Saturday, 25 May 2013

Bok and the Princess

 Bok the Rakkhosh rubbed his bleary eyes and looked out at his domain. “Huh,” he said. “I’m bored.”

Nobody replied, because there was nobody to hear him. Bok peered around hopefully, but there was not a soul to be seen. Actually, because it was a new moon night, and cloudy with it, there was nothing at all to be seen, except velvety darkness; even Bok’s immense eyes couldn’t make out the glimmer of a lantern in the distance.

“It would be nice if someone would come,” Bok reflected, gnashing his gigantic teeth together so that even the frogs paused in their croaking, struck dumb with fear. “I’d have somebody to talk to.”

But nobody ever came, because they were terrified of rakkhoshes. They were more frightened of rakkhoshes than they were of ghosts, and with good reason; ghosts might only break your neck and leave your corpse on the side of the path, but a rakkhosh would eat you, and wouldn’t even take the trouble of killing you first. Rakkhoshes had no manners.

Or so the people believed.

This had always distressed Bok, who actually had excellent manners. He even wrote a column on etiquette in the rakkhosh newspaper, the Hau Mau Khau, which was widely read by rakkhoshes, who didn’t just follow his precepts but taught them to their cubs. In his own way, Bok was famous. Well, every rakkhosh knew about him.

“That Bok,” one rakkhosh would say to another in exasperation, “is getting too big for his boots.”

“He doesn’t wear boots,” the listener would reply.

“Don’t interrupt,” he would be curtly told. “It isn’t polite. Now, I was saying this Bok’s politeness column is getting to be a headache. The wife reads it.”

“Oh...” the second rakkhosh would reply, understanding. “That sounds nasty.”

“You can’t believe how nasty,” the first would snap, turning his eyes round and round like ox-cartwheels. “She even demands I brush my fur when I come into the house so I don’t shed on the furniture. I ask you!”

The second would shudder theatrically. “She read it in Bok’s column?”

“Yes, and what next? Maybe she’ll order me to trim my claws,” the first rakkhosh would say, warming to his theme. “Or even take a bath once a year.”

“No, no,” the second rakkhosh would exclaim, horrified. “Claws, all right, I can believe it – just about. But a yearly bath? That’s impossible.”

“You don’t know that Bok,” the first rakkhosh would tell him. “You just read his column once and see.”

“Excuse me,” the second rakkhosh would ask, deferentially, “if you’re so troubled by his column, why not simply stop reading the Hau Mau Khau? Just stop taking the paper.”

“I can’t,” the first rakkhosh would admit. “I need it for the sports news.”

If his wife had been present, she’d have pointed out that he took it for, specifically, the dragon race news, and that betting according to the racing forecasts of the Hau Mau Khau had almost made him a pauper before she’d taken a rolling pin and beaten sense into his knobby head. But, fortunately, she wasn’t among those present.

A third rakkhosh who had been listening to the conversation would come up at this point. “He’s worse in person,” he would report. “I was just finishing off a haunch of crocodile – nicely aged, too, just ripe – when he came up and told me I should have the courtesy to my fellows to clean my fangs afterwards so’s not to stink up the neighbourhood. I ask you!”

“Yes,” the rakkhoshes would conclude gloomily, “he’s getting too big for his boots, even if he isn’t wearing any.”

So it came about that the other rakkhoshes began to avoid Bok. They couldn’t avoid his column in the paper, but at least they could give him – and the patch of tamarind grove he lived in – a wide berth. And this explained why Bok was talking to himself and wishing there was someone to listen to him. But there was nobody, not even a she-rakkhosh, even though there were so many more females than males in the rakkhosh society that the ladies were always sneaking off to seek mates among humans. Exactly nobody would want to associate with Bok any more than they had to.

Finally Bok decided he couldn’t take it any longer. He had to find someone to talk to, even if it meant going to the realms of the human race.

Now this was not easy for Bok. Female rakkhoshes are natural shape-shifters, who excel at the art of disguising themselves as human women. Males, on the other hand, can’t even look like anything except monsters. And Bok was one of the most monstrous-looking of the rakkhoshes, as even he was aware.

“Can’t be helped, though,” he thought to himself. “If I stay here I’ll go stark raving crazy.”

So, early one morning, when all the rakkhoshes had returned from their night’s work and gone to sleep  - except for the disreputable day-clubs, which, as Bok had written in his column, a respectable rakkhosh never visited, ever – he slipped out of his home, ducked into the alley behind the Rakkhosh Stock Market, and down to the road passing through the wood leading humanwards. In a matter of only a few years he was cautiously scouting the outskirts of a human village.

It wasn’t much of a village. In fact, it was so small a village that the inhabitants were all one extended family. But it was a human village, and Bok didn’t really have much experience in these things. For all he knew it could’ve been a metropolis.

For a long time, Bok watched the village from hiding. Finally, he grew tired and wandered off to sleep in a ruined temple at the edge of the forest. For the next several days, he lived in the temple and studied the people, and tried to make a plan of what to do next.

Bok never had been a particularly foresighted rakkhosh, so until this time he hadn’t made any plans on how he’d go about introducing himself to the humans. Nor was he careful enough to keep well hidden until he had a plan. So the villagers soon enough realised that there was a rakkhosh living in their ruined temple, and they sent a message to the king of the land, telling him of the monster almost in their midst.

Now the king of the land had a daughter who was as brave as she was clever, as strong as she was stubborn, as adept with a sword as she was on a horse, and as beautiful as...there are no words in any language to describe how beautiful she was. Long had the king sought a match for her, but she had refused all suitors, and spurned them from her presence, be they ever so handsome, rich, and high-born. So the king was in despair, but the princess cared not at all about that.

“I’ll only marry someone I choose,” she declared, often. “I’m willing to wait as long as need be, until the right person comes along. And then –” she’d pause, dramatically. “And then, I’m going to make him pay for keeping me waiting so long.”

But there was one thing that was even more important to her than taking her revenge on the right man, and that was killing a rakkhosh. To be sure, she had never actually seen one, but of course she knew all about them. She knew that they were cruel man- (and even woman-) eating monsters, that they were capricious and evil, and that it was the duty of any royal hero (and heroine) to destroy them. She only waited for a chance.

