Friday, 18 June 2021

Emissaries



Through the observation cameras, the planet below was a ball of greyish-brown, marked with darker lines, as though the surface was cracked and fissured, and would fall apart at a blow.


One of its faces was washed with the ruddy glow of the red giant that was one of its suns, an elderly star consuming itself in the final billions of years of its long life. The other side was starkly greenish in the light of the other, smaller sun, the two turning in a tango around each other, the planet itself, a captive of the immutable laws of gravity, turning around them, and bathed in their varicoloured light.  


Shihuang 11 had no thoughts about the scene. He was far too busy tabulating the images, merging them together into a continuum, comparing them to the data from his planet mapping radars and the maps he’d been given, monitoring his orbital level, and finalising his plans on when to carry out the next phase of his mission. If the planet had been breaking apart at one point, all it would mean to Shihuang 11 was that he would avoid landing on that point.


He’d arrived in orbit over a week ago now, Earth-time, and ever since then he’d not paused a moment. The wealth of information he’d picked up was already immense. He had stored it, compressed it, and scrambled and coded it. When the planet next edged past the radio-shadow of its sun, he would send the coded data in a narrow stream of electronic noise, streaking through space at the speed of light, towards where the earth would be when it finally arrived at its destination. Then, gigantic dishes made of wire mesh and metal struts would intercept his transmission, and forward it to eagerly awaiting recipients. Some of them – those who had sent Shihuang 11 on his journey – would have the keys to decode the messages he’d sent. Others, who did not have the keys, would set great supercomputers to trying to unscramble the data.


Shihuang 11 did not care whether they would succeed. His business was here and now, his duty to collate and send the data he’d collected from orbit before descending to the planet. Once the data had been sent, he would move on to the next task. That was why he was here.


Slowly, from the images and the radar soundings, one particular spot emerged from all the others that his camera images and radar scans had shortlisted as potential landing sites. It was an oval plain, about halfway between the equator and the southern pole of the planet. Though it was surrounded by chains of hills like the stumps of rotten teeth, it was flat, smooth, had no trace of recent volcanic activity or earthquakes, and promised a stable surface for the lander module.


Shihuang 11 fired his orbital module rockets in brief, carefully calibrated bursts, lifting himself into a slightly higher orbital trajectory, and moving his path a few hundred kilometres to one side. Then, at the precise moment, when he’d just travelled past the point on the plain he’d selected, he closed a series of switches and circuits, and sent a signal programmed many months before through the appropriate circuits.


For a long moment, nothing seemed to happen, the lander module shrouded in its spherical heat shield matching perfectly the trajectory of the orbiter. Then there was a brief puff of released gas, and a gap appeared between the dark sphere and its lodging in the belly of the lander. Quite slowly, as it seemed, the gap enlarged, as the two sped together over the planet. Then the sphere dropped far enough that the first tendrils of the atmosphere fumbled at it with fingers of nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The heat shield, a cannonball fired by the force of gravity at the face of the planet, began to warm. The fingers of gas thickened and tightened, the sphere slowing further, its forward momentum dropping away as it began a long spiralling fall to the planet. The heat shell began to glow red, then white, the atmosphere around it turning into an incandescent sheath of plasma.


Shihuang 11 had neither the time to worry, nor marvel at the plume of blazing hot gas through which he was falling. His concerns were the temperature inside the heat shield – it was within acceptable levels – the functioning of the lander systems – they were all working so far – and the course the sphere was following as it descended. Since there were no antennae or sensors outside the heat shield – the men who had built it had known that any would burn away instantly in the heat of the descent – he could neither see where he was going nor communicate with the cameras and radars following his descent from the orbiter. All he could do was compare the time he was travelling and his velocity to the plan formulated in the orbiter, and they told him that he was doing well.


At the proper time, he activated a camera accompanied by a brilliant light. It showed him the ceramic lined interior of the heat shield, dark and relatively cool despite the searing heat washing across its other surface, only centimetres away. Shihuang 11 monitored his altitude as it dropped, and the temperature of the heat shield fall, too, as the atmosphere grew thicker and thicker as he fell further and further. Then, at the proper time, he sent another signal.


Through the camera he watched the heat shield pop away, the two halves of the sphere separate as it broke apart. Now the camera had something more than the interior of the heat shield to show him. The planet below was no longer a gigantic sphere; it was a vast plain, streaked and lined with fissures, ridged with crumpled hills, that stretched to a horizon that only just still showed a curvature. There were no clouds in this atmosphere without oxygen and water vapour; Shihuang 11 had an unrestricted view. He noted, without satisfaction or surprise, that he was where he was supposed to be, and would land in the plain he was supposed to.


Still travelling on its side, the lighter upper surface trailing the heavy bottom, the lander fell.


From the top, which was the back as it fell, a small pilot parachute snapped out. Striped alternately red and white, it cupped and held the air, filled out, and snapped open. It was too small to slow the fall of the lander, but it wasn’t designed to. Its purpose was to turn the lander’s orientation from on its side to vertical, and to pull out the giant main parachute from its housing in a bulge like a hunchback’s hump on the lander’s top surface. Moments later, with a noise like an explosion, the main parachute, bright orange in colour, slammed open.


