“Señor, you’ve got one chance to tell me what’s going on, and if I don’t like it, I’m going to throw you in that jail cell for the next week before I ask again.”
I looked up at the police officer. He stared back at me with narrowed eyes, a wooden matchstick clenched between his teeth. He kept it moving from one side of his mouth to the other while he waited for me to confess.
Panic was flooding my blood stream with adrenalin. I wanted to knock over the table in front of me, push past him, and run out the door of this little room and out of the station. I had to stop myself from yelling “I didn’t do anything!” at the top of my lungs.
Almost an hour ago, I had arrived at the post office in San Sebastian (Donostia, it was called in Basque) just in time to Xabier walk out and get into a car. I had rushed to a taxi, pointed at the car, and told the driver in Basque to follow it. Xabier had headed west out of the city with us behind him. But sitting in the back of the cab, I was overcome with exhaustion from the plane ride, and I had drifted off to sleep.
This must have all seemed suspicious to the driver. He followed Xabier’s car all the way to a small town about 15 kilometers down the coast, but when he realized that I was asleep, he turned into the local police station.
Focus, I told myself. Concentrate on what you need to say. Don’t speak in English or in Basque – he works for the government of Spain.
“I was following a man,” I said in Spanish.
For the second time, I found myself trying to think of an excuse for why I was after this man. The police officer watched me closely. His matchstick had stopped moving.
“He’s…engaged to my sister. He seems like a good man, but there have been some rumors that he might be already married. I was following him, because I needed to make sure that he is an honest man.”
The police officer slumped back in his chair with the matchstick once again shifting from side to side. He looked at me and shook his head slowly. Then he stood up and walked to the doorway.
“Is there anything in his bag?” he yelled to someone.
“Nothing of interest,” a voice answered.
“Have they found that car yet?”
“Where is it?”
“It’s parked in the street next to Naroa’s Pub.”
The police officer nodded, and then turned back to face me.
“Sneaking around like this is not the way for a man to act. You should go into this pub, buy a couple of pints, and ask him straight up if he is already married. If he says yes, then you hit him once in the jaw and your sister never speaks to him again.” He pulled the matchstick from his mouth and pointed at me with it. “Understand?”
“Yes sir. You are right. I will ask him to his face.” I nodded my head and tried to look determined.
“Come on. I’ll drop you off.”
The street where the police officer dropped me off was little more than an alley. Through the opening at the opposite end I could see the masts of fishing boats. The smell of the ocean was everywhere. I could almost taste the salt in the air. Xabier's car was still parked on the right side, but there was no one in it. Across from it was the entrance to the Naroa’s Pub. The door was made of old thick wooden planks, but it swung easily open.
Inside, thin beams of light cut the edges of the shuttered windows. It was just enough illumination to see the curling tobacco haze which filled the room. A handful of patrons sat near the bar where an older man with a grey mustache was polishing glasses. There was no sign of Xabier.
Everyone turned as I entered. No one smiled. Tiny frown lines appeared at the corner of the barman’s eyes and mouth.
“What do you want?” he said in English. “…to drink,” he added at last.
“Nik kafesne bat.” I’ll have a coffee. The little lines around his eyes and mouth seemed to soften. The patron nearest the bar slouched back against his seat, easing a tension I had felt but not seen.
“Sorry,” he said in Basque. “I thought from your clothes you were a foreigner.”
“I just visited America.”
The bartender nodded and poured me a coffee with milk. The smell of it mixed with the smoke and the faint sweetness of the cider and tickled my nose. I sipped the drink and turned to survey the rest of the room, looking for anything that might tell me where my quarry had gone. The bartender noticed my gaze.
“Are you looking for someone?”
Again, he nodded as if it made perfect sense to him.
“His boat is the third one down from here, but you should hurry. I think they are putting out soon.” He motioned with his head over his left shoulder. I nodded back, dropped some bills on the bar, and walked out.
Once outside again, I ran down the narrow street and onto the wooden dock. My pulse quickened as I tried to imagine what I would do now. There was no time to stay back and watch from a distance. The ship was going to leave, and I would have no way to follow.
I strained my eyes searching for the right one. There! I stopped running. I could see several men carrying wooden crates and duffel bags down into the ship. Standing at the prow and poring over a map with a second man was Xabier. He pointed at the map and said something to the man next to him. He –
I stopped. My legs felt weak. The feeling in my gut grew frantic like a thousand butterflies trying to escape a net. I squeezed my eyes shut for a second and then opened them again. The scene had not changed. There, standing next to Xabier, holding one side of the map, was Charles.
