Saturday 10 March 2012

The Imploding Universe

One of the most interesting things one can do is to allow one’s thoughts free association, and starting from a given point, go off at a tangent and see where it gets one.

For instance, I was thinking about the beginning of the universe.

For the purpose of this discussion, I will adhere to the widely accepted Big Bang theory of the origin of the Universe. For those who aren’t familiar with it, this posits that space and time, and all matter and energy contained therein, originated in a singularity of infinite density some 13.7 billion years ago, which expanded extremely rapidly, forming elemental particles which in the course of time combined to form atoms, and then molecules, and ultimately all matter as we know it today.

Click to enlarge

The Big Bang isn’t really in doubt except perhaps amongst people who value religious mythology over hard science, but I don’t exactly have time for those people so I won’t consider them here. But as far as the rest of us are concerned, as the primordial burst of energy expanded, cooled, and formed matter, it rose the crest of an expanding bubble, containing all of space, of which time is a function (since it’s impossible to get from any point in space to any other instantaneously, even if the points are right next to each other).

This expansion of spacetime is not a myth. This expansion is a fact. It can be observed to this day, because the galaxies are still moving apart from each other. The Universe is growing larger.

Now, what happens as the Universe grows larger and larger? If we consider an expanding bubble, ultimately a point arrives when the bubble either collapses on itself or flies apart into its component droplets (bursts). But that holds true for a bubble, which has an external environment. The Universe doesn’t, because as far as we can know from all available parameters, there is nothing outside.

Therefore, the Universe can’t burst, and that leaves two alternatives; first, that it will continue expanding till the end of time, which isn’t quite as metaphysical a concept as one might think; the other is that the gravitational attraction of its own material will ultimately slow down and halt the expansion, after which it will finally begin collapsing, to end in a “Big Crunch” which will possibly create another singularity that might start the whole process over again. (As far as is known till date, there is insufficient material in the Universe to cause gravitational collapse, but research into dark matter may change minds on that.)

Neither prospect is particularly alluring; in the first instance, the stars will grow old and die, with less and less material left over to form new stars; and ultimately the galaxies, filled with the cold corpses of dead suns, will wink out and there will only be the encroaching darkness of endless night. The other alternative is that everything we know will eventually be wiped out so completely that not even the space it occupies will be left – not even the material that comprises your body and mine will exist.

Either way, in the end, everything dies.

Now, let’s take the tangential path and look at it from the point of view of a human life. If we trace our conscious memories backwards, we’d arrive at a point where they peter out; before that moment, there is nothing we can consciously recall, though our minds and brains existed, in a state too unformed to record and preserve memories. Let’s take that as the point equivalent to the one where the first matter began to form, and accreted into what would ultimately form stars, planets, satellites, comets, and galaxies. And as the galaxies form and mature, so do our lives develop, and our minds grow up and form adult patterns.

Thinking back, then, there would have to have been that point of the birth of consciousness, when the brain cells developed enough to be self-aware, though without memory – the equivalent of the Big Bang. That would be the flowering of the life-energy, as it were; and throughout life, our personal universe – in the case of most of us, at least – would keep growing, as we accumulate memories, experience, and modify our expectations in accordance with physical realities (just as all material objects in the Universe are modified by gravitational fields). And, therefore, as long as we live, our universe would keep expanding, but would it be cooling and darkening as physical and mental powers fail?

Now, personally, I don’t believe in any kind of life after death, so for the purposes of this discussion I won’t go into that. Assuming, then, that death does come as the end of life, what of the expanding personal universe? Does it, like spacetime, continue expanding until there is nothing in it left to expand? At what point does actual death come, when there is nothing left to think, or dream about – even if the body still exists, like the cold dark remnants of a black dwarf star?

I’m sure at this point, the theory of the Big Crunch suddenly begins to look more attractive, because it offers the possibility of a rebirth, even if everything we know would be utterly annihilated, and even though there’s absolutely no assurance that there would be a rebirth at all, or that a new universe would obey even remotely the same kind of physical laws as this one. By comparison, a new life might be a completely different life, so utterly different as to be beyond comprehension. Can a human comprehend the mind of a locust or a roundworm?

At this point, I wonder if the entire Big Crunch theory – without the backing, yet, of any hard scientific proof – is attractive simply because it offers the possibility of rebirth? If we were utterly logical creatures, would we have even considered it?

And just how does the Big Crunch hold up against the essential nihilism of the continuing expansion of the Universe and the death of the stars? After all, in the long run, every effort is futile, isn’t it? Everything is going to die.

Is that why most societies fear and dislike nihilism, which says that there is no such thing as a higher reality or purpose? And is nihilism the only clear-thinking philosophical model?

The stars are in the sky, shining. They’ll still be shining when we die. But they won’t shine forever.

I just wonder if, at that time, these questions will have any reply.

The War Hawk

The war hawk is loose upon the land
With bloodied talons and bloodied beak
Exulting in its power of life and death
Over all that grovels and scuttles
Contemptibly, and tries to hide
Under rock and shrub, in holes and tunnels from
Its Godlike, all-seeing eye.

The war hawk, full of grace, power, beauty
Superior, implicitly, to such scuttling things.
The war hawk, flying high and close to Heaven,
Divinely ordained, surely, to rule over
Things that crawl on the ground, and shiver, fearfully
Waiting for the deadly shadow to pass them by.

But even the war hawk must come to ground someday.
Even it must perch on the twig and roost on the tree,
Like the crawling, terrified, scuttling things.
The rock and the stone, the hole and the tree
It must share then, with the scuttling prey
And like them, the war hawk must die.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Friday 9 March 2012

To See Assad's Rear: The Mess in Syria

Statutory Warning: This post is a statement of my thoughts on this subject and my sources are linked to in the body of the text. I am not in any way responsible for any fights/disagreements/fallings out resulting from discussion arising from this post, whether on this site or elsewhere on the internet or other media where it might appear or be referenced. Also, this post is not meant to be an “apology” for “genocide”. If that’s the best you can manage as a counter, you’d probably be better off reading something else.

One of the most interesting bits of news I came across in the last few days came not from Syria but from further west, from Libya, scene of an unending civil war stoked and affected by the West, in the shape of NATO, in the name of humanitarian intervention. That little bit of news was that the head of the so-called “government” of Libya, the National Transitional Council, threatened to use force to “unite the nation” – in other words, to compel the eastern part of the country, Cyrenaica, and especially its capital, Benghazi, to abandon its declaration of partial autonomy.

The irony of this situation is delicious. Benghazi – for those who have the attention span and awareness to remember – was the “epicentre” of the so-called “popular uprising” against Muammar Gaddafi, the “evil tyrant” who was bombed out of power by the West and murdered after capture, to the happy laughter of the Evil Empire’s Lucrezia Borgia, someone who I will henceforth refer to as Killary Klingon. It was to “protect the citizens of Benghazi” that a no-fly zone was imposed by a NATO Coalition of the Killing, followed by a “humanitarian” bombing campaign which murdered an unknown number of civilians – NATO, of course, denying any such thing happened.