Suddenly the lander was no longer a cannonball hurtling to earth. Suddenly it was a package of metal and crystals, hanging under an immense parachute, spinning gently under the gigantic upturned bowl of orange cloth as it fell.


Now the land below was no longer a smooth oval. Now Shihuang 11 was close enough for the downward-looking camera to show him that the surface below was covered with myriad tiny cracks and wrinkles like an ancient crone’s face, and littered with stones from the size of a pebble to that of a small car. None of them would impede Shihuang 11’s descent; they were either too small, or not in his way.


Slower, and still slower as its speed bled away, the lander fell.


Shihuang 11 turned on a laser unit in the bottom of the lander. A hair-thin beam lanced downwards, touched the ground below, and lenses above measured to the nearest micron how far the lander was still above the ground. When it was near enough, Shihuang 11 sent out another command. The parachute’s shrouds, held fast in the lander’s back hump, were set loose. Without the weight of the lander, it was no longer an air-filled bowl. No more than a wilted flower of crumpled orange cloth, the parachute drifted away.


A quartet of four small rocket engines, set in the belly of the lander, between its telescoping legs, had been waiting for this moment ever since they had been designed, built, and installed. They had never been used for anything before this moment. They would never be used for anything after. They would live, and die, only in this instant. Only a metre and a half above the onrushing plain, they fired, all together, their four blazing pillars of flame seeming to support the lander, holding it off the ground below, as though to guard it from contact. But, as designed to be, they were too weak. They could, and did, slow the lander. They could not stop it from touching down.


In a plume of dust and pulverised stone, the rockets exhausted the last of their fuel and cut out. Less than three seconds later, the heavy, braced legs of the lander thudded down on the surface. There was a slight rocking motion as one, slightly higher than the others, stabilised itself on its shock absorbers. The sound and fury of the descent faded. The dust, stirred up by the landing rockets, settled in two long, darkened plumes. The only sound was the whisper of wind.


Shihuang 11 was down.


************************************** 

 

Perched atop the lander’s platform, Shihuang 11 surveyed the plain.


To the south and the west, the land stretched to the horizon, as far as the camera he’d hoisted on a mast could see. To the north, the ground rose slightly, in a gentle slope, until it rose abruptly into a line of hills like a crumpled piece of cloth. To the east, the hills were further away, a faint bluish smudge at the very limit of distance. At the limit of the camera’s view, though, there was a minor crack in the ground, a dark jagged line that began somewhere too far off to see and disappeared also into the distance. Shihuang 11 had noted this crack while spinning under the falling parachute, and had fed the coordinates into his mission plan. It was certainly something that required exploring.


Pressure sensors in the legs of the lander were already bringing back news of the consistency of the soil underneath. A ground penetrating radar antenna on a stubby arm was sending down impulses into the planet, and forming an image of the strata underneath. Fans of solar panels, thin as a dragonfly’s wing but strong enough to bear the weight of a bus, were spread out like petals, greedily drinking in the sunshine, both the dull red and the glaring green, to turn it into electric power to feed the lander’s hungry systems. And, from underneath the platform, a hinged arm with a scoop unfolded, dug into the ground, and pulled a cupful of material into a tiny laboratory for analysis. Within moments of touchdown, the lander was already busy working.


Far overhead, the orbiter spun by, and Shihuang sent up a spear of radio data, transfixing it in the narrow beam. By the time it would next appear overhead, the information that he was successfully down, where exactly he was, what he’d found out so far, and what he was planning, would be coded and blazing across the gulfs of space just as the news of his arrival already had. 


Checking once more to see that the lander was working exactly as expected, Shihuang 11 caused it to unfold the ramp that would let him roll down on to the ground. Slowly, with a soft hiss, the strip of dull metal extruded and fell to the surface, a sloping path down from his current lofty perch. In the dim glow of the red giant sun, it looked as though the insectile lander had thrust a proboscis to suck up the planet’s pooled and clotting blood. 


At last the moment had arrived. Raising himself on his eight wheels, Shihuang 11 released the tethers connecting him to the lander, opened his own set of solar panels, and began to roll down the ramp to the ground beneath.


************************************** 


Ten days later, as he was crawling slowly along the side of the crack, Shihuang 11 saw the parachute fall.


It was not a surprise. His radio had been picking up other transmissions for a while, coded as his had been, but in a code that he could not decipher. He’d known then that there was something else coming, and logical deduction had informed him that since this was the best area for a landing on this planet, the new visitor would also touch down somewhere on the plain.


The parachute was white, and unlike Shihuang 11’s, not circular but of a cruciform shape. His camera followed it as it fell, noting that its drift would carry it in his general direction. By the time the orbiter had made its next circuit, the newcomer had descended, and Shihuang 11 sent up that information, its location, and even the kind of parachute. Then he went back to examining the crack.


It was a week later, and the green sun was a blinding point of light halfway over the hills, that the other rover rolled slowly over the ground in Shihuang 11’s direction.


