Saturday 1 February 2014

Two Faces of Destruction

In 2001, the Buddhas of Bamiyan were destroyed by the Taliban on the orders of Mullah Omar.

Nations across the world found this extremely offensive, even though the Buddhas were just mud, straw, wood and stone, and the actual destruction did not physically harm anyone, and though the statues are (still) being reconstructed.

Also, the Taliban were, and are, semiliterate Afghan peasants with no vision beyond their backyards, no sense of history, and no love of culture. Nor did they earn a penny from the destruction – quite the reverse, in fact, since they turned down offers to buy the statues to save them from obliteration.

So they blew up the Buddhas with artillery, land mines and dynamite.

And the governments of the world, including Islamic ones, were outraged. Quite properly so.

Today, the government of Australia is planning to dump dredged sand and silt on the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage Area, meaning it belongs to the entire world,  even though it is located on Australian territory.

The dumping of sand will have calamitous effects on the Reef, including the wholesale destruction of the living organisms there, including fish, algae, and the reef itself.

Let me repeat: the Great Barrier Reef, which is made up of coral, is basically not just an ecosystem, but a mass of coral, which is a living organism.

And the democratically elected, highly educated government of Australia, which sent troops to help overthrow the illiberal, undemocratic Taliban, will knowingly choke this ecosystem, this organism, to permanent and irreversible death, by dumping dredged sand which can be disposed of elsewhere.

If they go through with this, will the governments of the world, including democratic, educated ones, be outraged? And will they express it?

If they do not, I would be interested in knowing why.

Thursday 30 January 2014

Amor Fati

Viorel walked down the steps, expertly holding up a hand at the exact right angle not to block any of the waiting photographers, while pretending that he didn’t want his picture taken. The paparazzi, who knew the game as well as he did, just kept clicking away. Viorel grinned, slipped on his dark sunglasses, and pirouetted one so they could all get him from his best angle.

The car was waiting, of course. “Studio,” Viorel told the chauffeur. He didn’t need to specify which studio – the driver knew that well enough.

Sitting back in the car, Viorel sighed, slipping off his sunglasses and rubbing his eyes. However many times it happened, he never managed quite to get used to it. At one time, he remembered, he’d have given his left leg to be where he was now – and now he’d not be unhappy to be back there again.

Viorel wasn’t his real name, of course; his agent had chosen it for him as exotic enough to suit his “image”. Image, the agent had said, was everything.

Today’s up and coming stars, he’d noticed, never seemed to have to change their names. Their image never seemed to suffer either way.

His cell phone tinkled, an irritating tune which he kept as the ringtone since he could immediately recognise it as his own phone that was ringing, even in a room full of people.  He looked at the screen and sighed.

“Shoot’s cancelled for today,” his publicist said. “There’s a publicity meeting though, with members of the public.” He named the hotel. “You have to attend.”

“Do I?”

“You do. That is, if you want to continue finding roles. You have to stay in the public eye, Viorel.”

Viorel mumbled agreement. His mood plummeted like an express lift. The last thing he wanted was to talk to more people. But, as he’d learned over the years, meeting people was part of the job, one he couldn’t get out of.

Giving the driver the new instructions, he closed his eyes and rubbed his face, trying to smooth the lines. They’d developed quickly over the last couple of years, faster and faster it seemed to him. He kept telling himself that he wasn’t a neurotic about his looks like some of the others, but often, these days, he would look in the mirror and wonder who that man was who looked vaguely like him.

He wished he could have a drink, but that was one rule he stuck by – no drinking before the day’s work was all done. And just about everything he did now was work.

The publicity party was just as he expected. There were people whom he’d never met before, never would again, and never ever wanted to meet again. They told him how great he was and how they looked forward to his next film, and how far he’d come since Amor Fati.  Viorel smiled and nodded. He hardly even noticed what he was doing. It was all on autopilot by now.

Only a few of the questions were about Amor Fati, though it was the height of his career and the best thing Viorel knew he’d ever done. He’d never had a role like that again; nobody had ever had a role like that again. But almost everyone had forgotten it now, and asked about films he hardly remembered acting in, though they were probably still running in theatres somewhere.

Probably there were a hundred other films like that, waiting to be made, based on unknown novels by nonentities which nobody read. He wished he had had the time to go and look for some books like those. But then he’d long since forgotten how to read anything more elaborate than a script or a contract.

