Tuesday 12 June 2012

Desert Songs

In the heat of the desert noon, the dunes shimmered, their edges shivering and dancing, and the sky was white with haze.

The woman ignored the heat. She had been travelling a long way, and the heat had been such a constant companion that she had learned to adjust to it. In any case the temperature did not matter. She was of the desert, and she would bear whatever she had to.

At first, at the beginning of her long trek, the woman had followed the old trail across the desert, but the road had long since vanished under drifting sand. Now she merely walked according to her memory of where it had been, the times she’d been this way, long ago.

From her looks, it was impossible to tell how old the woman was. The sun and the sand had long since turned her skin to a colour akin to the desert itself, and her face was ageless, the flesh stretched over the fine bones. Her body, under the enveloping robes, was slender and moved with agile grace, like a gazelle; but her eyes were watchful, and deep with experience and ancient knowledge.

Though the sun was high overhead, and she had been walking since the previous evening, she kept trudging through the sand. Ordinarily she would have stopped hours ago to wait out the heat, but today she kept on, because she knew her destination was near, and the closeness made her impatient.

The cheetahs could sense her impatience and eagerness, and though they looked longingly at each scrap of shade, they loped along by her side. They were brother and sister, and were young enough that they had not yet lost all of their kitten proportions. The woman had found just after beginning on her long journey, wandering together through the desert. What had happened to their mother she never found out. They had been barely weaned then, and almost starving; she had shared with them what food and water she had, and over the months that followed they had become almost a part of her, attuned to all of her moods.

Far ahead, shimmering in the sunlight, the woman could make out something, though in the haze it wasn’t possible to judge how far away it was: a spire of stone jutting out of the desert, bleached white like a broken bone from the skeleton of a buried giant. She knew that spire of old, and it confirmed that she had not lost her way, and that her destination was near. The end of the long trek was at hand.

All of a sudden her strength seemed to give out, and she swayed and might have fallen. The larger of the cheetahs, the male, was by her side instantly, whining and rubbing his dappled side against her knee. She bent and rubbed his neck, forcing herself to breathe slowly and evenly until she had control over herself again.

“I’m all right,” she told the cheetah. “It’s just that I’ve come such a long way, and I need to get my second wind.”

The cat nuzzled at her hand, his rough tongue licking at her palm. They stood together, the thin woman and the long-limbed predator, and each seemed to draw strength and reassurance from the other’s presence.

The female cheetah came close, too, and lifted her small, beautiful head to look the woman in the face. She whuffed, and tried to sit down on the sand, but it was too hot for comfort.

“Don’t worry,” the woman informed the pair of them. “I’m not going to drop now. After all, we’re almost there, and, besides, I’ve got the two of you to think about.”

The cheetahs looked at her out of their amber eyes and did not reply.


The sun had gone down in a welter of red and pink, and the shadows were covering the desert, when the woman passed the spire on her right. Seen close to, it was clearly artificial, a stone tower which had stood sentinel over the highway across the desert for unknown hundreds of years. But it was old now, and broken, the jagged edges pointing accusingly at the star-spangled sky.

The woman stopped a moment and looked up at the spire. A troubled expression washed over her face for a moment, as though she was suddenly unsure of why she was here, and why she had come back all this way, after all these years. Then she shook her head slightly, and smiled.

“A little too late for doubts,” she murmured to nobody in particular. “Too late and too far to turn back now.”

A little later she rested, and fed the cheetahs from her dwindling stock of food, though she ate nothing herself. So close to her destination, she felt no hunger or thirst.

“Tonight,” she told the animals, and told the night. “We’ll get there sometime tonight.” And though it had been a day since she’d rested, she felt no exhaustion when she began trudging on again.

The night grew colder, and the wind began to rise, whipping stinging sand off the desert, but the woman and the cheetahs walked on through the darkness. Now that there was no further doubt about where she was, the woman had stopped worrying about the way, and burned with impatience to reach her destination. From time to time, she reached down with her hands to fondle the cheetahs’ ears, as they flanked her on either side, but otherwise she noticed nothing of her surroundings.

Sometime about midnight, when the wind had long died down and the sky overhead was hard and bright with stars, the woman paused and looked up towards a long ridge which lay like a sleeping crocodile against the horizon. Just beyond it, she knew, was the place she’d been seeking for so long, the place to which she had walked so far to return.

“There,” she thought, her lips moving, but not making any sounds. “There, just over the ridge, and I’m there.”

All of a sudden the weariness returned, so strongly that her legs finally gave out and she collapsed on the sand. It seemed a Herculean effort to climb the low ridge and down the other side, and she wondered if she could do it at all. She felt old and worn out, and as dry as the desert whose sand was gritty between her fingers.

