Saturday 28 January 2012

The Mountain Wakes

Through more aeons than the People could remember, the mountain had towered over their villages, frowning over them from one side while the cold and hostile desert rolled to the distant horizon on the other.

The mountain had had many names in the ages the People had dwelt at its foot. Once they had called it the Father of Fire, for it had worn a crown of flames on its head, but that era was as long gone as the sea that had once washed beaches that were now eroded rock. Then, when the fires had died, they had called it the Sleeping Father, who must not be disturbed. And later they called it other names, which were as forgotten as the languages from which they had sprung. Now they called it simply Anakonata, the Mountain of Eternity, for the People believed that until the world ended, the mountain would stay in endless slumber. After all, the other and lesser hills which had stood around and behind it had all vanished, eroded and ground down by time, but the mountain still endured. In the mythology of the People, as long as Anakonata slept, those who dwelt at its foot would be all right, though these were the latter years, and the world had grown weary and old.

Anakonata was more than a god to the People, for the gods were capricious and prone to show their anger by inflicting pestilence on top of the endless drought, and to provoke raids from the marauding pirate tribes who dwelt out on the desert plain. Anakonata simply was, and as long as it slept, the People would be all right.

But after aeons beyond counting, Anakonata was beginning to wake up.


The freezing cold of winter had long since split the rock beside the path that led to the village, and left it cloven like a broken tooth, and here it was that the hermit chose as his home when he came down from the mountain.

The hermit was half-crazed, filthy, and dressed in the skin of the mountain goats he had hunted for food over the years. His weathered face was covered with matted hair and beard, and he stank so abominably that the guards of the village priesthood would have never tolerated his presence in normal times. But these were not normal times.

The villagers came in droves to hear the hermit. First there were only a few, drawn more by curiosity than anything more, slipping through the gates in the sandstone walls. Then the others came, and still more, and by the time the priests had recognised the danger it was too late already to do away with the madman from the hill.

“Listen,” he said in his harsh voice, arid as the mountainside. “Listen,” he shouted, standing atop the cloven rock, raising one dirt-encrusted finger skywards. The throng at the foot of the rock fell silent, and clearly they heard the distant rumble from beneath the ground. “Do you hear the voice of Anakonata?”

The men and women in the crowd glanced uneasily at each other. The rumble came again, and the ground shook slightly, as though a giant far beneath their feet was stirring. The hermit watched them keenly.

“The priests,” he said, pointing to the walls, atop which the men he referred to were standing watching, “will tell you not to listen to the voice of Anakonata. They will tell you that things will be as they were, as long as you listen to them and make offerings at the temple. They will order you not to listen to me. But the Father of Fire is awakening, and you can hear him stir.”

As if to underline what he said, there was a louder rumble, and far up on the mountainside rock crumbled down in a cloud of dust.

“The end of the world is nigh,” the hermit shouted, his voice cracking with unconcealed glee. “The end of the world is coming, for Anakonata wakes, and the time of suffering is coming. The end is at hand, People! Prepare yourself for the earth to vomit forth the cleansing fire, as the prophecies tell!” He capered with excitement. “The mouth of hell will open, the end of the world will come with fire. Oh yes. Just you wait and see!”

The ground shook again in reply.


We have to do something about that man,” the High Priest said.

He stood staring through the window of his office, as if from here he could see the hermit on the cloven rock, still declaiming to the People. The office was on an upper floor of the Temple, which was the biggest edifice in the village, and belonged to a much earlier era, when men still had the ability to build big, and normally the High Priest enjoyed standing here at the window and gazing out on the world from an elevated position. Not today, though. All his pleasure seemed to have disappeared.

“We have to do something about him,” he repeated.

The Archpriest, who was actually second in the hierarchy of the Temple, nodded. “I see what you mean,” he said. “He’s dangerous. He plants seeds in the Peoples’ minds which will bring forth a bitter harvest. Shall we send the guards tonight? They could easily slit his throat for him, and nobody would know.”

The High Priest shook his head. “The People would know,” he said. “They are already calling him a prophet, and they will most certainly camp in numbers around his rock tonight. Whatever we do, we must not cause the People to turn against us by exterminating him. There might,” and he shuddered at the thought, “be an insurrection.”

“So? We have the guards and the weapons. They don’t.”

Think, man.” The High Priest turned sharply back from the window to glare at his subordinate. “The priesthood depends on the goodwill of the People. We could massacre them, of course, if we chose to – but then what? Where would we find the tithes to maintain the Temple, the Priesthood, and equip and pay the guards? We would be left helpless and bereft.”

There was a long silence, ended at last by a low rumbling noise. The walls of the building trembled slightly, and objects on the High Priest’s table rattled.

“And then there’s that.” The Archpriest looked relieved at the interruption. “The mountain is waking up.”

“Yes.” The High Priest regarded the other man sourly. “The source of the wild man’s popularity amongst the People is his insistence that the mountain’s waking presages the end of the world. The only way out is to discredit him.”

“How should we do that?” The Archpriest looked up at his superior with apprehension. “He is dirty and obstreperous, but then he makes no effort to hide that. He possesses nothing, so can’t be accused of corruption. He makes statements that we can’t accept, but they are grounded in our religious mythology, and the People can hear Anakonata’s rumblings for themselves. In order to discredit him, we should have to return Anakonata to his eternal sleep.”

“Exactly,” the High Priest said. “We will have to send someone out to the summit, to find out more about what is going on, and then we can formulate some kind of plan.” He picked up a goblet from the table and turned it over and over in his hands. “It will have to be someone rather special, someone who can be trusted to get the job done – yet someone who can keep his mouth shut.”

The Archpriest ran his fingers through his thinning hair. “Who?”

The High Priest gave a broad but mirthless grin.

“I have just the man,” he said.


They called him the Desert Jackal, and they trusted him just as little as they would have one of those opportunistic beasts from the drifting sands.

