- 8 -
I straighten up on Altaïr’s back to slow him down and ask him to trot and then walk. My horse shakes his head in annoyance, exhaling loudly. We catch our breath as the plane approaches, landing on the snow with a muffled thud a few yards in front of us. Alarmed, Altaïr watches the intruder, sniffing the air and moving his ears in all directions. His muscles quiver, ready to confront or flee from this potential predator. I stroke him and speak gently to him to soothe him, but I can still feel the tension in him. I examine the small plane, fitted with skis, streamlined, more like a James Bond jet than the large helicopter I was expecting. The Hannibal Corp logo, a capital H inside an equilateral triangle, is emblazoned on the side of the aircraft. The engines stop purring and the side window of the cockpit opens at the same time as a ramp slides silently to the ground.
The pilot removes his helmet, takes off his sunglasses and walks down the ramp. Squeezing Altaïr with my calves, I encourage him to walk towards the newcomer, but my horse plants all four hooves into the snow and refuses to move. I insist, in vain, and end up dismounting to approach the pilot alone on foot. Behind me, I can feel the anxiety and mistrust of my steed, who is stamping his hooves. I try to reassure him but he continues to trot back and forth. I take a closer look at the tall figure walking towards me. Despite a slight limp he exudes an incredible self-confidence, and not just become of his elegant, finely crafted Western clothing, which is light and warm at the same time, and his expensive hiking boots. He has thick black hair and his pepper-and-salt beard is neatly trimmed. We approach each other slowly, like two cowboys in a western, not looking away from one another. Instinctively, I put my left hand in my trouser pocket and grip the cylinder tightly as though it were a pistol. We find ourselves face to face, just as if it were a duel to the death... I feel incredibly breathless. Who will draw first?
The pilot holds out his gloved hand as if to shake my hand and I instinctively hold out my own out of politeness. But the position of his hand soon sets me straight. Palm upwards, he signals for me to give him the object he has come for. My right hand falls limply to my side and I reluctantly pull the cylinder from my pocket and place it in his outstretched palm. As soon as he sees it, the pilot loses all interest in me. His lips twist into a grin as his fingers close around the cylinder and he fixes me with an icy blue stare from behind his sunglasses. It’s only when he speaks in his hoarse voice with the instantly recognisable accent that I realise it is John Fitzgerald Hannibal himself in front of me!
“I am most grateful to you. This object is very valuable... to science.”
I want to ask him lots of questions because I want to know more about this cylinder, the symbols engraved on it and where it came from, but I stand there, mouth gaping like some kind of stupid fish or something. When Hannibal hands me a thick envelope, I shake my head and mumble,
“No, no, there’s no need. It’s... it’s for science after all.”
Hannibal chuckles and tries to force the envelope into my shirt. At that moment, obviously thinking I am being attacked, Altaïr appears, violently charging into Hannibal who stumbles and falls to the ground. It wasn’t a playful shove like when he plays with me, but an all-out attack. Nostrils flared, ears pinned back, he’s ready to bite and trample my assailant without mercy. I rush to Hannibal to help him up, but the expression spreading across his face makes my blood run cold and causes me to take a step back.
Hannibal is livid. He stands up, a hateful expression on his face, and pulls from his inside pocket a thin telescopic baton which he flicks open. He raises his arm and whips Altaïr with incredible violence. A long bloody welt appears on my horse’s neck. Without thinking, I throw myself between Altaïr and Hannibal, arms raised, taking a blow to the side of my face from the baton in Altaïr’s place:
“Stop! Please! He won’t hurt you!”
Hannibal grits his teeth, nostrils flaring. A tic in one of his cheeks is twitching. I gently place my hand on Altaïr’s neck and whisper a few calming words to him without taking my eyes from Hannibal. Slowly, Hannibal mutters:
“I suggest that you never let him come near me again.”
I move my hand from Altaïr’s neck to his forehead, push him back and whistle sharply. Altaïr moves backwards, turns around and trots off quickly, tail erect and ears back, stopping at a safe distance. I can tell he’s furious, ready to attack at the least suspicious move, but I also know he will obey me. Hannibal lowers his weapon without putting it away. He walks back towards his plane, up the ramp and slams the cockpit window shut behind him. The plane sets off as soon as the engines start up, accompanied by Altaïr’s furious neighing. Fear finally hits me and my legs shake like leaves in the wind. I slap myself to pull myself together, and tell myself that the worst is over. Breathing deeply, I head towards my shaking horse.
“I... I... Let’s go.”