And almost everyone asked about the current film. He hated the current film. He knew it would be successful and he hated it for that more than anything else. But he couldn’t say it.

Viorel began to have a headache. More and more he felt a disconnect between his fans and himself, not just in the fact that he was the object of their adulation and he didn’t give a damn about them, but even in the part of himself that they liked. It seemed to him that they worshipped a statue of him, and more and more he was being forced to play the statue.

It was when the meet was over and he was about to leave that he finally noticed the man. He’d seen him before, earlier, but he was holding back, just watching; a thin man, not well dressed, past middle age, with greying hair and spectacles, nobody he’d have looked at twice. For a moment he was alone, and the man approached, smiling diffidently.

“Mr Viorel? It’s an honour to meet you, sir.”

Viorel smiled back, though his cheeks were beginning to hurt with all the smiling by now. “I’m always glad to meet my fans,” he said.

“I love your work. I always have, from the beginning.” The man actually blushed. Viorel watched the colour climb in his cheeks. “If I could have an autograph,” he said. Viorel saw that he was carrying a small notebook and a pen. Amazing, that people still collected autographs. Mostly they just wanted photographs next to him, grinning like loons.

“Why, of course,” Viorel said. He fumbled at the notebook and dropped it. Instinctively, both he and the man bent to retrieve it, and bumped foreheads. The man began to apologise profusely.

Viorel felt like laughing. “No need to say sorry,” he said. “I have a hard head.” He flipped open the notebook. “Who should I make it out to?”

“Doesn’t matter,” the man said. “Just write that it’s in celebration of Amor Fati.”

Amor Fati?” Viorel raised his eyebrows. “You liked it?”

“I loved your part in it,” the other man said.  “You brought the story alive.” His eyes glinted behind his spectacles. “That scene by the bridge, when you stood looking at the keys in your hand, trying to make up your mind whether to throw them in...or, later, when you were at the were the story, Viorel. It would have been nothing without you.”

Viorel smiled. “It’s nice to think someone still remembers that old stuff,” he said, writing. “These days, unfortunately, the kind of movies I get to make have changed. And the younger actors get all the good roles.”

“You’ll always be my favourite,” the man clutched his precious notebook to his chest. “There’s not a day I don’t think about you and how you brought that film alive. Thank you so much for this. If I’d known you were going to be here I’d have brought a copy of the DVD for you to sign, but you see I was just passing by from work when I heard.”

“Yes, well,” Viorel said, seeing his publicist approaching. “It was nice talking to you. All the best.”

“The pleasure was all mine, Mr Viorel.” With a slight bow, the man walked away, his eyes on his notebook page. Dismissing him with a shrug, Viorel turned to look at the publicist. “Well, how did it go?”

The publicist’s face was always rubbery with contrived geniality, so it was impossible to judge what he really thought. “It was all right. You need to get out and talk to your fans like this, more often. It’s when people want to see your movies that you get the roles.” He peered past Viorel at the autograph man, who was just exiting through the hotel’s main entrance. “Oh, I see you’ve met him.”

“Met whom? Oh, him. I don’t know who he is. He wanted my autograph. Can you imagine anybody wanting an autograph in this day and age?”

“You don’t know who he is? Well, I suppose you wouldn’t. He’s the guy who wrote the novel, my boy.”

“Which novel?”

Amor Fati, of course, the one your film was based on.” The publicist laughed. “I don’t think he was given a penny for the rights, though. These small time nobody writers hardly ever are.”

Viorel massaged his forehead. The headache had returned. “Let’s go,” he said. “I could use a drink.”

A few days later, Viorel talked with his agent about making a film about an elderly writer whose ignored novel was turned into a famous movie, and who met the star of the movie years later. He talked in detail about what he thought the author’s feelings might be.

“Nobody’s going to want to make a film like that,” the agent said, chuckling. “Put it right out of your mind.” 

So Viorel did.  

The new movie was taking up all his time anyway, and there were discussions about more to come.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

Wednesday 29 January 2014

Special Operation

Note to Reader: This is a work of fiction. In other words, it is just a story. It does not make, or intend, any statement for or against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its government, or its armed forces.

Also, zombies do not exist. Thank you for your attention.


