Signs & Portents
At the Winter's Gate
Robert had kept up hope for one of those meaningful coincidences to enlighten him as to where B.J. Thomas had gone after his boat docked in the San Francisco Bay. The sheer number of Old West ghost towns were as daunting as their widespread locations. Tracking down the details and dispositions of them began to look like a lifetime's work, with the strong possibility that records did not even exist for the one that Thomas had bought and to which he had presumably carried the Cup of Ahura Mazda.
It was the end of September when a startling weather phenomenon transpired—snow was falling all over Berkeley, San Francisco and nearby areas. A novelty at first, but as roads became permanently blocked, the situation took a more serious turn. By the second week of October, the Governor of the Pacific States had declared the San Francisco Bay Area to be a disaster zone and appealed to the figure head government of the U.S.A. for assistance. The USA president responded and now plows, airlifted in by the U.S. Army, were out and each day rumbling along Shattuck and Telegraph avenues in Berkeley. Snow drifts covered many of the smaller streets and you had to wait for your turn, if you were on a smaller street, and walk out to get necessities. Most Berkeleyites didn't mind, it was still a novelty. However, traffic across the bay bridge was beset by lengthy delays, and in San Francisco, industry was grinding to a frozen snow packed halt.
Flimsy California buildings were not designed for weather like this, either. Robert turned up the small heater in the O'Leary apartment and pulled the sleeping bag around him for extra warmth. Like everyone else in Berkeley, he could hardly believe his eyes when he looked from window of his room onto the snow covered Berkeley hills. A giant saguaro cactus and scattered palms poked incongruous limbs above the snow pack, only the group of small Redwoods in the back lot by the Westwind looked at home. Snow, Robert was used to, but this was California where it wasn't supposed to snow, apart from what falls in the far northern parts of the state and the higher ranges of the Sierras.
Looking from the window, he wondered if his coming to America had been a crazy wild goose chase. His attempts at finding the whereabouts of B.J. Thomas's ghost town had come to nothing—he had no clues of where to search. And, he had to admit, the prospect of starting on a journey to find the Cup of Ahura Mazda began to seem remote and nonsensical, perhaps even best forgotten. It was a hazardous thing in these harsh materialistic times to step off the economic treadmill. For those who inadvertently (or decisively) took such a step, the abyss was never far away. Certainly, there were few people who had any support or sympathy for quixotic adventures or quests. And the path which had beckoned in the U.K., Robert reflected, now seemed to have vanished into thin air.
Robert seemed to sense a presence in the room. Uneasy, he stood up and faced a faint vision of Gudea. So softly that Robert strained to hear, "DonÕt listen to the Lie," Gudea whispered, "the path leads to the safe lands, like Dilmun of old, do not listen to the Father of the Lie."
Gudea's form also faded and Robert found himself seeing only the cold Berkeley evening. It was strange this dance of light and dark, perhaps it was only his imagination, but Gudea's sudden appearance brightened his mood.
Robert knew that somehow, he had to go on with the search for the Cup. The Cup did exist, Subroto's family had seen it and witnessed the strange miracle of its fire.
"The 'safe lands,' like Dilmun of old?" Robert had no idea what Gudea meant, but his words had an oddly pleasing ring to them. Much of the troubled world was looking for just such a place, he realized, although they had long ago forgotten the name of Dilmun. As for himself, he had been caught up in the unraveling of the world, it would be good to find solid ground, or perhaps even an ark of some kind.
A few months ago, they had been happily planning their first trip in Karshipta, but the sudden appearance of the snow had put a stop to that. It would have to wait until the roads out of Berkeley were open again.
Later that night, when all three were in the living room for after dinner coffee, Robert launched into the story of his experience with the virtual reality.
"Well, I tried to believe it was only a dream, but it happened, I have a tape recording of the voice that read the Zand." He summed up, "My life hasn't run very smooth since I got hold of the Thomas manuscript. It was Prince Subroto, who urged me to come to San Francisco to pick up the trail here. I'm still trying to find out the name or some clue to the location of that ghost town—assuming that is where the Cup is still hidden. But apart from that brief article in the old newspaper, I haven't found a single clue to give me any clear direction."
Before he could speak, the room was shaken by earsplitting creaks and groans, followed by a loud whistling sound, and a heavy thud outside in the street. Carl leapt up, startling Catwood, who bolted toward the kitchen. Miri called after the cat anxiously, the kitchen window was probably still open. Obediently, Catwood returned, giving Carl a sour look, leaped up for the safety of the sofa beside Miri. Everyone looked around perplexed. The only sound was now of a steady liquid dripping and plopping. Robert, more accustomed to current weather conditions, was the first to solve the mystery.
"Ice," he laughed, pointing toward the frosted window. "Ice sliding down from the roof. It must be thawing. Thank God for that. Maybe, it's a good omen."
"We may get out of Berkeley yet," Carl grinned.
"Come on," Miri announced to the two men, "we've got to search the Westwind from stem to stern."
They looked at her blankly. "Well, don't you realize that Buzz and B.J. could be the same man?"
"Old B.J. would have to be nearly three hundred years old by now," Robert commented, but then fell silent.
In the wider universe, the normal expectancies of time and space were certainly more than a little awry. The old priest had lived until he met his end in the Templar Court fire. Just possibly, B.J. Thomas was alive, although Buzz had seemed to be no more than than the retired seaman he had claimed to be. Did some sort of time travel explain it all? In view of his encounter with Gudea in the strange futuristic library, and the Roman soldier that he had sighted from Miranda's car, he realized it was absurd to balk at a few hundred years.
"Buzz, you have to realize," Miri announced, "could be a direct descendent of the original B.J., or..." she faltered.