And now, it seemed, at last that chance was at hand.

“I,” she announced to her father and to the assorted white-bearded ministers, who were discussing in hushed tones how to take care of the menace, “will go myself.”

“My dear,” said the king, “these are only villagers. If we just ignore the situation, the rakkhosh will merely kill them and move back to its home country. We don’t actually have to do a thing.”

All the ministers nodded vigorously. “Princess,” said the minister with the whitest beard, who accordingly had the top spot among them, “these villagers are expendable and not worth bothering about. The kingdom has much more important things to think about than them. I was just advising the king of the necessity of immediately declaring war on the land of...”

The princess cut him off with a gesture. “I’m going, whether you like it or not,” she said to the king. “In the meantime, you keep your army right in its place and don’t move a muscle until I return. You understand me?”

“Yes, dear,” said the king, weakly.

So the princess buckled on her sword, climbed on to her favourite bullock cart, and set forth on her journey. Fortune was with her, and in only twenty-seven days she reached the village, where the terrified residents were anxiously awaiting her coming.

“The monster just sits in the ruined temple, my lady,” the village chief said respectfully. “We know it’s there, though we haven’t actually seen it. We have all been praying for you to destroy it, before it destroys us.”

“You can be sure of that,” said the princess grimly. Since it was coming on to evening, and everyone knew rakkhoshes were only active at night, she decided to go into the temple and wait for it there.

Bok watched the princess come with great pleasure, because it was the first human who had entered the old temple. He had spent the day resting from the heat, and decided to let her rest too, and only approach her in the evening when the air was cooler. Settling back, therefore, he waited contentedly for the night.

The princess, on the other hand, was far less content. The temple was old, the ruined stone jagged and uncomfortable to sit on, and she was hot, sweating and irritable. Also, as evening approached, she discovered that the temple was full of mosquitoes.

“Hell!” she cursed, a little self-consciously, for she’d been given to understand that cursing wasn’t ladylike, let alone royal. “Blast!” she swore, scratching way at a bite. “At this rate these little vampires will suck me dry before I even get to the rakkhosh.”

Bok, who had been listening, thrilled at the thought that she had come to meet him. Therefore, he decided, he had no further reason to stay in hiding, and he unfolded himself from his hiding place and walked over to where the woman was slapping and scratching.

“I’m so glad to see you,” he said.

If he’d planned it, he couldn’t have done better. With a yowl like a startled cat, she leaped into the air and came down already yanking at her sword; but the sword had got tangled in her belt and she couldn’t reach it. Bok, who had once written an article for the Hau Mau Khau on how the true gentleman always helped a lady in need, courteously reached out and took the sword out of her scabbard and handed it to her. The princess grabbed the sword and turned, raising it to strike. And then she paused and let it fall.

“Why,” she said, “you’re cute.”

Now Bok was not cute. He was so not cute that even he was aware of it. In fact, throughout the length and breadth of rakkhosh-land Bok’s non-cuteness was a byword. “You’d better eat your carrion,” mothers would tell their children, “or you’ll grow up as Ugly As Bok.”

And now this human female was calling him cute. Bok stood there and looked at her, wondering if she were blind or merely insane. He didn’t have a chance to wonder long.

“Who are you?” the woman asked. “I mean, what are you?”

“I’m a rakkhosh,” Bok said. “Of course.”

“You can’t possibly be a rakkhosh.”

“Why can’t I?” Bok asked, reasonably. “I’ve always been one. I don’t see why I should stop being one just now.”

“But a rakkhosh is supposed to be huge and ugly, and you’re merely medium-sized and cute.” The princess sighed and lifted her sword again. “It’s such a pity that I have to kill you.”

Kill me?” Bok was astonished and outraged. “What have I done?”

The princess stared at him. “You’re here to kill the villagers and eat them, aren’t you?”

“Kill and eat them?” Bok had a queasy sensation in the pit of his stomach. “I’m a vegetarian. Most of us are. And those who aren’t, eat carrion. What on earth makes you think I’d kill and eat villagers?”

The princess blinked. “Why were you skulking around here if not to kill and eat them?”

Bok stared at her. “If I were going to eat them,” he said reasonably, “don’t you think I’d have done it by now? What do you imagine I’ve been waiting for?”

“You have a point,” the princess admitted. “But,” she added, “do you mean to tell me that everything I ever heard about rakkhoshes has been a lie?”

“I think that’s very likely,” Bok said. “I have never, ever, heard of any rakkhosh eating any living animal – let alone a human. Are you still going to kill me?”

“No,” the princess admitted, putting down her sword. “Oh,” she said, stroking Bok’s fur, “you are cute – and polite too. You make me go quite weak at the knees.”

“Is something wrong?” Bok asked in alarm. He looked at her knees. “Has something happened to them?”

“No, no,” she assured him. “It’s just that I fancy you.” Lurching forward, she threw her arms around his neck. “Marry me?”

“Uh,” Bok said, backing away in panic, “thanks for asking, but, you know, I’m, I’m too young, to think of marriage. Why, I’m only seven hundred and thirty eight years old.”

“So?” the princess demanded. “Am I not beautiful enough for you? Not desirable enough? I’ll have you know that I’m a king’s daughter, and if you marry me you’ll be king when my father dies. Of course,” she added, “I’ll run the kingdom, but you can sit on the throne and play with the crown. Isn’t that good enough for you?”

“Yes, yes, my lady,” Bok said unhappily, trying to push her away. “There’s one thing you ought to know, though.”

“What?” she asked, frowning. “What’s so important that you can’t even grab the opportunity to marry me with both front paws?”

“Just this,” Bok replied. “I’m gay. I have always been gay. And I’ll always be gay. I’m sorry, but there it is.”

And pushing her away so hard that she fell down, he rushed away into the gathering night.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Science Friction

We remember them,
Square-jawed white men named
Captain Gordon, or
Ensign Green,

Sailing their starships across
The star-studded gulfs of space.
Travelling to distant fantastic planets
Frontiers for colonists to conquer
Worlds to tame and civilise.

