Saturday, 9 January 2016
Friday, 8 January 2016
The War Is Over
The guard at the door to the bunker complex stepped forward, hand on gun butt, but then recognised him and saluted. “Go right in, Doctor.”
BP nodded. “Thank you.” He was still nominally a civilian, and didn’t have to salute back, so didn’t. Some of his colleagues thought it was disrespectful not to salute back, but he tried to retain what little vestige of civilian privilege he still could.
The corridor inside was grey and white, lit by cheerless fluorescent lights overhead. It always looked chilly enough to make him shiver instinctively. Closed circuit cameras on the walls turned silently, following him as he walked down the passage to the lift that would take him sinking down, to his laboratory level, far below.
“Morning, Doctor,” the lift security guard said. There were, of course, security guards everywhere, even though there was less and less need for them as time went on. “How are things?”
BP nodded and smiled briefly, not bothering to answer. What was he supposed to reply – that the situation was catastrophic, the sky was falling, something like that? So the only alternative was to smile and say everything was fine, and he’d done the smiling part.
The security guard didn’t seem to notice or care. “They do say the war’s going very well,” he babbled. “They say we’re going to win soon.”
“They do?” BP asked, watching the red numbers change as the lift rose from deep underground. “Who says that?”
“Everyone,” the guard said. “I heard it on the telly.”
“Well, then, it must be true, mustn’t it?” BP smiled briefly and stepped into the lift. It was cylindrical and the wall was mirrored. Distorted versions of himself looked back at him with smeared faces as the lift began to sink back down.
BP rubbed his eyes. Each time he left the bunker complex, it seemed harder to return. The conferences in the capital, tedious and unnecessary as they were, were welcome breaks in the schedule. This time he’d even had a couple of hours free when they’d let him walk on the street, allegedly alone, though of course they’d have bodyguards discreetly following. It had been a lovely spring day, a real wind in his face, and it felt strange to see children running on the pavements and playing out in the open. Only a year or two ago, they’d never have been out by themselves for fear of missile strikes. One child, accompanied by two little cyborg dogs, had run to him, obviously mistaking him for someone else, and then stopped, suddenly confused and uncertain.
BP had tried to make it easy for him. “Nice dogs,” he’d said, though the creatures, with their metallic limbs and skull-like faces, had repelled him. They weren’t anything like the real dogs he’d always known and loved. “How old are they?”
“Eleven,” the child had said, a finger hooked in his mouth, pointing to one of the dogs. “That one’s thirteen.” The second dog had seemed to have taken a fancy to BP and had jumped into his arms, struggling to lick his face. Its tongue had felt like fine dry sandpaper.
Eleven and thirteen, though, and these two dogs were jumping around like puppies. They’d probably still be like puppies eleven or thirteen years from now.
Everything was moving towards the cyborgs. That was one of the many spin-offs of the war, as the media proudly repeated. The cyborgs, they said, opened the way to immortality.
That was as long as one could afford it, of course. BP had heard that the average cost of a human cyborg was equivalent to twenty years’ pay, and even then only a few candidates were being considered. People who could become super soldiers and end the war.
BP grimaced, and the smeared cylindrical reflection grimaced back at him. If the cyborgs promised immortality, the worst perversion of the technology would be to use them as soldiers. But then the generals would do anything.
A bluecoat was waiting for the lift at the bottom, an older man with a thick bulldog face and a walrus moustache. He was all ready to glare as the door opened, angry because he had to wait, but then saw BP’s green coat and thought better of it. Greencoats were the top of the hierarchical pile in the bunker complex.
“You’re back,” the bluecoat said neutrally.
BP nodded. “As you see.” He had no idea who the bluecoat was – he wasn’t from BP’s own department – but it wasn’t any surprise that the man knew him. Greencoats were few, and very well known to everybody by sight and name.
“How’s it outside?” The bluecoat seemed to have lost his desire to enter the lift.
“As usual. You know, spring, blue skies, the leaves are coming out on the branches.” BP glanced at the bluecoat, whose little eyes were gleaming avidly. “You haven’t been out in a while?”
“Not since the start of autumn,” the bluecoat said. His moustache quivered. “Ever since the autumn I’ve been down here, without a sight of the sky!”
BP didn’t know what to say. “Well,” he managed, “if the rumours are right we’ll soon be done with the work here.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it.” The bluecoat suddenly remembered his urgent need for the lift and jabbed the button, halting it before it could rise again. “I’ll bet I’m still here when...” His voice was cut off as the lift door slid shut.
A whitecoat was waiting for him outside the door of his laboratory. “The Director wants to see you, Doctor.”
BP regarded her with disfavour. Now that he was back down here, in the world where there was no day or night, he was eager to get back to work. On the other side of that door, his banks of equipment would be humming, ready to do as his mind had shaped them. Instead of which...
“Right away?” he asked.
The whitecoat only nodded. She was so pale that she looked almost as white as her coat. BP wondered if she’d ever felt the sun on her skin, or whether she’d been born and grown up in the bunker. Like all whitecoats, she resented the fact that she’d probably reached as high as she’d ever get. Unlike browncoats and bluecoats, whitecoats seldom rose higher in the ranks.
But her message wasn’t to be disregarded, so BP went to the Director’s office instead.
“You’re going to take over the new department at once,” the Director said. “You’ll have carte blanche. Budget, personnel, whatever you want.”
BP leaned back in his chair, frowning. “While I’m not in any way disregarding the honour and responsibility,” he said drily, “I really would like to know why. All these years I’ve been starved of funding and resources; I’ve been working in spite of, not because of, the department. So why am I being given all this help now?”
The Director shrugged, his pudgy shoulders moving under his brown coat. “The war’s still on,” he said. “The cyborg programme is obviously not moving fast enough. So...”
