Saturday 18 June 2016

Bejji and the Ghost

That morning, Bejji’s father had finally worn out his ghost, so he asked Bejji to come along with him to buy a new one.

This was the first time Bejji had ever been asked to go shopping for a ghost, so she was excited. Normally, she’d have been at school, but it was the holidays. If her mum had still been around, she wouldn’t have been allowed to go. Her mum had always hated the ghosts, which she called nasty unnatural things, while, as her dad liked to point out, never actually rejecting all that the ghosts did for them. But Bejji’s mum had packed her bags and left six months ago, and her dad had been extra nice to Bejji ever since, to make up for the absence.

Bejji could have told him it wasn’t necessary. She was happy enough to be rid of their endless bickering, which had made her seriously consider running away more than once, to need pampering. But being asked to go along to buy a ghost was something new, and she agreed enthusiastically.

Bejji’s father had decided on buying his ghost from a store that was right across town. Actually, there were only a few ghost suppliers, and all of them were across town. Most ordinary people didn’t need to own ghosts, just use the services they provided. But then most ordinary people weren’t Bejji’s father.

Bejji’s father was a sculptor; not just any sculptor, either. He worked in metal, which he melted in furnaces and poured into moulds, or else welded together in fantastically twisted shapes that still somehow looked like they could be alive. Bejji had absolutely no artistic ability, as her father himself admitted, but even she could tell that they were beautiful, in the way a waterfall of metal frozen in mid-air might be beautiful, or a metal bird spreading its wings in an attempt to fly might be beautiful. They were things that shouldn’t exist, but did. Bejji knew her father was a great man.

Of course, given all the metal work he had to do, Bejji’s father needed his own furnace, welders, and other tools, all of which needed a lot of power, which was why he had to have a ghost of his own and had been issued a licence to own one. He kept this licence in the safe deposit locker of his bank, and the first thing they did was to go to the bank so he could take it with him to show. Not everyone could get a licence to buy a ghost of their own, either, and Bejji understood that she should be proud that her father had one.

Bejji didn’t like the bank. There were too many people there, all of whom seemed worried all the time, and she thought they smelt of unhappiness.  But luckily they didn’t have to be there long, and soon enough they were on the train going across the city.

The train was, of course, ghost-powered, and clean and silent. Bejji had been taught in school that they used to be pulled by ugly, dirty, smoke-spewing steam engines, and after that by ones which ran on electric power produced by stations which were themselves ugly, dirty, and smoke-spewing. It was so much better these days that the world had ghosts to produce all the power that everyone needed, their teacher had said, and asked them to write essays on what they thought.

Bejji had written about her father and how he had a licence to buy ghosts, and that hadn’t made her teacher happy. “This is elitist,” she’d said, looking down at the essay. “I wanted you to write about how ghost power has made the world better, not about how your father’s privileged to buy one. Think of all your friends whose parents don’t have any ghosts. Now go and write it over again.”

So Bejji had written one that she’d cribbed from an article she’d found on the net, and it had been very bad, as even she’d realised. But the teacher had been happy.

“That’s more like it,” she’d said, and given Bejji a B. “I’m glad to see you’re paying attention now.”

From the window of the train, which, of course, ran on elevated tracks, Bejji could look across the sprawl of the city to the towering blocks of the business section of the city, which looked like distant mountain cliffs covered with snow. Her father had told her that earlier, before the ghost technology was invented, the air of the city was so full of smoke that those buildings would be invisible from this distance. But today, not only could Bejji see them, she could even see the actual mountains, blue on the far horizon.

The train stopped for a few seconds at a station, and a young man in a black jacket got on and sat down opposite Bejji and her father. There was something wrong with him. His head kept twitching from side to side, his mouth moving and twisting as though he couldn’t make up his mind whether to smile or cry. His hands twisted on his thighs, the fingers wriggling like pale earthworms, while his boots seemed to be dancing on the floor of the carriage even though he was sitting on the bench.

Bejji nudged her father. “What’s wrong with...” she whispered.

“Shh. I’ll tell you later.”

As though he’d heard, the young man looked up suddenly at Bejji. His eyes were huge, the pupils so large that they seemed to have taken over the entire eyeball, with only a little bit of white left over. She’d never seen anyone with eyes like that. It looked for a second as though he wanted to say something to her. His mouth opened, closed, and opened again. Then he looked down at his hands and went back to twitching and dancing once more.

Bejji and her father got off at the next station. As  the train moved off, Bejji glimpsed the young man one last time, his head still twitching and shaking hard enough to be clearly visible through the window.

“That was a pre-criminal, Bej,” her father explained. “They tested him, like they test everyone else in school, and they found that he would most likely commit crimes when he grew up. So in order to prevent that they put a chip in his head.”

“A chip?” Bejji repeated.

“Yes. It’s keyed to his brain, and whenever he has a bad thought it sends out impulses which break that thought up. So he can’t think about committing a crime long enough to plan it.” He smiled. “It’s only given to the most dangerous pre-criminals, of course. It’s too costly to be given to anyone.”

Bejji thought about having a chip in her head and was appalled. “That’s horrible!” she said. “It’s cruel.”

“Of course it isn’t.” Her father’s voice took on the tone she knew well, the one he always adopted when explaining something to her as though she was still a baby. “If this chip wasn’t in his head, he’d commit those crimes – what crimes we can’t say, but something very bad. A lot of people would get harmed, perhaps hurt or even killed. And he would be put in prison afterwards, for many, many years or even the rest of his life. This way he’s no danger to anybody, and he still has his freedom. Isn’t that good?”

Bejji thought about it and decided it wasn’t good. “What if the chip stops working?” she asked, as they left the station and walked towards the pedestrian subway.

“It won’t,” her father said. “It’s ghost-powered, and a powerful ghost too. They last for sixty or seventy years. A ghost that strong could power a whole section of the city, but it’s used only to keep people like that poor man from harming himself and others. It’s just one of the many ways ghost technology helps us.”

Bejji wanted to say something – she wasn’t quite sure what – but then they came to the ghost store. It didn’t look like a shop. There were no large display windows or anything like that, just a door with a small brass plate set into the wall to one side, over a doorbell.

“This is the best ghostseller in the city,” Bejji’s father said, pressing the bell. The door opened and a young woman stood there, smiling at them. She was a very pretty young woman, and had a nice smile.

“I’m so glad to meet you,” she said to Bejji’s father, enthusiastically. “I’ve been an admirer of your work for years and years.”

“Thanks,” Bejji’s father said. He seemed embarrassed for some reason. “I’m here to buy a ghost.”

“Yes, so you said on the phone,” the young lady agreed. She led them into a long room that had a counter down the middle and metal cabinets all along one side. There was another young person there, this one a man.

“Could I see your licence, please, sir?” he asked.