As a boy, the Jackal had once been a pirate. He had been captured on a raid into one of the villages of the People, when a counterattack by temple guards had driven the pirates back. They had discovered him afterwards amongst the corpses left behind, unconscious and dreadfully injured. The guards had been inclined to finish him off, but the priest in charge of the detachment had ordered that he should be taken prisoner, so as to be interrogated when possible for further information about his fellow pirates. They could always execute him afterwards.

To that end, the boy, who had been then perhaps ten years old – the pirates began training their sons early in the craft – had been handed over to the healer women of the village, with orders to return him sufficiently to health that he might be able to withstand all the interrogation that might be necessary to squeeze from him all he knew. The healers had listened, looked at the boy, and taken him in with the intention of saving his life, as they had vowed to do when they had become healers.

This meant that they also determined to save him from execution at the hands of the priests.

The boy who would later become the Desert Jackal had lain for many weeks in a muttering delirium, as the juices and potions administered by the women had taken effect. They had healed his body, but had made sure to wipe clean most of the memories from his mind. And they made sure that his recovery was so prolonged that by the time he might be questioned, any information he might be able to divulge would clearly be obsolete.

And so, there being nothing better to do with him, he was allowed to stay, and over time he’d become part of the People. But they had never forgotten what he had been, nor did they ever quite trust him, and so he had grown up self-reliant and a loner. Now, in his early thirties, he was lean and brown as the desert animal after which he was named, and as wily and resourceful as one.

The Jackal had been on a scouting trip out into the desert, at the head of a small group sent to check for possible pirate raids, and had returned only the previous evening, having seen nothing of the robber bands. Now he stood before the High Priest and the Archpriest, still clad in his brown scout’s robe, his head and face wrapped around by the scarf he used to protect himself from the sandstorms out on the plain.

“You,” the High Priest said, “are to go up the mountain, to see what is going on at the summit.”

“We need to know if Anakonata is indeed waking,” the Archpriest supplied. “Then we can plan what to do.”

“You understand that the information is of tremendous importance to the People,” the High Priest said. “The People have taken you in and made you one of them, and you owe it to...” He broke off as a prolonged rumble and shudder shook the building, grabbing on to the table until his knuckles shone white. “Anyway,” he said hurriedly, “just go on up there and see what there is to see.”

The Jackal spoke for the first time. “What about them?” he said, jerking his thumb in the general direction of the hermit and his congregation. “They have already made up their minds that Anakonata’s sleep is ending, haven’t they?”

The Archpriest and High Priest exchanged glances. “They’re no concern of yours,” the former said. “Go up and find out all you can, and leave the rest to us.”

“You are to set out at once,” the High Priest ordered. “There’s not a moment to waste.”

The Jackal nodded once, his expression unreadable through the facecloth, and turned to leave.

“Wait!” the Archpriest called. The Jackal paused, without turning.

“You are to disclose nothing of what you find to anyone else,” he said. “The information is for us alone.” He turned to the High Priest. “Is there anything else to say?”

“I don’t think so,” the High Priest responded. “Except that nobody should know of your mission but ourselves. Do you understand?”

But the Jackal was already gone.


Two hours out of the village the Desert Jackal paused, looking up at the mountain. From here, in the gathering dusk, the summit was hidden behind the bulk of the slope, but there was a reddish glow staining the sky above it. Rumbles like distant thunder shook the ground occasionally, and sent pebbles rolling down the slope.

The Jackal was alone, and still dressed in his scout’s robe, long boots and headcloth. He had paused long enough at his small hut to sling a bag of dried food and a bottle of water over his shoulder, and to buckle on the short curved sword which now hung at his belt. He never carried anything more, knowing by experience that extra weight was dangerous. He had taken what he needed, and left. There was nobody to detain him, no one to whom to explain things. He lived alone, and no one called him friend, and slowly, over the years, he had come to prefer it that way.

He had left the village through one of the lesser gates, which was always kept open, and slipped past the guards watching the throng around the hermit, who was still declaiming from his rock. The guards had tried to forbid anyone to go and listen to the wild man, but people had leaked so steadily and persistently through the cordon they had set up that they had long since thrown up their hands in despair. Now they merely watched the crowd and waited for something to happen which would justify violence.

So far, nothing had, but they kept their pikes handy, and waited hopefully for orders from the priests.

The Jackal had never been all the way to the summit of Anakonata, but the slopes of the mountain were not unknown to him. He had climbed up them many times, to vantage points where he could watch the desert for the movement of robber gangs, or simply when he wanted to be alone, and the tracks and paths at these lower elevations were familiar even in the darkness. Besides, he had the red glow in the sky, which threw a ruddy glow down on the stones.

The Jackal himself did not believe in the tales told about Anakonata any more than he believed in anything else. That he could rely on his own abilities was enough for him at most times, but he had no idea what he would find at the top of the mountain, and he had grown to distrust that which he did not know. His distrust had saved his life more than once, out on the plain.

For a moment he turned to look down at the village, a few dim lights showing where it lay. Beyond lay the desert, a deep pool of black. There would be eyes out there on the plain watching the mountain, and they would probably be able to see more than he could from here. But they could not see the summit. When he reached it, he would be able to.

The rumbles from Anakonata, which had grown almost continuous, fell suddenly silent, and in the distance he could hear the hermit’s voice raised shrilly in declamation. He cocked his head, listening, but the words did not carry clearly enough to understand.

No matter. He knew what the man was probably saying, anyway.

Shaking his head, he turned back up the mountain.


It was a bowl of molten fire.

From the shelter of a mound of rock, the Jackal stood looking down at the scene before him. Even from this distance, the heat licked at him, and the air stung his nose and eyes so much so that he knew he would not be able to remain there much longer.

Over his head, the dawn had begun to lighten the sky, but the glare from what lay in the depression in the top of the mountain was so great that the Jackal could hardly see the sky. The liquid fire bubbled and frothed, and strange groans and muffled grinding noises came from the earth. Even as he watched, a huge chunk of rock broke away and disappeared into the chasm. With a hissing noise, a huge spout of flame rose from the bubbling mass of fire and began licking through the crack.

