Saturday 11 June 2016

Night Wind

The wind is blowing hard again, wiping darkness against the window, blowing the night across the sky
Wind, moaning in the wires, rustling in the branches, wind with a thousand tongues. Of what does it speak? What does it know? What does it seek to tell?
Is it looking for me? Are you looking for me, wind? Here, here I am, in my little shell-prison,
Wrapped in walls of skin. Here. In this room, at whose window you batter, you with the wings of the starlight, the cold of the gulfs between the stars. What will you do if I let you in?
Is it midnight yet? Is it midnight already? I don’t want to look at the clock. I don’t want to know the time. Time passes, then was now, and now will be then again.
The screensaver drags its slow coloured ribbons across the computer screen, yellow as the sun, green as the spring, orange as the clouds at sunset, red as blood.
The inside of my wrists, channelled with veins like a tree’s branching roots, but the veins run blue; I would have to rip them open to see the red flow, red like the setting sun, red like the moon at the moment before dawn, pregnant and full on the horizon –
These are my wrists, these are my hands, these are my feet. Have I ever seen my feet before? These strange organs where my body ends, on the carpet below? Bones and muscles and tendons, a marvel of perfect architecture they say, and part of me, but have I ever seen them before? What do I know of them? What is that scar there, a half moon of white on my toe? Where did it come from?
What do I know of my feet? What do I know of myself?
Have I ever seen myself before? This skin-wrapped bundle, a pane of glass away from the hungry wind? What am I, what have I been? What will I be if I let the blood flow red out of the blue-walled prison of their veins?
What if I burn on the wind, like a piece of paper, a paper on which there might be something good written, or something bad, or maybe nothing at all? When the paper burns, what meaning do the words have? The wind blows the ash to powder, and scatters it everywhere
And not even an epic poem on the paper will make a bit of difference when it’s afire, it will burn to the same ash as a child’s scribble will. Will you blow me away, wind? Will you, if I give myself to you?
Scattered across the sands of distant deserts, in the branches of a forest, to be washed down with the rain, up in blue mountains I would fly, and down across the waves of the stormy sea.
What would it feel like to ride the wind, up and away, like smoke from burning paper, leaving the ash behind? Riding it up into the gulfs between the galaxies, plunging into the mists of time? Would I be blown into the vasty darkness, up into the endless deep?
What stories do you know, wind? What tales can you tell me, here in this prison of skin, inside this outer prison of glass and plaster and stone? What caverns of the night have you known, what Arctic wastes? You tap at the window, wind. How many windows have you tapped at tonight, and at how many more will you?
Tell me, wind, where you have been, where you are going. Tell me what stories you have, and where you've been. All I have is your voice, wind. Lift me up with you, blow me between the stars, tell me your stories in the voices of the desert, and the grasslands, the icy mountain peak, the sullen sea.
Take me away, and set me free.

I will open the window now. I will open the window and let you in.

[Image Source]

Tuesday 7 June 2016


Note to reader: Perhaps I ought to apologise for this story. I fully realise it will be disturbing. But imagine how you would feel if you'd dreamt it, with yourself in the title role, and perhaps you'll understand why I had to try to exorcise it in this way.


They’d prepared long and thoroughly for the day’s performance; they’d left nothing to chance.

The noonday sun, blazing down on the courtyard, shone in through the high skylights, so the chamber, despite its considerable size, was well-lit. The benches that rose in a horseshoe shape around the stage were clean and comfortable, and the air faintly scented with resin.

It was a cheery chamber, and a cheery time of day. This was not something that the High Order intended to hide in damp subterranean dungeons in the middle of the night; the idea was to make clear to everyone that it could happen at any time, to anyone at all.

It even had a cheery name; it was called the Chamber of Light.

The people who were to make up the audience knew what it was for. They came in slowly and reluctantly, their eyes moving fearfully from side to side as the usher at the door marked them off on his list and showed them where they were to sit. They – mostly men, but a few women as well – had been selected by lottery. It was a lottery that nobody wanted to win.

Down on the stage, the Master Torturer watched the usher, who wore the black robe and cowl of the High Order, and went over his plans for the day’s performance. In keeping with the chamber, the Master Torturer wore perfectly ordinary clothes, and in fact looked completely ordinary; nobody should be allowed to think that retribution could only come in the form of some black-hooded, monstrous figure out of the horror movies.

