Even after six months, I still flinched when I heard the police siren. It didn’t matter that I was across an ocean in an entirely different country where they spoke English instead of Spanish. The tension I felt did not end until the sound retreated into the distance.
I was sitting at an outdoor café in London, warming myself with a hot cup of tea and wondering what I would do next. For the last several months I had been working on a cruise ship with the plan that once I had saved up a little bit of money, I would start looking for work as a linguist again, whether it be teaching or interpreting or some combination of the two. I knew it was the type of work I was best at and even that I used to love it, but Mexico… Well, Mexico had changed things for me. There was a taste of something bitter in my mouth now, and I couldn’t seem to make it go away. So I sat in the café with my tea and brooded over the future.
What pulled me out of my own thoughts was a voice from behind me, speaking not in English but in Turkish.
“Gunaydin.” Good morning. “I’d like a cup of your Turkish coffee.”
“Ozur dilerim,” I’m sorry, said the waiter, “but there are no seats available.”
“There must be one somewhere – perhaps a table in the back can be brought out? I promised a friend I would meet him here shortly.”
“There are no more tables in the back, sir.”
I turned to look. The man was short with a dark complexion, a clean shaven head, and a curly black beard. The waiter did look like he could be Turkish, but I would not have been able to guess just from his face which, at the moment, had a slightly pained expression on it.
“Afedersiniz,” Excuse me, I said. “There’s an extra seat here. I won’t be staying long, and if there’s not another table when your friend arrives, the two of you can have mine.”
He turned and looked at me, studying my face for a moment before he spoke – this time in English.
“Thank you. That is most kind.” He took a seat across from me and placed his bag on the ground.
“How did you know where the waiter was from?”
“His bone structure – I am somewhat of an expert in physical anthropology. My name is Charles.”
“Phillip.” We shook hands.
“Are you American, Phillip?”
“What part of the states do you live in?”
“I don’t live anywhere at the moment, actually.” There was an emotional edge to my voice that I had not intended to be there.
“What about you?” I asked to cover my embarrassment.
“Like you, I have been a bit of a vagabond. Mostly I am wherever my research takes me.”
“And your research has brought you to London?”
“Yes. I am here for the conference and the talks on the Great Puzzle.”
Charles looked surprised.
“You haven’t heard of the Great Puzzle?”
I shook my head.
Charles chuckled. “I think you are perhaps the only one in the entire city at this moment.”
Anger rose up like acid inside me. It must have shown on my face because Charles took one look at my expression and instantly his mirth turned to concern.
“My apologies. I did not mean to offend you. It just surprised me because the story has been in the newspapers so much.”
“Yeah, well, I haven’t read a newspaper in the last three and a half years.” I glared at him for a moment, and then I let out a long sigh. “I’m sorry Charles. I overreacted. I just…”
Charles waited, concern still softening his face.
“Have you ever been to Mexico, Charles?”
“Yes, many times.”
“How about Chiapas near the border with Guatemala?”
“Well, I spent the last three years there in a jail cell.”
“My God – I’m sorry. What happened?”
“I was working as a teacher in San Cristobal. I worked mostly with the children of the wealthier Mexicans, but in the evenings I taught Spanish and English to the indigenous people who sold hand made goods to the tourists. Sometimes I also helped translate for the state officials. For years there the indigenous peoples have been taken advantage of by the local government and the landowners. And I thought that if they learned to speak to each other, then maybe it would unite them, you know? I thought that if both sides could just talk to each other and get to know each other better, then they would have to treat each other like human beings. God I was so naïve!”
“There was a dispute over some land that was part of an ejido, a local community of indigenous people, on the outskirts of San Cristobal. A group of Mexican business developers had paid the local officials for the right to build a tourist resort there. They wanted to build an exclusive private getaway outside the city to attract rich Europeans. But the land belonged to an indigenous community. I helped translate for the people who lived there and even helped them challenge the claim to the land in court.”
