Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Transcontinental Line

(Action continues in Bucharest.)

(Image of Tehran's Darvazeh Mashin-Doodi (circa 1900-1925) from Iranian Hotline.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Matters of Responsibility

That evening, at seven o'clock sharp, Irene, Peter, Mukherjee, and a few of the remaining soldiers departed for Ihsaan Waahaan one more time. The plan, as explained by Sergeant Mukherjee, was that everyone would be spending one last night in town. When Peter asked, Mukherjee answered, "No, we will certainly not be staying at the hospital. Arrangements have been made with the village panchayat for quartering with families. At five o'clock tomorrow morning this truck will leave from the town square. We will catch the Karachi Express from Larkana at seven."

The darkness has a way of taking possession of a wide-open space, such as the Sindh. Rather than arriving in the slow creep of shadows from trees and buildings, darkness seems to come to the steppes and plains from all points, infiltrating the atmosphere. And when it has settled, there is no rustling vegetation, and no structures from which echoes may bounce and grow. So it was that night: there was a stillness and calmness in the Sindh's lowlands, as if some great guardian face were looking away, ignoring the happenings taking place in its realm. Beyond the engine of the Hack and the parcel of the world illuminated in its headlights, there seemed to be nothing but stars and a dim phantasm of a landscape.

The pangs of regret may have been gnawing at Irene – she had, after all, gotten scarcely any chance to do real archaeological work on the order of her stints in Egypt. Furthermore, she had left her substantial collection of books behind at camp, to be sent along to the Archaeological Survey of India office in Karachi the next day. (Noting the perpetually understaffed, under-funded, and under-resourced state of the Karachi office, the Major had remarked to Irene that the ASI would be only too happy to hold onto her books until she needed them.) Peter, on the other hand, was more than pleased to be departing. From the moment he had ferreted the amulet under his shirt to the minute of the truck's arrival in Ihsaan Waahaan, nothing about Peter – his speech, his gait, the very tempo of his bodily movements – was short of lively.

It was nine o'clock by the time the group arrived in town. Mukherjee wasted no time in escorting Irene to her hosts, three sisters in their sixties who ran a weaving business. Peter made his own way to the home of an even older couple, a much-respected pair known as Shri Subhas and Hansini Devi. Somehow, he managed to drop off his baggage and to politely evade the onslaught of tea and biscuits offered to him, their honored guest. He knew that their next guest would be the Major himself - for, as the others left, McCormick and his man Ahluwalia would remain with a skeleton crew of soldiers as Mohenjo-Daro's wardens. Surely the Major would be encouraged by the pandits' affections. After the misadventures of the past week, it was heartening to witness a cardinal virtue of Indian culture, hospitality, in action - but Peter simply could not be stayed. There was one last task. Despite his better judgment, and against no small part of his own will, he would return to the hospital.

John Daniel woke up with the barrel of a gun in his mouth.

"Shh," Peter whispered. "Listen: I know everything. I know about the riverside and what you were doing last night. I know that it was your face in the well, and I know it was you directing the jackals. As you might imagine, I am very cross with you just now, Dr. Daniel, and I'm sorely tempted to pull this trigger. But if you do as I say, you might yet save your wretched life. Now, open wide."

Peter removed the gun from Daniel's mouth and replaced it with a large wad of gauze, which he then secured in place by wrapping a bandage tightly around his jaw.

"That's better." Peter tossed another bandage onto Daniel's chest. "Tie your left arm to the bedpost," he instructed.

"Good," Peter said, holstering his weapon. He reached into his haversack and withdrew a large, empty glass syringe. Holding it up so Daniel could get a good look, he remarked, "Can you believe they just left this thing lying around?"

"When I found it," Peter elaborated, "my first thought was to give you a lethal dose of morphine. But then I recalled a story my brother told me about a soldier in a hospital who killed himself simply by injecting enough air into his bloodstream. The technical term is gas embolism. It would be a better death than you deserve, but it's also much quieter than a gun, and leaves less of a trace than morphine. My guess is that your demise would be attributed to medical error, or something in that vein." He smiled mirthlessly at this grim bit of jest.

