A long grey limousine slides through traffic, a brace of tiny, colourful flags flapping from its front corners. The windows are black and glossy, reflecting smeared versions of the surrounding skyscrapers, fingers of metal and glass reaching impossibly high into the blue, cloudless sky.
Bahram watches Lower Manhattan pan past. His bodyguard sniffs, craning his head to see the antenna-studded summits. "People sure do love megaliths," he says, his voice a gravelly baritone. "First Stonehenge, now this."
"Indeed," says Bahram distantly. His sleeve is rolled up past the elbow, and in the crook is an intravenous line connected to a hanging sac of transparent fluid. He crosses his legs as he draws on his ebony cigarette holder, gaze sliding over the bicycle couriers and yellow taxicabs and throngs of people pushing along the clogged sidewalks. Horns honk.
Opposite the Hudson River rise tall wooden walls plastered in posters and advertising bills. Behind the walls loom half a dozen cranes, some hauling loads up, some letting loads down, others rotating slowly in place. The smoke and growl of hidden bulldozers wafts into the street. "They never stop building," continues the bodyguard philosophically. "It's never enough, hah?"
"New York is a monster," agrees Bahram, ashing his cigarette gingerly with a double-tap on the edge of the tray. "And we're about to proceed into the very belly of the beast, you and I."
The bodyguard shifts. "Are you worried?"
Bahram pauses. "I am," he admits. "I'm afraid of letting my father down."
"You expect trouble?"
"I don't. I have only to ask a single question, and memorize a one-word reply."
"That doesn't sound too tough."
Bahram nods vaguely, eyes still out the window. "Let us hope you are right."
The limousine slows outside of an ancient-looking ConEd utility building of vine-choked brick. A taxicab honks and darts around. The chauffeur waits for a break in traffic to open his door. Bahram detaches the IV and rolls down his sleeve, massaging his forearm. The bodyguard leans closer to the glass, squinting at a group of figures arranging themselves on the sidewalk beside the car. The men are bearded. Their faces are tight and hard and unforgiving. They each wear a black fedora and a long black coat.
"Who are these guys?" prompts the bodyguard.
Bahram stabs out his cigarette. "The Calumniatorian Guard."
"Hasidic assasins, my friend. Defenders of the rabbi." He smirks humourlessly. "Jewish ninjas."
The bodyguard narrows his eyes, noting how the men's right hands hover at their waists as they arrange themselves into two lines of three, a corridor of black coats and hats between the limousine and the ConEd building. "They're armed, Prince."
"They are," agrees Bahram. "If their scimitars fly, we have no hope."
"I'm armed, too."
Bahram smiles sadly. "It would not matter."
The chaffeur opens the door and steps aside. The bodyguard stoops to squeeze out onto the sidewalk, then straightens, casting a rough look at each of the Calumniatorians. He notes no reaction. They simply stare back, their long beards and curled sideburns swaying in the breeze. Bahram follows him out. He pays no mind to the Calumniatorians, striding purposefully through their fold and directly to the glass revolving door. The bodyguard checks over his shoulder once more before continuing inside.
The Calumniatorians break formation and follow wordlessly.
At the reception desk is a young woman wearing a modest, long-sleeved dress and a scarf in her hair. She watches them approach. "Prince Siraj," she says evenly. "You were to come alone."
"My father insists on certain reasonable protections," replies Bahram, his chin high. "I'll not be dissuaded."
She gives him a slight nod in concession, then looks at the squat, muscular bodyguard, scanning what little of his scarred, lantern-jawed face is visible beneath the hem of his hood. She turns back to Bahram. "He will have to disarm."
"We will not comply."
"That is unacceptable, Prince."
"So be it. We shall leave. Your masters can explain why the Shah's deal has been broken." Bahram shoots a meaningful look to his companion and they both abruptly turn back to the revolving door, now facing a row of expressionless Calumniatorians. Their hands quiver by the unseen hilts of their blades. Their brown eyes are beady and cold beneath the brims of their black fedoras.
Bahram turns, the corners of his lips curling subtly beneath his fine, inky moustache. He raises one brow.
The woman touches her ear, cocking her head as she listens to a concealed speaker. "It will be permitted," she continues, then turns to the bodyguard. "Please state your name for the registry."
"Comeuppance," he rumbles dangerously.
"Is that a surname or a given name?"
"It's all you ever need know, girl."
They are directed to an elevator. It descends deep. When the door clatters aside they find themselves facing a tall, thin man with a greying ginger beard and tufts of auburn hair sticking out from beneath a pinned yamulke covering his crown. He looks the pair up and down slowly, sucking his teeth. "Gentlemen," he says at last, "You're late."
"Forgive me, sir. We were delayed in traffic."
"It is not mine to forgive, Prince Siraj. The Sabbath waits for no man. You will be obliged to complete your business before the sun sets."
Bahram shoots the cuff his cream-coloured suit and consults his Rolex. "Very well."
"You're here to see the artifact, of course."