“Yes, of course.” Bejji’s father handed the licence over. As the young man looked it over, Bejji went over to the posters that lined the wall on the side opposite to the cabinets. They had pictures of machines, which explained how ghost power was used to drive them. Bejji looked them over with interest. The ghosts were kept in narrow flat boxes, the size of which depended on the strength of the ghost. Some were half the size of a palm of one’s hand, while others, which powered entire sections of the city, were as tall and broad as a grown man. One of the photographs showed a man looking up at a line of boxes which seemed to be as high as Bejji’s father’s house.

“Interested in ghosts, are you?” It was the girl who had met them at the door. “Would you like me to explain about them?”

Bejji didn’t say “yes” or “no,” but the young woman acted as though she’d agreed anyway.

“See these boxes?” she asked. “The ghosts are inside them, frozen in crystals. The ghosts make the crystals vibrate constantly.” She pointed at a diagram, which showed a box with part of the top and front missing. A pale yellow glittering sheet was connected to the box sides with thin wires. “Normally this vibration’s confined within the box, but once the ghosts are plugged into the machines they’re meant to run, the vibration is picked up by a reader in the machine and turned into energy. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” said Bejji dutifully, though she didn’t, not quite. “And the larger the ghost box, the larger the crystal?”

“No, there’s a limit to the sizes of the crystals. The larger boxes actually have many crystals – some of them have hundreds – with a ghost in each. That way, no matter how much power anyone needs, we can provide enough ghosts for the job. Clever, isn’t it?”

Bejji nodded. “Where do you get the ghosts?” she asked, because the young woman seemed to expect some question.

“You know...they make them in the factories.” The girl gestured vaguely. “I don’t really know all the details about that. But I’m sure you can find out if you really want.”

Bejji’s father, who’d just finished his business, called her now. “Stop bothering the lady, Bej.”

“She isn’t bothering me, sir,” the woman replied, smiling again. She seemed to smile whenever she looked at Bejji’s father, which made Bejji feel a bit strange. “It’s a pleasure answering her questions.”

“Did you ask her a lot of questions?” Bejji’s father asked, when they’d left the ghost shop.

Bejji shook her head. “I only asked her one, and she couldn’t answer that. Where do the factories get the ghosts to put in the boxes?”

“Why, didn’t she know?” Bejji’s father laughed. “She probably thought it would be too hard for you to understand. There’s something called cosmic radiation that’s everywhere, all around us. The ghost factories trap that radiation and concentrate it.”

“Concentrate it?”

“Yes. Remember how I showed you that a magnifying glass can focus the sun to burn a hole in a piece of paper?” Bejji nodded, remembering the blackening spot on the sheet and the curl of smoke. “Well, the factories focus the radiation and make ghosts out of it.”

“Oh.” It didn’t sound very interesting. “Where’s the ghost?”

“They have to go through some checks,” Bejji’s father said. “They’ll be delivering it tomorrow.”

“Oh,” Bejji said again. She saw an interesting signboard over a shop. “Could I have some ice cream, please?”


The ghost was delivered the next afternoon. Bejji had been watching television and had to answer the doorbell, since her father was in his workshop. She then had to fetch him to sign the papers and take the package containing the box with the new ghost. The delivery people then took away the box with the worn-out old ghost with them.

“What will they do with the old one?’ Bejji asked.

Her father, busy opening the package, didn’t even look up. “Erase it and upload a new one, I suppose. Help me clean this up.”

Later, Bejji’s father let her carry the ghost down to the workshop. It was only a small flat box, easy to carry in one hand, and she rubbed it with her fingers to see if she could feel the vibrating of the crystal inside. But all she felt was the smooth warm metal.

“How long will the ghost last?” she asked.

Her father shrugged. “The old one lasted four years, but I was less busy then than I am now.” That was because ever since Bejji’s mum had left her father had taken to spending more and more time in his workshop. “Maybe two years, three if I’m lucky.” He took the ghost from her and attached it to the computer on which he made his designs. “It’ll have to get harmonised with the instruments,” he said. “It takes time. I’ll go up and make dinner.”

Bejji knew what that meant. Her father would spend the evening, and probably the entire night, in the workshop, melting, cutting and pouring. “I’ll come along,” she said reluctantly, because being around her father while he was cooking meant being told to fetch and carry and wash, and she hated all that.

Today, though, with the new ghost, her father was in far too good a mood. “You can stay down here if you want,” he said. “Just don’t touch the machinery.”

When he’d gone, Bejji wandered over to the computer. The top half of the screen was flickering with lines of numbers and letters that moved far too fast for her to read, but the bottom had only a blinking cursor. On an impulse, she pressed enter and waited.

To her surprise, a question appeared under the cursor. “Who are you?”

“Bejji.” The computer had never responded to her before, and she took a moment to recover. “Are you the ghost?”

“Yes,” the reply came. “I’m the ghost. Are you my new owner?”

It felt disconcerting to be asked this in those terms. “That’s my father,” she said. “He got you for his workshop.” And then, suddenly, it struck her what was happening. “Wait. You can talk?”

“Of course I can,” the ghost said. “Why did you think I couldn’t?”

Bejji took a deep breath and looked up at the ceiling. Then she bent to the keyboard again.

There you are,” Bejji’s father said, when she walked into the kitchen some time later. “I was just about to call you.” He peered at her. “What’s the matter? You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”

“It’s not funny,” Bejji said. “It’s not funny at all!”

Bejji’s father nodded at the dining table. “Sit down and tell me.”

“Do you know what ghosts are?” Bejji asked.

Her father blinked. “I told you...”

“No,” she interrupted. “Do you know what they really are? Have you ever talked to one?”

“Talked to one?” Bejji’s father looked at her. “What on earth are you talking about? How can you talk to a ghost? It’s a power source.”

“A power source, yes,” Bejji said. “That’s because we use them as power sources, just like we used to use horses and oxen like you told me. But ghosts are just as alive as oxen or horses. No, I don’t mean alive. I mean, they can think and feel and the rest of it.”

“And a ghost told you this? Bej, your imagination –”

“It’s not my imagination! It’s your new ghost, downstairs. I was talking to it on the computer. It answered my questions.”

“Is that so?” Bejji’s father had apparently decided to humour her. “What did it say to you?”

“You said ghosts are from the...the background energy of the universe, right? The ghost says it’s more than that. It says all the information, the thoughts and feelings of all the people and plants and animals that ever lived, anywhere – they all merge into this energy when they die. That’s what ghosts are – the thoughts and feelings and hopes and desires of all of them. And all we do is make them turn motors until they’re worn out, and then we throw them away!”

“Let’s go and see,” Bejji’s father said. “I want to see this for myself.”

So they went down to the workshop, and Bejji’s father turned very pale when he saw the screen. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he muttered. And then he asked the ghost some questions of his own. The words he used were too complex for Bejji to understand, but whatever the ghost said, he grew more and more disquieted. Finally, he turned off the computer and stood up.