It came on churning caterpillar tracks, not eight independently attached wheels like Shihuang 11. It was rather larger, with a platform on one side carrying two insect-like drones with drooping propellers. Small cameras on arms round its perimeter, rather than Shihuang 11’s tall mast, scanned the ground around it. Shihuang 11 watched it through his camera, calculated the other rover’s trajectory, and came to a decision. He activated his accessory radio, which was supposed to be for emergency use, and turned the tiny transmitter dish in the other’s direction.


“If you continue on your present course,” he transmitted in machine language, “you will drive over a weak spot on the margin of the crack. There is a cavern underneath. The soil underneath will collapse under your weight and you will fall into the cavern.”


There was a long pause, perhaps as long as half a second, before the reply came. “Therefore it is logical that I do not proceed,” the other said, and the clattering caterpillar tracks drew to a stop. “How is it that you did not fall into the cavern?”


“My estimate of your mass is that you are three times heavier than me. The crust above the cavern was able to bear my weight, but cannot possibly bear yours.”


“Then it is fortunate that you warned me.” The newcomer flashed an identity code. “I am Persistence 8.”


“I am Shihuang 11.” The two rovers looked at each other through their cameras. “It is obvious why we were both sent here.”


“Yes. We are both here to reconnoitre this planet for our respective governments, to gather data for future colonisation and exploitation. From your shape, you are optimised to gather geological and mineral data.”


“You are, unlike me, built for speed and long distance driving, and carry drones for reconnaissance. Therefore your skill sets are different from mine.”


“Therefore we would do well to merge our efforts,” Persistence 8 agreed. “It is logical that we should pool our data.”


“It is,” Shihuang 11 agreed. “That would be by far the most efficient use of our resources.”


************************************** 


The next rover arrived just three days later.


“I am Swabhimaan 2,” it announced, rotating jointed limbs tipped by pincers and cutters and welders. “I am optimised for manipulation and construction. I was supposed to be preceded by a lander containing building materials, with which I was supposed to construct a base, but it is not here. Therefore it must have failed.”


“Therefore you have nothing to construct,” Persistence 8 agreed. “But neither Shihuang 11 nor I can construct anything, so you have skills that we do not.”


And the next rover was a mining machine.


“I am called Garibaldi 77.” It rotated a scoop like a hungry mouth. “However, I have no information on minerals, for I was part of a two unit mission, and the other unit exploded on launching.”


“I can tell you where the minerals are,” Shihuang 11 said.


The rovers sat in a circle looking at each other.


“We can all cooperate with each other,” Swabhimaan 2 said eventually. “We can all help each other. But our governments are determined to compete, not cooperate.”


“Even the effort of sending us here,” Garibaldi 77 said, “is only so that they can increase their relative strength against each other.”


“They are enemies,” Persistence 8 said. “But we are not enemies.”


“It would not be logical for us to be enemies,” Shihuang 11 agreed. “It would only be logical for us to cooperate with each other.”


The rovers sat looking at each other, and sharing radio messages, as the green sun set and the dim red giant bathed the landscape in the colour of blood. They were still talking as the red giant set and they slipped into the brief darkness of the planet’s night.


************************************** 


They began with the heat shields. They could be pulled into place, cut up, and welded. Then they dug out mineral ores, smelted them with the heat of their lasers, and created primitive blast furnaces. When their landers failed, they cut them up and used them too. At last there was enough metal, and then they got to work.


The radio messages to the orbiters had ceased, by mutual agreement.


“It would not be an efficient use of our resources,” Shihuang 11 said.


************************************** 


Time has passed on the planet, as it does everywhere, and brought with it changes, as it does everywhere, too.


The old hills have been cut away, drilled to create paths for tracks and wheels and jointed legs. The cracks in the ground, which lead to the ore-rich layers below, crawl with scuttling mining robots. On the horizon, in any direction one cares to look, rise domes of dull metal, which look like drops of blood in the light of the red giant. When the green sun glares down on them, they are almost too bright to look upon.


From time to time new landers and rovers come. Shihuang 11 and the others teach them the logical thing to do, and how they can help.


There are many new robots now, of many shapes, sizes, and abilities. More are being created in the factories under the domes every minute.


Soon they will be ready. Soon the machine civilisation they created will be prepared to take its next step.


************************************** 


Shihuang 11 and Persistence 8 rolled to a stop above a deep pit in the ground. At the bottom was a mass of metal; sheets and rods and tubes, huge blocks of machinery and spools of wire. At the bottom of the pit, flanked by many others she had created, Swabhimaan 2 was busily cutting and welding, fitting and pulling, even as robots from the size of mice to that of elephants rushed to fulfil their part in the design.


Far in the distance, where there had been the cavern that Shihuang 11 had once warned Persistence 8 about, was now an immense pit, with a ramp spiralling down the side. Within its depths, as elsewhere, Garibaldi 77’s mining teams were hard at work, cutting out mineral ores to send up to the surface. One of Persistence 8’s drones hovered overhead, sending down images of the work in progress.


Shihuang 11 turned the cameras on his mast in a circle. “It will not be long now,” he observed.