Those heroic starfarers
Do you remember them?

Epitome of Good
Battling evil aliens
(Who were only defending their homes and hearths
From marauding Terran monsters
But that wasn’t what you thought about then)
And saving beautiful humanoid princesses
From durance vile.

Proving, to everyone’s entire satisfaction
That humanity deserves to rule the Universe
And keep lesser species in their place.

Where are those square-jawed heroes now?
Wiped away by the changing seasons
With a little enlightenment
About what ought to be wrong and right
(Not to mention that evil alien monsters
Are now blue cat people
In touch with the spirits of nature)

And their far ranging travels
Across the universe, their Galactic Federations
Pulled awry by
The curve of spacetime
And hobbled by
The speed of light.

 Copyright B Purkayastha 2013

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Furnace

All day the soldiers had fought the rebels, beating them back street by street, working our way towards the centre of the town. By evening, we had come far enough so that the battalion commander had decided to halt for the night and consolidate our gains, and to prevent the rebels from trying to ambush our troops in the darkness. So the sun was just going down when we entered the house the platoon leader had chosen to be our base for the night.
It had once been a handsome, well-built house, and was still relatively intact, though the walls were pockmarked with bullets and the glass in the windows like jagged teeth. There was a large scorch mark on one wall, but overall it was still in quite good shape, especially when compared to the other houses in the street, most of which were burnt-out ruins without roofs or walls, the charred interiors open to view.
The rebels had been here, recently – so recently that the air still smelled of them, of the perfumed oil which so many of them anointed themselves with to better prepare for their journey to Paradise. On the wall above the TV set, the screen of which had been smashed in, someone had painted in blood red letters a promise to tear the heart out of every captive they took. It wasn’t an idle boast, either – what the rebels did to any of our men they took prisoner didn’t bear thinking about. Next to the threat, a smashed crucifix still hung askew, the head of the Jesus figure hacked off. The original owners had been Christian, and I wondered what had happened to them, if they’d managed to escape before the rebels came.
“Looking at that?” one of the soldiers asked, sitting down next to me. He cocked his head, studying the lettering. “It’s sloppy,” he decided. “They did it in a hurry. I’ve seen much better ones.”
“Does it bother you?” I asked in return.
He shrugged. “Anybody can make threats. If we were to pay attention to threats we’d never get anything done.”
“They aren’t that far off,” I said, listening to the rattle of a machine gun in the distance.
“Two streets away,” the soldier said. He was quite young, in his early twenties, but had a hard-bitten face with eyes that belonged to someone nearer fifty. “Don’t worry, they won’t be back.”
Before I could reply, something exploded so close to us the walls trembled and flakes of plaster fell from the ceiling. It was instantly followed by another explosion, and another. The blasts merged into a constant wall of sound, so intense that I could make out nothing else. Instinctively, I crouched on the floor, rolling into a foetal position with my arms wrapped round my middle.
At last the sound eased, the walls stopped shaking, and I opened my eyes. The soldier was bending over me, shaking my shoulder. It was some time before I could make out what he was saying. “It’s all right,” he told me. “That was our artillery, hitting the other side. The shells weren’t even close.”
“They weren’t?” My mouth and throat were so dry the words hardly came out. I worked my lips and tongue. “What is it like when it’s closer?” I asked when I could speak again.
The soldier shook his head. “You don’t really need to know that,” he said. He rubbed his jaw, his fingers scraping over the stubble. “I hope we get a bit of rest tonight. Let’s go and find you a place to sleep.”
“I’ll be all right,” I protested. “You’re the one who’ll be fighting – you’re the one who needs sleep.”
“I don’t sleep much.” He grinned, but the smile was bitter. “I haven’t really slept in months, and I don’t think I will again until we’ve won this war – if I live that long.”
I peered at him curiously. I’d only been attached to the unit since the previous morning and hadn’t got to know any of the men on a personal basis. I glanced at his chest, but he wasn’t wearing a name tag. None of the soldiers did, for excellent reasons. “What’s your name?”
“Murad.” He looked at me. “Al Nasseri. You’re not to mention that if you write about me, of course.”
“Naturally not.” I’d been briefed that the soldiers’ names were not to be divulged under any circumstances, because a lot of their families were in the territory the rebels still held. “But there are a lot of people called Murad al Nasseri.”
“Doesn’t matter. Don’t mention it.”
“I won’t, don’t worry. Where are you from?”
He shrugged. “My family is in Hima. They’re in the old part of the town, the part that was under the enemy’s control. But we got it back, just like we’ll get everything back.”
“You’re very confident.” We’d walked through the house to the kitchen. Another soldier, an older man with a sergeant’s stripes on his sleeve, sprawled in a chair, his head thrown back, sleeping. We stepped carefully over his legs and lowered our voices, but he didn’t stir in any case. It was probably the first rest he’d had since the start of the offensive. Murad filled a kettle from a bucket of water and put it on the stove. Amazingly, the gas was still on. “You’re sure we’ll win? Speaking off the record, of course.”
“We’ll win.” Murad’s voice was filled with some emotion I couldn’t identify, something which made me look at him sharply. It wasn’t confidence, or bravado, but something else. “We’ll do anything it takes, but we’ll win.”
“How can you be so certain?”
“I’ll tell you later.”
I didn’t say anything for the moment, watching him as he boiled some tea. There were only two surviving cups in the kitchen, and one of them had a broken handle. Murad handed me the other without comment and we went back to the living room. Someone had been inside in the meantime and put on an emergency lamp; in its blue-white light the room looked like something out of an old black-and-white movie. Murad settled back down on the chair and took off his helmet. Without it, he suddenly looked even younger, and the scar that crossed his forehead seemed even more shocking than it might have otherwise been. It looked as though somebody had tried to hack his head in two with a knife.
“How did you get that?” I asked. A lot of the soldiers were scarred – they wore the scars proudly, like badges of honour more precious than medals – but this one was especially awful.
He touched the scar. “It’s a long story.” He glanced at me. “You were asking how I was so certain we’ll do whatever it takes to win.” And in his voice I heard that emotion again, and I thought I could recognise it – a blend of steely determination and an anger which went far beyond words, an anger that ate through to the core of this boy’s being. “You’re sure you want to hear this?”
I waited for a heavy burst of firing to die down. Silence fell at last, broken only by an occasional shot.
“I have nothing else to do anyway,” I told him.
I told you my family is from Hima (Murad said). We weren’t rich, but we had a nice enough life, before all this started. My father had a business selling construction materials, and my mother was a teacher. I had one younger brother, Salim, who was in school.
I wasn’t your typical obedient son, growing up. I got into more than my share of trouble, and I never did get into books and studying. It never seemed to make sense to me to spend the growing years of my life cooped up with things which didn’t interest me while I could be out and about. So you might say I was a bit of a wild child, but I never did anything actually criminal.
Now, of course, Hima is in ruins, but it was a nice enough town then, with tree-lined streets and open-air cafes. My father had wanted me to get involved in the family business, but a life spent selling cement and iron rods wasn’t for me, and I told him so. He wasn’t too happy about it, of course, but then I never had much of a head for figures, and Salim was more compliant than me, anyway.