Deep under the surface of the inky black Pacific, the water was so still that they hardly felt as if they were at sea at all.

The Korean People’s Army Naval Force midget submarine Su 120 was hardly moving, hanging almost still in the water while its sonar searched the ocean for engine noises or any other indication the enemy was around. Inside the narrow confines of its hull, the crew hunched tensely over their instruments, waiting for the word to either go in to complete their mission or head back out to sea and try again later. They were tired and frustrated, and did not want to go around again.

Leaning back in his cramped seat, Petty Officer First Class Park Kang Ho finally removed his headphones and shook his head. “Nothing.”

Captain-Lieutenant Lee Jae Myung’s fleshy, round features did not relax. “You’re sure, Sangsa?”

“Yes, Comrade Daewi.” Park wiped his face, mildly surprised to find it was beaded with sweat. “There is nothing.”

Lee stared at him, his tiny eyes unreadable in the dim light. “You had better be,” he said. “If a Southern corvette turns up again at the last minute, like last time, I’m going to start having thoughts about you.”

It’s not my fault, Park wanted to say. Even if I can’t hear a thing, that doesn’t mean there’s no enemy there. You know as well as I do how primitive our equipment is. But, of course, he could never say that aloud. Everyone knew that under the Great Marshal, the Democratic People’s Republic had the best weapons in the world, as well as the best of everything else.

Lee looked at Park’s headphones, and nodded. “Very well,” he said. “We’ll go up to periscope depth and have a look. But before we do that, Sangsa, you go check up on the cargo.” Even in the dim light, his eyes glinted with undisguised malicious amusement as he noted Park’s hesitation. “Well?” he demanded. “What’s the problem?”

“Nothing, Comrade Daewi,” Park said, reluctantly rising from his seat. He hunched slightly, more than was strictly necessary so as not to strike his head on the low panel above. He was much taller than the Captain-Lieutenant, and knew the officer resented it. “I’ll go and see to them right now.”

“Do that, Park, and make sure they’re prepared for quick unloading. We don’t want to be inshore a moment longer than necessary.” Lee stared at his subordinate a moment longer, and then turned away to the engine room, where the third crew member, Petty Officer Second Class Oh Tae Woo, was hovering over the electric motors.

Sighing to himself, Park made his way past the portraits of the Kim triumvirate on the bulkhead beside the hatchway, and ducked into the forward compartment. For a moment he waited, looking up past the ladder to the short conning tower, and checking what he could see of the seal of the hatch. But he knew that he was just wasting time, trying to postpone the inevitable. Squeezing under the lower lip of the tower, he entered the bow section, where the two torpedo tubes had once been before being removed for this kind of special mission.

The cargo lay where he had helped load them eighteen hours earlier, before unhitching from the mother submarine, two in narrow bunks against each side of the hull, and the fifth on the deck between them.  They were lashed into their narrow grey shrouds, like chrysalises, twitching now and again from random reflexes.

The submarine’s bow tilted upwards as Lee began raising it to periscope depth, without waiting for Park to return. Park braced himself with one arm against the hull, but wasn’t quick enough to stop one leg from coming into contact with one of the twitching bundles. The front end jerked convulsively, hissing, and for a moment it looked as though it might come loose of the straps securing it. Park jumped back, startled, and cursed.

A few moments later he was back in the control room. Lee looked up at him from the helmsman’s seat. “Well?”

“They’re all right, Comrade Daewi.” Park glanced back over his shoulder at the forward compartment and suppressed a shiver. “All secure.”

Lee turned back to his controls. “Action stations.” His hand moved on the trim wheel, levelling off the submarine at periscope depth. A few moments later, a fuzzy black and white image appeared on the video screen. Lee grunted, turning the periscope through a slow circle. All there was to see was the waves and the darkness.

“Right, we’re going in.” Lee clicked the intercom to Oh in the engine room and gave him his instructions, and, turning to Park, who had the sonar headphones on again, raised an eyebrow interrogatively.

Park shook his head. The image on the screen was changing, waves washing over the periscope as the submarine began creeping forward, creating a wake which might be visible in the darkness. Lee, accordingly, retracted the instrument and turned his attention from the now blank screen to the controls. Apart from the low hum of the electric motor in the engine room, there was almost total silence.

