Mount Elysium

Gil Williamson

Concerning the workes of men, by the word of thy lips, I haue kept me from the paths of the destroyer. - Psalms 17:4 King James Version (1611)

In other times, it would have been described as 'an accident', or, more accurately, 'collateral damage', 'friendly fire', 'an unforeseen consequence of a training exercise'. The Secretary General of the United Nations, once the Indonesian ambassador to Chile, eventually caused his personal assistant to instruct a legal clerk to draft an e-mail of protest to the commander of the Altairian garrison - a dozen vast alien military spacecraft in orbit around the Earth. In point of fact, the body count in the incident was minimal - some fifteen domestic animals. Because the incident had happened at night, and the usual inhabitants had been absent, no human had been killed. There was, however, considerable property damage.

To do him credit, the Secretary General's comparative disinterest in the incident understandably reflected his preoccupation with attempts to organise a cease fire in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, a running battle which had rumbled on for over a hundred years, since the 1940s, and was currently generating three hundred or more casualties per day, and, given the current population of the disputed area could probably persist for four hundred more years before either side ran out of combatants. The fact that the Secretary General took the time to read the thirty-two page draft e-mail of protest to the Altairians was remarkable, under the circumstances.

He quickly reduced the size of the document to a couple of paragraphs, the gist of which was 'Your spacecraft killed a number of livestock, and caused much property damage at Mount Elysium in Scotland, doubtless by accident. Compensation is sought. Details available on request'. The resulting e-mail was sent to General 27-Fardik-Senti, CO of the orbiting garrison.

Some history: In the middle of the nineteenth century, Albert McRaven, on the death of his eccentric father, received a plot of land in Scotland, the majority of the father's estate having gone, appropriately, to Albert's elder brother, who had effectively been managing the land for decades.

Albert McRaven had left home young, and made a fortune from speculating in mining. He had no need for this legacy, which consisted of the least desirable portion of his deceased father's large estate. The land in question was a precipitous triangle of wooded wasteland, unploughable, filled with massive rocks ejected from the arable areas of the original estate. Dry, scraggy conifers poked from the tumbled boulders at the highest point. A constant trickle of water oozed through the rocks and supplied the bog and stream which occupied the southern boundary of the area.

At Albert's instigation, Mount Elysium was conceived as a sort of full-sized folly and summer palace. The house and its environs were created over ten years, carved from this irregular, rocky corner of land, a site which originally resembled a landslide. Because of its steepness, though it was just a dozen acres on a map, the actual surface area of the plot was nearly half as much again.

Albert entrusted the development of his inheritance, not to a conventional architect, but to a talented Italian stage designer, Luigi Manini, who had designed a number of remarkable palaces in Portugal. Most old estates are the product of centuries of evolution, expansion and modification. Albert's country seat was designed to look as if it had been aeons in the making. Albert was so charmed by the result that he eventually spent most of his time there. It was he who called the place Mount Elysium.

Seen from afar, the house itself was a cluster of towers, steeples, and sharply inclined tiled roofs above creamy stone masonry, pierced by generous gothic windows. The whole was apparently chaotic, yet harmonious. Set, as it was, on the sloping site, it featured many levels, clinging to the rocks as though it had grown there. Seen closer at hand, there was no feature of the edifice which lacked decoration. Much of the stone was carved, every window embellished with flower and tendril motifs. Coats of arms dominated every doorway. Colonnades adorned attractive balconies. There were clerestories, crockets and crenellations, gargoyles, sculptured chimneys, flying buttresses and fluted gutters.

The interior was equally unrestrained. Heavy plasterwork and trompe l'oeil ceiling art, fireplaces fit to roast an elephant in, some floors featuring tiles by famous artists, some with wood-block in patterns from Escher to jigsaw. Sculpture and oil paintings, in the best of taste, were to be found throughout; furnishings likewise. The house was a warren of twisting passages and curving staircases linking magnificent rooms, vast halls, cosy studios and leather-lined libraries of ancient and modern books.