Most times, when the performance began, the Master Torturer would pull on a translucent smock to keep off the blood. He didn’t need it today, because the performance wasn’t intended to involve that much blood. Of course, sometimes things went wrong, with the apprentices, for example, but not with him. That was why he was the Master Torturer.

Outside, in the streets, traffic rushed by, and out on the beach tourists lay on the sand, and out to sea huge-hulled ships brought and took away the produce of the world; but here, in the Chamber of Light, the day’s performance was about to begin.

The usher marked off a name on his list and watched another entrant – a lumpy young woman with sagging breasts and a truculent expression – walk slowly up to her seat up in the second tier from the back. He then walked over to the Master Torturer and nodded. “All done.”

The Master Torturer was pleasantly surprised. “No absentees this time? Not one person suddenly discovered he was deathly ill?”

The usher’s pallid face did not change expression. “Are you ready to start? We’ll bring him in then.”

The Master Torturer glanced over his shoulder at the instruments lined up at the back of the stage – the cabinet filled with blunt and sharp knives of various sizes, the rack with the whips and batons, and the portable brazier which he’d had the apprentices light half an hour earlier and which glowed a dull red now in consequence. One of the apprentices brought in a bucket of water and set it down by the large chair with the straps. He nodded. “All done.”

The usher’s eyes bored into his. “This one needs to be worked carefully. You know why.”

The Master Torturer nodded, not pointing out that he didn’t have to be told this. He was only an employee, and held office at the pleasure of the High Order. Besides, the audience was looking at him with fearful fascination, and bickering would be merely counterproductive. “Bring him in.”

The usher spoke briefly into the microphone built into the cowl of his robe. The door beside the stage opened, and two other members of the High Order brought in the material, holding him by the arms.

The Master Torturer studied the material. This was the first time he’d actually seen him, which was unusual. Normally, the Master Torturer would have spent time learning all about him that he could, to decide which methods would work best. Not this time, though; this time the material would go through the whole, carefully choreographed performance. This one was special, as the usher had said. He would get it all.

The material was very young, little more than a boy; seventeen or eighteen, maybe nineteen at the most. He was stick-thin and pale, with an oval face tapering to a triangular jaw. He didn’t seem to know what was going on, not fully, and didn’t make any move to resist when they strapped him into the chair.

The Master Torturer glanced at the usher. “Has he been drugged?”

The usher nodded reluctantly. “He was given a short-acting tranquiliser. We didn’t want him to damage himself. It’ll wear off almost at once, don’t worry.”

“I’m not worried,” the Master Torturer said over his shoulder, and muttered under his breath, for his own ears alone. “If anyone should be worried, it’s someone else, not me.”


The material sat in the chair and tried hard not to scream.

He’d often imagined what he’d do if he were ever in this situation, the kind of imagining that felt safe simply because he’d known that it couldn’t happen, not ever. It was only fun to imagine. Like everyone else, he’d been certain that he’d never make a noise; he’d be the one the Guild of Torturers could never break. It was totally safe to believe all that, because, of course, it would never happen.

But right now it was no longer imagination. There were straps round his wrists and ankles, around his waist and chest, and one even around his neck, though not so tight that he could not breathe.

He still had no idea why he was in this position. He, after all, had never done anything against the High Order that he knew of. He’d never committed a single crime. But they’d come for him all the same, two nights ago, and nothing he or his parents had said had made the slightest difference.

Not that his parents had said much. He still recalled his mother’s face, frightened but still resigned, while they were taking him away. And neither of them had ever come to see him after that.

No. He had done nothing. But it made no difference, any more than it reduced what was happening to his hands at the moment.

There was a board balanced on a stand, placed over his thighs. His hands were fixed to them by some kind of glue, palms down and fingers spread out, so that he couldn’t move them. The Master Torturer had already gone over them with a baton, each blow sending liquid waves of pain flowing up his wrist into his arm. At first he’d gasped, and then he’d moaned, and tried to hold on as long as possible. Now, at last, he couldn’t do it any longer, and he opened his mouth to scream.

The apprentice standing behind the chair was ready for this moment. The thick gag in his hands was in the material’s mouth before he’d even opened it all the way, and his shriek vanished in the folds of padded leather. He bit down on it, as the Master Torturer struck again.

