The guard at the door to the bunker complex stepped forward, hand on gun butt, but then recognised him and saluted. “Go right in, Doctor.”
BP nodded. “Thank you.” He was still nominally a civilian, and didn’t have to salute back, so didn’t. Some of his colleagues thought it was disrespectful not to salute back, but he tried to retain what little vestige of civilian privilege he still could.
The corridor inside was grey and white, lit by cheerless fluorescent lights overhead. It always looked chilly enough to make him shiver instinctively. Closed circuit cameras on the walls turned silently, following him as he walked down the passage to the lift that would take him sinking down, to his laboratory level, far below.
“Morning, Doctor,” the lift security guard said. There were, of course, security guards everywhere, even though there was less and less need for them as time went on. “How are things?”
BP nodded and smiled briefly, not bothering to answer. What was he supposed to reply – that the situation was catastrophic, the sky was falling, something like that? So the only alternative was to smile and say everything was fine, and he’d done the smiling part.
The security guard didn’t seem to notice or care. “They do say the war’s going very well,” he babbled. “They say we’re going to win soon.”
“They do?” BP asked, watching the red numbers change as the lift rose from deep underground. “Who says that?”
“Everyone,” the guard said. “I heard it on the telly.”
“Well, then, it must be true, mustn’t it?” BP smiled briefly and stepped into the lift. It was cylindrical and the wall was mirrored. Distorted versions of himself looked back at him with smeared faces as the lift began to sink back down.
BP rubbed his eyes. Each time he left the bunker complex, it seemed harder to return. The conferences in the capital, tedious and unnecessary as they were, were welcome breaks in the schedule. This time he’d even had a couple of hours free when they’d let him walk on the street, allegedly alone, though of course they’d have bodyguards discreetly following. It had been a lovely spring day, a real wind in his face, and it felt strange to see children running on the pavements and playing out in the open. Only a year or two ago, they’d never have been out by themselves for fear of missile strikes. One child, accompanied by two little cyborg dogs, had run to him, obviously mistaking him for someone else, and then stopped, suddenly confused and uncertain.
BP had tried to make it easy for him. “Nice dogs,” he’d said, though the creatures, with their metallic limbs and skull-like faces, had repelled him. They weren’t anything like the real dogs he’d always known and loved. “How old are they?”
“Eleven,” the child had said, a finger hooked in his mouth, pointing to one of the dogs. “That one’s thirteen.” The second dog had seemed to have taken a fancy to BP and had jumped into his arms, struggling to lick his face. Its tongue had felt like fine dry sandpaper.
Eleven and thirteen, though, and these two dogs were jumping around like puppies. They’d probably still be like puppies eleven or thirteen years from now.
Everything was moving towards the cyborgs. That was one of the many spin-offs of the war, as the media proudly repeated. The cyborgs, they said, opened the way to immortality.
That was as long as one could afford it, of course. BP had heard that the average cost of a human cyborg was equivalent to twenty years’ pay, and even then only a few candidates were being considered. People who could become super soldiers and end the war.
BP grimaced, and the smeared cylindrical reflection grimaced back at him. If the cyborgs promised immortality, the worst perversion of the technology would be to use them as soldiers. But then the generals would do anything.
A bluecoat was waiting for the lift at the bottom, an older man with a thick bulldog face and a walrus moustache. He was all ready to glare as the door opened, angry because he had to wait, but then saw BP’s green coat and thought better of it. Greencoats were the top of the hierarchical pile in the bunker complex.
“You’re back,” the bluecoat said neutrally.
BP nodded. “As you see.” He had no idea who the bluecoat was – he wasn’t from BP’s own department – but it wasn’t any surprise that the man knew him. Greencoats were few, and very well known to everybody by sight and name.
“How’s it outside?” The bluecoat seemed to have lost his desire to enter the lift.
“As usual. You know, spring, blue skies, the leaves are coming out on the branches.” BP glanced at the bluecoat, whose little eyes were gleaming avidly. “You haven’t been out in a while?”
“Not since the start of autumn,” the bluecoat said. His moustache quivered. “Ever since the autumn I’ve been down here, without a sight of the sky!”
BP didn’t know what to say. “Well,” he managed, “if the rumours are right we’ll soon be done with the work here.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it.” The bluecoat suddenly remembered his urgent need for the lift and jabbed the button, halting it before it could rise again. “I’ll bet I’m still here when...” His voice was cut off as the lift door slid shut.
A whitecoat was waiting for him outside the door of his laboratory. “The Director wants to see you, Doctor.”
BP regarded her with disfavour. Now that he was back down here, in the world where there was no day or night, he was eager to get back to work. On the other side of that door, his banks of equipment would be humming, ready to do as his mind had shaped them. Instead of which...
“Right away?” he asked.
The whitecoat only nodded. She was so pale that she looked almost as white as her coat. BP wondered if she’d ever felt the sun on her skin, or whether she’d been born and grown up in the bunker. Like all whitecoats, she resented the fact that she’d probably reached as high as she’d ever get. Unlike browncoats and bluecoats, whitecoats seldom rose higher in the ranks.