“Ten kilometres,” Park said, reading from the map. He glanced up at the readout and made a quick mental calculation. “Sixty-five minutes.”

Lee nodded. His earlier malice had vanished, and now he was the cool-headed professional officer who had become the youngest submarine commander in the KPANF. The current was growing stronger this close to shore, and the sub’s speed began falling away, but not so much as to badly affect headway.

“I wonder how the others are getting on,” Park said.

Lee shrugged slightly. “Not our business. Any sounds?”

“No, Comrade Daewi.” Park sat back in his seat. Temporarily, he had nothing to do except listen on the sonar, and he could afford to relax his concentration a little. Immediately, the tension he’d kept at bay all this while returned at full force. He remembered the twitching bundles in the forward compartment and had a sudden mental vision of what might happen if the straps did come loose. Of course, there were the other restraints, but...

Blinking furiously, Park tried to dispel the mental image that had just brought up. Instead, he tried to think of his home, in Onsong in the far north, the familiar old apartment with the water-stained walls. His parents had given him his own room, as a child, and the water stains on the wall by his bed had grown to become old friends. He could discern faces in them, grinning and angry faces, and one which looked just like Kim Jong Il except for the glasses.

Remembering, he bit back a smile. If he’d told anyone about the stain, he might have got in trouble. But the Kim-head had been poised above one that looked like a cloud, and that in turn had hovered low over the unmistakable silhouette of the forequarters of a ship, with high flared bows and a heavy superstructure. It looked as though the Brilliant Leader was looking down on the ship speculating whether his spectacles were inside it.

One day, when his parents were out, he’d brought a girl home. That was Kim Mi Hyun, and she was the first girl who’d ever agreed to go anywhere with him. Mi Hyun wasn’t very pretty, but she was quiet and intelligent, and never mocked Park for being so tall and hairy like a Russian. But when she had come into Park’s room, and he’d tried to kiss her, she’d looked around uneasily.

“I don’t like it in here,” she’d said. “Let’s go.”

“Why?” Park had been surprised and hurt. “It’s not so bad.”

“No, I suppose it’s all right. But it’s making me uneasy, as though someone’s watching.” She’d pushed Park away when he had tried to kiss her again. “Let’s go,” she’d said, an edge in her voice. “I mean it, Kang Ho.”

Later that evening, Park had returned to his room and flung himself on the bed. At first he burned with resentment against her, and then he remembered the faces on the wall from the water stains. He began to resent the water stains, but there wasn’t much he could do about them.

Paint?” his father had asked, when he mentioned it later. “Whatever for?”

“It’s ugly,” young Park had tried to explain. “It looks dirty.”

“We can’t afford to paint the place,” his father had snapped, and that was that.

Park had cut out pictures of flowers and mountains from the papers and stuck them over the worst of the faces, but they had just looked tacky and drawn attention to the faces he couldn’t cover up.  Especially, Kim Jong Il, whose face, framed by a view of Mount Myohyangsan and a snowbound field, looked as though it were positively leering. He had ended up taking all the pictures down again, and throwing them away.

He hadn’t dared ask Kim Mi Hyun to come back home with him again. In fact, he’d only met her once more alone.

It had been the night before he’d left town to travel to Rason for his induction into the Navy. He’d waited for her in the street and met her as she’d walked home, alone.

“I’ll be leaving tomorrow,” he’d said.

She’d nodded, not looking directly at him. “Yes, I heard. So you’ve decided on a career in the Navy?”

He’d shrugged. “It’s a job. know, when I get done with training, I’ll have quarters. Maybe you could come visit then.”

“Me – a civilian in naval accommodation? Don’t be daft. They’d never allow me in.”

“I didn’t mean it quite that way. I was thinking...perhaps we might get married someday, or something.”

Marry you?”

“I just had the idea...”

Mi Hyun had glanced up at him quickly under her eyelashes. “I don’t know, Kang Ho,” she’d said. “I used to imagine I understood you. But sometimes I look at you across the room, and I try to guess what you’re thinking – and I can never find anything. It’s like you’ve put up a wall around your mind. I just don’t feel comfortable with you any longer.”

Park had swallowed painfully. “Well, perhaps you might change your mind.”

She’d smiled, just a little. “Maybe. We’ll see. Well, I’m home now. Have a good trip.”