The usher looked up at the audience. “Watch carefully. Remember, this could happen to any one of you. Anyone at all. Watch, and remember.” He glared up at the lumpy young woman in the back, who wasn’t looking truculent any longer. She was just looking sick. “This is just the start. In a day or two, we’ll see what happens when you wrap him in a net and put him in water. It’s going to be an educational experience for everybody.”

The Master Torturer didn’t even look up. The apprentices had taken blunt knives from the cabinet and thrust them into the brazier, so that the blades were now incandescent. Lightly, as lightly as a butterfly landing on a flower, he applied the first blade on the back of the material’s hand, just for a moment to let the heat work, before removing it again.

“Don’t apply it for too long,” he murmured to the apprentice, taking the second hot knife from him. “We don’t want him to faint, do we?”

The material’s head was sagging by the time the Master Torturer took up the broad, thin sharp razor blades for the last part of today’s performance, and he was no longer trying to scream. But he was still fully aware. The Master Torturer was far too good at his job to let him escape into unconsciousness, and that, too, was why he was the Master Torturer.

This bit with the razor was the most delicate part of the job. Cut too shallow, and nothing would happen except a little bleeding. Cut too deep, and he might sever nerves and tendons; and it was not part of the plan to cripple the material’s hands totally, at least not yet. The idea was to create flat rectangular scars, which would not fade, which would serve as a reminder, even when all other functions of the hands were gone. The Master Torturer knew just how to do it.

“Watch carefully,” he said to the apprentices, and the thin razor blade bit into the flinching flesh, so smoothly that the skin peeled away like the rind of a fruit. “Watch, and learn.”


The evening’s long shadows had pooled down on the city as the usher walked past the guards into the High Order’s headquarters. The guards didn’t ask him for identification; he was well known to them.

His immediate superior in the High Order was waiting for him in his office. “How did it go?”

The usher sat down and slipped back the cowl. “As expected. Are you sure the material is the right one?”

“Of course. All the tests we did said so. We checked his educational performance, his personal behaviour, everything. He matched all the criteria. Why, do you have any doubts?”

The usher shrugged. “Not really. It’s just my first time with one like him, that’s all. What does the Leader say?”

 “He wants a successor. That’s what he says. He wants one to be prepared, starting right away.” The superior tapped his thumbnail on his teeth. “Here, talk to him yourself.”

“What?” But the usher found himself taking the microphone the other man had handed him. “Leader?”

“It’s not easy, being the Leader.” The familiar rasping voice came into the usher’s ear as clearly as though the Leader were in the same room instead of somewhere in the maze of the city, perhaps far away. Nobody but the Leader’s closest advisors and bodyguards knew where he was. Not even the Leader himself knew. “One needs to be totally objective about everything.”

“Yes, Leader,” the usher said, licking his lips nervously.

“You can’t trust the input of your own senses, because that makes the data you receive subjective. Therefore you must be purged of the input of your senses. You can’t be soft-hearted, because you need to take hard decisions for the common good. You need to know what pain is, because only then can you have it inflicted on others with a clean conscience. Am I being clear?”

“Abundantly, Leader,” the usher said.

“Good. So you will have no further doubts about the material, and about the process he is undergoing. I am sure you agree fully.”

“Oh, I do, Leader,” the usher said fervently, not meeting the superior’s eyes. “Believe me, I do.”


The Master Torturer glanced across at the usher. “Ready when you are.”

The usher glanced up at the galleries, making sure everyone was in place. He spoke into his cowl. The door beside the stage opened.

They wheeled in the material on a stretcher, because after they’d finished with his feet yesterday, he could no longer walk. They no longer needed to strap his wrists, because he’d lost the use of his hands long ago. When they propped him up on the stretcher, all he needed was a leather strap across his chest.

Today, but for one item of clothing, he was naked. That one item was a black hood that fell over his face, featureless except for two round glass windows over the eyes. Under the hood was a gag, and tubes that ran into his nose to make sure he kept breathing, hooked to tubes pumping gas that was meant to make certain he stayed conscious, even when the Master Torturer got to work between his legs.

Sex, too, was something a future Leader could not afford to have on his mind, and getting rid of it was part of the process. The apprentices kept the head end of the stretcher propped up high enough to let him watch.

As long as he still had the use of his eyes, they were determined to make him see.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2016


I am anger
I am wrath
I am the essence of 
Vengeance come.

I am galaxies colliding
In a storm of gravity wells merging
I am black hole
All consuming

I am retribution
I am fury.

