Saturday, 11 July 2015
Friday, 10 July 2015
Some days ago I read a novel which, not to pull punches, infuriated me. It was fully in the vein of the old 1950s and 60s science fiction which assumed that the universe was for humans to plunder and despoil, and that nobody needed even to bother about the destruction they were wreaking on nature, here or elsewhere.
I was, as I said, reduced to fury. But it was not helpless fury. In response, I wrote this story. I hope, apart from entertainment, it provides a riposte to that entire subgenre.
Take that, you bastards.
THE MONSTER HUNTERS
On the drive down to the docks MenoKichi saw the woman for the first time.
She stood at the corner opposite the Hunter’s Guild office, looking up at the honey-coloured stone. In one hand she held a sign while the other was raised in a clenched fist. A few people passing by gave her curious looks.
“Uncle,” MenoKichi asked, “who is that woman?”
Juren didn’t bother with more than a momentary glance. “It’s just another of the prattlers,” he said, turning into the temporary parking area outside the Guild office. The whisper of the car’s engine fell off into silence. “Now, you wait here while I get my permits signed. I’ll only be a half hour or so.”
Left to herself, MenoKichi sat back, looking out of the window. Outside the entrance of the Hunter’s Guild office, the huge bronze statue of a monster standing on its tail was painted orange-red by the setting sun. The Hunter’s Guild had commissioned the statue, Juren had told her, at enormous expense from one of the best sculptors in the business.
“Why?” she’d asked. It had seemed such an unnecessary thing, especially when money had been so tight at home that her mother had had to think before buying shoes and a new set of winter clothes.
“It’s just a way of giving back a little of what the Sea has provided us,” Juren had said, and shown her the picture in the guide book. The city had published the guide book in the hope that tourists might come. So far the hope had remained only a hope. “We owe everything to the Sea, it keeps us all going. Without it we’d be nothing.”
It still seemed a waste to MenoKichi. After all, the monster was not just very big but very ugly, and the sculptor had apparently been compulsive about reproducing each wart and nodule on its leathery skin. No tourist in his right mind would come here to have a look at it. Shaking her head, she looked away.
Across the road, the woman with the placard was walking up and down, talking to anyone who came close. Nobody paused to listen to her. Some pushed past, some detoured round her, and a couple stepped off the pavement to get past her. She didn’t follow them. She just moved on to the next person.
She seemed a nice enough woman to look at, MenoKichi thought. Probably in early middle age, with a round face framed with hair that fell straight to her collar, she was dressed like everyone else in a thick jacket and padded trousers. MenoKichi was too far off to hear what she was saying, and her placard was never turned in the right direction long enough to see anything. It was probably about accepting some new religion before the world ended tomorrow, anyway.
She still had a long time to wait for her uncle to come back from the office, and the car was cramped to MenoKichi’s long legs. Her legs were too long, she knew. Everything about her was too long, legs and arms and neck and face, and she was too thin, her mouth too wide, her eyes too close together on either side of her nose. Back in school, when she’d still gone to school, the kids had laughed at her, even more than they had laughed at the fat ones.
“Why did you ever have me,” she’d asked her mother, “if you didn’t want to get genetic analysis and manipulation done? Everyone’s been doing it for years.”
“I couldn’t afford it,” her mother had replied. “It had nothing to do with what I wanted or didn’t want.”
“Rubbish. You could afford to give birth to me and bring me up, but you couldn’t afford to have me fixed? Who’ll believe that?”
Her mother had been silent a long time. “All right,” she’d said finally. “I’ll tell you. I’d been trying and trying for years, and when I finally got pregnant, I was terrified.”
“Terrified? Of me?”
“No, that there would be something so wrong with you they’d say the pregnancy would need to be terminated. After all the years I’d been trying, I couldn’t face that.”
MenoKichi had made no attempt to keep the contempt from her voice. “So what you’re telling me is that you’d risked my being born badly damaged, rather than face the truth. And that’s why I’m someone all the kids laugh at.”
“It’s their loss if they laugh at you.”
“Easy for you to say,” MenoKichi had replied. “You don’t have to live with it, I do.”
The memory had sent the wave of anger-tightness crawling up MenoKichi’s chest again, and suddenly the car was much too small. Besides, she began feeling the familiar flutter of incipient cramps in her leg muscles. Pushing open the door, she folded herself out and looked around.
The parking area was full at this hour, the red and black and green of the car roofs nestled side by side like the pills in the Happiness Cafe down the road from her mother’s flat. MenoKichi’s mother always said that if you could buy yourself happiness there wouldn’t be any unhappy people anywhere. That didn’t explain why she, herself, was always unhappy, though.
Maybe you couldn’t buy happiness, MenoKichi thought, but you could try to run away from unhappiness. That, of course, was what she was doing.
It was at that moment that the woman with the placard turned and glanced in MenoKichi’s direction, and their eyes met. The woman smiled. Even from across the street it was a nice smile. Involuntarily, she felt the corners of her own mouth rise in response.
There was no sign of her uncle, and the car was far too small to get back into, so MenoKichi decided to find out who the woman was and what she was telling people about. Waiting till a long yellow and white bus had whined by on its balloon tyres, she crossed the street.
“Hey.” The woman’s voice was warm and slightly husky. She wasn’t as old as MenoKichi had imagined at first, maybe in her mid-thirties, and only came up to the younger woman’s shoulder. When she smiled her dark eyes danced. “Got a minute?”
“Probably. At least, I have until my uncle comes back.” MenoKichi glanced down at the woman’s placard, and was surprised to see that most of it was occupied by a picture of a monster. “What’s that?”
“Funny question to ask in this town!” The woman held up the placard for MenoKichi to look at. It wasn’t a photograph, but a painting, she saw; a very well-done painting, the pigments layered so that the great beast seemed to be throbbing with life. It was, in fact, though less detailed, a much more alive-looking monster than the huge bronze statue – it looked about to leap right out of the surface of the board. The waves around its half-submerged body raged as though lashed by a storm’s fury.
“You painted this yourself?” MenoKichi asked, running a fingertip over the placard, feeling the texture under her skin. The woman made no attempt to stop her. “It’s very good.”
“Yes. Thanks.” The woman grinned. “Believe it or not, I’ve never actually seen one. I used photos for reference. Lots and lots of photos.”
“Uh,” MenoKichi said. “That’s very nice, but why?”
Silently, the woman pointed to the bottom of her placard. There, in thick black letters which MenoKichi had somehow missed, was printed SAVE THE MONSTERS.