And now NATO’s own puppet ruler is threatening to order to “unite the nation” and end an attempt at autonomy. Can anyone tell me exactly how this is different from what Gaddafi was doing? And if the NTC assaults Benghazi and the civil war goes into top gear again instead of merely sputtering along, as it is now, will NATO planes intervene again to “protect civilians”?

Of course not. I know that, you know that, and the Syrians, Russians and Chinese know that.

In fact, the key to understanding the civil war in Syria lies in Libya, where a UN resolution was made into an excuse to intervene in a civil war on one side, and destroy a country and society in order to privatise its oil industry and hand it over to private players. Even countries which didn’t say a word at the time noticed what was going on, and knew what was in store for Syria even when the first inflamed rhetoric began to fly in the air.

This, basically, is why Russia and China have repeatedly and “perversely” blocked resolutions at the UN made by the exact same people who have destroyed Libya: because, while leaving the current government in power may by some standards be bad, the alternative is far, far worse.

This might as well be the place to make another observation: the fact that while  the same people in NATO circles of power are itching to start a war against Syria, the same people on the ground are also fighting in Syria. Yes, the same Islamic warriors who fought the Gaddafi government are now part of the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA); and its military chief is Abdelhakim Belhadj.

Does that name sound familiar? It should; I have written about him before. Abdelhakim Belhadj, ex-Al Qaeda fighter in Afghanistan and Libya, arrested by the CIA and imprisoned by Muammar Gaddafi, pardoned and released by his son Saif al-Islam, only to restart the rebellion against the Gaddafis with the full support of the same CIA which had shopped him. Abdelhakim Belhadj, military governor of Tripoli, Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist, and leading the Great Hope of Freedom, the Free Syrian Army.

The enlightened democrats of the FSA

Is this a joke, perhaps? No, it isn’t. It’s interesting to think of why.

Old time Marxists had a term worth remembering: objective allies. It referred to forces, which while apparently at loggerheads, were united, secretly or otherwise, against a common foe. Anyone who has a fair knowledge of current affairs and a mind capable of even basic analysis can hardly come to any other conclusion but that the Empire and Al Qaeda are objective allies.

Look at the actual evidence. With the single exception of Afghanistan in 2001, the regimes overthrown (directly or indirectly) by the Empire in Muslim countries have followed a pattern. They have been secular dictatorships with a strongly socialist economy, where resources were nationalised and religious fundamentalism ruthlessly crushed. Such was the pattern in Iran with the CIA-run coup which overthrew Mohammad Mossadegh. That was the pattern in Afghanistan, where the Empire conspired with Muslim religious fundamentalists to destroy the socialist government of Najibullah. So too it went in Iraq – Saddam, for those readers who have chosen to forget, was a secular dictator under whom Christians and other religious minorities were perfectly safe (oh, by the way, there are some 14 million Christian Arabs in the world, which is more than the planet’s entire Jewish population – those who love to call Arabs uncivilised Muslim ragheads should think about that for a moment.)

Such was also the case in Libya, where Gaddafi had destroyed an Al Qaeda rebellion earlier. Such was the case even in Chechnya, where the West provided full backing for the Al Qaeda affiliated Islamic terrorists who fought the Russians – to this day, surviving Chechen warlords are hosted in London. Even Afghanistan, which I mentioned earlier, is fast slipping back into religious intolerance under the Western-anointed puppet government. In Pakistan, the broadly modern and secular society is under a double threat, from the Empire and the fundamentalists, who seem to work to reinforce each other.

Consider: in every one of these cases, the Empire and Al Qaeda are on the same side. Despite all the “they hate our freedoms” rhetoric, the actual target of Al Qaeda isn’t the Empire – it’s the secular Muslim governments on the one hand, more so if they dare follow socialist policies; and the corrupt and despotic Saudi monarchy on the other. The Saudi monarchy is too vital to the Empire to sacrifice. Therefore, diverting Al Qaeda’s attention to the socialist and secular Arab regimes had a twofold advantage for the Empire: it protected the Saudi royals, and at the same time it furthered the Empire’s double agenda of controlling the world’s oil deposits and strengthening the hand of the Zionazi pseudostate. The elimination of an irrelevant liability named Osama bin Laden, quite likely orchestrated by Al Qaeda itself, is neither here nor there. 

What, ultimately, was the effect of the 11/9 attacks on the World Trade Centres? Wasn’t it the opening up of Iraq to Al Qaeda activity, and the energising of Sunni fundamentalist terrorism around the globe? Isn’t “stopping Al Qaeda” the excuse behind virtually every single occupation or intervention the West is running in a Muslim nation today, from Yemen to Somalia, from northern Nigeria to Afghanistan, even where there is no evidence that Al Qaeda even exists?

Let me ask this question: if it were not for the brave resistance fighters who fought the Empire to a stalemate in the streets and alleys of Iraq, would not Shiite, anti-Al Qaeda Iran, and Shiite Alawite-ruled, anti-Al Qaeda Syria, have long since been invaded in their turn? Remember the neocon boast from 2003: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad; real men want to go to Tehran”? This isn't the first time lies have been told about Syria, either.

Is it so surprising, then, that the “freedom fighters” of the FSA were attacking civilians and murdering Shia and Christian people in Homs and forcing them to flee? Is it so surprising that the Sunni people of western Iraq, who logically should be on the side of the Sunni people of Syria who are allegedly suffering under a Shiite dictatorship, are strongly against arming the Free Syrian Army? They have seen what Al Qaeda can do, and they have no wish to see it happen again. Car bombs, for instance, have already gone off in Damascus and Aleppo; the “price of freedom”?

Is it, then, surprising at all that Killary Klingon admitted that Al Qaeda and the Empire were on the same side in Syria? It wasn’t. Is it so surprising that Russia and China are deeply suspicious of the Empire’s motives? Not at all.

Of course, the Russians and the Chinese have their own agendas as well. They know perfectly well that – whatever Al Qaeda wants – the ultimate targets of the Empire are their own nations. The Empire isn’t even particularly subtle about it, openly trying to encircle China in the Pacific while denouncing Vladimir Putin’s entirely legitimate election win in Russia (even though the aforesaid Killary Klingon admitted it was legitimate). They know that Syria is meant to be captured as a prelude to the invasion of Iran – the Empire and its Arab vassals have made no secret of their belief that the fall of the legitimate Syrian government of Bashar Assad will be a “major blow for Iran” – and that if Iran falls, the Empire’s stranglehold on most of the world’s oil supplies will be complete. And if Muslim fundamentalism triumphs in West Asia, renewed Islamic terrorism in the Chechen and Uighur areas will be sparked off almost at once; terrorism which the West has historically supported and will enthusiastically support again.

This, then, is the ultimate reason Russia and China have stood firm against NATO bullying and expansionism: Libya was a wake-up call. They simply cannot afford to lose Syria.

Meanwhile, what is happening on the ground in Syria? Another interesting thing about reports from that nation is how many of them are sourced to unnamed “activists”. When those activists acquired names, they have been regularly exposed as being fake identities of people in Britain; the same Britain which took the lead in bombing Libya and which continues to help occupy Afghanistan. And yet these unsourced, unverified “reports” have been made the basis of denunciations of the Assad regime and its alleged genocide of peaceful civilians.