But when he’d gone home on leave, he hadn’t met her. Later he’d heard that she’d married a railway official, or a doctor, or something like that. Nobody was sure and nobody cared either way. Most of them barely remembered who she was.

Park shook his head. Why had he allowed his mind to wander from his hometown to Kim Mi Hyun? He tried to think of what he’d heard about the new changes in the town his mother had written about. There was a new shopping mall, where even the ordinary people could go, she’d said, with shelves full of Chinese products. There was also a huge park, with thick beds of flowers and benches to sit on, she’d said, and included a couple of photos. The benches seemed occupied by young lovers.

When I get through with this mission, Park thought, I’ll be due for leave. I’ll go home and buy gifts for my parents at the mall, see the flowers and the paths for myself, and sit on the benches. Who knows, Mi Hyun might even be there. Maybe she didn’t get married after all. Maybe she’ll change her mind about me.

Yeah, and maybe one of the pigs in the pen behind the petty officer’s quarters at Haeju Naval Base would sprout wings and fly in through the window.

“Sangsa? Hey, Park!”

Park’s eyes snapped open at the voice. Lee was staring across at him. “What the hell are you doing? Falling asleep?”

“No, Comrade Daewi. I was concentrating on the sonar.”

“Yeah? Well, is there anything on it, if I might ask?”

Park shook his head. “Nothing, Comrade Daewi.” At least he had been listening, though he had heard nothing. “Nothing at all.”

Lee grunted. “We’re getting close. You get changed, both of you.”

Park removed the headphones and stood up reluctantly. The Southern puppet soldier’s uniform they’d given him was too tight across the shoulders, too short in the sleeves and trousers, and he felt ridiculous in it. But they couldn’t risk being identified if caught ashore, of course – not if the mission were to succeed.

Petty Officer Second Class Oh, smaller and able to move faster inside the sub’s confined hull, had already changed. His monkey-like face creased into a grin when he saw Park. “You look like one of the puppets with a Western mother, half American or something...”

“Don’t say it!” Park snapped. He liked Oh, who wasn’t a bad sort, but this wasn’t the time. With every moment, his nervousness was returning, like the tide coming in. “Save the wisecracks for later.”

Lee smiled crookedly up at Park when he returned to his seat. “You don’t seem very happy. Won’t be long, don’t worry.” He turned back to the controls. “Let’s have another look upstairs.”

On the video screen, the mottled waves appeared again as the periscope broke surface. But now there was a deeper black in the distance, blacker than the sky, dead ahead: the coast.

“I can hear the waves now,” Park said. On the sonar headphones it sounded like someone hitting a sheet of iron rhythmically with a broom.

“I’m reducing speed. You and Chungsa Oh go up front and prepare our friends for their ride before we surface.”

Oh was already coming forward, and he followed Park under the conning tower and into the bow section. The cargo had been lying still, but must have been alerted to their presence; the long bundles began twitching and rustling. Something ripped.

“The sedative’s wearing off,” Park muttered. “We can’t keep them secure much longer.”

“Won’t have to.” Even Oh’s normally happy face was looking strained. “Half an hour more and they’ll be out of here.” He bent over the nearest of the bundles and began working on the straps.

“Careful.” Park reached for one of the electric cattle prods mounted on the bulkhead. “I really don’t like those things.”

“Who does?” Oh had removed the straps from one bundle and had begun work on another. “You know about this one? They said he used to be a Party member, high up, but fell afoul of the Marshal.”

“I heard something about it. What does it matter? They’re all in the same state now, anyway.” Park leaned over Oh’s shoulder, cattle prod ready. “Generals or crooks or traitors, it doesn’t matter now.”

By the time Oh had got all the straps undone, the bow section didn’t look so organised. Two of the four bundles on the side bunks had rolled onto the deck, partly on the fifth, and they were wriggling convulsively. One of the other two looked as though it were repeatedly trying to sit up. The cloth covering its face began to tear where its mouth would be.

“We’d better give them another dose of the sedative,” Oh said, reaching for the package mounted on the wall next to the other prod. “I don’t think we could control them otherwise.”