“...they’ve finally decided to give my matter disruptor a chance.” BP sighed, half with exasperation and half satisfaction. “If they’d listened to me earlier...”
“...we’d have won by now,” the Director replied expressionlessly. “Yes, we all know that. Well, you’re being given your chance now.”
“It’s not as though we can guarantee overnight results,” BP said. “You know what the disruptors do? They increase the energy levels of molecules in closed systems until they begin to disintegrate giving off heat energy.”
“Yes, and so?”
“We’ve had good results in being able to generate the effects at a distance,” BP said. “But we can’t focus it. It’s like taking a sledgehammer to a...” he tried to think of an appropriate comparison. “To a bacterium,” he finished.
“Send me your results so far immediately, and update me on a daily basis of your progress from now on.” The Director tapped a forefinger on his desk. “So how long do you think you’ll take to refine it, now you’ve got all you need?”
BP shook his head. “There’s no way of telling. It may not even be possible at all, or not possible in a short enough time. But what’s the hurry? We’re winning, aren’t we?”
The Director stared back at him levelly. “Are we?” he asked.
“I heard the enemy is putting out peace feelers,” BP said.
“Are they?” the Director said, and it was impossible from his voice to understand whether it was a question at all.
On the way to his laboratory – now the new department, of which he was the chief – BP met D. She was pushing along some kind of white plastic contraption on wheels, that resembled a vacuum cleaner. “Congratulations,” she said.
He frowned. “You’ve heard?”
Her cool, lovely face broke into an ironic smile. “It’s been all over the place since yesterday,” she said. “Everyone knows. I take it you’ve just been told – the last to know, huh?”
He made a short, clumsy bow. “As you say, the last to know.” D was very beautiful and very remote, and BP always felt clumsy around her. “How’s your research going?”
“Oh, you know, the same as usual.” D was a bluecoat, and had ambitions to move up to green. She had the drive, the single-minded determination. As far as BP knew, she had no life outside her work. “It’s nothing as glamorous as yours, of course.” With a smile and a twiddle of her fingers in the air, she walked up the passage, leaving BP to his thoughts.
The war was over.
BP heard of it as he was on the way down to his quarters. A small knot of bluecoats and whitecoats were clustered around a little television set in the middle of the corridor. Normally they’d have made way for a greencoat like a school of sardines parting before a shark, but they were so intent on the screen that they didn’t even notice his presence, so he had to stop as well. The air of barely suppressed excitement was so great that he knew what it would be before he even saw the screen.
The war was over. The war, which had been going on so long, was over. They’d won.
BP stared at the announcer, at the scenes of flag-waving crowds, watching his own name scroll past over and over at the bottom of the screen, hardly noticing what it was saying. Finally he felt the respectful tugging at his sleeve.
It was the very pale whitecoat of the other day, and she was much more deferential now. “The Director would like to see you, Doctor.”
The Director was smiling so broadly that his plump face seemed to split almost in two. He even got up from behind his desk to greet BP.
“Well, well,” he said, “the hero of the hour.”
“Hero?” BP frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“You don’t?” The Director shook his head genially. “You scientists, you really live in your own world, don’t you? It’s your invention, my dear man...it’s your invention that won the war!”
“My invention?” BP had half-risen from his chair. “But it’s not even perfected, or refined in any way. You know that. You’ve got all my data daily, as you wanted. We can’t target anything smaller than a big city.”
“That’s right,” the Director said levelly. “And that’s exactly what we did. Targeted the enemy’s cities, all at once.”
BP’s mouth opened, closed, and opened again. When he spoke, his voice came as a whisper. “You know what the disruptor does?”
“Of course I do.” The Director looked faintly uneasy. “It increases, as you said, molecular energy levels, so that they give off excess energy as heat and...”
“In a closed system,” BP snapped. “In a closed system, like a human body. Those people cooked alive inside their skins!”
The Director shrugged. “It won the war, didn’t it?” He turned his computer screen towards BP. It showed the same scenes of massed flag waving celebrations. “See for yourself.”
BP barely glanced at the screen. “They were almost finished anyway,” he said. “They were suing for peace, have been for months! Why did this have to be used at all?”
“The government made a decision,” the Director said. “They decided to get this over once and for all. And do you realise...”
“This is the most decisive victory in human history? There have been so many times in the past where one side has won the war, but never could be sure the other wouldn’t rise again one day and take revenge. But that can’t ever happen this time.”
“Why not?” BP began, and realisation struck. “Oh.”
“Exactly.” The Director nodded genially. “You’ve removed a permanent threat, forever, and that’s exactly why you’re a hero. The country isn’t ungrateful. You can pick any reward you want.”
BP’s mind whirled. “I...” he began. “I...”
The Director held up a hand. “Take your time. There’s no hurry. Come and tell me tomorrow morning what you want. I can assure you in advance you’ve got it.” He smiled again. “In the meantime...”
“Go out to the town, why don’t you? Have a night out. You’ve earned the pleasure.”
BP looked down at his hands and up at the Director. “Thank you,” he said, “but I’m very tired. I just want to go to bed.”
“Suit yourself,” the Director said. “It was just a suggestion, but you can do anything you want. You’ve earned it, now.”
In the dream he saw a city. It was an enemy city, as he’d seen it in photographs, with its tall grey buildings with the baroque architecture and the gargoyles on cornices, the broad streets with the sandstone bridges, pillars with lamps at each end. The signs on the shops and buildings, too, in the enemy’s language, angular letters just on the other side of making sense. It was a lovely city, and should be bustling with life. But there was not a single sign of life, not a noise. On the broad, beautiful streets, nothing moved, not even a scrap of paper blown by a gust of wind.
Then, at last, he saw movement. He didn’t immediately realise what it was. Low to the ground, slow and spasmodic, it twitched and lurched in the shadows of a half-open doorway, like something afraid of the light. Curious, he drifted closer.
