Guardians

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Chapter 27

Heraklion, Crete, The Hellenic Republic

The morning after his interview in Monte Carlo Lord MacDougal set off east across the Ligurian Sea and south through the Tyrrhenian, sailing along the Italian coast. He rounded the toe of the Italian peninsula’s boot at Calabria, journeying through the Strait of Messina. There he looked at the whirlpool traditionally associated with the legend of Charybdis, and took some pleasure in the thought that he was sailing through the same seas Odysseus crossed on his way home.

At the strait’s other end was the Ionian Sea, and a turn eastward again toward Crete.

More than before, MacDougal thought of how small the Mediterranean was. Yet, it had been very densely lived-in, and he was sure he could feel that density, such a different thing from the comparatively untouched vastnesses of the South Pacific.

The thought stirred his imagination.

The shining lights of the world these cultures had been, once, when hundred-gated Egyptian Thebes had been the richest city in the world; when the Minoans brought civilization back to Europe; when Sophocles heard “the eternal note of sadness” on the Aegean; when Rome gave law to the Known World, temporal first and then spiritual, and Italian thinkers and men of affairs preserved the best of the Classical heritage to lay the foundations for the rise of the West.

It may only have been natural, MacDougal thought, remembering something E.M. Forster had written about the sea and its littorals. The “human norm,” he’d called it, where the visitor might experience the “joys of form,” the harmony that one left behind at the Pillars of Hercules and the Bosphorus and the Suez Canal’s exit into the Red Sea.

The man may have been an effete Bloomsbury liberal-intellectual, far too charitable to the wogs and the lower orders in his soft-headedness. On that particularly geographical matter, though, MacDougal believed he had a point, one relevant to his searches now. Civilization was nothing if not a balancing act, and found that balance easier to achieve in a place where balance prevailed; a place where a people would come to understand the “Golden Mean,” not merely as an abstract philosophical principle, but as a tidy mathematical concept relevant across the whole gamut of the arts and sciences.

And so not civilization, but civilizations flourished, one rising as another waned, the achievements of one culture layered right on top of its predecessors like strata of fossils – so unlike other corners of the world where civilization’s candle blew out to give way to long dark ages.

Naturally, everything there pointed the way to something older, and it was his suspicion that the early emergence of civilization on Crete was indicative of a strong survival of pre-historic Atlantean influence. He hoped to find evidence supporting this theory at the first site of real interest on his itinerary, the sunken city of Olous off Crete’s northeastern coast, the ruins of which he meant to inspect personally. (Some of the members of his team were uncomfortable with his diving given his age and previous health problems, but he regarded himself as relatively robust given his condition – he believed he’d convincingly demonstrated this to Dr. Fields the night before –his doctor gave him the green light, and it wasn’t as if he would be alone.)

MacDougal got up early on the morning they were due to sight land, leaving the good Dr. Fields sleeping in his stateroom. MacDougal was on deck when they first sighted the island, along the coast of which they sailed to the capital Heraklion, just twenty miles west of Olous as the crow flew. Entering it as the rising sun streaked the sea with its rays, he recognized the stone walls and ramparts of the great Venetian fortress of Rocca al Mare, a striking counterpoint to the steel-hulled ships keeping the modern port bustling.

MacDougal turned to Pinkerton to share a thought.

“Magnificent, isn’t it?”

“Yes Lord MacDougal,” he agreed.

“Shame about the inhabitants, though,” MacDougal remarked. “The Greeks have fallen a long way from what they were in the time of Heraclitus, Pisistratus, Themistocles, Leonidas, Socrates, Sophocles, Thucydides. Theirs is not even the vital barbarism of an Agamemnon or an Achilles, but the dregs that remain when history is done with them and theirs. Contrary to the hopes of the Philhellenes, they remain just another Balkan rabble, who had to be suppressed like any other bunch of unruly colonials during the War.”

MacDougal did not share such thoughts with Dr. Fields. Her presence may have lent a bit more respectability to this venture, and he did admit that she possessed some skills useful to his expedition (as well as in his bed), but there could never be a real meeting of minds between himself and a politically correct American university professor, classicist or not, who likely wouldn’t understand certain matters if she lived to be a thousand.

“It’s all the more reason to know their ancestors better, you might say, especially with the crisis coming upon us.”

Pinkerton looked confused. “I thought the crisis was over.”

Lord MacDougal remembered being over another, northern sea a generation earlier; an explosion, shouts, the terrible shock of being ejected from an aircraft traveling at nearly the speed of sound and then that other shock of coming down in cold water that stretched in every direction as far as his eyes could see.

He had floated in his life raft for what seemed like forever, and closed his eyes not expecting ever to open them again; to end up food for the sharks. But almost miraculously, he had opened them again to find himself in a hospital bed.

“One crisis may be over,” he said. “May be,” he repeated, emphasizing his uncertainty about the point. That wasn’t a rationalization of what he’d done then, he told himself. He was stronger than that, strong enough to accept the ambiguities and uncertainties that were unavoidable in decisions of moment and consequence.

He was just stating the facts as he saw them.

“There’s still a lot to be sorted out, a great deal of potential for mischief,” MacDougal continued. “But no, that’s not what I mean at all.

“What I’m talking about is the crisis to which our machines may be taking us. It is said that as things are now, we are fast-moving in a direction which will result in thinking machines, truly thinking machines, with greater sentience than a human being, inside your lifetime.”

“I . . . see,” Pinkerton said.

Really, he didn’t see, but that was all right. There were those who were born to think, and to command, and those who were born to discharge their orders. Pinkerton was one of the latter, but that was nothing of which he had to be ashamed. He was reliable, and he knew his place, which was too rare a virtue now, after the world’s moving in decidedly the wrong direction for three centuries. Some of his acquaintances thought the recent changes in the world heralded a swing of the pendulum back in the opposite direction, a return to ancient virtues. He thought some of his friends overoptimistic on that point, but their concerns were the same, and it was these that had brought MacDougal to Olous.

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