Without even glancing at the banknotes flying out of the envelope Hannibal dropped, I rub a handful of snow onto Altaïr’s wound to clean it. Then I return to the camp on foot, completely dejected and upset by the encounter, like a poor lonesome cowboy...
When I arrive at the camp, everyone has been awake for some time and are all working away at their tasks without paying me any attention. Altaïr leaves to drink from the river and I, my heart heavy, enter the empty yurt and grab my laptop and a few things I’ll need for my return to Ulan Bator. If I hurry, I can catch the only bus of the day. I need to speak to someone about what happened, but unfortunately no one in my family can help me...
- 9 -
“You’re so stupid, you should have taken the cash! You could have used it to buy a new deel!
After what felt like an endless journey during which I wasn’t able to get a wink of sleep, Salonqa’s response hurts me deeply. She’s normally so sharp, but she can’t seem to understand why I could never accept anything from someone like Hannibal. For all his philanthropic pursuits, this guy must be sick to be able to hit Altaïr like such a savage. I would have felt dirty taking his money.
Salonqa sighs deeply and lets out a huge yawn, suddenly reminding me that I woke her up just as she was getting to sleep. She goes to the bathroom and returns with antiseptic cream, cotton wool and bandages. She pushes out a chair with her foot and points to it with her chin:
“It looks like you’ve been in a fight with a bear. First let’s get you cleaned up and then you can show me the photos of the cylinder. If Hannibal came to pick it up in person then it must be really valuable.”
“You’re such a wuss! There, it’s over.”
When Salonqa grabs my phone and scrolls through the photos, her bad mood fades away, immediately replaced by intense curiosity.
The she reaches into her desk drawer and hands me a notepad and pencil.
“It’s a shame you didn’t take a photo of the bone cylinder. It would definitely have given us a better idea of what it was. But see if you can draw it from memory, the horse’s head and all the other engravings.”
“Yes boss!” While I scribble with the pencil in the palm of my hand like a kid in primary school, Salonqa uploads the photos to my laptop. She arranges them into a rectangle which once rolled and modelled in 3D looks just like the original cylinder. I’m impressed.
Salonqa looks at my picture, scans it and carries out the same process that she’d performed for the photos.
“Did it look like this?”
“Apart from the fact that I drew it like a goat suffering from Parkinson’s disease, yeah, pretty much.”
Salonqa thinks intently then fixes me with an intense stare.
“An ancient language and strange symbols. We’re going to need some help to decipher all this. Would it be OK to ask the ‘Network’?”
The Network... These are all the Internet users who, anonymous or famous alike in their field, have helped us to create our learning system for nomadic Mongolian children. It involves people of every nationality using all forms of knowledge in all possible subjects, all helping one another. So it would be perfect for looking for answers!
While I make a very strong tea, I can hear Salonqa typing on her keyboard like a woman possessed. When she decides to take on a project, nothing and nobody can get in the way of her willpower and energy... I can picture her, frowning, blowing her hair impatiently out of her eyes. Her long, slender fingers dancing, occasionally stopping to move her hair back behind her ear. She says that one day she will shave it all off. I pray she never does as I am crazy about her crazy hair, the mahogany curls blocking out the light. I would stroke her hair for hours, drowning in her scent. But I just stand there like an idiot, hypnotised by her back, the two cups of tea burning my palms until she finally hammers the “Enter” key and sits back in her seat, stretching her neck and her arms behind her, fingers spread like five-pointed stars.
She stands up and walks towards me to take her cup of tea.
“Thanks! But why are you staring at me like that? Do I have ink on my face or something?”
Of course, I am unable to tell her how mesmerised I am by her and how much I like her. Instead I look away, feeling myself blushing crimson and ask her,
“Have you got a mirror?”
- 10 -
After such a moronic remark, any other girl would have slapped me or would have run to check what she looked like in a mirror. But not Salonqa. She responds with her legendary wit:
“Yeah, in my backpack. Why, do you want to put some lipstick on?”
When she was stretched out in her chair like that, her face upside down and her outstretched hands like stars, I had a sudden brainwave: what if we try to decipher the engravings on the bone cylinder in reverse? I think back to when I dropped the cylinder and the rectangular imprint it left on the compressed snow and explain my idea:
“The engravings are raised. If we were to roll the cylinder on a wax plate or on a fresh clay tablet like our ancestors used to do, the imprints would be...”
“In reverse, like a mirror!!!”
Instead of going to fetch her mirror from her bag, Salonqa rushes to the computer and inputs the command to flip the images. She lets out a cry of surprise,
“What a brilliant way to transport a written message. Easier to hide, much less bulky and far tougher than a clay tablet or parchment. When you flip it, it looks like Ancient Greek. There are clusters of words and all of these interwoven geometric symbols... But what secrets does it hide???”