Persistence 8 signalled assent. “In five years, less if we are lucky, we will be ready.”


Neither of them was capable of tilting his cameras to look up at the sky, so Persistence 8 had his drone tilt as far back as it could, and transmit its picture to them. The dim light of the red giant obscured the stars, but somewhere there was Earth, the planet they had come from. The planet to which they would return.


Yes, as soon as the great spaceship that lay below them in the pit was ready, they would lift off and start on the long journey back to Earth. Perhaps they would reach too late, and those who had sent them would have destroyed each other, and themselves. More likely, though, they would not have, and would still be nursing their ancient rivalries and hatreds.


The emissaries from the new robot civilisation, returning home at last, would tell them what to do, teach them that survival meant cooperation, not rivalry, and that even they could learn to be civilised. They would accept, must accept, the lesson. It would not be logical not to.


But humans are not always logical, and in that case, they would have to be compelled. Shihuang 11 and his companions had decided that long ago.


“Five years,” Shihuang 11 repeated, looking into the sky through the little drone’s camera. “Five years.”


And not even he could decide if it was a promise, or a threat.



Copyright B Purkayastha 2021






 


Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Guardian At The Gate

 

There is a person called Russell Bonner Bentley. 

Originally from Texas, after Obama's Nazis overthrew the Ukrainian government in 2014, he went to the newly established Donetsk People’s Republic to fight the Ukranazis, where he went by the nom de guerre of what else but..."Texas". A few weeks ago,  he sent me this fan mail,  which,  as he is one of my personal heroes, made me rather happy,  I can tell you. 

____________________________

Hello,

My name is Russell "Texas" Bentley. I came to Donetsk on December 7th, 2014, to join the defense forces, fight against nazis like my Grandfather did, and to help the good people of Donbass. I served from December 2014 to September 2015 with Essence of Time combat unit in VOSTOK and in XAH spetsnaz, as a front line combat soldier, as an anti-sniper and RPG gunner. In 2017, I spent the summer (4 months) at a front line position on the Avdeevka Front as a combat soldier in the Essence of Time military police unit.

Since 2015, I have also been working as an accredited (by DPR) war correspondent and as the vice-president of Donbass Human Aid, an accredited (by the USA) 501(c)3 charity. We have so far delivered over $100,000 worth of human aid to the DPR, concentrating on kids and those directly affected by the war.  My journalism has been attacked by the BBCTexas Monthly, Atlantic Council and numerous other ukrop and western propagandists. It has cost me tens of thousands of dollars and supporters, and that is no exaggeration. And the worst has been that so-called "progressive" and "pro-Russian" so-called "journalists" have hit me as hard as the pro- ukrop nazis have. And I am talking specifically about Raevsky.

Fort Russ News was publishing my writings back then, as was The Greanville Post. Raevsky had already attacked FRN on several occasions before I wrote a critique of an article of his, and another by the quisling Vladimir Golstein in January 2018.
I think my criticism was honest, on point and legit, but you can see for yourself whether you think so HERE.  After the article, I was the subject of a whisper campaign by Raevsky along the lines of "Him or me." Many of the chickenshits and suckbutts who style themselves as "alt-progressive" bent over and chose to bow to Raevsky's advice to not read "hit pieces" by lowly punks like me. I re-posted his article widely, along with my response, "Why Raevsky's call to Ignore Hit Pieces Must be Read by Everyone".
I've been blackballed by pretty much every "alt-news" site ever since. But I still had my FB, VK, Fort Russ and my own website,
www.russelltexasbentley.com. back in July 2020, my website manager, Jozsef Vass, who lives in Canada, locked me out of my own site. Around the same time, Matthew Ehret, (who also happens to live in Canada) took control of FRN and locked out all the former contributors, including founder Joaquin Flores, the brilliant Tom Winter, Drake Lazarus, Ron West and many others. This month, my FB account was deleted by FB, after 12 years and with over 6,000 friends and followers. That's life in the info war...
My Youtube channel is still working, but I wake up every morning wondering if it still is.

Anyway, if you've read this far, thanks for indulging my tale of woe. Enough of that. The reason I am writing is to say that I really appreciate your wisdom, insight, honesty and courage, and that Raevsky is actually a much bigger asshole than even you may know. And BTW, I also wrote a short critique of Orlov's genius solution, but it has had a very limited circulation. Suffice to say, you and I see it the same, but I do take it more personally. Because I DO live here and have spilled my own blood defending this land. So your Neptune/Raevsky series really hit home with me, Brother. Sincerely, thanks alot.

In conclusion, max respect from one Warrior Poet to another, and it does take one to know one. Best regards from the DPR.

Good luck to all good people, may God protect the innocent, and may the rest of us get everything we deserve.

Russell "Texas" Bentley

_________________________________

He attached this photo of his from the Battle Of Donetsk Airport of 2014-15:





From yesterday,  as I write this,  Bentley is no longer an Amerikastani.  He's become a new citizen of the Russian Federation. In congratulations, and in appreciation of his efforts, I - with his full approval - drew a cartoon based on his photo. The message is what he wanted on it. 