But her message wasn’t to be disregarded, so BP went to the Director’s office instead.
“You’re going to take over the new department at once,” the Director said. “You’ll have carte blanche. Budget, personnel, whatever you want.”
BP leaned back in his chair, frowning. “While I’m not in any way disregarding the honour and responsibility,” he said drily, “I really would like to know why. All these years I’ve been starved of funding and resources; I’ve been working in spite of, not because of, the department. So why am I being given all this help now?”
The Director shrugged, his pudgy shoulders moving under his brown coat. “The war’s still on,” he said. “The cyborg programme is obviously not moving fast enough. So...”
“...they’ve finally decided to give my matter disruptor a chance.” BP sighed, half with exasperation and half satisfaction. “If they’d listened to me earlier...”
“...we’d have won by now,” the Director replied expressionlessly. “Yes, we all know that. Well, you’re being given your chance now.”
“It’s not as though we can guarantee overnight results,” BP said. “You know what the disruptors do? They increase the energy levels of molecules in closed systems until they begin to disintegrate giving off heat energy.”
“Yes, and so?”
“We’ve had good results in being able to generate the effects at a distance,” BP said. “But we can’t focus it. It’s like taking a sledgehammer to a...” he tried to think of an appropriate comparison. “To a bacterium,” he finished.
“Send me your results so far immediately, and update me on a daily basis of your progress from now on.” The Director tapped a forefinger on his desk. “So how long do you think you’ll take to refine it, now you’ve got all you need?”
BP shook his head. “There’s no way of telling. It may not even be possible at all, or not possible in a short enough time. But what’s the hurry? We’re winning, aren’t we?”
The Director stared back at him levelly. “Are we?” he asked.
“I heard the enemy is putting out peace feelers,” BP said.
“Are they?” the Director said, and it was impossible from his voice to understand whether it was a question at all.
On the way to his laboratory – now the new department, of which he was the chief – BP met D. She was pushing along some kind of white plastic contraption on wheels, that resembled a vacuum cleaner. “Congratulations,” she said.
He frowned. “You’ve heard?”
Her cool, lovely face broke into an ironic smile. “It’s been all over the place since yesterday,” she said. “Everyone knows. I take it you’ve just been told – the last to know, huh?”
He made a short, clumsy bow. “As you say, the last to know.” D was very beautiful and very remote, and BP always felt clumsy around her. “How’s your research going?”
“Oh, you know, the same as usual.” D was a bluecoat, and had ambitions to move up to green. She had the drive, the single-minded determination. As far as BP knew, she had no life outside her work. “It’s nothing as glamorous as yours, of course.” With a smile and a twiddle of her fingers in the air, she walked up the passage, leaving BP to his thoughts.
The war was over.
BP heard of it as he was on the way down to his quarters. A small knot of bluecoats and whitecoats were clustered around a little television set in the middle of the corridor. Normally they’d have made way for a greencoat like a school of sardines parting before a shark, but they were so intent on the screen that they didn’t even notice his presence, so he had to stop as well. The air of barely suppressed excitement was so great that he knew what it would be before he even saw the screen.
The war was over. The war, which had been going on so long, was over. They’d won.
BP stared at the announcer, at the scenes of flag-waving crowds, watching his own name scroll past over and over at the bottom of the screen, hardly noticing what it was saying. Finally he felt the respectful tugging at his sleeve.
It was the very pale whitecoat of the other day, and she was much more deferential now. “The Director would like to see you, Doctor.”
The Director was smiling so broadly that his plump face seemed to split almost in two. He even got up from behind his desk to greet BP.
“Well, well,” he said, “the hero of the hour.”
“Hero?” BP frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“You don’t?” The Director shook his head genially. “You scientists, you really live in your own world, don’t you? It’s your invention, my dear man...it’s your invention that won the war!”
“My invention?” BP had half-risen from his chair. “But it’s not even perfected, or refined in any way. You know that. You’ve got all my data daily, as you wanted. We can’t target anything smaller than a big city.”
“That’s right,” the Director said levelly. “And that’s exactly what we did. Targeted the enemy’s cities, all at once.”
BP’s mouth opened, closed, and opened again. When he spoke, his voice came as a whisper. “You know what the disruptor does?”
“Of course I do.” The Director looked faintly uneasy. “It increases, as you said, molecular energy levels, so that they give off excess energy as heat and...”
“In a closed system,” BP snapped. “In a closed system, like a human body. Those people cooked alive inside their skins!”
The Director shrugged. “It won the war, didn’t it?” He turned his computer screen towards BP. It showed the same scenes of massed flag waving celebrations. “See for yourself.”
BP barely glanced at the screen. “They were almost finished anyway,” he said. “They were suing for peace, have been for months! Why did this have to be used at all?”
“The government made a decision,” the Director said. “They decided to get this over once and for all. And do you realise...”
