7. The God-King's Palace
Vannevar Morgan had not slept well, and that was most unusual. He had always taken pride in his self-awareness, and his insight into his own drives and emotions. If he could not sleep, he wanted to know why.
Slowly, as he watched the first pre-dawn light glimmer on the ceiling of his hotel bedroom, and heard the bell-like cries of alien birds, he began to marshal his thoughts. He would never have become a senior engineer of Terran Construction if he had not planned his life to avoid surprises. Although no man could be immune to the accidents of chance and fate, he had taken all reasonable steps to safeguard his career – and, above all, his reputation. His future was as fail-safe as he could make it; even if he died suddenly, the programmes stored in his computer bank would protect his cherished dream beyond the grave.
Until yesterday he had never heard of Yakkagala; indeed, until a few weeks ago he was only vaguely aware of Taprobane itself, until the logic of his quest directed him inexorably towards the island. By now he should already have left, whereas in fact his mission had not yet begun. He did not mind the slight disruption of his schedule; what did perturb him was the feeling that he was being moved by forces beyond his understanding. Yet the sense of awe had a familiar resonance. He had experienced it before when, as a child, he had flown his lost kite in Kiribilli Park, beside the granite monoliths that had once been the piers of the long-demolished Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Those twin mountains had dominated his boyhood, and had controlled his destiny. Perhaps, in any event, he would have been an engineer; but the accident of his birthplace had determined that he would be a builder of bridges. And so he had been the first man to step from Morocco to Spain, with the angry waters of the Mediterranean three kilometres below – never dreaming, in that moment of triumph, of the far more stupendous challenge that still lay ahead.
If he succeeded in the task that confronted him, he would be famous for centuries to come. Already his mind, strength and will were being taxed to the utmost, he had no time for idle distractions. Yet he had become fascinated by the achievements of an engineer-architect two thousand years dead, belonging to a totally alien culture. And there was the mystery of Kalidasa himself; what was his purpose in building Yakkagala? The king might have been a monster, but there was something about his character which struck a chord in the secret places of Morgan's own heart.
Sunrise would be in thirty minutes; it was still two hours before his breakfast with Ambassador Rajasinghe. That would be long enough – and he might have no other opportunity.
Morgan was never one to waste time. Slacks and sweater were on in less than a minute, but the careful checking of his footwear took considerably longer. Though he had done no serious climbing for years, he always carried a pair of strong, light-weight boots; in his profession, he often found them essential. He had already closed the door of his room when he had a sudden afterthought.
For a moment he stood hesitantly in the corridor; then he smiled and shrugged his shoulders. It wouldn't do any harm, and one never knew…
Once more back in the room, Morgan unlocked his suitcase and took out a small flat box, about the size and shape of a pocket calculator. He checked the battery charge, tested the manual over-ride, then clipped it to the steel buckle of his strong synthetic waist-belt. Now he was indeed ready to enter Kalidasa's haunted kingdom, and to face whatever demons it held.
The sun rose, pouring welcome warmth upon his back as Morgan passed through the gap in the massive rampart that formed the outer defences of the fortress. Before him, spanned by a narrow stone bridge, were the still waters of the great moat, stretching in a perfectly straight line for half a kilometre on either side. A small flotilla of swans sailed hopefully towards him through the lilies, then dispersed with ruffled feathers when it was clear that he had no food to offer. On the far side of the bridge he came to a second, smaller wall and climbed the narrow flight of stairs cut through it; and there before him were the Pleasure Gardens, with the sheer face of the Rock looming beyond them.
The fountains along the axis of the gardens rose and fell together with a languid rhythm, as if they were breathing slowly in unison. There was not another human being in sight; he had the whole expanse of Yakkagala to himself. The fortress-city could hardly have been lonelier even during the seventeen hundred years when the jungle had overwhelmed it, between the death of Kalidasa and its re-discovery by nineteenth-century archaeologists.
Morgan walked past the line of fountains, feeling their spray against his skin, and stopped once to admire the beautifully carved stone guttering – obviously original – which carried the overflow. He wondered how the old-time hydraulic engineers lifted the water to drive the fountains, and what pressure differences they could handle; these soaring, vertical jets must have been truly astonishing to those who first witnessed them.
And now ahead was a steep flight of granite steps, their treads so uncomfortably narrow that they could barely accommodate Morgan's boots. Did the people who built this extraordinary place really have such tiny feet, he wondered? Or was it a clever ruse of the architect, to discourage unfriendly visitors? It would certainly be difficult for soldiers to charge up this sixty-degree slope, on steps that seemed to have been made for midgets.