“Save the monsters?” MenoKichi repeated. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Ridiculous?” The woman blinked. The small gold stud in her nose glinted in the orange sunlight. “Could I ask your name?”
MenoKichi gave her name. The woman nodded rapidly. “I’m Areena. Areena Agitok. Well, Miss Dobo...”
“Call me MenoKichi, please. Nobody calls me Miss Dobo except to make fun of me.”
“Thanks. I like first names. MenoKichi – very well, MenoKichi, what I’m trying to tell everyone, to get people to ask is, why do we kill the monsters?”
MenoKichi frowned. “Why do we kill the monsters?” she repeated.
“Yes, why? Have they done anything to us?”
“No, but –” From the corner of her eye, MenoKichi saw her uncle’s familiar hooded khaki jacket emerging from the Hunter’s Guild office door. “I’ve got to go.”
The woman called Areena nodded. She reached out and touched MenoKichi’s hand. Her fingers were warm in the chill of the afternoon. “I’d like to talk to you again if you could manage the time,” she said.
“All right,” MenoKichi said hurriedly as she turned away. She only half heard the woman’s next words: “I’ll be at the Harpoon Hotel every evening for this week.”
“Bye,” she said, and hurried back across the street. Juren was already waiting at the car, tapping his fingers impatiently on the roof.
“What were you talking to the prattler about?” he asked when they were inside and he’d turned the small spoked wheel that steered it back out of the parking lot. “Not that I can’t guess.”
“She was starting to tell me that we shouldn’t kill the monsters.”
“Yes, that’s what the prattlers keep going on about.” Juren turned the car through the shadow of the bronze sculpture and passed the entrance of the Hunter’s Guild office. From here the Sea was finally visible, a flat blue sheet spreading towards the horizon. “They haven’t the faintest idea what they’re talking about.”
MenoKichi looked back over her shoulder. Areena approached another man, who sidestepped her and walked on. “Why do you say that?” she asked.
Juren turned off to the street leading down to the docks. It was a long ride downhill. “The Hunter’s Guild office is in the best part of the town,” he said. “It used to be in a poky little building down by the docks, full of the smell of fish and oil, but now it’s up on the hill and even grander than the government council office itself. Do you know why?”
MenoKichi shook her head. “I assume it’s because the Hunter’s Guild earns enough to be able to afford it?”
“No!” Juren took a hand from the wheel and slapped it down on the dashboard of the car. “The Guild doesn’t pay any rent or taxes on it. The government council gave it to us for free. Now tell me why.”
MenoKichi frowned. “Because...”
“Because we exist because of the monsters! All our earnings, all of them, come from monster-hunting. The bus drivers, the teachers, the police, the bloody council members themselves – their salaries, their pensions, all come from the monster industry, from what we bring in and the taxes we pay. And the others – the fishermen, the restaurant owners, the bankers in those big offices up on the hill there – they depend on the monsters too, just at second and third hand. Do you understand?”
“Yes. The economy depends completely on the hunting industry.”
“That’s right. If we didn’t hunt monsters, there would be no town left. There’s absolutely no other avenue of income here.” Juren slowed as they came within sight of the heavy gates that led to the dock. “The woman there, and the other prattlers – they don’t know a thing about any of that, and don’t care. What was she telling you, that the hunters are cruelly killing the poor monsters?”
“She didn’t really tell me anything. She just asked what the monsters ever did to us.”
Juren laughed and slowed to a stop, sliding his window down. “I’ll bet she’s never seen a monster.”
“Actually, she said she hadn’t.”
“Figures.” Juren held up his plastic keycard to a panel. With a heavy grating noise, the gate swung open. “We wouldn’t have had to use these gates,” he complained, “if the prattlers didn’t try and get to the docks.”
“Do they create trouble?”
“A lot of trouble, more trouble than they’re worth. They have no idea what they’re doing. Last time one fell into the water between a hunter boat and the dock, and nearly got crushed. There was another one who managed to get into an engine room. Nobody knows what he thought he was doing.”
“What happened to him?”
Juren shook his head. “We saved him, but not before he’d almost burned a hand off. We can’t afford that kind of stunt again.” He steered past a high stack of lime green metal boxes and parked the car next to the high blank wall. “That’s why the gates went up. They aren’t meant to protect us from the prattlers – they’re to protect the prattlers from themselves.”
They crossed a yard and passed by what looked like a factory building. A trickle of smoke rose from a tall chin chimney and coiled in the air. The air was heavy with a strange smell, like boiling wax.
“What’s that smell?” MenoKichi asked, suppressing the urge to wave her hand in front of her nose.
“It’s from the processing building.” Juren jerked a thumb at the factory. “We do some dressing of the monsters on the boats, whatever we can, but most of it’s done in the building there.”
MenoKichi followed him on to the docks. In the last of the sunshine the purple shadows pooled around the hunter boats, so that they seemed submerged almost to their decks in the purple sea.
“Which one’s yours?” MenoKichi’s eyes could only see a forest of masts and aerials, slowly turning dish antennae and trailing wires.
“Third from the far end,” Juren said, pointing. “Only you mustn’t call it my boat. From this point on, it’s yours as well.”
“Just starting out, I know,” Juren said quickly, before MenoKichi could complete saying “...a girl.” “But you’ll get to know the work soon enough. Watch where you put your feet.”
MenoKichi looked down only just in time to avoid the loop of thick rope on the dock. The stretch of concrete was littered with rope and wire and boxes, all hard to see in the gathering dusk. Juren seemed to be able to avoid them without even looking.
“What’s your...our...boat’s name?” she asked. Her mother had probably told her once, but she’d long forgotten.
“Ice Wind,” Juren said, “but that’s only what I call her. Officially she’s just L zero three three eight. All the boats are known by numbers. Well,” he added, “here she is.”
Ice Wind wallowed at her berth like a beached monster. Her squat tower barely cleared the top of the dock, her thick mast loaded with so many antennae that it seemed to be too heavy for a boat of this size.
“Yes,” Juren said, as though MenoKichi had made a comment, “she’s one of the smallest and oldest boats of the hunter fleet. But she’s quite capable of doing everything asked of her, never doubt that.”
MenoKichi nodded. “My mother told me this was your first boat and you bought her from her owner when he retired.”
“Yes, I started my career as a crewman on her and came back as owner. But she’s been modernised since then. Go on down. I’ll have to go to the harbour master’s office before it closes.”
“The harbour master’s office?”
“Yes, there’s a lot of paperwork in this business, as you’ll discover. Go down and wait. I won’t be long.”
MenoKichi went down a narrow gangway on to the deck of the boat. Ice Wind slowly rose and fell under her feet, so she had a moment when she almost stumbled, and snatched at one of the cables to steady herself.