He continued, "As a fellow intellect, you must be wondering why I would go through all the trouble of tying you up like this when I could have simply killed you in your sleep. The truth is this, Dr. Daniel: there's something I want from you. It's a narrow, elliptical object about this big, previously encased within one of the bricks we uncovered. I know you have it, and I'm guessing it's valuable enough to you to keep it close by, so I'm going to assume it's somewhere in this room with the rest of your belongings. For your sake, let's hope so. You can tell me where to look by directing your eyes to its location."

Peter followed Daniel's panicked gaze to a large trunk on the floor. After opening it and conducting a brief search, he found the strange object tucked away inside a box of cigars. He puzzled over it for a brief moment: it was a roughly cylindrical, tapered, crystalline thing; somewhat resembling a metallic icicle, it was surprisingly light and possessed a dull, graphite sheen. Peter wrapped it in a handkerchief, placed it into his own bag and, for good measure, helped himself to one of the cigars.

"Thank you," Peter said, replacing the trunk and its contents. "You're doing very well so far." He seated himself just out of arm's reach of Daniel and held out a notepad and pencil. "Take them. Good. Now, if you would be so kind, please give me a detailed summary of the object's origin, it's function, and how it is activated. There's no need to rush, we have all night."

Daniel scribbled with his free hand and held up the pad for Peter to see. YOU ARE A BRUTE, it read.

Peter smirked. "For a man in your position, you've got a bloody cheek. But, perhaps there is some truth to what you say."

He rose from his seat and paced, his expression troubled. "A week ago," he confessed, "I would have thought it inconceivable that I would be taking a colleague hostage, let alone contemplating how best to murder him. But my experiences here... shall I call them extraordinary? They have left an indelible impression upon me, Dr. Daniel; they have caused me to doubt everything I took for granted as true and valid, they have called into question every law of nature that I thought governed this world. Why then, should they not also lead me to question the utility of the laws of man? For these are strange times, and they have put me in a desperate frame of mind, and all the events leading up to this moment, sir, were set in motion by you and your vile band of heathens."

"Did you honestly think that you could dabble in the infernal without consequence? That there would be no reprisal for trying to kill me? I've noticed that people here talk a lot about karma. Now, I don't claim to know about such things, Dr. Daniel, but I think we can both agree that you've fucked with the wrong man."

Peter flourished the syringe. "Now," he commanded through clenched teeth, "write."

For all his forceful bluster, which was convincing enough to have intimidated John Daniel into spilling his guts onto paper, Peter did not begin with the intention of killing him. Why would he? After all, Daniel would hardly be so foolish as to complain to McCormick that something which he had stolen from the dig site had just been stolen from him! Moreover, and more importantly, Peter was not that kind of man.

But as he sat there watching Daniel write down his secrets, Peter thought of Irene, and what might happen to them both if Daniel ever had the opportunity to inform the cult as to what they knew and what they had taken, for he would surely do so at the earliest opportunity. As he imagined what kind of horrific revenge the cult would exact upon them, their chances of making it out of India alive seemed to dwindle beyond any reasonable probability. He considered his options, but again and again he came to the same uncomfortable conclusion: if John Daniel did not die, then he and Irene almost certainly would.

Though Peter's personal prohibitions against killing permitted exceptions when it came to the defense of himself and others, it was one thing to weigh such matters in theory and quite another to act upon them with premeditation. As he worked up the nerve to do the unthinkable, not fully convinced that he was even capable of such a deed, he was terribly conscious of the fact that it would not be long before Daniel stopped writing, and then he would have to decide one way or the other.

As if on cue, John Daniel set the pencil down on the pad of paper and held them out for his captor to take. Peter hesitated just a moment before collecting them, and looked down at the man. But he did not see him.

Instead, he saw Daniel's face leering mockingly at him from the well.

He saw Ashan, comatose and trapped in a world of nightmares.

He saw Navid, who would suffer a torturous death in prison for a crime he did not commit.

He saw Irene...

Wordlessly, he grabbed Daniel's free arm, jabbed the needle in, and fully depressed the plunger.

Peter did this until the man stopped moving. It did not take long.

Checking for signs of life and finding none, Peter undid the gag and restraints with a noticeable sense of detachment.

He closed the fresh corpse's eyes and posed it as if in slumber, with everything in its right place.

"Good night, Dr. Daniel."

Peter quietly opened the door and tiptoed into the corridor. "Sorry," he whispered to the guards as he covered a yawn, "I dozed off for a while there." Gently closing the door behind him so as not to disturb the patient beyond, he bade the guards good evening.