At first he thought it was some kind of monster out of a dream, something bright red and sprawling that crawled blindly and felt its slow, eyeless way. Even when it opened a gash in the round mass at its front end, he didn’t realise what it was.
He realised it only when the blind, crawling thing called him by name...
BP jerked awake. His heart was thudding so hard it felt as though it would burst out of his chest. It was some moments before he realised that a soft voice was actually calling him by name.
The blankets were drawn back as someone slipped into the bed beside him. He felt smooth, naked skin, the swell of a breast surmounted by a hard nipple. “Don’t you lock your door at night?” D whispered, her lips brushing his ear.
“What are you doing here?” He tried to sit up, but she swung herself over him, straddled him, and pushed him back down. Her index finger lay on his lips.
“Shh,” she said. “Don’t you want me? I can tell you want me.”
“No,” he wanted to say, but his body was already responding, independent of his mind.
She smiled down at him, her teeth a flash of white in the dimness.
“I always wanted to fuck a hero,” she said.
The Director had put a vase of fresh flowers on his desk. The red of them bled into the air. “So,” he asked, “have you decided what your reward’s to be?”
BP nodded, looking at the flowers, whose colour reminded him of the crawling thing from the dream. “Two things. First, I want to continue my research. Fully independently, with all the funding and equipment I need.”
The Director shrugged. “I suppose that’s what they’d expect anyway. We might need your weapon again, in future, against someone. What’s the other?”
BP told him. The Director nodded slowly. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” BP said. “Do you think it can be managed?”
The Director grinned broadly. “You’re a hero,” he said, “and there hasn’t yet been time for their gratitude to dry up. So, of course it can be managed. I’ll send the request in today.”
“The best,” BP said. “The absolute cutting edge. One of a kind.”
The Director looked at him curiously, but nodded again. “It’ll be done,” he said.
The years have passed by since then, like a bird’s flapping wing. The seasons have turned, the old moon gone around and around in its lazy way. The cities of the enemy are beginning to crumble, the broad avenues filled with blown dust. The victory over them is now half-forgotten, a fading memory in aging minds and history books.
And, at last, BP is ready.
He has long got used to his new body, its metal joints and ageless, near-immortal, frame; he’s grown used to memory so vast he can literally forget nothing, thinking so quick he could never have processed it with the grey, organic jelly of his fragile old brain. He has grown used to living without growing older, and has systematically removed from himself such useless features as sentiment, sympathy, regret and pity.
Oh, yes, he has removed pity. Most of all, pity for himself.
And he has worked. Tirelessly, without the need for sleep and rest, he has worked. And, at last, his weapon is ready. It’s ready, and so is he.
Ready for revenge.
He stalks the lands, his machine held before him in his metal arms. Before him, the cities fall silent, their occupants blown ash. As he walks, the sky around his metal head glows red as blood, red as a swollen giant sun, red as the flowers on the Director’s desk, so long ago.
It glows as red as the skin of that crawling, blind, calling thing.
And he shall walk on, and the lands shall fill with death. There is no forgiveness for anything in him, now, and most of all no forgiveness for himself. There is no way to expiate what he’s done, so he will do more.
And the lands will be cleansed before him, before his silent machine of revenge, until there is nothing left, except him. Until he stands on a last pebbly beach, watching the ocean boil away into the red, red sky.
And then, because there is for him not even the release of death, he will go on.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016
Thursday, 7 January 2016
The Right To Self Defence
Wednesday, 6 January 2016
Until Next Time
Note to Reader: This is the second occasion in my life that I sat down to write one story and a completely different one flowed, unbidden, from my fingertips, as though I was just an instrument for it to write itself. I am more than half-convinced that Shoichi Kimura from Found On A Body was a real person. I wonder if Ahmed from Until Next Time is – or, more likely, will be.
The big man with the pink face smiled at Ahmed and said something in English. He had a very loud, booming voice.
Ahmed threw a frightened glance over his shoulder, but none of the other children had yet come squeezing into the room. He wondered why the big man was shouting, what he’d done to make him angry. It made no difference that he was smiling. Everyone was always angry at Ahmed over something or other.
The black-bearded translator frowned at him. “The gentleman asked you a question,” he said, in Ahmed’s language. “He’s asking if you want a job.”
Ahmed felt his lips moving. “Yes,” he whispered, using up exactly one fourth of the English he knew.
The pink man smiled, nodding. He was huge, and his skin was the pinkest Ahmed had ever seen. It was hard to imagine that people that pink could exist, apart from Jamshid the albino in the next village, of course. His shirt was the whitest Ahmed had ever seen, and his tie had patterns like a peacock on it. “That’s good. I like a young man who’s willing to earn an honest buck. How old are you, anyway?”
“Fourteen,” the translator said, without waiting for Ahmed to answer. Actually, Ahmed wasn’t quite eleven, and looked it, but the pink man nodded and looked satisfied. Everyone hired today would be fourteen. Fourteen was the minimum age of employment.
“Good. And why are you looking for work?” The pink man cocked his head to one side and studied Ahmed quizzically. “Tired of school, are you? The homework’s too much tyranny? The bullies are a problem?”
There was no school left, of course, since the teacher had stopped coming. The teacher had used to come twice, sometimes even thrice, a week, but the local warlord had started demanding he pay a tax for the privilege of earning his salary. So he stopped coming, and soon after the school burned down. In the village they said the teacher had come back in the night and burnt it as revenge. Or maybe it was the warlord.
“He’s done with school,” the translator said, the standard response. “He’s passed his final exams.”
“So, what about your parents?” the pink man asked. “Brothers and sisters?”
“No,” said Ahmed, finishing off another quarter of his knowledge of English. The translator spoke to him sharply and then turned to the pink man. “His parents are dead.” He didn’t tell the pink man why the parents were dead, how they’d died. “No brothers and sisters.”