I am the blood in your veins
The tight-gripping rage in your throat.

I am the blazing fire
I am the desert wind
Blowing through the sockets of
Emptied skulls.

I am Nature red in tooth and claw
The mother bear fighting for her cubs
The wolf defending his pack from the hunter's guns.

I am the wild boar charging the spear
I am the valour of the bull in the corrida's bloody ring.

I am the knife, the swollen red sun
Which will burn your lands to ashes.
I am the march of Time
Grinding you under the tread of the years.

I am what you refuse to talk about.

I am the monster in the mirror
The one you do not want to see.

Forswear me.

[Image Source]

Monday 6 June 2016

The Last Drone

All week, the tribe had hunted the drones, from mountain slope to valley, rousting them from their eyries on ledges on the faces of vertical cliffs. All week, they had flushed them one by one into the open, cut off their retreat, and destroyed them. All week, the sky had been filled with lines of tracer bullets, the exhaust trails of surface to air missiles, the twisting and turning specks of drones as they fought desperately to escape. All week, the tribe’s warriors had gone forth in groups, one returning as another reached the cliffs, so that none of the drones could take the opportunity to fly away.

Rizwana had come along to watch her uncle, Nizamuddin, kill a drone. None of the other young ones in the tribe had come, but then, as Nizamuddin had said, Rizwana was special. She would someday go to university in the capital, and everyone knew it; even her mother, who grumbled incessantly that being a good believer was more important than education, had finally acknowledged it. She was filled with curiosity about everything, and Nizamuddin, who of course didn’t have any children, treated her like his own daughter and gave her the encouragement she never got from her own mother.

For years, Nizamuddin had saved a missile, just waiting for this day. He’d carried it around, strapped to the back of a mule or ratting in the bed of a pickup, wrapped in sacks for safety. He’d had many offers to sell it, often very good offers, but always refused. To anyone who asked why, he’d always said the day would come when he’d get to use it, and that he was waiting.

So when Rizwana finally saw him unpack the long sack-wrapped bundle, exposing the black tube with the grips and sights, she begged to come along. Nizamuddin, who was very easy going in most things, readily agreed. Rizwana’s mum was of course not happy about it, but she was never happy about anything her daughter did anyway – so it wasn’t as though it really mattered that much. Rizwana would get into trouble no matter what she did, so she might as well do whatever she wanted.

Nizamuddin had laughed when Rizwana told him that. “Well, yes, but you really ought to listen to your mother too, you know.”

“Why?” Rizwana asked. “Is there any reason I should?”

Nizamuddin rubbed his moustache thoughtfully. “You know, when you put it like that, I really don’t know. I suppose it’s just expected or something. Still, you might as well come along, and afterwards we’ll face the music together.”

So when Nizamuddin went out with some of the dawn shift of drone-hunters, Rizwana went along with him. Nizamuddin had an old jeep, so old that nobody could tell what colour it had been any longer, but, as he liked to point out, it still worked when vehicles a third its age had long ago been dumped by the side of the road to rust. The jeep bounced and juddered up the mountain track to where the drones had fled since the start of the hunt. Nizamuddin had let Rizwana sit beside him, while the back was filled with happy, laughing hunters, all eager for the day’s work.

“Today, we should be able to get the last of them,” Nizamuddin said. “After all these years, today we’ll be able to wipe them out, once and for all. It’s a great day, Riz, one you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren about. You were there.”

Rizwana nodded. It was hard to reply over the bouncing of the jeep, which threatened to push her right out through the side. They were coming to where the last of the previous shift’s hunters, who’d been out all night, were just getting ready to leave. A couple of them came over to Nizamuddin when he stopped the jeep.

“You’ll be lucky to find any,” one said. “We only got three.”

“That’s right,” the other agreed. He pointed at the long tube of the missile. “You really ought to have used that earlier.”

Nizamuddin shrugged. “That’s all right. If Allah wants me to find any, I will. If I don’t, I won’t. Where did you see them last?”

One of the hunters pointed up a narrow pass between two jagged mountains. “A couple of them flew up there a while ago.”

Leaving the other hunters who’d come with them to follow, Nizamuddin picked up the missile launcher and went on up towards the pass, Rizwana trotting to keep up with his long legs. “Do you really think we’ll finish off the drones today?” she asked.