Not quite ready for sleep himself, Peter found his way to the veranda, lit the cigar, and smoked in silence while listening to the nocturnal serenade of the Sindh. It had been much easier to kill John Daniel than he anticipated; if anything troubled him, it was not guilt but the complete absence thereof.

V. 26 April, 1924
"Damn you, Peter Cox!" Sergeant Mukherjee clutched the note in his hand.

The three of them – Mukherjee, Irene, and Peter – had only just stepped onto the train platform in Karachi, when a crisply dressed infantryman intercepted them with a telegram. The crowd parted around the Sikh as he read. The same fearsome presence that had for the past several hours granted the two ferenghiyan an amiable pocket of shelter from the crush of bodies on the train suddenly transformed into a tangible aura of rage. Barely containing himself, Mukherjee dismissed the soldier.

"Do you hear me?" He clenched his teeth when he spoke. Never before had Peter actually seen someone whose eyes were 'like daggers,' but Mukherjee's were so narrowed and filled with angry heat that Peter could barely meet the Sergeant's fierce nazar. He cast his own gaze about the station and saw nothing but cautiously curious eyes, flitting between the predatory stare of the Sergeant and their own weaving, intersecting paths. Peter looked to Irene, and he saw puzzlement and a wordless but deeply sincere request in her face for some form of elucidation. Mukherjee growled once again, and Peter winced at the words: "You are responsible for this!"

Parts I & V by da solomon.
Parts II, III, IV by homodm.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Resolve and Resolution

What great noise the truck made as it traversed the dirt track that served as the main thoroughfare to camp. No one spoke, but there was no such thing as silence. There was the grinding of stones and dirt under rubber, the creaking of stiff suspension, and the growling of the truck's engine as it pulled its human load over the land's low rises. Birds fled before it, chirping their agitation. A group of nomads were resting near the track, and the noise roused their camels, who showed their disdain for the interruption by bearing their teeth and uttering their strange camel noises. The nomad children chased after the truck, throwing stones and yelling, "Booree nazarwalee, hamen mat dekh!" One child removed his sandal and tossed it ineffectively down the road.

Neither the stones nor the shoe ever came anywhere near the Hack. As the children disappeared behind a rise, Peter looked down into his empty hands and then to the floor. What few virtues Peter dared to count as his own seemed to be threatened by this place. It was these virtues – his decisiveness, his confidence in matters of human history – that bound his resolve to go out into the world, and if they were loosening, then his will to be a part of it, let alone to subject himself to the hardships of life in the very fringes of the Empire, would fall to tatters. He wanted to leave very, very much. "Evil eye guy, don't look at me!" the children had cried. He had wished he had a rock or even the impudence to heft his own boot at the children. Five hours at camp – only five more hours, and he could take himself and his things away from the Mound of the Dead, and under the careful guard of Bhakti, he could return to a place where he could recuperate in peace.

While Peter collected his things, Irene headed to the antiquities tent to oversee the packing and ordering of the finds. The Major was already there. "Ah! Miss Howell! I'm happy to see that you remain undiminished!" he said, smiling earnestly.

"There has been some new mischief in camp – ah, so, Professor Humphries gave you word. Very good – I mean, it is a pity, but a temporary hold on operations seems to be the best course of action. What can be gained by continuing on with a dig that's cursed?" Before Irene could offer an answer – for she surely had several – McCormick clarified himself. "I mean it metaphorically, of course . . . but the sentiment is popular among the men right now. If I don't call things to a halt," he said not entirely unapologetically, "I'm sure the laborers will abandon us anyway. They insist that something preternatural has been happening here. This very problem is ubiquitous in the minds of the Crown's tropical subjects, as I'm sure you know. Yet this time the case is that unfortunate circumstances, crime, and native hokum have conspired to make continuing here more trouble than it's worth."

"I suppose you have only our well beings in mind," Irene suggested, charitable as ever. She moved to the table and took the catalog in her hands.

"Yes, I do – first Cox and now Daniel. About Professor Daniel: He said that there was an accident – this much he passed to Humphries before going mum. Humphries is convinced that something has disturbed the man into silence, and I tend to agree with him. I don't mean to alarm you, but in my opinion, Professor Daniel has met with foul play at the hands of some person in camp. I think that Daniel refuses to speak for this reason: he fears retribution at the hands of the laborers.