Let me take a moment to say something which might shock some readers: like much of the world’s population, if a “reputable Western media source” says the sun rises in the East, I’d demand independent verification. And after the WMD lies in Iraq, the continuing campaign of calumny against Iran, the whitewashing of the crimes of the Zionazi pseudostate, the lies about Gaddafi’s alleged complicity in the Lockerbie bombing (which led to many Britons in particular supporting the war against him in the name of revenge, just as revenge is now a keyword for intervention in Syria), and on and on and on, I think mine is the logical position. I can barely think of a single substantive issue where, if the West and anyone else differed, the West was proved to have been telling the truth when the facts came out.

As such, I have extreme scepticism about the Western version of events anywhere in the world, least of all in Syria; and I shall continue to maintain said scepticism for the rest of this article.

Click to enlarge

The epicentre of the Libyan war was, allegedly, Misrata, a city on the way to Benghazi. Misrata held out against Gaddafi’s troops and was later made the springboard for the assault on Tripoli by the so-called “freedom fighters”. In Syria, the epicentre was the city of Homs, where “brave” (which, in Western propaganda, always means Western-backed) “freedom fighters” (in this case, the Al Qaeda affiliated terrorists of the FSA) were fighting the Syrian Army.

Let’s also say something here: the Syrian government would under no circumstances have abandoned Homs. That city has always been the nerve-centre of Syrian revolutionary activity; the Syrians could no more have abandoned it than they’d have abandoned Damascus. This is why both sides went head-to-head in Homs, a battle that only the Army could win.

But the fact that the Syrian Army would inevitably win in Homs wasn’t a factor in the Free Syrian Army’s decision to fight in the city; what they wanted was to try and engineer a Libya-like Western intervention in Syria, and use it as a casus belli. All the actual evidence, including their proved habit of lies and exaggerations. points to that.

Those of you who keep up with the news will remember the reports that kept on repeating that Homs was “pounded again by Syrian artillery” – day after day after day. I don’t know how many have actually taken the time to wonder what said bombardment would mean in real terms. But, if you’ve ever seen the aftermath of a real bombardment, even on TV, you’ll know that pretty much nothing is left of a town but a heap of rubble. An artillery shell is a case of explosives and shrapnel which blasts down walls and shatters everything from trees to streets, blows roofs off buildings, and leaves doors and windows as gaping holes. Think of Stalingrad, or Berlin. Think of Grozny or Fallujah.

So, if the news of the bombardment was to be taken at face value, there shouldn’t have been anything left to be shelled day after day after day. But there was, even according to the “brave freedom fighters”, since they claimed that the hospitals of Homs were converted into torture centres. How these hospitals and other buildings survived the shelling was a mystery nobody seems to have thought to ponder. Did the Assad regime deliberately spare them? Was then the shelling not so indiscriminate after all, or not so intense, or both?

There are reports from the Battle of Homs itself, where Western journalists who entered Syria illegally and embedded themselves with the terrorist gangs were killed or injured. The gangs themselves used these reporters virtually as human shields, and claimed that they were cut off and surrounded by the Syrian Army, which was going to murder everyone unless stopped. Well, what happened?

What happened was that the allegedly “surrounded” FSA units withdrew from Homs. This proves that either Bashar Assad’s regime (in the shape of his “brutal” brother, who commands a division) is foolhardily generous to its defeated opponents, or that the FSA units weren’t surrounded at all. There is no third explanation. Corollary: either way, the FSA is lying. But really that’s not so surprising any longer, is it?

The "bad guys", also called the Syrian Army

Also, when Homs fell, thirteen French officers were captured there by the Syrian Army. This squares with reports that the same NATO war criminal regimes who bombed Libya and armed terrorist gangs there were on the ground in Syria from as early as December of last year; that the West supports and encourages terrorism against any country like Iran which doesn’t bow to its diktats isn’t even news. Apparently the fate of these thirteen French war criminals is the subject of secret negotiations. Syria would do better to parade them on TV in chains before marching them off to a firing squad. As illegal combatants, they have no rights, and if the situation had been different, the utterly vile Sarkozy regime in Paris would have shown no mercy.

Meanwhile the legitimate Syrian government of Assad held a referendum for a new constitution, ending one-party rule, which was approved of by 80% of the people who voted, which was 57% of the population. Not surprisingly, the Al Qaeda gangs forming the FSA denounced the exercise. No more surprisingly, the West, which only supports democracy when the “right side” wins (look at what happened when HAMAS won a democratic election in Occupied Palestine), also denounced the exercise.

Coming to the aid of the Western propaganda effort are alleged “liberals” like Uri Avnery, a “peace activist” from the zionazi pseudostate who enthusiastically supported the bombing of Libya and now no less enthusiastically longs for Syria to be invaded and regime-changed. Such people are dangerous, because readers look at what they are saying on one topic, for instance, that Palestinians should be treated like human beings, and then are taken in by their regurgitated lies and propaganda on other topics. One telling fact is that Avnery has fallen completely silent on Libya; the fact that the armed militias there are carrying on their own internecine civil war and terrorising civilians apparently is of no moment to him. There are also websites like Uruk net, which denounce Syria and Iran and yet supported Gaddafi in Libya; their cognitive dissonance is either so extreme as to be literally blinding, or, just as likely, they are paid agents taking part in a sophisticated propaganda exercise on behalf of those who are anti-Syria and anti-Iran. I’ll leave you to contemplate who those might be.

It’s certainly true that the Assad regime is in many ways unsavoury; but the same West which supports, props up and mollycoddles regimes like the murderous ones in Ethiopia, Bahrain or Yemen, among others, the same West which once supported Assad, as it did Gaddafi, has absolutely no moral leg to stand on when it comes to Syria.

But the fact that they are lying in their teeth won’t stop them. Only Russia and China can do that.

And actual and legitimate governments of Syria, now and in the future, of course.


A long time ago, in a dairy farm far, far away...

...there was a young cow called Ella. There was absolutely nothing special about her. She was large, placid, and did what cows of her sort spend their time doing; which is to say, she swallowed her feed, chewed her cud, and brought forth copious quantities of milk from her udder, every morning and evening.

The farm Ella lived on was set among extensive meadows, and every morning after milking, she and the other cows of her herd were let out of their sheds to spend their day cropping grass and relaxing in the mild sunshine. It was a pleasant, routine existence, bucolic and utterly free of any kind of unpleasantness or stress.

It was also boring as hell.

Beneath her placid dappled hide, Ella hid the soul of a romantic, who aspired to love and glory. The farm had no avenues for either of those things. It didn’t even have a bull.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” Ella confided to her stepsisters, while they stood by the fence of the meadow and chewed their cud. “This place is dead.”

“Now don’t be crazy, Ella,” said one of her stepsisters, both of whom were homely bovines of limited intelligence and imagination. “We’re in clover here.”

“Literally,” added the other, her lower jaw working away. “All we have to do is eat and sleep and make milk. What more do you want?”