“I think we’d better go and have dinner,” he said shortly.

“But what about the ghost?” Bejji asked. “What are you going to do?”

Bejji’s father sighed. “Tomorrow,” he said, “I’m going to have a talk to the ghost suppliers, and see what they have to say.”


It’s nothing at all.” The young man from the ghost store gestured at Bejji’s father’s work computer. “It must have been a glitch, or maybe just your daughter’s imagination.”

“It wasn’t what you call just my daughter’s imagination,” Bejji’s father replied. “I talked to the ghost myself.”

“But there’s no way you could have,” the young man said. “There’s no way an energy source can communicate.”

“Have a look for yourself,” Bejji’s father said.

“All right,” the young man said. He wasn’t smiling today, not at all. “It’s a waste of time, but I’ll look.”

Bejji watched him plug in the ghost and check the computer screen. She already knew what he was going to say before he said it. “It’s a defect in the ghost box, that’s all, sir. We’ll replace it with a new one right away.”

“A defect?” Bejji’s father echoed. “You mean that whole conversation is just because the box is...defective?”

“That’s right. We’re sorry for your inconvenience. We’ll replace the box right away.”

For a dry-mouthed moment Bejji thought her father would say yes, but then he slowly shook his head. “Not so fast. What kind of defective box could make such a false conversation? How is it possible?”

“We’ll check it and see, sir. We don’t want this sort of thing to happen again, either.”

“I’ll bet you don’t,” Bejji’s father agreed grimly. “No, I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want the ghost replaced after all.”


“No,” Bejji’s father repeated. “That ghost is legally purchased, isn’t it? It’s my property now?”

The young man looked acutely unhappy. “If you put it that way...”

“I do put it that way,” Bejji’s father said. He glanced at Bejji. “And my daughter does, too.”

As soon as the young man had left, Bejji’s father jumped into action. “We don’t have much time,” he snapped. “Pack up whatever you want to take with you. We have to leave quickly.”

“What?” Bejji asked.

“Do you think they’ll leave us alone? That man will have contacted his bosses by now, and they’ll call the government. This isn’t a small thing, Bej.”

“I don’t understand,” Bejji said plaintively.

Bejji’s father didn’t even look at her. He was throwing things into a large bag. “You saw that man? Of course he knew all about the ghosts being able to think and so on. They certainly knew all about it but never said a word because that would make it hard to make ghost technology acceptable.”

“So what are they going to do?”

“Are you going to stand there like that or get your things? They’re going to raid this house, probably tonight, on some excuse or other. Maybe they’ll say they had a tip that a post-criminal was seen near here or something. They have all kinds of laws they can use for excuses. And during that raid, this ghost box will vanish and be replaced by an ordinary one.”

“You mean there is something wrong with the box?” Bejji asked before going to her room to pack.

“There’s certainly something wrong with it,” her father said. “What’s wrong with it is that it got into the wrong supply chain.” He shook his head. “I’ll explain later. Now go and pack, before they get here.”

“Where are we going?” Bejji said a little later, as they left the house.

“A hotel somewhere,” her father said tersely. “We’ve got to hide out until I think of what to do.” He held up a hand. “Hear that?”

Faintly, and then more clearly, sirens were sounding in the distance.


We absolutely deny that any such thing is possible,” the representative of the ghost manufacturers said. The television studio lights glittered brightly on his shiny white teeth. “I think these accusations are...a little overwrought.”

The interviewer smiled sympathetically. “I’m sure we can all agree that some accusations need to be disregarded. Still, the fact remains that these particular claims are somewhat specific.”

It was several weeks later. For several weeks, Bejji and her father had hidden, moving from hotel to hotel, and from city to city. Bejji’s father had made phone calls and sent mails, and talked to people she’d never seen before. Sometimes he’d been discouraged, but only for a while. And then at last he’d taken a deep breath of satisfaction when he’d seen the television news and the lead story, which was about ghosts being claimed to be sentient and that ghost technology might be equivalent to slavery.

“They can’t bury it now,” he’d said. “They can dispute it, but they can’t bury it.” And, sure enough, a couple of days later, the television channel had contacted him for an interview.

“They’re also totally preposterous,” the representative said now. “It’s the sort of thing the Luddites who want us to go back to electricity and steam say. But even they don’t make any stupid claim like this.”

“What do you have to say to that, sir?” the television interviewer turned to Bejji’s father.

“I’d say that we’ve all been blind,” he replied. “We’ve been using the ghost technology, and we’ve never cared to wonder why, for instance, they’re even called ghosts. If the ghosts are actually not sentient, if they aren’t the remnants of the energies and memories of the dead, why would they be called ghosts?” He glanced across the interviewer at the representative. “Well?”

The representative stirred but didn’t say anything.

“It goes well beyond that, of course,” Bejji’s father went on. “This ghost box of mine...” He held it up. “This box is able to communicate with me and my daughter, via a computer. The company man said it was a defect. But how could it be a defect? What kind of defect would let a power source communicate with a human?

“There’s only one answer. The defect isn’t in the box. The only defect was in the mistake that let a box meant for the military into an ordinary civilian’s possession.”

“The military?” the interviewer echoed.

“Or the internal security service. It hardly matters which.” Bejji’s father waved a hand. “If ghosts are actually able to think and communicate, can you imagine the uses the military or the spy services can put them to?” He paused an instant. “Even the so-called pre-criminals. How many of them are actual dangerous potential troublemakers, and how many...” He looked around the audience, and into the cameras. “Some of you will have relatives who have been chipped as pre-criminals. How many of them, I ask you, are actually dangerous people, and how many are simply persons whose opinions the government finds embarrassing, or inconvenient, or worse?”

“Ridiculous,” the ghost company representative scoffed. “The whole thing is ridiculous. Ghosts can’t communicate with anyone, simply because they aren’t anything more than concentrated energy. It’s like those Luddites who use the sun’s rays to generate electricity and store it in a battery.” Luddites seemed to be his favourite word.

“Ridiculous?” Bejji’s father repeated. “I’m willing to put it to the test.”

“That’s fine,” the interviewer agreed, with a broad smile. “You can plug it into our computer here, and we’ll see.” He and the ghost company representative exchanged a tiny glance – such a momentary glance that it was almost invisible – and Bejji caught it only because she was looking for it. Her father, looking across the studio audience, caught her eye.

“My daughter has a better idea,” he announced. “You say the box is defective, right? That’s why it gives a false conversation when plugged into a computer?”

The interviewer nodded. “Yes...that’s what the ghost manufacturers are saying, aren’t you?”