"Indeed," McCormick continued, "we have our suspect in captivity at this very moment. Yes! He's all tied up in the sick tent. A man named Navid. You see, it had occurred to me that while all of my men were accountable during the theft, the local labor was not. So, Sergeant Ahluwalia and I set about questioning each and every worker on the payroll. I say, unless all fifteen of them are acting in concert, they were indeed all accountable the night of the intrusion. But, my questions didn't end there! I asked them about last night, when Daniel was injured. One of them claimed that he was in camp. But no one could remember him there. I confronted the man with this and he silenced himself. I think that this man attacked Daniel. He may even know something about the vandalism!" McCormick was pleased with himself – it was obvious to Irene that this had been the source of his earnestness in greeting her. He had wanted to show off.

"Of course, it all would have been much easier to accomplish if the professor would only have had done the fingering himself – but these Bombay babus are squeamish if nothing else – and, besides, he may know something that we don't."

Could it possibly be as simple as this? Irene knew better - and surely the Major knew, too, that this was an imperfect resolution to the affair.

McCormick noted the concern on her brow. "It's a temporary hiatus at worst. Nevertheless, it is time to move what we have to some safer place. I've already been over the catalog there, and I believe everything is in order. If you like, you can give it another look. But do be ready to leave at seven o'clock."

Saturday, January 17, 2009

In the Light

At noon, a small crowd of soldiers and others had gathered at the front gate of the hospital, expecting the truck from Mohenjo-Daro. It was hot and there was little wind, but everyone waited, stuck there at the gate in the sun on account of their separate and respective desires to move away from the events of the previous evening. Everyone was dressed in light clothing and light colors, which reflected the sunlight - from a distance, through the inevitable heat distortion, the group might have resembled angels, or devas, waiting at a rural bus stop.

Irene was wearing the clothes that she had arrived in, and at her feet there was a small case containing the books and personal effects that she had taken from camp. Nearby, Peter was as empty-handed as the night he had arrived. To replace his torn pajamas and the hospital clothing he had been wearing, he had been outfitted with a freshly pressed kurta-pajama combination. His heavy boots stuck out incongruously from beneath the long shirt - but aside from this, his height, his lack of a beard and a proper taqiyah cap, his light skin and European features, and finally the fact that he was smoking, Peter was the doppleganger of Doctor Ayub, who waited beside him.

It was not long before the cloud of dust could be seen rising above the scrub and few visible buildings in the vicinity. From a distance, the group could easily see that the approaching truck was filled with people. In the front passenger seat, Irene recognized Professor Humphries, and behind him several soldiers and workers – but no John Daniel. The truck, a relatively new and already worn Depot Hack, rattled and rolled to a stop at the gate, grinding the road. Humphries was the first out. He scarcely greeted Peter and Irene, and immediately, as though the relief of saying it could not be forestalled any longer, he said, "McCormick's postponing the dig."

"Why?" asked Ayub. Soldiers and workers were hopping out, the boots clopping onto the ground. Irene noticed that they were stepping around something on the floor of the automobile.

"He feels it is unsafe. Something happened last night." Humphries looked to the truck bed. "Doctor? This is John Daniel, he's been injured." The soldiers began to carefully pull John from the Hack, feet first. Humphries turned to Peter and Irene. "I think it's just temporary, but you'll have to get your things from camp. With you, Peter, this is two of our people who have met with serious injuries." Looking back at John Daniel, Humphries added, "I think he's been scared out of his wits by something. I don't think he can talk. I don't like it." He paused, considering what he had just said. "The artifacts will be brought up tomorrow. By then, Major McCormick wants archaeological personnel off the site. Miss Howell says he can make arrangements for your boo-"

"Well, tell me, man!" interrupted Ayub. "What happened to him?" The soldiers brought the stretcher to the group. Apart from his mouth and the hint of his English-style moustache, nothing could be seen of John Daniel's face behind the wrappings. Perhaps padded with cotton balls, his eyes seemed to bulge beneath the dressings.

Humphries answered, "I found him like this in his tent this morning. He said he fell from the riverbank in the night and crawled his way into camp. But since then, he's been unresponsive."

Ayub leaned over John and peered into the bandages. "How do you feel?" he asked. John, apparently conscious, turned his head away from the doctor. "We have another unresponsive man inside. You see, something happened here, too . . ."