The Jackal had seen enough. Turning, he stumbled off down the mountain the way he had come. There was more light now, but his eyes were watering so much that he could barely see. In the end he wet his headcloth with the remnants of his water, wrapped it round his face, and felt his way down mostly by touch until the air cleared enough for him to be able to see again.

And then it seemed to him that the dawn had turned to night again, and winter had begun to return to the world.

The sky above him was black with smoke, so thick that it shrouded the sun, and all around him the stones were white. It took a few moments for him to decide that the powdery white substance was ash, not snow.

He was hurrying now, desperately, knowing something terrible was coming, something against which he would have to warn the People. Running over the rock, it was only his sure-footedness that saved him from a bad fall more than once. Even so, it was almost noon before he arrived at the village.

It did not look like noon. The sky was black like the sky of midnight, and the ash lay white over the roofs and walls of the village, and even more drifted down in flakes and eddies. And still the madman on the cloven rock capered and yelled, and the People stood uneasily listening and staring fearfully up the mountain.

The Jackal paid them, for the moment, no heed. Hurrying past, he entered through the same small gate by which he had left the village, and hurrying through the narrow, near-deserted streets, he went to the Temple.

The High Priest and Archpriest were conferring with a couple of lesser priests. They looked up impatiently as the Desert Jackal entered. “Well?”

“Anakonata is about to shake itself to pieces, and dissolve in fire and rock,” the Jackal said without preamble. Quickly, he told them what he had seen. They listened, their faces expressionless.

“And is that all?” the Archpriest asked when the Jackal paused for breath. “You didn’t see anything more?”

“No,” the Jackal said. “But isn’t that enough? We have to warn the People, and get them away at once.”

“H’m.” The High Priest walked to the window and stared out at the drizzle of ash. “I think you’re exaggerating a mite, aren’t you?” He pointed up at the huge bulk of the mountain. “How can that fall to pieces?”

“It is,” the Jackal insisted. “I’ve seen it myself. What do you think is causing the darkness and the ash?”

“The gods do strange and incomprehensible things,” the High Priest said. “It’s not important what their motives are. What is important is that the People understand that there’s nothing to fear, so they stop listening to that dotard on the rock and return to their homes.”

“But they can’t do that!” The Jackal’s voice rose with excitement. “They must save themselves, and leave the villages at once. We have no time to lose.”

The High Priest turned and smiled grimly. “Just suppose they were to leave the villages,” he said, “where would you advise the People to go? After all, we can scarcely stay on the mountain, if it is going to fall apart as you describe. So where should the People seek safety?”

“Out on the plain, of course.” Too late the Jackal saw the trap that had been set for him, but there was no drawing back now. “There is nowhere else to go.”

The High Priest gave a small hiss of satisfaction through his teeth. “So...the People should seek safety out on the plain, where your own people, the pirates of the sand, can cut their throats for them? I think not.” He glared around triumphantly at the others. “Gentlemen, I think we can safely dispose of this...creature.”

The two assistant priests already had daggers in their hands, and they rushed the Jackal from either side, blades swinging. The Jackal ducked and leaned back, feeling the catch of blade on cloth, hearing the rip as knife cut through sleeve, and then he lashed out with his boot, catching one of the priests in the stomach. The man went down with a clatter, the Jackal leaped over him, and raced down the stairs.

He hit the street running. The priests must have summoned help somehow, because guards were running back from the walls. But the Jackal knew how to hide himself in the shadows, and in the near-darkness they didn’t see him. Stumbling in the ash, the guards rushed by and into the building.

The Jackal ran for the throng gathered around the hermit. He was still exhorting and shouting, and though he was coughing and gasping as the acrid air caught at his throat, his energy seemed undiminished. “The time of destruction is at hand,” he shouted. “Yes!”

The Jackal ignored him. With a quick jump, he pulled himself up to the top of the cloven rock. “We must get out of here,” he shouted. “The mountain is about to explode!”

“So?” The hermit turned to glare up at him with eyes like stones. “And so what? The end of the world is coming, so we should repent and wait for it gladly.”

“Listen to me,” the Jackal shouted even louder. “This is not the end of the world, or anything similar. Anakonata is being torn up by forces inside it, forces which come from the inside of the earth. That’s all.”

“But the hermit is a holy man,” someone shouted back. “And he says that the end of the world is nigh, while you are a mere...”

“I may be a mere son of a desert robber,” the Jackal yelled back, “but I have been up the mountain, and am only a short while returned. I have seen the earth crack and pour out fire and smoke. Look around you, at the smoke and ash.” He paused for a moment to let them look. “We’ve got to leave this place, now-“

“Blasphemy,” the hermit screamed, spittle flying from his lips. “You are blaspheming against ordained fate!”

The crowd was muttering and looking around at each other. The Jackal spread his arms in appeal. “Look,” he said, “if the world is going to end anyway, it doesn’t matter whether you’re here or out on the plain, does it? But if it’s not going to end, you’ll be a lot safer out there than here.”

“And your relatives will come for us,” someone shouted. A piece of stone came sailing through the air and narrowly missed the Jackal. “Think we don’t know why you’re doing this?”

“All right,” the Jackal said. He jumped off the rock just as a series of tremendous detonations sounded from overhead. “I’m going,” he said, when the noise subsided enough for everyone to hear again. “Do as you wish, or...” turning, he pointed at the village, from which a party of priests and guards were approaching, “ they want you to do.”

Turning, he loped away towards the plain.


She came to him in the desert as the night fell on the land. He watched her come, faintly outlined in the glow from the rivers of molten rock pouring down the flanks of the mountain. She glanced at him uncertainly, out of the corner of her eye, while the ash drifted out of the sky and settled on their shoulders.

“Well,” he said eventually. “Let’s go, shall we?”

“Where?” she asked him. “Out there? Or will you come back? There are people, you know, who need you.” She looked up at him, defiantly. “They need you to save them from the hermit, and from the priests.”

There was a long moment of silence. The Jackal looked up at the mountain and the flowing rivers of molten rock.