“Careful, Miss,” someone said. “Never been on a boat before?”
MenoKichi turned quickly. Someone stood in the doorway at the base of the tower, looking at her. She hadn’t heard or seen him until he’d spoken, which meant that he’d been watching her from the doorway at least since she’d been fumbling her way down the gangway.
“Um, no,” she confessed. “This is my first time on any kind of boat, actually. I’m –”
“I know who you are.” He must have turned on a switch. Bluish-white light spilled from a metal-caged glass dome above the doorway. “Captain’s niece.”
“That’s right,” MenoKichi said, and introduced herself. “And you are?”
“GomolMark. I’m the harpooner.” He was a round-faced young man with thick shoulders and hair spilling over his collar. “Come on in here, Miss. Captain will be back soon.”
MenoKichi followed him into the tower. The room was small and square, and made even smaller by the equipment that bulged from every wall and hung from the ceiling; pipes and valves and banks of dials and knobs. A metal column rose from the middle of the floor with a console of buttons and wheels on top. Opposite it the wall was panelled with screens of various sizes.
“This is the control room,” GomolMark said, patting the column. “The main steering controls are on the bridge on top of the tower, but we can do it from here as well.” He moved easily in the maze of equipment despite his bulk, while MenoKichi almost hit her head on a metal wheel hanging from the ceiling. “In here, through this hatch, Miss. Watch your head.”
“Call me MenoKichi, please.”
“Make yourself comfortable, Miss,” GomolMark said. “I’ll get back to work. Captain will be back soon and we move out tonight.” He caught himself. “Sorry. MenoKichi.”
MenoKichi looked around. The cabin seemed even more cramped than the control room, with a sofa running around three sides, a table in the centre, and a small cooker built into the wall under a set of shelves next to the door. When she sat, she could only stretch her long legs by poking them to the side of the table. It was cosy, though, especially after the deepening chill of the evening. The amber light set into the ceiling and the dark maroon of the upholstery combined to make it look almost cheerful. Her eyes began to fall closed and her chin drooped to her chest. It had been a long day.
She jerked awake as her uncle entered. “There you are,” he said, taking a cap from a set of hooks on the wall and putting it on his head. “We sail in an hour. Want some coffee?”
While MenoKichi sipped the bitter brew, Juren busied himself in the control room but raised his voice so she could hear him. “I’d have liked to have taught you all about the boat and the business first before we ever went out, but unfortunately...” He paused, and MenoKichi heard a hissing sound, as of a valve letting off pressure. “I was saying,” Juren resumed, “that you arrived just this afternoon and there’s been no time for any of that. But once we get back, I’ll take care of all that. Luckily...” He stuck his head back through the door for a moment. “It’s lucky in a way that it’s a short trip this time. We only have two monsters on the quota.”
“Yes, of course. What did you think – that we kill all we can find, like one of those dreadful pamphlets the prattlers peddle? If we did that the hunting industry would’ve died out by now, along with the monsters. We have a quota and we stick rigidly to it.”
“I didn’t know that,” MenoKichi said.
“Of course you didn’t – it’s one of the things the prattlers don’t mention.” A horn sounded from above, a prolonged hoot. “Right,” he said, “we’re leaving now. Come up to the tower.”
The ocean was a sheet of black crinkled velvet, under a sky sprinkled with stars like diamonds.
Far away to astern, MenoKichi thought she could just make out a line of fuzzy blue-white light. That would be the shore, the port they’d left hours ago. It was surprising how far they’d come, and the night wasn’t even half done.
By her side Juren leaned over a small round screen, its display concealed by a stiff rubber hood to prevent light contamination of the bridge. The green glow lit up his face so that he looked like a TV ghost. “There’s a monster pod not far away,” he said. “With luck, we should catch them up by noon tomorrow, get our two and return to port by the day after.”
“How do you know it’s not far away?” MenoKichi asked. “Where do you know where to hunt?”
“You know what the monsters eat? Plankton and small fish. The plankton attracts fish, and the monsters eat them both. We track the big sheets of plankton with planes and drones.”
“Are there always monsters around them?”
“Not always. In this case, other hunter boats have reported this pod. Later, we should be able to detect them with our own equipment.” Juren turned a small wheel with a long lever attached. A bright star right that had been right ahead began moving to the right, and MenoKichi realised they were changing course. “You can’t imagine how much easier things are now. Before it used to be a totally hit or miss affair. Boats might stay out for a fortnight without even seeing a monster, let alone hunting one.”
“It seems rather unfair, though,” MenoKichi said, bracing herself to the side of the bridge as the Ice Wind rolled, waves pushing against her side on the new course. “On the monsters, I mean.”
“We’re in a business, not out for sport fishing.” The engine hum deepened as Juren pushed a lever, the boat settling down, pushing more forcibly through the water. “And remember that it’s this same technology that allows us to set quotas and avoid overhunting.”
Someone climbed up the ladder to the bridge. MenoKichi knew who it was from the bulky silhouette before he spoke.
“Captain, everything’s ready for inspection.”
“Right. You take over here until I get back.” He patted MenoKichi’s shoulder. “When you learn more about this boat, I’ll let you come along on the inspection. For now, wait and keep an eye out for monsters.”
“How do I know if I see one?” MenoKichi asked, but Juren was already gone.
“It’s not easy at night,” GomolMark told her. He checked the screens and nodded. “The monsters only stick their nostrils out of the water to breathe, and it’s difficult to see them then, even during the day. Only when they’re feeding are they easy to see.”
“Yes, they come to the surface then. But mostly we detect them by sonar.” He tapped something red-lit on the control panel. “If it’s during the day, and the conditions allow, we sometimes launch a drone to show us where they are. But the drones are expensive and we don’t always successfully get them back, so we use them as little as possible.”
“How many monsters have you killed?” MenoKichi asked curiously.
“Around forty,” GomolMark told her. “I’ve been doing this job for four years, and that’s about average.”
“You’ve been on this boat for four years?”
“No, this is my third boat. I’ve been on this one for six...no, eight...months.”
MenoKichi glanced at him. In the darkness his face was invisible. “Is it dangerous?”
“The work? No. Not if you know what you’re doing. Of course, nothing is fully risk-free. You can be run over by a bus crossing the street from your office to the corner cafe.”
“Do you like the job?”
GomolMark laughed. “It beats hell out of sitting behind a desk all day. You can be sure about that.”
MenoKichi wanted to ask him how he liked working under her uncle, but couldn’t think of a tactful way. “What do you think of the anti-hunting groups?” she asked instead.