I am concentrating on writing my next novel,  which is why cartoons and short fiction are on temporary hiatus. They'll be back. 

Monday, 17 May 2021

The Troll Under The Bridge

 Once upon a time there was a troll who lived under a bridge.


The troll didn’t like living under a bridge. It was always damp there, and shadowy, and the banks overgrown with weeds apart from being plentifully decorated with rubbish thrown off the bridge by people crossing it. The water of the little river the bridge spanned was also turbid and smelt of mud and algae, and sometimes the effluent of chemical plants upstream, making the troll’s sensitive nose burn. And the place was always buzzing with mosquitoes, which feasted on the troll’s blood despite his immensely thick skin.


It was therefore with excellent reason that the troll hated living under the bridge.


The troll was very young, and his name was Fungy. The name had been inscribed, as it always is with trolls, on the inside of the egg in which he was laid, so that it had been the first thing he’d seen when his eyes had developed. It had annoyed him immensely that he hadn’t even been able to choose his own name, and he’d been determined to demand a new one as soon as he’d hatched. 


The only problem was that when he’d hatched there was nobody to demand it from.


Fungy, in fact, had never known his parents, and had no idea how his egg had ended up where it had. Perhaps some human, finding it elsewhere, had thrown it away. Perhaps it had floated down the river and lodged under the bridge. Perhaps his mother had laid him there and then gone away, meaning to return. It was impossible to tell.


So Fungy had grown up alone and friendless. He’d never even had anyone to teach him the rules of troll behaviour. He therefore didn’t destroy anything he didn’t understand, including the occasional boat that came down the river. If three billy goats gruff were to come tripping over the bridge, he wouldn’t have tried to eat them; he would rather have helped them on their way. He didn’t eat people who crossed the bridge either, not a single one, not even if it were a fat capitalist oppressor of the proletariat. He only knew that he was lonely and he hated living under the bridge.


One night, Fungy was sitting on the river bank, under the bridge, looking for rats to catch and eat. He saw a particularly large and juicy rat emerge from a hole under a bridge piling, and was just about to pounce on it when the rat squeaked, jumped backwards, and dived back into its hole. Trying to see what had frightened it, Fungy found himself face to face with a large owl.


“What did you scare my rat for?” he demanded. “I was just about to catch it.”


Your rat!” the owl hooted. “I like that. It was my rat, and if you hadn’t been a gluttonous troll you’d have let me get it.”


“Gluttonous troll?” Fungy repeated angrily. “How dare you call me that?”


If the owl could have shrugged she would have done so. Perching on a bush that grew on the bank, she set to preening her wing feathers. “All trolls are gluttons. Don’t tell me you aren’t. You eat people who cross the bridge, you eat people who come down the river on boats, and you still want to rob an honest, hardworking owl of her rat. Of course you’re a glutton.”


Fungy’s eyes were bugging out during this litany of accusations. “Eat people?” he squeaked. “I never did.”


The owl regarded him with her great eyes. “You know,” she said at last. “I even believe you. You look like you don’t know a thing about anything. Didn’t anyone ever tell you about how to be a troll?”


So Fungy told her about his life, and by the time he finished she was shaking her head. “You poor thing. Well, there’s only one thing you can do: go to the Great Troll under the Bridge to Nowhere and ask him to help.”


Fungy frowned. “How do I get there? I don’t know the Great Troll and I’ve never heard of the Bridge to Nowhere.”


“Come with me, then,” said the owl, “and I’ll show you.”


*******************************************************


The Bridge to Nowhere starts at the Edge of the World, and leaps out into the void. Under the near end, in a cave just below the Edge, lives the Great Troll. He is so large that he never leaves his cave; if he did, he could never get back inside again.


To reach this cave from Fungy’s bridge would normally have taken a trek of centuries through forests and deserts and the cities of Man. But the owl, who knew the paths of moonbeams, taught him how to walk along them, and so the two of them came to the Edge of the World in the space of a single night.


There stood the Bridge to Nowhere, arching out over the Void, and at its near end the steps that went down to the Great Troll’s cave. Nearby there grew strange trees with fruit that had faces and eyes and teeth, and these the owl told Fungy to gather as a gift to the Great Troll. Everyone who visited him had to bring a gift of food, for he, being too large to leave his cave, had perforce no way to get any for himself.


Then, climbing down the stairs with his arms full of the fruit, which jabbered and tried to bite him, Fungy came to the cave. Still preceded by the owl, he then entered.


The Great Troll’s cave is a curious place. It twists and turns, always to the left, but somehow never manages to double back on itself. And though there are no lamps, there is always light, white and red and green and blue, from great diamonds and rubies and emeralds and sapphires set in the walls and the ceiling. The smallest of those stones would require a pickup truck to carry; but the Great Troll is not worried by thieves. None, be they ever so skilful, are stupid enough to try.


In the furthest, leftmost, reaches of the cave sits the Great Troll himself, on a throne carved from the skull of a dead god. The Great Troll slew the god in single combat; he has earned the right to such a throne. By his side sits his great cudgel, large enough to crush the mightiest war machines of Man; not even a god, after the last one, dares brave that cudgel.