Trudging through the ash and smoke, they started back towards the village.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Monday With Medusaceratops

Dear,” the professor’s wife said, “there is a dinosaur in the vegetable garden.”

She said it very calmly, with not a trace of a tremor in her voice. Ten years of marriage to the professor had taught her a great deal of self-control.

The professor peered at her over his glasses. “Yes, dear,” he said mildly. Ten years of marriage had taught him the value of those words as a catch-all response to anything she might say.

“Did you hear what I said?” his wife asked, a slightly shriller note sneaking into her voice. “There is a dinosaur in the vegetable garden. And it’s eating the cabbage.”

“Oh, no, dear,” the professor said, returning to his laptop. “That can’t be. You must have been mistaken.”

“Look.” For the first time in a decade, the professor’s wife’s iron self-control deserted her. She reached out and grabbed a handful of her husband’s old sweater. “Come to the window and see for yourself.”

Another thing the professor had learnt in a decade of matrimonial bliss was the futility of resistance. He allowed himself to be towed to the window, already preparing a little speech on how easy it was to be mistaken about such things. And then he looked through the glass and the words died on his lips.

There was a dinosaur in the vegetable garden. And it was just about done eating all the cabbage.

“How extraordinary,” the professor said. “You would appear to be correct, after all.”

“Well then,” his lady declared triumphantly, “there you are. Now what are you going to do about it?”

There did not seem to be much anyone could do about it, so the two of them stood at the window staring at the dinosaur as it demolished the last of the professor’s wife’s cherished cabbages and began on the iceberg lettuce. The dinosaur took no notice of them at all, so they had plenty of opportunity to observe it.

It was a very large dinosaur, about as long as the professor’s wife’s oversized SUV and a half again. It stood on four pillar-like legs, its gigantic head lowered as it ripped lettuce out of the ground with its parrot-like beak, its huge brow horns thrust out in front of a tremendous curved frill, which was itself edged with hooked spines. And the colours!

“I thought dinosaurs were supposed to be brown or grey,” their daughter, who had joined them unnoticed, said to nobody in particular.

The animal was a bluish grey in colour, and splotched and marked with patches of violet on the shield, in a pattern which looked rather like eyes.

“What is it?” the daughter, who asked a lot more questions than, her mother often said, befitted a seven-year-old, queried. “It looks like the child of a rhino and a chameleon.”

“Um, well.” The professor was a physicist, not a palaeontologist, and his knowledge of dinosaurs was not extensive. “It’s obviously one of the ceratopsians – that’s the horned dinosaurs, dear – but I don’t think it’s a triceratops. It doesn’t...” he pointed, “...have a nose horn.” As if hearing, the huge animal raised its head so they both got a good look at the blunt stub of a protuberance atop its beak. “As to what it is, I haven’t any idea. If I were to consult an online identification guide, perhaps I’d be able to find out.” He turned towards his laptop.

“Forget the identification for a minute.” The ten years of self-control had deserted the professor’s wife completely, and she sounded high-pitched and shrewish. “That animal there has just eaten all my cabbages and lettuce, and it’s ripping up what’s left of my garden, and what are you going to do about it?”

“Nothing, I imagine.” The professor sounded faintly astonished that she should ask. “What do you suppose I could do about it – shoo it away?”

 “Oh no,” their daughter said. “Please don’t. It’s so cool.”

“Cool?” her mother responded, outraged. “The effort I put into that garden, and that animal ruined it in five minutes, absolutely wrecked it, and you think it’s cool?”

“Mom...” the girl began. “The poor thing has to eat. Why don’t you –“

At that moment, the gigantic dinosaur finished the last lettuce, made a sound like an amplified goat’s bleat, and made for the garden fence the professor’s wife had put up with her own two hands. She was still opening her mouth to utter an anguished moan when it had disappeared into the morning mist, leaving splintered posts and palings in its wake.

That was early on Monday morning.


The animals,” the TV presenter said, “have been identified as a type of dinosaur, called...” She looked down at her desk and moved her lips a couple of times, practising. “...Medusaceratops,” she concluded triumphantly. “Medusaceratops,” she repeated, “are a kind of horned dinosaur, and there appears to be an entire herd of them which has suddenly appeared at various parts of the city early this morning.

“I have with me,” she went on, “a scientist from the Department of Palaentology from the University.” The camera panned to the scientist, who had a red face, thinning white hair, and looked more than a little uncomfortable to have been dragged in front of the cameras. “Doctor,” the newsreader said, “how do you explain the appearance of these dinosaurs in this city all of a sudden?”

The scientist shrugged. “I can’t explain it,” he said. “They should not be here. And yet they are.”

“You don’t think,” the newsreader asked, leaning forward to show how earnest she was, “that there has perhaps been a herd of the animals hiding out somewhere in a forest all these years which has finally found its way into the city?”

For a moment the scientist looked as though he would burst out laughing, but he managed to keep it down to a tight-lipped smile. “These animals have been extinct for between seventy and eighty million years,” he replied. “If they’d been around since then, with their size and appearance, do you really think nobody would’ve noticed?”

The newsreader seemed to mutter something under her breath. “But still,” she said aloud, “if they had somehow stayed hidden, in some forest, then...”

“What forest?” the scientist, who was obviously tiring of the interview, cut in. “Where? Can you point out any forest within a hundred kilometres of this city?”

The newsreader glared down at her desktop to avoid having to glare at the camera. “There’s been a suggestion,” she said, “that a clutch of dinosaur eggs somehow survived and have now hatched. What do you think of that idea?”

Now the scientist did laugh. “Keep an egg for a month or two,” he said, “and see if it will hatch after that. We are talking of at least seventy million years. That’s seven followed by seven zeroes. Years.”

The newsreader was beginning to look as if she wished the station had invited anyone else for this interview – a tarot card reader or a psychic spoon bender, or anyone. “But dinosaur eggs have been found, haven’t they?”

Fossilised eggs,” was the response. “Which means, literally, eggs turned to stone. Like the dinosaurs themselves. Well, obviously, not these dinosaurs, but you know what I mean.” 

