The long drive into Astana had given Deckard plenty of time to think, and the more he thought about it the more he was convinced it was time to take a closer look at Samruk International.
Driving his company-issued BMW all the way into the capital on Sofeivskoe Highway, he passed by the bazaar and the train yard, noticing that signs of industry and construction were everywhere. The expected Soviet era apartment blocks or micro-royans were nowhere to be seen. Instead it reminded Deckard of a developing city like Dohuk at first glance, but with its own Central Asian twist.
Crossing a newly built overpass, he could see a large steel arch, smaller but similar to the one in St. Louis, Missouri. Beyond that, far on the other side of the city was some kind of giant structure with a spike sticking out of the top. On the flight into Kazakhstan two weeks prior, he had read that Astana was the first capital city built in the twenty first century, and built for the twenty first century, according to the tourism brochures the government promoted.
The Samruk corporate offices were somewhere on Ryskulov Street, but with some time to kill before nightfall, he decided to spend some time reconnoitering the city before making his unexpected visit.
Making a left towards the large spike-topped building in the distance, Deckard did a double take as he drove past a monument that looked like a burial mound surrounded by rune stones. Everyone from the Etruscans to the American Indians made use of burial mounds, some dating back thousands of years, but he had never seen a mock-up like this used as a modern memorial.
Even more interesting was the giant flying saucer shaped building across the street. Judging from the statues of unicyclists and seals balancing inflatable balls on their noses it was probably a circus.
Pulling over alongside a construction site, he stepped out of his car and buttoned up his jacket against the cold. In front of him was the enormous steel structure he had first seen from the other side of town. Grasping his cell phone in one hand, he began searching the web for any information regarding construction projects in Astana.
It was called the Khan Shatyry Entertainment Center, designed to be the world’s largest tent which would eventually be the home of an entire self contained community. Underneath the glass and steel frame would be a shopping and entertainment center, an indoor beach resort, golf course, and more, with enough floor space for ten football fields. Obviously Astana’s city planners had some strange concept of crossing the tribal yurt with post modern design and convenience.
Turning to the immediate west was an open park filled with sculptures and a fountain. Flanking it were a series of circular apartment buildings and a gold domed mosque with four spires surrounding it. Getting back in the BMW, Deckard pulled into the street and followed it past the park to an open mall encircling another water fountain.
A few minutes later he was standing in the center of the fountain, which had been turned off for the winter. In front of him was the tallest building yet. Like a large golden column it rose high enough that Deckard had to strain his neck to see the top of it. A placard outside declared it as the Ministry of Transport and Communication.
In the cold breeze that blew in off the barren steppes, the city center felt empty and barren. It was as if someone had just decided to one day build a city in the middle of nowhere and that was exactly what had happened by presidential decree.
Farther down the boulevard was some kind of tower or needle like the one in Seattle. Walking through another park, he could see the tower capped with a massive golden sphere. The trees around him creaked in the wind, the only noise in the mall seeming to echo across the buildings on both sides. On the right was the cube-looking Kazakh World Trade Center and some buildings whose architecture mimicked the wavy northern lights. Walking stiffly he passed the circular shaped railway headquarters building and a triangular housing complex.
What is this place?
The tower with the golden sphere was called Bayterek according the web page displayed on his cell phone. It looked like a giant torch to Deckard, but apparently it was representative of the Tree of Life. Deckard did know that the tree of life was part of an ancient mono-myth, an archetype found in all cultures from ancient Babylon to the Jewish Kabbalah. In Kazakh mythology the Tree of Life featured prominently in a folk tale involving a magic bird.
A bird called Samruk.
Farther down the park boulevard sat two massive golden pillars, representing what, and to whom, he did not know, but between them at the end Astana’s gallery of ancient modern architecture sat the presidential palace. At first glance it looked like a czarist castle of some sort with a large blue dome and spiked pinnacle.
Walking back to his vehicle, Deckard felt overwhelmed. He never expected to find all of this out here in the center of the windswept Kazakh waste. What was the meaning behind all the mysterious and clearly occult designs? He felt like the only one in the world who even knew all of these things existed.
Turning over the engine, he turned up the heat, trying to warm up, at least until he could no longer see his breath in the air. Getting back on the road, he decided to circle back around and begin looking for Ryskulov Street, when something caught his eye silhouetted against the twilight sky.
Driving around the presidential palace, he saw a pyramid reflecting the red glow of the setting sun. With glass and steel sides, the pyramid reached high into the sky, four entrances located in each cardinal direction. Pulling alongside, he left the car behind and rushed down the stone walkway, almost unable to believe his eyes. The sun had finally sunk below the horizon as Deckard pushed through the door and was confronted by one of the uniformed greeters.
“Welcome,” the young Kazakh woman said, “to the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation.”
“What is this place?”
“The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation was built to unite the world’s religions and to denounce all forms of violence,” she recited pleasantly.
“Uh, is it okay for me to be here?”
“The Palace is open to the public for another hour, sir.” the greeter warmly stated.
The entire bottom of the pyramid was an open-air lobby, painfully white and sterile. Thousands of panes of glass lined the inside walls, effectively making a second inner pyramid minus the capstone, which was a separate room far above the atrium he stood in. Looking for a way up, Deckard first found the way down, a set of stairs leading into the basement.
Shuffling down the steps, Deckard found himself in the darkness of a vast opera hall. The stage was empty but lit up, a few workers moving around, preparing the lighting for a later performance. Like many others, this opera house was multi-terraced, but unlike other venues this one had a giant sun symbol painted on the roof above it.
Turning, he dashed back up the stairs. In the atrium, Deckard found the spot directly above the sun pictogram below. Raised above the floor was another giant sun symbol, with rays of light reaching out in all directions.