But then the female cheetah came to her and nuzzled her, and gently licked her face and eyes, so that she laughed and cried a little and finally clambered to her feet. “Yes,” she told the animal. “I know I shouldn’t give up now. Thanks for reminding me.” Then she started the long climb up to the crest of the ridge, stopping frequently to gather her breath. The night was very cold, and she felt as though ice was eating into her bones.

Sometime in the hour when the stars began to dim, she stopped on the downward slope over the ridge and peered down into the dark. In daytime, from here she would be able to see down to the city, but at this hour its ancient walls and streets were wrapped in darkness.

Somewhere, a jackal howled, and she felt the cheetahs tense and growl questioningly, the hackles along their backs rising. “It’s all right,” she told them. “It won’t bother us.” She murmured it over and over until they relaxed, and then she led them down the slope and towards the town she had known so well so many years ago.

Just before dawn they finally reached the town, the old earthen walls silhouetted against the sky. The great gates were crumbled away, sagging on their pillars, and when the woman walked through them into the streets beyond, her feet sank up to the ankles in windblown sand. The houses which had once been the envy of the caravans from all the corners of the desert were tumbled and gutted, and the great Temple at which she had worshipped was a roofless ruin, only the pillars poking up at the sky.

It was no more than the woman had expected, but she felt a profound sadness wrench at her inside, and wished she could weep for all that had been and was lost beyond recall. But she had things to do, for which she had come so long a way.

Walking through the streets, she came finally to the great square in the middle of the city, where once the women had gathered of an evening round the wells, and shared gossip. Now it was an undulating sea of sand, and though in the brightening light of morning she could see the broken stones of the old parks, not a trace remained of the flowers and trees that had once grown here.

The cheetahs looked at her, and growled, puzzled, sensing that they had reached their destination but not understanding why. The woman smiled at them. “It’s all right,” she said. “I just have some things to do.”

Laboriously, she stripped off her clothes, heedless of the sun beginning to burn down on the square. She dressed in the light wrappings she took from her bag, and squatting in the sand, prepared to begin.

One by one, she began to sing the ancient songs of the desert, the songs of wind and sand, of the dusty green of the oasis , the howl of the jackal and the scent of the lion. She sang of the wind beneath a vulture’s wing, and of moonlight painting the dunes, and as she did, she found her mind beginning to clear, the doubts falling away like crusted earth.

When she chanted the verses, the past opened up in her mind, and she saw the lines of the caravans pass, the slender-legged horses with their riders, the heavily loaded camels, bringing merchandise from across the world. She saw tall men and pretty women, and children watching wide-eyed the wonders of the world, and she sang of them, too, of their hopes and aspirations.

As she sang she lost all sense of herself; she was the song, the music of her voice and the words no longer something just sounds, but the reality of her world, and she sang of all that she had known, of the years that had passed, and the changes that had flowed over the world, like a tapestry of history opened before her.

And, finally, she sang of herself, of growing up in these streets, of growing up and going away, but coming back, at ever-increasing intervals as the years passed and the caravans grew smaller and fewer, and the desert swallowed the highways and filled in the oases, as the desert claimed the world for its own. And she sang of herself, lonelier and lonelier in the great outside, where the skies of the night were red like blood and one could not see the stars.

And she sang of homesickness, of the pain of a life left behind, until it became unbearable and drove her across the wastes of the desert, just one last time, to her beginnings, to find what she could of the past, and finally let it lie.


It was dusk when the woman finally stopped singing, her voice sinking to a whisper. The hours of song seemed to have drained her body, and she looked shrunken, like a doll, her face suddenly wizened and limbs stick thin. With a sigh, she lay down on the sand and made a perfunctory attempt to draw the light wrap over her body.

“I’ll rest a little,” she told the cheetahs, who had sat watching her through the day, unmoving. “I’m so tired – I’ll rest a little, and then we’ll go on, and find a place to live. Somewhere out in the desert. I promise.”

The cheetahs waited, watching her, listening to the papery rustle of her breathing. They didn’t understand her purpose, but they thought she might need them; and so despite their growing hunger and thirst, and despite the jackals which howled outside the ancient walls, they waited, patiently. They waited for her to wake and to talk to them.

After all, now that she bid farewell to the past, they were all she had.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Sunday 10 June 2012

Eater of Worlds

I really don’t see,” said the science reporter, “why you don’t give out the news to the world.”

The exobiologist raised a thick white eyebrow. “Perhaps,” he said mildly, “it’s because you don’t have all the facts.”

“The facts?” It was the reporter’s turn to raise his eyebrows. “I’d have said the facts are clear enough, and momentous enough, to share with the world. In fact, it will probably be the biggest news since the dawn of the Space Age itself. The implications are staggering.”

“Yes,” the exobiologist agreed, drily. “Staggering is the word. You don’t know just how staggering.”

The reporter glanced away from the white-bearded scientist. Through the office window, he could see the distant gantries and towering silver tanks of the spaceport. The tiny form of a shuttlecraft crawled skywards atop a puff of pale yellow fire.