“One night, I was walking down a street and a police car pulled up beside me. Even then, I wasn’t afraid. My Spanish was so good, that I had always been able to talk myself out of situations with the police before. Language was like magic for me – it got me through the impossible. This time, however, they didn’t even give me a chance to talk. They hit me with their macanas, their batons. Then they put a bag over my head and shoved me into the back of the car. They never even bothered to come up with a crime for me. They just threw me in a cell and forgot about me for three years. Then one morning, they pulled me back out, put me on a bus for Mexico City, and told me not to come back.”
I ran my hands over my face, wishing I had cold water to wash away the memory of that filthy little room in the jail.
“So how did you wind up in London?” Charles asked.
“I was broke and homeless when I made it to Mexico City. With my language skills I was able to get a job on a cruise ship. It was good because I didn’t need to have a separate place to stay. And now that I’ve saved up a little bit of money, I had planned on looking for another job as a teacher, but things…well… I guess I’m not sure what the point is anymore. Do you know what I mean?”
“You’ve lost your belief that language can unite people.”
“Yeah… I guess that’s it.”
“It can help, but sometimes it is not enough.” He rubbed one hand across the smooth skin of his scalp. “Let me tell you a story, now.” He leaned forward with his elbows on the table and began to speak in a clear, practiced voice about the Great Puzzle.
“The first piece was discovered at an archaeological dig in India. The atmosphere was tense with Christians and Hindus menacing the site daily as they each blamed the others for allowing the dig to take place on holy ground. The head of the university sponsoring the dig was just about to order everyone out when she received a phone call from the professor in charge that something had been found - something big.”
“The one who found it was Professor Zamin, and what he had found was nothing less than a key to a unifying theory of religion. It was in the form of a tablet with two parallel columns of text, one in Sanskrit and one in a never before seen written language. There was no author. Nor was there any mention of an individual. There was no explanation of how the tablets came to be written. The writing itself was not so much a story as a history. It began with the following:
Life is a search for an answer to a question that can not be expressed in words. The answer is vast, and there are as many pieces to it as there are forms that life can take. Each aspect of life is therefore the key to a single piece of the answer. Humanity is at the forefront of this search, and it carries with it not only the awareness of the question but also the ability to gather the pieces of the answer together. Thus people scatter far and wide, and each one holds a different piece sacred. They call them religions, traditions, wisdoms, and truths. But it must be remembered always that each holds just a piece of this great puzzle, and it is only by bringing these pieces together that the answer will become known.
“When the translation of the tablet was published it was a hot topic amongst archaeologists but mostly ignored by everyone else. But then, only six months later, a second inscription with the same unknown language was found. This one was in an underground chamber beneath a Mayan pyramid in the jungles of Mexico. The core message was the same, but the language was Mayan and the inscriptions were in stone. Then a third followed in China and a fourth in Norway. Around this time, the story began to appear on a couple of popular blogs and from there it spread like wildfire across the net and onto newspapers and radio shows. Hundreds of millions of people were suddenly reading or listening to translations of the tablets. Professor Zamin became an elusive favorite of the press, always cutting a dashing figure in his fedora, sunglasses, and dark beard.”
“To the world's religious leaders, he was both a blessing and a curse. A few of the more open minded of them were excited by the discoveries. To them the Great Puzzle was an opportunity to share with everyone the best parts of their religion. Passionate debates began over which religious practices brought the most comfort and goodness to people's lives. But the idea at the heart of the Great Puzzle was a direct challenge to the belief that defines most religions: that their truth is the only one and all that you will ever need. What sacrilege! Most wanted it suppressed and the inscriptions discredited as fakes. The damage, however, was already done. Everyday, the idea of the Great Puzzle gained more exposure.”
“Still, the question of the inscriptions' authenticity remained. The writing on the tablets represented the first ancient language ever to be found spread across three continents, and there was absolutely no information about who might have developed this language. What's more, their verification had been exclusively the work of Professor Zamin, and although he was considered to be a premier authority in the area of archaeology, there were some who felt that such important work should not be left to one man. Religious organizations were pressing all of the governments involved for a chance to let their own team study the inscriptions. Professor Zamin offered to let anyone study the tablets in his presence, but he was afraid that religious fanatics might try to destroy them. And so he refused to release them despite orders to do so from the University.”