The grounds were equally astonishing, paths and stairways curving among manicured trees and hedges. There was a stable block built in a miniature facsimile of the main house, a hermit's cave that had never accommodated a hermit, summer houses, beehives, dovecotes, parapets and bastions, numerous pools, floating duckhouses. Peacocks strutted and hooted. Tame mountain goats inhabited the cliffs. At the very summit of the grounds stood a circular colonnade in the style of a classical temple. Within the circle, there started an astonishingly deep circular shaft, eight metres in diameter, down which wound a spiral staircase clinging to the wall of the shaft. At points on the staircase, tunnels led away from the shaft, zigzagging to various places on the estate - precipitous balconies with unique views, rooms in the main house accessed by secret doors or fireplaces. One such tunnel led to a dark, three dimensional maze in which a casual explorer without a map would certainly starve before finding the exit. From the bottom of the shaft, a damp tunnel with streaming walls led to a echoing chamber behind a waterfall. A set of stepping stones led cleverly out of the chamber, avoiding the waterfall, crossing the main pond towards a set of steps leading to the main house.

Critics tended to dismiss Mount Elysium's beauty by referring to its elaborately theatrical appearance, to the over-lush detail, to the sensationalist novelties. The use of a set designer rather than an architect was deplored, yet the buildings had stood for nearly two hundred years. And no honest person who had actually visited Mount Elysium ever had a word to say against it.

For the last fifteen years, Mount Elysium had become the headquarters of the Elysium Foundation, an organisation which sought to glorify the Works of Man. Mount Elysium itself was such a work, and the Foundation's president, Major Roland Thoroughgood, frequently glorified it. Incidentally, the Foundation spent much time vilifying the aliens who had made the Earth into a provincial fort in their incomprehensible conflict with certain other aliens, a conflict which had, mercifully, not yet reached this outpost of the galaxy.

Roland Thoroughgood was a tall, erect man of some fifty years, a retired soldier from the best regiment that remained of Scotland's once-proud military tradition. Lean and active, a whisky drinker, and a patient fly fisherman.

Most of the income of The Foundation had accrued from expensive, exclusive, guided tours of Mount Elysium. Much of the expenditure resulted from the property's upkeep. Now there was no property. The Foundation could not survive for long.

It was, therefore, not surprising that Roland Thoroughgood regarded the total destruction of Mount Elysium as a targeted strike by the Altairian overlords against his centre of operations. He had been in London when the catastrophe occurred, but, in a way, Roland would have preferred to die with Mount Elysium rather than to contemplate the loss of one of the greatest works of Man.

Of the house and grounds, there remained nothing recognisable. The whole area was a huge pile of blackened stones, each about the size of the fist that Roland clenched as he almost tearfully regarded the ruin that could never be restored. All gone. The walls and towers, the furniture, paintings, books, woodwork and plasterwork, lost without trace. An attempt by a local contractor to clear some of the charred debris, in the expectation of discovering something of value beneath, had been abandoned when it became clear that all these fist-sized lumps were fused together in a single half-million ton cinder. Explosives would be necessary if the site was to be cleared. The aliens should be held to account and made to pay for this outrage. Roland's claim for compensation was complicated by the fact that he resolutely refused a simple money settlement based on the estimated price that the house would have fetched on the open market. He demanded that the house and land be restored to its previous condition.

Despair threatened to overcome Roland in these first months after the incident, because he could not see any way forward. His claim appeared bogged down in UN bureaucracy. Every time he e-mailed the United Nations International Trust in Phnom Penh, the reply came from a different apparatchik with a different job title. All expressed sympathy; none promised anything substantial, though it was common knowledge that previous accidental damage and deaths caused by the Altairians had resulted in generous financial recompense. Meanwhile, nothing was happening. For weeks and weeks.

To establish a headquarters for the Elysium Foundation, Roland rented an office in the nearby county town, most famous for its whisky distillery. He then moved into the McRaven Arms Hotel a few kilometers down the valley from Mt Elysium, and spent part of every day climbing around and contemplating the wreckage, if a heap of slag could be called wreckage.