“Life elsewhere in the Universe?” he said, still watching the shuttlecraft. “The rumours I’ve heard – very strong rumours, from very reliable sources – say that life’s been discovered not just on one planet, but on many. This means we’re so far from alone that we’re hardly more than one of a multitude. So it’s natural to wonder why you aren’t giving out the news to the public at large. Is it because of religion? Are you afraid of offending the religious establishment?”

The exobiologist laughed. “If only our problems were so trivial.” He leaned back in his chair and stared at the reporter. “I take it that you decided to confirm the rumour before going public? I mean, that’s why you asked for this interview, didn’t you?”

“Our magazine,” the reporter said stiffly, “has never published anything on the basis of unverified rumours or innuendo. That is not in our corporate ethos.”

“Really?” The scientist smiled sceptically. “Anyway, the impression I got was that you were threatening to go public unless we gave you an interview. That’s why you’re here now – because your magazine was saying something tantamount to blackmail.”

The reporter didn’t say anything.

“We could have, of course, refused to say anything,” the exobiologist continued, “and no doubt you’d have published some completely garbled version. But we couldn’t take the risk of someone drawing conclusions which might be even more alarming than the facts. After all, the facts are bad enough.”

“How can they be so bad that they need to be suppressed?” the reporter asked. “Things are so bad already that this kind of news would be a beacon of hope. In the midst of war, climate change, resurgent disease and creeping famine...” He stopped, embarrassed. “What I mean to say is, anything that might show us hope would be an improvement, wouldn’t it?”

“If it would be something that showed hope, you might be correct.” The scientist shook his head. “But we aren’t convinced that what we’ve discovered gives us any reason for hope. Quite the obverse, actually. As I said, the facts are bad enough.”

“But you’re going to tell me the facts, aren’t you?” the reporter asked. “You aren’t going to lie about them?”

“Lie?” The scientist laughed again, so shortly that it was little more than a bark. “No, I can assure you that what I’m going to tell you is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

“And I can publish?” the reporter persisted. “You won’t try to stop us from publishing? Because we’ll fight you if you try to do that.”

“Oh, no,” the exobiologist replied, looking slightly bored. “There’s no need for me to do that. After listening to what I’ve got to say, I think you’ll agree that it’s better this news is kept from the general public.”

That’s for me to decide, the reporter thought, but looked attentively at the white-bearded scientist. “Well?”

The older man pursed his lips in thought. “Your sources,” he began, “are right in that we’ve discovered life elsewhere on other planets. And it’s true that we’ve discovered life on many other planets – in fact, almost every planet we’ve discovered that conceivably might have life has had life. But...”

“Yes?” the reporter prompted, when the pause seemed to have lasted an inordinate length of time. “But?”

“But, we didn’t discover hundreds of different types of life forms. Except for viruses and equivalents, we’ve found only one.”

“One?” The reporter stared at the older man. “I don’t understand.”

“Oh, you will,” the scientist responded cheerfully. “You will.”


The first time we found them (the exobiologist said) it was on a moon in the Giese system. At the time we didn’t realise what we’d found, and even had trouble identifying them as alive. They looked more like mineral formations than anything else – thousands of rust-red tubes, packed side by side from horizon to horizon, their hollow ends pointing up at the sky. It was only when the probes detected unmistakable signs of metabolism in the tubes that we realised they were alive.

One of the probes cut away a sample for analysis. Since we hadn’t anticipated something like this, the material had to be examined by the fairly limited on board mini-laboratory, and it told us little enough – just enough to confirm that it was part of a living organism, and that it was primarily composed of fairly complex proteins. You know, like all other life as we know it.

We were excited, of course. Very excited – it would be the first life we’d encountered outside Earth, except for bacteria. Yes, we were excited, but realised a lot more study needed to be done before we could even begin to speculate on what they might be. We were still designing a probe tailored to intensively studying them when we had another find.

This was on a high-gravity planet orbiting the star they’ve named Diana the Huntress. It’s just about the opposite direction to Giese, and nobody had anticipated finding life there at all. What a planet that is, where the rocks are flattened from the pull of gravity, and the atmosphere is a shell of gas thick as jelly. And yet even in that murky brown wasteland, we found life.

It was a rough-crusted brownish slime, coating the rocks and flowing sluggishly from place to place. For the brief time the probe lasted, it watched patches of the slime crawl with agonising slowness across the rocks, leaving cracked, crumbling stone in its wake. The tentative conclusion we’ve made is that these slime patches leach the rock of minerals in order to sustain themselves. We might have obtained a little more information about them had the probe lasted longer.