“Not too much,” Park warned, “or we’ll never manage to get them ashore.” Leaning over the one Oh had called a former Party official, he jabbed a syringe into the twitching bundle at random. It jerked, hissing, and Park felt the jar of needle on bone. “Fuck it,” he hissed, and pressed the plunger as quickly as he could, before the needle could break off. “The hell with this.”

“Let me do it,” Oh said. His smaller, faster hands made it look easy. Soon the bundles were moving less convulsively, though they were far from quiet. “There.”

“Hope we don’t have to do that again.” Park wiped his forehead, sweating under the unfamiliar Southern uniform cap. “Do you really think this will work? you think they’ll really spread disaster and terror among the Southern puppets, as the admiral said?”

Oh glanced at him warily. “It’s got to work,” he said. “Those are our orders, to make it work. You know that, Comrade Sangsa.”

It was the first time the other man had called him by his rank, and Park understood the implied warning. “Yeah, I’m sure it will work. It’s just that I understand torpedoes, guns and missiles, but I don’t understand viruses. Particularly viruses made in labs.” He prodded the nearest bundle with the toe of his boot. “Well, they’re ready except for removing the shrouds and getting them through the hatch.”

“Are we going to use the boat?”

“Up to the Daewi,” Park said, turning to squeeze under the conning tower. “I don’t think we’ll need it if we can get in close enough for the damn things to wade ashore.”

Lee was looking at a piece of paper when Park and Oh re-entered the control room. He folded it, slid it back into an envelope, and then glanced up at Park. “All ready?”

“All ready, Comrade Daewi. We had to give them another shot of the sedative.”

“I hope you didn’t bloody overdose them, we don’t want the bastards to drown.” There was an odd expression on Lee’s face. “Ten more minutes, Sangsa. Check the sonar, I’ll have another look through the periscope, and we’re surfacing.”

Ne, Comrade Daewi.” Park could barely hear anything on the headphones over the crashing of surf on rocks. “Too much noise from the water, I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, we’re close. Nothing on the scope either. Stand by to surface.”

There was a particular feel to surfacing in a submarine, Park had always thought, ever since his first training dive. He thought it must be like what a cosmonaut must feel, landing back on earth after being in space. With real air to breathe, and the ground below, it felt like one was back home, no matter where one was. He had kept the feeling to himself, afraid of ridicule, but each time they surfaced he felt it anew. Whatever dangers might await outside, he was at least in his own environment. He’d often wondered why, with his size and clumsiness, he’d been ordered to volunteer for submarine duty, but as always the powers above had their reasons, not to be questioned by mere mortals like him.

“Go up and have a look,” Lee said, as soon as they’d broken the surface. “Quickly.”

Park nodded, and left his seat with the greatest alacrity he’d felt all night. When he climbed partly up the slippery rungs of the ladder inside the conning tower and opened the hatch, a splash of icy sea water came in, but he hardly noticed it due to the rush of fresh air. A moment later, he was halfway through the hatch.

The sky, of course, was dark. They’d chosen a new moon night for the operation, and one on which the cloud cover could be expected to be at the maximum, so there was neither moon nor starlight. Very close ahead, the shore bulked an even deeper black, and the sound of the surf on rocks was very loud. They were still running on the electric motor, so there was no engine noise from the Su 120 itself that he could hear over the waves.

Slowly, Park turned in a circle. Towards the stern and to port, the sea and sky merged in featureless darkness. To starboard, he could see the distant lights of a small town. That would probably be where one or two of the cargo would head, once ashore, though of course they might go anywhere.

Park didn’t care where they went, as long as he was rid of them.

He clambered back down the inside of the conning tower. “All fine, Comrade Daewi.”

“I’m bringing her in. You and the Chungsa get them up through the hatch. Tell me if we need the boat. I’d rather not use it.”

Ne.” Now that it had finally come to it, Park felt his tension begin draining away.  He only glanced down this time while stepping over the writhing bundles in the forward compartment, and when, as he eased the bow loading hatch open, one of them bumped his boot he did not flinch.

“Ready with the cattle prod,” Oh warned, and drew on a pair of the long leather gloves before he bent to the nearest of the bundles. Park had already pulled on a pair, and he hunkered down to grab the other end. The thing inside screeched something that almost sounded like words, and the hole in the cloth over the mouth grew bigger. Oh looked up at Park, alarmed.