“Or maybe it’s a problem with the computer they’ve been using,” the representative said, grinning. “I’m sure if we plug it into this computer here, this studio computer, you’ll find there’s no such thing at all.” Just looking at him, Bejji could already tell that it was all arranged.

“And that’s why we aren’t going to use the studio computer,” her father said. “I’m a sculptor in metal, as you know. I bought this ghost to use in my workshop. My daughter there, in the audience, has a portable furnace and a device for pouring molten metal in designs. Neither the furnace nor the device has any connection with a computer. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

The interviewer and the representative suddenly looked uncertain. “Not really,” the former said.

“It’s just this,” Bejji’s father replied. “I intend to hook up the ghost to the furnace and use its power to melt the metal, and allow it to extrude the molten metal to make any designs at all, all by itself. Since there’s no computer at all attached to anything, there’s no possibility of a computer glitch. Right?”

The interviewer and the representative exchanged glances, quite openly now. Both looked very unhappy. “Go on,” the former said.

“Well, then,” Bejji’s father said. “What will you do when the ghost uses the extruded metal to make messages, just as it wishes, all by itself?”

Without waiting to be called, Bejji walked to the stage, towing the little trolley with the furnace and the rest of the paraphernalia her father and she had smuggled into the studio earlier that day. Bejji’s father, in the frozen silence, plugged in the ghost. The furnace hummed. Shining silvery metal dripped out of a nozzle into a tray.

“Read it,” Bejji’s father invited the interviewer. “Read what it says.”

The interviewer looked down into the tray and licked his lips. “I can’t...” he began.

“Read it,” Bejji’s father repeated. “Or would you rather let everyone see it for themselves?”

The camera overhead zoomed in on the tray. On millions of screens around the country, the silver letters shone. “DON’T YOU REALISE THAT YOU’LL BE PART OF US AFTER YOU DIE?”

There was a frozen moment’s silence, and then the shouting from the audience started.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2016

Wednesday 15 June 2016

Note to Readers

As per the suggestion of friend and reader Michael WME, yesterday's story has been submitted to the magazine Asimov's Science Fiction. As such, I have removed it from the blog. If Asimov's Science Fiction rejects it, I shall reinstate it here on the blog. If it does accept it, well...wish me luck.

Tuesday 14 June 2016

OMG OMG Horror Terror Massacre

Click to enlarge. If anyone is hurt or angered by this cartoon, please rest assured that I intended to hurt and/or anger you, and that you totally deserve it. Thank you for your attention. 


We’re approaching the Node,” the shuttle’s recorded announcement sounded, the words nasal and tinny.

I leaned forward and switched on the screen. I’d never seen the Node before except in photographs, and those were from a long distance. Though it no longer mattered now, I wanted to remember as much detail as possible.

There was nothing special on the screen, just the stars sprinkled across the black night of space, unwinking points of light. I reached forward to fiddle with the resolution.

Beside me, I felt rather than saw the lady Farzana, better known as Umm Aiman, raise a hand. “Wait,” she said, and pointed. “There. Can you see it now?”

At first I thought it was just another star, and then I noticed that it was a slight but distinct bluish-green in colour. And then I saw that it was crowded around by objects.

“That’s the Station around the Node,” Umm Aiman informed me, unnecessarily.

“It’s huge,” I said. “I didn’t realise how huge it is.”

Umm Aiman glanced at me out of the corner of her eye. “Don’t let it overawe you.”

“I won’t,” I said. “I’d read the figures, but it’s different to actually see it in person.”

 It grew, and grew. The Node was a ball of translucent light, white shading to green to violet at the edges, which flickered in and out of existence, so that the whole of it seemed to pulse slowly like a heart. Around its midsection, like the rings of Saturn, was the Station’s main section – an immense doughnut of metal, connected by shafts like the spokes of a wheel to the flickering light it had brought into being. As we watched, a greyish splotch drifted slowly across the screen, marking the rotation of the Station. And around it, above and below, were all the other parts and modules, which had been added over time – cylinders and blunt-tipped cones, spheres and cross-shapes, they rotated too, some attached directly to the Station by metal passages, others by tethers, and still others, presumably, only by the tenuous grip of its gravity.

“They’ll definitely have weapons trained on us,” Umm Aiman said. “Missiles, particle weapons, the lot.”

“Of course they will. But they won’t use them, not when they need us so badly.” I gripped my seat arms as a series of brief jolts shook the shuttle from the little braking rockets firing. “They may think about it when we’re leaving.”

“Yes. What have they got to lose then?”

“Everything,” I said. “They have everything to lose.”

A dark circle appeared on the surface of the ring, growing to a short tube. The shuttle oriented itself to line up with it, obeying electronic signals beamed from the cluster of antennae on the rim of the Station.

“Here we go,” Umm Aiman said, pulling on her veil, so that only her eyes showed. “Are you sure we can do this?”

I shrugged. “What have we got to lose?”

She didn’t say anything. We both knew the answer.


As we passed through the airlock into the Station, we were met by a tall man in a blue uniform.

“Abu Ismail?” he asked, as though there was any doubt on the matter. He looked as though he were in two minds whether to salute me, and then settled for a handshake. It was a quick handshake, to make the point that he’d rather not do it. “I’m Lieutenant Commander Gimler. I’m afraid I’ll need you to show your identity papers, both you and your, ah...” his eyes flicked over my shoulder to Umm Aiman. “Your lady,” he said, after struggling for a moment to find the appropriate word.

“Here you are,” I said with detached amusement, watching him go over the cards. He was unarmed, but there would undoubtedly be hidden weapons trained on us at this very moment, just in case. I’d have preferred an open armed guard – it would have been less hypocritical and therefore more respectful. “You’ll find they’re both all right.”

“If you’ll excuse me. One more step.” He raised an iris scanner and looked through it briefly at my eyes and then at Umm Aiman’s, before reluctantly accepting that we were, indeed, who we said we were. “Follow me, please,” he said, handing the cards back.

The gravity of the station, imparted by its spin, was low enough to be uncomfortable. We walked down a curving white corridor, trying not to bounce. Everything was white, from the ceiling to the walls to the floor. How could they stand this absence of colour?

“Where are we going?” I asked, as much to take my mind off all the whiteness as because I wanted to know.

“Rear Admiral Ley’s office,” the Lieutenant Commander said. “He’s in charge of the, ah, negotiations with you.”    

“Rear Admiral Ley,” I repeated. “Isn’t he...” Umm Aiman jabbed me sharply in the small of the back, and I shut my mouth so quickly I bit my lip hard enough to draw blood. She was completely right, though. This wasn’t the time to raise the fact that one’s counterpart in negotiations was a wanted war criminal in one’s homeland. “Isn’t he the Station Commander?” I asked instead.