To the barman at the McRaven Arms he said: "The problem is, Archie, that re-creating Mount Elysium isn't just money. There is no way that we can accurately reproduce it. The roof tiles, for example, are no longer made. Some were specially made, and they had weathered, but, mainly, it's time, it's site clearance, it's the availability of materials, craftsmen. It will take years, longer than it took when it was originally built, and it'll not be the same when it's done. People will take short cuts. Compromises will have to be made."

"Surely, Major, the biggest difficulty will be getting the house re-built exactly the same as it was. It was all very peculiar in shape, was it not?"

"Happily, that will not be such a problem. Copies of the original building plans are in the archives at the the Royal Scottish Society of Architects. And there are many subsequent applications and modification papers lodged in the County Council offices. No. It's the exact configuration of the hill, the watercourses, the detailed design of interior and exterior decoration. And no-one, these days, has the stone-carving and relief plasterwork skills."

"But, Major, there always seemed to be some repairs in progress up at the house. Perhaps a rebuild would be no bad thing."

"A rebuild? I begin to wonder if we should just take the money and buy another property."

Ever since the destruction of Mount Elysium, Roland had found it easy to slip into this mood of pessimism. It was now fifteen weeks since the catastrophe, and two weeks since he had last heard anything official. One evening, however, a courier arrived at the hotel with a large packet. The packet contained five items: a covering letter from UNIT, a sheet of instructions, a flat box with a British domestic plug wired to it, a smaller box which plugged into the flat box, and a tiny crystal, just a few millimeters in size, which fitted into a socket in the smaller box.

Maj. R.S.Thoroughgood
McRaven Arms Hotel
Scotland KD21 6YY

Hey, Major Roland,

At last, we have the go-ahead to fix up Mt. Elisyum (sic).

General 27-Fardik-Senti, CIC Altairian Garrison Fleet, has checked out the sad happening, and idenified one Captain Najak-Till-38 as Off. Proj. Coordinator. The Gen. decided the error was quote a complete accident that could have happened to anyone at the controls of an AOP (Atmosphere-enabled Offensive Pinnace) in the midst of a battle training exercise with live ammo unquote. Whatever, eh? So he's okayed the facilities of the star fleet being at the disposal of his expert, Najak-Till-38, to make good the damage.

The only condition is that you keep this Najak character in the loop. Make no move without his approval.

On the behalf of UNIT, I greenlight you to liaison with Najak-Till-38 and startup the rebuild ae-sap. Keep me emailed on progress. Please shoot any invoices to me for payment.

All the Bestest
Hank Goldsboro, DIC Repairs, UNIT.

The news was so good that Roland found himself able to suppress a sneer at Hank Goldsboro's casual letter-writing style. He turned to the next enclosure.

The sheet of instructions was clear enough. All the boxes had what looked like warning labels on them in the weird Altairian script to which most of the population of Earth had become accustomed in photographs of the alien vessels. Very few people, however, and only those with a flair for arcane languages, were able to read the script. The aliens, by contrast, seemed to have mastered the mechanics of written English, though they appeared baffled by figures of speech, sarcasm, slang and advertising-speak. Strangely, they appeared more at ease with Chinese.

The large flat box, it appeared, was a charger; the smaller box a power supply for the crystal. The crystal was capable of operating independently of its power supply for a period of time expressed in Altairian time units, which Archie the barman, with the aid of a search engine on his till, translated as thirteen and a half hours. The instructions omitted to specify the purpose of the crystal.

Roland carried the devices to his room, and plugged them into the socket that normally powered the bedlight. Nothing much happened, other than an encouraging hum. There had been no developments by the time he went to bed. At about three in the morning, a musical chime awoke him, and he struggled up in the bed, giving a surprised shout as he perceived an alien in the room.

Aliens seldom appeared on Earth, as their preferred atmospheric constituents, ambient operating temperature and gravity were far different from terrestrial conditions. When they did descend to Earth in person, it was always with the aid of an elaborate space suit. Roland's Altairian lacked this apparatus, and he quickly realised that he was seeing a telepresence - a hologram, in short. Now Roland knew what the crystal was for. And he was irritated.