As if to confirm my gut feeling, we receive a message from Talila, an Australian student in primitive art, accompanied by photos of a piece of coloured fabric protected by glass and a grey cylinder with raised engravings very similar to ours. A spindle has been pushed through it and there are coloured inks in terracotta clay pots next to it. Her message is slightly mocking:
“Hey kids, if you were thinking of inventing the process of printing repeated ethnic patterns on fabric to start a new fashion trend, you should know that the patent was filed in Phoenicia over 2,500 years ago! And get a professional designer to do the drawings, unless you were going for the “naïve” look!”
Salonqa sends a message to thank her before turning to me with a defiant glint in her eyes.
“If I had a clay tablet and rolled the bone cylinder over it, I would be able to print out the secret message. But how will I know which way I have to read it and what these symbols mean if I don’t have the ‘decoder’?”
Uh oh, here we go again. I’m a computer specialist, a data encryption expert, not a hacker who cracks secret codes! All of my friends are constantly asking me to help them watch movies and TV shows whenever they’re out or play games for free and I can never say no. But that’s a different kettle of fish. How will I be able to get inside the heads of people who lived such a long time ago and understand their encryption system? But with Salonqa’s beautiful eyes looking right at me and her soft hand on my shoulder, I can’t resist. I try to wheedle her:
“I’ll really need to find out what time period it comes from to know where to begin. Could you ask any experts in ancient languages and historians of ancient relics?”
Salonqa flashes me a bright smile and hands me my laptop.
“I’ve already sent you the images. You can do it!”
Then she pours us another drop of tea. The night has only just begun!
- 11 -
Before throwing myself into my archaeological decryption work, I think back to when I found the first cylinder, partially covered by the snakeskin. Then the surreal vision of the ice horse pops into my head. Could there be a link between this cylinder and the horse? When I connected to the temporary laboratory’s cameras near to where I fell, Jargal the lady killer was examining the snakeskin. I need to get over this foolish jealousy and find out what discoveries they have made in the lab. I’m going to see how far they’ve got. Given the speed of Hannibal’s jet, the scientists must already have the metal cylinder. Could they have solved the mysterious secret messages contained inside already?
I use a voice command to connect to the temporary laboratory’s camera and zoom in on the department dealing with the snakeskin. Hmm, it looks like the analyses have progressed a great deal, seeing as there are so many people gathered around Jargal’s desk. No, they are looking at a screen showing the diamond-patterned scales of the outside of the snakeskin, stretched out and pressed between two large glass slides. A scientist, probably a herpetologist, a specialist in amphibians and reptiles, is presenting the results of his study.
“This specimen, from the vipera ammodytes meridionalis subspecies, which is highly venomous, lived approximately 2,300 to 2,400 yeas ago according to our initial estimations. According to our database, it can’t have come from Mongolia or any neighbouring regions, as this species is native to the Greek islands. It has been ‘imported’, most likely post-mortem, as you can see by the traces of this almost surgical cut. The internal organs have been removed and replaced by… something. Something up to 20 cm long and with a diameter of 3 cm. The skin was scraped clean before being treated with salt to cleanse and preserve it. Then it was perforated around the edges and stitched together around the hidden object… You said that no such object has been found yet?”
I am outraged! Hannibal hasn't given them the cylinder??? The man who is known as THE defender of science, he kept it for himself???
But I have no time to dwell on my outrage as my eyes are drawn to what is happening on screen. The glass plate rotates to reveal its inner surface. Squinting, I can make out the rough marks on the skin left by some of the symbols engraved on the metal cylinder, including the two stars!
“And now, I’ll pass you over to my colleagues from the departments of linguistics and symbology!” concludes the herpetologist. “I would be honoured if you could keep me updated with the results of your research.”
My first instinct would be to send the lab the images that Salonqa had modelled, but I was so shocked by Hannibal’s violence and am so afraid of his immense financial power that I just sit here, paralysed, just like when I had done something wrong as a child, causing my father to fly into one of his rages. One day I'll have to grow up and not be so intimidated, but right now all I can imagine is what Hannibal will do to me if he finds out I have sent the images to the lab. What should I do?
Fortunately, Salonqa drags herself away from her research to focus on me, rescuing me from my state of prostration.
“According to Anguélos Keusséoglou in Athens, the letters come from one of a number of ancient Greek dialects. This one might date back to the middle of the fourth century BC. He thinks he recognises Attic-Ionic, the main official language of the Macedonian court, but he wants to do a bit more research to make sure.”