“You two don’t have the slightest bit of soul,” Ella diagnosed. “All you’re good for is to spend your lives churning out milk and cow-pats. I’m far too advanced for you.” And, swishing her tail contemptuously, she set off across the meadow.

Now, it so happened that news percolated through to the farm that the up-and-coming young champion bull of the breed, who went by the pedigree name of Imperial Highness Crown Prince Royal III, or Prince for short, was looking for a mate. Prince was known throughout the land for being the greatest bull the breed had seen for many generations, for all that he was so young, and just the thought of him sent bovine hearts thrilling all around the herds, in farms and backyard cowsheds throughout the countryside. 

“Do you know,” the cows whispered amongst themselves as they chewed the cud, “that they’re holding a cattle show at the Palace Stadium on Friday evening, and all the best cows of our breed will be there. And they’re going to pick out the best of the best, the absolute top cow of the line, who’ll be mated to the Prince!”

“Even if one can’t be the chosen one,” the cows said, “just imagine the party. All the best cows will be there, darling, dressed to kill, you know. And the media will be there, too, and the TV and all. It will be such an Occasion. Don’t you wish you could go?” And they’d moo wistfully.

Now, of course, when Ella heard the news, she wished she could go, too. But she was trapped in her miserable little dairy farm, and the Palace Stadium was in the town down in the valley, where the bright lights were.

Her stepsisters were, of course, far too ugly and stupid to have a chance of becoming consort to Prince, and were well aware of the fact, so they merely sighed deeply and went on with the job of converting fodder to milk. But Ella had other ideas.

“I’ve got to get there,” she thought to herself. “If only I can get there, I’ll show them all. Those snooty heifers with their fancy pedigree certificates and their la-di-da airs won’t have a chance against me. I’ve just got to get there.”

But she was on the farm, and the Palace Stadium might as well have been on the far side of the moon.

In vain Ella schemed and plotted and looked for ways to get off the farm and to the cattle show. In vain she looked for the slightest sign that the farmer had even considered entering her as a contestant in the show. She finally decided she had no option but to escape the farm and make her way to the show somehow, but even that was impossible, because the fences were too high to jump and the gate was never left unlocked, not for a moment.

So Friday evening came around, and poor Ella, alone in her stall, sobbed and sighed and ignored her feeding trough of hay. She was disconsolate at the thought that the golden opportunity of her life, all she’d ever wanted, was passing her by. The placid noise of her stepsisters chewing away in the stalls on either side merely accentuated her misery, because she knew that they were too stupid even to know what she was feeling, or be able to understand.

Then, as she sobbed and moaned with grief, she became aware of a shivering in the air, and before her eyes a tiny cow materialised, all covered with spangles of silver and gold, and with diamonds twinkling at the tip of each horn. The cow looked around the stall appraisingly, and turned to smile at Ella.

“Quite a dump, isn’t it?” she said cheerfully. “I don’t blame you for having higher aspirations, I really don’t.”

“Who are you?” Ella asked, astonished. “Where did you come from?”

“Oh, sorry,” the glittering cow apologised. “Let me introduce myself. I’m your fairy talent agent. I thought it was time that I dropped in.”

“Fairy talent agent? I never knew such things existed.”

“Well,” the glittering cow snorted, “of course we fairy talent agents exist. How do you suppose anything gets done otherwise – by human agency, perhaps?”

The contempt in her voice made Ella wince. “I’m sorry,” she said humbly. “It’s just that I didn’t expect you.”

“That’s quite all right, child. Now, let me see, you want to go to the Palace Stadium and impress Prince, isn’t that so?” The fairy talent agent didn’t even wait for an answer. “And your problem is that you can’t go there, which is why you’re moping and crying a puddle in the floor. You ought to see yourself. A right picture of bovine misery.”

“Could...” Ella began hesitantly. “Could you help me?”

“Why, of course I can help you, child. That’s what we fairy talent agents are for. I’ll have you at the Stadium. It won’t take two flips of a cow’s tail.”

“You can?” Ella stepped forward eagerly. “Well, then, let’s go!”

“Wait!” The fairy talent agent looked her up and down appraisingly. “You don’t plan on going like that, surely? Why, child, the competition will eat you alive. You won’t even get a hoof in at the door.”

“What can we do then?” Ella asked, her heart sinking. “I’ve, well, I’ve never been off this farm, and I haven’t any idea what I’ll need.”

“That’s not a problem,” the fairy talent agent said, and the diamonds at the tips of her horns twinkled brightly. “Let me get a few things together, and I’ll fix you right up. Let’s begin with getting you a makeover.” And as she gestured with a highly polished cloven hoof, wisps of straw and dust rose off the floor of the stall in a perfect whirlwind which twined round and round Ella, until the young cow was hidden entirely from view.

At length the whirlwind subsided. “Voila!” said the fairy talent agent, stepping back and admiring her handiwork. “Now that’s more like it!”

And what a sight Ella was! Her ordinary, dappled skin markings had given way to leopard rosettes in black and yellow. Her tail was free of its usual coating of dung, and the tuft at its tip had acquired hair extensions to make it longer and thicker.

“Now, let’s see.” The fairy talent agent contemplated Ella thoughtfully. “What more do you need? What’s the fashion these days? I know – a nipple ring!” And, before Ella could either wince or say “Ouch,” she had acquired a piercing and a tasselled ring through one of her teats.

“And it really wouldn’t do, would it, to appear barefoot at the ball,” the fairy talent agent mused. “We don’t want you looking like a hippie.” She shook her horns again, and in a trice Ella’s hooves and lower legs were clad in bright pink boots with zippers down the sides. “Sexy shoes – those will get his attention, I’ll warrant. Now, you’re perfect.”

“Uh, fairy talent agent,” Ella began, “I’m very grateful, but how do I get there? I mean, it’s a long way, the gates and even this shed are locked, and the show will have started by now.”

“Don’t you worry about that, girl. Your fairy talent agent has all that taken care of. But, before I send you off, remember a couple of things.” The fairy talent agent looked suitably serious. “First, I can’t guarantee that you’ll win the show and catch Prince's fancy. I can only put you there and give you what you need to succeed, but ultimately it’s up to you.”

“I know,” Ella said confidently. “Just put me there and see!”

“The second thing,” the fairy talent agent said, “is that magic is an energy-intensive project. What I mean to say is, your transformation won’t last forever. At the most I can make it go on till midnight before the magic energy is depleted and the material I weaved returns to its natural state of straw and dust. So, better make sure you exit the show by twelve if you know what’s good for you.”

“How do I know when it’s going to be twelve?”

“There will be clocks enough,” said the fairy talent agent, getting ready to flip her tail. “There always are.” And before she flipped her tail twice, Ella had arrived right in the middle of the show, to the extreme surprise of everyone around.

All around her were the top of the line, elegant cows groomed and brushed, their horns and hooves polished till they gleamed, cows so superb that Ella would have never dared whisk tail among them but for her fairy talent agent’s makeover. But with that makeover, she was the cream of the crop. She was the one who turned all heads. And, among all the bare hooves, her drop-dead sexy pink boots were the best of all.