Since the bedlight was disconnected in favour of the machine, Roland was forced to get out of bed, dodging around the alien's image, though he knew he could have walked right through it, and switched on the main light.

"What?" asked Roland, lacking the wit at this time of night to express himself more cogently. He had never seen an alien this close before. It was roughly human in shape, but he was somewhat surprised at its bulbous form, greyish skin colour and multi-faceted eyes.

The alien apparently took "What" as an invitation to converse, and after a few seconds it started to speak. The time delay indicated that it was speaking from an orbiting spacecraft. Altairian speech sounded like whalesong, and was not readily comprehended by the average human. However, an English translation began to appear in supertitles above the alien's image, and, after another slight delay, a text-to-speech transcript began to drone. Finding simultaneous whalesong and mid-Atlantic drawl too much for his ears, Roland called "Mute!" and concentrated on the supertitles.

"My name is Najak-Till-38. I am sorry for you and the peoples. I take responsible for the accidental destruction of the home of mountain elysium. And take responsible for new build of home. To explain the case of a short. Soldier test a release button to broken when during a simulation attack."

"Well, thank you for the apology, Najak. I am Major Roland Thoroughgood. Now, how will you help me?"

Evidently, the alien was getting a translation at the other end. Its head cocked to one side in a very human manner, while its lid tentacles licked across its eyes like a blink.

"Major. Greetings. Elysium outline specification prepared from satellite stereo image. Please to rotate and confirm." An image - a three dimensional image - of Mount Elysium replaced Najak in the holo-projection. The colours were all wrong, the house and grounds, ponds, streams, trees, bushes were presented as if all in one piece. Clearly, the satellite image had been unable to see considerable chunks of the house and environs, but the detail was astonishing. Magnifying parts of the image with arm-stretches, Roland was able to see individual roof tiles, guttering sections, flaking paint on window sills, puddles on the terrace and even an individual peacock on a balustrade.

Collapsing the view to an overall view again, Roland said, "Yes, this is the house and garden that must be re-constructed. But how can you help with this?"

"There must be exact specifications for a project."

"Surely we can start with the groundworks. We need to clear the site and restore the contours."

A pause. "You are correct. Site clearance precedes construction. But first, specifications"

Roland decided to take this as approval for site clearance. He'd get things rolling in the morning.

"Look, Najak, this is a bad time of night for me. Can we talk tomorrow?"

"You prefer talk when you are under eye of sun we recognise of course. Altairian habit is opposite orientation." The hologram blinked out abruptly.

Roland attempted sleep, but it eluded him. It appeared that communication was likely to be a little stilted. However, it looked as though matters were at last moving forward.

Roland spent part of the morning contacting Norsk Diamantbor, the Norwegian site clearance experts he had lined up to clear the lava-like crust with explosives and heavy equipment. Due to prior commitments and logistics, it would be a few weeks before they could be on site, but at least it was a start.

Then he drove to his one-room office near the library. A few seconds after he placed the Altairian crystal on its mounting, Najak-Till-38 appeared, picking up the conversation without any greeting, as if there had been no interval.

"Using public photo image, detail improved. Specifications of materials necessary. Also lacunae to be filled. Please browse."

A new image of the house and grounds appeared. Now, nearly all of the external geography appeared to be in place. The hologram was unbelievably solid. As Roland gestured his way around Elysium, it seemed almost real. Apparently, the aliens had mined the entire internet for images taken by visitors, and patched them together with great skill. He was temporarily lost for words, and slightly tearful for several minutes.

Najak-Till-38 broke the silence: "Specifications of materials necessary. Also lacunae to be filled."

"Yes, of course. This will make builders' plans much easier to draw up. Well done... Najak, is it?"

"My name is Najak-Till-38. Specifications of materials necessary. Also lacunae to be filled."

"What if I walk around the simulation and point to materials and tell you what they are? And I can help with the missing bits."

"Yes. I am recording now. Please begin with environment."

"The grounds, you mean?"

"Nature and positioning of water courses, shafts and tunnels is necessary. These details lacking from satellite imagery. Important for positioning of structures."