“The Party comrade is probably telling us off,” Park said. He still felt utterly calm, and merely shifted his grip to hold the thing more securely. “Let’s hoist him on deck.”

By the time all five bundles were out on the foredeck, both petty officers were streaming with sweat. Park went back to the control room to report. “They’re all on deck, Comrade Daewi.”

Lee looked up at Park. The strange expression was still on his face. “Good. You two stay ready with the cutters. We ought to be able to come in close enough for them to wade ashore. I’ll let you know.”

Park nodded and went back to the forward compartment and hoisted himself up through the hatch. Oh was waiting with the cattle prods and a pair of cutters. He looked round anxiously as Park emerged. “I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “I don’t want to be alone with these.”

Park looked to the shore. It was so close now that he could see the waves breaking on the rocks. They’d timed it well, he thought, it was as calm as it would get. He looked up at the dark line of the shore, checking for any light or movement, but there was nothing. From here, even the town he’d seen earlier had vanished from view.

“Let’s get them ready,” he said. Oh handed him one of the cattle prods and bent with the cutters. Quickly, he snipped away the shrouds from the twitching things until they were exposed to the night.

They were all middle-aged men, all dressed in business suits, and might have been respectable-looking if they didn’t twitch and jerk and mumble incoherently. The one who had been the former party official raised his head and snapped at Oh; his teeth met empty air five centimetres clear of the petty officer’s glove.

“Glad we gave them the additional sedative,” Oh said. “They’re already coming out of it, though.”

“As you said,” Park observed, “it doesn’t matter. We’ll be rid of them soon.” He glanced down at the things, which were only secured now by white plastic cuffs around their wrists and ankles. “Wait till we’re in close and the Daewi gives us the word before you cut those off.”

Oh didn’t say anything. The Su 120’s small hull was rising and falling with the waves, and he braced himself against the forward sonar pod to keep his position. This was against regulations, of course, and in different circumstances Park might have said something, but for now he ignored it. One of the squirming figures rolled towards the edge of the deck, and he applied the cattle prod to its shoulder. With a squeal, the thing rolled back.

“Any moment now,” Oh said. Some of the waves were already breaking on either side of the bow, and spray drenched the foredeck. “They’ll get half-drowned,” he added.

“Doesn’t matter – as long as they can get ashore in good enough shape to pass on the virus. That’s what the admiral said, didn’t he? And it’s going to work, of course.” The submarine was hardly making way now, just rising and falling on the waves. Park looked back at the conning tower just in time to see Lee’s head peek over the top. “Chungsa,” he called. “I need you in the engine room. Cut them loose and get inside through the forward hatch. Secure it.” He looked down at Park. “As soon as he’s down, get them off the hull with the prod, then enter through the conning tower. I’ll be reversing and submerging as soon as you’re inside.”

“Yes, Comrade Daewi.” Park turned towards Oh, who was already on his knees. “Ankles first, of course.”

“Of course.” Despite the heavy-duty cutters, the white plastic cuffs were hard to sever. After several attempts, the first fell to the deck. It took several minutes to get rid of them all.

Park was keeping a careful watch on the five figures on the deck. Though they were free, they hadn’t as yet realised it, and they were still under some of the effects of the sedative. “Get in quickly,” he said. “As soon as you’re down, I’ll get them off.”

“Be careful,” Oh said, and ducked into the forward compartment. The hatch slid shut behind him.

Left alone, Park looked down at the figures and selected the one closest to the bow. He touched the cattle prod to its backside. With a convulsive jerk, the thing edged towards the front of the bow. One more jab, and it rolled into the water.

“Start from the back,” Lee called from the tower. “They’ll push each other in that way. Don’t bloody take all night, will you?”

Flushing, Park stepped back over the others to the last in line, and hit it with the prod. It pushed against the one in front, and that shoved the one in front of it. Suddenly angry at them, Park began using the prod mercilessly, jamming it into the backs of their necks and wherever else he could see bare skin. Within moments, the last of them tumbled into the sea.

Park suddenly came out of his rage. The cattle prod fell from his hand on to the deck, and he made no attempt to pick it up. Abruptly weary, he turned towards the coming tower.

Lee was still there. He held up a hand. “Stop!”

“What?” Park looked up at him blankly. “Something wrong, Comrade Daewi?”

“Yes, something’s wrong. Look at them. Are they getting ashore?”

