Monday, 15 September 2014

Three Wishes

Five paces from the edge of the cliff, the little man who had been leading Silvana paused. “There,” he said, in his reedy voice, “the edge of this cliff – that’s the end of the world.”

Silvana frowned and looked at him suspiciously. “How do I know you aren’t trying to cheat me?” she asked. “How do I know you won’t just run off while I’m looking?”

The little man grinned, his beard wagging. “You could always use one more wish to make sure I don’t go,” he said cheerfully.

Silvana shook her head and darted out her hand, grabbing the little man by the shoulder. “Not so fast,” she said.

“Hey!” The little man squealed and wriggled, but Silvana’s grip was firm – as firm, in fact, as the trap she’d rescued him from an hour ago. “That isn’t fair!”

“Look who’s talking,” Silvana said. “You promised me three wishes for freeing you. You’ve got to fulfil those wishes.”

“All right,” the little man muttered. “So look at the end of the world and have done with it.”

Silvana stepped closer to the edge of the cliff and looked. The end of the world wasn’t very interesting. Just lots and lots of emptiness, with nothing to see, not even any stars. She quickly grew bored.

“Well, what now?” the little man demanded aggressively. “What do you want next?”

Silvana looked at him thoughtfully. “This isn’t going quite the way I expected,” she said. “I’d always imagined that you fairies were happy to give wishes to anyone who did them a good turn. But you aren’t happy about it at all.”

“It’s not so easy, giving wishes,” the little man grumbled. “You think it’s so easy? We only have a limited amount of magic that we can do, and wishes take up more of it than you imagine. So, what’s your next wish? Let’s do it and get it over with.”

Silvana went down on one knee and looked into his face. It was an even uglier face close up, with tufts of hair growing in random directions and a nose like the beak of a bird of prey. “Why are you so unhappy?” she asked.

“Unhappy?” the little man snorted. “I’m not unhappy. It’s you lot who are.”

“We are?” Silvana blinked, surprised.

“Of course you are. If you weren’t, would you want wishes? You’d be happy with what you had.”

Silvana thought about that a bit. “Do you know,” she said, “you’re right.”

The little man glowered. “Of course I’m right.” He kicked at the ground angrily. “All these centuries, I’ve been asked over and over for wishes. It seems to be all that people want. Do you suppose I haven’t seen everything that people want, over and over? I know everything they’ll ask for, and I even know how those wishes will turn out. But do they ever learn?”

Silvana looked at him. “Can you tell me something?” she asked. “Has anyone ever been happy with the wishes you’ve given them?”

The little man smirked. “Never. They ask for money or beauty or health, and afterwards they all wish they hadn’t. It doesn’t come free, you know.”

“I’m beginning to understand that.” Silvana nodded. “What were the wishes the last person wanted?”

The little man shook his head. “I can’t talk about that, but I’ll tell you this – his last wish was to have never met me in the first place. Now, what do you want for your second wish?”

Silvana smiled slowly. “Just this. I want you to be whatever you want. Anything at all.”

There was a brief pause. And then there was a puff of light, and something bright went leaping up into the sky. And from high up above came a shout of joy, shivering down Silvana’s spine and to the soles of her feet.

She didn’t regret the third wish at all.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014


Note: I wrote this story for a SF website which had a word limit of 1500 words. It rejected the story, so I'm free to republish it here.

