Mount Elysium Revisited
If you haven't already read Mount Elysium, now would be a good time.
When the second visitor in one week 'disappeared', it was no longer an interesting mystery. The two disappearances became a pair of cases, demanding police attention, which it soon attracted.
Julius McRaven received what he referred to as 'the local plod' in his office, an office designed to intimidate visitors. It was a hopelessly ornate chamber; the walls and ceiling featured elaborate bas-relief plasterwork representing woodland and hunting scenes, a duplicate of the original owner's trophy room, and multiple shield shapes among the plasterwork carried realistic wild animal heads, none of which had ever adorned a living animal. Julius sat behind what appeared to be a magnificent 18th century rosewood desk, made in Shanghai as recently as five years ago, nursing a glass of Laphroaig, his favourite smoky malt whisky. He did not offer any to the Inspector.
Inspector Gordon did not appear in the least intimidated. Everyone knew that Mount Elysium, house and outbuildings, were not the original property, but a plastic replica created in recent history by the Altairians, to replace the original 18th century estate, which the space aliens had accidentally destroyed during a near-Earth battle exercise. Moreover, Inspector Gordon would know that, although Julius McRaven now bore the surname of the eighteenth century owner and builder of Mount Elysium, he was actually a Roumanian immigrant whose birth surname had contained too many adjacent consonants to be reliably pronounced in Scotland. Julius had deed-polled himself through three different British-sounding names as he worked his way from penniless immigrant to property tycoon via a few convenient bankruptcies. His purchase of Mount Elysium represented his desire to be thought of as Lord of the Manor, while enabling him to turn the property into a profitable theme park.
Other than for the money they brought, visitors to Mount Elysium were clearly an irritation, especially when they vanished. Faced by Inspector Gordon, Julius McRaven took the offensive. "This is the third occasion on which you've come looking for these missing persons. People disappear all the time, don't they? "
"Not around here, they don't, Mr McRaven. Both were unaccompanied male tourists; both came to the district specifically to visit Elysium. Neither has since returned to his place of work or his family."
"Very well, Inspector," said Julius, "I accept that a couple of people seem to have disappeared. Have you any proof that they disappeared while they were in Mount Elysium?"
"Well, each of them, on the day on which they vanished, paid for entry to Elysium using their credit chips. One, Joseph Nardik, also paid for goods in the souvenir shop on the same day as he entered. Neither has been seen, nor used his credit chip, since their visit."
"So, circumstantial. No independent evidence then? No actual witnesses to their death or misadventure?"
Inspector Gordon sighed, but made no reply. The silence stretched until Julius said: "Very well. You have dates? Photographs? I'll ask our staff if they remember anything, and I'll let you know."
"You already have the dates and photographs, as you know. It's not good enough. We have to organise a proper search of all Elysium."
"No. No. No. We can't have policemen charging around inside Mount Elysium, interfering with our visitors. Let me organise a search, using my own employees, after hours."
"Still not good enough. I have applied for a search warrant, which I shall get, but I'd much rather organise this amicably."
"All right, all right. Mondays are the lightest days. We can manage a Monday next month, I suppose. Plain clothes, please, and I shall assign an employee to each policeman."
"That's preposterous, Mr McRaven."
"No it isn't. There is much delicate stuff here, and the caves and passages are confusing."
"No. I meant the delay. We must get on with this."
"I agree. In the meantime, how would you like the CCTV records for the days in question? Perhaps we can narrow down the search area. Cause less disruption."
Gordon was clearly angry. "I asked for these last time! You told me the records had been erased."
"Well, I was mistaken. Do you want them or not?"
"Of course I do."
"Here are the CCTV records for the days in question," passing a padded envelope across. "And don't come back until you can show me some convincing proof that these individuals disappeared inside Mount Elysium."
Inspector Gordon, somewhat out-manoeuvred, left in obvious irritation.
Julius sat at his desk for a few seconds. Inspector Gordon was well-respected in the area; his service in East Africa, and in the Hong Kong police, were legendary. Julius could not hope to forestall him for much longer.
A feverish investigation of the CCTV records had, of course, already been undertaken by Mount Elysium staff. The vanished tourists had been observed on the tv record, entering the Great Shaft, but not leaving it.
The original Mount Elysium had been built in the nineteenth century at the behest of the supposedly eccentric Albert McRaven. It was, in fact, a gigantic folly, occupying a precipitous triangle of land at the corner of Albert's brother's estate in Scotland.