"I'm Dr. Leibowitz. I'll be serving as your escort. Please, we can't dally. If you'll walk this way?"
"Thank you, Doctor."
Dr. Leibowitz casts a fleeting, anxious glance at the silent bodyguard and then turns and begins walking swiftly down a dim hall, lit in small pools by naked bulbs hanging from the water-stained ceiling. He unlocks and opens a corroded metal door at the end, then carefully makes it fast behind them.
They proceed through a series of stone catacombs as old as the first Dutch settlers on the island. Pale limestone stalactites hang from the ceiling like icicles, dripping intermittently upon their stalagmite partners down below. By the meagre glow of the widely-spaced lamps Bahram notes Hebrew characters carved into the walls, indicating directions down various shadowed turns.
The bodyguard touches his elbow and whispers, "I've been under every part of this city, in every sewer and pipe, but I've never seen any of this."
"Naturally," Bahram whispers back. "If you had, you'd be dead."
"Easier said than done."
Bahram chuckles drily. "It has been done before. To your kind and worse. These people are not to be underestimated, my friend. That has been done, too, and the consequences were ugly." His mouth tightens briefly into a bloodless line. "This is a hard-won truce we enjoy."
Leibowitz looks back over his shoulder. "Hurry," he says. "Time is running out for you, Prince."
In the final stretch of dank corridor dust rains from the vaulted ceiling in time to the muted pounding of machines at work up above. Bahram realizes that they are walking directly beneath the mammoth construction project by the Hudson they saw from the limousine. "Doctor, may I ask what you are building up there?"
"A shield," answers Leibowitz without turning around. "There is some concern about our operation being detected from above -- thermal leaks, visible in the infrared to aerial surveillance."
"Yes, certainly -- Sputniks and more. The space age has just begun. Keeping secrets is about to become exponentially more difficult." He pauses to unlock another heavy door, easing it closed behind them as Bahram and his bodyguard wait beside the reinforced jamb. "That's why we're putting hundreds of tons of concrete and steel over our heads, to better masque our activities," he continues. "Once complete, the two principal towers will be the tallest free-standing structures on Earth."
"Who will occupy the towers?"
Leibowitz shrugs. "Financial concerns, mainly. The Rockefellers are calling it the World Trade Centre."
Bahram smirks. "So it's a Jewish banking conspiracy, is it?"
Leibowitz fixes him with a sharp look, though his hazel eyes twinkle in amusement. "Don't make fun."
At the final door Leibowitz taps a complex code into a brass keypad on the wall, each alefbetic key clicking in turn. The door clanks loudly as the lock disengages. Leibowtiz hauls it open and gestures at the visitors to proceed.
"Gentlemen," he says, "behold a sight few goyim ever see: our inner sanctum -- the Mine of Truth."
They emerge between two Caluminiatorians flanking the door and into a wide hall with a vaulted ceiling decorated by intricate mosaics of dense, Arabesque patterns and Hebrew glyphs. They stand on a balcony gilded by a brass railing, and in the yawning pit below are hundreds of Hasidic scientists hard at work. They wear black fedoras and white labcoats, the ends of tzitzit fringes dangling at their waists as symbols of their devotion to Yahweh. The activity is brisk and businesslike, calls in Yiddish and English echoing off the walls. "What's all the hub-bub?" asks the bodyguard.
"Dusk approaches," says Leibowitz. "All work stops for the Sabbath. Come now, we have no time to waste. Follow me, gentlemen. Quickly."
"But what are they doing?" the bodyguard persists.
"They're decoding the Tanakh," he says, urging them along the railing toward a spiral staircase. "The Pentateuch, if you prefer. They're working to extract sod, the true messages of God, hidden in the text."
"Kabbalah," explains Bahram.
"Precisely," agrees Leibowitz, drawing a fob-watch on a golden chain from his vest and glancing at it anxiously. "Hurry now!"
The bodyguard squints, his wide mouth frowning. "But why? What messages?"
"Our study is deveikus," says Leibowitz as he rushes down the stairs ahead of them. "A part of the ongoing communication between God and man -- as we unravel the vibrations of the upper spheres of Creation we influence the harmonics, changing God as He changes us. The more we learn, the closer to Him we come. It is this intimacy that propagates da'at, giving rise to time and the shape of history."
The bodyguard blinks. "Hah?"
They reach the bottom of the staircase and rush down a narrow alley between laboratory tables where Hasidic scientists are quickly but methodically loading their apparatus away into boxes marked in rows of Hebrew script. As they pass by Bahram and the bodyguard take in the enigmatic tanks of fluids connected by bundles of cabling. Some of the tanks shimmer as oscillatations induced by small motors slosh back and forth through their volumes.
"We seek to understand the ten sephirot, the planes of Creation enfolded around God," explains Leibowtiz. "This group is calibrating the initial conditions of an experiment exploring the interaction of Gevurah and Yesod frequencies in a kosher medium. The group opposite is collating the data points with specific Tanakh passages and vowel strings."
The bodyguard sniffs, a mischievous glint in his eye. "I thought the Bible was just a bunch of stories."