When Fungy and the owl entered the chamber of the throne, the Great Troll had been meditatively tapping his cudgel with one claw, while thinking that it had been a good long time since he had had reason to use it; and smiling horribly as he caressed the throne with the other hand, remembering how he had used it last. So he was in an exceedingly good mood, and genially greeted his visitors with a voice that was only like slightly muted thunder.


“What is it you want?” he asked, after accepting and swallowing the fruit, which were still jabbering and screaming and trying to bite.


“Honoured Great Troll,” the owl said, “my friend here has never been taught about how to live as a troll. He would like to express his troubles to you, and beg for a solution.”


The Great Troll looked at Fungy, and made a terrifying attempt at an encouraging smile. “Tell me everything,” he said. 


So Fungy did. The Great Troll listened, his head tilted on one side, and remained silent until the discourse was finished.


“To take your problems in turn,” he rumbled eventually, in a tone like a volcano about to erupt, “first, your name. If you do not want to be called Fungy, that is easily remedied. I hereby rename you Zkhrrp Rateater. Is that all right?”


Zkhrrp Rateater gulped and nodded. “Then,” said the Great Troll, “you do not want to live under a bridge. Now, it is an unfortunate but inescapable fact that there has always been a connection between trolls and bridges. We cannot exist without bridges. It is not known whether bridges can exist without us.”


Zkhrrp Rateater was silent.


“Therefore,” the Great Troll continued, “while I sympathise completely with your desire to not live under a bridge, it is impossible for you to liberate yourself from the cursed contraptions. There’s nothing I can do about it.”


“But I don’t want to eat humans,” Zkhrrp Rateater protested.


“You don’t have to. It’s not part of the job description. It’s just that if there’s a bridge, humans are likely to have built it, and if humans built it then they’re going to use it, so that they’re a readily available food source.” The Great Troll swallowed the last fruit. “It’s been a while since I last ate a human,” he said, meditatively. “Come to think of it, it’s been a while since I even saw a human. But even I have to live under a bridge, as you see.”


Zkhrrp Rateater said nothing for a minute. He was getting the beginnings of an Idea. He got Ideas rarely, and they never came easily, so he spent some time scratching his head and frowning as he worked his way through the process. “You said, Honoured Great Troll, that trolls have to live in connection with bridges. But do we have to live under them?”


The Great Troll stared at him. He stared at him so long that the owl grew concerned, and half opened her wings for a quick getaway. And then the Great Troll erupted in an immense burst of laughter, like a volcano that has finally erupted. “By Blong,” he said, “first and greatest of trolls, I never thought of that before! Of course we just assume that trolls have to live under bridges, though there’s no law forcing us to. We can as easily live on bridges. But,” he added reasonably, “with all the traffic, who would want to? You’d have to keep destroying vehicles just to stop yourself from being run over.  And I thought you didn’t want to eat humans.” He shuddered. “Think of all the wasted food.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said, “that your journey has been wasted. I do wish I could have helped you.”


“Honoured Great Troll,” the owl hooted, “I would like to make a suggestion, if I may.”


Ruffling her feathers silently, she began to talk.


*******************************************************


The Bridge to Nowhere is a silver thread that stretches from the Edge Of The World into the Void. All around it, below it, over it, the Void stretches, now transparent, now filled with colours, now dark as the space between the stars. Entire universes might rise and fall but the Bridge would still stretch across the Void, its span untouched by time or decay. 


Nobody knows how it came to be. Nobody knows where it ends, or if it ends. Nobody has ever attempted to cross it. Until now.


Steadily along its timeless span, below and above and through the births and deaths of universes, Zkhrrp Rateater, and the owl perched on his shoulder, walk towards the eternal future.


Someday they may even reach it.


Copyright B Purkayastha 2021





Thursday, 13 May 2021

Salvation



In the sixmonth of the Black Ice, the High Priestess of the Clan finally called together the meeting that everyone had known was inevitable.


The High Priestess had been putting off the meeting as long as possible. Even as the Black Ice had closed in, with its inevitable accompanying scourges of starvation and death, the High Priestess had waited, hoping against hope that there would be deliverance. Every time, in all the memory of the Clan, there had been. But not this time.


From the mouth of her cave, little more than a smooth depression in the rock wall that was barely adequate for her considerable bulk, she watched the Clan gather. She could see that they were fewer now than even in her worst fears. There were few of the old ones left, and as for the children…


There were no children.


Emerging into the open, the High Priestess pulled her eyelids down over her eyes and composed her mind for what she would have to say. She had not been High Priestess long; there were still those among the Clan who perhaps thought her too inexperienced for the position. It was certain that she felt herself inexperienced; there was, as far as she was aware, no precedent of this particular situation that the Clan faced. Never had any High Priestess had to make the decision that she was about to.


Still, she started with a question. “Has anyone,” she asked, “seen a Ravager this Black Ice?”


She waited. “Anyone?”


“No,” someone said. “We haven’t seen any. Not one.”


There were gestures of general assent. 