Nizamuddin shrugged. “There can’t be many of them left. We’ve been hunting them down for years. This colony is probably the only one left, and we’ve just about wiped it out too.”

“Do we really have to?” Rizwana asked.

Nizamuddin glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, decided the question was serious, and jerked a thumb up at the sky. “There could be one up there now, watching us, and we’d never know it. Back when they were the predators and we were the prey, it wouldn’t have hesitated a moment to blow us up, even you, too, though it’s got good enough vision to see you’re just a young girl. It would do it now, too, if it could.”

“Why hasn’t it, then?” Rizwana challenged.

“Their weapons need time and effort to grow,” Nizamuddin shrugged. “We’ve long since found and wiped out all the missile factory farms. And besides, it knows that if it does bomb us, all it’ll do is tell the other hunters that it’s there. It’ll have to come down to roost sometime, and they’d be waiting for it.”

Rizwana looked up at the sky and shivered. It was still dawn’s eggshell blue, and only the mountains were painted with the gold of the sun. And yet there might be something up there coldly sizing her up, from the green scarf on her head to the rubber sandals on her feet, and thinking about blowing her to pieces. She felt naked, and wanted suddenly to lie down and hug the ground. The rock underfoot was hard and solid and safe, unlike the sky. “Is there one up there now? Really?”

“No,” Nizamuddin replied. “They’re not stupid enough to go up high and expose themselves to our hunters when they have to come down eventually. They’ll be hiding in the rocks of the mountains, trying to squeeze into crevices, hoping we’ll go away again.” He laughed. “Not this time, though. This time nobody’s leaving until they’re all gone.”

They entered the pass. It was less a pass than a cleft in the rock as though Allah had taken an axe and split the hills apart. The sides of the pass were split with so many cracks and fissures that an army of drones might be hiding there, unseen.

“Is...” Rizwana glanced quickly over her shoulder to make sure the other hunters weren’t in earshot, because what she was about to ask was something girls weren’t supposed to talk about. “Is it true that the drones aren’t really animals? I heard they were a punishment from Allah.”

Nizamuddin snorted. “Where did you hear that rubbish, Riz? Has your mum been telling you fairy tales again? Of course they’re not a punishment from Allah. Would we have got together to fight Allah? Not that  the drones are animals either, of course. They were made, as you very well know. Foreign invaders from across the seas made them as a weapon against us. The foreigners are gone, but the drones are still here. At least the last few of them are.”

“Why did they leave the drones here if they went away?” Rizwana had heard all kinds of fantastic tales about the foreigners, but didn’t know which, if any, to believe. “Why didn’t they take them with them?”

Nizamuddin shrugged. “I’m sure you can figure out the answer for yourself, a clever girl like you.”

Rizwana swallowed. “They couldn’t stay here any longer,” she said. “It was costing them too much effort and money. So they decided to go home, but kept the drones back, to do their killing for them, so that they could keep us under their heel, even if they weren’t actually here.”

Nizamuddin grinned. “Exactly. And because they wanted the drones to keep killing, without having to be maintained and spent on, they made them more and more able to think and kill by themselves. Eventually they invented biomechanical tissues which they used to make the drones. The things weren’t just robots any longer. They became half alive, part animal, part machine, which formed societies of their own, breeding in nurseries and teaching their young to kill – to kill our young.” The grin faded from his face. “The foreigners are very advanced in their science, Riz, much more than we are – but all they do with their science is find new ways to kill and destroy. Remember that.”

“So the drones are still under the foreigners’ control?”

The pass split into two, and Nizamuddin led the way into the narrower leftward branch. “We can’t talk much longer,” he said. “If there are any drones left, they won’t be far off, and they can hear. Not very well, not as well as they can see, but they can hear.”


Nizamuddin glanced quickly from side to side up at the rock. “No, Riz, the drones no longer obey anyone’s orders. The foreigners have probably forgotten about them by now, or if they remember they pretend it’s not their business. They have their own problems now, anyway. But the drones are still killing, as though their masters had never left.” He pointed a thick finger at Rizwana. “Remember that the drones are killers. We’re hunting them to protect ourselves, not for fun and games. This is not a game here.”

Rizwana was about to say something – she wasn’t quite sure what, but some kind of comment seemed necessary – when there was a startled shout from behind them, a rattling of machine gun fire, and a line of tracers flashed overhead to splatter against the rock wall.    