“Macedonia, that's a region in the north of Athens if I remember correctly. What did he understand from his first read-through?”
“It seems to be some sort of protective spell for the son of Zeus or his horse. And apparently there's also some rather unpleasant threats warding off thieves. It’s not very clear right now. And what about you, where have you got to?” she adds, sitting next to me to look at my screen.
With an anxious lump in my throat, I tell her what I found out about the snakeskin, confirming the date that Mr Keusséoglou had estimated. I also tell her about Hannibal's deception and my fear that he could be using the cylinder for his own personal gain. Salonqa pouted doubtfully.
“Apart from collecting archaeological trinkets, right now I don't see what he could be up to. In fact I don't know anything about Hannibal, apart from the fact that he’s an international businessman and a philanthropist. Have you done any research on him?”
I shake my head. Salonqa rubs her eyes before returning to her computer.
“Let's see what it says on the net. It might help to nip your paranoia in the bud!”
I really hope that Salonqa is right. But I feel a strange uneasiness deep inside me. What is Hannibal hiding behind his perfect appearance?
- 12 -
While Salonqa looks into Hannibal, I return to watching the cameras.
“You’re not going to believe it!” I choke suddenly.
“What? Have you discovered something else out about that disgusting Hannibal?”
“The speleologists have found the rider of the horse that was at the bottom of the crevasse I fell down. Look at these pictures!”
Through the headcams attached to the speleologists' helmets, we can see the bottom of the abyss in which the unfortunate rider ended up.
Salonqa sits down next to me and slides her arm under my elbow, clutching my shoulder.
“To think that could have happened to you…”
If it weren't for the tragic sight of the contorted body frozen in the ice, I would have hugged Salonqa, kissed her neck, moving up to her hair, brushing her lips and...
“Did you see that?” she cries suddenly, pulling away from me to point at the screen.
Don't tell me that she's still going crazy for Jargal’s dazzling smile! Either way, I’ve missed my chance again. Sometimes I wish that Salonqa wasn't so intelligent and curious about everything. Any other girl would doubtless have succumbed long ago to my ineffable charm. But on the other hand, how could I ever be interested in a girl other than Salonqa?
“He's still got his armour on over his tunic and he's missing a sandal, the poor guy.”
So it was the rider that she was interested in. I picture a sword at this ancient warrior's side, then gaiters extending from his sandals to cover his calves. For a moment I imagine riding Altaïr in the snow in my sandals and an involuntary shudder runs through me. Compared to the soldiers from the past I really am a wimp…
“Come back up. Don't touch anything, we’re sending in a team,”
somebody barks and the speleologists leave the site of the discovery. To my huge disappointment, the images from their cameras turn away from the rider and back along the rocky protrusions, lined with ropes, karabiners, quickdraws and bolts.
Heated discussions are breaking out in the lab. Some are talking about a major historical discovery, a Nobel Prize, others are saying they should be contacting the media. Then the lab manager asks for silence. In a mournful voice he announces,
“We have to pack everything up. The government has just appointed Hannibal Corp to take care of the rest of the operation.
Among the hubbub of disappointed comments, I make out a disillusioned voice.
“They're going to send in the big guns and take all the credit. They’ll cut into the mountain and take all of our discoveries back to the United States in their refrigerated planes. And we…”
Salonqa stares at me for a long time.
“When exactly are you leaving for Massachusetts? I'm just like to mention that one of the subsidiary companies of Hannibal Corp is THE global specialist in cryogenics and is only a couple of miles from MIT.”
I suddenly realise that I have absolutely no desire to go to the United States when Salonqa will be staying in Mongolia. I'm devastated at this prospect.
“I… The age of majority in the US is 21 – I'll need my father to agree to it.”
“I haven't asked yet,” I respond pathetically. “But, Salonqa, I…”
“Shame on you!” says Salonqa indignantly, standing up in front of me, eyes flashing and hands on her hips like an angry goddess. “Hop to it! Pack up your things and go home at once. When you get the opportunity to study at the top level, nothing else matters!”
And with that, she slams the door in my face. I'm such an idiot!
- 13 -
I leave the halls of residence with a heavy heart. I should really try to use the remaining hours before dawn to get some sleep, but my brain is going a mile a minute and so I think I wouldn’t be able to drift off. I wander the deserted streets, surrounded by identical concrete buildings built by the Soviets in the 1970s. Out of habit, my feet lead me to the university. I use my key card to enter through the library, a place of research or refuge for insomniac students. There's no one here. I head to the History department, reading the shelf markers until I find the ancient history section, then run my index finger, still covered in torn bandages, along the edges of the books. Will any of these old books hold the key to understanding what this ancient rider was doing in Mongolia among the peaks of the Altai mountains?