“Is that so?” The pink man leaned forward, looking at Ahmed with new interest. “That opens up possibilities. Is he eager to earn money?”
“Of course he is.” The translator didn’t have to point to Ahmed’s cracked shoes and the torn right knee of his trousers. “Any money will be welcome.” He licked his lips, calculating his finder’s fee.
The pink man nodded genially. “Well, boy, we have a job for you. It doesn’t involve much work, but it does need the right person. Are you ready for it?”
“He’s giving you the job,” the translator said, frowning at Ahmed. “It’s a job better than those others waiting outside will be offered. Well?”
Ahmed dredged up the remaining two words of English he knew. “Thank you.”
“Sir,” the translator ordered. “Say sir.”
Ahmed nodded obediently. “Sir thank you yes,” he said.
Ahmed stood in the middle of the field, waiting.
Far in the distance, to the left, the village was still waking up to the new day. Woodsmoke hung bluish in the air, competing with the drifting morning fog. It was cold, and Ahmed hugged himself as tightly as he could, hoping it would soon be over. He wished he could go over and talk to Nazneen and Zulfikar, maybe huddle with them for warmth, but they’d been given strict orders to stand exactly where each one had been told. Besides, Zulfikar didn’t like it when Ahmed talked to Nazneen, and had once threatened to break his teeth if he did it again.
There was a droning noise in the east, and Ahmed sighed with relief as he saw the little yellow plane fly over the low hills at the further end of the valley. It was coming straight towards him, the rising sun shimmering on the arc of its spinning propeller. Ahmed had learnt well enough not to flinch and run as he’d done the first time. He’d been shouted at and they’d threatened to beat him. Not, of course, that there had turned out to be anything to run from.
Ahmed saw the white clouds appear from under the wings, and stood straight and rigid, exactly as ordered, when the drenching mist fell on him. Today, it had a slight odour, one which turned into a faint oily taste on the back of his tongue. One time, last week, his skin had begun itching fiercely and turned red, but there was nothing like that this time.
The plane reached the end of the field, turned and flew back slowly, the clouds settling on Nazneen and Zulfikar as well. Then it rose slowly into the air and vanished over the hills the way it had come.
Someone near the village raised a green flag and waved. They could go in and have breakfast, though they were forbidden to bathe until tomorrow. Once Zulfikar had cheated, and they’d beaten him, and not paid him anything. Ahmed had rather enjoyed the spectacle of Zulfikar being beaten, because he was a bully. But he’d taken care to not make the same mistake.
Then, after breakfast, they’d be paid. They’d, of course be paid only half the amount the pink man had promised, because the warlord would keep the rest as taxes. And then from what was left Ahmed would have to give the translator his share. But it was better than having no money at all.
“Come on!” the man with the green flag shouted. “Or don’t you lot want your food and salary?”
Ahmed rubbed the mist from his face on the sleeve of his shirt and began trudging towards the village.
It was over for today.
One day Zulfikar wasn’t there. Ahmed and Nazneen walked together to the field and he asked her about him, because she lived not far from him and should know. She shook her head so that her brown chador slipped over her forehead and on her face. “I don’t know. They said he’s sick.”
“He stays with his grandpa, you know? I heard that he fell sick last night. That’s all.”
“He’ll probably be back next time,” Ahmed said. “Do you like him?”
“No,” Nazneen replied, pausing to put on her shoe, which had fallen off her little foot. “Do you?”
Ahmed shook his head happily. “Do you think they’ll pay us extra if we got sprayed in his place today, twice each?” he asked before they parted to go to their separate positions.
Nazneen shrugged. “The warlord would take it all anyway.”
They never saw Zulfikar again. Nazneen said she’d heard he’d died.
“So why haven’t they buried him?” Ahmed asked, looking in the direction of the little village graveyard.
“I heard they took his body to the city, in a helicopter.” Nazneen grimaced. “Someone was saying they’d cut him open and see what’s inside.”
Ahmed was impressed. “I never thought Zulfikar would ever get to the city, dead or alive. Do you think it’s very big?”
“Uncle Najib works in the city,” Nazneen said. “Before the warlord’s men chased him away the last time he came here, he told me it’s full of people like us sleeping on the streets and waiting outside restaurants for the garbage to be thrown out in case there’s something to eat in it.”
But Ahmed wasn’t listening. He was thinking about the picture of a city he’d once seen, buildings tall as the sky and white as ivory, streets filled with cars and crowds, beautiful women walking in and out of the shops. “Someday I’ll take you to the city,” he said, and then, remembering there was no Zulfikar to take offence, he squeezed her hand.
“Alive, I hope,” she said, and squeezed back.
Ahmed stood in the field, waiting, as the little yellow plane lifted over the hills and buzzed towards him like a drowsy bee. Today it was flying even lower and slower than usual, as though it was so heavily loaded that it couldn’t raise itself any higher. Ahmed wondered if it would come so low that he might see the pilot, and wave to him, and whether the pilot might wave back. Better not, though. He’d been ordered not to move at all.
The plane had just come close enough for the sun to gleam on its wings when it happened. There was a puff of smoke and a ball of light spiralled up from the ground and rushed up behind the machine’s tail, to end in a blinding flash of light and a blast of noise so loud Ahmed thought he’d gone deaf. The plane, suddenly transformed into a blazing, cartwheeling wreck, tumbled down on the far side of the field, striking with an impact that jolted Nazneen to her knees, screaming shrilly with fear as bits and pieces came raining down around her.
Ahmed couldn’t even do that much. He could not move at all.
Ahmed stood in the middle of the field, waiting.