Park turned, frowning. He could see the first one he’d pushed into the water. It was standing up to its neck in the sea, looking around at nothing in particular. One by one, the others came up too, heads poking above the surface. None of them made any move to wade shorewards.

“No,” he said. “But what can we do about that?”

We? Nothing. But you are going to get them ashore, Sangsa.”

“What do you mean, I’m going to get them ashore?”

“My orders,” Lee called down. “If the subjects cannot make way to shore on their own, one member of the crew should be left to do that.” He hesitated. “I’m sorry, Park,” he said after a moment. “I don’t like you, but this isn’t my choosing. Sealed orders.”

“Sealed orders?” Park mumbled. Then he remembered the paper Lee had been reading, and how he’d had that odd look in his eyes whenever he’d talked to Park afterwards. “How the hell am I supposed to get them ashore?” he yelled, suddenly furious, and started for the tower. “Explain that to me, Daewi.”

“Don’t worry,” Lee shouted back. “You’ll find that out for...” What else he might have said was cut off by the clang of the hatch. With a lurch, the sub began to submerge. Moments later, Park was in the sea.

He’d only just managed to make his way back to the surface when he felt a hand grabbing at his shoulder, and another at an arm. There were at least two tearing at him, though in the darkness he couldn’t see them. Frantically, he kicked out, and at last he felt their grips weaken and drop away. Desperately, he paddled for the shore.

Park knew he’d been bitten, but he had no time to think of that. Scrambling over the rocks, he was almost knocked off his feet by the waves. Twice he almost fell back into the water, but finally managed to haul himself ashore.

He didn’t have any time to relax. Already behind him he could hear the sounds of pursuit, as one by one his five erstwhile passengers made their way up the rocks towards him. Suddenly he knew perfectly well what Lee had meant about his not needing to worry about how to get the things ashore. All he had to do was to get ashore himself.

Gasping for breath, he scrambled up over the rocks on all fours. The muscles of his legs were cramping with fatigue, and his hands cut and bleeding. And yet, behind him, he could still hear them coming, and he had a sudden memory of the admiral at the final briefing, telling them that the virus made the infected highly resistant to injury and exhaustion.

Finally, just when he felt he could not go on further, he clambered over a final outcrop of rock and literally stumbled across a road.

It wasn’t much of a road, narrow, unlit and deserted, but it might as well have been a superhighway as far as he was concerned. With a groan of pure relief, he leaned forwards with his hands on his knees to catch his breath. He couldn’t stay long – he’d have to get help, and fast.

The town, he thought. I have to get to the town. It ought to be towards the right, and luckily that way was slightly downhill. He began trudging that way, slowly and then slightly faster. Behind him, as he walked, he could still hear the sound of them coming. But he seemed to be going fast enough to keep them at a distance, and for now that was good enough.

His mind had begun to wander, and he began to have fantasies about lurid revenge on Lee and even on Oh. But it wasn’t their fault, and they would have a hard enough trip back to the mother submarine without him there. Maybe they wouldn’t even make it, and the Su 120 would drift to the bottom, to be mired in the ooze till the sea rose millions of years later and exposed her to the light. He imagined how she’d look, with her conning tower crusted with barnacles and her hull encased in the stone, and began to laugh a little.

The laughter brought him back to the present. This wouldn’t do, he thought. This wouldn’t do at all. He looked down at his legs, but they were almost invisible in the darkness, so he began to count the steps. At about the one thousand three hundred level he lost count and grew angry and frustrated, so he decided to start humming pop songs instead.

Dawn was light in the sky over his shoulder when he staggered into the town. By now he was beyond tiredness, merely putting one foot in front of another. The buildings rose on either side, but he hardly noticed their shape or colour. They seemed to merge into Onsong, as he remembered it. How on earth had he managed to find his way back to Onsong? But there was his old school, so if he turned down the left hand street, he should be able to get home. His mother would be happy to see him.

“Hey, soldier!” someone called. “Where are you coming from, and who are those men following behind you?”

Park did not respond. He did not even hear. He had long since passed beyond all that.

He was walking with Kim Mi Hyun in the park, holding hands. It was springtime, the flowers were in full bloom, the birds were singing, and the air was full of the smell of hope and joy and the future shone bright as the sun.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014