“What Captain calls the prattlers?” GomolMark snorted expressively. “I’d love to see one of them on the boat, face to face with a monster. Then we’ll see what they say.”
MenoKichi was about to answer when she saw a green point of light in the sky far ahead. “What’s that?” she asked.
GomolMark leaned over the edge of the bridge to watch it. “It’s a marker flare,” he said. “Someone’s made a monster kill. Excuse me. I’d better inform the captain.”
MenoKichi watched the light. It rose, glowing bright, sketching a line of yellowish green behind it, slowing until it hung motionless for a long moment before it began arcing down towards the ink-black sea.
“Well,” Juren said, appearing at her shoulder, “that shows there are monsters out there, after all. Let’s hope we can get there before they move away. Now that there’s been a kill, the pod won’t stay around.” He glanced at MenoKichi. “Nothing will happen for hours. You’d better go down and rest while you can. It’s been a long day for you and it’ll be a long day ahead.”
MenoKichi was about to refuse, but suddenly realised that her limbs were stiff with fatigue. “You’ll let me know when something happens, won’t you?” she said.
Juren laughed. “You can be sure about that. You’ve got to learn this business, my girl.”
GomolMark accompanied MenoKichi down the ladder and in through the tower to the room with the sofa. “Unless you’d rather sleep,” he said, “in which case there’s Captain’s cabin and the bunk...”
“No, I’ll be fine here. I’m not going to sleep.” MenoKichi stretched herself on the sofa, feeling the roll of the Ice Wind, and thinking about her mother, and then thinking about the sea.
Or at least she meant to think about the sea. As soon as she began, she fell into its depths, and sank like a stone.
“Miss.” A hand was shaking her shoulder, not too gently. “MenoKichi! Wake up. Monsters!”
MenoKichi’s eyes flew open. She was lying, uncomfortably curled up on her side, on the sofa. GomolMark leaned over her, about to shake her again. She sat up quickly.
“Yes, we’ve caught up with a pod. Captain told me to tell you to get up on the bridge.”
MenoKichi scrambled up the ladder of the tower and on to the bridge. It was still dark, but the sky to her right was a deep purple shade on the horizon which seemed to indicate dawn wasn’t far.
“There you are.” Juren barely looked up from the controls. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, thanks.” It was much colder, and she shivered. “I thought you said we wouldn’t reach the monsters before noon tomorrow.”
“This is another pod, not the one we were after. We came on it by chance.” Juren's hands flew over the controls and the whine of the engine fell to a low murmur. Ice Wind slowed until she was barely moving forward, and the waves rocked her side to side. “It must be a pod that hasn’t been hunted before. They haven’t started running at the sound of the boat.”
“Where are the monsters?” MenoKichi looked out over the water. “I can’t see anything.”
“We’re right in the middle of them.” Juren pointed at a circular screen on which a line, like a watch’s second hand, spun round and round. Little yellow blips followed the line and slowly faded. “We’re in the centre of the screen, and the twelve o’clock position...” he pointed to it “...is dead ahead. We’ll have to wait until one of them comes up there close enough to harpoon.”
“We can’t turn towards them, then?”
“They don’t have much in the way of eyes, but they hear well. The engine noise is likely to scare them, and they’ll disperse and dive deep. It might be hours before they come up, and nobody can tell just where.”
“We just have the one harpoon turret, do we?”
“That’s right. Some of the newer boats have a stern turret too, but not this one. Not that I like stern turrets much. They take space that could be used for processing equipment.” A large wave made Ice Wind wallow, and Juren gave a tiny blip of power to keep her on her heading. “It’s not at all easy at night, but we can’t wait. By morning the pod might be gone.” His fingers toggled a switch that was invisible in the darkness. “GomolMark?”
“All set, Captain,” the harpooner’s voice came from somewhere on the control panel. “Harpoon loaded, line ready.”
“Good.” Juren studied the round screen intently. MenoKichi looked at him with fascination, and at the screen with the tiny yellow blips. It was difficult to believe that each one was a monster almost as big as this boat. “Stand by, monster swimming past towards the bow.”
“Scanning,” GomolMark’s voice came from the panel. MenoKichi peered forward, but the low hump of the harpoon turret was lost in the darkness of the bow. The harpooner wouldn’t be in it anyway. His place, he’d told her, was in a remote control station inside the hull.
“Monster nearing surface,” Juren said calmly. “Target, twenty degrees starboard bow, estimated time to surface thirty to fifty seconds, range eighty metres. Have you got it?”
“No...wait. Yes. I got the echo on the scope.”
A long moment slowed by. MenoKichi looked from the dot on the scope to the black sea beyond the bow. Her mouth was dry with excitement.
“Monster on surface,” Juren said. “Range, seventy metres.”
“Launching.” There was no explosion, no shudder in the boat. MenoKichi thought she heard a hiss as the line went out, but even that was probably her imagination. “Hit,” GomolMark’s voice said quietly.
There was a moment’s check and then the boat’s bow seemed to turn a little to the right, as though something was dragging it round. “Monster’s going to sound,” Juren said. “Batteries.”
“Batteries,” GomolMark repeated. There was a brief pause. “Got her.”
“Good. Compressed air.” Juren turned to MenoKichi. “Do you have any idea what just happened?”
“No. Where’s the monster?”
“Dead. GomolMark’s making sure it doesn’t sink before we can get it on board.”
“It’s dead already?”
“Of course.” Juren’s voice was coolly ironic. “It’s another way that technology has worked for us, and benefited the monsters as well. Earlier, the monster might suffer for hours or even a day before the harpoon would kill it, and even then we’d sometimes lose the carcass, so we’d have to kill another. Now it’s over in a few seconds, and we never have to kill more than we can take back. But you won’t read any of that in the prattlers’ pamphlets.”
“How do you do it?” MenoKichi still couldn’t see a thing in the darkness ahead of the tower.
“The harpoon has a line attached which is really three lines in one.” Juren held up his hands to demonstrate. “The first is a very strong, lightweight rope. Inside that, there’s a power cord, which is attached to a battery on board. And there’s a tube, which is attached to air tanks in the bow. When we harpoon a monster, we send a lethal electric shock down the power cord which stops its hearts and kills it at once. Then we send air down the tube to fill it with compressed air, so it floats to the surface. Once it’s afloat, we can pick it up even hours later. I’ll explain the technical details later.”
“Inflation done,” GomolMark announced. “I’m detaching and recovering the line.”
“All right.” Juren looked into the scope. “If this pod has really never been hunted before, one or more other monsters might come to see what’s wrong with the first one. We’ll wait where we are and see.”