It was a different field, a strange field, far away from the village. It wasn’t empty either. There was a burned out car nearby, and the remains of a hut behind him, just the smashed knee high remnants of a wall. The car and the hut didn’t seem like they belonged in the field. They looked as though they’d been brought from elsewhere and put here, like Ahmed himself.
They’d explained to him that after the bad men had shot down the yellow plane they could no longer give him the same job, since it wasn’t safe any longer. They’d said other things that he’d not understood, but they’d told him that if he came with them, they would see that he was all right.
They hadn’t taken Nazneen though. Ahmed had been a little sad about that at first, but Nazneen herself had lost all her interest in the work after the morning when she’d crouched screaming on the field while burning wreckage fell around her. The evening before Ahmed had gone with the men, he’d met her out by the mosque, sitting on a stone by the roadside.
“I’ll be going away tomorrow,” he’d said. “I’ll come back for you, though, when I’ve earned a lot. Then we’ll go away to the city together.”
Nazneen hadn’t looked at him. There had been a large bandage round her forearm, dirty and unwinding at one end, and she’d tried to tuck the loose end back in, one handed. “All right,” she’d said. “If you want.”
Ahmed had been piqued. “Don’t you want to go with me to the city?” he’d demanded.
“If you want,” Nazneen had repeated listlessly.
“So what will you do while I’m away?” Ahmed had demanded. “It’s not as though you have a job any longer.”
Nazneen had shrugged. “Waqar – you know, the warlord’s bodyguard – he said he’d give me food and a bed to sleep if I went to him. He’s a kind man.”
Ahmed wasn’t sure what that was about and hadn’t asked. “All right,” he’d said, getting up. “I’ll see you when I come back.” He’d hesitated. “Until next time.”
“Until next time,” Nazneen had repeated. The last Ahmed had seen of her, she was still trying to get the bandage back around her forearm, and it had been more unravelled than ever.
The long, graceful wings bent at the tips as the drone banked over the airfield, turning towards the rising sun. Its bulbous, faintly phallic nose moved slightly this way and that, as though sniffing its way, before settling on a course. Inside its smooth fuselage, sensors whirred, tasting the ground below for images and heat traces, the movements of men and animals. Computers took the information, merged it, made a coherent whole of it, and then sent it two ways. One went flying back, in a stream of data, to a bunker beneath the base now far away. The other went a much, much shorter distance, to a computer somewhere in the drone’s bulbous head itself.
In the bunker beneath the base, a small knot of men in olive green uniforms, two of them seated, the rest standing behind them, watched an array of screens. “It’s performing perfectly so far,” one said, bending over the shoulder of another to get a better look at a screen.
“Keep your fingers crossed, sir,” the man in the left seat, who had stripes on his sleeve, said. “We’ll know in a minute whether the programme works.”
“There he is.” The right hand side seated man pointed to a tiny dot in the left lower corner of the screen. “Let’s see if Dragon does as it’s supposed to.”
Without the touch of a joystick, the scene shifted until the dot was centred. The view zoomed in, and the dot grew arms and legs, became a tiny human figure standing in front of a wrecked car.
“All going perfectly,” the left hand side man said, glancing at another screen, which was filled with coloured graphs and numbers. “Readouts are within parameters.”
“The kid’s not actually going to be hit this time, is he?” the officer bending over the left hand seat asked nervously.
“Not this time,” the right hand seat man responded. He glanced towards the officer, not attempting to conceal his amusement. “It’s a dummy run, just gathering target information and seeing if it works. You don’t have to worry, sir.”
The officer glared at him, but looked relieved all the same. “It must be a change for you,” he said, ‘to not actually have to do anything. Let the drone do all the work, make the decisions.”
The left hand man shrugged, pressing buttons. Lines appeared on the screen, around the boy. A red glow blossomed briefly around the little figure, and disappeared.
“That’s it,” he said with satisfaction. “A perfectly executed mission. Target searched, acquired, and annihilated, all totally automatically.”
“Until next time,” the man in the right hand seat said. “Next time we’ll use a dummy missile.”
“Until next time,” the officer whispered. He watched the dot in the screen recede, and began thinking of his own son at home. He’d go home on leave soon, and he’d need to buy a present for the kid.
A model drone, he decided. The boy could have fun assembling it.
Ahmed watched the tiny speck fly overhead, the sun shining on immensely long, tapering wings. He watched it fly over, waiting for the clouds of dew to fall from underneath, and was mildly disappointed when it turned round and flew away again. Maybe they would still pay him, though, even though the plane hadn’t sprayed him. After all it wasn’t his fault that the plane had flown away, was it?
Next time they might drop something, he thought, and watched the shining speck fly away into the brightening sky of the new morning.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016
Tuesday, 5 January 2016
B squeezes himself into the far corner of the back seat, his arms tightly around his torso, hugging himself. He wishes he could disappear, from the world, from himself, but mostly from the other four in the car.
Atul stamps on the accelerator, swinging the wheel as hard as he can. The off side tyres mount the edge of the pavement before coming back down on the street hard enough to rattle them around like dice in a box, but nobody notices; they’re too busy shouting.
“What the hell did you do that for?” Rudal’s face is all mouth and eyes as he screams at Sundeep. “Why did you shoot that cop?”
Sundeep glances at him and back at the rust-coloured pistol in his hands. He’s broken the barrel open, slid the spent cartridge out, and loads another one into the breech. A wisp of smoke rises from the barrel like a waking snake, and is instantly whisked away. “It was him or us,” he snaps. “What else should I have done? Given up?”
“Look,” Pradeep yells, pointing at a man on the pavement holding up a mobile phone. “That bastard’s trying to take photos.” Sundeep leans across him, sticks the barrel of the gun through the window, and fires. There’s a deafening blast and the man falls to the ground, kicking spasmodically, a pool of blood already forming around him. The mobile phone is an oblong of shattered plastic on the street.
