctor Smith would be fine. And now if I might use your console.

Interesting, thought Rajasinghe 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 one of the leaders 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 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?

1. Kalidasa | The Fountains of Paradise | 3. The Fountains