"Of course," said Roland, doubtfully.

"Nature and composition of building materials, rocks and soil already projected from samples of adjacent unaffected buildings and terrain. Also please distinguish between dead and living matter."

"Of course. OK." Roland was, he found, rather pleased to wander around this virtual Mount Elysium, indicating the course of the maze of tunnels, identifying where masonry supplemented the natural rock. The many follies and caves were straightforward. Photographs existed of these, and they had already been incorporated into the model.

One of the caves was lined with sea shells cemented to the rock. Roland had often noted a number of patterns among the random distribution of shells. These patterns were reproduced faithfullly. This cave gave rise to the first of many tricky discussions. Were the shells alive or dead? Dead, but created by living creatures. Of what were they composed? Calcium carbonate, Roland believed. Surely they were tougher than chalk? While Roland pondered this problem, Najak-Till-38 answered it from some database. It appeared that seashells were, indeed, basically chalk, but bonded in a crystalline structure with use of certain animal proteins. Who knew?

"In the event that exact matching shells cannot be found, may we propose the use of individual artificial shells made of porcelain, which has similar texture and strength?"

"Seems reasonable."

Wood was another debating point, particularly where twisted pieces of natural wood had been used in construction. Eventually, Roland was forced to concede that timber could be substituted with moulded Lignoloid or similar strong durable plastic composite in the exact shape of the original. It had to look and feel like wood, but, after all, it would be less subject to warp, woodworm and wet rot, the three Ws which were the bane of ancient buildings' existence.

When Roland began to feel exhaustion, he realised he had been figuratively trudging around the simulation for nine hours, and still he had not dealt with the truncated tunnels, the walls and the ceilings of chambers within the subterranean maze, most of which lacked photographic evidence or identification of location. Sometimes, even he had been defeated by the plethora of photographs. Often, he relied on the timestamp of images to make a logical decision. It was like a huge jigsaw, and Roland only realised the detail at which he and Najak-Till-38 had been working when they stopped.

Day followed day as the details were clarified. Much confusion arose when the official plans at the Institute of Architecture differed from the actuality as it had been. Najak-Till-38 had understandable difficulty distinguishing buildings, fixtures and fittings like shelves, racks and bathroom items from trees, bushes, furniture, books, utensils, clothes, domestic animals, and carpets. An inventory of these movable items was built up, items which could, for the most part, be obtained in antique shops, auction rooms and antiquarian bookstores, and would be purchased when construction was complete.

The specification seemed endless. Communication with Najak-Till-38 was fine, as long as Roland kept providing data, but there was no small talk between them. When Roland was tired, Najak-Till-38 would sign off without demur. When Roland occasionally asked about the next stage of the project, or timescales for reconstruction, the invariable answers were either:

  • "Printing cannot take place until specification is complete."
  • "Site clearance is the first stage of rebuild."
neither of which really advanced his state of knowledge, except that, presumably, printed plans would be available when the site was cleared.

As the process of specification drew to a close, Roland became more and more conscious of the complexity of the rebuild. The groundworks alone would surely take an army of workers months, even years, to perfect.

As for the house, the availability of craftsmen would be a problem. Roland was impatient to make a practical start of some kind. He feared he would not live to see the completion of the project. However, Najak-Till-38 was adamant that the model be complete in every detail, and it was true that the site clearance contractor had made disappointing progress against the lava field that had been Mount Elysium. They had drilled through into one of the underground passages that led from the house to the enormous shaft, but it was half full of lava, still hot months after the incident. Their completion estimates were dropping into the following year.

In the meantime, a small warehouse had been rented in Edinburgh, and a firm of auctioneers, paid for by UNIT, started to purchase replacement furniture and books as near as possible to the original contents of the house. They were making satisfactory progress.

Roland later calculated that the specification process with Najak-Till-38 had taken over 800 hours, spread over 15 weeks. It was intensive work, and the model around which he had 'walked' day after day was more familiar to him than the the original estate had ever been. And, indeed, the model was much cleaner than the real thing had been, and flaws and cracks and peeling paint were non-existent on the model. His time with Najak-Till-38 had eventually become a ritual, and he had even taken to turning up the audio so that he could hear the alien's weird sounds, though he never could make anything of the language, and Najak-Till-38 still showed no sign of affection or familiarity with him.