“That’s taken care of him,” Sundeep says with satisfaction. He stuffs another of the thick brass cartridges into the pistol. “Anyone else?”
“When you asked me to get that katta for you,” Rudal screams, “I never thought you were going to do a robbery with it.”
“So what did you think I’d do with it – defend myself?” Sundeep shouts back. “If I’d wanted a gun to defend myself with I’d have applied for a firearms licence and bought a proper revolver, you idiot.”
Atul glances back over his shoulder long enough to snarl at them. “Didn’t it occur to any of you that the cops will be after us now?”
“It was him or us,” Sundeep repeats. He lifts up the sack of money to show them. “We got this anyway.”
Pradeep glares at him. “What did you have to rob for?”
“I didn’t see you holding back when I told you to take the money,” Sundeep says. “Any of the three of you. And you won’t hold back when it comes to taking your share either, I’ll bet.”
“That doesn’t make a damn difference,” Rudal says. “If I’d known you were planning a robbery...”
“...you wouldn’t have bought the katta for me,” Sundeep finishes. “As though I don’t know that you made a nice profit on it, and on the bullets. And as though just anyone knows where one can buy illegal homemade guns. Right?” He pauses to see if anyone will answer. “Just like this car,” he continues. “It’s stolen goods, which is why it was cheap. The dealer Atul bought it from is crooked, as we all know.” His mouth twists viciously. “Don’t you get it? All of you are crooks, it’s just that you aren’t ready to admit it to yourselves. Well, I am.”
“We aren’t crooks,” Pradeep says. His sparse moustache doesn’t quite cover the scar on his upper lip, and it’s livid against his pale skin. “We’re college students, and you’re one too.”
“Yeah, right, college students,” Sundeep laughs shortly. “Do you think a college degree’s going to get you a job, huh? Shall I tell you what’s going to happen when you go with your degree to a job interview? Shall I?” He points a thick finger at Pradeep. “Some stuck-up bitch with a fancy upper class school accent’s going to waggle her tits in the interviewer’s face and then it’s thanks for coming in, better luck next time, for you. Well, I’m not planning to spend my life selling ice cream or listening to abuse from fat foreign sluts at a call centre. I want to live.”
“We aren’t going to live unless we get somewhere safe,” Atul says. They’re headed into the old part of town, narrow streets with straggling houses, but beyond them the land rises into the forested hills. “They must be after us by now.”
B stirs at last, forcing his clenched fists to relax, letting his arms drop away from his torso. “All I wanted was a lift,” he says. “Why didn’t any of you tell me anything about this?”
Pradeep glances at him as though surprised he exists. “About what?”
“This...gun,” B says. “This car. This robbery. All of you knew something or other was going on, but none of you told me anything. And all I wanted was a lift.”
Nobody speaks for a minute or two. They’re in a lane so narrow that Atul has to slow almost to a stop to let a car coming from the other side pass. Sundeep sticks the gun under the seat.
“Where are we going?” Rudal asks when they’re past the lane and out on a more open street. “Do you have any idea?”
“I have a relative near here,” Atul says. “He can put us up for a bit.”
“No,” B says. “No,” he repeats, more loudly, to make sure they’ve heard. “The police will find us there.” He looks around at them. “They’re probably after us right now. They know exactly where we are.”
“Take it easy,” Rudal says. “Relax.”
“What do you mean, take it easy?” B snaps. He feels a rising tide of paranoia. “That car,” he says. “The one that passed us just now. It couldn’t have put a tracker on us, could it? A radio tracker, like the ones on TV?”
“You’re crazy,” Rudal says. “Totally bloody insane.”
“No, but he’s right,” Pradeep bites his scarred lip. “They’ll track us down here for sure. There are too many eyes and ears around, and someone must have got the car number.”
“That’s right,” Sundeep agrees. “We need to hide the car.” He looks at Atul. “You can always get the dealer to come out and fit new number plates. It’ll be all right then.”
Atul turns the car on to a narrow dusty street between a row of houses and fields. On the other side the road goes up into the hills. “Can you see any police?” he asks, as the ground below them begins to rise and the houses fall away behind.
“If they’re tracking us,” B says, “they won’t be chasing us. They’ll set up roadblocks and wait for us to walk right into the trap.”
They all look at him and uneasily at one another. “We’d better dump the car,” Rudal says.
Atul swings the wheel over and the car bumps into the scrub at the side of the road. “Damn you all to hell,” he says. “It was a good car.”
“It can’t be traced to you, can it?” Sundeep asks him. “So what are you worried about?”
“I know this area,” Pradeep says. “There’s a restaurant up the hill a little bit. It’ll be crowded in the evening. We can mix with the people there and nobody will find us.”
Sundeep begins to stuff the gun down the small of his back. Rudal stares at him. “Haven’t you done enough damage? Leave the damn thing here somewhere – and wipe it down first.”
Amazingly, Sundeep obeys, wiping the gun on his handkerchief before flinging it into the forest as far as he can. They push through the scrub up the slope. B walks behind the others, his eyes fixed on the ground at their feet. He’s wishing he hadn’t asked for the lift earlier. How could things have gone so wrong?
Momentarily, the policeman’s body flashes in his mind, blood spurting from the bullet hole in its throat. Sundeep’s crude pistol had nearly shot the man’s head off. He swallows hard. What will the police do if they catch them? His mind boggles at the thought.
They come out near a small marketplace, incongruously strung along both sides of the road in the middle of the scrub forest. A couple of long distance lorries are parked nearby, the drivers leaning against the side of one, talking, and B has a sudden intense desire to go to them and ask for a lift out of there, away from the city and never to come back. But where could he go, and what could he do with no money and nothing but the clothes on his back?