The newsreader gratefully clutched what seemed to her to be an escape opportunity. “Please tell us something about these dinosaurs, Doctor. Are they dangerous?”

“Well, that depends, doesn’t it?” The scientist was now in good humour. “They’re herbivores, so it’s not as if they’re going to bite anyone or eat anyone’s dog. But they’re also built on the basic plan of rhinoceroses, and rhinos, as we all know, are highly aggressive beasts, so one shouldn’t approach them closely. They’re liable to charge.”

The TV channel switched to a live feed depicting a group of the dinosaurs walking through one of the city’s major parks. A line of police held the throng of onlookers, amongst whom were a large number of media people, back.

“We’ve not had the chance to study them in detail,” the palaeontologist said, in a voice-over, “but we think that the markings on their neck shields are unique to individual animals. They probably serve as recognition markers.”

“You mean,” the newsreader asked, in well-feigned amazement, “that they can recognise each other?”

“Why not? Many animals can.” The palaeontologist pointed, but since the scene in the park was still on screen, nobody noticed the gesture. “You’ll notice that they’ve stripped the cycads bare but left most of the other plants alone, and the grass too. That’s because most of those plants, and the grasses, didn’t exist when these animals walked the earth.”

“And that means...?”

“That means they are going to have a food problem soon,” the scientist explained. “We’re going to have to fly in food for them if this goes on.”

The camera cut back to the studio. “What do you intend to do about them?” the newsreader asked.

Do about them?” The palaeontologist was obviously taken by surprise. “What should we do about them? Nothing, except keep them under observation, and learn what we can.” He paused. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime, to learn all about dinosaurs.”

“Some people feel differently,” the newsreader said. “The National Hunter’s Association has already demanded that the dinosaurs be exterminated as an immediate threat. We’re going now, live, to an interview with the NHA chief...”

That was mid-morning on Monday.


By noon, the city had virtually come to a standstill.

The medusaceratops were everywhere. One appeared in the middle of a traffic island, shaking its gigantic head in confusion at the streams of vehicles moving past on either side. Another couple strolled through a school playground, ignoring the stampede their presence caused amongst the children. Some more had gathered in the square outside the town hall, where the mayor had scheduled a press conference. To his baffled fury, the conference failed before it began because all the media people he’d called to disclose his plan for dealing with the dinosaurs promptly abandoned him in order to get a closer look at the animals themselves from the safety of the town hall steps. 

The streets began to clog with traffic as medusaceratops began blocking the ways, wandering at will through lanes and avenues alike, and dropping occasional piles of greenish dung. The herd in the park had long since emerged, broken up into small groups, and shambled off in different directions. Inevitably, they approached cars, many of whose panic-stricken drivers promptly abandoned their vehicles, jamming the ways behind them and bottling traffic up for kilometres. Helicopters lent by the Air Force clattered overhead, trying to make some kind of sense of the confusion, the noise disturbing the dinosaurs and making them disperse into even more areas of town. And meanwhile, the highways leading to the city were themselves full – of hopeful hunters, scientists, and tourists, all jostling for space with military convoys.

And though the medusaceratops had as yet to injure, let alone kill, a single person, something clearly had to be done, and many were the suggestions of what that something was.

Evangelical sects got into the act early, claiming that the dinosaurs were an attempt by the Devil, in conjunction with atheistic scientists, to overturn religious order, and a purge of science from day-to-day life was necessary to send them back where they came from. Psychics said they’d been conjured out of the collective unconsciousness, and a mass focussing of the collective consciousness would be required to get rid of them. A general advised capturing them and releasing them across the border of Iran to create confusion and help destabilise the Ayatollahs. The animal-rights activists wanted them put in a national park, where they could live happily ever after. And the hunters wanted to use them for target-practice, of course.  

By mid-afternoon, the first clashes began between animal-rights activists and hunter groups, with the former waving placards and the latter guns. They would undoubtedly have come to blows, and perhaps worse (given the hunters’ guns), but for the sudden appearance of a few medusaceratops, who – probably and not unpardonably confused by the shouting and threats – made a brief abortive charge, whereupon the animal rights activists dropped their placards, the hunters their deer rifles, and both groups rushed off with wild yells of terror. The medusaceratops reassembled and ambled off in order to find something to eat.



But I have to go to work, dear,” the professor said for the tenth or eleventh time that day. “The experiment with the new particle accelerator has been going on since Saturday night, and I have to see what the results are.”

“Don’t you dare leave me alone,” his wife said. The ten years of self-discipline had by now evaporated as though they had never been. “Those awful beasts are everywhere, and one of them might break in here again at any moment, and then what shall I do?”

“You aren’t alone,” the professor said logically, pointing at their daughter, who sat before the TV enthralled. “Besides, if one of them actually broke in here, what do you suppose I could do about it?”

“So you’re going to abandon me here and go to your dreadful little experiment? Can’t it even wait until the government does something?”

“The dreadful experiment,” the professor explained patiently, “as you call it, can’t wait. I’ve told you all about the new particle accelerator. It’s built to my design, you know, and I can’t exactly leave the experiment to run by itself. In fact, I should have been there hours ago.”

“What’s so special about your design?” his wife demanded suspiciously. “I thought they were all the same.”

“It’s set in a ring form,” the professor said. “The particles chase themselves round the tunnel at the speed of light. What I’m trying to do is speed them up so much that one of them hits itself from behind. If that happens, we’ll find out all kinds of interesting things...”

“Oh shut up about interesting things! Here we have dinosaurs wandering about and eating my vegetables, and any moment one of them is going to break in and murder us, and you talk about interesting things. And look at her!” With a grand sweeping gesture she turned towards her daughter, who was still watching the dinosaurs live on TV. All the channels were now showing nothing but the dinosaurs, or dinosaur-related news. Even the movie channels had gone over to Jurassic Park reruns. “She’s not moved from in front of the TV all day, while you...” she turned round and her jaw dropped open.