So, though it was a relief to come to the end of the intensive work, within a day, he was missing it. And then, as days passed, and the expected architectural plans didn't appear, and Najak-Till-38 never responded when Roland activated the hologram device, he began to worry. The model could still be seen and explored through the crystal, but he could make no contact with the alien.

Finally, a telephone call from Norsk Diamantbor rang alarm bells. Apparently, they had been ordered off the site, paid for progress to date, but sent home to Oslo. They wanted to know why. Roland could not enlighten them. He drove up to the site, but was stopped five kilometers short at a roadblock manned by UN troops. They knew nothing other than that the area was sealed off. Roland drove forty kilometers up the coast and tried to approach Mount Elysium from the north. Same result, except that the troops there reported that an alien vehicle had flown over their position recently, heading south.

It was fortunate that the day was clear and bright, and more fortunate still that someone had reported the alien atmosphere craft to the media. Half a dozen TV heliplatforms and BBC's side-pointing satellite camera were focused on Mount Elysium. The footage is remarkable. An unbelievably large vessel hovers over the area, black, with yellow and red markings and insignia. Silvery beams twinkle below it. A slice of the mountain, including all the slag from the accident, is hoisted out, a bite from the landscape, leaving a perfectly smooth surface, somewhat circular in cross section. A million tons or more are suspended below the craft. The action is nearly silent, the ship making only a gentle hum. This vessel accelerates away vertically, and soon disappears into the stratosphere.

A second space vehicle appears, even larger, a flat disc with legs a kilometre in length. Its size is only apparent when it reaches the site. It must be two kilometers in diameter. It appears to hover over the scar in the hillside, but it never actually touches the ground, as later inspection shows absolutely no trace of pressure from the massive feet. The legs extend and retract to match the terrain, and it spends some time adjusting its position a little this way and that, until it is centred over the hole and absolutely horizontal.

Then, the most remarkable thing of all, dark threads spring down from the base of the craft, whipping back and forth at immense speed, and gradually a shape emerges from the the pit. At first, only a few amorphous lumps are visible, but then vertical structures appear, building up and up, until the creamy-walled gatehouse is revealed, followed by the lower levels of the main house. The rocks above the lowest pond flutter into existence. The tv commentator is heard to mutter, "My God, it's a massive 3D printer."

The entire broadcast lasts about 190 minutes, at the end of which Mount Elysium can be seen resplendent in its elegant perfection, a miracle of architecture reproduced by a miracle of technology. Water runs, ponds start to fill. The landscape is still rather bare, but it's all there.

Major Roland Thoroughgood was restored to Mount Elysium within days. For a while he was occupied in checking the obvious errors, including a non-closing door, a hidden utility room that had never appeared on the holographic model because it had never been photographed, and some strange plumbing which resulted in puffs of boiling water issuing from an overflow pipe into a courtyard. A whole oak tree, which Roland had failed to report as 'living' had been re-created in detail, its branches and leaves frozen into a stiff sculpture of a tree. All the errors were his, he concluded, on comparing actuality with the model. The auctioneers in Edinburgh began to bring the furniture, rugs and books they had obtained. Gardeners were employed to obtain and plant trees and bushes. Fish, peacocks and goats were bought. It actually took longer to fit the house and grounds out again than it had taken to specify and build the landscape and structure.

But at the end of the day, Major Roland Thoroughgood was discontent. The place smelled a little plasticky - long chain monomers, probably. The stone felt lighter than stone, the wood harder than wood, the supposedly porcelain seashells were strangely flexible. And, above all, Mount Elysium no longer truly represented the Works of Man at all. Within a few months, Roland had sold Mount Elysium, and moved the Foundation to the Ferdinand Cheval Palace, which had just come up for sale. It was his belief that the French appreciated The Works of Man more than any other nation.

©Gil Williamson 2014 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 11:13 Sun 23 Mar 2014
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