Everyone was looking at her, she realised with amazed wonder – the humans in the audience, the judges who were wondering who she was and where she’d come from, the TV camera crew, they were all looking at her and murmuring appreciatively. And she could almost see the waves of jealousy coming off the other cows, with their fancy pedigrees and their airs and graces. They had nothing on her, and when she strutted the show ring’s sandy floor, she flounced a little more just to put them in their places.  

Even Prince, in his stall to one side, was impressed, and showed it in a full-throated bellow that rang up to the roof of the stadium, and flapped his long, seductive ears as he strained towards her. She tried to work her way through the crowd to him, impatiently pushing aside human and cow alike, and had almost arrived within sniffing distance of his nose when she happened to lay eyes on the digital display on the stadium’s electronic scoreboard.

It was fifty-seven minutes past eleven in the evening.

Now, Ella was in some ways a vain cow, a cow much given to daydreaming and, as her ugly stepsisters said, of thinking above her station. But she was neither stupid nor foolhardy. She did not even think of disregarding the fairy talent agent’s warning.

“Hey, Prince,” she called to him over the crowd noise. “It’s been great being here, and I wish I could stay longer – really, I wish – but I have to go.”

“Wait!” the bull called. “You’re the best of the lot here, and I don’t see...”

“Perhaps,” Ella mooed, “we’ll meet again.” It was already two minutes to midnight; she couldn’t wait a moment longer. Besides, the zipper on one of those sexy boots had begun to give way , and the boot was beginning to slide down over her lower leg. Batting her long, talent-agent enhanced eyelashes over her shoulder at him, she began working her way quickly as she could towards the nearest exit. There was a hubbub as people suddenly became aware that one of the cows on show was apparently attempting an escape.

“Stop her!” voices began shouting. “Stop that cow!”

So Ella hoofed it through the crowd with a mob in pursuit, comprising equal parts human and cow, followed by Prince’s despairing bellows echoing from the back. And, precisely at the stroke of midnight, she galloped down the stairs leading out of the stadium, the magic wore off, and she reappeared in her stall, the boots and leopard spots, the piercing and the tail extensions, crumbling back to straw and dust on the floor around her.

All, that is, except one of those sexy, form-fitting boots, the one with the busted zipper. An instant before the magic faded, it had dropped off her hoof, and lay like a discarded snakeskin on the stadium steps. Not being connected to her at the instant the magic died, by some arcane and doubtless fundamental fairy law, it didn’t fall to its component elements like the rest of her ensemble. And there the organisers and the judges found it.

“We have got to find that cow,” they said. “Now there’s a cow for our Prince to breed with.”

So the next morning they began a tour of all the neighbouring farms, looking for the cow who had dazzled so brightly in the show. Many were the cows – pedigree cows, all, the best that could be found – they tried the boot on, but not one would it fit. And as the sun was setting over the western hills, they finally arrived at the farm where Ella lived with her stepsisters.

Ella was sighing deep and melancholy sighs in her shed when the door slammed open and the farmer entered with the cattle show organisers. “But I tell you,” he was protesting, “none of my cows was out of the shed last night; and though they are of the breed, they’re just honest cows, no show quality by any means.”

“Still,” the organisers said, “let us try it on them. We’ve checked all the other farms in the district, and not one cow has fit the boot. It won’t do any harm to try, will it?”

“All right then,” said the farmer. “Try.”

So the organisers tried it on the first stepsister. Her huge spatulate hoof was so large it almost split the boot in two. The other managed to work her hoof into the pink tube of material, but more than that it would not go. Then it was Ella’s turn.

“This one’s the last, I hope,” said one of the organisers, looking Ella over with disfavour. “I’m sick and tired of trying to shoe cows. All I’ve got for my troubles is whacked on the face by dung-stained tails.” He knelt and began working the boot over Ella’s hoof. It went on a little way, and stuck.

“Told you it’s a waste of time,” said the farmer, hardly looking. But then he noticed the silence from the organisers and stepped forward, staring.

Like a live thing, the pink boot moulded itself on Ella’s hoof and leg, fitting her like a second skin. Except where the broken zipper sagged, it was a fit so exact that it was as if it had been painted on to her skin.

“This is our cow,” one organiser said to another. “There’s not really any room for doubt.”

The other was already turning to the farmer, and reaching for a cheque-book. “How much do you want for her?”

“I’m going,” Ella mooed in triumph to her stepsisters. “I’m going to Prince, just like I told you. So there!”

“You don’t know when you’re well enough off,” came the reply.


So Ella was ennobled as Imperial Princess Cowella the First and taken by cattle wagon to a place far, far away, where she was given a whitewashed, sparkling clean, dust-free stall of her own with the smell of antiseptic on the floor, and a hopper dropping feed pellets into a trough at regular intervals.

“How wonderful,” Cowella said aloud to herself. “I never had a room like this before. This is a real palace! I wonder what the grounds are like?”

“Grounds?” came a voice from the next stall, sounding grimly amused. “There are no grounds. You’re in the middle of a city, just like the rest of us. And like the rest of us, you’re going to spend the rest of your life in your stall.”

“In this stall?” Cowella sputtered. “You mean that’s all there is to it? What about Prince?”

“Oh, you mean the bull? He isn’t in this breeding centre. I don’t believe he’s ever been here. But his semen comes regularly, and they pump it into us with syringes. My, it’s cold!”

Cowella’s mouth had gone dry. “But that means...”

“That means,” said the unseen cow, obviously enjoying herself, “that you’re just part of a breeding programme, darling. Schemed to get here, did you now? Well, I’m sure you’ll get to like the life, pushing out a calf each cycle on schedule. You like the idea of motherhood, I hope? Especially since they’ll take the calf away even before it’s weaned?”

Cowella didn’t reply. She was weeping bitter tears and harshly reprimanding herself. But it was too late for regrets.

“It’s never too late,” said the fairy talent agent, reappearing. “So you decided you’ve had enough of show business?”

Cowella glared at her balefully. “Get away from me,” she lowed. “You’ve done enough damage as it is.”

“Tut, tut,” the fairy talent agent said, shaking her head sorrowfully. “I’d expected better from you, Ella. So, what do you want? Should I take you somewhere else – as consort to a rodeo bull, maybe? I hear that cows in India lead a charmed life, so you might try that too.”

“None of that,” Cowella said. “Since I can’t have my old farm life back again, just leave me alone.”

“Did I say you can’t have your old life back?” the fairy talent agent asked. “Of course you can. All we have to do is reverse the magic and put you back there again.” She lifted her tail. “Should I flip?”

“Flip,” Cowella said, decisively.


I hear,” one of the ugly stepsisters said, “that they’re looking for a mate for Prince the prize bull. There’s going to be a show in town next Friday.”

The cows were standing in the meadow methodically chewing the cud. The sky was blue overhead and the breeze caressed their flanks. Even the gnats were somnolent and left them alone.

“I expect,” the other stepsister said, “you’d want to get there and catch his attention, Ella?”

Ella looked up from where she had lowered her head to crop a mouthful of grass. For an instant she had a memory, as vague as a fading dream: a memory of a pierced teat and pink boots, and people looking at her and cheering, and a name. Cowella. Then it faded away and was gone.