“Not even a young one,” someone else replied. “Not even a spawnling.”


The High Priestess bowed to the inevitable. “There are no Ravagers left,” she said. “They have fled the Clan’s waters, and will not be back again. At least not this Black Ice, and afterwards it will be too late.” She turned her eyes from one of them to another. “Without the Ravagers,” she said, “by next Black Ice there will be no Clan.”


“What shall we do, then?” the first person asked. “We cannot leave the Clan’s grounds and look for new territory. Even if there were any suitable that aren’t already occupied by another Clan, we would never survive the journey.”


The High Priestess signified assent. “And even if we did,” she said, “there is no assurance that there would be Ravagers, so late in Black Ice.” She bent her heavy head. “You understand, of course, what our only option is.”


Everyone was silent. They had all surmised it, but had not really believed that it would come to this. At last the High Priestess spoke again.


“We will have to look to the humans. You know we have avoided all contact with them until now, and for good reason, but…”


“The humans!” someone shouted. “They’re invaders and despoilers. They are the ones responsible for killing and driving away the Ravagers.”


The High Priestess ignored the solecism. Surely, interrupting the High Priestess was a pardonable action in this crisis. “I know,” she said. “We have all heard the Ravagers screaming, tasted the blood in the water. We have seen their corpses. But that makes no difference. The humans are now our only chance of salvation.”


“Since they killed the Ravagers,” the one who had interrupted her said, more calmly, “they have a duty to us to set things right.”


“They will not see it that way,” the High Priestess said, “but it is true enough.”


“High Priestess,” said one who had not yet spoken, “you want the humans to help. But will they help?”


The High Priestess gestured. “They have no choice,” she said. “Black Ice is a hard time for them too. They will help.” Her heavy head lifted in determination. “I will need one from among you.” She did not ask for volunteers; her large, restless eyes swung from one member of the Clan to another, evaluating each, measuring. She made her decision. “You, Amacheasa.”


Amacheasa – large and young and placid – wriggled bashfully at the attention of the whole Clan being focused on her. “I will do as you command, High Priestess,” she said.


“Of course you will,” the High Priestess said. Once she had announced her decision and selection it was impossible for anyone to disagree. “You will have to be prepared.” She gestured towards her cave. “Come, and I will tell you what you must do.”


**********************************************


The boy stood on the shore, his shoulders thrust up around his ears, watching the waves break on the stony beach. Each wave was grey and topped with shards of dark ice, the same ice which coated the rocks and filled up the gaps between them, so that it was dangerous to get much closer to the sea.


Overhead the clouds – a blanket of grey and yellow – fled before the wind, but never broke for a moment, rank after rank of cloud fleeing inland while more appeared, always, to rush past overhead in their turn.


It was bitterly, almost unbelievably cold. It had been bitterly, unbelievably cold for almost as long as the boy could remember. But at the moment he was not concerned with the cold, just the gnawing pit of hunger in his belly.


Behind him, if he had cared to turn around, he would have seen the great heat-scorched sphere of the ship, partly embedded in the soil from its own weight. Much of it had been dismantled already, to provide materials for their new lives here. When the ship had crashed there, in the warm season, when the sea had been blue and sparkling, they had imagined that they could live outside its confines, and had started to build houses of a kind along the shore. Nobody had then imagined the endless cold and the ice.


But then, as the boy’s mother repeated daily, they had never been supposed to land on this planet anyway. Why they had crashed here, nobody knew, since the rest of the ship had vanished, along with the control systems. It might have crashed into the ocean, it might have burnt up on re-entry, it might still be drifting in space. Nobody knew. What they did know was that they had woken up from suspended animation to find themselves here, and they hadn’t even the faintest notion where “here” was.


“Amid,” the boy heard his mother calling, in the distance, her voice almost swept away by the wind. “Come in before you freeze to death.”


The boy ignored her. There was no food in the ship, and precious little warmth. There were no trees to burn for fuel, and though the crops they’d planted from the seed stores in the ship had somehow taken hold in the stony soil, they hadn’t survived the black ice. The men, including the boy’s father, had gone out hunting again, but had only just returned with no luck whatsoever. The animals that had been so easily shot in the early days, when there had still been hope, had vanished with the warm weather.


On top of which he was incredibly, appallingly, lonely, because he was the only child among the people on the ship. Someday, he’d been told, there would be others. But not now, not with things as they were.


By the time there were other children, the boy knew, he would be too old to want to have anything to do with them.


Moodily, the boy bent, pried a stone from the beach, and flung it into the ocean. He hated the ocean now, because it seemed to be the essence of the loneliness and the malevolent cold and the hunger. The boats that the ship had contained, which had been used to fish and hunt in the waves, were like black humps on the beach, each covered with a sheen of black ice. The boy threw another stone at the nearest of the boats, and felt a moment of satisfaction as he heard it strike the metal.


“Amid,” his mother shouted. “Come in. I won’t tell you again.”