“What happens if the harpoon misses?”
“It does, quite often. We just reel it in and get another ready, of course.” Juren suddenly grunted and hunched over the panel. “Harpooner. Monster coming up to the dead one. Same range and heading. Are you set?”
There was a brief pause and then GomolMark’s voice. “Yes, ready. Got it on the scope.”
“All over quickly,” Juren announced with satisfaction a few minutes later. “No drama. Just the way I like it.” He turned to a box by the side of the bridge and fiddled with the switches. “By rights I should have done this when we killed the first one,” he said, as the green flare rose into the sky on a tower of smoke and hissing sparks, “but, frankly, I didn’t want another boat coming in and spoiling our chances of a second kill.”
“What do we do now?” MenoKichi asked.
“We get the monsters aboard,” Juren said. “And then we go home.”
The sea was running in long, rolling swells as the Ice Wind returned towards harbour. From the bridge of the hunter boat MenoKichi could just make out the glittering pinnacle of the Hunter’s Guild office up on the hill, red in the glow of the setting sun. Her neck and shoulders ached, and she rubbed them ineffectually.
“You should rest, Miss,” the assistant engineer, whom she’d met earlier in the morning, said. He was on the bridge, filling in for Juren, who was still in the refrigerated hold helping GomolMark and the cook-steward cut up the gigantic beasts. They’d been at it for hours. “You’ll be falling asleep on your feet at this rate.”
“Thanks, SalSeng, but if I’m going to do this job I need to see how it’s done.”
“Plenty of time for that,” the assistant engineer grinned. “Next time we’ll be doing the same things all over again.”
“I didn’t know we could submerge the boat,” MenoKichi said. She remembered the welter of foam over the afterdeck as almost the entire hull slipped under the water, sliding under the bloated floating forms of the monsters, and winches pulled them aboard.
“Some of the newer models can even hunt underwater,” SalSeng said. “But they’re so expensive only the richest of the hunters can afford them. If there was no quota, they’d put us out of the business.”
“The quota?” MenoKichi watched the harbour creep slowly closer. The white line of the concrete breakwater was visible. “How do they decide on the quota? On the size of the boat or something? How many monsters does each boat get a year?”
“Didn’t Captain tell you?” SalSeng changed course for the harbour mouth, a dark blue line of water in between the stretches of white concrete. “The Guild decides the quota on the basis of the numbers of monsters. They count ‘em from planes, see, and then they estimate the total number, and then they issue quotas based on that and the number of active boats.”
“So the quota varies from year to year?”
“From hunting season to hunting season, yes.” SalSeng looked down at the readouts and at the approaching harbour. “Time for Captain to take over,” he said. “If I were you, Miss, I’d stay out of the way.”
“Why?” MenoKichi asked. “I’m not in your way, am I?”
“No,” the assistant engineer grinned. “But Captain, he gets a bit excited when he’s coming back to port, see.”
“I certainly didn’t expect to see you so soon,” Areena said.
“But you knew I’d come?” MenoKichi looked around the little hotel lounge. It was hot, stuffy and filled with the smell of rebreathed air and room freshener. “Could we go somewhere else? Your room or somewhere?”
“Let’s go for a walk, if you don’t mind the drizzle.” Areena smiled and pulled up the hood of her jacket. “Yes, I knew you’d come.”
“Well, that’s strange,” MenoKichi replied, piqued. They emerged from the hotel and turned along the street towards the seafront. The drizzle, whipped by the wind off the water, stung their faces. “I didn’t know I was coming myself until just a little while ago.”
“They always come,” Areena said. “Those who are willing to listen to me talk, they always come sooner or later. They want to listen more.”
“Well, you’re wrong there,” MenoKichi snapped. “I didn’t come to listen to you talk about saving the monsters. I came to tell you that you’re all wrong about the hunting industry.”
“Am I?” In the darkness and the drizzle, MenoKichi couldn’t see the older woman’s face, but was sure she was raising her eyebrows. “Tell me about it. You’ve been out on a boat, have you?”
“Yes, I was out on my uncle’s boat. We just got back yesterday.”
“Your uncle? Who’s he?”
“Juren Purno. He...”
“Yes, I think I know him. L zero something, isn’t that his boat? He’s one of the good ones, not on our list.”
“Never mind that for the moment. What about how I’m wrong?”
MenoKichi took a deep breath. “This whole town depends on the monster hunters,” she began. “Everything that’s done here, every coin anyone earns or spends, comes ultimately from the monster hunting industry. And if that stopped, well...”
“People would have to find some other way to live, is that what you mean?”
“No! Let me tell you something about myself, Areena.”
“Yes. What kind of girl goes out on a monster boat and defends the hunting industry? I confess I’m curious.” They were on the seafront now. The wind was lashing the waves against the shore, sending up spray. “Storm coming up,” Areena said.
“Yes. My uncle said it’s going to cut into the season.”
“Will it?” Areena’s voice was sceptical.
“Yes, of course it will. In really stormy weather the boats can’t even think of finding or harpooning monsters.”
“I see,” Areena said. “Go on with what you were telling me.”
“Yes, so I’m not from here.” MenoKichi named her hometown. “I never knew my father. I’m not even sure my mum knows who he was. She refuses to answer questions on that.”
“And your mum...?”
“My mum, yes. She’s Juren’s sister, but she has...problems. I mean, apart from my father. She could hardly take care of herself, let alone me. So there I was, no longer able to go to school, not enough education to find a job, at a loose end. You understand.”
“And then your uncle offered to take you in.”
“Not just take me in. Juren’s sharing his boat with me. He hasn’t any family. He’ll teach me the business, and once he retires, I’m to take over his boat.” She turned fiercely to Areena. “So you see how important this is to me.”
“Yes, that is a complication, isn’t it.” The older woman was silent for a while as they trudged along the street. Raindrops flickered in and out of visibility in the lights. “What do you know about the monsters?” she asked at last.
“About the monsters?” MenoKichi was surprised at the sudden change in topic. “What about them? They live in groups called pods, they eat fish and plankton, they’re edible and their fat and bones are used for lots of things. They’re ugly and not very bright and...”
“How do you know they aren’t very bright?”
MenoKichi frowned. “My uncle told me they’ve got small brains for their size. Their brains are much too small to have any space for intelligence left over after controlling a body that size, he said.”
“Yes, that’s what the scientists say too. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s so.”
“You mean you know more than the scientists?”
“I didn’t say that. I just meant nobody knows enough to be sure about anything. Go on. What more do you know?”