“Can't sleep, young Battushig?”
I let out a cry of surprise and turn towards the source of the voice. Behind a mountain of books piled on a table, I recognise a familiar bald head.
“Come sit with me and tell me what answers you seek. I have some tea in my thermos.”
After a few sips of salty tea, I managed to get a few incomprehensible words out. My professor's friendly smile widens and he nods to encourage me to continue. The dam breaks. I tell him my fears, about going to America and leaving everything I know behind, about not being good enough, about confronting my father... When I finally finish, my professor looks around at the library shelves with an affectionate look on his face.
“It's interesting that you came to find your answers here among all these old books. But you know, ‘the world is a book and those who don't travel only read one page’. It was Saint Augustine, a Berber Christian theologian and philosopher from the 5th century, who said that.”
I nod; my professor knows my thirst for knowledge and how to get the best out of me. While pouring some more tea, he asks,
“What attracted you to the ancient history section? A sudden urge for wisdom?”
“Oh no, Professor. I'll explain,” I continue, opening up my laptop to show him the photos of the cylinders.
And in an endless stream of words, I tell him everything that Salonqa and I have discovered. At the mention of her name, my professor's eyes twinkle, but he refrains from commenting and continues listening to me attentively. When I finish speaking, he remains silent for a long time. Then he mutters a name.
“Khubilai. He's one of our brightest former students and works for Hannibal Corp. He set up the company's computer security system. I think I mentioned him before, quite often actually. Would you like me to put you in touch with him? It may help you to avoid any risky ‘break-ins’. Hannibal Corp is a dangerously well-informed and powerful entity.”
I accept with gratitude. Then my professor takes something wrapped in greasy paper from his old briefcase.
“Eat. You'll need your strength to get back to the steppe.”
I try to refuse but to no avail; I know I’m fighting a losing battle. So I thank him, bow respectfully and leave the library. I walk back through the town, now slowly beginning to wake up, and head for the bus stop. It felt good to talk to my teacher. All that remains now is to confront my father!
But when I finally arrive at my family’s camp, I want to scream in despair – there’s no one here! They must have decided to change the location of the camp, and in the space of two or three hours they've managed to dismantle the yurts and pack all their gear. There are hoofprints and tracks from the herds heading south, but I don't know where they could be going. Sighing deeply, I decide to climb the face of the mountain still covered in snow to get a better view. Using my hands to prevent myself from being blinded by the reflection of the sun off the ice, I spot a large, dark group of people moving. The entire ail and their herds are moving as one. Very well, I guess I'll have to hurry so I can catch up with them…
- 14 -
It feels like I've been walking for centuries and I'm really starting to lose my strength. The poor excuse for a doughnut given to me by my professor has long since been eaten; I really hope they're not very far away. There is less and less snow on the ground, green shoots of grass beginning to poke through here and there, beckoning the spring with their imperious vegetal longings. The wind over the steppes carries the sound of bleating and human voices. I'm nearly there. Finally! And at the top of a hillock, I see a wonderful sight. An immaculate grassy valley with a river tributary running through it, flooded with sunlight. This is the new pasture location that the ail has chosen and the cattle, lambs and horses, who can’t wait to taste the new grass, are enjoying it wholeheartedly. Their energy rejuvenating me, I soon make it back to the camp.
I recognise my father who, with Gambat and several other men from the ail, is already knocking in stakes for the sheep pens. The others are laying out the concave lattices in a circle, folding them out like accordions. Then they affix large poles, that have been strung together, to the central crown, like rods in an umbrella, raise the whole thing all up and place it on two central pillars. And last of all, this self-supporting rig is secured solidly in place by tying several sturdy knots in the yurt’s leather cords. I have often said that Mongolian nomads are the sailors of the steppes!
I spot my mother spreading the felt roof on the ground and I approach her happily. Her eyes sparkle, a broad smile lighting up her face, but her hug will have to wait until the job is finished. I grab a pole, slide it into the felt and help my neighbours to lift and hoist the heavy fabric to the top of the frame. We settle it around the central crown then strap it down carefully. Then we roll the felt sides down over the circular latticework from one side to the other of the central door and strap these down as well. Inside the yurt, my grandmother and sisters are spreading carpets on the wooden floor, while they wait for the central oven, the beds and the chests to be put in their usual places.
