Echoes of Sydney Reilly
After a frequently difficult and sometimes dangerous overland journey across Mongolia, once again guided by Gansukh, Nick and David were eventually passed into the hands of their Manchurian contact, Zhao, for the journey to Lushun. Kolya and Victor were far from happy about not being allowed to go; deeply concerned for their friends. They had been left behind in the Ukraine for this next expedition, after it was pointed out to them by Ithis that a large group of foreigners would not be able to freely move among the local Chinese populace unnoticed. They would more than likely be observed by the ever vigilant eyes of the People’s Army and their spies. Victor pleaded to be allowed to protect his friend David, but Nicolai was in full agreement with Ithis’ analysis of the situation.
While still maintaining its own ancient identity, Manchuria was still part of China and any foreigners, especially westerners, would clearly stand out among the populace. So Zhao had ensured that both men were heavily disguised for the journey. He made a living in the people smuggling trade, passing them down his line of safe houses, and keeping them hidden, away from the suspicious eyes of the Chinese authorities, and therefore an expert in his field. He had no real love for the Chinese who he saw as foreign oppressors in his homeland. He had more in common with their neighbours to the east in the Korean peninsula than mainland China.
Nick and David’s next target was hidden beneath the ancient port of Lushun, formerly known as Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–05. It is situated on the extreme southern tip of the Liaodong Peninsula in Manchuria. The notorious Edwardian double agent Sydney George Reilly, who despite his European name, was in fact a Russian Jew, had operated there at the beginning of the twentieth century. He played both ends against the middle in his desire for riches, by creating confusion within the ranks of the Russian occupying force charged with guarding the port, sowing fear among its officers and men concerning the imminent arrival of the Japanese Imperial Fleet. While professing his loyalty to the Tsar and mother Russia, his true nature inevitably revealed itself to the world by his role as a double agent for the British MI1c, the forerunner of MI6, and the Japanese government, ensuring his dubious reputation as a man with no real loyalty to any one flag. He was the only spy in those early days of the twentieth century who was audacious enough to steal the Port Arthur defence plans from under the noses of the Russian occupying forces; delivering them safely into the hands of the Japanese Imperial fleet for a price. Thanks to his treachery they successfully negotiated the Russian mine fields laid in the approaches to Port Arthur, where they immediately began bombarding the port, before finally taking possession, however briefly, in the name of their emperor Meiji.
The artefact beneath Lushun was the current limit for the eastern end of the system’s power grid. Ithis had strongly emphasized the need for it to be investigated immediately, to see if it was possible to reactivate it. There were two further artefacts, one in the Korean Peninsula at Jukrim-ri, and the other beneath Kitami, in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, needed to complete the eastern end of the planetary defence system. Whether or not either artefact could be reactivated depended on the links which had been broken by the area’s constant and violent seismic activity, the original cause for its closure a thousand years before the Sumerian culture first appeared in the so-called cradle of civilization – ancient Mesopotamia, at the heart of modern day Iraq.
Zhao took them to his safe house in the town of Dalian a few kilometres north of the port, where they would remain until he had made further enquiries concerning the layout of the port and the location of the site. At the same time he also needed to make arrangements to get them to South Korea and Japan, should they be successful. Nick and David were both going stir-crazy inside the claustrophobic hidden room above the main living area of Zhao’s safe house. Time was inevitably ticking on towards destruction. The delay caused by Operation Asima had put back their schedule by almost three months. Zhao finally appeared one evening with news. “I have arranged to get to you away from here my friends,” he began. “However I have some bad news regarding the ancient site you seek. An old friend of mine, who is a Taoist monk at the temple above its location, says that the way down was blocked off back in the nineteen fifties, when Lushun suffered a major earthquake. When the temple was finally rebuilt after Mao had gone, and the communist regime relaxed its rigid attitude towards controlling vast areas like Manchuria and Mongolia, the whole temple site was concreted over before the new temple was constructed from the ruins of its predecessor.”
“Is there no other way to gain access beneath the temple?” David asked.
“I cannot truly say,” Zhao replied. “But perhaps there may be an alternative, via the sewers beneath the port. It is very dangerous, they are flooded completely twice daily by the sea. Should you get lost, you will surely drown,” he ended, shaking his head at the prospect.
“Can you get a copy of the sewer layout for us? Maybe we can find a safe route through,” Nick suggested.
“I will try. It will be a matter of finding the correct official who doesn’t want his secrets revealed to his superiors,” Zhao replied, tapping his nose and winking mischievously. Nick and David smiled to themselves – Sydney Reilly would have heartily approved of Zhao.
Two nights later, the three men carefully entered the sewer outlet into the harbour, which was only visible at low tide. They followed the map, so generously donated by the Lushun Sanitary Department’s senior civil engineer, after a little persuasive negotiation by Zhao concerning the engineer’s obsession with highly illegal imported western pornography, the possession of which brought a mandatory death sentence according to Chinese law. The unfortunate engineer had pleaded with Zhao not to reveal his shameful perversion to his manager or to the state police. Zhao promised to keep his mouth shut, always providing he got what he wanted. Although, as he pointed out to the unfortunate engineer; at a later date the information may just find its way to the desk of the provincial prosecutor’s office should he betray him in any way?
Nick led the way through the sewer system as it twisted and turned its way beneath ancient Lushun. They climbed up two levels from the main outlet to the sea, until they were directly beneath Lushun’s streets. The stench from the raw sewage outflows of the buildings directly above their heads, made all three men throw up. Three hours after they had first entered the stinking underworld, their way was blocked by an ancient wall somewhere beneath the Taoist temple complex. “David, Zhao, help me look for any sign of ancient marks on the wall,” Nick began. “I doubt that we will find the same kind of carved circular pattern we have found in the past.”
