Fall like rain
On the villages and forests
The deserts and the rivers
The cities and the mountains
Fall on him and her and me and you.
And in the falling
The lies change to blood and fire
Into poison dew.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2021
Dear World, it is better to start WWIII than let this happen again!
(Yes, I'm making fun of Amerikastanis' "intelligence". No, I don't care if your grandfather was sunk to death at Pearl Harbour. You've lost the right to sympathy on any point whatsoever.)
The water lay black and still. In the distance the low hills behind Visakhapatnam harbour were dark and showed not a glimmer of lights.
With a sudden swirl, a long thin shape broke the surface. It swung left, then right, like an elephant's trunk seeking air to breathe. It trailed a thin wake behind it as it went.
Ten metres below, something long and predatory slid through the water, black and smooth and lethal. It resembled nothing so much as a gigantic shark, complete with hydroplanes like pectoral fins and a huge conning tower like a flattened dorsal fin.
Inside the steel cylinder, a naval officer put his eyes to the rubber eyepieces of his periscope and tried to decipher some landmark with which to orient his vessel. Somewhere out there was the enemy he had to bottle up, or, if possible, destroy. It was midnight on the third of December, 1971, exactly fifty years ago.
In 1971, Pakistan was a nation divided against itself. To the west was the largely Punjabi, Sindhi and Pashto speaking West Pakistan. Across the immense stretch of India, in the east, was the Bengali speaking East Pakistan. The two parts of the country, except for their creation as a "Muslim homeland" carved out of British colonised India, had nothing linguistically, ethnically, culturally, or economically in common with each other.
By 1971, the differences between the two parts had come to a head. The Bengali speaking East outnumbered the West in population, and the Awami League party of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won the national elections held under the then military dictatorship and thus the right to form the government. The problem was that Rahman was a Bengali and the Awami League an East Pakistani party, and large sections of the West Pakistani military and civilian political structure didn't want to cede power to them.
In response to unrest resulting from this, the Pakistani military launched a crackdown on East Pakistan in mid March 1971, leading to millions of refugees fleeing to India. India, in turn, began to openly host, arm, and train "Mukti Bahini" (Freedom Army) insurgents who wanted to break East Pakistan away from West Pakistan to create a new nation, Bangladesh. The Pakistani military in East Pakistan was isolated, surrounded by a hostile population, and hard to supply and reinforce from West Pakistan, but even so by autumn the Mukti Bahini had largely been defeated.
In response, India pushed in military regulars disguised as Mukti Bahini guerrillas under one Major General Shahbeg Singh (who 13 years later himself was to become a separatist rebel against India), and by early November had positioned troops and armour all along the East Pakistani borders. The only Indian aircraft carrier, the venerable INS Vikrant, was sent to Visakhapatnam harbour on the Indian East Coast. It was obvious that an Indian invasion was coming.
In response the government of Pakistan took certain steps. One of those was to send in PNS Ghazi.
PNS Ghazi was originally a US Navy Tench Class submarine, USS Diablo, first launched in 1944, during World War Two and then upgraded to the level of a fleet snorkel submarine. It was leased to the Pakistanis by the Americans in 1964 and became the first submarine operated by a South Asian navy.
|PNS Ghazi while still USS Diablo|
(In response the Indian navy – as usual in those days – went crawling to the British pleading for a submarine, if necessary from their scrap-heap: the latter refused on the grounds that Indian personnel were incompetent to operate submarines. India then finally went to the USSR, asked for, and received, eight Foxtrot class subs, of a far later vintage and superior capability to the Ghazi. The first Foxtrot Class sub only joined the Indian navy in 1967, and it was years before all eight had been delivered. I will have a few words about these Foxtrot submarines later.)
|Foxtrot class submarine INS Khanderi|
In 1965 the Ghazi operated off Bombay harbour without success – the Indian Navy stayed almost entirely in harbour to prevent any potentially prestige-damaging sinkings. Ghazi did claim to have sunk the frigate INS Brahmaputra but this ship was displayed intact for the media at the conclusion of the war. It's said that an Indian anti-submarine Alize aircraft flew right over the Ghazi without noticing it, which says something about Indian anti submarine capabilities in the 1960s.