Peter's attendant, Bhakti, had been standing quietly by. She clutched her satchel tightly on her shoulder and stared at the ground.

(Image of a 1920 Depot Hack, not filled with people, from the Model T Ford Club of America.)

Saturday, January 10, 2009


I. The Middle of the Night

Irene stayed with Peter as long as she was able, watching over his pallid, comatose form as the nurses did their best to clean and tend to his wounds, until at last she was chased from the room by Doctor Ayub, who immediately went to work stitching Peter's mangled wrist and repairing the sutures in his abdomen that had come undone in the course of his tangle with the jackals.

In the next room, attended to by a single dreary-eyed nurse, Ashan seemed to be resting on a cot. Irene was too tired by now to disturb either the nurse or Ashan, who was in all likelihood in the same poisoned state suffered by Mohan and Peter.

II. Morning, 25 April 1924

Peter had seemed in grave condition indeed, which is why Irene was surprised when she came to his room the next morning to find him up and about. He and one of the nurses had been conversing about something, but fell silent when they noticed Irene in the doorway. "Come in," Peter said to her before dismissing the nurse, who closed the door on her way out. They were alone. Peter gestured to a chair, inviting Irene to sit, but he remained standing.

"I'm leaving," he declared, his arms crossed.

"I'm... I'm sorry I did not come back for you," he stammered nervously. "I was..."


He wiped his forehead and looked at his shoes. Then he looked up at the ceiling, then toward the window. He seemed to look everywhere, except at Irene.

"I... I'm not a superstitious man. Nor an especially godly man, heaven knows. But there are ungodly things at work here. Last night, at the well... there was a light, and a voice... I swear it was giving the jackals commands... and then I looked within, and there was a face! A man's face, by God!"

His hands were shaking. Peter fumbled for a cigarette. He struggled to hold the match steady long enough to light it.

"I don't know what happened next," he continued. "It was like a dream or vision, in which I was trapped... I was in a library... no, not a library, but something akin to a library, only much more... no, grand is not the right word. Vast? Monstrous... some dark and awful repository of knowledge, Irene, knowledge not of this world. And there was a book of some kind before me, and strange letters on mineral pages... and I couldn't look away, I could only keep reading..."

He extinguished his cigarette, barely smoked, and immediately reached for another.

"I still don't have the words for what I saw in that book. I can only barely grasp it now, and the more I try the more elusive the images and sensations become. But I have no doubt that these things shall be fodder for nightmares for the rest of my days."

"This cult, whoever they are... I am convinced their power is real, Irene, and there is nothing in all my experience or education that has prepared me for it, no logic or reason, nothing in my mind or soul that can defend me against it. And I am afraid, Irene, so afraid that digging into their mysteries will be just like reading that hellish book, and that my life will become a terror from which I cannot awaken, cannot escape..."

"So, I am leaving this accursed land and its damned jackals and death cults," Peter reaffirmed, his voice stronger as he articulated his plans for egress. "I'm going somewhere safe, where perhaps in time my sanity and my spirits will recover. In fact, I shall be departing forthwith; the nurse who was here when you came in will be accompanying me, which is what she and I were discussing. We still have some details to hammer out, so I must regretfully excuse myself. I will return to camp today and collect my effects and perhaps take some notes to occupy me during my travels. I'll wire you once I have arrived, if you like, but I should hope that you not linger here much longer, either."

(text by HomoDM and da solomon)

(End of Act II.

Peter: +8 anthropology, +3 occult, +8 Urdu
Irene: +5 listen, +8 persuade

Please continue freely in this post. Action will resume when the truck arrives from Mohenjo-Daro at noon on the 25th, in a new post.)

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Shadow of the Babul

I. Sundown Coming
Through the windows, Irene and Peter could see the sun setting across the Sindh – not orange as they had once dreamed of the Indian sun, but a bright yellow ball, hefting light across the steppes even as it was impelled down, down behind the Earth. As the light filtered through the branches of the lone babul tree in the front garden of the hospital, shadows seemed to pull themselves off the tree's boughs. They strained and stretched into the windows of Peter's room and the hallway, waving and undulating like the black fingers of the spinster tree's nighttime self. Down the hallway, past Ayub's empty office, past the now also empty room where the dead intruder had been laid, past another room where the injured soldier had been staying, and past yet another, the door to Mumbles' chamber was cracked open. Inside, Peter and Irene could hear a voice. A breeze blew through the open window and the shadow boughs seemed to caress Mumbles' door. Irene could smell smoke from outside – acrid, unidentifiable smoke. She had been on an anthropomorphizing streak lately, and she fancied that the tree's shadow was reaching towards the captured intruder, and that the smoke was somehow the odor of its nighttime form. Perhaps it should be let into his room? She wondered how the man would react to seeing her. When Peter caught a whiff of the smoke, he covered his nose – it was, he knew, the last remnant of the other intruder's funeral pyre.