“No, but he’s the one who’ll talk to you.” Gimler said shortly. We passed a couple of women in uniform coming the other way. Their eyes went straight to Umm Aiman, who was of course walking a pace and a half behind me, and I could sense exactly what they were thinking. “Poor woman, not only does she have to cover up, but he won’t even let her walk beside him! And she’s likely kept too ignorant even to know what she’s suffering. Such savages.” Umm Aiman knew what they were thinking as well, and I could imagine her smiling behind her veil. Well, drawing her lips back from her teeth, anyway.

Gimler stopped at a round door set in the inner wall of the curving corridor, and pressed an almost invisible panel. It slid open and he saluted before turning to us. “Please go in.”

I’d seen pictures of Ley before; who hasn’t? But those had been taken when he was much younger, before the war between our sides had settled down into a hostile semi-peace. He was balding and thick-bodied now, but the blunt face still held the same bulldog aggression that one could see in the old photographs. His dress uniform was meant to impress, too – a single braided epaulette on the right shoulder, his chest lined with rows of medal ribbons, golden rank stripes on his sleeves. In my turban and comfortable old salwar kameez, I looked a bumpkin in comparison, and was presumably meant to feel like one.

But they wouldn’t have called in a bumpkin to solve their problem for them, and all four of us in the room knew that.

There were two chairs set across Ley’s desk, and Gimler motioned us to them. I took one, but Umm Aiman, of course, chose to stand to one side of the door, her back to the wall. I saw Ley’s lip curl in disdain when he saw that. That was all right. Gimler wasn’t sitting either.

“Rear Admiral,” I acknowledged. “I won’t waste your time and mine. You have a problem with the Node, and you can’t solve it. So you’ve called us in to help.”

“Hmm...yes.” His mouth twisted bitterly, involuntarily telling me how much he hated having to call for help from us. “It remains to be seen whether you can do anything, though.”

“I’m sure I can try,” I said cheerfully. “I assume this problem is that something is blocking the Node?”

He didn’t show any surprise, nor should he have. “If it were anything else – if the Node had slipped out of phase – we could have handled it ourselves. After all, we set it up in the first place.” The words “...not you” hung in the air, unstated but understood. “So, yes, something is blocking the Node. You are correct.”

“Equally obviously, whatever’s blocking the Node is not a corporeal, physical entity. If it were, you would have destroyed it with weapons or other physical means.” I sat back and rubbed my fingers through my beard. “So what is it?”

He muttered something under his breath, which I thought I hadn’t heard correctly at first. “Did you say vampire?” I asked.

He nodded unhappily. “An energy vampire of some kind, yes. It appears to be sucking energy out from the Node generators, and is draining them continuously.”

I frowned as I considered this. “I assume that you’ve tried switching the generators off?”

He looked at me as though he’d just realised I was an imbecile. “Of course we tried. It would have collapsed the Node and caused an enormous amount of delay and expense, but we tried, yes.”

“And...?” I prompted, though I knew.

“They wouldn’t shut down.” His bulldog jaws bit off the words.  “It’s taken over the entire generator system, and is keeping them going even as it sucks the power from them.”

“I see,” I said, though the “seeing” was as yet fully metaphorical. “Is it perceptible? Visible?”

“In some ways, yes.” It clearly caused him effort to say all this to me, the Enemy. “But it isn’t photographable.”  He looked over my shoulder at Gimler so he wouldn’t have to look at me. “Can you fix it?”

“What makes you think I, or indeed, anyone from our side, can fix it?” I asked. I’d been wondering about this since the Amir had summoned me to his office, down in New Baghdad, to tell me what he wanted me to do.

“Do they think we’re responsible for this problem, whatever it is?” I’d asked. “Do they imagine that, having created it, we can call it off?”

The Amir had tapped on his desk with his fingertips. “I’m sure the idea has crossed their minds. But they must also know that our science isn’t a patch on theirs, must be something that science can’t fix.”

Ley now confirmed that. “It doesn’t, ah, seem to be amenable to correction by the normal scientific methods. We’re compelled to look for, um, other options.”

“And these other options...include religion? Are you assuming that this vampire of yours is a demon from hell or something like that?”

The Rear Admiral looked uncomfortable. “We’re just trying everything. It seems that since there’s nothing more we can do, you might be able to help.”

“I’ll have to have a look,” I said. “Should we go now?”

“No!” he sounded panicked for a moment, and I wondered just what kind of pressure was being put on him, and by whom. “First, there’s the question of what you want in return.”

“I, personally? Nothing. But my side wants something, and you have already been told what it is.”

His heavy brows contracted. “Yes, and it isn’t acceptable.”

“I don’t see why,” I said. “You have the Node, which you’re using as a gateway into another, parallel, universe. Obviously, you aren’t satisfied with the one Allah gave you. We, on the other hand, are perfectly happy with this one, and all we ask is that you leave it to us.” I reached into the null-space pocket in my turban and extracted the holocube I’d been carrying there. My turban has all kinds of interesting gadgets inside it, most of which I hope I never will have to use. “You can ask the Amir yourself.”

He waved off the cube. “Your terms are not acceptable,” he repeated. “We can give you and your...” his gaze shifted momentarily to Umm Aiman. “Your, ah, companion, whatever you can reasonably want. Money, political asylum, even priority emigration to the Other Side. But that’s all we can do.”

I shrugged. “Too bad, then. My trip here’s been wasted, but after all, it’s just one trip, a few days lost. You, on the other hand, stand to lose a universe.” I paused to let it sink in and the lights flickered overhead. It wasn’t much of a flicker, lasting less than a second, and I’d not have even noticed it. But Ley looked up at the glow-globe in the ceiling apprehensively, and from the corner of my eye I noticed Gimler do it too. And I realised what it was.

“It’s not just the generator any longer, is it?” I asked. “It’s beginning to suck away the power system of the Station itself, isn’t it?” I began to push back my chair, not too hard, keeping the low gravity in mind. “Well, then, I assume you’ll just have to evacuate the Station before it sucks your power completely dry, while you still have your life support systems running. I’m sure you can build a new one later, elsewhere. But that’s none of our affair.” The lights flickered again, a little longer this time. “Come, Umm Aiman. We’re going back.”  

“Wait!” Ley’s voice held real anguish. “I’m going to have to put this before the Station authorities, and they’re going to have to put it to the whole Council. It’s not something I can decide by myself.”

“And how long will that take?” I asked. “Going by the lights, you don’t have unlimited time.”

“One Cycle, maybe two.” Ley held up a hand. “We’ll give you accommodation till then. Please be patient.”

“We’re patient,” I said. “I wonder whether your guest is, though.”

As though on cue, the lights flickered again.


They gave us a room in the residential section of the Station, at the end of the crew quarters and near the section which was filled with the emigrants. These had been accumulating ever since the trouble with the Node had begun, and their section was so overcrowded that they spilled over into the corridors. Gimler had brought us to the room by access passages so as to avoid these emigrants, because, he said, they were angry and frustrated and might attack us.