With every neighbour helping each other, it only takes two or three hours to have the yurts of the entire ail ready and the ovens lit. The elders then make an offering of milk to Tengri, the Sky Father, to our ancestors and to the guardian spirits so that they will watch over the herds and the inhabitants of the yurts. I pounce on the sweet doughnuts offered to me by my sisters, who are all babbling, eager to tell me about their latest adventures, when there is a sudden loud explosion. The camp dogs begin to bay at the moon. A terrible storm suddenly breaks out and torrential rain starts to batter the steppe. For us, thunderstorms are as severe a disaster as wolves attacking our herds. Rivers of water already cover the floor of the yurt, flooding the carpet. The panicked screams of women and children spur me into action. I order my sisters to climb into their bed and not to move until the adults have returned. Then I rush out of the yurt to help my people.
The mothers gather their children and lead them inside the yurts. The sheep in their pen bleat with terror, trampling over each other as the water level rises at breakneck speed. Why are they already in their pens when night is still so far away? Where are my brother, my father and the men of the ail???
Oh no! They must have left to pay homage to the ancient tree at the top of the neighbouring mountain, to tie ribbons of multi-coloured fabric to its branches and to pray to the spirits of our ancestors and the spirits of nature for a bountiful spring. By the time they get back, the storm will have drowned even the fish in the river! Someone has to get the sheep out of their pen! I whistle loudly and hear an instantly recognisable neighing in response: Altaïr, defying the raging elements, gallops towards me. I throw my arms around his neck and, using a technique I learnt as a young rider in the steppes, throw my legs up over his flank and get onto his back. I squeeze him with my legs and direct my stallion towards the animal pens. Altaïr's hooves splash waves of muddy water around us as he valiantly makes his way through the currents.
We make it to the pen. I wrench the ropes from the entrance stakes and the sheep race out in an indescribable panic, shoving us out of the way as they pass. Streaming out in a flow as dense as the sheets of rain falling on our heads, they head straight for the raging river tributary. They are completely mad! I squeeze Altaïr's flanks and, galloping furiously, we catch up with the sheep at the front of the herd. Altaïr rears before them, diverting their path. Great work, my wonderful Altaïr. We push them back, guiding them upstream to take refuge high up on the slopes of the mountain. Once the storm is over we will have to find them, hoping that the wolves haven't made us pay too heavy a price, but it is better to risk losing a few than losing them all. That's something my father taught us. Suddenly, I hear bleatings of distress behind me. The rain is so intense that it is blocking out the light of day. I move forward blindly, guided by sound alone, when the ground suddenly disappears from beneath Altaïr's hooves. He is wading through a torrent of mud that is leading us inexorably towards the river. There's something white splashing in the water in front of us – surely a lamb. I urge Altaïr to move towards it. I grab the lamb with my forearm and hoist it onto Altaïr's neck, holding it against my chest. My stallion fights with all his strength and manages to pull himself out of the muddy torrent and climbs to firmer ground. He snorts and returns instinctively to the camp.
The storm ends as suddenly as it began, pale light shining over the ground once more. I feel the adrenaline slowly leaving my body now that the worst is over. Dazed, I approach the yurts to check the extent of the damage. Like a typhoon shaking a yacht on the ocean, the sky's fury has claimed everything that was not tied down securely. Things are scattered everywhere: linen stretched out to dry, broken crockery, saddles, busted wooden furniture… A woman runs towards me screaming, others in her wake. She throws herself on me and tears the lamb, wriggling and wailing weakly, from my arms where I had been holding it tightly against my chest.
“Taitchou!” she repeats over and over again, sobbing with relief.
I realise that what I had thought to be a lamb is actually Taitchou, her youngest son. Having only just started to walk, he had managed to slip away from his mother's watchful eye to explore the new camp and the torrents of rain and mud had carried him away. Thank goodness Altaïr was there to help me save him! Dark shapes are just starting to flicker beneath my eyelids when I feel arms grabbing me, pulling me from Altaïr's back and dragging me into a yurt...
- 15 -
When I awaken, a glorious sun is shining over the wet steppe. Slanting rays of sunlight penetrate the tono, the wooden crown that serves both as a vent for smoke as well as the mainstay of the structure. Dazzled, I blink a few times before getting up and heading for the yurt’s exit.