As the pair approached the room, it became clear that the voice belonged to Mukherjee and, from the noise of boots shuffling, that there were several soldiers inside. At the threshold, the pair could hear Mukherjee, reading: "Main, Krishna, jo Gay ki Rakshee hai, yah qabul deta hoon. Kosh ke vinash evm hatya ke iraadaa rakhkr Angrezee padaav pahonchaane ka irada, jo apne aparaadhe hain, main sveekaar kartaa hoon. Angrezeeon ko maara, kuch lajjaa nahin mera. Jay Mata Bhaarat."

[For Peter: "I, Krishna, the Protector of Cows, give this confession. I admit to my crimes of entering the English camp with the intention of murder and destroying treasures. Death to the English, I have no shame. Hail Mother India."]

Karan had departed from Peter's side to allow a private meeting with Irene. He was in the room with the other soldiers, standing near the door. Looking over his shoulder, he noticed Peter in the hallway and opened the door for him. "Ji," he nodded. "Miss Howell." Shadows slid from the door as it opened and seemed to climb up the legs and shoulders and faces of the soldiers. "Mukherjee has just finished . . . interrogating the prisoner. His name is Krishna." Mumbles – Krishna – lay on his bed, surrounded by Mukherjee and three other soldiers.

The Sergeant finished Karan's narrative for him. "I say, he wanted a beating. So I gave it to him. We have our confession. This will be sufficient to see him off to Kala Pani!" He peered around the room. The threat of imprisonment in the Andamans was not a pleasant thought. "We're done. Saagar, secure him again, everyone else out. Saagar - God's sake, crack the window a little for some wind. It's time to show him some mercy." The soldiers – four counting Mukherjee, Karan, Mandeep, and Arjun – shuffled through the door, Mukherjee last of them. "Were you planning on seeing him?" he asked. "Quite sorry, then, but I think he's had enough for tonight. We shall see in the morning. Nurse!" In short time one of the nurses, Anita, responded to the call. In brusque Urdu, Mukherjee ordered her to prepare to stay the night in the corridor in case of an emergency, and explained that he had been required to beat the man, but that he did not wish to see him worsen. He assured her that Private Saagar would be in the room with Krishna.

II. Nighttime
Irene's room was situated between Peter's own and Doctor Ayub's office. When the door was open, she could see clear across the hallway and through a window. She had a very good view of the babul tree. Though she was a relative newcomer to the Empire's Jewel and its flora, she was already familiar with the character of the babul. It was rather like an acacia tree, and Irene had spent many an afternoon reading and writing in the shade of her trusty friend, the Acacia nilotica. The babuls of India were Acacia arabica, at least according to a brief she had read in Mumbai, where she had enjoyed the opportunity of climbing a steep hill to meet with Babulnath, Lord Shiva in the form of a Babul tree. That tree in Mumbai, she was told, was an earthly incarnation of the world tree shared by Buddhists and Hindus, as well as by the Germanic tribes and the Slavs. As a friendly presence and as the centerpiece of an urban temple, Irene felt that acacias and babuls were just fine as trees and that they made attractive figures in the landscape. This one tree, though; this tree of Ayub's: there had been something about the play of the light through its broad, flattened boughs, something strange about the shadows it had cast. Like it was tangibly touching whatever its shadow happened to fall upon. Surely, it had only been the lingering wariness from the violent events of two nights ago, and the strange conversation she had had with Peter – a cult! To think of it! Irene decided that Ayub's tree was a fine tree too and that she should leave it at that.

Now, it was night, and there was no way to distinguish a shadow from the darkness. Irene carefully closed her door, took her dress off and folded it neatly in a chair. She stretched out in her bed, and finally lay her head on her hands and closed her eyes to sleep. She drifted in and out of a temple on a hilltop, surrounded by a throng of devotees to the world tree.