In 1968 the Ghazi went for a refit in Turkey, travelling the whole way, round the Cape of Good Hope and through Gibraltar, underwater, which it could do because of its enormous range of 17000 kilometres. In a Turkish shipyard the Ghazi acquired the ability to lay mines through its torpedo tubes. It returned to Pakistan in 1970.
Now, in 1971, with war threatening, the 26-year-old submarine was the only one of four Pakistani submarines that had the range to travel to the Bay of Bengal. It left Karachi harbour on November 14, carrying a crew of 93 under Captain Zafar Muhammad Khan. This was 12 personnel more than it had carried in American service, meaning that it was overcrowded as well as old. It was armed with mines as well as torpedoes, but the torpedoes were old and less than reliable American WWII models, and the sub's main mission was to use its mines anyway.
At this time the Indian carrier Vikrant was supposed to be in Visakhapatnam harbour. I have been to this harbour. It has a narrow mouth, and any ship seeking to enter or exit has to pass through that mouth. The Ghazi, which had been initially positioned off Madras to the south, was ordered north to Visakhapatnam on 26 November.
Meanwhile, the war finally started when India invaded East Pakistan on 22 November 1971. This invasion was fully visible to journalists on the ground and openly reported on in international media, but the Indian government denied it was happening. At this time, Vikrant shifted from Visakhapatnam to a secret anchorage, called X, in the Andaman Islands far to the east. (This was done to keep the carrier from being sunk. The Vikrant would have been of far greater use in the west, where India was about to launch air and sea attacks on the port of Karachi, but the danger of sinking was deemed far too great to be politically permissible.)
According to the Indian claim, Vice Admiral Krishnan, Commander of the Eastern Naval Command, was aware that Ghazi was in these waters and decided to distract attention by laying a false trail of spurious provision orders and radio messages that seemed to indicate that Vikrant was still in Visakhapatnam. Why I do not necessarily believe the Indian claims will become obvious in a moment. These radio messages were, by the way, allegedly made by an old destroyer called INS Rajput which had been prepared for decommissioning and retirement, but was sent out to sea one last time to steam up and down sending fake signals in Vikrant's name.
Whether on the basis of these diversionary messages or otherwise, the Pakistani authorities, as I said, on Nov 26, ordered the sub to move to the approaches of Visakhapatnam harbour, and plant mines across the narrow mouth, something that could theoretically keep the harbour - the main Indian naval base in the east - closed for weeks.
On the night of 3 Dec, the evening before Pakistan finally launched air strikes in response to the Indian invasion, Ghazi moved to the harbour approaches to lay its mines. Visakhapatnam city had been blacked out: the old submarine couldn't use the city lights through its periscope to orient itself. It had to navigate blind.
It was midnight, and Ghazi would never see dawn again.
At this point the official Indian account and that of Pakistan diverge so sharply as to be impossible to reconcile, so I shall take them one by one:
First, the known facts:
Around midnight there was an explosion off Visakhapatnam, so loud that windows were rattled in the city and people thought an earthquake had taken place. The next morning fishermen reported oil slicks and floating wreckage, and salvaged a life jacket. This was the first indication, despite later claims, that the Indian Navy had of the sinking. Divers, finally, on the 5th December, two days after the sinking, went down, found the wreck and identified it as a submarine with its bows blown out. It was not an Indian Foxtrot submarine; Urdu markings on the wreckage indicated it was Pakistani. From the size - all of 95 metres long - it was not one of the three small French-made Daphne Class coastal submarines that comprised the rest of Pakistan's submarine strength. Therefore, it had to be the Ghazi. Six bodies retrieved from the wreck confirmed it, one of whom even had a letter he'd written to his fiancee in his pocket.