Seeing his opportunity, the professor had slipped away.


We’re still collating the data, Professor,” the research assistant said. He was a young man with greasy black hair and a plump, pimply face. “But the indications are that we achieved a strike this morning.”

Behind him the new accelerator hummed and buzzed like a huge metal doughnut, and coloured lines and dots arced in circles on screens set into the walls. There was so much equipment in the room that there was hardly space to move. But  the assistant had hardly moved away from those screens for hours anyway.

“We did?” The professor had walked to the university through streets jammed with abandoned vehicles and dotted with dinosaur dung, but had failed to see a single animal. He now leaned over the computer readouts, peering at them sharply through his thick spectacles. “That’s very interesting. I wonder...”

“Yes, sir?”

“Those dinosaurs that have appeared through the city; do you think there’s a correlation?”

“Dinosaurs?” the assistant stared at the professor. “What dinosaurs?”

“Oh, you’ve been here all the night, have you? Well, there’s –“

“Professor!” the assistant gasped. “There, look, it’s just about to happen again!”

“What?” The professor spun round, staring up at the screen at which the assistant was pointing. Both men watched a green dot on the screen elongate into a streak. The green streak chased itself in a circle, until the head end met the tail, and vanished in a tiny red spark. Little points of yellow and orange danced off in various directions.

“I believe you’re right,” the professor said in awe. “We’ve done it.”

And, at that moment, all over the city, the dinosaurs began to disappear.


So we’re going to be famous?” the professor’s wife said. Her fury at him had abated somewhat by the news of his success.

“Well,” the professor said, “we have achieved something that most authorities said couldn’t be done. But we still only did it twice, and we have a long way to go.”

It was Tuesday evening. The last of the dino dung had been scraped off the streets and gone for analysis. The hunters and PETA activists, the soldiers and tourists had all gone back where they came from. The evangelists had declared that their prayers had banished the dinosaurs back to the depths of Hell. The mayor was trying to think of a way to avoid being wiped out in the next election. A major actress had become embroiled in a sex scandal, and the President had just announced the invasion of another nation on the other side of the planet. So life had, more or less, returned to normal.

“The first thing you’re going to do,” the professor’s wife said, “is help me get the vegetable garden back in shape. And after that...“ She spoke for some time.

The professor’s cellphone rang, and he grabbed it with relief. “Yes?”

“Professor!” his assistant said, breathless with excitement. “It’s just happened again!”

And in the lake behind the park, something many-armed and gigantic began to stir.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Monday 23 January 2012

The Dragon Chedupuram and the Knight Starkiller

Across the fields of time and space, between the light and the dark, rode the knight Starkiller.

In all the annals of his reality, there were no heroes as great as the knight Starkiller. He had dispatched the ogres and demons of the shadow realms between the worlds, and done battle with forces from beyond the Outer Dark until they had retreated, defeated, to the shadows from which they had come. He strode his reality like a colossus, and there was no challenge left for him, no evil that he still had to fight.

All who inhabited that reality lived in awe of the knight Starkiller. Once they had merely loved or hated him, fought him or made legends about him, but now he had transcended hate and fear, love or worship. He was above myths. He was merely what he was.

Great indeed was the knight Starkiller. Clad in armour black as the gulfs between the stars, wielding his immense sword of obsidian, which could slice a troll’s head from his shoulders like butter, he had no equal in courage or prowess. He had conquered all, hungered for further horizons, and yet as the years passed his thoughts turned more and more to the structure of reality itself.

Reality folded truth and lies, turned them into their mirror opposites, and created paradoxes which could not be resolved. Reality turned light to dark and today into tomorrow, and great as the knight Starkiller was, he had no influence over light and dark and today and tomorrow; he had no influence over reality.

Finally he decided that he had to master reality, for that was the only thing that was greater than he was. And since he knew nothing of the structure of the realities, he set out to visit the Wizard Who Has No Name, that is to say, the Wizard Nameless, who was the wisest man that ever was.

The Wizard Nameless lived in a small stone hut atop a desolate cliff overlooking a silent sea. He was so old that he had long since outgrown the need for a name, or for such shallow frippery as mere decoration, which was why his hut had bare stone walls and a roof of driftwood, and why the clouds overhead never broke, and merged in the distance with the dull  grey of the sea.

He met the knight Starkiller at his door, for of course he had been aware of his coming. He would have been a poor wizard indeed if he had been taken by surprise; for great as the knight Starkiller was, he was but a swordsman, and the wizards have access to stores of knowledge which have always passed the swordsmen by.

For the purpose of this meeting, the Wizard Nameless chose to appear as himself, as a short, squat old man, with a shock of hair the colour of ancient paper tumbling over a weathered, wrinkled face. He was dressed only in a pair of leather breeches and boots, his work-roughened hands and liver-spotted torso bare. They stood looking at each other for a long moment, neither speaking: the gigantic knight in his armour of the deepest black, and the ancient wizard with his mottled skin and his lank white hair.

“You know why I have come,” the knight Starkiller said at last.

“Of course.” The Wizard Nameless nodded. “But do you think you are ready for that information? It is not knowledge that comes without a price, and the price may be too much to pay.”

“I want to know,” the knight said simply. “I must know, no matter what the cost.” He fingered the hilt of his great sword of obsidian. “The price to anyone,” he said ominously.

The Wizard Nameless stood looking up at him for a moment longer, without a trace of fear in his eyes. Then he turned to go back into his hut. “If you really want to know,” he called over his shoulder, “come in, and listen carefully.”

Frowning in annoyance, for he was unused to such treatment, the knight Starkiller bent his head to pass under the low lintel of the hut, and followed.

“Sit down.” The Wizard Nameless pointed to a low stool. “You will forgive me if I do not offer you any refreshments – but you are here to talk, not to eat or drink.”

“I wouldn’t have touched anything you gave me, anyway,” the knight Starkiller growled. “After all, you’ll appreciate that a knight can hardly trust a wizard, especially one as accomplished as you.”