MenoKichi shrugged. “Well, they’re blind, they’re air-breathing, they’re fairly slow-swimming, they lay eggs which are covered by capsules, and these sink to the sea floor, where they hatch, and the babies cut their way out and...”
“...and, in fact, most of them are eaten by predatory fish and other animals long before they reach any size at all.”
“Yes, but without that the population would explode and they’d starve after they wiped out their food supply, isn’t that so?”
“Yeah, but carry on. Do you know that all the big ones are female?”
“What?” MenoKichi frowned, and then nodded as the memory came. “Oh yes, the males are tiny in comparison, aren’t they? They swim around until they find an adult female, one big enough to attach to, and then they bite her, and then they’re stuck for life.”
“Yes,” Areena agreed. “And their mouths fuse with the females’ bodies, and so do their blood supplies, and their nervous systems, and everything. They pretty much become parts of the females’ bodies. The really old females, the very large ones, can gather forty or fifty males in the course of a lifetime.”
“Wow. Imagine having forty or fifty husbands.” MenoKichi now recalled the males that she’d seen on one of the carcasses they’d brought on board. Even though small compared to the mass of the female, they’d been as big as a large man, and had had small, filmy eyes – to find the females by, she assumed.
“Doesn’t sound too comfortable, does it?” Areena laughed. “But doesn’t all this seem wonderful to you? Far too wonderful to be hunted to extinction just for the sake of some few thousand humans’ livelihood?”
“They aren’t being hunted to extinction. There are very strict quotas.”
“Yes, those famous quotas.” Areena was silent a long moment, as though considering what to say. “Are you aware,” she asked eventually, “that the quotas per boat are dropping every year?”
“Yes, and have been for some time. They’re less than half what they were twenty years ago. Didn’t your uncle tell you about that? No, I suppose he didn’t. The hunters are desperate not to acknowledge that little fact, even to themselves. They go on, hoping each time that next season will be better.”
“But...” MenoKichi frowned. “Isn’t that good news, I mean, from your viewpoint?”
“Only if you don’t consider why the quota’s dropping. You know it’s calculated on the basis of estimated monster populations?”
“Yes, they count them from planes and then –”
“Correction – they count those they can see from a few pods, average them out, and extrapolate those numbers. All they’re actually doing is making an informed guess. And even then, even working on just guesswork, the quotas are dropping by the season.”
“But that would mean...”
“The monster population is collapsing, yes.”
“But the Guild –”
“The Guild has a vested interest in maintaining the hunting industry, but even it can’t get away from facts. That’s why the quota is dropping. But the problem isn’t the Guild, really. It’s the poachers.”
“Poachers?” MenoKichi asked incredulously. “How can there be poachers? The Guild controls all the hunting and selling of monster products.”
“You really think so?” The short woman shook her head. “Unfortunately, MenoKichi, the monster industry made fortunes for some people in the early years, and that attracted a lot of attention. There’s a lot of poaching going on – much more than legitimate hunting. You remember what I said about your uncle?”
“That he was one of the good ones, and his name wasn’t on your list.” MenoKichi’s mouth opened and closed as she considered the implications of this. “Oh.”
“Yes, he’s actually one of a minority who aren’t poaching. In the early days it was a few, but now it’s getting out of control. And the new technology has made poaching much easier. You know the new boats are fully submersible?”
“I’ve heard about it.”
“Well, they kill many more monsters than their quota, underwater. Then they attach them to floats which are just buoyant enough that they stay suspended – under water. The carcasses and the floats don’t break the surface at all. The hunter boat then comes back with its legitimate quota, and sends a ship out to quietly retrieve the monsters later. Since they can submerge, stormy weather doesn’t hinder them in any way.” Areena sighed. “These people are making a figurative as well as literal killing, MenoKichi. The more the official quota drops, the more the prices of monster products rise, and the greater the profits they make.”
“How do you know so much about it?” MenoKichi wanted to know.
“I’m not exactly alone. We have sources – but there’s hardly any proof, and these people have money and power.” Areena hesitated. “You know why I brought you out into the rain so we could talk? I’m not at all certain my hotel room’s not being bugged, that’s why.”
“Well, just assuming you’re right – just assuming – what can you do about it?”
“There’s only one solution, isn’t there? As long as there’s legitimate monster hunting, there will be a market for monster products, and the poachers will be in business. Only when the monsters are protected, all hunting is banned and all monster products are outlawed, will the poaching become uneconomical, and then it’ll stop. And you know the problem with that? The hunters...” She hesitated.
“We hunters...” MenoKichi prompted.
“Thank you. Yes, you hunters will resist it tooth and nail, for reasons you’ve already made abundantly clear.”
“So what’s your plan, then? Standing out with placards isn’t doing much good, is it?”
MenoKichi felt rather than saw the older woman’s shrug. “I don’t know. I can only go on, and hope. Hope is a powerful thing, MenoKichi. Don’t ever discount it.”
MenoKichi was about to reply when she heard the buzzing of her mobile phone. It was her uncle.
“Where are you?” His voice was filled with impatience and excitement. “Get back at once. We’ve been given a quota of one monster more.”
“That’s right. We’re moving out first thing in the morning, before the storm gets worse.”
“I’m on my way.”
From the porthole of the tower, the world was a heaving mass of grey and green.
MenoKichi braced herself against the steering column and watched as one more wave crashed against the thick glass, momentarily giving her a glimpse of the underwater world. The clouds overhead lowered, the rain pelting down, and it seemed as though the storm was determined to destroy them, in punishment for their temerity in daring its power.
“It isn’t, though,” MenoKichi grinned crookedly at Areena, who was huddled over a cup of coffee, looking miserable. “My uncle says we’re steering clear of the main storm. This is only the fringe.”
“That’s one hell of a relief,” the older woman said sourly. “Getting a good laugh out of me, are you?”
“Who, me? Why would I do that?”
“Don’t ask.” Areena sipped at the coffee and made another face. “No wonder you hunters are ready to kill, if this is the kind of stuff you get to drink.”
It had been a big job to convince Juren to allow Areena to accompany them on the trip. It was Areena herself who had finally managed to persuade the hunter boat captain.
“If you can persuade me that you’re actually doing as you claim,” she said, “running a sustainable industry, without unnecessary suffering for the monsters, it’s going to count on your side, won’t it? You’ll be able to say that you took an anti-hunting activist on a hunt, and even she couldn’t find anything to complain about.”
Juren hadn’t been happy, but he’d agreed eventually. “If I don’t take you now,” he’d said, “you’ll start making up stories that I’m hiding things. So I’ll have to tolerate you for this trip, I suppose.”