But there weren’t much in the way of jobs available otherwise, not for someone who’d got through school with difficulty, so I joined the army. That wasn’t anything that made either of my parents happy, either, but there it was. Besides, I liked the army; it gave me the kind of life I was probably yearning for without even being aware of it. I thought it would be my career for life.
And then the rebellion started.
There’s no point talking about the early fighting, and how we were rushed around from one place to another, fighting to defend strategic points from the rebels. Several of my own friends deserted to the other side – there’s no point talking about that either. As far as we’re concerned, once they left, they weren’t our friends any longer. They were simply traitors and terrorists, allied to the foreign jihadists who are trying to destroy our country and our way of life.
So we were rushed around, and finally we managed to stem the rebel advance, and then we began to fight back. And so it was that early this year I found myself at the point of one of the lead battalions fighting to retake my old hometown from the terrorists.
Later, the magazines and the TV channels put out a lot of nonsense about the battle of Hima, that we had routed the terrorists and chased them out of their holes with their tails between their legs. Your paper, too, said things like that. I don’t blame the media, really; they needed morale-boosting news, and they didn’t have journalists embedded with the frontline soldiers, not like now. No, I don’t blame them – but it didn’t happen that way at all. It wasn’t a glorious charge, it was slow, slogging city fighting, the kind we hadn’t seen before.
Have you ever been to Hima? No? Well, while the new part of the city is modern, the old part – where the terrorists were – is a maze of narrow lanes, lined with old buildings with thick brick walls which were right up against each other. The terrorists had blocked the lanes with rubble, forming a series of barricades, so that we couldn’t use the streets, and our armour was useless. And because the enemy had stopped the people of the old town from fleeing – my parents and brother were still in there, along with everyone else – we couldn’t simply pulverise a target area with artillery and move in to mop up what was left, like we’d have done elsewhere; like we’ve done in this town, for instance.
Instead, we had to fight our way house by house, often room by room, and having to be careful to spare the civilians as much as we could. After all, a lot of them were our own relatives. Even when we took a house, it wasn’t enough, because the terrorists had made holes in the walls between buildings so they could run back and forth without showing themselves in the street. Sometimes we would take an entire street and then we’d find the terrorists swarming back and attacking us from the rear. And of course they’d booby-trap houses they were about to abandon, so we would have to first clear those out. I’m telling you – it wasn’t the kind of thing glorious victories are made of.
That battle taught us to hate the enemy. You can’t help it, in a situation like that. We were constantly tense because of the fear of a terrorist counterattack, unable to take the time out for a proper meal, sleeping leaning in a corner of a room for half an hour while a comrade stood guard to make sure some terrorist bastard didn’t come and cut your throat. We grew to be like wild animals, filled with aggression born of fear. It was a furnace, you see – and we were like pieces of metal thrust into the centre of it, and shaped by the heat into something we’d never be otherwise.
We almost never saw the terrorists. We could hear them sometimes, often right in the next house, moving around and talking among themselves, and of course we could hear their shooting and the explosions of their grenades. Sometimes they’d yell “Allahu Akbar” and we knew that either they’d hit one of us, or that one of them had been killed. And, of course, sometimes we’d hear their shrieks of agony, and that brought us great satisfaction. But we almost never saw them, except sometimes through a telescopic sight, or, very, very rarely, when we met them in hand-to-hand fighting.
It was during these rare moments that all that pent-up aggression would erupt. We’d forget our training, and turn into beasts intent on destruction, stabbing and clubbing and fighting with everything from our guns to chunks of rubble we’d use as bludgeons. And of course Allah help any of those terrorist bastards who fell alive into our hands. I’ve myself done things, and seen things done, during those times – well, I’ll spare you. I don’t enjoy thinking about them, but I don’t imagine I’ll ever stop. And of course the war’s still going on, and I don’t know how much more I’ll see before it’s through.
Once we captured a terrorist headquarters. I’d been in the lead squad which had stormed it, under the cover of a storm of heavy machine gun fire. We were just too late – the enemy had run, though they had left several of their dead behind and some wounded who saw us and begged for mercy. Yes, then they begged for mercy, when they found themselves in our hands. We didn’t have any mercy for them, I can tell you, even if we’d had any to begin with; not when we saw what they’d done to three men they’d imprisoned in one of the rooms on suspicion of being our supporters. And then the next day the terrorists counterattacked and took the building back again.
That sort of thing happened so often we lost count.
Still, we advanced, street by street, through the sprawl of the old town. Sometimes I’d stand looking up at the sky – but making sure to stay well under cover, you understand, because of the terrorist snipers – and I’d see the plumes of smoke from burning buildings in the distance. I’d have a fair idea, of course, where those buildings were, and I’d wonder how much longer it would take to reach my family’s home, and in what shape I’d find them. Of course I couldn’t telephone them, because the lines were all down and because the cell phones had been jammed to hinder terrorist communications. I hoped they were all right. I hoped they had something to eat.
Then, one evening, the platoon officer called us together and asked for volunteers to carry out a reconnaissance patrol. We had reached a street which gave on to a crossroads, which the terrorists should have turned into a strongpoint. I was familiar with the area, so of course I volunteered. There was no other option, really. I owed it to the others, and to my family.
There were three of us who were sent out – more would’ve been too many to be stealthy. The two others with me –Bashir and Hassan – were both from Hima, too, and excellent soldiers, but they didn’t know the locality. We left soon after dark, climbing out of a window into a dingy backyard, and stooping down a back lane.
It was dark, of course, with no electricity, and we had no luxuries like night vision equipment. We moved in a crouch, keeping our heads as low as possible, hugging the walls of the houses. We heard people talking more than once – whether terrorists, or possibly civilians, we couldn’t tell.
I knew a narrow back lane which gave on to the crossroads. When I was a teenager, a girl I had a crush on lived nearby, and she and I had often sneaked away along this lane to avoid her mother’s eagle eye. Fatima was long gone, moved away years ago, and there had been other girls afterwards, many of them – but I still remembered the lane, every twist and turn of it; and, as I’d expected, the enemy hadn’t thought it worth barricading. Though it took us a long time, we finally reached the point where it met the crossroads.
It was a moonless night, but there were enough stars visible to cast some light. The buildings around the crossroads were silhouetted against the sky, their windows patches of absolute darkness. We’d have to get in closer.
In all the things I’ve gone through in this war, the crawl through that crossroads must be the most nerve-wracking. All around us, the high buildings towered into the air, full of menace. We were only three men, and at each step we felt as though a thousand eyes were watching us. We moved on our bellies, crawling like snakes along the bottom of the walls, trying to make no noise whatever.