“That’s as may be.” The Wizard Nameless unfolded a sheet of vellum, which was covered in arcane diagrams. It seemed a curious sheet of vellum, for under his finger the lines and symbols moved and writhed as though alive. “You wish to understand the structure of the realities, and you want to know that because you want to discover how to control them.”

“Yes.” The stool was low and hard, and the knight Starkiller shifted uncomfortably in his armour. “You will tell me.”

“That, I can’t, because I don’t know.” His finger still on the vellum, the Wizard Nameless looked up at the knight. “But I can tell you how to find out.”

“Tell me,” the knight Starkiller said. “I will not be ungrateful. Even a wizard as great as you will have need of the protection of a champion like myself.”

The Wizard Nameless smiled drily. “You can think of the realities,” he said, “as a series of concentric shells, nested one inside the other – and each reality has its own truths, its own circumstances, its own fallacies. Only at the very centre of the realities, the core where they all meet, lies the truth of their existence – and, it may be, the means of their control. But you will not get to that centre.”

“Why not?” The knight Starkiller hunched forward on the stool, angrily. “Why do you say that I can’t get to that centre?”

“Reality is not unprotected.” The Wizard Nameless moved his finger on the vellum, and the lines and symbols swirled and danced. “The centre is hidden from all the realities – and guarded.

“Coiled around the centre,” continued the Wizard Nameless, “lies the dragon Chedupuram. He is the mightiest entity in all the realities, second only to the centre itself. It is his task to protect it from all comers, and he never rests in fulfilling that duty.”

“The dragon Chedupuram,” the knight repeated. “I have slain dragons.”

“Chedupuram is no ordinary dragon,” the wizard told him. “He is nothing like any dragons you have encountered, no matter how mighty a knight you may be.” He shook his head so that his mane of white hair fell like a waterfall around his shoulders. “I would strongly urge you to be satisfied with what you have, the fealty and awe of this reality. Few, in all the realities, have anything approaching what you possess, and virtually none has as much. Do not throw it away in seeking what is not for you to know.”

“That’s for me to decide.” The knight Starkiller rose from the stool. “How do I get to the centre of the realities, around which the dragon lies?”

“If you want to go there,” the Wizard Nameless said, “you will have to travel between the realities, in the Unworld, until you come to the realm of the dragon Chedupuram himself. I can tell you the way, but once you are there, you’re on your own.”

“And how shall I know when I’m there? What is the dragon Chedupuram like?”

“You will, of course, see him in terms that your own senses can interpret; he would appear quite different to someone from another reality. Remember that he spans all the realities, and exists in some measure in all of them. As to how you will know when you have reached his realms, don’t worry, he will let you know just as soon as you get there.” Tracing lines on the vellum, the Wizard Nameless then told the knight how to reach the realms of the dragon. “But,” he finished, “I advise you not to do it.”

“I thank you, Wizard,” the knight replied formally. “I will fulfil my obligation to myself, defeat the foul dragon, and conquer reality. Then, victorious, I shall be back to see you, and throw your warning in your face.”

“I’ll wait.” The wizard called Nameless smiled grimly. “I think,” he said to himself, “that I will be waiting a long, long time.”


Through the endless dark between the realities rode the knight Starkiller. Around his path lay the barren, stony wastes of the Unworld, where nothing grew and only the fugitives and the outcasts of all the realities ventured, creatures so depraved that there was not one of all the uncountable infinity of realities where they might find a home. If any of these saw the knight Starkiller, they gave him a wide berth.

Through the shadows of the Unworld rode the knight Starkiller. Under the dim green glow of the distant horizon, he merged into the dark, a shape of endless menace, and any who might have offered him harm knew him for what he was, and stayed away.

On and on through the wastes of the Unworld rode the knight Starkiller. In one hand he bore the gigantic shield of ur-metal that had served him so well through a thousand campaigns and helped protect him against a thousand times as many enemies. In the other he carried his titanic sword of obsidian, sharp enough to be able to part a hair, which he never placed in its scabbard, and carried as lightly as if it weighed nothing at all. The green light from the horizon reflected faintly from its edge, and any who saw the green line of it knew not to approach closer, for it was carried by the greatest hero the realities had ever known.

The knight Starkiller was astride his favourite war-mount, the gigantic super-horse named Lightning. It had been his mount for many years and through many campaigns, and was sheathed in bands and scales of metal, its snout and legs protected by armoured mask and spats. Yet even though Lightning had carried its master fearlessly through battles without number, it skittered nervously now, its great spatulate hooves skittish on the stones.

Tirelessly through the space between the realities rode the knight Starkiller. If he thought of what he had left behind, or what lay before him, he kept those thoughts away from his conscious mind. And that conscious mind was endlessly vigilant for danger, for he was aware of the vermin which dwelt between the worlds, and expected attack. But his fame preceded him, as a wave of fear spreading over the Unworld, and he passed in safety through the dark.

As he came closer and closer to the centre of all the realities, the point where the shells intersected, the green glow in the horizon spread slowly over the sky, and took on a steely bluish hue. And the rocks rose to form mountains, crags and pinnacles of stone, between which lay blue sheets of ice and from the summits of which rose smoke and fire; and so, through fire and ice, the knight Starkiller came finally to the centre of all the realities, where dwelt the dragon Chedupuram.

The dragon Chedupuram dwelt in a tremendous pit in the centre of a ring of fire spewing, ice-shrouded mountains, a pit so huge that from one side of it one could scarce glimpse the other, and so deep that unless one stepped right to the edge one had no idea how far down the bottom lay. And when the knight Starkiller came near the pit, Lightning dug its hooves into the ground and would go no further, nor could the knight persuade it.

Finally, finding no other way, the knight dismounted from the back of the super-horse, threw the reins over the beast’s armoured nose, and walked to the pit. And as he went, the air around him grew hot and filled with a smell as of burning.

“Who comes?” a deep voice echoed, as if from the depths of the earth. “Who dares disturb my rest?”

“Dragon,” the knight Starkiller said in an even voice, “I have come to reach the centre of all the realities, to know and control it. You will move aside and let me pass.”