What happened was that the slime ate the probe. It was not mobile – under that gravity it would have been difficult to have designed it to be – and its wealth of metals and composites must have made it irresistible. The slime patches began gathering around it from almost the instant of its landing, and they soon started to dissolve away the support struts. The onboard computer was a fairly sophisticated model – it began sending back signals which, had it been alive, we would have described as pain or distress. We had to shut it down at the end, when it began to scream electronically.

But we did get a bit of information about the slime before it ate the probe; the stuff was undoubtedly alive, and it was composed of complex proteins.

Under the environmental conditions found in that planet, you’ll understand, the presence of life was incredibly unlikely. We could accept that it existed – after all, we’d encountered it – but we couldn’t think of any way in which it might have evolved on that planet, under those gravitational circumstances. But there it was.

After a lot of brainstorming, we weren’t any closer to arriving at an explanation. We began trying to design a probe of materials the slime might not be able to dissolve away; the information we had was so limited we actually knew almost nothing of the beasties’ actual abilities. But before we could even arrive at a consensus on which materials to try, another report came in from another planet – and then another, and another.

Suddenly, like mushrooms springing up overnight, life was being discovered everywhere. Sometimes it was on almost airless worldlets, lichen-like films clinging to rocks and in crevices. In other cases, we found immense leathery masses at the bottom of oceans of water, reaching for the surface with tentacles tipped with knobs. And on other planets we found the remains of life – planets so desolate that they were, biologically, as extinct as the life they had once borne. We found fossils – but we found more recent remains, desiccated corpses, skeletons, and the like. We hardly had time to catalogue them all – they were so many of them, so many worlds, that we never even suspected for a long time that there was something very odd about them indeed.

One thing we did notice. These creatures – wherever they were, whatever form they took – they were the dominant life form on their worlds. They were so dominant, in fact, that in many cases there was no other life at all, even when there should have been many others. And sometimes they appeared in such circumstances that but for the fact of their existence, one would never have believed those worlds might have had life. It was very strange.

It was the genetic material that finally tipped us off. Amazingly – considering the incredible variety of life forms from all the different planets we were coming across – the basic genetic material was the same. Even the extinct forms – creatures so long extinct that we only found tiny fragments of their bodies, a scale or tuft of hair, a frond or piece of tentacle – they all had the same genetic basis. We resisted the conclusion as long as we could, until certain observations meant that we could resist it no longer. The various and completely different creatures weren’t completely different after all – they were the same organism. The rust-red tubes, the creeping brown slime, the blimp-like titans floating in the atmosphere of gas giants – they were all the same.

And that could mean only one thing – that there is something in this galaxy, a biological force one might call it, that is spreading itself from planet to planet, from system to system. We even found out how they did it. On a small moon in one of the furthest systems our probes reached, there were great filamentous growths of the things, which bore club-shaped pods at the ends of long, delicate, hairlike stalks. At intervals these pods would explode, sending out billions of spores at terrific velocity. Most of those tiny spores – about the size of bacteria – fell back, but a fairly substantial number managed to make their way out of the atmosphere.

And then we began to understand what was happening. This biological force – whatever we choose to call it – its imperative, its only goal, as it were, is to propagate itself. The spores we saw would drift through space, and inevitably a few of them would find their way to something – a planet or meteoroid, a comet or a piece of drifting junk. And sooner or later one spore out of several billion would reach an environment where it could survive – either directly, or by hitching a ride on a comet or meteor which would crash on to a larger celestial body. If even one spore found its way to a usable environment, that spore would start the whole process over again.

Of course, the process is both extremely slow and intensely wasteful, but there’s all the time in the universe to spare – and the spores we collected are immensely tough, able to withstand vacuum and cosmic radiation almost indefinitely.

And who is to say that the spores are the only way to propagate from world to world? They can work in low gravity, but there are other strategies – much more complicated strategies, but as effective in the long term – that can be adopted to climb out of the gravity wells of bigger worlds.

We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of all the adaptations that these creatures have made to themselves over the aeons of galactic time. We do know that they are almost unimaginably adaptable. They’ve managed to populate just about any environment that could support life – and they’ve changed their physical form to fit that environment. Their imperative to propagate impels them, and the immense plasticity of their genetic code allows them to do just that. They are reproductive strategists without parallel, and they could easily switch from one means to another if it would suit their purpose.

And we realised one other thing. Any world this biological force touches, it takes over completely. It sucks everything out of that environment, leaving only a dry husk of a dead world. Water bodies go dry, forests turn to barren wastes, all to fuel the onward march of this biological force, its effort to evolve some means of propagating itself further and further onward. Nothing matters to it but its march across the galaxy. Nothing has been able to withstand its progress, eating worlds and spitting out the remains.

Of course it will have had its failures – but it will not have failed for want of trying. When one way leads to a blind alley, it will try another, and another, until it succeeds or the stars burn out. What it will never do, what it cannot do, is give up.

And once the galaxy is conquered, its quest will inevitably turn towards crossing the gulfs of intergalactic space – if it hasn’t already.