A small platform, then another identical flight of steps, and Morgan found himself on a long, slowly ascending gallery cut into the lower flanks of the Rock. He was now more than fifty metres above the surrounding plain, but the view was completely blocked by a high wall coated with smooth, yellow plaster. The rock above him overhung so much that he might almost have been walking along a tunnel, for only a narrow band of sky was visible overhead.
The plaster of the wall looked completely new and unworn; it was almost impossible to believe that the masons had left their work two thousand years ago. Here and there, however, the gleaming, mirror-flat surface was scarred with scratched messages, where visitors had made their usual bids for immortality. Very few of the inscriptions were in alphabets that Morgan could recognise, and the latest date he noticed was 1931; thereafter, presumably, the Department of Archaeology had intervened to prevent such vandalism. Most of the graffiti were in flowing, rounded Taprobani; Morgan recalled from the previous night's entertainment that many were poems, dating back to the second and third century. For a little while after the death of Kalidasa, Yakkagala had known its first brief spell as a tourist attraction, thanks to the still lingering legends of the accursed king.
Halfway along the stone gallery, Morgan came to the now locked door of the little elevator leading to the famous frescoes, twenty metres directly above. He craned his head to see them, but they were obscured by the platform of the visitors' viewing cage, clinging like a metal bird's-nest to the outward-leaning face of the rock. Some tourists, Rajasinghe had told him, took one look at the dizzy location of the frescoes, and decided to satisfy themselves with photographs.
Now, for the first time, Morgan could appreciate one of the chief mysteries of Yakkagala. It was not how the frescoes were painted – a scaffolding of bamboo could have taken care of that problem – but why. Once they were completed, no-one could ever have seen them properly; from the gallery immediately beneath, they were hopelessly foreshortened – and from the base of the Rock they would have been no more than tiny, unrecognisable patches of colour. Perhaps, as some had suggested, they were of purely religious or magical significance – like those Stone Age paintings found in the depths of almost inaccessible caves.
The frescoes would have to wait until the attendant arrived and unlocked the elevator. There were plenty of other things to see; he was still only a third of the way to the summit, and the gallery was still slowly ascending, as it clung to the face of the Rock.
The high, yellow-plastered wall gave way to a low parapet, and Morgan could once more see the surrounding countryside. There below him lay the whole expanse of the Pleasure Gardens, and for the first time he could appreciate not only their huge scale (was Versailles larger?) but also their skilful planning, and the way in which the moat and outer ramparts protected them from the forest beyond.
No-one knew what trees and shrubs and flowers had grown here in Kalidasa's day, but the pattern of artificial lakes, canals, pathways and fountains was still exactly as he had left it. As he looked down on those dancing jets of water, Morgan suddenly remembered a quotation from the previous night's commentary:
“From Taprobane to Paradise is forty leagues; there may be heard the sound of the fountains of paradise.”
He savoured the phrase in his mind; the Fountains of Paradise. Was Kalidasa trying to create, here on earth, a garden fit for the gods, in order to establish his claim to divinity? If so, it was no wonder that the priests had accused him of blasphemy, and placed a curse upon all his work.
At last the long gallery, which had skirted the entire western face of the Rock, ended in another steeply rising stairway – though this time the steps were much more generous in size. But the palace was still far above, for the stairs ended on a large plateau, obviously artificial. Here was all that was left of the gigantic, leonine monster who had once dominated the landscape, and struck terror into the hearts of everyone who looked upon it. For springing from the face of the rock were the paws of a gigantic, crouching beast; the claws alone were half the height of a man.
Nothing else remained, save yet another granite stairway rising up through the piles of rubble that must once have formed the head of the creature. Even in ruin the concept was awe-inspiring: anyone who dared to approach the king's ultimate stronghold had first to walk through gaping jaws.
The final ascent up the sheer – indeed, slightly over-hanging – face of the cliff was by a series of iron ladders, with guard-rails to reassure nervous climbers. But the real danger here, Morgan had been warned, was not vertigo. Swarms of normally placid hornets occupied small caves in the rock, and visitors who made too much noise had sometimes disturbed them, with fatal results.