The main building, sprawling up the slope, moulded itself to the steep terrain as a sort of Gothic-Baroque confection, with columns, balconies, towers, steeples, ornate stained-glass windows, tiled roofs at oblique angles, fluted chimney stacks and pointed archways. Most of the stonework was carved with chivalric or classical motifs. Inside, it was a confusing warren of impressive, ornate halls and rooms, with tasteful, if complex, plasterwork, panelling and woodblock flooring. Huge fireplaces dominated many rooms. Marble stairways swooped from floor to floor. To add to the charm of the building, secret passages and unsuspected rooms were hidden behind panels, bookshelves and fireplaces.
The grounds were equally fanciful, with temples, ponds, grottoes, tunnels, bridges and lookout points. A stable block, built as a miniature replica of the main house, stood behind trees. There was even a hermit's cave. The whole estate, planted with trees and flowering shrubs, and criss-crossed by shady paths, was a delight to the spirit.
A particular feature was the Great Shaft, which was a circular well-like hole, eight metres in diameter, starting within a classical temple near the top of the property, and penetrating vertically through the rock, a hundred or so metres down to a paved courtyard. Around the perimeter of the shaft wound a narrow spiral staircase. At various points, tunnel openings in the wall of the shaft led to places in the gardens or to secret passages in the main house. In one case, the opening led to a three-dimensional labyrinth, and from the courtyard at the bottom, a tunnel led to a cave behind a waterfall.
But the whole complex had been reduced to cinders and rubble fifteen years earlier, in an accidental random strike by an Altairian "Atmosphere-enabled Offensive Space Pinnace".
The Altairian Garrison, a bevy of huge alien spacecraft, had been in orbit around the Earth and in other parts of the solar system for half a century before the accident occurred.
Initial panic at the space fleet's arrival had died down when the public accepted the aliens' declared intent, which was to protect an outpost of their sphere of influence in a galaxy-wide rivalry with another group of aliens. The Altairians seldom appeared in public. Their environmental requirements were such that they required special suits to exist on Earth.
Their effect on mankind was almost exclusively beneficial. There was an immediate banding together of the world's nations in the face of the potential threat. The United Nations became united in a way they had never been before, though ancient territorial and religious rivalries continued to burn behind the scenes. The aliens helped with the positioning and maintenance of Earth satellites, and with the exploration of solar system planets.
However, Altairian ethics precluded the transfer of the major technologies they so obviously possessed to the races they encountered in their sphere of influence, and Earth had continued to go it alone in scientific research and development, but with, perhaps, less enthusiasm.
The aliens' activities in near-Earth space resulted in magnificent displays in the night sky. Rippling cascades of photons accompanied hyperspace travel. Frequent combat exercises released silent explosions of coloured lights. To date, no actual combat had taken place within the solar system. The very presence of the Altairian garrison seemed to have precluded that. From time to time, with due notice, space vehicles entered Earth atmosphere in mock battle, and it was during one such exercise that Mount Elysium had been demolished.
The aliens, with the co-operation of the owner of Mount Elysium - Roland Thoroughgood - had reconstructed the whole complex using existing original plans and the millions of visitor photographs stored on the internet. Outwardly, the re-created buildings and grounds were identical. In reality, much of Mount Elysium was made of durable plastics and artificial stone.
Roland Thoroughgood, his work on restoration complete, had found the place strangely repulsive, and had sold up and emigrated.
In turning Mount Elysium from stately home to theme park, Julius had made a number of improvements. For example, a safety rail and lighting had been installed in the Great Shaft stairway. Its original designers had found those luxuries unnecessary, and, over the centuries, a few visitors had plunged to death or injury. Lighting had also been installed in all tunnels and buildings, as well as outdoor paths. Previously, the shaft had been illuminated only by daylight filtering down from above, and tunnels could be navigated only by groping along or by use of flashlights carried by visitors.
Now, cameras were mounted everywhere, and the kitchen in the main house had been turned over to a monitoring centre. A new visitor centre had been erected inside the main gate, offering souvenirs and fast food. Custodians were deployed at crucial points to guide visitors. A family of docile goats inhabited the rockier precipices of the park, and wild ducks and geese were living and nesting in the lakes. Julius had ensured that the animals and birds were kept under control and in moderate numbers.
Many of the visitors these days were more interested in the alien origin of the place than in the over-the-top architecture and decoration. Huge numbers made their way to the turnstiles and paid their entry fee just to feel the alien materials.