“Ma’am,” Deckard said, finding the greeter again. “What is this room used for?”
“Sometimes meetings of state, or traditional music, but this space was constructed by the British architect Lord Norman Foster as a meeting place for the world’s religions. All of the leaders of the world’s religions met at a three-day forum for a roundtable discussion several years ago.”
“Please enjoy the rest of your visit, sir.”
Finally he found the stairway that wound around the inside of the pyramid up to the apex. While making his way upward, Deckard considered what he was seeing. The public was entertained in the darkness of the opera while the world’s religious leaders met for some kind of reconciliation around a sun pictogram.
Being a student of war also meant being a student of history, and as Deckard recalled, a scholar had once said that the pyramid was the perfect symbol of the secret doctrine, as well as the mystery schools that taught it.
Taking a small elevator the rest of the way to the top, he stepped out into the capstone level of the pyramid. The center of the room was left open with a circular table constructed around an oculus. The walls that reached up to form the point of the pyramid were all glass, now allowing him to see Astana lit up in the darkness. The city glowed, golden in the night.
Looking up he could see that the panels of glass at the very tip of the pyramid had been stained yellow and streaked downwards as rays of light.
It hit him like a sucker punch.
That was what the pyramid and really the capital itself was built to honor.
Not the peace and reconciliation of the world’s religions but worship of its single oldest religion.
* * *
It was a good thing he had brought his bag of tricks with him because it took the better part of twenty minutes to pick the door lock and then the dead bolt, and then another ten minutes for him to find the switch contact on the magnetic alarm and bridge them at the splice point. Finished, Deckard eased open the door, hoping that there wasn’t a tertiary system like motion detectors in place.
Seeing no sign of motion sensors or pressure plates under the area rug in the room, he stepped inside the lobby and closed the door. Behind the secretary’s desk in large raised letters was the company name, Samruk International along with its logo, the bird of Kazakh mythology.
Getting into the offices required a numerical code for the keypad at the door. Blowing a small portion of talcum powder on the keypad, the former soldier could see which buttons had fingerprints on them. Four digits, three, seven, six, and nine. With the design of this particular keypad lock it actually didn’t matter which order the user entered the digits in. Pressing each of the digits with fingerprints on them Deckard twisted the knob and opened the door.
Making sure to wipe the talcum powder off the keypad with his sleeve, he closed the door and proceeded into the offices. While the three old men at the Grove had placed Deckard in charge of Samruk’s private army, he was not made privy to what was going on at the corporate level. That was going to change tonight.
Samruk had been established not long after Kazakhstan declared independence and although it was a private enterprise on paper, it was well known that Samruk was owned by powerful men in Kazakhstan’s, government not to mention some of its larger financial institutions. Past dealings had been legit for the most part, mostly executive protection work for the politicians and bankers who had started the company.
This recent rapid expansion into a full-blown private military company at the behest of the old men back in the US showed who the real puppet masters in Astana were. The remaining question was, to what end?
A row of file cabinets lined one wall, packed full of corporate documents. Sticking a switchblade above one draw, he unlatched the gang lock easily enough. Turning on a red LED flashlight, Deckard browsed through the documents. Although they were mostly in Cyrillic, he was able to tell from the numbers involved and what English nomenclature there was that he was looking at tracking forms for the equipment he had been ordering over the last few weeks.
Putting the files back in their correct place, he sat down behind one of the computer terminals. Moving the mouse, he watched the screen light up, taking him directly to the corporate website’s log in screen. Deckard noted that since they were using the web rather then a local area network that meant that their data was being stored off-site.
A SQL injection attack was enough to get him into the system, but now he had to queue up individual files, one command at a time. Reaching into the backpack he brought along, Deckard pulled out a USB drive and stuck it into the computer. After a few hiccups he got the keylogger installed on the corporate server.
Retrieving the USB drive and closing out of the system, he began installing several eavesdropping devices around the offices. Wireless cameras went into the light fixtures, which would draw electricity from the existing power lines. The fiber optic cameras were simple but effective. Letting himself into the executive offices, he planted several wireless listening devices in desks and briefcases left laying around.
Heading back into the main offices, Deckard used his Leatherman multitool to unscrew one of the electrical outlets to install another fiber optic camera, which would look out through the socket panel. He wanted audio and video of everyone who worked at or visited the offices. The camera went in easy enough, but Deckard found himself cursing under his breath as a piece of sheet rock fell away when he tried to screw the panel back on.
Finding the nearest bathroom, he began looking underneath the sink for something to repair the damage he had done to the wall. Behind a bottle of bleach was someone’s half-used tube of toothpaste. Grabbing it and a handful of toilet paper, he mixed the two together, mashing it up into a paste.
Using a wad of the paste, he was able to stick the piece of sheet rock back into place. Checking over his work with the red light he was convinced the damage would go unnoticed to the casual observer.
The outlet panel was almost completely screwed back on, when Deckard heard the office door abruptly open and the lobby fill with laughter. Cursing a second time, he gave the multitool a final twist and crouched behind a desk as the door to the offices was opened and the lights flipped on.
Now he could hear both a man and a woman’s voice.
The two continued to giggle to themselves as they stomped around the office on heavy feet, obviously drunk. The Samruk executive had probably picked the girl up at a bar somewhere and brought her to the office because he was married.
Peering from behind the desk, Deckard saw the drunken couple engulfed in each other. A moment later the rhythmic slapping of skin on skin began that had the former soldier rolling his eyes.
Why did this sort of shit always happen to him?
He waited to make sure they were fully distracted before making his move. It had to be now or never because it didn’t sound like the executive was going to last much longer. On the balls of his feet, Deckard crept to the office door and slipped out before his ears began to bleed.