After all, who knows how old it is, or how long it has been since it started its blind journey of conquest? It could have arisen in the first few billion years of the Universe. It could last as long as space and time.

And there’s nothing we can do about it.


Now,” said the exobiologist, “do you see why we chose to keep the information from the public?”

“Less than ever,” the science reporter responded. “Why don’t you understand – this is the perfect story to get the people of the world to unite.”

“Is that so?” the scientist murmured. “You really think so?”

“Of course I do,” the journalist said. “It’s even better than I thought. Think of Earth as it is now, with nations and peoples at each others’ throats, itching for an excuse for war, while ripping the heart out of the planet. And think how they could be brought together against this threat from outside, this alien force. We could call it the Eater of Worlds, and show how petty human quarrels are compared to it. We could use it rescue us from ourselves!”

“So you really don’t understand, do you?” the exobiologist asked. “You haven’t thought this through to the logical conclusion.”

“What conclusion?” the reporter frowned. “What are you talking about?”

“You want to unite the peoples of the world,” the scientist said. “You think it will bring them together – but against what, precisely?”

“Why, against the threat of the arrival of these spores,” the reporter said. “You told me yourself that this life force, as you called it, consumes anything it touches. The only way we can save ourselves from it is to unite, and make plans so we can successfully resist it when it comes.”

The scientist smiled again. “What makes you think,” he asked sweetly, “that it isn’t here already?”

The journalist stared. “Explain.”

“I thought I did,” the scientist said, leaning forward, “I told you that this biological force would do anything to propagate itself, go to virtually any lengths, even at the cost of destroying the world it inhabited. I told you that it was infinitely adaptable, that it could fit itself to any environment. Remember, too, that we found it in every direction we looked, inhabiting every world it could possibly inhabit. And then think of what I told you about the fact that high-gravity worlds require much more complicated escape strategies than pods shooting spores into the upper atmosphere. Escape strategies, one might say, which would require hundreds of millions of years to come to fruition, and many, many, wrong turns and blind alleys. But, as I said, the biological force has time.”

The reporter was silent.

“And think of Mars, that dead world right next door, which once had flowing water and everything else that might have fostered life, and has nothing now.”

The reporter was still silent. Gathering up his voice recorder and notes, he rose to go.

“Just how do you think people will react,” the exobiologist asked, “when they discover that they, and just about every other living thing on this earth, are merely a means for a biological force to spread itself across the galaxy? Their lives and loves, all of human culture, religion, and interaction, their hopes and aspirations – all just a...a by-product of an ancient organism’s efforts to reproduce. How do you think they’d react to that information?  

“Also, don’t forget – it’s already succeeded. Humans have reached the stars...

“Are you still planning to publish?” the scientist called after the reporter, who was at the door. “Do you think the world is ready for this news – or ever will be?”

The reporter looked back over his shoulder, his face drained of all expression.

“Well?” persisted the exobiologist.

The reporter did not reply.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

A Royal Romance

The King of the Dead People sat on his throne and glared round at his court. It was meant to be a benevolent gaze, but, lacking eyelids, he could only glare.

“Good morning, everyone.” The King beamed round the assembled nobles and courtiers. “I see we have a large gathering today. What’s the order of business?”

“Your Majesty.” The Prime Minister who stepped forward had been dead so long he was almost a mummy. He bent his wizened face floorwards, but not too much, lest his desiccated back snap like a twig. “We have plenty of petitions, but, first, there is sad news.” He paused. “Majesty, your great rival the King of the Living Dead has finally become dead dead.”

“Ah well,” the King of the Dead People said cheerfully, “that is sad news indeed. We’ll just have a minute’s silence in his memory, shall we?”

Complete silence fell. There was not even the sound of breathing – there wouldn’t have been, of course, since almost everyone present was dead and therefore not breathing. So complete was the silence that the sudden buzz of a bluebottle echoed around the room like a chainsaw.

The King of the Dead People still had the complete use of his ears, and he leaped up, pointing with his finger, tracking the insect by its buzz. His subjects craned to follow his direction. They were all up now, their attention fixed on the tiny darting speck, high up near the ceiling.

“Destroy that thing,” the King whispered. His vocal apparatus had not held up as well as his ears, so that a hoarse whisper was the best he could manage, and that on a good day. Today was a good day – or had been, until the accursed bluebottle had appeared. “Destroy it before it lays eggs on someone!”

Human slaves rushed forward from the shadows, wielding fly swatters on long poles. The fly zigzagged frantically, easily evading their clumsy blows, and came zooming up the hall towards the King himself.

“Save me!” the King whispered, and dived under his throne for shelter. “Save me from that horrible, maggot-generating insect!”