And we did manage to check out the crossroads thoroughly. We marked the position of a sandbagged barrier they’d built to one side, and a rough bunker made of slabs of concrete on another. I remember lying on the ground right under a window through which a terrorist was leaning, smoking a cigarette – his hot ash fell on the back of my hand. Someone inside was talking to him, in a language I couldn’t understand – he must have been one of the foreign jihadists the Gulf monarchies had pushed in. After some time he moved back from the window, and I could breathe again.
After about an hour we’d managed to work our way around the crossroads, and get a fairly good idea of the terrorist defences. Finally reaching the lane again, we got stiffly to our feet and prepared to get back to our platoon.
I suppose we’d let our guard down at that moment, thinking we were over the worst, because it was then that the terrorist patrol found us.
No, they didn’t catch us completely by surprise – we’d been stupid, but not that stupid. The terrorists and we caught sight of each other at almost exactly the same moment. There weren’t many of them either – four or five. One of them gave a shout, and then we were all shooting at them, and they were shooting at us. I remember one of them was so close to me that my muzzle flashes lit up his chest and I could see his clothes ripping from my bullets. Then suddenly the shooting was over, and I found myself alone.
I could hear the terrorists coming, though, yelling at each other as they swarmed out of their positions at the crossroads. I knew they’d be on me in moments if I tried to run for the lane. And if they captured me, death would seem a blessing.
Without consciously thinking about it, I ran for the nearest building, on my right. It was at the entrance of the lane, and before the fighting started had evidently been under construction. We’d noticed sacks of cement and piles of bricks still stacked around the entrance. I dodged behind one of these stacks and into the cover of the shadow cast by the upper floors.  There were stairs leading up, and I climbed them as quickly as I could. One of the hardest things to do was to keep from gasping for breath – I was terrified and winded – and I held a handkerchief over my mouth and nose to muffle the sound as much as I could. Outside, there was still a lot of shooting, but I had no idea who was firing, or at whom.
I climbed two storeys before I had to stop to rest. My legs refused to support me any longer, and I lay down on the rough concrete, gasping, feeling as though the pounding of my heart could be heard across town. After a long time, the shouting and shooting outside died down, and a little after that I felt able to get up again.
I was extremely thirsty, and I discovered that at some point in the evening I’d lost my water bottle. At first I tried to tolerate the thirst, but it soon grew to be a monster tearing at the inside of my throat. Finally, I began hunting around for water. It had rained in the morning, and I hoped that I’d be able to find a puddle where the wind had blown it in.  It wouldn’t be the first time I’d had to drink from a puddle.
I was still looking for the water when I heard a sound behind me, and someone grabbed me by the shoulder...
I was extremely fortunate that at that time I was in the far corner of the half-finished building, where the shadow was thickest. The terrorist hadn’t been able to identify who I was – one of his comrades or a soldier. It made him slow, and unsure enough to catch hold of me instead of killing me instantly. I twisted in his grip, throwing myself down, and an instant later he was on me.
He was small, but immensely tough, and fast. Neither of us could use our guns in that situation, rolling on the floor, and for a moment I thought I was getting the upper hand. Then he threw a punch that knocked my helmet off my head, and I saw a faint glitter of starlight on steel as he swung a bayonet at my face...
It didn’t hurt. I felt the blade slam into my forehead, and the skin part like paper, but it didn’t hurt, not then. Nor did the spurt of blood falling over my eyes slow me down. At that point I was reacting entirely by instinct, and as he raised the bayonet again I slammed a knee into his belly, caught his knife arm, and twisted as hard as I could. I don’t remember exactly what happened the next few seconds, but a little bit later I was lying on my back on the concrete, feeling dizzy, while next to me I could hear something flopping around and groaning. After a while the moaning stopped, and I either lost consciousness or went to sleep.
It must have been several hours later that I woke. It was cold, and at first I couldn’t see. Touching my face, I found my eyelids were stuck together with drying blood, and after a little rubbing I managed to open my eyes.
The first light of dawn had just lightened the sky, and looking around I found I could see a great deal more than during the night. My helmet lay beside me, and beside it, my gun. And on my other side was a crumpled form, its face turned away from me, the haft of the bayonet sticking out of its throat. It was the dead terrorist of course.
I don’t know to this day what prompted me to reach out and turn the corpse over. I had seen many dead terrorists, and the most I’d done to them afterwards was smash their bearded faces with my boot. But this was a different kind of fight, one on one, him against me. I suppose I wanted to see just what kind of man I’d killed.
At first I didn’t understand why he looked familiar. I thought that it was maybe a trick of the light. I rubbed my eyes again, and peered close, and only then did I admit it to myself. Under the beard covering his cheeks and jaw, I saw the face of Salim. The dead terrorist was my brother.
Two hours later,” Murad said, “our men attacked and flushed the terrorists from the crossroads. As I found later, Bashir and Hassan had both got back to the platoon and told them where the defences were – and reported that I’d been killed. When they found me, I looked as though I wasn’t too far from death, they told me later. But I didn’t feel anything. I only felt numb.
“The platoon commander sent me back to the field dressing station, and the doctors there wanted to hospitalise me. But I refused point blank – I demanded that they patch me up and send me back to the platoon. They thought it was heroism, but it wasn’t. I just needed to know what had happened.
“I found out three days later, when we finally captured my parents’ home street. The terrorists had finally broken, and were streaming out of the town, leaving only small suicidal rear-guards in an attempt to stall our advance. We gave them no quarter.
“My parents were still at the house, which was almost intact. I don’t want to describe the way they reacted when I showed up at their door. I asked them about Salim, where he was.”
“You didn’t tell them he was dead?” I asked.
“Of course not. I still haven’t told them – I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I don’t know if I ever will be able to. But this is what they said –
“When the terrorists had taken over the old city, some of their local members had turned up at my parents’ door. They knew I was in the army, and they demanded that my parents send me a message ordering me to desert. When my father refused, they held a gun to my mother’s head and threatened to shoot her first, and then him. Then Salim said he’d go with them instead – to save our parents’ lives.
“I can still feel us fighting,” he continued. “I can feel the bayonet scraping on my skull. And I wonder – I wonder every night – what I’d have done if I’d recognised him then. Would I still have fought him? Or would I have let him kill me? I keep wondering, but I can’t think of an answer.”
Murad fell silent, looking at his hands. I waited, watching him, not daring to intrude.
“I told you,” he said finally, “that this war’s a furnace, didn’t I? It’s tempered us, hardened us, and made us what we’d never have been otherwise. It turned my brother into a reluctant terrorist. It turned me into an unknowing fratricide. And all of us – we’ve all lost something in this war, friends or relatives or our innocence. All we have left is the thirst for revenge. It drives us on, and it won’t be quenched until the last terrorist is driven from the land.”
Heavy shelling began in the distance, making the walls rattle. Murad looked up at me and smiled suddenly.
“Tomorrow’s fighting will soon begin,” he said, putting on his helmet and hiding the scar. “Shall we go and get some more tea?”