“And why should I let you pass, Starkiller?”

The knight paused in surprise, still a little short of the edge of the pit. “You know my name?”

“Oh yes,” the deep voice responded, with what might have been a chuckle. “I know who you are, knight. I know why you have come. And I know the way your quest will end – and why.”

“So,” Starkiller said equably, “you know that you’ll move away and let me to the centre of all the realities. Or else, as you also know, I shall have to kill you.”

There was a rumbling roar, and from the depths of the pit, where he had lain for countless aeons curled around the centre of all the realities, rose the dragon Chedupuram.

He rose like the wrath of a primeval deity, in a column of armoured flesh, his body wrapped in plates of copper-coloured bone which could turn aside the mightiest weapon ever forged. He rose, like an avenging god, poised on hundreds of pairs of grappling legs, legs that could pluck an enemy off his horse, twist him and pull him apart. High atop the armoured body, his great head swivelled, a head that was a mountain aloft, a head to inspire terror even in the most fearless. His eyes were portals of unfathomable darkness, bottomless wells of night which seemed to suck the light out of the souls of any who beheld him. His four pairs of terrible antennae, armed with serrated teeth, lashed to and fro; antennae the touch of which would flay steel and cloth and flesh from bone. And all along the great length of his body, the copper-coloured plates of bone rubbed and clattered together, with a noise as of a thousand war-drums on a distant plain.

Such was the dragon Chedupuram as he appeared to the knight Starkiller; and even the knight’s fearless heart shrunk a little inside him when he contemplated the creature that towered above him now.

Then the dragon spoke, and his voice was gentle and yet a little amused. “And have you seen enough, knight? What will you do now, go home and leave me to my task – or must I fight you?”

“I have never shirked a challenge,” the knight said in reply, gazing up at the gigantic beast. “I shall not shirk one now.”

“Fair enough, Starkiller, greatest hero of your reality. But, before you force the issue, I want to ask you something.” The dragon cocked his immense head, studying the knight. “You are only one man, however great. Do you believe you possess the knowledge and ability to actually control the realities? Bear in mind that this is something not even I, who am the guardian of the centre, can think of attempting.”

“If I haven’t tried,” Starkiller asked, “how can I know if I can? Has anyone ever tried?”

The dragon shook his immense head. “No. Nobody has ever tried in all the aeons that I have been guardian.”

“Have you always been the guardian?”

There was a long pause. “No,” said the dragon at last. “There have been guardians before me. And there shall be guardians after me, as long as the realities exist. The centre of the realities must always have a guardian. And the guardians have never failed in their duty – and they never shall.”

“Perhaps,” Starkiller said, “that is because those who might have tried to reach the centre were merely afraid of you. But I am not afraid.”

“I can see that you are not,” the dragon Chedupuram acknowledged. “But not being afraid of me, and being able to master the structure of reality, are two very different things, Starkiller. The centre of the realities means just that – the centre of all the realities, all the infinities of them. Do you understand what that means?”


“There are aspects of reality which would be so strange to your senses that you could not begin to comprehend them, Starkiller. Your mind, structured to fit the reality you were born into, would flee, gibbering, into madness. And that is if you are lucky.”

“What does that mean – if I am lucky?”

“I hope you will not have to discover the alternative,” the dragon said. “Well, knight – what is it to be? Will you return to your reality, with honour intact? Or must it come to battle between us?”

“I have never retreated,” Starkiller replied. “Nor do I believe that my mind is so weak as to be affected by the stranger aspects of reality. So, I must order you to let me by to the centre of the realities, or to taste the edge of my sword.”

“Then,” the dragon replied in a tone of voice that held a smile within it, “shall we begin?”

There could be sagas written on the colossal struggle which followed, the thrust and parry of the knight’s sword, the frantic lunges of the dragon’s gigantic head, the clash of blade on bone plate, the roar of the dragon and the gasps of the man. Perhaps there could be such sagas written, but the end would be the same – when the obsidian blade slipped between two titanic plates of copper-hued bone, and slid into the dragon’s heart.

Then the dragon Chedupuram leapt, with his death in him, leapt until the ice-blue sky was dark as midnight, until the air grew the colour of blood with his passing; and then, suddenly, he was gone, and there was not a trace that he had ever been.

The knight Starkiller leaned a moment on his sword, wondering why it had seemed to him as if the dragon had almost opened himself to the final thrust, and what those last words were, which the great beast had murmured before beginning his death leap. But that was of little importance, because now nothing stood between him and the thing at the bottom of the pit: the centre of all the realities.

Slowly, conscious of the significance of the moment, he walked to the edge of the pit, and looked down.

The centre of realities looked back at him.

There are no words to describe it: it was day and night, summer and winter, life and death, love and hate. It was the heat of giant blue suns, and it was the cold of the vacuum between the galaxies. It was all colours imaginable and it was blindness. It pulled at him and it thrust him away. He felt it around him even as he saw it at an infinite distance; and in it he saw himself, as he might have been if things had been different...and different...and different still.

And, then at that moment, he knew how the dragon had become a guardian, and he knew that in his last moments, the beast had thanked him for setting him free. But by then it was already too late.

He felt himself caught, felt himself stretching, changing, growing fangs and fins and wings, changing to a thousand, a million, an infinity of forms to fill as many realities. He knew fear and agony and ecstasy all at once. And he knew, then, what the function of the guardian was.

It was not to guard the centre of reality from those who would control it, for the centre was far beyond imagining, let alone control. It was to protect the infinite realities from the centre.

And there would always be a guardian; the dragon had mentioned that too.

The super-horse waited until it could no more, and then it began its lonely way homeward, through the stony wastes between the worlds. Perhaps some kind of protection still clung to it from its former owner, for the creatures of the dark did not care to disturb it, and they watched it go.

Behind it, the pit was occupied again, the new guardian already at his work.

And in time, perhaps, in the future to come. there would be a new guardian, and what had once been the knight Starkiller would be free.

In the future to come.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012