The moment I saw Professor Zamin all thought about what I was doing fled. I stood still for a long moment trying to understand what I was seeing. Deep in the back of my mind the wheels started to turn. I flashed on the image of Xabier following Charles down the street across from the café.
I took a step toward the boat.
I saw again the picture of Xabier from the back taken by the security camera as he carried the large bag into the lab. The same camera had not seen him leave. He had left another way – with the Professor.
I took another step.
There were too many bones in the lab. If it wasn’t for the witnesses, they might never have known that the Professor had been in there when the bomb went off.
Someone on the ship must have noticed me, because the men on board had stopped loading boxes. Charles looked up, and recognition flashed across his face. He pushed the map into Xabier's hands and began slowly walking toward me. Xabier shouted a question to him, but he did not answer.
I remembered what else I had read in a newspaper. What makes this despicable act of terror so tragic is the way it simultaneously destroyed not only the courageous man who discovered the Great Puzzle, but whatever evidence he had found to prove its authenticity as well...And since the Professor told no one the details of his discovery, we can only wonder what the exact nature of that proof was going to be…
"There was no proof," I said aloud and took another step.
Questions zipped through my head like debris in a whirlwind. Professor Zamin announced that he had the answer, and then he faked his own death. Now anyone that was open to the possibility that the inscriptions might be real is assuming that they are real. Searching for the Professor’s lost proof will probably become the most popular research project in the whole college of archaeology. But why was there a need for any of it? Professor Zamin was a scholar and a scientist. Even if he couldn't prove the authenticity of the inscriptions yet, why give up and resort to a lie? It didn’t make sense. There were lots of things that science hadn’t been able to prove right away, but eventually enough evidence was accumulated. Why not just keep working until you really could prove their authenticity?
I looked up. My feet had stopped moving. Charles was standing a meter away. His amber eyes looked into mine with a somber intensity, as if he was holding an avalanche back with the sheer force of his will.
"You couldn't wait for real proof because you knew there would be none. The inscriptions are fakes." I waited, but he did not move or say anything.
"ZL didn't evolve. Its structure is too perfect. It was created," I continued. "There is no evidence of ZL anywhere else in history. It has only been found on four inscriptions…four fake inscriptions…four fake inscriptions all found by you…" The last piece of the puzzle hit my brain like a brick dropped from an airplane.
"You designed ZL. You faked the inscriptions. You made up the Great Puzzle."
A sad smile spread slowly across Professor Zamin's face.
"Why?" I asked. Charles blinked at me, then held up his pointer finger like he was about to make a point.
“Do you remember what I said to you that morning at the café? Language is not enough – a new myth is needed for our time. Over the past century there has been a rise in destructive violence and warfare unlike anything we would have imagined. Since my birth alone, the world has seen slaughter and genocide take place on three continents. Did you know, Philip, that before the mid twentieth century, the word genocide did not even exist? We did not yet know the horrible things we would be capable of.”
“Violence is nothing new for humanity,” I said.
“Yes, but always before the fighting had some limit - some point beyond which fighting was no longer necessary. We want your land, so we will fight you until we have it… We want your oil, so we will fight you until we have it… But with the birth of genocide, we entered a whole new realm of fear and hatred. You are not like us; therefore you do not deserve our compassion… There is only one way and it is our way; all else is evil and must be destroyed!”
“Not only have we discovered genocide, but each new one now happens sooner than the one before that. The Armenians in Turkey, the Jews in Germany, the Cambodians, the Rwandans, the Bosnians and the Serbs, the Kurds in Iraq, and the Darfur region of Sudan… Who do you think gets called by the UN to excavate the mass graves? Year after year, I found myself spending ever more time piecing together the final moments of the executed. It was there amongst the bones of the fallen masses that I began to see the pattern - the trend in human events”
“Communication, the digital revolution, faster and cheaper travel, cell phones, the internet… All of these things were supposed to unite us. We predicted that they would usher in the beginnings of a new era of understanding amongst all peoples. And we have indeed seen a trend of growing connection between us. We have seen unity as scholars, artists, and others reached out across cultural and geographical boundaries to learn from one another. But what we did not predict, is that a second trend would emerge as well - a backlash from those that look upon their neighbors on this planet with horror and fear. These peoples – those that believe that their way is the only way, that all must accept it or be cleansed from the earth – are rising up and falling upon their neighbors with machine guns, with machetes, with nerve gas, or (like in America) with plane old hate. This is the pattern that I became aware of while digging up the remains of the slaughtered masses. These two trends, these two movements, are fighting for dominance.”