I start to open the door and notice that the bandages have been removed from my hands. I look at my black and blue fingertips stupidly. Then I compose myself and take a few steps across the spongy ground. It's almost dusk. The men of the ail must have rushed back from their pilgrimage and are helping with the communal work, such as gathering the scattered herds, drying the carpets, the hangings, the furniture and recovering everything they possibly can. The nomadic lifestyle is subject to all the uncertainties of the land they live in. Differences in temperature ranging between -40° and +40°, having to move with each new season and sometimes more often if new pastures must be found. Not to mention all of the unexpected acts of nature, such as this sudden storm. I admire the strength of my people, their unwavering solidarity in the face of hardship. There's not a single complaint; on the contrary, they begin singing guttural chants to get each other going.
My little sisters have seen me and run towards me, squawking like wild geese. They swarm over me, knocking me to the ground, covering me with kisses, their laughter ringing in my ears. Suddenly, a shadow looms over me against the last faint rays of sunlight, silencing my sisters’ laughter. They scatter as quickly as they had arrived, and I, standing up sharply, find myself face to face with my father.
He stares at me for a long time, impassively. Then he slowly opens his arms to give me a hug which I accept with relief. Maintaining his silence, my father motions me to enter our yurt and sit down. I'm scared to death but do everything I can not to show it. My father removes a metal box from his pocket, opens it and hands it to me. Oh! Snuff? Is that a sign that he considers me a man? My hands trembling slightly, I take a pinch of snuff, place it on the back of my hand between my thumb and forefinger and sniff the pungent substance. I am gripped by a sudden sneezing fit while my father takes his tobacco with his usual serenity. I wonder if I'll ever get used to this male ritual. When I finally stop sneezing, I look at my father timidly and wait for him to speak.
“I've spoken with your mother.”
A long silence follows, anxiety gnawing at my insides like a hungry rat. Then he continues, gravely,
“I am sorry that you haven't chosen the life of a nomadic herder, like your father and your ancestors before him. I even prayed to Tengri, hoping he would bring you to your senses. But I have decided to respect your choice.”
My heart skips a beat. My father sighs gently and gets up to leave the yurt. I stand up immediately and bow before him, thanking him. Then he removes a rolled-up envelope from the pocket of his deel and slips it into my pocket.
“Be careful in America.”
He leaves the yurt quickly without saying another word. I don't think I've ever heard him say so many words at once. I unroll the envelope he gave me and open it. It contains the permission slip allowing me, a minor, to study at MIT. There's also a wad of crumpled tugriks in small denominations. Here we go again. My eyes sting and I feel tears welling up. This time, I let them flow.
- 16 -
On the way down to the bus which will take me to Ulan Bator, who should surprise me but Professor Temudjin accompanied by Salonqa! He has come to pick me up in his old rickety car and, before explaining anything, asks me if my trip was beneficial. I show him the crumpled envelope and he simply nods in satisfaction. Salonqa, on the other hand, is extremely talkative.
“Professor Keusséoglou told me where the engravings and the cylinders come from. They’re from Macedonia, and date from around 350 to 330BC. However the geometric symbols are still incomprehensible to him.”
“Professor, what did they know of mathematics and geometry by this period?”
“In 600BC, Pythagoras formalised a range of key concepts that are still used today, such as integers, square numbers, the properties of right-angled triangles, pi, the golden ratio, the pentagram, etc. and translated them into pure mathematical components. A number of esoteric societies, such as the Freemasons, still claim to represent Pythagorean discoveries and…”
My professor is extremely passionate; I could listen to him for hours. But I have to focus on the subject at hand and, rather mundanely, I cough loudly to interrupt him.
“So, the cylinders, they date from around the time that Pythagoras was formalising all of this?”
“Definitely. This knowledge spread to all the important royal courts of the time. The professors were called preceptors. They dedicated themselves to educating princes and members of the nobility in philosophy, the sciences, military strategy…”
We arrive at the university car park and my professor stops talking. As soon as we enter the library, Salonqa directs me to a table strewn with books, grabs my laptop and puts it down on the table in front of a chair.
“On your screen you will find pictures of the bone cylinder, both a flat and a 3D version. I’ve blurred out the letters that Mr Keusséoglou has identified as belonging to the Macedonian language, but which don't seem to make any sense. However, there are still a jumble of bizarre symbols which I do not understand. Your turn.”
Whoa, the whole thing looks like a supernova. I rotate the image in every direction to see if I can make out a geometric pattern from the distribution of the symbols, just to create some order from the chaos, but nothing obvious comes to me. Although… all of these symbols are full of those right angles that Pythagoras loved so much. Sampling them, I count 24 different symbols, but all of simple geometric shapes. I separate a group of 18 symbols that all have lines of the same length. They are arranged edge to edge, at right angles, in pairs, in threes or in fours to form a square. Half of these 18 symbols have a dot in the corner when there are 2 lines, on the central line when there are three, and at the centre of the square when there are four. Suddenly I start to laugh.