When we sleep, we fall into suspension. As we sleep we take no notice of how delicately our senses hang, but if, in the single moment of falling into the sling of dreams, we are awoken, we struggle to come to our senses, to right our drifting bodies. It was in this moment that Irene heard a knocking on her door and a sob. She felt as if she had been dropped from some height, but without any impact, just a confusing sweep into the arms of the solid world, now dark all around her.

Peter, who had sat up running theory after theory through his mind, was only half-asleep. He heard the muffled sound of a knock on Irene's door.

(Peter passed a listen check.)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Jackals of the Indus

I. Tuesday

The remainder of the day of the 22nd goes by slowly. Peter and Irene find themselves crowded from the trench by Humphries and Daniel, who are busy extracting and cataloguing yet more bricks, and by the grosser excavations of the Sindhi laborers. "Don't worry Ma'am-ji, Peter," Daniel cheerily assures them. "I'm quite sure that there will be plenty of dirt for both of you to dig tomorrow. Ha! – if you so please, Miss Howell!"

And so Peter and Irene pass the remainder of the hot day by themselves. At a loss for other things to do, Peter spends some time helping Irene to unpack and organize the veritable library of archaeological catalogs and other scholarly references that she has brought with her. And what a mass of ink and paper it is! In these books, there are countless descriptions of materials unearthed from sites throughout Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, Australia, South Asia, and North America. For all the economic, political, and strategic troubles inherent in managing such a vast dominion, one of the greatest outcomes of the British Empire is the accumulation and disciplining of such disparate sources of historical and pre-historical knowledge. Truly, without the heaving machinery that is the Imperial bureaucracy, the collation of such an extensive collection of comparative materials from the far corners of the planet might have been impossible.

For his part, the Major spends the rest of his time in his tent with the flap closed, permitting only his right-hand man, Mukherjee to enter. Late in the afternoon, as the Sergeant brings some chai to the excluded duo, he explains that, "Major McCormick is very busy writing letters to his family. And to Sir Marshall and Banerji as well." He leaves it at that.

II. That Night

It is cold tonight; surprisingly so. In their respective tents, Peter and Irene have bundled themselves in harsh wool blankets to fight off the unexpected chill.

Tonight, it seems, something has unnerved the jackals. They yap and chatter in the dark night, their squealing voices echoing across the Indus and into the camp, making it difficult to sleep. Are they hunting? Do they seek mates? Are they mourning? The Westerners in the camp hear nothing but cackling and screeching, and the jackals' voices tell no stories.

It is nearly three o'clock in the morning when the jackals suddenly and conspicuously cease their prattling. Perhaps there are wolves about? The larger canines are known to hunt their diminutive brethren.

If only! After some minutes, the jackals resume their galling chorus, howling more loudly and more madly before. Such a cacophony, neither Peter nor Irene have ever heard before – not in Egypt, not in the Sindh. The pitch of their feral cries climbs and climbs, escalating into a racket of whistles, not unlike the whining of worn brakes on a train, but staccato and even harsher to the ear. Something must be very wrong in the world of the jackals.

Irene, who is already a bit worried about her standing at the camp, finds it very difficult to ignore the jackals' cries. It seems to her that the jackals are speaking – but not to one another. To whom, then? She cannot seem to get the idea out of her head that there is some message in the frustratingly uninterpretable shrieks of the little beasts. Her mind strains against her will to decipher it. Perhaps her rationale has been aggravated by her linguistic hallucination earlier in the day, or perhaps she is simply over-tired and half-dreaming. Sleep comes to her only in brief fits.

She closes her eyes once again. In the space between two yelps, Irene hears something moving amongst the tents – some animal, she senses. Have the jackals come to scavenge?

Then – a sound like wood straining and splitting – and a crash! The source of the noise is just outside the front flaps of Peter's and Irene's respective tents.

Something is happening in the antiquities tent!

(Peter passes his sanity check vs. the jackals' unnatural chatter. Irene fails hers: -1 sanity point. Actions that have taken place between sections one and two may be privately emailed to me – but only if they would substantially interrupt continuity or if it is absolutely necessary that they be concealed from other players. Action picks up at the crashing sound, which both Peter and Irene hear. I will wait for responses from both players before commenting.)