Two thousand years ago, this northern face of Yakkagala had been covered with walls and battlements to provide a fitting background to the Taprobanean sphinx, and behind those walls there must have been stairways that gave easy access to the summit. Now time, weather, and the vengeful hand of man had swept everything away. There was only the bare rock, grooved with myriads of horizontal slots and narrow ledges that had once supported the foundations of vanished masonry.
Abruptly, the climb was over. Morgan found himself standing on a small island floating two hundred metres above a landscape of trees and fields that was flat in all directions except southwards, where the central mountains broke up the horizon. He was completely isolated from the rest of the world, yet felt master of all he surveyed; not since he had stood among the clouds, straddling Europe, and Africa, had he known such a moment of aerial ecstasy. This was indeed the residence of a God-King, and the ruins of his palace were all round.
A baffling maze of broken walls – none more than waist high – piles of weathered brick and granite-paved pathways covered the entire surface of the plateau, right to the precipitous edge. Morgan could also see a large cistern cut deeply into the solid rock – presumably a water-storage tank. As long as supplies were available, a handful of determined men could have held this place forever; but if Yakkagala had indeed been intended as a fortress, its defences had never been put to the test. Kalidasa's fateful last meeting with his brother had taken place far beyond the outer ramparts.
Almost forgetting time, Morgan roamed among the foundations of the palace that had once crowned the Rock. He tried to enter the mind of the architect, from what he could see of his surviving handiwork; why was there a pathway here? – did this truncated flight of steps lead to an upper floor? – if this coffin-shaped recess in the stone was a bath, how was the water supplied and how did it drain away? His research was so fascinating that he was quite oblivious of the increasing heat of the sun, striking down from a cloudless sky.
Far below, the emerald-green landscape was waking into life. Like brightly-coloured beetles, a swarm of little robot tractors was heading towards the rice-fields. Improbable though it seemed, a helpful elephant was pushing an overturned bus back on to the road, which it had obviously left while cornering at too high a speed; Morgan could even hear the shrill voice of the rider, perched just behind the enormous ears. And a stream of tourists was pouring like army ants through the Pleasure Gardens from the general direction of the Hotel Yakkagala; he would not enjoy his solitude much longer.
Still, he had virtually completed his exploration of the ruins – though one could, of course, spend a life-time investigating them in detail. He was happy to rest for a while, on a beautifully-carved granite bench at the very edge of the two-hundred-metre drop, overlooking the entire southern sky.
Morgan let his eyes scan the distant line of mountains, still partly concealed by a blue haze which the morning sun had not yet dispersed. As he examined it idly, he suddenly realised that what he had assumed to be a part of the cloudscape was nothing of the sort. That misty cone was no ephemeral construct of wind and vapour; there was no mistaking its perfect symmetry, as it towered above its lesser brethren.
For a moment, the shock of recognition emptied his mind of everything except wonder – and an almost superstitious awe. He had not realised that one could see the Sacred Mountain so clearly from Yakkagala. But there it was, slowly emerging from the shadow of night, preparing to face a new day; and, if he succeeded, a new future.
He knew all its dimensions, all its geology; he had mapped it through stereo-photographs and had scanned it from satellites. But to see it for the first time, with his own eyes, made it suddenly real; until now, everything had been theory. And sometimes not even that; more than once, in the small grey hours before dawn, Morgan had woken from nightmares in which his whole project had appeared as some preposterous fantasy, which far from bringing him fame would make him the laughing-stock of the world. “Morgan's Folly”, some of his peers had once dubbed the Bridge; what would they call his latest dream?
But man-made obstacles had never stopped him before. Nature was his real antagonist-the friendly enemy who never cheated and always played fair, yet never failed to take advantage of the tiniest oversight or omission. And all the forces of Nature were epitomised for him now in the distant blue cone which he knew so well, but had yet to feel beneath his feet.
As Kalidasa had done so often from this very spot, Morgan stared across the fertile green plain, measuring the challenge and considering his strategy. To Kalidasa, Sri Kanda represented both the power of the priesthood and the power of the gods, conspiring together against him. Now the gods were gone; but the priests remained. They represented something that Morgan did not understand, and would therefore treat with wary respect.
It was time to descend; he must not be late again, especially through his own miscalculation. As he rose from the stone slab on which he had been sitting, a thought that had been worrying him for several minutes finally rose to consciousness. It was strange to have placed so ornate a seat, with its beautifully carved supporting elephants, at the very edge of a precipice.
Morgan could never resist such an intellectual challenge. Leaning out over the abyss, he once again tried to attune his engineer's mind to that of a colleague two thousand years dead.