Now he called down from the tower, in a crackle of electronic noise. “MenoKichi, we’re picking up tracks of a pod. Get the prattler up here, if she wants to see what hunting is like.”
“Coming.” MenoKichi had the idea that Juren would have normally steered the Ice Wind from inside the tower in this kind of weather, but had deliberately chosen to stay up top just to spite the activist. She grinned at Areena as she made for the ladder up to the bridge. “Well, this is what you’ve come aboard for, isn’t it?”
“I suppose,” the older woman said reluctantly, and followed.
The rain and wind struck like a blow as soon as they emerged on to the bridge. The wind was a knife, cutting through their clothes and through skin and flesh all the way to the bone. The rain was hard as bullets, slamming into exposed faces and hands until the sensations merged into a mixture of numbness and pain. When MenoKichi gasped for breath, the driven raindrops almost instantly filled her mouth.
“Bit of a breeze, huh?” Juren said cheerfully. “Now, Ms...Agitok, isn’t it? Ms Agitok, if you look at this scope, you’ll see that we’re coming up on a pod.”
Areena tried to look, almost fell as the boat rolled, and kept her place with a quick snatch at the back of Juren’s seat. “How many are there?”
“I can’t say. They’re still pretty far off, and when the waves are like this the sensors don’t get a good reading, so we’re probably only seeing a few of them, the biggest ones. But we’re only hunting one, anyway, so it doesn’t matter how many there are.”
“How can you hunt in this weather? Surely they won’t be feeding.”
“No, but they do have to come up to breathe. And when they do...”
MenoKichi lost track of what her uncle said next. Her attention was fixed on what was rising from the sea beside the boat.
It came out of the waves like a living tower, throwing itself up at the sky. First, the blunt eyeless head, crowned with its rosette of tentacles, writhing as they felt the air. Then the long, long column of the neck, the thick black skin studded with warts and nodules, tough as boot leather. The waves burst from the gigantic shoulders as they pushed out of the water, the wide slit of the mouth falling open as the creature lunged for the sky. The flukes, like spread wings, so close that drops from the near one flicked her face as the monster rose. It was an ancient god from the depths come to life, the sea itself given form and flesh, force and power. The vast mass of the titanic beast hung on its long thick tail above the Ice Wind, turning slowly on its axis, once, twice, and then, with a tremendous crash as of falling tons of rock, it returned to its watery home.
“Oh.” MenoKichi could find nothing else to say. “Oh.”
The bridge and intercom were a chaos of sound and activity. “Monster!” Juren shouted. “Harpooner!” He spun the control wheel, as hard as he could, and the Ice Wind began turning as hard as she could on to her new heading.
The wave must have been building for a long time, from far out to sea. Driven along before the wind, it had been gathering force, building up more and more power as it rushed landward to crash on to the shore and dissipate its power harmlessly on sand and rock, as so many before it had done. But as it came, the wave found the Ice Wind before it, turning.
Like a blow from a mailed fist, it struck the hunter boat from starboard, and flung her almost on her side.
Secure in his seat, Juren got no more than a soaking. Holding on for dear life to whatever she could as she already was, Areena suffered no worse. It was only MenoKichi who – her arms pinwheeling desperately for balance – was flung to the side of the bridge. Her desperate fingers touched and slipped from the metal railing, she was thrown into the air, and a moment later the black bitter waters of the sea had closed over her head.
For a moment, she felt as though her heart had stopped. The water clogged her nose and mouth, burned her eyes, and filled her boots so that they threatened to drag her down. With a desperation that she barely consciously realised, she frantically kicked them off and thrust herself towards the surface.
It seemed a very, very long way away. Through her half-closed eyes, she saw the faint glimmer of light far above, and felt the burning in her lungs, and knew she wouldn’t make it, she couldn’t possibly make it before the sea filled her lungs and she drowned.
And then a vast shadow grew beneath her...
MenoKichi had passed the stage of being capable of surprise. The gigantic bulk of the monster rose under her, her toes felt the rough hide, and then she was lying on its back, holding on to whatever she could as the creature rushed surfacewards. And then the air was rushing through her mouth and nose again, and the monster was riding the waves, its back above the water as it held her up, letting her breathe.
MenoKichi forced her eyes open. She saw the waves first, blown almost flat by the force of the wind. She saw the boat, almost right ahead, the Ice Wind turning towards them, towards her and the monster. She saw the figures on the tower, and even saw the tiny silver dart of the harpoon as it left the turret, trailing its white line behind it.
“No!” MenoKichi screamed. She screamed as loudly as she could, to the world, to the Ice Wind, to the storm, to whatever she could scream to, to whatever might be listening. “No! Don’t!”
The monster swerved.
It turned so suddenly that MenoKichi almost slipped from its back into the water again, feeling for purchase with her fingers and toes as it swung to the side. The speck of the harpoon had grown into a needle, and the needle into a rod, and the rod into a hurtling metal spear bringing death in its electricity laden barbed tip. But the monster swerved, and the harpoon sailed over its back, almost close enough to touch, and fell into the water.
“No!” MenoKichi screamed again, rising to her knees and waving frantically. “Don’t shoot!”
And then she realised what was happening, as the monster changed course again. She realised what was happening, as the monster brought her back to the side of the Ice Wind, and pedalled water beside the hunter boat. And she was still conscious when hands reached out to pluck her from its back and bring her in.
“How did you know,” MenoKichi demanded, “that the monsters were sentient?”
“I didn’t,” Areena said. She sat beside MenoKichi’s bunk, meditatively sipping at another cup of coffee and making a face at every sip. “How could I know? I still don’t. I just suspected that they might be more intelligent than anyone gave them credit for.”
“But as Uncle Juren said, they’ve small brains. I don’t see how...”
“Um, well.” MenoKichi hadn’t seen Juren at the door. “I’m afraid I do have a possible explanation for that. You see, the monsters don’t have just one brain.”
“Huh – what?” Then MenoKichi realised what he was saying. “You mean the males.”
“Yes. Their bodies pretty much degenerate completely when they fuse with the females, except for the gonads, of course – and except for the nervous systems, which join the female’s nervous system.”
“And the really big ones have forty or fifty attached males. That means, together...”
“It’s not really a lot of males and a female any longer. It’s one huge creature with a vast, connected nervous system.” Areena looked back and forth from Juren to MenoKichi. “You know what this means.”
Juren nodded. “I’ve already told the crew,” he said. “If they want any more hunting, they’ll have to find other boats.” He sighed. “I don’t know what I’m going to do to make a living, but I can’t kill another thinking creature. And I really can’t deny any longer that the monsters can think.”