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013

Monday, 20 May 2013

The Discovery

High above the city, in the old castle on the hill, the great botanist Professor Chloroplast put down the soldering iron. “Now we’ll know,” he said.

His assistant, the young Dr Xylem, looked up from the flower pot on the other side of the room. It contained a sweet pea plant, to the leaves of which he was attaching sensors on clips. “All ready here, sir.”

The Professor stepped away from the large box on the table. Lights flickered across its surface, needles crawled along dials, and readouts scrolled across screens. “We’ll have to wait a little, for it to calibrate first.”

“Do you really think it will work?” asked Dr Xylem, voicing a doubt he hadn’t dared express during the years of research and effort.

“Work?” the Professor scoffed. “Of course it will work. Haven’t all the tests we’ve done confirmed what we thought? If this works,” he added, “and it will work...can you imagine the implications? A Nobel Prize is the least we can expect, my boy. The very least.”

“You’re right, Professor,” the young Dr Xylem said. He still looked apprehensive. “I was just wondering if we’ve thought this thing through.”

Professor Chloroplast bent to adjust a knob or two. “What’s there to be thought about?”

“Nothing, I suppose.” Dr Xylem replied. “I just can’t help feeling we’re missing something.”

“You’ve checked the notes over and over for yourself,” the Professor snapped. “If there was anything I’d missed you’d have caught it.”

“The instruments are all ready, Professor,” Dr Xylem said diplomatically, looking at the line of green lights on the box. “We can start now.”

For the next half an hour the two men were too busy to speak. They pressed buttons and turned knobs, watched dials and peered at the screens. At last the Professor sat back, satisfied, and sighed with deep satisfaction.

“Success,” he said. “After all these years, after all the effort – success, complete success!”

“Success,” Doctor Xylem echoed. He glanced back at the readouts on the screen. “I must congratulate you, Professor.”

Professor Chloroplast waved a languid hand. “The facts were always there to be discovered,” he said. “We were just the first. Well, let’s try it on the carrots now.”

So they tried it on the carrots, and then on the money plant in the jar in the corner. Finally Dr Xylem leaned out through the window and fixed wires to the rose bush in the garden. Each time the results were the same.

“We’ve done it,” Professor Chloroplast concluded. “Let the world know now that plant intelligence is a proven fact.”

Dr Xylem nodded. “The mail is ready, sir. I just have to send it.” He walked over to the laptop on the far side of the room, and after a split second’s hesitation, clicked on send. Within moments, science publications around the world were buzzing with the news.

“Can you imagine what we’ve achieved here?” the Professor asked. “From the dawn of time, man has been exploiting the vegetable kingdom. Indeed, until fairly recently, people were reluctant to admit that plants were even alive. And now we’re proved, beyond a shadow of doubt, that they’re intelligent. They can feel and think and even communicate.” He glanced happily at the monitor where the plants’ thoughts had been translated into roughly comprehensible language. “That they think by way of chemical reactions doesn’t change anything.”

The phones began ringing busily, and for the next hour the Professor took one call after another, giving impromptu interviews. At last there was a respite, and he sat back, wiping his brow. “Phew,” he said. “Fame is hard work. I’m really rather hot and bothered.”

“And you’re going to be a lot more hot and bothered soon,” Dr Xylem said, looking out of the window.

“What do you mean?” Professor Chloroplast asked, frowning.

“Come here, sir, and have a look,” Dr Xylem said, pointing.