Rizwana saw the drone at the very moment it broke from the cliff wall where it had been hanging by its grapples – the bulging, ovoid head, the long, folded, wings, and the little whirring tail. It was climbing rapidly away from the machine gun bullets, and must have already believed itself safe.

But then Nizamuddin brought up the heavy tube on his shoulder, put his eye to the scope, and pressed the trigger. There was a roaring noise, like a storm-wind in the mountains, and the stubby rocket inside soared away at the top of a line of fire and smoke. Until that moment, Rizwana had never believed it would still work, not after all these years.

“There!” Nizamuddin grunted.

The drone saw the missile coming. Rizwana saw it twist and turn frantically, desperately diving back down the pass in an attempt to find shelter, but it was far too late. The missile exploded near its tail in blast of sound so loud that she squeezed her eyes reflexively shut. When she opened them again, there was a huge burnt patch on the rock, and the drone was spiralling downwards, trailing flames and smoke, burning cinders fluttering away from its wings. Even through the hands she’d clapped over her ears, she could hear its agonised screaming.

“Well, that’s that, then,” Nizamuddin said, and tossed away the empty launcher. It hit a rock with a clang and bounced to one side. He didn’t sound happy or relieved or even sad. He just sounded flat, as though drained of something that had been filling him up, swelling inside him. “I knew I’d get one eventually.”

Rizwana knew better than to ask why her uncle had been so insistent on getting a drone. Nobody in the family, in fact, ever mentioned the girl who’d been his sweetheart and had been killed in one of the very last attacks by the drones before the tribes had banded together to exterminate them. Rizwana had heard that Nizamuddin had held her in his arms, weeping as the last of her life drained away, but, when she looked at her bluff and hearty uncle, she found it hard to believe.

“So, Brother, you got one at last,” the hunter who’d fired the machine gun said. He looked admiringly up at the pass and mimed with his hands. “Did you see it fall? Twisting and turning, just like a burning leaf.”

Nizamuddin shrugged, and wiped at his thick moustache with his hand, leaving oil smeared on his lip. “As I said, if Allah willed it...” He broke off, pointing. “There’s another.”

It was a speck of greyish-white, caught in a ray of sunshine, flying cautiously closer, hugging the rock wall. “It doesn’t know we’re here,” the hunter said. “It’s coming to see what the noise was.”

“It’ll come right to us, with any luck,” another hunter whispered, crouching. “Everyone down.”

Nizamuddin pulled Rizwana down behind a ridge of rock. The drone was quite close now, enough for her to be able to see the little pod under the bulbous nose which housed the drone’s eyes. It rose and fell, moving up and down the cliff, as though puzzled by the blackened rock and the smoke in the air.

“It’s young, and stupid,” Nizamuddin replied. “It’s still quite small.”

The drone came slowly closer, warily, its wingtips twitching. It dipped closer to the canyon bottom, so far down that it vanished beneath the top of the ridge behind which Rizwana crouched, and she couldn’t see it anymore. Her mouth was dry with excitement, her heart hammering.

And then the second hunter, the one who’d asked everyone to get down, suddenly rose and fired. The noise, so close to her ear, made Rizwana flinch, and she didn’t need to see the drone rise frantically and zigzag away to know he’d missed.

“Damn!” the first hunter snapped, and rose, and then they were all on their feet, firing. The air was filled with hot bullet casings spilling everywhere. Rizwana caught a brief glimpse of the drone frantically rushing away up the pass, the rock behind it puffing with bullet impacts. It staggered momentarily, and she thought it was about to fall, but recovered and swung away past an outcrop of rock.

“Why the hell couldn’t you have waited thirty seconds longer, Gulbuddin?” the other hunters rounded on the second. “It would’ve been a sitting duck.”

“He was trying to get one for himself,” Nizamuddin said. “There’s only a few left, after all, and everyone wants to say they killed one.”

“Easy for you to say,” the first hunter snapped. “You’ve got yours.”

“The drone isn’t getting away anyway,” Nizamuddin pointed out mildly. “You all saw it was hit. It’ll be somewhere in the hills up there. We’ll find it soon enough.”

The hunter considered the idea, and nodded. “Fair enough.” He turned to Gulbuddin. “But we act together now on. Nobody shoots before the others. Is that clear?”