The restaurant is a large and rambling place, a series of long shed-like huts with thatched roofs and walls made of bamboo posts and cane mats. From outside it looks bucolic, like something from a hundred years ago. Inside, of course, it’s as modern as they come.
“Spread out,” Pradeep hisses over his shoulder. “Mix among the customers. Don’t stick together and show everybody how scared you are, damn it.”
“How long do we stay here?” Atul asks.
“Until the crowd begins to leave, of course. Then we slip away with them. Nobody will know who we are.”
“How do you know so much about how to behave while hiding out from the cops?” B wants to ask, but there are people around now, and, besides, Pradeep is already walking away towards one of the huts.
B selects one of the largest huts, a round one with a conical roof that reminds him of a circus tent. It’s in the middle of the restaurant, with music playing inside. It’s dark and cool, and when he enters he has to pause a little o allow his eyes to adjust.
He hears his name called, in a familiar nasal voice. It’s Haleel, from the college, his thin face and spatulate ears waggling. “Hey, man,” he calls. “How come you’re here?”
“I could ask the same about you.” B walks over. Haleel is with Vipul, and there are a couple of open bottles of beer on the table, and a bowl of salted peanuts.
Vipul sees B looking at them, and gestures. “Be my guest.” He’s big, with a kindly face marred by a scarred chin. B knows him hardly at all. “So you dragged yourself away from your books? How come?”
B shrugs and takes a deep gulp of beer. His stomach, empty since morning, cramps around the bitter, frothy, ice cold fluid. He licks his lips. “It seemed a good idea at the time,” he says.
“But it doesn’t any longer?” Vipul grins. “We all need a break sometimes, and you might as well learn that now as later.” He takes some peanuts and pushes over the bowl. “Here.”
“Break, yes,” B says. He gulps more of the beer. He’s feeling light-headed, the alcohol already rising in his blood. “You know what?”
“What?” Haleel asks. He’s cradling his beer protectively. Haleel isn’t famous for knowing how to share.
“Everything is crazy,” B pronounces. From the corner of his eye he sees Atul come into the hut, and for a moment feels like calling him over. But Atul sees him and walks out again. “Everything,” he mumbles.
“Of course everything is crazy.” Vipul yawns and rises. “I’ll get another beer.”
“Make it two.” B fishes in his wallet and gives Vipul a hundred-rupee note. He has almost nothing left, but Sundeep is rolling in money. He thinks of the money Sundeep is carrying, enough to buy all the booze in the restaurant twice over, and giggles.
“What’s so funny?” Haleel demands. “If you are having a funny joke, tell, man.”
“Nothing.” B tries to listen to the music. It’s half familiar, a rock tune that was popular some months ago, but he can’t name the singer and can’t make out the lyrics. Perhaps it’s a knock-off, a copy by some South Indian film music director.
“So did you come here alone, man?” Haleel asks. He looks resentfully at B’s fresh bottle of beer. “You going back afterwards?”
B shrugs noncommittally. The beer is buzzing in his head. “Don’t mind me,” he mutters, looking into the glass. The froth seems to twist and form faces. Atul’s face, with its strip of moustache and its wavy cap of hair. Sundeep’s, square-jawed and truculent. Rudal’s, gap-toothed and thick-lipped, and then Pradeep’s, narrow and long, like a jackal’s. But instead of his own face, the froth next shifts into a semblance of the dead policeman’s countenance, mouth open and eyes staring. B shakes his head and looks away, and when he looks back again it’s just a glass of beer.
Draining off the last of the beer, he realises he’s alone at the table. Haleel and Vipul have gone, and when he looks around he sees them at the bar, talking to a couple of girls. The bar is full, but he feels alone, eyes everywhere looking at him. Surely they all know he’s hiding. They must be.
Suddenly, he has to pee. Moving with some care, he blunders away from the table and out of the hut. It’s sunset, the last reddish rays lying slantwise across the thatched roofs.
From the toilet – thatched roof and bamboo outside, white tiles and shiny fixtures inside – B walks around for a bit, and towards the gate. People are coming in, but fewer than he’d have thought on a weekend evening. He looks outside at the shops of the little market. The lorries are gone.
All of a sudden, B has a bizarre image, almost a vision. He sees himself, a middle sized figure standing in the gate, the sunlight flashing off his spectacles. Someone is watching him, as in a video, the camera zooming in closer and closer, picking up the smear of dirt on the right knee of his jeans, the dust on his sneakers, the dried sweat tracks on his face which he forgot to wipe away in the toilet. He sees through these other eyes, feels them measuring him, noting everything.
They’ve been found, he thinks. The police are just waiting, making sure, getting ready for the right moment. He’s got to get away from here.
He’s got to tell the others, too, to warn them. They have to know.
Hurrying, suddenly stone cold sober, he goes back into the restaurant. It suddenly seems much smaller than he’d thought, the huts a flimsy hiding place, the crowd thin, almost nonexistent. He goes into the first hut, the one Pradeep had chosen, but none of the four is at the tables. Quickly, he goes to the next hut, and the next. They’re nowhere.
Finally he checks the big hut again. Vipul is just leaving, a giggling girl with a mass of black hair with her arm wrapped round his. She glances at B out of the corner of her eye and grips Vipul’s arm possessively.
“I thought you’d left,” Vipul says. He smiles, more than half drunk. “Come back for another round?”
“No,” B replies. “Not now. Did you see Atul or Rudal? How about Pradeep or Sundeep?”
Vipul belches gently. “Oops. No, why, did they come with you? They probably left long ago. Do you want me to pass along a message if I see them?”
“No,” B says despairingly. “It doesn’t matter.” He walks into the hut to make sure anyway. The big hut is empty, except for the barman, who’s wiping glasses. He looks at B expectantly. “Yes, sir?”