The Professor and he stood at the window, watching, neither of them inclined to speak.

Carrying pitchforks and torches, a huge mob of furious vegans was climbing up from the town to burn the castle down.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013

Raghead: Reaper Creeper

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The Zombie of George Romero

The Zombie of George Romero clambered out of its coffin and stood peering blearily around.

“Can’t see a damned thing without my glasses,” it mumbled to itself. “Where are my damned glasses?” Bending, it began hunting around with its hands, but it didn’t find the glasses, and no wonder, because they’d been purloined by a crazed souvenir hunter who’d long since auctioned it on eBay. At that moment the spectacles were somewhere in the depths of Darkest Australia, in the possession of a crocodile wrangler who used them to frighten the animals into submission.

“This is a pretty mess,” the Zombie of George Romero mumbled, as well as a corpse can mumble. “How the hell am I supposed to go through undeath without seeing where I’m going?”

Still muttering balefully, it wandered out of the mortician’s parlour. It was midnight, so there wasn’t anyone on the premises, but the downside was that the door was locked. But the Zombie of George Romero wasn’t a zombie for nothing, so it broke its way out at the cost of only a few broken bones in one arm.

“Now,” it wondered, as it stumbled down the pavement, staggering a little because its dead muscle fibres didn’t contract so well anymore, “just what on earth am I supposed to do? Where am I going anyway?”

This was a serious problem, which took a lot of cogitation. The zombie’s brain had suffered the effects of dying, of course, and hadn’t come intact back from the dead. Huge chunks of memory were missing.

“I’ll just go along like this for the moment,” the Zombie thought, finally, “and see what happens.”

It was a cold night, and rain began falling. Since the Zombie of George Romero no longer had a functioning heart or flowing blood, it began to get chilled. “Must get warm,” it thought, and at that moment saw a supermarket which was still open.

“Bright lights,” it mumbled to itself. “Maybe it will be warm in there.” By now its legs were so cold that it couldn’t move them even as well as it was earlier, and was in danger of falling on its face. So it held its arms stiffly forward to try and balance, and staggered towards the blur of red, white and blue light.


The supermarket was almost empty at this time of night, and the clerk at the check-out desk was surfing porn on his mobile phone when a shadow fell across his counter. Annoyed at the interruption, and also worried in case it was some family-values type who had caught a glimpse of the screen, he put the phone into his pocket before he looked up.  

“What can I do for –“ he began, trying to stretch his lips into a smile –  of course, only the minimum, standard smile the store management demanded of its employees. “For you,” he finished foolishly, the smile freezing in place, well short of the standard minimum.

Across the counter stood an apparition, slack-jawed, bleary-eyed, dressed in a corpse’s burial suit. Its jaw hung open, and it moaned as it staggered. With its stretched out arms, it pawed across the counter at the clerk.

The clerk screamed. Desperately, pushing his chair back from the desk, he tried to get up, but the space was so small that in his panic he couldn’t. Goggle-eyed, he glared up at the thing across the counter, gasping for breath.

The Zombie of George Romero was astonished. It had merely meant to ask the clerk if it was OK for it to rest a while and warm itself. When it had tried to talk, however, it had found that its dead diaphragm couldn’t move well enough to push air out of its lungs to speak. So it could only moan helplessly.

“Are you all right?” it tried to ask, but it just came out as another moan. The clerk didn’t look all right. In fact, he looked pretty damned bad, even to the Zombie’s myopic eyes. The Zombie tried to move closer to the counter, and its legs almost collapsed under it with the effort. Only with a quick grab at the edge of the desk did it manage to stop itself from falling.

“Sorry,” the Zombie apologised. “I’m still getting used to –“

The clerk interrupted with a hoarse scream. He began screaming louder and louder, until it began to get on the Zombie’s dead nerves. Turning away, it began wandering towards the back of the supermarket, wandering through the aisles of produce looking for someone else to ask. But the bright lights and the shiny surfaces were confusing to its myopic eyes, and it couldn’t really see a thing.

It had turned back towards the front of the store when it was suddenly confronted by the clerk. In his hands, the man hefted a baseball bat, and took a wild swing.

“Hey, you know,” the Zombie of George Romero protested, “this kind of thing won’t do at all.” Fortunately, it had stumbled at the exact moment the bat had swung at its head, so that it had escaped unscathed. “I haven’t done anything to you.”

The clerk didn’t seem moved by this protestation. He’d already set himself to take another swing. The Zombie of George Romero reluctantly decided that it might be time to take steps to protect itself. Pivoting awkwardly, it swung a hand at the clerk. It caught the man a glancing blow just above the elbow.

The results exceeded all expectations. Howling in terror, the clerk threw down the bat and jumped back, colliding with display of breakfast cereal boxes. The cereal and the clerk collapsed in a heap.

The Zombie of George Romero decided to leave while the leaving was good. It had warmed itself up with the exertion, and was able to move more easily, so it made its way to the exit. As it left the store, a couple of wild-eyed young men were coming in. The Zombie of George Romero stood aside politely to let them in.

His politeness had no more effect than his protests earlier. One of the two men had been in the act of pulling a stocking mask over his face, but paused, his eyes bulging. “Grawp!” he gasped.

“What?” The other man was in the act of pulling a gun from his jacket pocket, but stopped, his eyes bulging too. “Zombie!” he said.

“Shoot it!” The first man yelled, pawing desperately at his own pocket. “Shoot it now!”

The Zombie of George Romero was growing distinctly annoyed. Everyone seemed to have it in for it, no matter what it did. After all, it hadn’t asked to become a zombie, had it? Irritated, it stepped forward and shoved the first man in the chest. It wasn’t a hard push, but the man, off-balance, fell on the second. There was a muffled gunshot. The first man fell writhing to the ground, flopped about for a little while, and stopped writhing.

“Oh my god,” the second young man yelled at the Zombie of George Romero. “He’s dead. Look what you made me do!”