“Finally, as pressure continued to mount, Professor Zamin made an announcement. A conference on mythology was already scheduled in London for the next month, and the Professor told reporters that not only would he be speaking at the conference, but that he would be presenting a new discovery that would settle once and for all any questions of the tablets' authenticity.”
Charles leaned back in his chair and ran his hand over his beard.
“That is why I came to London, and that is why you should come to the conference this afternoon.”
My mind was still trying to process all that he had said. I took another sip of my tea.
“Phillip, you said that you wanted to help unite people. Language is not enough – a new myth is needed for out time. Come to the conference and hear this proof. It may turn out to be the very thing that you are searching for.”
In the distance, a clock chimed the half hour. Charles reached into his bag and pulled out a folded sheet of paper.
“This is the agenda for the conference. Thank you for the seat and the conversation. I must go.”
“What about your friend?” I asked.
“If he has not arrived by now, then I don’t think that he is coming.” Charles stood up, lifted his bag, and pushed in his chair.
I held out my hand, and he shook it.
“Thank you, Charles, for the story and for the invitation. Maybe I will see you at the conference.”
“Perhaps…” And with that, he walked out into the street.
This part of town was quiet in the morning, so Charles had the street to himself. When he reached the cross street, he turned right and disappeared from my sight. At the same time, a man walked into view from the left and paused. He seemed to be watching Charles’s progress ahead of him. He took his cigarette and tossed it to the ground. Then he hoisted a bag over his shoulder and hurried across the street in the direction that Charles had gone.
“Ah,” I said to myself. “Your friend has finally caught up with you.”
I thought about all that Charles had said. Could this new mythology really unite people from different cultures and religions? And had I really missed so much in the last few years? Despite what I had said to Charles, I had actually looked at a newspaper once after I left Mexico, but everything had seemed so different. The unfamiliarity of the world had been overwhelming, so I had thrown it aside and not read another paper since. Now I wondered if I had missed something that would have changed everything for me.
I glanced down at the pamphlet. There was a tight, excited feeling inside me now. Carefully, I counted out some money and placed it under the tea cup. Then I grabbed the pamphlet and headed for the University.
I got to the auditorium early to try and get a good seat, but the place was already packed. I had never seen so many people at an academic conference in my life. The room was filled with the buzz of excited conversations.
I grabbed a seat about a quarter of the way from the back and studied my pamphlet. Each event had a brief description of the topic along with a picture of the speaker or panel host. I read through the intro for this lecture, and then I studied the picture. It was of a man in his forties wearing a fedora and sunglasses and with a curly black beard. Somehow, he looked familiar. I peered closer at the small image, and then my eyes widened in recognition. I glanced at the tiny print below the picture.
Professor C. Zamin
The C. must stand for Charles.
Something shook the doors of the auditorium. The windows rattled in their panes, and I felt a vibration in the floor. For a moment there was dead silence. Then the room burst into chaos. Everyone began scrambling for the doors at once. I flinched as sirens began to sound in the distance. There was shouting from outside.
"A bomb! A bomb!"
"Professor Zamin…they've killed Professor Zamin!"
posted by D @ 3:06 PM
I love stories - especially speculative fiction, and I named this blog Brief Glimpses of Somewhere Else because I think of each story as a window into another world.
If this is your first time here, I recommend "Legacies" and "The Great Puzzle", both of which were nominated for a 2006 Parsec Award. You can also find "Timmy, Jimmy, and the Beast of Tagmart" as well as "Late Shift at the Souleater" in the podcast anthology Voices: New Media Fiction available at podiobooks.com.
Late Shift at the Soul Eater
[The next two weeks...]
[About The Man of Adventure]
The Man of Adventure
[About Reality Hackers]
The Spirit's Dream
[A New Look]
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