No-one could clearly remember when the hermit had arrived. Certainly it was not long before before Julius McRaven purchased Mount Elysium. Julius was disturbed to discover that a real hermit had already taken up residence in the hermitage, a deep cave lined with porcelain stalactites. Being of a suspicious nature, he had had doubted the man's motives. However, when it became clear that the elderly, bearded fellow accepted the rent-free cave in lieu of pay, and was usually present in his lair when the park was open, absenting himself only on Monday mornings, Julius now regarded him as a bargain. On Sunday evenings, the hermit would discard his grey robe, dress in jeans and a checked shirt and leave the estate, returning on Monday afternoon.
The hermit, who called himself Anthony, seldom spoke, and was usually engrossed in prayer or in his book - a fat volume printed in some unfamiliar language. Visitors were encouraged to leave offerings of food on a shelf near the cave entrance.
When spoken to, if Anthony responded at all, he paused for some seconds before replying, often with some entirely oblique statement. His accent was unfamiliar. Inevitably, unpleasant people, rowdy youths or exhibitionists, sometimes tried to disturb the hermit's serenity. When their advances became impossible to ignore, the old man would rise to his full considerable height and roar incoherently at his tormentors until they dispersed or a security guard appeared to restore order.
Julius was no fool. Most visitors and staff paid little attention to the hermit, but Julius had not become rich by ignoring detail. Studying Anthony closely, he had realised that Anthony was not one person, but two, each taking one-week shifts in turn. The amorphous robe and heavy beard hid the detail of the men's appearance, and one taciturn hermit was very like another. Julius had kept this revelation to himself so far.
One of the results of the recent examination of the CCTV footage was the discovery that, after the gates were closed, Anthony would sort through the edible offerings, consigning some of them to a wastebasket, some to the goats and wilfowl, tucking the others into his robes, and would move around the house and estate for a while before returning to his cave, presumably to eat and sleep. Sometimes, after dark, a faint glow came from the inner recesses of the cave, indicating that Anthony had some private source of illumination.
Julius now wondered if the hermit or hermits were connected with the recent events.
Julius had good reason to be worried. In addition to the reported disappearances, one night watchman had also failed to turn up for work one day without warning. The man was a solitary widower, and his absence had apparently gone unremarked, except by Julius himself and the assistant who dealt with the payroll.
The police only had two days' worth of CCTV. Julius, while delaying the police, had examined whole weeks, and the surprising discovery was that, in addition to the reported disappearances and the night watchman, a few other visitors occasionally entered the labyrinth and did not reappear, perhaps one a week. What's more, a similar number appeared from the labyrinth who had not been seen on the CCTV to enter it. He told no-one. Who would have believed it?
McRaven ordered a thorough search of the maze. Since it was the daily duty of a night custodian to traverse the entire labyrinth after closing, in case of lost explorers, Julius did not expect any corpses to be revealed. The thorough search, using strong flashlights, was made on the basis that there might be an unmapped exit. 'Unmapped' because Thoroughgood and his alien co-restorers had prepared a detailed holographic plan of the whole estate on which every room, hall, tunnel, path, tile, panel and door could be displayed in mid-air and could be inspected at any level of detail. The device which projected this plan was of alien manufacture, and was housed in Julius' office.
Taking the estate as a whole, a few discrepancies had been discovered, mostly of the 'inaccessible room' variety, where a doorway or hidden panel had been accidentally omitted from the holographic plan, had not been implemented in the aliens' recreation, and had to be opened up by local workmen on discovery. Thoroughgood had documented all the updates made. None of these irregularities had concerned the labyrinth, but the possibility could no longer be ignored.
As originally designed in the 1800s, the maze was not illuminated. Visitors were expected to carry a lantern. Julius had installed strings of LEDs along the ceiling of every passageway, so that a flashlight was no longer essential, but the LEDs gave so little light that, although sufficient to guide an explorer, the walls of the maze were still not well lit. This was why the detailed inspection was carried out using powerful flashlights. Although the maze was on three levels, there were no steps, level changes taking place via ramps. There was a specific entry and a specific exit. However, in practice, the labyrinth could be traversed in either sequence. On paper, it was not particularly complex, but once inside, the featurelessness of the walls and the lack of visible cues as to orientation made it very confusing.
No anomalies were discovered, no unmapped passages, no mysterious fault lines on the wall to indicate a secret panel, nothing to explain the disappearances at all. On the top level, there was a one metre square groove on the floor with the word 'CENTRE' engraved on it, indicating to any explorer that they had reached the halfway point in the maze. Interest concentrated on that area, but without result.
Julius, knowing that people sometimes left the maze who had not apparently entering it, even considered the possibility that each disappearance was matched by an appearance, theorising that a change of clothes might suffice to conceal a transformation. Again, he could find nothing in the CCTV records to support that. The incidents of unmatched entry and exit were, of course, very rare, and never occurred on the same day.