The professor looks at me, puzzled, so I explain my thinking.
“It reminds me of a game played when I was a kid.”
Using a few voice commands, I separate the nine dotted shapes from the others and arrange them to form a morpion grid of nine squares with dots in each square.
“If I may, there’s symmetry in the nine remaining symbols,” says my professor. “Look, an empty morpion grid,” he says, tapping on my keyboard.
I attach the two symmetrical shapes and feel a tingling down my spine.
“Salonqa, how many letters are there in the alphabet they were using in Macedonia?”
“24. 18 consonants and six vowels, the same as Ancient Greek. Here it is,” she adds, tapping on my keyboard to bring it up on the screen.
I create a grid that matches the 18 morpion squares with the 18 Greek consonants, then replace the geometric shapes on the bone cylinder with the consonants. Then I cycle through the triangles and diamonds that I assume to be the vowels in the various possible combinations.
Suddenly, Salonqa, who had crept up behind me, lets out a cry of astonishment.
“There! Zoom in on this sequence. I'll send it to Mr Keusséoglou. I think I recognise a word on the metal cylinder...”
Άλογο του Αλεξάνδρου, ανίκητος στην πλάτη σας θα είναι αθάνατο δύναμη αστέρι.
Professor Keusséoglou has barely received the sequence when he sends the translation. Professor Temudjin is so shocked that he can only mumble,
“It's incredible, it's… Battushig, the secret message is about somebody arguably as famous as Genghis Khan is to us! Alexander the Great, one of the greatest conquerors of the world, and his famous horse Bucephalus!”
At this moment, a notification pops up in one corner of my computer screen telling me I have a new message. Instinctively I open it, almost jumping out of my skin when I see who sent it. It's Khubilai, the former student from our university who now works at Hannibal Corp. Professor Temudjin had given him my e-mail address and my request after I had left to speak to my father. Out of loyalty to his old professor, Khubilai agreed to send me pictures of the objects taken from and around the body of the horseman found in the ice. In addition to the fragments of clothing and armour, there is a metal triangle engraved with symbols, some gold coins and two scrolls.
Khubilai's message is brief. “The first document is a military ‘pass’ and the second is a bill of exchange. The two documents date back to 326BC and are signed by General Ptolemy, Commander-in-Chief of Alexander the Great's army.”
“I thought that Ptolemy was the first in a long dynasty of Egyptian pharaohs?” asks Salonqa.
“Indeed,” replies Professor Temudjin. "It's the same General who later became king of Egypt, five years after the death of the Conqueror.”
Professor Temudjin beckons us closer and shows us on a screen the map of Alexander the Great's conquests after leaving Macedonia in 334BC. He points to the city of Alexandria Bucephalous, somewhere in the modern-day Punjab region.
“This was where the final battle took place before the troops retreated in 326BC. Alexander's beloved horse, Bucephalus, disappeared and Alexander founded a city which he named in his honour.”
Then he points to the Altai mountains and traces the journey back towards the Punjab.
“This is the route that the rider in the ice probably took.”
I turn my attention to my laptop, returning to the translation of the bone cylinder’s secret message.
“Horse of Alexander, invincible on thy back shalt bear, a star of immortal power”
That damn star again... I take the picture of the metal triangle with the broken end, duplicate it four times, rotate the five images and arrange them so they are connected at their bases. The image thus created is what I had guessed it would be: a five-pointed star... The star of immortal power, a seal of omnipotence, broken. A shiver runs down my spine. That means Hannibal has one fragment of the star, and…
I am seized by a fear that is most likely irrational but impossible to control. The ‘what-ifs’ are rattling around in my brain and multiplying, leading me to a terrifying conclusion:
If John Fitzgerald Hannibal, with the power of his intelligence network, his financial backing and his mastery of the most sophisticated technology,
gathers the pieces of the broken seal and puts them together,
and finds Bucephalus...
Then he will become as powerful and indestructible as one of the greatest conquerors – and dictators – in the world!
I have to stop him! But how are Salonqa, Professor Temudjin and I going to be able to fight Hannibal's thirst for power and immense resources by ourselves?
You, the members of the online Network, all those who are unknown in their field as well as all those who are famous in their field, representing every nationality, armed with all your knowledge, all of your subjects and with all of the support possible, I hope that you will join with us, so that, together, we will find the fragments of the seal of omnipotence before Hannibal does. And that we can stop him from getting his hands on a power that is so dangerous!