Leibowitz offers him a half-smile. "And so shall seem the skyscrapers above to be just a bunch of buildings."
Toward the end of the hall is a zone under construction, separated from the working area by a wall of translucent plastic sheeting. Beyond the sheeting the silhouetted forms of Hasidic engineers and workmen stow their tools and clang shut their cases. Bahram cranes his head, taking in what appears to be a large, curving cave cut into the bedrock behind them. "More tunnels, Doctor?"
Leibowitz shakes his head. "Particle accelerator. It runs clear under Jersey."
The bodyguard frowns. "How does an atom smasher decode secret messages?"
"The laws of creation are written into every part the world...sir. With the energies that will be available to us once this unit is complete, we hope to be able to probe all seventy-two true names of God."
The bodyguard blinks, puzzled. Bahram shakes his head dismissively.
They pass out of the great hall and through another metal door with a brass keypad. On the other side the temperature drops sharply. Bahram and his bodyguard can see their breath. "Almost there," reports Leibowitz, consulting his fob-watch again. "Let's keep up the pace, gentlemen."
Giant insulated pipes are suspended above them, their surfaces clung with frost. They all snake toward a common centre, disappearing through a wall with heavy steel doors marked in orange and black warning stripes next to a small window of double-paned bullet-proof glass. An old man in a wide-brimmed fur cap and sumptuous fur coat stands at the window, watching them warily.
A platoon of Calumniatorians is ranged around the walls, hands on the hilts of their blades.
Leibowitz toggles a contact beneath the grille and says a few words of Yiddish. The man behind the window makes a sour face as he looks the visitors up and down, fleshy lips drawn into a pout. "Not that one," he says in English, pointing to the bodyguard. "It cannot pass."
Bahram clears his throat. "I will not concede to --"
"There's no time, Prince," interrupts Leibowitz. "If you want to see the artifact, you must do so now and you must do so alone. The minutes are passing: choose."
Bahram hesitates, then nods.
"Boss --" begins the bodyguard, stepping closer.
Bahram holds up a hand. "Stay, Lallo. I cannot fail my father. You will remain here."
The bodyguard closes his mouth, grimacing darkly, heavy brow beetled.
The steel doors part. Leibowitz stands aside. Bahram takes a breath and then walks through the opening. The doors close behind him. Red bubble lights spin on the walls beside a white clean-suit hanging from a peg. Bahram pulls it on over his finery, then slips elastic-edged booties over his shoes and a pair of plastic gloves over his hands. Finally he drops the hood down over his face, his vision slightly obscured by the glare of red highlights on the transparent plastic visor.
A guttural, heavily-accented voice sounds through an overhead speaker: "Ingress eight thirty-seven; Bahram Siraj, Prince of Anwar; year fifty-seven twenty-four; twenty March, nineteen sixty-four."
The red lights die. Green lamps illuminate. The doors ahead split.
Bahrams steps into the inner chamber, heart pounding in his chest. The doors close behind him, sinking him into near-total darkness. His own breathing is loud inside the hood. He is unsure how to proceed.
But then his eyes adjust, prying from the gloom a set of very dim amber lamps in the middle of the chamber. He looks around. The giant pipes all lead there, too, to a throne of silhouetted machinery with rivulets of fog cascading down its sides. Overhead, a massive fan slowly beats.
He takes a tentative step forward. This is it: the artifact!
He is startled as a ring of smaller lights illuminates, revealing a tapered dais covered in wires. Now he can make out that there is something resting atop the upper pedestal, shadowed and still.
It is a head.
Bahram furrows his brow, feeling a cold sweat released from his skin. He steps closer again, plastic booties hissing on the metal floor. As he nears the artifact his breath catches in his throat: the thing stirs.
Though the details are hard to discern in the amber gloom Bahram can see its skin, lined and wrinkled like ancient leather, and he can see two black voids where the eyes should be. The holes seem to faintly glint. The lips, wizened and cracked, move slightly apart, crumbles of dust falling from their corners.
Bahram fights down his sense of panic. His every instinct is commanding him to flee this horrid, alien thing.
Instead he does his duty, closing his eyes and then opening them again as he speaks with the clearest voice he can muster: "Is...is it time?"
A voice like cobwebs replies, windy and almost unintelligible, "No."
Bahrams blinks. That's it. This is what the Shah has sent him to do, and he has done it. Now, after it is finished, he feels a strange sense of anticlimax. He jumps when a speaker on the wall behind him crackles. "Prince, the Sabbath is nigh. We must restabilize the artifact and lock down the system!"
He nods slowly to himself, backing away from the pedestal.
"Prince!" crackles the speaker again, Leibowitz's voice edged with urgency.
Bahram turns to go. He waits for the metal doors to open again but before they do he hears the disembodied head shift again, another fine rain of dust tumbling from its disintegrating lips. Contrary to everything Bahram has been told to expect, the artifact speaks again. And what it says causes a violent shiver to slither across his shoulders, making the skin of his scalp crawl.
It says, "Soon."