"Yes," agreed Robert, "just now, there seem to be stranger things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in many of our philosophies."
Surprisingly, the RV was quite warm inside. Parts of his computer system lay exposed, and Carl looked dismayed.
"Whoops, I didn't think I left things on."
The familiar voice of the Westwind, crackling slightly, spoke, "After all, I didn't expect to be marooned here for months," the velvet chuckle sounded again, "I do feel the urge to be on the road again."
It was an eerie reception.
"Karshipta?" Robert started, "uh, Westwind?"
"He should know his name by now," volunteered Carl, "but I can't say I understand very much more of the computer systems here than that—there's some sort of wild circuitry that never existed in any text book."
"That is correct," Karshipta agreed, "And I really can't recall a thing about it. So Carl and I decided just to leave those be. I wouldn't want to disconnect anything that could be doing some good. They don't bother me, it's just I can't trace them."
A cold chill passed down Robert's back at this point. The return of Gudea had made him uncertain, and now the thought that the Westwind's strange circuits might have had something to do with his virtual experience occurred to him and made him feel decidedly uneasy.
Miri was busily opening storage cabinets, searching for anything Buzz might have left behind.
"May I be of assistance, Madam?" inquired the voice of Karshipta.
Robert thought he detected a faint overtone of resentment this time, but hoped it was his imagination. He considered asking Carl to turn the machine off, but as the Westwind seemed to have some sort of awareness of things, he hesitated.
"We just wanted to have a look at the storage areas," Miri answered nervously, and continued her search.
The two men joined her and fairly quickly they had peered into the many storage holds of the Westwind, from stem to stern, as Miri had suggested. It was a disappointment, not a single scrap of anything was found. Seated around the table amidships in the Westwind they decided to make coffee and stay for awhile before braving the scramble up the snowbanks on the way back to the apartment.
"Well, that was kind of disappointing," admitted Miri.
Robert's hopes had ranged all the way from finding something connecting the vehicle to B.J., or even the wild consideration of finding the Cup itself had occurred to him.
Karshipta spoke again, "Are you positive that I can't be of assistance?"
Robert flinched as Miri announced, "Well, actually we were hoping to locate something left behind by your former owner, Buzz Thomas."
She caught sight of Robert's stricken face and quickly added, "You do know that Buzz Thomas is your former owner, don't you?"
"Yes, of course, Madam. I haven't learned your names yet, but I know Carl and Catwood quite well. Actually, there is a small velvet bag deposited in the storage compartment A4 that was left behind by my former owner. Perhaps that is the object of your search?"
"We looked everywhere," insisted Miri.
"That compartment is located beneath your chair, Madam."
Startled, Miri moved along the seat. They pushed aside the cushion and discovered storage compartment A4. As the Westwind had indicated, there was indeed a small black velvet bag, which Robert scooped up in one deft movement.
"C'mon, let's take it upstairs," he said quickly, hoping the others would follow his cue and not talk in front of the machine. The machine, well, he felt like an idiot, Westwind was only a computer, but still, it made him feel uneasy. Unaccustomed to protocols with machines like the Westwind's computer, the other two followed his lead. Carl undertook to cover any awkward silence with a casual remark.
"Well, that was certainly good coffee."
"Oh, yes." The others promptly agreed and finished off their coffee in swift little swigs.
"It's getting cold all of a sudden," said Carl, "it's time we went back upstairs. Thanks very much, Karshipta."
He leaned across and carefully turned the computer off. The three left hastily, returning to the apartment. The contents of the velvet bag were at first disappointing—a small square of plastic and a small cylinder shaped piece of clay. Carl picked up the plastic chip.
"It looks like a microchip. If it's part of Karshipta's ROM, I haven't a clue where it goes."
Handling the clay, Robert was equally vaguely mystified, "It looks like an old cylinder seal."
"My God," exclaimed Miri, "let me see that."
The two bent over it.
"Ah, ah," exclaimed Miri, "what can we use?"
She went quickly to the kitchen and began to pull out packages from the shelves. Catwood leapt up to join the search, nudging a package. Miri seized it up at once.
"That'll have to do," she smiled.
She shook a package of flour and emptied it onto a plate and moistened it carefully with drops of water. Carl watched Robert and his mother puzzled.
"Not too wet," murmured Miri.
Then she and Robert solved Carl's bewilderment by placing the cylinder seal on the paste and rolling it gently and carefully. Miri placed it carefully in the microwave oven to dry, after she and Robert had peered at it. Miri went quickly for a book to identify the seal. She could tell it had a most ancient look. Probably, it was only a copy, but she wanted to know.
Robert stood holding the plate until she completed her search."Look for Gudea of Lagash," he said solemnly.
Miri's drew in a quick breath of astonishment. It was indeed the cylinder seal of the Sumerian Governor of Lagash.
Her eyes questioned Robert, who cleared his throat.
"Well," he began, "I discovered a new dimension in the Westwind's interior, at least, I think that's what it was, and Gudea had a part in it."
"More likely, it's something to do with these cracks in reality, warps into the past, future, other dimensions or whatever," opined Carl."I've had an experience with one of those myself that I'll have to tell you about sometime. But I've had enough for tonight, maybe in the morning we can figure some of it out."
Sitting alone in the living room, Robert's thoughts circled around the description of a Central Asian archaeological dig that he had read about in his many researches into things surrounding the mystery of the Cup. Robert pulled down a book from the shelf and read the following, "...The walls of these halls were covered with colorful paintings. In one room, a golden altar is shown, before which a man kneels on a bright carpet. He is dressed in a long caftan of patterned silk and holds a gold cup in his left hand."
He wondered again if it could be the Cup of Ahura Mazda.
Stroking Catwood's back, he murmured:
"At the Winter's Gate, the servant of the Kavi,