The Indian account:
The Rajput - the old destroyer waiting for decommissioning- was headed out of Visakhapatnam Harbour when the captain suddenly realised, possibly by extra sensory perception, that a Pakistani sub could be out there. He had a harbour pilot on board, whom he therefore dropped off, when all of a sudden his lookouts noted a swirl in the water. He immediately dropped two depth charges, following which there was the loud explosion.
There are two major problems with this story. First, the Rajput had already been prepared for scrapping. Its weapon systems, including the depth charges, had been removed. It had no depth charges, so it could not drop any.
Apart from this, an Egyptian submarine was in Visakhapatnam on this date, and the captain described hearing the explosion. He was categorical that no Indian naval ship had been going to sea at that time.
Then, the local Indian naval authorities had already prepared a statement that the submarine had sunk in an operational accident. It had actually been released to the media before urgent orders had arrived from naval headquarters in Delhi demanding that the Rajput be credited with the kill. Its crew were decorated to boot.
At the conclusion of the war, both the Americans and the Russians offered to raise the sub at their own expense and find out how it sank, but the Indian government refused to allow it. As for why not, your guess is as good as mine.
Years later, in the early 2000s, the Indian navy finally again sent divers down to the wreck. It was badly deteriorated by then, with the outer hull corroded and overgrown by marine plants and animals, but both the divers' accounts and the photos they took clearly show that a massive *internal* explosion had blown the bows away. A depth charge is not an internal explosion. It cracks the submarine hull from the outside. Whatever the explosion was caused by, it was inside the submarine.
When in the early 2010s Admiral G Hiranandani set out to write a history of the Indian navy in the 1971 war, he discovered to his astonishment that the navy had destroyed all its documents pertaining to the Ghazi in 2010. Why it would do this, about what it insists is a victory by one of its own ships (indeed, the only submarine sunk in wartime since WWII) is again something for which your guess is as good as mine.
The Pakistani version:
The Pakistanis have advanced three different hypotheses for the sinking:
1. The Ghazi may have, in the darkness, struck one of its own mines.
The problem with this is the same as with the depth charge story; the explosion was internal.
2. One of the Ghazi's mines, or more likely one of its ancient WWII era torpedoes, blew up by accident. (Another torpedo explosion would sink the Russian submarine Kursk many years later, so this is *very* likely.) A torpedo explosion in one of the forward torpedo tubes would blow away the bow very efficiently.
3. There is also a third possibility. The Ghazi was a diesel electric submarine, that is, it had electric motors for running underwater. These electric motors were charged by running the sub's main diesel engine on the surface or at shallow depths under water when the snorkel mast could be raised. The submarine was old, the batteries were old, and it is possible that the charging process created large amounts of hydrogen gas that could not be vented and resulted in a catastrophic explosion. The bodies brought up by the divers didn't have any burns that might be expected from such an explosion, but they might not have had any if they had been caught in a different portion of the sub when the hydrogen blew.
|Click to enlarge. Graphic from India Today magazine.|
So what do we know, really?
1. At midnight, 3 Dec 1971, *something* exploded inside the Ghazi, so powerfully that it blew the bows off.
2. The Indian Navy was certainly not responsible for this explosion.
One hopes, at this distance in time, that the crew all died instantly. Unfortunately that's only likely for the crew in the front section, who would have been killed by the blast or drowned immediately by the rushing water. As in the Kursk, crew members in the rear part of the hull may have spent hours trapped in the wreck, suffocating slowly as the air ran out. One of them, when brought out, still had a wrench clenched tightly in his hand.
A few years ago, Bollywood made a film on the Ghazi sinking. It was a bit of a surprise, because it made not the slightest attempt to adhere to the tale of the Rajput sinking the Ghazi with depth charges. Instead, it invented an underwater duel between the Ghazi and an Indian Foxtrot submarine, the latter (in real life incomparably superior, the last example serving as late as 2010) being presented as an obsolete but valiant underdog, which finally triumphed owing to the ingenuity of its crew. I suppose not even Bollywood could swallow the Rajput story.