But instead of surging forward to save him, his subjects – petitioners, courtiers, ministers, even the tall bodyguards flanking his throne – fell back in terror. Everyone feared the horrible, flesh-destroying maggots of the bluebottles above all else. And, as though homing to a signal, the fly headed straight for the King, its ovipositor thrust forward like a dagger, all the better to extrude eggs with. A moment more, and it might have been all over, but for the hatching and the eating.

But no! From behind the throne darted a female slave, a swatter held high in her delicate hand. She swung it in a vicious arc, and the bluebottle turned into a smear of wings, legs and yellow intestine.

Still trembling, the King emerged from under his throne, and shambled to where the human slave stood, breathing, her breasts rising and falling under her diaphanous robe.

“Thank you, child,” the King whispered. It was not usual to thank a slave, but the King liked breaking social rules whenever he could. “Thank you for saving me.”

“It was my duty, sire,” the slave replied, curtseying. “Anyone else in my position would have done the same.”

“Is that so?” The King looked contemptuously at his ministers and bodyguards. “You nobles and soldiers,” he said, his whisper cutting like a knife through the rising hubbub, “abandoned your duty towards me, your king – but this, this living human slave, this creature from the lower depths, had more integrity than the lot of you.” He stared at them out of his lidless eyes until they looked away. “Go away,” he said at last. “In the interests of efficient administration, I’m adjourning business for the day.”

Not waiting to see their reaction, he turned his back on them contemptuously, and walked away.


What happened at work today?” the Vice-King asked. “I’ve been hearing all kinds of things.”

“What kind of things?” the King demanded. He had never had much patience with the Vice-King, who had actually undergone autopsy before coming back to life and as a result lacked viscera; a “gutless wonder”, as the King thought of him. “What have you been hearing?”

“Uh, well,” the Vice-King said, evidently put off by the King’s aggressive tone. “Apparently you humiliated the court by comparing them unfavourably to...” He hesitated. “A human slave,” he finished.

“And what if I did? That slave saved me from becoming maggot food, while the rest of them didn’t lift a finger to help. Did your sources mention that? I thought not.”

“I’m not at liberty to betray my sources by quoting what they told me,” the Vice-King said stiffly.

“Perhaps then you’d be better off not passing on their talk at all,” the King replied.

Long after the Vice-King had left, the King sat brooding at the perfidy of his courtiers and bodyguards. The lot of them, he thought, were worth less than one miserable human slave. Their oaths to be true to him for undeath meant nothing when the time had come.

From there his thoughts wandered to the slave herself. With her long hair and flawless skin, she was a fetching wench, almost pretty enough to be the consort of a King. It was a pity she wasn’t dead.

Suddenly, the King realised that he was spending time thinking about a human slave, something that was usually considered a social gaffe of stupendous proportions. But he was feeling rebellious, so, almost masochistically, he continued thinking about her, bringing her up in his mind’s eye for inspection, from her braided hair to her heaving, pointed breasts, down to her dimpled navel and painted toes.

All of a sudden he could stand it no more. He wanted to see her again, to thank her properly, he told himself, for saving him from becoming a home for maggots.  He considered having her summoned to his quarters, but then he realised that he did not know her name. And there was no telling where she would be put to work the next day, so he couldn’t rely on her being in the great hall again.

There was nothing for it but to visit the slave pens and try to track her down. It was almost feeding time, so the slaves would be assembled, their hungry, living mouths disgustingly agape, glistening with saliva. The thought made the King feel quite ill, but he wouldn’t let such minor considerations divert him from his purpose.

There was a problem, though. He couldn’t exactly go down to the slave pens just like that – Kings weren’t supposed to even acknowledge the existence of slaves, let alone visit them in their quarters. He already had a reputation for eccentricity. He could not afford to acquire a reputation for dangerous eccentricity, not if he wished to keep his position and not wind up dead dead like his late rival the King of the Living Dead. He needed a disguise.

Fortuitously, he had just the thing. It so happened that a few weeks previously, the King had been presented something which purported to be an insect-proof robe. He had only tried it on once, and found it so excruciatingly uncomfortable that he’d decided to risk the insects rather than wear it again. But it still hung from a hook on his wall, and it had the great advantage of covering him so completely as to make him unrecognisable. It even had a hood with a mesh that covered his face.

Sighing mentally – not being able to breathe, he couldn’t literally sigh – at the trouble he was putting himself to, the King pulled on the robe. He adjusted the sleeves, drew the hood down over his features, and – after peeking outside to ensure the coast was clear, and that no spy, servitor or bodyguard was lurking in the corridor – quietly left his rooms. The passages, fortunately, were deserted, and the King reached the service stairs without meeting a single person.

The service stairs were narrow and dark, but safely anonymous and used only by the slaves and other lesser orders, unlike the grand staircase to the front. Besides, only the service stairs went all the way down to the slave pens from this level.