B shakes his head and sits down at a table. He can see it clearly in his mind, the four of them getting together, looking over their shoulders to make sure he isn’t around, and making quick whispered plans to get away with the money. They’re probably far away by now – or maybe, more likely, they’ve simply gone back to the college, pretending nothing happened. If anyone’s caught, it’s going to be him.
“But if I’m caught,” he tells them, in his head, “I can tell the police all about you, that you did it.”
“Tell away,” they reply, in one voice, sneering. “Who’s going to believe you anyway? It’s your word against ours. The car can’t be traced back to us, nor can the gun, and as for the money –” They look at each other and laugh, shaking in unison. “And meanwhile, you sat getting drunk in public. Everyone saw you do that. It’s hardly usual behaviour for you, right? People notice.”
How many years will I get? B wonders to himself, his hands clenching. Twenty years? Forty? Most likely life without a chance of release. And I’m just starting out! I have my whole life ahead of me! What will my parents do? Suddenly he can’t breathe.
B stands up so abruptly his chair falls over. He rushes out of the hut, towards the gate, determined to run somewhere, anywhere. It’s full dark now, much darker than it should be, and as he runs on to the street he realises why. The shops are all shut, the lights are out. And surely it can’t even be seven in the evening yet?
B stands in the middle of the street, no idea which way to run. He takes a couple of steps back towards the restaurant, but the lights are going off there, too, the gate swinging shut. Everything seems to be getting ready to hide.
Footsteps come towards him, scuffling. It’s someone, running, scrambling footsteps almost falling over themselves in their hurry. B moves aside quickly so the racing figure doesn’t collide with him. It’s someone small and thin, dressed in cheap kurta and pyjamas.
“Wait,” B clutches at his arm. “Wait just a moment.”
“Let me go!” The man’s eyes, huge in his thin face, roll with fear. “Let me go, master.”
“What’s going on?” B asks.
“Police,” the man gasps. “The Crime Branch is about to make a raid. Let me go!”
“But you haven’t done anything, have you?” B asks. “So why are you running?”
“Do you think they care about that?” the man says. His entire face twitches. “When they make a raid, anyone they find is finished. They’ll find something to hang on you.”
“Such as?” B asks, his mouth dry.
“Anything!” The man peers at B’s face. “Especially college kids like you – they like nothing better than one of you, nice and soft. It gives them a real kick.” With a quick wriggle he frees his arm from B’s clutch and disappears into the darkness.
Moments later B hears noises coming.
B stands in the middle of the street, listening to the approaching engines, watching their lights. They’re coming from both sides, and he wonders briefly whether he should make a run for the scrub forest. Maybe he can make it to the shelter of the forest before they can see him.
But, with the certainty of despair, he knows there’s no point to running, any longer, at all.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015
Monday, 4 January 2016
Earthquaking and other news
At 430 am I woke to an extremely strong earthquake hard enough to send things cascading off shelves and tables and set my three kids to barking their heads off. It carried on for almost a minute. I spent the morning picking up things and putting them back...my paintings...flag collection etc...all were on the floor. Later on I discovered that the quake had measured 6.7 on the Richter scale and caused a fair amount of damage, though not in this town.
I am, actually, not unused to earthquakes. This part of the country is in Seismic Zone 5 – the most active zone – and quakes have been a part of my life since I was a child. However, I’ve never before woken to things crashing off the shelves and the walls creaking and shifting above my head.
Someday, it'll hit harder, and that wall will come down, and you'll have to scrape me off the floor with a trowel.
After the quake I fell asleep again. I dreamt I was hiding in a tiny outdoor loo (an "outhouse") with rusted through walls at head height (this kind of loo was very common when I was a kid) while a murderous rogue domestic elephant tried to find me to kill me. Elephant knew I was somewhere close by - it could hear me....it was sniffing the walls of the loo and trying to look through the rust holes when I woke up, my heart hammering. Not funny.
Meanwhile - at 430 am our time - the blood soaked war criminal Barack Hussein Obama's Saudi Barbarian friends launched a new set of air strikes on Sanaa in Yemen. Here is a photo, courtesy of my friend Dana BK who has friends in Sanaa. Apparently to the BSWCBHO, Saudi Barbaria demolishing Yemen is fine. It's not an invasion, and the headchoppers going on a beheading spree is all hunky-dory.
Let me repeat here that there is, in my book, no way one can support the BSWCBHO. Finding excuses for him is like supporting Mussolini because he "made the trains run on time" or Hitler because he "restored the glory of the German nation". Anyone who supports the BSWCBHO has resigned from the human race as far as I'm concerned.
And when I came home after work, I had an electrical fire which burned out a junction box and a plugpoint and filled my room with melted plastic smell and insulation smoke.
So how was your day?
(Possibly) The shortest living dead story ever
“Did you lock the door?” I asked my teenager. “Lock it, or the zombies will come and eat you.”
“Give me a break, mum,” he said, looking down at his video game. “I’ll get around to it.”
“Did you lock the door like I told you?” I repeated half an hour later, passing through the room. “Lock it or the zombies will come in and eat you, hide and hair, down to the bone.”
“I said I’d do it, didn’t I?” he whined, playing away. “Can’t I have a moment of peace around here?”
I went away to finish the chores. After some time, I returned. “Did you lock the door?” I demanded. “I’m not going to ask you again.”
“Why does it have to be I who has to do everything around here?” he moaned. “I’ll do it in my good time, I said.”
“You won’t,” I said. “And when the zombies break in and eat you, see if I care.”
“Big deal,” he said, and went back to his game. “I’ve better things to do.”
So I went upstairs to my room and shut the door, and sure enough after some time the zombies came in downstairs and ate him, hide and hair, down to the bone, just as I'd said they would.
And then they sat down and played his video game all night. They’re the same, zombies and teenagers.
No brains at all, either of them.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016
Subscribe to: Posts (Atom)