Today the Ghazi lies on the seabed off Visakhapatnam, wrapped in fishing nets, its crew, as they say, on eternal patrol.
It is time they were given their due.
Once upon a time there was a bloodsucking vampire whom we shall call Cradula.
The vampire was, of course, very cruel, but apart from that he also lacked all the traces of civilisation that others of his kind possessed. He was not tall, pale, svelte and elegantly dressed, and if anyone gave him a red-lined black cloak he wouldn't know what to do with it. Far from romancing beautiful women, he could hardly put two sentences together without devolving into a string of curses. He was bow-legged, ugly, thuggish, with straggly hair, and such appalling personal hygiene that he had to approach his prey from downwind so they didn't smell him coming.
Cradula lived in an empty old house, a house so long vacant that everyone had long forgotten when it had been built and whether it had had a name. There, in the basement, he had a bed in a grave cunningly disguised as an old chest with a seat on the lid. Every night, once darkness had safely fallen, he would crawl out of his entombment, lifting the top of the chest away, clamber clumsily through a broken skylight, and go hunting. Before dawn, more often than not still hungry, he would drop with all the grace of a sack of potatoes through the skylight and shamble into his grave again.
For as long as Cradula had lived in the old house, it had been empty, but one day there was the noise of doors grating open, furniture being moved, the busy sounds of hammering and sawing, and before Cradula knew it - that is, before the poor vampire woke at the crack of dusk - the house was no longer empty. A family of four had moved in, father, mother, son, and daughter. The first thing Cradula knew of them was the sound of the daughter singing and playing the guitar in her new room upstairs. She sang and played atrociously.
Of course, Cradula didn't know that she sang and played so badly. He was far too uncultured to care about that at all. All he wanted to do was to go out and drink his nightly portion of blood, and the confounded caterwauling was giving him a headache, so he went straight to his skylight.
Whereupon he had a shock. The skylight had been removed and the space bricked in! And the basement, where he had spent so many uneventful decades, was no longer empty, it was almost full of heaps of coal for the furnace that hadn't been used in so long that Cradula hadn't even known it was there.
The poor vampire was in a state. He couldn't get out of the basement, because of the skylight. He couldn't get out through the door up into the house, because it was locked. And he hadn't had any luck hunting in days, so he was starving. And, on top of everything, he was so illiterate and uneducated in the ways of humans that he was frightened out of his wits, not that he had many.
It was just as he was gibbering to himself in the corner that the light in the ceiling went on and someone turned the key in the door leading upstairs...
The night was cold, and the mother, deciding the house needed heat, had ordered her husband to start up the furnace. "And don't come back till it's burning nice and hot," she commanded. "Do you hear?"
Cradula, thrilling with terror, shot back into his grave so fast that the coal dust of his passage still hung in the air like behind a cartoon character who'd taken off running. The father came grumbling down, muttering about the television he should've been watching, and shovelled the furnace full of coal. Then, setting the load alight, he looked around for a place on which to sit while waiting for the fire to take hold.
The only place to sit was the nice old chest with the convenient seat on the lid...
Cradula may have been terrified, but he could now smell the proximity of the human blood coursing through human veins. His fangs grew wet with saliva, he reached up, flipped open the lid of the chest, dragged the father inside, and drank him to a shrivelled husk in less time than it takes to write of it. Then he slammed shut the lid, belched loudly, and went contentedly to sleep.
What about the corpse? He kept it right there with him in the grave. I told you he was a slob.
After an hour, the mother - by now warm - began to wonder why her husband hadn't come back up. Was he drinking down there? She decided to come down for a look.
"Are you hiding behind that coal?" she roared, not seeing her lesser half anywhere. She stamped around the basement, poking here and there, and then, baffled, plonked her ample bottom down on the lid of the chest, so hard that it woke Cradula.