I didn’t think the emigrants would attack us, but I wasn’t so sure about the Station staff. I’d seen the way some of the others, waiting outside the Rear Admiral’s office, had looked at us when we’d come out. Gimler was likely more worried about them.

That is what I said to Umm Aiman from the bed as she came out of the bathroom. “I see our hosts are taking good care of us.”

“It is a very good room,” Umm Aiman replied. “It has all the conveniences.” She meant that it was certainly bugged and we were under surveillance, which was, of course, true.

“With luck,” I said, “we won’t have to stay long.” This wasn’t code. I was just telling her what I thought. “We’d better rest, though.”

She nodded, the bedside lamp shimmering in her hair. She sat down in the least comfortable-looking of the chairs in the room, propped her feet up on the bed, and informed me that she’d be taking the first watch. “You go ahead, Abu Ismail. I’ll sleep later on, when I get drowsy.”

I glanced at her. Umm Aiman was fully dressed, except for her veil, shoes and stockings; her hands, naturally, were still sheathed in her elbow-length black gloves. She looked very beautiful, and I felt a momentary ache for her, an ache not of desire but of sorrow, because of what she’d chosen to become. Then I shook it off – there was what I’d chosen to become, too – and bid her good night.

Almost everyone imagines Umm Aiman and I are lovers. They are, of course, wrong.

We are much, much closer than that.


Nothing happened during the rest period. Nobody tried to assassinate us, or even break into the room. Nobody attempted to pump in hypnotic gases through the ventilation, to take us away and interrogate us for what we knew. After a few hours the alarm I had set in my turban woke me – I didn’t trust Umm Aiman not to sacrifice her own rest fully in order to let me sleep – and I replaced her on guard duty. She undressed the rest of the way, without any embarrassment, and went to sleep, while I sat in the chair and thought about the task ahead.

They’d give in to our conditions, of course. They really had no other choice. But would I be able to do my bit? Could I?

I’d talked about this to the Amir back in his office in New Baghdad. “I’ve full confidence in you,” he’d said. “I know you’ll do it, even if you don’t believe it yourself.”

“You know I’m not strictly doing things that are allowed, right?” I’d replied. “Some people would call what I do witchcraft, or sorcery.”

“What some people think won’t make a difference,” the Amir had said. “Think of this as Allah’s gift to us. We didn’t win the war – in fact, we barely avoided losing it – and we’ve most certainly been losing the peace, or whatever you call what we’ve got now. That lot over there have all the science, the economic progress, and the shiny gadgets that show they’re more developed. They’re literally squeezing us against the wall, seducing away even our own young people to their side. And then they developed the Node, and had parallel universes at their disposal – all they could ever want. Their victory was all but complete. Even I saw that we were lost.

“But now...” his voice had grown deeper and more vibrant. “But now, we have this golden opportunity, to win it all. They can have their other universes, but we will have this one, the one Allah made for us. Can you tell me how this could ever be without Allah’s specific permission and intervention? And, having done this much, will He let us lose?”

I replayed these words over and over in my mind until I almost believed them, and by then the rest period was almost over.

As they’d done with supper, they served breakfast to us in the room, and as before I took the precaution of wanding it for poison, even though we both knew nobody would try anything so crude. We were still eating when Gimler entered, causing Umm Aiman to drag on her veil over a mouthful of half-eaten food.

It was so obvious from Gimler’s expression that he was bringing what to him was bad news that I didn’t even need to hear him say it. “Your Council has agreed to our terms?”

He nodded glumly. “They called an emergency session, and agreed, though over some objections.” He didn’t need to say that his was among the objections. “Our acceptance has been conveyed to your authorities on New Baghdad, subject of course to you doing your part.”

Umm Aiman and I glanced at each other. “We’ll do our part,” I said. “Shall we go now?”

“Rear Admiral Ley is waiting for you,” he said. Outside, in the corridor, we found a couple of grey-uniformed guards with guns. This, of course, meant that there was some kind of actual threat, because nobody takes the idea of using projectile weapons inside a spacecraft lightly.

“Is there likely to be a coup or something?” I asked. “Has the news of your acceptance of our terms created that much anger?”

Gimler shook his head, briefly. “Not that I know of, no. But we have to safeguard your security from the emigrants.” He must have known this was a ridiculous excuse, given that the emigrants had no weapons and no way to reach us at the Node. Things must be even worse with them than I’d thought.

There was no doubt that the situation inside the Station was worse. The lights were perceptibly dimmer and flickering constantly. There was also a faint odour in the air, as though some of the air filters had been shut down in an effort to save what power there was.

“We’re keeping the approaches to the Node at normal power,” Gimler said, before I could ask. “We’ve also gathered all the equipment you might need.”

“Have you used this equipment to try and stop your vampire?” I asked.

He hesitated long enough for me to consider asking him again. “Yes,” he admitted finally.

“Then,” I told him, “I will not need it.”

We’d passed Ley’s office door, and Gimler paused to press a switch that caused a section of the inner wall to swing open. He then led us along a straight passage leading towards the Node at the Station’s hub. “This isn’t the way the emigrants go, of course,” he said.

“Of course it isn’t.” It was too narrow, and the emigrants in any case weren’t allowed in this section of the Station. Relative to the spin-induced gravity, we were headed straight ‘upwards’, but I didn’t feel any pull tending to make us fall over on our backs. They must be maintaining a separate spin here, probably rotating the passage itself around its long axis. The idea made me feel slightly dizzy. “Is there any way you can communicate with the other side of the Node? With those who have already, ah, crossed over?”

“No. The Node is the only way through, whether material or electronic.” That meant there was no way of knowing whether it was a phenomenon only on this side of the Node, or both ways. If it was the latter, and I could get rid of it here, it might still be blocking the Node on the other side. I decided not to point this out.

The passage ended in what seemed to be a blank wall. Gimler stopped to open a panel and press various buttons. The wall vanished.

“The Node,” Gimler said, pointing.


The Node!

It filled the great round window before us, like a giant glaring sun, impossibly visible even in the airless waste of space. Through the transparent panel we could see the access tunnel to it, a thread of black that struck out across the abyss. At its far end we could just make out the arc of a second, inner ring, almost lost in the glare.

“It’s...impressive,” I said. “Is that the Node generator perimeter ring?”

Gimler glanced at me from the corner of his eye, obviously trying to decide whether I had some knowledge of how the Node was created. “It is,” he said finally. “But the details are classified. If you need to know them to do this job, the Council needs to...”

“I’m sure that if that knowledge was of any use, your experts would have solved the problem by now,” I said. “Where’s your vampire?”

Rear Admiral Ley had appeared behind us, unannounced, though of course both Umm Aiman and I had been aware that he was there. “It’s down at the Node itself,” he said. “You can’t see it from here.”