“This is going to be hard work,” Nizamuddin said to Rizwana. “You can’t really tell where a drone’s hiding, and even a baby drone can be vicious when it’s hurt. I was hoping to avoid this kind of hunt, but it can’t be helped. I may even have to use this.” He patted the heavy pistol at his waist. “Do you want me to take you back home?”

Rizwana thought of facing her mother alone, and shook her head silently but vehemently.

“All right then,” Nizamuddin sighed. “But you stay here at the mouth of the pass. You’ll just get in the way further in. Don’t go far. I’m trusting you not to get into trouble, remember.” Without waiting for an answer, he moved away down the pass, the hunters following.

Rizwana sat down on a rock, watching them go. The pass narrowed sharply a little further in, the rock walls almost converging, and they were soon lost to view. The sun had come up enough that the air was warmer, but when she slipped off her sandals the floor of the pass was still freezing cold, so she put them on again. The sunlight bouncing off the hillside high overhead turned the rocks golden and the shadows purple. The purple shadows ran down the walls in bands and channels, and she could imagine whole flocks of drones hiding in them, clinging to the walls watching her with their globular, swivelling eye pods.

Suddenly she needed to move about, to not sit in one place, watched by all those drone eyes. Only a little up ahead was the huge black patch on the cliff where Uncle Nizamuddin’s missile had exploded. She walked over for a closer look.

It was when she was standing directly under the splash of charred rock that she heard it. At first she didn’t understand what she was hearing. It sounded like wind gusting through some natural chimney in the rock, but she could feel no wind on her face. And then she realised that it was agonised gasping.

Almost automatically, she followed the noise. It came and went, sometimes clearer, sometimes so faint that she almost thought it had stopped completely. It led her over a jumble of broken stone and up a narrow cleft in the wall of the pass, a cleft she hadn’t noticed earlier, so narrow that she could almost touch both walls with the tips of her fingers when she stretched out her arms.

Although the floor of the cleft was still wrapped in thick blue shadow, she saw the black trail in time not to step on it. It was as though something had dragged itself over the rock, bleeding burnt black oil instead of blood. Here and there she saw things that might have been pieces of machinery or biomechanical tissue. Some of it twitched, as though it were still alive.

And at every step the gasping grew clearer now, irregular and pain-wracked, and she knew what it was. But by now her feet were carrying her on of their own volition, as though she were hypnotised. She wasn’t conscious of any thought at all.

The drone Nizamuddin had shot down lay at the far end of the cleft, squeezed halfway into a crack in the rock so that she at first saw only the shattered tail and one leathery wing, metallic bones protruding through ripped biofabric. The propeller at the end of the tail was broken, the blades like four snapped-off teeth. The wing twitched, as the drone wheezed again.

Rizwana had a sudden mental image of a film she’d once watched, long ago, which Nizamuddin had smuggled into the house, over the objections of his sister, on his ancient laptop. The film had been about a monster that had terrorised a town without actually doing anything evil that Rizwana could see, anything that a wild animal wouldn’t have done simply to survive. It had been hunted down at last, and lay dying, while the whole city full of people gathered around to ogle. Rizwana had felt intensely sorry for the monster, though her uncle had only laughed.

“It’s all done on computer,” he’d said. “And pretty ridiculously at that. Look, there’s a full moon and bright lights, but the monster doesn’t even have a shadow.” But she’d still felt very sorry for it, and when it died she’d got up and walked away without watching what was left of the film.

Nizamuddin had laughed. “Look at you. And you’ll dissect animals in college? How, exactly?”

Now she felt a faint echo of the sorrow she’d felt then for the monster. It wheezed again, and the wing twitched, pressing down on the rock as it tried to squeeze itself further into the little crack. Then she realised that it knew she was there and was trying to get away from her.

“I won’t hurt you,” she said. “Not that it matters anyway. I don’t think anyone could hurt you any more badly than you’re hurt already.”

The drone was larger than she’d thought. It was the first time she’d ever been this close to one of the beasts, not counting the carcass that old Grandfather Akram had mounted on his wall, and that was only the shell of the bulbous head end. This one, however, was alive, and she’d heard often enough about how dangerous cornered injured wild animals could be.

It was just as she thought this that the drone’s wing twitched again, pressing against the rock, and the head end came into view, the round eye-pod swivelling. Suddenly she realised that the thing had turned round and was starting to crawl towards her.