“This is the most decisive victory in human history? There have been so many times in the past where one side has won the war, but never could be sure the other wouldn’t rise again one day and take revenge. But that can’t ever happen this time.”
“Why not?” BP began, and realisation struck. “Oh.”
“Exactly.” The Director nodded genially. “You’ve removed a permanent threat, forever, and that’s exactly why you’re a hero. The country isn’t ungrateful. You can pick any reward you want.”
BP’s mind whirled. “I...” he began. “I...”
The Director held up a hand. “Take your time. There’s no hurry. Come and tell me tomorrow morning what you want. I can assure you in advance you’ve got it.” He smiled again. “In the meantime...”
“Go out to the town, why don’t you? Have a night out. You’ve earned the pleasure.”
BP looked down at his hands and up at the Director. “Thank you,” he said, “but I’m very tired. I just want to go to bed.”
“Suit yourself,” the Director said. “It was just a suggestion, but you can do anything you want. You’ve earned it, now.”
In the dream he saw a city. It was an enemy city, as he’d seen it in photographs, with its tall grey buildings with the baroque architecture and the gargoyles on cornices, the broad streets with the sandstone bridges, pillars with lamps at each end. The signs on the shops and buildings, too, in the enemy’s language, angular letters just on the other side of making sense. It was a lovely city, and should be bustling with life. But there was not a single sign of life, not a noise. On the broad, beautiful streets, nothing moved, not even a scrap of paper blown by a gust of wind.
Then, at last, he saw movement. He didn’t immediately realise what it was. Low to the ground, slow and spasmodic, it twitched and lurched in the shadows of a half-open doorway, like something afraid of the light. Curious, he drifted closer.
At first he thought it was some kind of monster out of a dream, something bright red and sprawling that crawled blindly and felt its slow, eyeless way. Even when it opened a gash in the round mass at its front end, he didn’t realise what it was.
He realised it only when the blind, crawling thing called him by name...
BP jerked awake. His heart was thudding so hard it felt as though it would burst out of his chest. It was some moments before he realised that a soft voice was actually calling him by name.
The blankets were drawn back as someone slipped into the bed beside him. He felt smooth, naked skin, the swell of a breast surmounted by a hard nipple. “Don’t you lock your door at night?” D whispered, her lips brushing his ear.
“What are you doing here?” He tried to sit up, but she swung herself over him, straddled him, and pushed him back down. Her index finger lay on his lips.
“Shh,” she said. “Don’t you want me? I can tell you want me.”
“No,” he wanted to say, but his body was already responding, independent of his mind.
She smiled down at him, her teeth a flash of white in the dimness.
“I always wanted to fuck a hero,” she said.
The Director had put a vase of fresh flowers on his desk. The red of them bled into the air. “So,” he asked, “have you decided what your reward’s to be?”
BP nodded, looking at the flowers, whose colour reminded him of the crawling thing from the dream. “Two things. First, I want to continue my research. Fully independently, with all the funding and equipment I need.”
The Director shrugged. “I suppose that’s what they’d expect anyway. We might need your weapon again, in future, against someone. What’s the other?”
BP told him. The Director nodded slowly. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” BP said. “Do you think it can be managed?”
The Director grinned broadly. “You’re a hero,” he said, “and there hasn’t yet been time for their gratitude to dry up. So, of course it can be managed. I’ll send the request in today.”
“The best,” BP said. “The absolute cutting edge. One of a kind.”
The Director looked at him curiously, but nodded again. “It’ll be done,” he said.
The years have passed by since then, like a bird’s flapping wing. The seasons have turned, the old moon gone around and around in its lazy way. The cities of the enemy are beginning to crumble, the broad avenues filled with blown dust. The victory over them is now half-forgotten, a fading memory in aging minds and history books.
And, at last, BP is ready.
He has long got used to his new body, its metal joints and ageless, near-immortal, frame; he’s grown used to memory so vast he can literally forget nothing, thinking so quick he could never have processed it with the grey, organic jelly of his fragile old brain. He has grown used to living without growing older, and has systematically removed from himself such useless features as sentiment, sympathy, regret and pity.
Oh, yes, he has removed pity. Most of all, pity for himself.
And he has worked. Tirelessly, without the need for sleep and rest, he has worked. And, at last, his weapon is ready. It’s ready, and so is he.
Ready for revenge.
He stalks the lands, his machine held before him in his metal arms. Before him, the cities fall silent, their occupants blown ash. As he walks, the sky around his metal head glows red as blood, red as a swollen giant sun, red as the flowers on the Director’s desk, so long ago.
It glows as red as the skin of that crawling, blind, calling thing.
And he shall walk on, and the lands shall fill with death. There is no forgiveness for anything in him, now, and most of all no forgiveness for himself. There is no way to expiate what he’s done, so he will do more.
And the lands will be cleansed before him, before his silent machine of revenge, until there is nothing left, except him. Until he stands on a last pebbly beach, watching the ocean boil away into the red, red sky.
And then, because there is for him not even the release of death, he will go on.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016