On the scoutship’s forward vision screen, the planet ahead was perhaps the most beautiful thing the men inside had ever seen.
“It’s beautiful,” Captain Randy, nicknamed “Red”, said.
“Beautiful,” the engineer, Jay Matous, agreed.
The electronics officer, Conrad King, nodded his shaved head.
It was a world of blues and greens, soft pastel colours of seas and forest-shrouded continents, over which sheets of white and grey cloud drifted enticingly. It was heart-achingly reminiscent of far distant earth.
“Even though the probes had said this planet was suitable for life,” Red Randy said, “I’d never expected anything like this.”
As the scoutship slid through the upper atmosphere, the landscape below grew ever clearer. They could see immense, forest-covered plains, expanses of prairie, and mountains that looked as though they might reach up and touch the sky. Mighty rivers wound their way through the continents, to drain into seas green with life.
The scoutship descended on a verdant valley, landing by a little stream, near a line of tall trees.
For a long time nobody wanted to move. Through the microphones on the outside of the ship they listened to the nearly forgotten noises of wind and the distant cries of birdlike animals.
“Send out the robots,” Red Randy commanded finally. Matous pressed several buttons in sequence on a keyboard. A panel in the belly of the ship slid open, and the robots crawled out on their spindly, spiderlike limbs, waving their many metal jaws in the air. Soon, they were digging into the ground, sucking in air samples, and tasting the water of the river.
It was not long before the data began flooding in. It was even better than they had thought. The air wasn’t only breathable but the water in the stream perfectly potable. There didn’t seem to be any overtly hostile wildlife. It was wonderful, it was paradise.
“ Call it Paradise,” Conrad King said.
“Yes,” Randy agreed. “That’s a good name. What do you think, Jay?”
Jay Matous was looking intently at the little screen displaying information on electronic emissions. “Look. We’re picking up a modulated signal.”
“What?” Conrad King asked. “There shouldn’t be any such thing here. It’s a pristine planet.”
“Is it?” Matous asked. “See for yourself.”
They all peered at the screen. The message was faint, but quite undeniable.
“It’s coming from near the sea up north, the one we flew over,” Matous said. “But there weren’t any signs of a signal station there.”
“We’re going to have to go and check it out,” Captain Randy replied. His bearded face was grim. “If this planet is inhabited, well...”
Nobody said anything. They all knew what it meant if the planet was inhabited.
Recalling the spidery robots, the ship rose from the little valley and crossed cautiously back over the continent. But apart from large flights of birdlike animals they saw nothing in the air, while the savannah below was only covered with herds of creatures resembling elephants, antelopes and buffalo. And apart from the faint whisper of the electronic signal, which strengthened slowly as they approached, the antennae picked up nothing else.
“The signal is coming from directly below us.” King pointed at the screen. “But there’s nothing there except the beach and some trees.”
“We’ll have to land and take a closer look,” Red Randy ordered.
On blasting downward jets, the scoutship settled down on the beach, fusing a patch of sand into black glass.
“It’s coming from somewhere behind that hillock over there,” Jay Matous said, pointing to a jagged column of stone rising in the middle distance. “I’ll send out a robot.”
“Do that,” Randy confirmed. “Conrad, what about the signal?”
“I’m running it through the translator software,” Conrad King said. “It looks as though it were made to be easy to translate. I don’t know what that could –”
He was interrupted by a shout from Matous. “Look at what the robot’s radar’s showing!”
They turned to the screen on which the robot’s ground-penetrating radar’s images were displayed.
“It’s a city,” King said.
“The ruins of a city,” Randy corrected. “It must have been a huge city once, but it’s all buried now.”
They looked down at the lines and circles on the screen, the broken rectangles of crumbled buildings and collapsed channels. “Must have been impressive, when it was new,” Conrad King said. “What do you suppose happened?”
“Who knows?” Red Randy clicked at a computer and whistled. “From the estimated rate of burial of the ruins, this city is at least ten million years old.”
They thought about that. “Imagine the strength of the power source,” King said at last, “to be able to keep going so long.”
“It must have been much more powerful once,” Matous replied. “We’re probably just in time. Another few hundred thousand years and it would be gone.”
“Wonder what it says.” Randy scratched at his beard. “It must be important.”
As though on cue, there was a beep, and a screen on the far side of the cabin lit up.
“The computer has deciphered it!” King exclaimed.
A synthesised voice began to speak.
“To whoever receives this message,” it began, “greetings.
“Welcome to our planet, which was once fair and beautiful, and is now a gutted ruin.
“Once, we had a lovely world, filled with wonder, on which, for uncounted millions of years, the cycle of life moved on. But then, by a mischance of genetic shift, it produced evil beyond imagining – us.
“For we were greedy. It is difficult to emphasise how greedy. We destroyed this fair world with our greed, we ripped her treasures from her breast, and turned them to poison smoke tainting the skies. We fought wars among ourselves, to gain the right to rip ever more of those treasures, to make ever greater amounts of poison, and the more we got, the more we wanted. We killed ourselves in our fight to become ever richer, endlessly.
“There came a time when so much of our world had been destroyed that there seemed nothing left to destroy, but still we continued. Maddened monsters of the dark, we gnawed away at ourselves, somehow trying to postpone the inevitable reckoning to the morrow, and pretending that it would never come.
“At last, though, there came the day when there was nothing left. We had cut away our own roots, and everything was tottering, ready to fall.
“There were those of us on that day who demanded that the most terrible of our weapons, those which were so destructive that nobody had ever even attempted to use them, be finally unleashed. They suggested that we – rather than leave anything behind us – destroy all life, and take it all with us, into oblivion.
“Fortunately, there were others – those who urged that what was left of other life should be given a chance to take back the planet we had looted from them, and perhaps – over time – make it fresh and beautiful once more.
“But there was no question about ourselves. We had had our chance, and we had thrown it away. On this everyone, at long last, agreed: our species had to go. We no longer deserved to exist, so we chose extinction.
“As I compose these words, through the window by my side, I can see the sky that is so grey with the haze of pollution that it has not cleared even in the decades since industrial production collapsed. Out to sea, the oily waves glimmer with poison. Is it my foolish fancy that someday this sky might be blue, and the ocean fresh and filled with life again?”
All three men instinctively turned to the viewscreen showing the ocean. Near the horizon, something vast leaped out of the water, turned a joyous somersault, and crashed down in a burst of spray.
“I am among the last of my species,” the voice continued. “After we are gone, the planet will return to its true owners – those who kept it unspoilt and ever-renewing, until we came along and stole it from them.
“If anyone should hear this message, this is our farewell, and our request to you; do not do to your world as we did to ours. There are things that are worth living for, and material advancement at all costs are not among them.”
The message ended. The three men exchanged glances.
“There’s that thing again,” Conrad King said, as the vast beast burst out of the water on the horizon. “Let’s fly over low and see if we can harpoon it.”
Red Randy wasn’t listening. “We’ll have to see how fast we can colonise this planet,” he said. “There’s plenty of space, once we clear away all these useless forests. As soon as we can ensure that there aren’t any dangerous pathogens, I’ll send a report –“
Jay Matous was replaying the message. “Weapons,” he repeated. “Where are those weapons?”
Creeping up from over the hills, night was coming.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

Raghead: Drone Man At War (Part II)