The next thing Rizwana knew, she was standing over the drone, gasping. Her hands were slick with sweat and trembling, hardly able any longer to hold the heavy, pointed stone she was gripping without any memory of when she’d picked it up. Her hands and legs, and the stone itself, were splattered with oil and other things, shards and scraps of soft papery tissue, and at her feet the bulbous head of the drone was a shattered ruin.

Shuddering, she let the stone fall and backed away. “I didn’t mean to do it,” she said. “I didn’t mean to kill you. I didn’t, really. I just came along to watch.” But the drone was silent, no longer wheezing, and the leathery wings were stretched out on the rock, silent.

The silence did not last long. Somewhere not all that far away, she heard a burst of heavy firing, and then an explosion. The noise echoed and re-echoed among the hills until she couldn’t tell the original from the echoes. It seemed a very long time before it stopped.

Uncle Nizamuddin and the others had probably tracked down the drone they’d been hunting. He’d be coming back now, looking for her. She needed to get back.

Rizwana was just about to start walking back towards the main pass when she heard another noise. It was a chirruping, like a bird or a cricket, but it wasn’t a bird or an insect. She knew that at once.

There was a hollow in the stone wall right beside her, and she pressed herself into it, her back to the cliff, trying to lose herself in the shadow. Very cautiously, moving her head as slowly as possible, she looked up.

The drone was very small, only about the size of a large pigeon. She didn’t know whether it had been there all the while or had only just arrived. It came crawling down the cliff on its wing-grapnels, waddling on its wings and lower tail surfaces. Its tiny propeller blades, folded forwards, clicked against the engine housing rhythmically, producing the chirruping. It dropped the last part of the way, crouching by the ruined head of the big drone. Its pod swivelled downwards, and its wings drooped.

Rizwana’s fingers scrabbled behind her back, and found a stone. She picked it up, bringing it forward very cautiously, not wanting the drone to see what she was doing.

The tiny drone wasn’t looking in any case. It had reached out with one small wing and was prodding, first gently, and then with increasing desperation, the big drone’s head.

“Riz!” she heard, in the distance. And then, now closer, “Rizwana!”

He was coming right up the cleft towards her! She must have left footprints, or maybe he was following the oil the big drone had bled. The little drone was still crouched over the big one’s corpse, rocking back and forth, chirruping. Her hand rose and jerked forward. The stone in her finger flew, landing on the shattered head of the big drone, right in front of the tiny one’s bulbous face.

The tiny drone jerked back so quickly that it almost fell over backwards. A moment later, it was scrambling back up the cliff, its little propeller whirring. And long before Nizamuddin had come round the corner, it had disappeared from view.


We found a clutch of eggs,” Nizamuddin said. Rizwana and he were walking down to where he’d left his jeep, the pass behind them. Gulbuddin and the other hunters were still up there somewhere, but they’d be down too, soon.  “The drones hadn’t been able to camouflage it well. We blew up the lot after shooting down the couple of drones guarding it.”

“So that’s the lot?” Rizwana asked.

Nizamuddin nodded. “In fact, you must have killed the last one, with the rock.” He smiled briefly. “I won’t underestimate you again, I promise.”

Rizwana glanced at him. He should have been looking elated and victorious. Instead, he looked deflated, smaller, as though the something that had been filling him and had drained away had left a vacuum. And she remembered the girl who had died in his arms. “It’s all right, Uncle,” she said.

And it would be all right. The stone she’d thrown, striking exactly where she’d aimed, had chased off the little drone. Without weapons, alone, without anyone to teach it to kill, it couldn’t do any harm. And without the killing, without the threat of drones overhead, people would learn not to be afraid. Little by little, they might even accept.

Then, someday, she would be back. She’d come alone to these hills, and she’d find the drone, and she’d apologise to it for killing its mother. And she’d tell it exactly what had happened between its kind and her people, and why it was time to throw away the old hatreds, and find a way onwards, together.

“Uncle...” she said.

“What?” Nizamuddin paused in the act of putting the key into the jeep’s ignition. “Riz?”

Rizwana shook her head. “Nothing.”

The foreigners had great science, she’d been about to say, but they knew only how to use it to kill. She’d use it to bring good things to the world. She, and the drone, together. They could do it, and all of a sudden she knew with total clarity that they would.

“It’s a nice day,” she said, and smiled brightly, as the jeep bounced down the rocky track towards her mother and home, towards the future that would be.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2016