“No,” she said. “On second thoughts, I think this once I’ll leave bad enough alone.”

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Wednesday 7 March 2012

If At First You Don't Succeed...

First she tried to create life in the laboratory, with nothing more than science to help her. She mixed methane and hydrogen, carbon dioxide and water vapour, and passed electric sparks into it for many weeks. But all she got was a soup with complex organic chemicals and an amino acid or two. Perhaps if she waited a few decades she might make a single strand of DNA, she thought, but she hadn’t the patience to wait for something that wouldn’t ever happen anyway.

Then she thought that if she couldn’t create life de novo, she might as well attempt to revive the dead. She read up on all the great literature on the subject, including the writings of such eminent resurrectionists as Jesus Christ, HP Lovecraft and Mary Shelley. Unfortunately, each of them had his or her own and wildly different methods, and reconciling them seemed impossible.

She tried, though; she did her best. Under the shadow of a crucifix, and with an open Bible beside her, she stitched together the pieces of corpses disinterred at the dead of night, and muttered arcane voodoo prayers over them while passing electric currents into the resulting composite body. The next morning, the chest cavity of the corpse showed signs of movement, and she thrilled with the thought that it was breathing. But it was merely the gases of decay, and when the body blew up from them, the lab stunk for weeks afterwards.

After that she thought of selling her soul to the Devil in exchange for what she wanted. But the Devil had long ago resigned and left Hell in disgust, since his evil couldn’t compete with that of humanity.

So finally she got married. A husband wasn’t quite as good as a zombie, but it was better than nothing.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Tuesday 6 March 2012


The invasion force came hurtling down from space.

The marines who formed the first shock wave dropped individually from orbit, riding down through the thickening layers of atmosphere, ready for action long before the armoured feet of their powered battle-suits hit the ground. They were fresh, rested, combat-hardened, ready for action, and the best troops in the known universe. They had been trained for every eventuality, knew how to handle any given situation. They had been given their task and they were more than capable of doing it.

They came from all over, from Earth and the colonies, and bore names like Rico, Ho, Dubois, MacArthur, Khan, Rasczak and Mtambe. They were tall or short, dark or fair, with the physiques of a dozen colony worlds. But all had been chiselled and scraped, cut and shaped until they fitted the mould, until they had left all their individuality behind, and had been formed, heart and body, mind and soul, into what they were, Marines of the Space Expeditionary Force.

They could rip apart enemies with their bare hands, these marines. They could survive a week alone in the desert with no tools but a knife and a trowel, no food but a bar of chocolate and whatever they could find, no water but the contents of cactuses and other succulents. They could find their way through the darkest night with nothing but the stars to navigate with. They could operate any vehicle the Space Expeditionary Force had in its inventory, and they could depend on each other utterly and completely.

Even in their physical structure, they were special. Their skin had been reinforced with bonded fibre mesh to make them resistant to penetrating injuries. Their muscles had been honed with chemicals until they could run forty kilometres in full combat gear without a break. Their eyes had been fitted with optics enabling them to see in the infra-red and ultra-violet. Their sexuality had been suppressed with hormones, because they had no need for sexual desire. Sexual desire was a distraction, an unwelcome one, for an SEF marine.

More formidable even than the marines themselves were the suits they wore. Each cost as much as an old-time battle-cruiser, and was far more capable. They were of alloys that could be heated to a thousand degrees Celsius without softening, let alone melting, and were proof against all blast damage. Mirror-polished to defeat laser beams, they had full protection against nuclear, chemical and biological agents as small as the tiniest viroids. The hulls of the suits were covered with bricks of explosive meant to detonate outwards and protect the underlying armour plating from damage from projectiles, and these were covered by a further alloy skin designed to defeat all forms of radar or other electronic detection.

Each suit was a world in itself. It carried enough food and water to sustain its occupant for a week, and its power pack could keep it going constantly for a fortnight without pause. Its interior had perfect micro-climate control, with breathable air being cycled constantly at the most comfortable temperature for the suit’s owner. Waste removal was immediate and completely efficient, with all excretions stored carefully for future disposal. The suit’s motors translated each movement of its occupant’s limbs into motion, delicate or strong as the need dictated, so it could, if required, manipulate a screw or jump ten metres in earth-normal gravity with equal felicity.

The suits bristled with weapons, too: heat-seeking missiles in backpacks, grenade throwers in shoulder batteries, quick-firing Gatling cannon at the wrists of the gauntlets. Each suit was capable of more destruction than an entire brigade of old-time soldiers with their machine guns and rocket-launchers, and all this destructive capability was directly keyed to the suit’s occupant’s mind. A marine only had to think, in a particular format, of a weapon in order to use it, and each weapon, each system, of the suit had failsafes and backups so a blown fuse or burnt microchip couldn’t possibly mean a major failure.

Marine and battle-suit, then, a perfect combination; more than enough to defeat almost any enemy one could imagine, anywhere in the known universe. And down through the atmosphere, riding cones of flickering white hot plasma, they came, an entire division of them, to set up a beachhead for the second and much larger wave of troops to follow.


Inside one of the battle-suits in the forefront of the first battalion of the first wave, a marine laid his head back against the padded headrest and nibbled his lip absently. A few centimetres away, on the other side of his faceplate, the atmosphere rushed by, heated till it burned from the friction of his passing, but his suit kept him completely cool and comfortable. Through the white flicker of plasma, he could see the curve of the planet below, flattening swiftly into a line as he fell.

He was falling very quickly, in a long arc taking him over the unseen landscape hidden below the thick yellow clouds, in a trajectory meant to put him down within visual distance of his primary target; yet only a little discrepancy, a minor error in height of insertion, and he could easily overshoot or undershoot the mark by hundreds of kilometres. He knew it, and he was not disturbed. His faith in the Space Expeditionary Force’s equipment was total.

All around him, above and below, to his left and right, were hundreds of other suits. They were close enough that he could see them easily, bright points of flickering light, railing fire across the sky. The nearest ones were close enough that he could see the outlines of the suits themselves, and knew that if there was an accidental collision, even the suits’ incredible technology would not save their occupants from instant annihilation. But he did not need to look at them to know they were there, because even now his suit’s communications suite kept him instantly updated of the location of each of those others. If he wanted, he could have a three-dimensional map of their location relative to his own suit projected on the inside of his faceplate, with paths traced out; and his suit would move him out of any possible danger of collision with its belt rockets. But there would, he knew, be no danger of collision, because the training ensured that the division’s co-ordination was perfect.

The marine was a master sergeant. He was very good at his job, completely efficient, without even the slightest trace of the nervousness most of the other marines took into combat. The Space Expeditionary Force was his life, and he had given his all to it, and had left his past completely behind, until he could barely remember a time when he hadn’t been a marine. He was tall, strong, intelligent, utterly dedicated, and was widely thought of as on the track to promotion to officer rank. He had, himself, no particular desire to be an officer; his current rank suited him just fine, with its perfect blend of power and responsibility. Besides, he made officers uncomfortable with his absolute calm even in the most trying of circumstances. But if he was ordered to join the officer’s training academy, he would. He had never even thought of disobeying an order from the first moment he put on the uniform of the marines.