His gaze seemed to sharpen. “I chose to become a champion for the cause of unity.”
“And you thought that this ruse would be enough? Don’t you think others will figure it out eventually?”
“What makes you think that there are not already others who know?”
“You mean your accomplices?” I asked, looking beyond him at the men on the boat.
“Not exactly… I never intended that the origin of the Great Puzzle remain a secret forever. In countries all over the world, there are initiates of the Great Puzzle that will act as guides for those ready to make this discovery.”
“And when do people become ready?” I asked, frowning.
“…when they do not base the validity of an idea on its origins,” he said. A breeze came up suddenly from offshore, cooling the exposed skin on my hands and neck. Behind Charles, the men were loading boxes again with Xabier urging them to hurry.
I thought about what the Professor was saying. Wasn’t that something that I believed – that the value of a mythology came from its usefulness to a society, not its authenticity? Wasn’t that the reason that I had begun looking for Charles’s lost proof in the first place – because I valued the ideas they would reinforce? How was I different from Charles except in degree? I had never tried to con the Mexican authorities into believing that God wanted them to respect the indigenous peoples living with them, but was that only because I didn’t think that I could?
“Whatever I think of your philosophy, you can’t force enlightenment on the world.”
“I know that. I do not expect the world to suddenly wake up with no malice in its heart. But there are good people out there who are just waiting for a reason to start believing in each other – in the value of all of humanity. They just need an idea to come along that’s strong enough to stand up to the bigoted zealotry that gets shouted at them every day. When was the last time that the tolerant and the wise had a louder microphone than the angry, the fearful, and the hateful?”
From the boat, Xabier called to the Professor to hurry. The Professor gave him a curt nod, and then turned back to me.
“No, I do not expect the world to change overnight, but I am also not going to sit back and let the side of division and xenophobia grow stronger while I sift through the endless graves of its victims.
He glanced backward at the boat for a moment. Then he rubbed one hand across the faint stubble that had appeared on his scalp since I had seen him in London.
“Have you given any thought to what you will do now that you know?” he asked.
“Do you mean, am I planning on telling the world that it’s all fake?”
“Actually, no – even if you tell the world what you have learned, you will have no proof of any of it. What I meant was have you given any thought to what you will do with your life?”
“I mentioned earlier that there are others out there who know the truth - a network of believers that act as teachers or guides. They are the guardians of this last secret. They have a sacred trust to make sure both that those who are ready can learn it and that those who are not ready are sheltered from it.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“The cause of unity needs champions, Phillip. It needs people who believe that there is something important to learn from every culture - from every form and aspect of life. If you are really worried about what might happen if the world found out what you know, then why not help us to guard that secret? Become a guardian of the Great Puzzle. Help to bring greater illumination to the world. So much can-“
The Professor was interrupted by a loud blast from a horn. Xabier's ship was pulling away from the dock. On the deck, Xabier was frantically motioning to the Professor to hurry.
“I must go,” said Charles. “But we will speak again, Phillip.” With that he turned, rushed to the edge of the dock, and leaped across the water onto the deck of the ship where he was caught by Xabier.
I stood where I was, watching the ship (the Sophia, the name on the side proclaimed) slowly push out into the Mediterranean. The afternoon sun turned the tops of the crests golden. Just as the figures on the deck were becoming indistinct I thought I saw one turn and wave once back toward the shore.
A few days later there was a report in the news that a ship, The Sophia, had been lost in a storm at sea. Rescuers found pieces of the vessel, but no survivors. Was this just another mysterious escape by the Professor, or had he really died at sea? I didn't know.
After San Sebastian, I took a couple of train rides and found myself in Turkey near the border with Iraq. The government of Turkey and the Kurdish people living in that area haven’t had the best relationship. I started talking to people about language classes. I even offered to teach Kurdish to some of the Turkish police officers. They asked me why I was so determined that the people there would learn each others’ languages.
I told them this:
Life is a great puzzling question to which each of us has but a tiny piece of the answer. Where do we keep these answers? They are wrapped up in our heads and our hearts. It is only through language that we are able to let them out.
posted by D @ 7:33 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.
The Great Puzzle Part II
The Great Puzzle Part I
Late Shift at the Soul Eater
[The next two weeks...]
[About The Man of Adventure]
The Man of Adventure
[About Reality Hackers]
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