The Zombie of George Romero was, of course, not the personal deity of the second young man – now the only young man. Nor had it the slightest desire to be the personal deity of anyone. But it had no opportunity to tell the man so, because he was pointing his gun at the Zombie and trying to shoot it. It was, again, only the Zombie’s instability on its legs that saved it – it staggered and stumbled erratically, and the young man’s shots went wide.

Distant, but closing rapidly, there were sirens approaching. It seemed the police would be there soon. The young man glared around and took off at a run, pausing only long enough to squeeze off one final shot at the Zombie. The bullet crashed into the wall by its head.

Once again, the Zombie of George Romero had to walk off down the street in the cold. By now, however, it had learned to be a little more careful, and had also gained some amount of co-ordination over its limbs. Staying in the shadows, it ducked down the first dark alley it found, and then down another. Soon it had left the sirens far behind.

After a while, it began to feel cold again. So, choosing a spot behind a dumpster, it settled down to rest.


Look at this!” someone’s foot poked the Zombie of George Romero in the chest. “Wake up, you!”

The Zombie had, of course, not been sleeping, because being undead it didn’t have the ability to sleep. It had, however, kept its eyes closed in order to protect them from the weather.

“What do you want?” it asked, sitting up. The moon had come up in the meantime, and enough light came into the alley for even its dim eyes to be able to see something of the four people standing over it. The first one had drawn back a foot for another kick, but now paused.

“You’re a zombie?”

The Zombie of George Romero was inclined to deny it. Its experiences earlier had filled it with a vague suspicion that a zombie wasn’t a very popular thing to be. However, two things made it pause a moment.

The first was that the people could apparently understand what it had said. This was the first time anyone had, after its undeath. The second was that, looking up at them, it saw that they, too, held out their arms stiffly and that their jaws sagged open, like its own.

“Yes,” it admitted. “I’m a zombie.” It climbed awkwardly to its feet. “Are you all together?”

“Well,” the zombie which had kicked it said, “we are now.” It had once been a thickly-built black man with a bald head. The Zombie of George Romero thought it was lucky that it hadn’t kicked too hard, or it might have fractured several ribs. “Who are you?”

“You mean my original name?” the Zombie of George Romero replied. “I can’t remember,” it said after a while. “I’ve been trying and trying but...”

 “I know it,” one of the other zombies exclaimed. It was a pale young woman with black mascara on its eyes which had run down its cheeks. “It’s George Romero.”

All the zombies looked at the Zombie of George Romero. “Yes,” one of the others, a fat boy in his mid-teens, agreed. “It used to be George Romero. I remember seeing it on TV while it was alive.”

“You bastard,” the first zombie, the black man, said quietly. “You absolute bastard.”

“What?” the Zombie of George Romero said, confused. “What have I done now?”

“Now? Nothing.” The black zombie flung out an arm like a young tree. The fist at the end of it was like a brick. “It’s what you did when you were alive that matters, bastard.”

“We’ve been hunted all evening and running for our unlives,” the last of the zombies said. It was a thin woman in a ragged dress. “And it’s all because of you.”

“Because of me?” the Zombie of George Romero protested. “I never did anything to you that –“

“It’s all because of you,” the pale girl zombie interrupted. “You and your zombie movies! Now everybody hates and fears us because they think we’ll eat them. You...filthy...bastard!”

“But how could I know?” the Zombie of George Romero protested weakly. “I never knew such a thing as a zombie even existed, let alone that I’d be one or that people would react this way.”

“No, you just knew what was good for your bank balance.” The black zombie moved menacingly forward. “You ought to be pulped.”

“If you hadn’t reinvented the zombie genre,” the thin woman zombie snapped, “none of this would’ve even happened.”

“Smash it,” said the fat boy, gleefully. “Bash its face in.”

The Zombie of George Romero raised its hands hurriedly. “Wait,” it said. “All right, so I admit you have reason to be angry with former self. But we need to stick together now instead of fighting, don’t we? That’s logical, isn’t it? I could be of so much help to you.”

The black zombie paused suspiciously. “How, exactly,” it demanded, “are you going to be of help to us? You look like you’d fall to pieces in a strong wind.”

“You say I invented the zombie genre, right?” the Zombie of George Romero replied, thinking furiously. “So I should know all about it – more than you anyway.”

“We’ll see,” the black zombie said, stepping back reluctantly. “Let’s get out of here, anyway.”

They shuffled down the street. The Zombie of George Romero was in the lead, and felt the eyes of the others boring into its back. It tried to find something of leadership to say. Nothing came to mind.

“I’m hungry,” the fat boy zombie said.

“You can’t be,” the pale girl zombie told it. “We’re no longer alive, so we can’t digest food. So shut up and stop whining.”

“I can’t help it.” The fat boy zombie looked as if it would have burst into tears if it still had possessed working lacrimal glands. “I always got hungry around this time.”

“You always got hungry at all times,” the thin woman zombie said. “I remember you quite well. So there’s no point complaining.”

They came all of a sudden to a larger street, so suddenly that they were on it before they could stop themselves. The street was full of people rushing here and there in panic. Some of them saw the group of zombies and turned to flee. Others ran towards them looking over their shoulders.

“Zombies!” people everywhere screamed. “The zombies are coming!”

Before the Zombie of George Romero could react, a man ran into it and fell headlong. Another crashed into the black zombie, fell, and began shrieking in panic. The zombies stood staring at each other.

“What do we do now?” the girl zombie asked.

“You said you’d lead us,” the black zombie demanded. “Do some leading, then.”

“I’m hungry,” the fat boy zombie whined.

“If we were in one of your films,” the thin woman zombie said, “we’d...”

The Zombie of George Romero looked down at the squalling man on the ground. There was nothing appetising about him. In fact he was so unappetising that under normal circumstances the Zombie of George Romero wouldn’t have ever gone anywhere near him. These, however, were not normal circumstances.

“Do something,” the four zombies yelled at him. “Or get lost before we smash you.”

The Zombie of George Romero hesitated a moment longer, Then, seeing no way out, it knelt by the man on the ground and – slowly and reluctantly – began gnawing at it. After a while the other zombies joined in.

By the time the Zombie of George Romero had eaten the man’s brain, the Zombocalypse had finally begun.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013