“We’ll find a way,” Areena said. “When this news gets out, the scientific community will be frantic to study the monsters close up. Who knows the monsters better than a hunter boat and its crew? I think you and the boat will be busy for a long time to come, Captain.”
“Call me Juren, please...Areena.”
“Juren.” A look passed between the two that MenoKichi was at a loss to interpret. “I’m glad to have you on our side, Juren.”
“You know that the Hunter’s Guild will be very unhappy with this news? They’ll do their best to suppress it.” Juren cocked his head and laughed. “Well, let them try. Some people are about to find out what I’m made of.”
“You won’t be alone,” Areena promised. Juren’s and her eyes met again across the small cabin. “You’d be surprised how much not alone you’ll be.”
MenoKichi turned her head and looked out of the porthole. Far away, in the murk, something vast and black seemed to rise from the heaving waves, hanging for an endless instant in the heaving sky.
And then it had fallen back, and there was only the storm, the storm and the sea.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015
Sunday, 5 July 2015
I came looking for him in the endless moment when evening hung green-flushed in the darkling sky.
It was the same place I had been before. The desolate muddy track wound its way down the hillside to a wooden bridge that crossed a weed-choked stream, while on the far side the slope rose to a ruin that might once have been a temple, or a fortress, or a tomb. It was hard to be sure; I had only been in this place when the light was very bad.
Perhaps the light was always poor and it was always drizzling here. There was no way I could say.
It was very desolate and I was alone, but I wasn’t afraid. I’d been here many times before, and no doubt I’d be here many times again.
There was a big tree to the left of the track, bending its branches low over the ground like a weeping willow. Someone was standing there, almost lost in the thick shadows. When he saw me he stepped forward and stood waiting.
I raised a hand in greeting as I walked down the slope towards him, knowing he wouldn’t reciprocate the gesture. He didn’t.
“Hello,” I said, all the same. “I wasn’t totally sure if you’d be here today.”
“I have been waiting for you,” he said. It wasn’t really an answer. “Are you buying or selling?”
“Selling, of course.” He asked me this each time, and the answer was always the same. “Why do you always ask that? I’ve never bought from you, and I am never going to.”
“Never say never. The tide of time brings strange needs to the shores of existence.” Now we were standing face to face, I had to tilt my head backwards to look up at him. His black clothes merged into the midnight black of his skin, and from his enormous height his eyes looked down at me, two holes in the gathered darkness. His voice was a liquid rumble. “Someday you may need what you give away now.”
“All right,” I said. “You know more about these things than I do. Perhaps someday I’ll need to buy. But today I’m selling.”
“Good enough,” he said indifferently. “Show me.”
I reached under my shawl and retrieved the small leather pouch that dangled between my breasts. The trembling little thing in the pouch had grown quiescent in the warm darkness, but feeling the movement became afraid, and shuddered and chirped. I petted the bag and murmured to it until it grew quiet again.
“Where is it from this time?” he asked, his huge hand cupping the bag.
So I showed him.
The darkness and the mud the green dusk and the drizzle fade away, and we’re standing on ochre sandstone, in the middle of a square surrounded by ochre sandstone buildings, under the glare of a steel-bright sky.
The boy is nervous. He’s young, perhaps seventeen, and the wisp of a moustache on his upper lip is beaded with sweat. He licks his lips and pulls at the sleeves of his white dishdasha. His eyes flick back and forth warily at the men gathered in a circle around him.
“You’ll do fine, Murad,” someone assures him. “Don’t worry at all. It’s when you worry that problems start.”
“Just like his father,” another man says. “He’ll be cold as ice when the time comes, don’t worry.”
"Yes, Murad, take a deep breath. Stay focussed.”
Murad throws his shoulders back, glances up at the sky, and then down at the object in his right hand. It glints long and thin, the tip of the blade curved just so slightly. His wrist makes involuntary back and forth motions.
The police vehicle and the yellow van draw up. Two policemen in khaki open the door of the van and help out the figure in white. It’s covered completely in white cloth, head to foot, so at first glance one can’t even tell if it’s a man or a woman. It’s no longer really a man or a woman, not now, at the end of its journey. It’s just a wild heartbeat and dry-mouthed terror wrapped in cloth. The two policemen push it down on its knees, quite gently. Its shoulders quiver.
A police officer with a lanyard on his chest holds out a paper to Murad. “Read this.”
Murad’s eyes are the only thing alive in his face as he scans the sheet. We’re both close enough to read over his shoulder if we want, but we don’t make any attempt to. It doesn’t make any difference what’s on that paper, or if any of it’s even true. The only thing that matters is what’s about to happen.
Murad gives the paper back and steps towards the bound, kneeling figure. The long blade in his hand goes up, touches the air above the bent neck, and then pulls back as he looks to the police officer. “Are the victims here?”
The police officer indicates with his chin at a small huddle of people standing to one side. “They aren’t going to agree to a reprieve,” he says. “Do it.”
Murad swallows. His left leg goes back in a practiced movement, his right leg bends at the knee, his sword rises high into the air, poised. His lips move, almost silently, so that the two of us are the only ones who hear what he’s saying. “No compassion,” he reminds himself. “If the heart is compassionate, the hand fails.”
Then the sword comes down in a flashing silver arc, and the quivering body spreads itself on the ochre stone while the head rolls away in a welter of scarlet blood. And something small and dark, terrified and squeaking flutters into my waiting hands, I cup it in them, murmuring to it that it’s safe, I have it safe, it’s with me. The circle of men push forward to congratulate Murad as the scene fades...
...and we were in the drizzling gloom of the hillside, and the tall black man whose name I never knew was nodding slowly.
“Is it good?” I asked, though I knew already.
He nodded slowly. “Very good. I will see you again.” He put the pouch inside his black tunic. “You can go now. Your payment will be made as usual.”
“Wait.” He turned to me in the act of leaving, and I knew he was watching me curiously, though I couldn’t, in the congealed dark, see his face any longer. “May I ask you something?”
“Ask. I may not choose to answer.”
“What do you do with them? What use could they possibly be? The shells, the vehicles, keep walking the earth, doing the things they couldn’t bear to do, but why do you want these? Do you replace them with something else?”
The black man gazed at me for a long time without speaking, and then he turned away downhill, to the bridge and the ruins on the further slope.
“When the vehicles die, when they no longer do the unbearable, will you let these go?” I shouted after him, but he did not even look back. I had not expected he would.
“Who are you, anyway?” I yelled. There was no answer.
And then I was alone in the darkness, standing in the mud and the freshening rain.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015