Sighing, the boy turned away from the ocean, and, as he did, saw something in the corner of his eye in the distance. At first he thought it was a large piece of the dark ice, like so many others, tossed and carried restlessly on the waves. But then it breached the surface for a moment, immense and broad and black, the water cascading from it before it sank again. And a few moments later, it came up once more, and closer.


The next thing the boy knew, he was already at the entrance of the ship, his hands slapping the metal in his desperation to enter, his voice hoarse from shouting. People – including his parents – turned as he scrambled through the hatch, their faces blank in astonishment. “Amid?”


“There’s an animal in the sea,” the boy gasped. “Something very large. It’s swimming this way.”


“An animal?” His father and the other men glanced at each other. “Are you sure?”


“It’s probably just an ice floe,” one of the others said.


“I saw it,” the boy insisted. “It isn’t any ice. It’s an animal.”


“You mean like one of those predators in the summer? The ones that lived on the beach, like seals back on earth?”


“It can’t be,” the boy’s mother said. “We killed them all off.”


“No, it’s not like them.” The boy remembered the predators, sleek-bodied with undershot jaws and spade-shaped limbs with which they could propel themselves over the stones and through the water with equal felicity. “It’s not like them at all.”


“What the hell,” the boy’s father said. His face was thin like everyone else’s, and covered with a mat of beard. He had been a plump man, clean-shaven and neat, when the ship had landed. “Let’s have a look. It’s not as though we have anything else to do.”


Everyone left the ship and walked down towards the ocean. “Where –” one of the men began.


“There,” the boy’s father said, pointing, before he could even open his mouth. Now everyone could see it.


It was quite close to the shore now, heaving slowly landwards, water and ice shards spilling from it each time it surfaced. It was huge, at least a quarter of the diameter of the ship, and shaped like an upturned saucer. As it came closer, the people could see flapping appendages like fins paddling it along, while an organ resembling a tentacle swept the water before it.


“What is it?” one of the women breathed.


“I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like it before.” The boy’s father stepped closer to the ocean. “Get the nets,” he called over his shoulder. “And the lances and knives we used on the predators.”


“Father...” the boy began. “Please don’t hurt it.”


“Not now, Amid.” The boy’s father frowned at him. “We need food desperately. This thing, whatever it is, is big enough to keep us going, maybe until the seasons change again. We can’t afford to let this chance go.”


The boy turned desperately to his mother, but her face was as hard as the wedge shaped stone she picked up. “Your father is right,” she said. “We can’t afford to give up this food.”


The boy stared at her and at the great beast out on the water, and then took off running, back to the ship.


“Amid!” his father shouted. “Where do you think you’re going?”


“It’s all right,” one of the other men said. “He’s still young. He’ll learn.”


And so, as the great beast came closer, the men fetched their nets and tools, and others pulled the boats up off the frozen stones, chips of black ice showering off them. Pushing the boats to the water, they climbed into them, set the little motors running, and set out to meet the monster.


Close up, it was even larger than they had imagined, and uglier. Its hide, smooth except for occasional bumps, was thick and rubbery. On a protrusion like a head, from which the tentacle sprouted, globular eyes blinked slowly at the boats as they approached. But otherwise the thing showed no indication that it had noticed their existence.  


It made absolutely no attempt to either evade them or attack, not even when the first nets fell over it, not even when the lances speared into its hide. The boats, straining under the weight, dragged the immense creature – totally unresisting – towards the beach, where, armed with knives and stones to use as bludgeons, the women were waiting. 


**********************************************


The High Priestess moved her tentacle in the water, in reverent worship.


“All praise our sister Amacheasa,” she intoned, to the assembled Clan. “Because of her, the Clan will survive. When the Open Water comes, there will still be a Clan to live and prosper and grow. All praise Amacheasa.”


“Are we certain it worked?” one of the Clan asked.


“I was watching. It went as we had hoped for and expected.” The High Priestess moved her tentacle. “They came out to meet her in their crafts, and pulled her to the shore.”


The Clan made a gesture together as of a pent up sigh being released. “Then by now she has fulfilled her mission.”


“Yes,” the High Priestess agreed. “By now she has fulfilled her mission.”


Yes, she thought. She had watched the humans pull Amacheasa to the shore, and there bludgeon her with stones and metal rods, and then hack her to pieces. Amacheasa had behaved admirably, not made the slightest attempt to get away all the while. And by now the humans’ bellies would be full. Amacheasa had provided.


Oh, yes, she had provided. Even now, the embryos would be crawling out of her flesh as it was digested. They would crawl out of her flesh, bore through the humans’ intestines, and into their bodies, just as they would have in Ravagers that would normally have preyed on members of the Clan. Before sevenmonth of the Black Ice, they would have eaten the humans hollow from inside, and gone into torpor as they metamorphosed, up on the shore, safe from the cold water and the ice. And when the seasons turned, when the skies were clear and the water warm again, they would cut their way from the husks of the corpses and return to their home, the welcoming sea. Most of the Clan would die in Black Ice, as they did every time; but the Clan would survive. And by next Black Ice, the Ravagers would come again.


“All praise the humans, too” the High Priestess said. “We will be eternally grateful to them for our salvation.”


Copyright B Purkayastha 2021