And, because he smelt her blood and was an uncouth glutton, he pulled her down and drank her dry as well, then closed the lid and went back to sleep.
Some time after that, the fire in the furnace began to die down. The daughter began to shiver a little. "Hey, twerp," she ordered her brother, between songs, "go down and put more coal in the damned furnace."
"Go yourself, " said the brother, who was busy with a video game.
The daughter stuck it as long as she could then wandered down to the basement to stock up the furnace. Afterwards she looked around. "I wonder what it would sound like if I sang in here, " she said, and, sitting down on the chest, resumed her guitar playing and singing.
Cradula, of course, had been awakened by the terrible noise, and, being without any refinement, didn't recognise music when he heard it. He knew only that there was a fresh supply of blood sitting over him. So he opened the lid, yanked in the girl, and drank her dry as well before pushing the lid shut, and, putting her corpse with those of her parents, went back to sleep.
By and by the son finished his game and wondered where everyone was. He looked up and down in all the rooms of the house, but they were all empty. Then he came down to the basement, searched around, and went away upstairs again. Later that night he came down to stock up the furnace, searched for any trace of his parents or sister, found nothing, and stood scratching his head. But Cradula didn't grab him and drink him dry, not then, and not in the many, many days that have passed since. The son still goes down to the basement every day and Cradula can't lay a finger on him.
The son never sits on the brutish vampire.
As we all know, the Imperialist States of Amerikastan can never lose.
It didn’t lose in Vietnam, for example, or in Somalia, or Iraq, come to that.
What? You thought the Imperialist States lost in Vietnam and Iraq and Somalia? Obviously you didn’t watch any of the many, many Hollywood films dedicated to proving the opposite for Vietnam, or Black Hawk Down for Somalia, or American Sniper for Iraq, and that’s just the list I can be bothered to dig up.
Anyway, to get to ye olde pointe: Amerikastan can never, ever lose. I mean, Hollywood says so! Who are you going to believe, Hollywood or reality?
So: Since Amerikastan cannot have lost in Afghanistan yesterday, it is not possible, despite all evidence to the contrary, I decided to help Hollywood out and write a script for it. I mean, I am literally creating history here!
So, coming up: the new Hollywood blockbuster on Afghanistan, Bloodhawk Down.
The heartbreakingly beautiful mountains of the Hindu Kush (the Pamir Knot will do nicely as a substitute, thank you, do you think the target audience for this kind of thing can differentiate between Afghanistan and Tajikistan anyway?). The purple shadows of evening lie deep in valleys.
Enter the shadow of a helicopter, along with the noise of its engine. Pan up to the cockpit, where we have our GRIM-FACED HANDSOME HERO, who is the pilot.
This is Major Bloodhawk, USAF. The camera moves up his body, hesitating briefly on his uniformed chest, which has his name in clearly visible BLOCK LETTERS, as well as the requisite stars and stripes badge.
Major Bloodhawk is, of course, played by Tom Cruise. It is always Tom Cruise as the aging, handsome, instantly relatable hero. Of course it’s Tom Cruise. Who else could it be, Arnold Schwarzenegger? Give me a break.
FLASHBACK to Major Bloodhawk’s many years in Afghanistan, starting with his service as a young gunship pilot back in the glory days of the invasion in the mid 2000s, then moving on to training Afghans to fly helicopters so they can do some gunshipping of their own (insert manly tears when one of his pupils is killed in a crash). He has friends among Afghans, including a brave translator who saved his life during a Taliban ambush. This translator’s name is Quislinguddin, and he has stayed in touch with Major Bloodhawk ever since.
Back home, naturally, Major Bloodhawk has a lovely and loving wife, and the requisite two children, male and female. This wife’s name is immaterial, call her Laura if you want, but she’ll be, naturally, played by Angelina Jolie. She was in Kabul, too, of course teaching Afghan women to read and write, but in recent days she’s gone back home. This is an opportunity to show her lovely, palatial home in a leafy suburb somewhere in California, with the compulsory swimming pool in the backyard, complete with a golden retriever who goes swimming with brat and bratess.
