The journey north on the hover train took less than three hours. Deol stared out the window at the blurred landscape as they traveled from tropical Manali to the alpine meadows of Pandukeshwar in the foothills of the Himalayas. Mercifully, Kaspinsky was sleeping and Amra was reviewing related cases. She felt her jacket pocket. The emergency tranquilizer was there. The thought of having to actually use it on one of her team – present or former – made her stomach turn.
She sent a message to Donald. I’m coming up to see you and Sita. We’ll be there in an hour.
My assistant and an UN observer.
We’re up at the Valley of Flowers. Meet us here.
She noted he didn’t ask why.
Pandukeshwar was a small, sleepy hamlet. Though it was the height of summer, it was significantly cooler here than in the far south. There had once been a brisk tourism trade this time of year given the three national parks in the area. It was now just a brief stopping point for most with the easy availability of hover cars in the civilian market.
Kaspinsky buttoned his uniform jacket closed. “We might need coats in the evening. Which way now?”
Deol pointed to a hover car rental stand. “We’ll need one of those. Time for some sightseeing.”
Kaspinsky turned on the tour guide application on his computer. A three-dimensional overlay of the surrounding area came up and the points of interest were highlighted with photos as the guide droned on. Details of the surrounding mountains – height, composition, annual snowfall, and other minutia were mixed in with the mythological significance of each.
Deol tapped the Valley of Flowers marker, curious about it since Donald chose that as their meeting place. She also switched the voice from the antiseptic female flight attendant option to a rich male voice with a strong North Hindi accent. It was a bonus that the accent annoyed Kaspinsky.
He muttered, “What is he saying?”
“The Valley of Flowers was named by the British mountaineer Frank S. Smythe in 1931. Smythe found the valley when he lost his way during his return journey from Mt. Kamet. It was declared a national park in 1982 and a World Heritage Site in 1988. The valley covers 87.5 sq km in the Zanskar range and is 6,719 m above sea level. Annual precipitation is…”
Deol scrolled forward through the presentation. “…home to over 75 species of flowers, including blue poppies, marigolds, cobra lilies…” She scrolled forward again. “…is known in ancient Hindu texts as the Bhyundar Valley. In the Ramayana, it is the location of the Sanjeevani plant Hanuman retrieved to bring Lakshman back to life when he was mortally wounded by Indrajit during…”
She turned off the guide as their car came around the river bend. Birch trees stretched up the mountain on one side as the river flowed into a gentle gorge filled with a riot of color. Deol thought there were at least three dozen different varieties of flowers and butterflies scattered as far as the eye could see. She set down the hover car in the small parking lot. Only one other car was parked there at the moment. A man with graying brown hair and two dark-haired children sat at a nearby gazebo. Deol headed toward them, Amra and Kaspinsky in tow. The man stood and walked toward them, telling the children to stay put.
“Donald. It’s been a long time.” Deol shook hands with him. “This is Lt. Nila Amra and Major Jeffery Kaspinsky.”
“It’s good to see you too, Lakshmi.” Donald shook hands with the other two. “Join us. We have tea and water if you’re thirsty.”
Donald waved vaguely up the valley. “Collecting specimens. Her botany studies focus on spontaneous mutations in blossoms in spectrums of light outside human perception.”
Amra spotted Sita before Deol did. “There. On the edge of the tree line.”
Deol narrowed her eyes slightly and stared at the birches closest to them. She just made out the outline of a woman slowly walking toward them. Deol recognized the relaxed posture of her old friend and knew she was scanning the area. She was certain Sita had seen them arrive and had been watching them, assessing the potential threat. As Sita came down the hill, her children caught sight of her and ran to greet her.
Avani held out her handful of marigolds. “Mama! Look what we found!”
Kailash asked, “Mama, where did you go?”
Sita tensed, torn between watching the new arrivals and her children. She kept a wary eye on the gazebo as she knelt to hug them. “I’ve been hunting butterflies and rare blossoms along the tree line.”
Kailash laughed. “You don’t hunt flowers.”
“I do. I sneak up on them and grab them!” She tickled his ribs, making him laugh harder.
Donald waved at Sita and she waved back. “Come, let us greet our guests.”
to be continued
copyright 2011, Kimberley Long-Ewing, all rights reserved