As has already been noted, the King’s ears were exceptionally keen. He was still well above the slave pen level when he heard a rising hubbub, which he immediately identified as that of a hundred and fifty-seven slaves shouting all at once, though he had never heard such a thing before. At first he thought it was their normal shouting at feeding time, but after descending only a few more steps he could make out that they had been disturbed by something. And when he had rushed down to the bottom of the flight of steps, and had passed through the entrance to the slave pens, he saw what that was.

The slave pens, which should have contained only humans at this hour, were full of people – among whom he recognised his own bodyguards and the minister who had bowed stiffly to him earlier in the day. Some of the guards had pushed the humans into the far corner, and holding them there at halberd- and pike-point, while two others were dragging one of them forth by the arms. With no surprise, the King recognised in the struggling, screaming figure the slave who had saved him from the bluebottle.

“Stop!” he whispered, with the special sibilant tone he’d honed over the years, which could cut through even the shouting of a hundred and fifty-seven human slaves. “Stop right there!”

The old minister hardly glanced at him. “Whoever you are,” he snapped, “go away, retreat, buzz off, get lost. You’ve no right to be here.”

“No right!” The King drew himself up to his full and, despite post-mortem shrinkage, still not inconsiderable height. “Who has better right than...” But he trailed off when he saw that nobody was listening to him, and remembered that he was in disguise.

“Is this the wench, sir?” one of the guards asked the minister, dragging the slave’s head back by the hair. “Is this the one you wanted?”

“Yes,” the old minister said, peering at the human. “This is the slave, right enough – the one who was the cause of our humiliation. Drag her upstairs, so that we can try and execute her. And,” he added, as the slave spat out a curse at him, “gag her, shut her up.”

“Try and execute her?” the King demanded, grabbing hold of the minister’s shoulder. “On whose authority?”

“By the Great Grumble of George Romero,” the minister swore, rounding on him. “Let go of me, or I shall order my minions to hack you to pieces. Who are you to interfere in royal matters?”

“Royal matters?” the King asked. “So this is all under the order of the King?”

“Who else but the King?” the minister demanded. “He has decided that this slave wench must answer for her sins.” Shrugging off the King’s hand, he turned back to the guards. “What are you waiting for? Let’s go.”

Ignoring the King, the ministers and guards streamed up the service stairs, those bringing up the rear still holding the other human slaves at bay with their halberds and pikes. Puzzled and not a little alarmed, the King followed after them, pausing only to kick away a couple of humans who attempted to drag him back by the robe.

The old minister led the procession to a minor hall at the back of the ground floor of the palace, where even the King had almost never ventured. Here, the guards flung the slave, who had struggled desperately all the way, on the floor before a tall chair, on which was perched the Vice-King, the gutless wonder himself.

“This,” said the old minister, pointing a rigid, accusing finger, “is the human slave who was the cause of our humiliation. She dared save the former King from the bluebottle, thus obstructing your own ascension to the throne. Punish her, Your Majesty!”

Former King? Your Majesty? The King edged forward, listening intently.

“The punishment is clear enough,” the gutless wonder said lazily. “She must answer with her life. But what of my predecessor? What fate are you planning for him?”

“Tomorrow morning at dawn,” the old minister announced, “we will arrest the knave, and bring him before you on charges of favouring humans over people. And you – still in your official capacity as Vice-King – can sentence him to whatever punishment you deem fit, so long as it is condign enough. And once he is sentenced, Your Majesty...”

“...I can officially declare myself King,” the gutless wonder finished, gleefully rubbing his hands. “I think I shall have him staked out on a dunghill, for the bluebottles to feast on.” This terrible punishment drew forth a gasp of delighted horror from the ministers and guards. “Must I wait till morning to savour the delight of sentencing that bleeding-heart liberal fraud to the punishment he so richly deserves? Why can’t we do it right away?”

“Your Majesty, Your Majesty,” the old minister said, in chiding tones. “Don’t forget that your accession must be in complete accordance with the rules. Your predecessor has an unfortunately high level of support among the people of the slums, and even among the human slaves. You must understand that these stupid people will look for excuses to doubt the legitimacy of your succession. Unless your predecessor is tried and deposed in the full light of day, in the open court, they will whisper that you are a usurper, and will never accept your rule. We must wait till tomorrow. Be of good cheer, Majesty – it is but a matter of a few hours.”

“In the meantime, where is the knave? In his quarters?”

“Aye, and securely guarded.” A momentary confusion flashed across the old minister’s features. “I must admit we hadn’t anticipated the resistance the human slaves put up to the arrest of this wench, and we had to call for reinforcements, owning to which the guard had to be withdrawn for a few moments from his door. But fear not, sire, they are already back on station. He is safe and sound, waiting to be arrested at dawn to await your pleasure.”

“Good, good.” The gutless wonder rubbed his hands together again with manic energy. “All right, destroy this slave and let’s take a break. We all deserve it.”