His name was Venkatachalapathy, and he had made this kind of drop many times before.

Down under those billowing yellow clouds, he knew, was an endless rocky desert, broken only occasionally by a patch of shallow sea. Down there the atmosphere was poison, made of gases which could strip the lining out of the inside of human lungs, and temperatures at which human blood would boil. Yet he, and the thousands of other marines making this drop, would be perfectly protected from the environment by their battle-suits, and could get on with the business of fighting the enemy.

Yes, the enemy would be there, crawling through their underground networks of caverns below the stones of the desert. Down there, where the division would be landing, was the enemy’s capital, a vast and diffuse maze of tunnels and chambers. If the division could capture it, the heart would be ripped out of the enemy’s defences, and the second wave could easily fan out and overrun the rest of the planet. If the division failed to capture it, though –

Master Sergeant Venkatachalapathy grinned humourlessly. The division would not fail. The division had never failed, even against opponents far more capable than the enemy crawling through the holes under the desert below. The division had ripped apart massed armoured charges, had fought an entire army to a standstill more than once, and in its previous deployment had fought its way out of encirclement by a force six times as large. The creatures under the desert sands didn’t even have weapons a tenth as deadly as those the division had faced and beaten. It would be no contest.

Thinking about the fight, however, brought the enemy themselves to mind, and despite his iron self-control, Venkatachalapathy’s mouth turned down at the corners and his grin changed to a grimace of disgust. Like the others, he’d been told all that was known about the enemy, all about their mindless hatred towards common decency, and how they were preparing steadily for the day when they could send asteroids to crash on Earth and obliterate entire cities. He’d been told, further, about the enemy’s vileness towards their own females, imprisoned for life in rock chambers far underground, never to see the outside again, and growing gigantic, blind and limbless in their confinement, condemned to a life of forced breeding. Far more than all the others the Space Expeditionary Force had fought, this enemy was utterly evil, depraved and worthy of extermination.

“The common name for them is the Insectoids,” the colonel had said, back at that first briefing, to the assembled battalion. “Of course, they aren’t really insects, though they have many features in common with them. They’re more like armoured worms with legs – huge armoured worms with legs, bigger than a large man.” Holographic images of an Insectoid warrior had appeared in front of each marine, turning slowly to give a complete view. There had been a few muted gasps of shock and disgust, and even Venkatachalapathy had felt his lips drawing back in a snarl. “We’ve never actually interacted with them directly, but we’ve been watching them for a while, and we think it’s time to take action before it’s too late.

“Those overlapping armoured plates,” the officer had continued after a measured pause, “are thick pseudo-bone, almost certainly as hard as tempered steel. Notice the legs? They may look spindly, but an Insectoid can move faster than a man can run, and keep it up for much longer. And note those eight turreted eyes – they provide a view in all directions, can be retracted into the carapace when required, and each eye is in turn covered by a transparent integument which seems to be extremely resistant to damage. They need it, in the sort of hellish climate they live in.

“Now watch this,” the officer had continued, as the holographic Insectoid had unfurled a short thick elephant-like trunk from under the front end of the carapace. “That trunk is the Insectoid’s primary manipulative organ, which it will also use for handling weapons. Look closely...” The colonel had paused as the holograph zoomed in to the trunk tip, which divided into several projections resembling long fingers. “Those look thin, but from what we’ve observed, they’re very strong. Certainly they’re stronger than any human is, stronger even than a marine is.

“But we’re going to beat them,” the colonel had announced, the silver badges glittering on his black uniform as he’d glared around the room. “We are going to beat them, and remove the threat they are to us. We’re going to beat them and we are going to free their poor imprisoned females. And then we are going to teach them civilised values. Know why we’re going to do all that?”

The same fierce grin had appeared on the faces of all the assembled men. “Because,” the colonel had shouted, “we are marines of the Space Expeditionary Force, and we are the best that has ever been, is, or will be. Nothing can stand up to us. Nothing.”

The cheer that had followed had echoed through the enormous room, bouncing back from the walls again and again.

The officer had gone on to talk about the weapons the Insectoids had, at the most primitive projectile weaponry of the order of machine guns, and possibly poison gas. But their entire atmosphere was toxic anyway, so the poison gas was superfluous.

“We know they hate us,” the colonel had ended. “We have to stop them before they can develop the asteroid weapon they’re designing, with which they can wipe out entire earth cities. Continents. Besides, have another good look at them. They’re too damned ugly to be permitted to live.”

The room had erupted in cheers again.


The first wisps of cloud had already started streaking by Venkatachalapathy’s battle-suit. In the moments left to him before he’d be submerged in the opaque sea of cloud below, he performed a quick visual check on the rest of his battalion. They were there, precisely where he’d expected them, each suit still sheathed in its bright corona of flaming plasma. Things were going perfectly according to plan, which was only natural. He’d have been astonished if they hadn’t.

Inside the cloud, the light faded quickly, from bright yellow to murky ochre. They were still dropping fast enough to burn away the vapour near the suits, so each marine fell surrounded by a sheath of clear incandescent gas, but they were slowing as drag increased. Soon it would be time to deploy the drag chutes.

No matter how many times he’d done this, in training and in action, the master sergeant never let his attention wander during this phase. It was the most critical part of the entire descent, because to deploy the parachutes too soon or too late might make a considerable difference to his landing point. Even though the suit’s computer would handle the actual deployment of the chutes, he never quite trusted them to get it right. Bringing up the relevant graphics on the faceplate display, he watched the red, green and yellow readouts – brilliant against the darkening cloudscape outside – until, at precisely the calculated time, he felt the slight tug as the pilot chute pulled away.

A moment later the battle-suit burst out of the bottom of the cloud into clear atmosphere. Below, the desert stretched away in a series of rocky ridges and eroded hills, until lost in the haze of the horizon. The scene was even more awful than the visuals in briefing had led the marine to expect, but he did not waste any time dwelling on it. He had more important things to do.

Already, the atmosphere below was dotted with the rectangular panels of main parachutes. Under them, the battle-suits still arced downwards – the function of the chutes was to slow them down, not to change their course in any way – and the marines would be preparing their landing jets for last-minute course corrections. Venkatachalapathy called up the control panel to check on his own.

A moment later there was a violent jerk as his own main chute deployed, and his speed dropped dramatically, turning him from a flaming meteor to a diving falcon. He turned his attention groundwards, looking for the feature he was aiming for, a low hill like an upturned saucer with a huge chunk of it cut away. Below the sands over which he was still falling, the Insectoids would be scuttling through their tunnels, unaware of the retribution that was descending on them at several times the speed of sound. It was difficult to believe that he was flying over a portion of the enemy capital – there was nothing but rock and sand to see, and even that was shrouded in gloom. Although it would be nearly mid-morning below, the light was very bad.

He saw the hill, and sideslipped towards it, checking to make sure his trajectory didn’t intersect that of any other battle-suit. Now he was rushing by above the terrain in a shallow dive, and the parachute fell away from his suit with the slightest of nudges. He fired the jets, their blast stirring up sand in clouds behind and below him as he slowed and turned, looking for a flat place to land. With a final explosion of sand as he fired his retrockets, he was down.