I asked a question I’d been putting off for too long. “Has anyone approached it before?”

Ley and Gimler exchanged a glance. “A couple of our technicians, ah, tried to get to it with electronic disruptors.”

“What happened?”

A long pause. “One returned before reaching the vampire itself. He, ah, reported symptoms of acute physical distress, which made it impossible to go on. The other...”

I waited.

“He disappeared,” the younger officer said finally. “We found no trace of him.”

“You were watching him on your cameras, of course.”

“Of course. He reached the vampire, and then vanished. We couldn’t detect anything of him at all.”

Umm Aiman touched my arm, her fingers coding a warning. I tightened my bicep, acknowledging her touch, but no more.

“Have you used weapons on it?” I asked.

“I told you. We used everything.”

“And what happened?”

Another hesitation, as they tried to decide whether I could be given that information. Then, even here, the light flickered, and that made up their minds.

“Nothing,” Ley said. “Nothing happened at all.”

“It took no notice of our weapons whatever,” Gimler said.

“All right,” I replied. “Let me get to it, then.”

“Both of you?” Ley asked.

“No, I will go alone. Umm Aiman will remain here.” I heard her angry indrawn breath, but ignored it. I didn’t know what I was heading into, but whatever it was, Umm Aiman’s considerable abilities didn’t extend in that direction. Also, I didn’t want her to be watching in case something happened to me. “She will be my liaison and backup.”

“All right.” Neither Ley nor Gimler obviously had anything but disdain for Umm Aiman, but that was no problem at all. “Go down these stairs, and straight along the tunnel at the bottom.”

“Do I need any life support system?” I asked, since they hadn’t mentioned it.

“No. The Node is self-contained. It doesn’t allow any leakage to space.” Gimler turned away to a console set into one wall, which hadn’t been switched on earlier. The screen glowed into greenish life as Ley joined him. Neither of them wished me good luck, and that was no problem, either.

Leaving Umm Aiman with the two armed guards, I went down the stairs.

The tunnel was simply a cylinder, of which one side was flattened to serve as a floor. The lights – from a series of strips set in the cylindrical wall – were so bright that I instinctively slitted my eyes at first before I could get used to them. The air should have been warm from their heat, but it got colder the further I walked down the tunnel towards the flickering light at the end which represented the Node.

It was not the Node.

The far end of the tunnel opened on to a platform, from which a catwalk stretched out into the vast open space at the very core of the Station. In the centre of this space, like a lumpy sphere put together from cylinders and ovoids, hung a huge object that flashed and flickered silver, green, blue and violet, in the reflected light of the Node. I couldn’t get a good look at it, though, because of the thing that was sitting astride it, embracing it with innumerable legs.

I cannot, even now, clearly describe what the Vampire looked like. It draped itself over the sphere of the Node generator, like a titanic swollen tick, sucking in the energies that surged around it, making them part of itself. I can say it was translucent and radiated light the colour of distant ice-fields, and that its legs disappeared into the metal where they touched it. It was obscene, it was horrible, and it was the most alive thing I have ever seen.

For a moment that seemed to last forever, I stood there, my hand on the railing, and stared up at the Node.It had no eyes or other organs that I could see; I knew that if it was aware of me at all, it had no interest in me. I would be beneath its notice, the way a man might not even register an ant crawling across a windowsill. Only I wasn’t even as important to it as that ant.

Taking a deep breath, I looked around. The arc of the inner ring stretched out on both sides like embracing arms, until they were lost in the Node’s glow. Above and below, stars shone faintly through the glare, their images stretching, twisting and writhing as the light from them was filtered through the curtains between the universes as it reached me. And, here, I realised that it was a curtain, too; that it was a house of innumerable rooms, of which we – the Amir, Umm Aiman, I, and everything and everyone else I’d ever known – occupied just one.

I couldn’t stand here any longer, wasting time. There was work to be done.

With one final look up at the swollen monstrosity that bulged over the Node generator, I stepped out on the catwalk, and walked towards the Vampire.

I was still walking towards it when something seized me.

It was as though a fist made of a million billion stinging grains of sand had taken hold of me, and crushed me in its grasp until its fingers met somewhere deep inside me; and each of those grains was made of nothing but light, but light so pure and hard that it banished all trace of shadow. It was as though I had been flayed in an instant, gutted and filled again with something that bore no resemblance to anything that anyone has ever known, nothing to which I can even make a comparison. If I were to describe it, it would be as  though I had been emptied, and filled again with a universe, and all million billion galaxies and stars.

Gasping, desperately trying to hold on to my sense of self, I leaned forward and forced myself to walk on.

All around me flared the pulsing light of the Vampire. I was vaguely aware of one of its many, many legs, within touching distance of my hand, passing through the very metal of the catwalk. And then I could no longer see, or hear, or touch; but I could sense. Oh Allah, I could sense.

It was as though I stood somewhere in an endless field, a field made of ribbons of light that were the colour of ice-fields seen far away. Far, very far away, on all sides, the ribbons rose, imperceptibly, until they must have merged high above, forming a glowing sky. And all along those ribbons were clotted little lumps of condensed light, moving slowly along, waxing and waning and snuffing out, only to be replaced by others. One crawled towards my feet, and I could not move; I felt its feather-light touch on my shoe, and that slight touch broke it apart, shattered it, and sent it crumbling away into vanishing dust.

And what I felt then wasn’t even the whole of it; it was only one little facet, one perception of something so huge, so utterly enormous that such a concepts as space, or time, would be alien to it. It was as though I stood in one single organelle of one cell of an organism whose proportions were to a blue whale as its might be to the smallest bacterium; and even that, only in the sense of a dimensional model in which a word like size had any meaning at all.

On and on it went, like mirrors opposite each other reflecting the same image, into infinite distances. It had no beginning, no end, no meaning and no need of meaning. It just was.

I felt myself consumed, burnt to ash, reconstituted, over and over, a thousand billion trillion times. I had no hands or feet, no eyes or face or body. I was a part of it and I was nothing at all.

I think I screamed, as far as noise had any meaning in that place; as far as I still had a voice, a throat and lungs to scream with. I think I threw my head back and bellowed like a bull struck in the corridas of Andalusia. I do not know what I screamed; I do not know if it had any words, or if words had any meaning.  

Nothing I had ever encountered, that I had ever thought or dreamt or imagined, had ever given me any preparation for this. Nothing could. I felt myself begin to drain away, to be turned into a drop of light, and dimly I knew that this was what had happened to the technician who had vanished. In another moment, it would happen to me, and Umm Aiman would be left all alone, wondering where I’d gone. Knowing her, she would try to follow, to rescue me; and the Vampire would take her too.