“If I may interrupt,” the King asked, unable to stop himself, “just how do you intend to destroy this slave? Simply kill her?”

Everyone stared at him as though they had never seen him before, even the old minister. “Who are you?” the gutless wonder asked, frowning. “I’ve never seen you before.”

The King realised that the hood and mask disguised his voice enough that they couldn’t recognise it any more than they could see his face, and that gave him a surge of sudden confidence. “I’m the Royal Executioner,” he said. “The King – I mean the former King – appointed me. I’m an expert in extermination, whether of people or just slaves. Take this creature, for instance,” he said, pointing at the gagged figure of the slave. “You’re planning to take her out and cut her throat for her, I suppose. And then what happens?” He paused dramatically. “Why, she comes back as one of us. Instead of a despicable human slave, she’s one of the people. Is that a punishment, I ask you...or a reward?

There was a baffled pause. “He’s got a point,” the old minister said at last. “Well, man, what solution do you have?”

“Give her to me,” the King said. “I’ll take her out and destroy her with such consummate skill as no fragment of her will ever be reanimated again. Not even the Holy Romero, on whom be eternal happiness, could resurrect her after I’m through. Give her to me, and I will be back by dawn to await your orders.”

“What other orders?” the gutless wonder asked.

“Your orders on the former King. For,” the King added, “you lot are amateurs at the killing art. Stake out someone on a dunghill for the bluebottles, will you? Which self-respecting bluebottle will ignore the dung and lay on your victim? And just how are you planning to keep him staked out?”

“Uh, well, we’d have him closely guarded, of course, to make sure he didn’t get away.”

“Really? And how many of your guards will be willing to keep their station with a few thousand bluebottles buzzing about?”

Nobody said anything.

“So,” the King said at last, “can I take this slave and dispose of her now?”

“All right,” the old minister said. “But two guards shall go with you.”

“Of course,” the King said. “I will require them in any case, to keep her under control.” He waited until two brawny guards stepped forwards and jerked the slave to her feet. “Follow me.”

The slave, who had spent the intervening time recovering her energies, waited until they left the palace and then, just as the King had anticipated, she began to fight again, frantically, kicking out with her feet and trying to drag her arms free. So frantic were her struggles that the guards were fully occupied with controlling her, and it was no trouble for the King to pick up a heavy stone and club them both unconscious.

“Wait,” he called to the slave, before she could turn on him. “I’m not your enemy. I’m trying to save your life – and mine.”

“Yours?” She peered at him suspiciously. “Why should I believe you? I heard you say you were an executioner.”

“I’m the King,” he informed her. “The real King – the one you saved from the bluebottle.” Clumsily, he dragged off the hood and mask long enough for her to discern his features. “Come on – we’ve got to get away from here.”

“Where to, sire?” The slave seemed suddenly doubtful. “It seems to me that there’s nowhere to run.”

“Didn’t you hear them?” the King asked, taking her lightly by the arm and hurrying her along. “It seems that the poor people, the slum dwellers, are on my side, and so are the human slaves. We’ve to seek shelter in the slums, and rouse the population on our side.”

“Well, that may be true, as far as the slaves go. We have not had as good a master as you.”

“The fact is that they believe it, and are frightened of the fact, so it’s probably true of the people as well. In any case, there’s no other way. We have to gather our supporters.”

We, sire?”

He ignored her question. “In fact, this is probably a blessing in disguise. It’s often seemed to me that the divide between the people and humans is undesirable. We should work together for the common good, not separately. This is our chance to end this useless separation.” He thought for a moment. “There’s a place open,” he said, “for someone to stand by my side, someone I can depend on absolutely, a consort, lover and partner who can at the same time be a bridge across the races. I would be honoured if you would agree to fill that role.”

“I don’t know, sire,” the slave replied, her voice full of doubt. “How can I agree? You are a King, and I, a mere human slave. Your people rule over mine, and I have never heard of any relationship between us but that.”

“Remember,” the King said, “I’m still the King – that lot haven’t even got around to formally booting me out yet, so I’m still the legitimate monarch in every sense. And by virtue of that position, I formally emancipate you. In fact, I emancipate all the slaves – all humans. None of you are slaves any longer! Now, as a free agent, tell me – will you be mine?”

Even in the darkness, he saw her smile, and felt her hand steal into his. “You know my answer to that.”

They walked on for a while in silence, feeling the happiness rise inside them.

“Since you’re no longer a slave,” the King said at last, “and since you’re about to become my queen, isn’t it time you told me your name?”

“My name?” the ex-slave and future queen said, smiling,. “Well, it’s very embarrassing actually...”

The night wound towards the dawn, and silence gathered. Only their footsteps sounded in the darkness, and the only voices they heard were each others’. In all the world they might have been alone.

But it was enough for the moment. Danger might threaten, but they had each other, and for the first time in as long as they could remember, they were content.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012