Even in combat, there is something about a successful planetfall that draws a moment of silent reverence from the most hardened marine. Possibly it’s the fact that another difficult and dangerous landing had gone off perfectly, without a hitch. Perhaps there are other, more metaphysical reasons. In this case it was also the realisation that he was one of the first humans ever to land on the planet that gave Venkatachalapathy pause. Besides, he was standing in the middle of the very capital of the enemy, but there wasn’t a single building, or any other recognisable structure, to be seen. It was almost surreal.

He did not pause long. He had to get moving, to clear the landing zone for the second wave, which would already be falling through the atmosphere, though still above the clouds. Pressing down with the treads of the battle-suit, he leaped forward. Despite the much greater gravity, he felt quite normal. The suit had a superb suspension system.

All around him, the first wave was landing. The suits came down fast, turning quickly with their jets and landing on cushions of retrocket fire. It was efficient and impressive, but it threw up massive clouds of dust which made the poor visibility even worse. The master sergeant waited just long enough to ensure that the battalion was down, and continued across the landscape in jumps, looking for his primary objective, an entrance to the city below. A couple of hurdles over low hillocks, and suddenly he was alone.

And it was only a moment after that when he noticed the hole in the ground.

Because he’d never expected to find an entrance so quickly, it took him by surprise, and he’d already gone past the low arched opening in the side of a mound of rock and earth before he could order the suit to stop, and turn round. It was his responsibility to check whether it was a tunnel entrance or just a random pit, before calling in a squad to mark it out for the second wave. He turned, slowing to a walk, and made his way heavily towards it.

And then, quite suddenly, he was no longer alone.

They seemed to materialise out of the landscape, stepping high on their long jointed legs, their eyes peering balefully out at him from the turrets of bone. They unfurled their trunks, and the grasping fingers at the tip held angular weapons, pointing at him. An instant later, a hundred darts and pellets were hurtling towards his battle-suit.

Venkatachalapathy laughed. He laughed with the pure exultation of combat, as the explosive bricks on his armour blew out at the darts, knocking them away, so that he was surrounded in a fireworks display of explosions. He laughed as he raised his hands, and as the Gatling cannon at his wrists spat out streams of shells which turned the Insectoids into fragments of bony armour and maggot-like wormflesh. He laughed as he turned, hosing down the terrain around him with the cannon, firing at maximum intensity but they were still coming, still boiling out of the ground and rushing him, and the cannon were slowing, the ammunition racks in his forearms empty, and no time to reload from the lockers fitted over his thighs.

Suddenly it wasn’t quite such fun anymore.

All around now, he could hear heavy firing, and the shouts of his men filled the communication channels. For the moment, at least, he couldn’t expect any help from them. But he was a master sergeant of marines, and against mere overgrown insects there was no reason why he shouldn’t be able to fight and win.

The grenade throwers at his shoulders barked, canisters of explosives lobbing through the air, and he ran through the blasts as they exploded, knocking armoured monsters over like toys. And then – except for a single enemy warrior facing him – he was free of them.

For a long moment, the man and the Insectoid stared at each other. Seen this close, the enemy didn’t look as unnatural and horrible as it had appeared in the holographic image. It looked at home in this desert, its armoured plates and turreted eyes somehow suited perfectly for the rock and sand and poison air, the heat that made everything ripple even through the faceplate of the suit. It looked at home here, and it was the man who felt like an interloper.

It was only a moment, and then the Insectoid was unfurling its trunk, and held in the trunk was a heavy metal rod with a pointed end. It took Venkatachalapathy a second of utter incredulity to realise what he was seeing. The alien monster was preparing to throw a spear at him.

It came with such speed that the marine could not have dodged even if he’d wanted to, and with such force that when it smashed into the centre of his suit’s chest he actually felt the impact, like a sharp rap on the metal which drove him backward a step. The explosive bricks had gone from that point, and the spear had hit the alloy. Still staring at him from those turreted eyes, the Insectoid reached over its back to a quiver it was carrying, and drew out another spear. Cocking its trunk, it prepared to throw again.

Roaring, Venkatachalapathy jumped forward, his suit’s arms rising, the hands grappling. He grabbed hold of the Insectoid and pulled, feeling the armour split under the pressure of his metal fingers, the thick meaty body underneath part. Still shouting with fury, he pulled until the warrior was in two pieces, and he threw them in the dust, the long bony legs still kicking.

Suddenly tired, Venkatachalapathy felt his anger drain away as abruptly s it had come. And then he grew aware that the firing had ceased, and the shouting. Cycling through the communication channels, he tried to call his men. Except for the faintest crackle of static, there was silence.

He was still standing there, desperately trying to raise the battalion, when the silence was suddenly broken.

In itself it wasn’t anything very significant – the sharp crack of an object striking the back of his battle-suit’s helmet. His first thought was that one of his men had seen him, and, unable to use the communication channel for some reason, had thrown something at him. His second thought was that an Insectoid had emerged from some unseen hole and had fired a dart at him. He glanced over his shoulder as he turned.

Half an Insectoid  stood behind him.

Incredulity held him frozen as he watched the creature. It was the one he’d torn in two only moments before, but the ripped and ravaged flesh was knitting, the spilled intestines retracting through the ragged tear in the abdominal wall. It was tilted to one side, the legs on the other holding it up with difficulty, but the baleful eyes were staring at him, at him specifically, and he knew this creature meant to kill him if it could. Its trunk had already picked up another stone.

He was still wondering whether to tear it apart again or take evasive action when something struck him hard, between the legs, and twisted. Thrown off balance, he fell. And as he lay in the dust, stunned by the unexpectedness of his fall, he saw what had happened.

The other half of the monster had tripped him, with the second spear, which it still clutched in its newly-regrown tentacle. Raising the metal rod, it began dragging itself across the dust towards him.

And now he could see the others, small ones, the remnants of those he’d shot to pieces earlier. Missing limbs and eyes, trunks and armour plating, they were dragging themselves through the sand, holding up their weapons, dart guns and stones. And his explosive bricks were gone, so the projectiles were all impacting on the metal. They were coming down like rain.

The metal of his armour was proof against particle beams and laser rays, explosive blasts and flame-throwers. It was not proof against sticks and stones.

He heard the metal crack and splinter. He felt something under his side, rolling him over, and he knew it was the spear again, levering, and he tried to resist, but it was useless. Faintly, he remembered the colonel talking about how strong the individual Insectoid was. He tried to raise his arms, but they would not obey him. He tried to call for help, but there was nothing to disturb the crackle of static. He tried to raise the second wave, but there was no answer.

His faceplate was filled with the half-destroyed visage of the Insectoid now, and he felt almost a moment of sympathy, for the healing the creature was going through, and how much agony it must be suffering. But then the Insectoid raised its trunk high, and the trunk held a sharp, pointed stone, which it brought down on the middle of the faceplate, again and again.

Unable to move, unable to fight back, he lay and watched the stone, and wondered how long it would take for the faceplate to break.

Long before the first crack appeared, he was screaming.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012