Inspector Gordon announced that he intended to enact his search warrant on the next day. He had obviously discovered that the labyrinth was the likely nexus of disappearances, as he warned that it would be closed to the public until his search was complete.
It was time, decided Julius, to interrogate the hermits. He approached the hermit's cave just as some tourists were leaving. He entered and brushed past the old man, making for the deeper recesses of the cave. The hermit stood up and started to bellow, but Julius snapped: "Shut up, man. Don't you recognise me? We need to talk."
Anthony shrugged and followed him, saying nothing.
Julius sat down on a shelf of rock, and said: "Sit!"
"Now, I don't know what you and your colleagues are up to. As far as I am concerned, you are an attraction in my park, and cheap labour. However, I think you have your own agenda, and if you don't let me know what it is, I'll chuck you out."
Long pause. Then: "I'd have to talk to the chief."
"I take it you don't refer to Jehovah."
"No. I'm authorised to admit that I'm a UN employee, but that's it."
"Your chief's telephone number, please."
"I can call him now."
Half an hour later, Colonel Parker of the UN Alien Affairs Commission was sitting in the grandeur of Julius's office.
"OK," said Parker, "I take it this is about the missing persons."
"Yes. But first of all, I want to know what the -". He consulted the Colonel's pale blue ID card "- the UNAAC is doing in my park."
Parker cleared his throat. "We are just keeping a discreet watching brief. We do it for all substantial alien artifacts on Earth. Of which there are a considerable number now. We are on the alert for strange events, and we've seen one or two, I can tell you. Now, about these disappearances."
"They are not supposed to be public knowledge."
"People talk. We listen."
"OK. Your guys have been keeping an eye on things. What are they telling you?"
"'Guys'? You spotted the multiple Anthonys."
"OK. We think it is probably to do with that maze. Some kind of matter-transmitter trick. But the Anthonys can't figure it out. At night, they've been round the place with portable echo sounders and matter-penetrating radar."
"I've seen them creeping around. By the way, do you need our CCTV records?"
Parker chuckled. "We've been tapped into your CCTV since day one. We made sure you'd pick our contractor by pricing it at a loss. You notice anything else?"
Julius hesitated for a moment before saying: "Appearances?"
"You've been paying attention, haven't you? It's been happening at other locations where the Altairians have established publicly accessible buildings. There's the new NASA training school they set up in Florida, the replacement community centre in China where that piece of their hardware accidentally fell out of orbit and killed about fifty old folk, and the seawater desalination plant they donated to Chile for no obvious reason. And wherever they can donate a building without arousing suspicion. We think they have some mechanism for extracting people from these places. And returning them."
"Have you managed to find anyone who reappeared?"
"A few. They are all under surveillance. They don't seem to be doing anything out of the ordinary. Mostly, the returnees are very discreet, but one in particular had been reported missing, and there was a fuss when he came back. He was one of the early missing persons. It took two years for him to come back. He claimed to have no memory of his time away. And there's just one more thing."
"The guy who came back was not the guy who vanished. Either that, or he was actually younger than he was when he disappeared. And Einstein says that's impossible."
"How can you tell?"
"Because just before he vanished he broke his arm in an accident. We had the X-Rays. When he came back there was no sign of any break. And that's impossible too."
"So you think..."
"I think they're infiltrating spies among us. The Altairians."
"So where are we? What do I tell people?"
"Face it. If you come out with all this, you'll be regarded as a total screwball. I'm talking to you because you've found out so much by yourself. You should act as mystified as everyone is. Another reason I'm telling you is so you don't kick out my Anthonys."
"Am I supposed to tell Inspector Gordon all this? They're doing a search tomorrow."
"That's yet another reason I'm taking you into my confidence. Say nothing. He'll go through the motions, but he won't give you much more trouble. He'll probably decide there's stuff missing from your CCTV record. He's under pressure from his superiors to look active."
"I see. He's one of yours, is he?"
"Quite the opposite. He's one of theirs. A returnee. How old do you think he looks?"
"Inspector Gordon retired from the Hong Kong police about fifteen years ago. Aged fifty. He dropped out of sight a couple of months later. We think he arrived in this area shortly after your estate was rebuilt. Just keep a lid on this, is all we ask. I know it'll be hard for someone as smart as you, but just act dumb, OK? Besides, we may have to move against you if we can't trust you."
"Got it. A drop of fifteen-year old Laphroaig, Colonel?"
"Don't mind if I do, Mr McRaven."
© Gil Williamson 2017 All Rights Reserved
Date and time of last update 19:11 Wed 22 Feb 2017
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