I began to stretch, to thin out like a sheet of rubber, and I felt myself smeared across endless todays and tomorrows and the times that had gone before; the here and the now, and the far, far away, so far that distance ceased to have any meaning. I contained the universe, the universe contained me. Cold dead corpses of what had been stars stood beside the incandescent blue suns they had once been, or perhaps were still elsewhere, or might be again. Realities were born and died in an instant; and then, only then, did I at last acknowledge to myself what I must have long since known, the manner of thing I was dealing with.

So then it was that I drew the last scraps of my consciousness together and threw at it the only weapon I had. It was not a weapon I’d known I possessed; if I’d known I had it, I would have been appalled, and would have tried to rid myself of the knowledge. But now it was there, and I used it, simply because I had nothing else.

I took the weapon from what remained of my mind; I rolled it into a hard mass, like a ball, a piece of stone, and I hurled it from me up into the ribbon-laced void among the billion trillion voids, as hard as I could.

At first I thought I’d already waited too long, that I was already too late; and then I thought that the weapon was only one in my imagination, that I had been totally mistaken. But then the first jagged rip appeared, somewhere in that immensity, whether above or below me I could not tell. It cleaved through me as well, spreading like a crack in shattering glass, the ribbons buckling and tearing and flying apart, taking pieces of me with them. And from outside, like a torrent of night, the darkness flooded in to fill the empty spaces between.

I came to myself, standing on the catwalk, my fists clenched, my face wet with tears. Above and around me the Node gleamed, blue-white-green. The bloated thing they had, in their ignorance, called the Vampire was gone. It was freezing cold.

Forcing myself to move, feeling the blood sluggish in my veins, I turned back the way I’d come.


I waited until we were well away from the Station before I could trust myself to speak to Umm Aiman. “I am glad you are in one piece,” I said.

“I should say the same about you, Nuruddin,” she replied, using my given name for perhaps only the eighth or ninth time ever. The last time she’d used it was after she had eliminated an assassin who had come for me. He had been a very dangerous assassin, and had almost succeeded. “I was never in any kind of real danger, so you didn’t need to worry.”

“If you say so.” I recalled the scene I’d discovered when I’d returned from the Node. The coup must have been launched only just after I’d left. It had started as an uprising in the crew quarters of the Station, and swiftly engulfed the rest of the sections not given over to the emigrants. And then they had finally reached the platform where Ley, Gimler, Umm Aiman and the guards had been waiting for me.

Gimler, when I returned, was dead. So were the guards. So were no less than five coup troops. None of them had been killed by our guards.

Umm Aiman and her gloves. What she has hidden in them, and the ferocity with which she can use them, terrifies even me.

Ley – having survived – had already been rallying the counterattack against the coup. He’d paused briefly to acknowledge my success.

“We shall keep to the terms of the agreement,” he’d said. “We don’t want this to happen again.”

“It would indeed be a pity,” I’d responded, and – leaving him to think over the implications of that statement – Umm Aiman and I had made our own way down to the shuttle. We hadn’t met anyone on the way.

With a touch on an icon, Umm Aiman brought up the image of the Station receding behind us. “What’s wrong, Nuruddin?”

“Nothing,” I said. And, because it seemed to need reinforcement, I added her name. “Nothing, Farzana.”

“Don’t lie to me. I can feel your misery.” She touched another icon, and a red light blinked. “I’ve shut the cabin recorders off. Nobody will know.”

So I told her. Once I started talking, the words began pouring out, as though they wouldn’t stop. By the time I finished, Umm Aiman’s face was as pale as her niqab was black.

“I don’t know what to say.” She bit her lip. “Are you telling me that there’s no Allah, then?”

I shook my head. “You don’t get it, do you? That thing was Allah. It was YHWH, and God, and Brahma, and Zeus, and Jupiter and every other deity the human race has come up with since the start of time. It was the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end of everything. It Exists. Everything else is...a shallow mockery.” I swallowed, my throat tight with misery. “And I’ve chased it away.”

“What was it doing at the Node?” she challenged.

“Feeding,” I said. “It needed energy. All it ever wanted was a source of energy. Everything there is, everything that was, everything that will ever be, in this universe or any of the trillion others is to it just a...source of energy. Think of the Node, what it was – a point which pulled together the forces of all universes to make a gateway between them. Can you imagine what that must have been like to it, having wrapped itself around the coronas of suns and the gravity wells of black holes?”

She looked down at her lap and at me. “It must have been a banquet.”

“Yes. It had found food, more than it had ever thought to find, more than it had probably imagined could exist. That it was sucking the Station dry of power meant nothing to it. All it cared about was the energy feast.”

“Didn’t it care about us...for humanity and all the plants and animals, the bacteria and fungi and all the other life? Was it so evil?”

“I wish I could even say that it didn’t care,” I said. “I wish I could say it was evil. It wasn’t even aware of us. It had no sense that we existed, none whatever. We’re so insignificant to it that it had never even had a hint of our existence. And that was my weapon. That was what I used against it.”
I remembered that instant again, when, stretched out like a film of energy across time and space, I had taken the one thing I had left, my existence. I had rolled it up and pushed it together, and added everything that went with it. I had taken the red of a sunset, the sound of ocean waves on a sea beach, the flight of birds. I had taken the sound of wind in the leaves of a forest, the cold gleam on moonlight on desert dunes, the red gold and purple of dawn on a mountain peak; I had taken sparkling waters flowing from distant blue hills. I had taken the gasp of a woman in the act of love, the cry of a newborn baby, the streak of a meteor in the night sky, the pain of a skinned knee after a hard fall. And all of this, the thing I’d thrown in Its face, had screamed, shrieked, over and over and over, we exist, we exist, we exist.

“It reacted exactly like you might have if your food suddenly reared up and began screaming,” I said. “It was utterly, totally, horrified. It spat me out, and spat the Node out, and retreated from the Node, from this universe, to places where it could still believe that it could feed without such a thing happening again.”

Farzana, Umm Aiman, put her hand on my arm and squeezed gently. “Not your fault,” she said. “Of course, we won’t talk of this again, and I realise that you and I will both have to spend the rest of our lives pretending to a lie, that prayer or worship mean anything or will do any good at all. But it’s not your fault.”

“Isn’t it?” I laughed, bitterly. “I told you that it went away from this universe to where it felt safe, where it could still feed. Where do you think it went?”

Farzana, Umm Aiman, could have done a lot of things. She could have turned away. She could have struck me. Instead she leaned over and put her head on my shoulder, but she didn’t say anything.

“Look at that lot over there.” I pointed to the Station, now a fading silver dot on the screen. “We believe in a god, and we now know we have none. They don’t believe in any, and they have one now – and they don’t even know it.”

For a long time we didn’t speak. Umm Aiman’s hand stroked my arm, over and over.

“I wonder,” she said at last, “whether they are the lucky ones, or are we?”

 Copyright B Purkayastha 2016