“What are we looking for then?” David asked, as he scraped away countless centuries’ worth of human filth from the stone blocks.
“Ithis, do you know what we are looking for here?” Nick unthinkingly asked out loud.
“Who is Ithis?” Zhao’s naturally suspicious nature kicked in as he continued to search along one course of stone blocks. Nick ignored his question, cursing himself for thinking out loud. Ithis kept silent for the moment. To reveal herself in any way to Zhao would not be prudent. His ancestors had been largely instrumental in banishing her kind from eastern Asia when the surface-dwellers turned against them so long ago. Instead she created a small diversion behind the three men in the tunnel below, which Zhao nervously went off to investigate. Then she entered Nick’s mind and quickly planted the shape of the carved feature he needed to find.
“David, Zhao, I’ve found something,” Nick announced.
Zhao quickly returned. “Only some old masonry collapsing into the tunnel, nothing to worry about,” he said as he re-joined them, now deeply suspicious of their real reason for being here. Nick’s torch was trained on a tiny incised dagger showing two stick figures, one standing, and the other kneeling in front of it as if they were paying homage. David and Zhao held their torches steady as Nick carefully studied the carving. The standing figure’s arms were carved in an ellipse, at the centre of which was a small lump in the fabric of the stone, almost hidden from view by the stick figures’ body. Nick carefully studied the other stick figure looking for anything similar, but found nothing. Then he turned his attention to the larger carving of the dagger. At its point, the dagger had two heavily incised lines, each denoting an edge of its blade. Wishing he had a magnifying glass with him, he strained his eyes as he carefully removed a slimy layer of mould that covered the dagger’s point. Barely visible to the naked eye, a similar lump to the one on the standing figure was revealed.
“Here goes nothing,” he muttered under his breath while he carefully placed a finger on each of the lumps and pressed them simultaneously. The block containing the carving slid silently backward revealing a large room behind the wall. Nick climbed through, followed by the now wide eyed and extremely nervous Zhao, and David. The three men explored the room by torchlight. The familiar sight of ancient capacitors and a central hub were revealed as the men’s torches were carefully swung around the room.
Zhao’s eyes betrayed his mixture of fear, suspicion and wonder at the ancient construction before him. “Who built this and what was it for?”
“It was built long before your ancestors and mine left their caves Zhao. As for what it is my friend, neither David nor I are really sure,” Nick lied.
“Then why are we here?” Zhao demanded suspiciously, looking for any sign between his two charges that would betray their true agenda.
“We’re here to find out exactly why it was sealed up so long ago Zhao. Nick and I have found similar constructions in other countries across the world. We knew if we asked the authorities for permission to investigate, they would have automatically refused. Entry to archaeological sites that Nick has been interested in the past, have always been denied him. In the world of archaeology, jealous rivalry exists among its many academics. This was the only way that we could get Nick here,” David said finally, hoping that the white lie would allay Zhao’s naturally suspicious nature.
“Why don’t you two stop talking and leave me to get on with my investigation of the ancient relic. Get back to the tunnel to keep watch!” Nick ordered with a degree of annoyance and authority in his voice. David followed Zhao back through the entrance to the room leaving Nick on his own.
“Be careful of this Zhao my love,” Ithis’ loving voice said inside Nick’s mind. “He is deeply troubled by your being here. If he thinks he can profit by betraying you, he will.” Nick thoroughly checked over the capacitor arrays and the solid metal rods beneath the central hub. The damage done millennia ago was irreparable. Ithis sensed Nick’s disappointment as he climbed back through the entrance.
The return journey to the outside world was completed barely an hour before high tide. Dawn was breaking as Nick and David followed Zhao back to the safe house and the hidden room.
“What now?” Zhao enquired.
“We need to return to the Ukraine. Our researchers there will have news of the next archaeological site on our list when we return,” David replied. Zhao nodded, smiled coldly and quickly left the room. Ithis shadowed him through the streets of Dalian, listening to his thoughts as he headed for the central administrative building, housing the local communist party headquarters. Zhao’s growing deep suspicion of Nick and David’s answer to his question earlier about their reason for wishing to visit the ancient site bothered him greatly. While he was being paid handsomely to look after them, something niggled at his naturally suspicious mind. Perhaps they were in the pay of the Russian government, sent as spies to report on Lushun. Although why it should be so, he had no clue. While he despised the Chinese communists, Zhao equally despised the Russians. His great grandfather had died cruelly at their hands during the Russian occupation of Lushun at the turn of the twentieth century, when the war with Japan had laid waste to the old port. He stopped across the street from the headquarters, momentarily hidden by the shadows. His mind was in turmoil. Should he betray their whereabouts to the authorities, based merely on his natural suspicion of all foreigners? The Chinese would automatically assume that he was in league with them. But he always managed to survive somehow. He had betrayed others in the past in return for favours from the ruling communists, falsely demonstrating his loyalty to China, just to save his own skin. After all, it wasn’t as if this was the first time he had assisted them in rooting out enemies of the state.
Ithis waited patiently like a cat, watching his every move as Zhao turned over in his mind whether or not to betray his charges. As his foot moved hesitantly out from the shadows towards the edge of the pavement, she struck. Zhao’s lifeless body slid silently into the sewer opening at the side of the street, to join the other garbage from the town of Dalian. Now it was up to her to get Nick and David back over the border to the safety of Nicolai’s home in northern Ukraine.