So both Bloodhawk and Laura are – are you getting this? You are? Good – absolutely genuine heroes, as everyone can see. And the Afghans love them! (Insert shots of profoundly grateful Afghans, begging him to bomb their villages some more and her to teach them some more to read and write.)
But times have changed, and it’s 2021, and the Taliban are threatening Kabul. (Gasp! Who could ever have seen that coming?) Major Bloodhawk is past his glory days as an Apache gunship pilot. He now flies a Chinook transport, and he’s been tasked to stay ready to evacuate Americans from the rooftop of the embassy in Kabul, exactly as President Bidet had sworn would never happen.
You’re still with me, right?
Bloodhawk has a trusty sidekick, who mans a heavy machine gun set in the Chinook’s door. (Never mind whether Chinooks have door gunners, door gunners and helicopters go together like napalm and Vietnamese villages, this has been holy writ since the first Vietnam movie came out, dammit.) I can’t be bothered to come up with a name for him, but he is played by the guy from Jurassic World.
So! The evil, vengeful, misogynistic, bearded, turbaned Taliban are battering at the gates of Kabul, when Major Bloodhawk gets a call on his mobile phone! Who can it be? Who??
His old mate Quislinguddin, that’s who.
Quislinguddin, and I don’t care who plays him as long as it’s a smallish round-faced man with a moustache and a pakol cap, is calling from a village near Kandahar. This village is ruled over by an Evil Taliban Warlord. (Maybe played by Danny Trejo in a beard and black turban? I think it should be Danny Trejo in a beard and black turban.) ETW has his eye on a beautiful young girl in the village, played by anyone, damn it, what does it even matter at this stage. ETW has decided to celebrate the impending Taliban victory by kidnapping the BYG, and intends to marry her as soon as Kabul falls.
“Bloodhawk,” the translator says, “the evil Talib has kept her confined within his dastardly fortified house in the village, guarded by the evillest Taliban guards in all Kandahar! You must save her!”
Bloodhawk’s orders are to wait and be ready to evacuate the embassy but... (Flashback once again to the moment that Quislinguddin saved him from the Taliban ambush, diving on him and wrestling him to the ground at the risk of his own life.) He calls Laura and explains his dilemma, and in an emotionally charged scene over the phone – he in his helicopter seat, she looking at her (very symbolically empty) bed, a photo of the two of them on the side table, they decide that he must Do The Right Thing.
Tom...I mean Bloodhawk...turns to his door gunner, GFJW. “What do you think, Guy?”
Guy, as anyone who’s watched Jurassic World is aware, is capable of just one expression, so he doesn’t move a facial muscle. “Let’s go get her! Hooah!”
So, without orders, the Chinook clatters into the air and heads off to Kandahar. (Insert more scenic mountains while dramatic swelling music plays, etc.)
Cut to the village, where the ETW has been taunting the BYG with her inevitable fate. Suddenly, from his window, he sees the helicopter clattering over the village roofs. Leaning from the aperture, he shouts at his army of guards to alert them to this threat! Bloodhawk, look out! The enemy knows you’re coming!
But wait! There’s help!
It’s Quislinguddin! Running from one spot to another, mobile phone at his ear, he directs Bloodhawk, telling him where the Taliban are! The heroic American helicopter – roundels and USAF legend boldly visible – makes several low passes over the village, GFJW mowing the Taliban guards down with his trusty machine gun, American firepower defeating evil! Then, in a great gust of sand and wind, the Chinook starts descending into the village square.
But what is this?!? The dastardly ETW has taken the opportunity to barricade himself in his evil fortified residence! He knows that Bloodhawk can’t stay long, and he’s determined to wait it out! Whatever will Bloodhawk do?
In the helicopter, Bloodhawk and GFJW exchange glances. “Do it, Major,” the latter says...I mean, grinds out between clenched teeth. “Do it!”
So, in a remarkable action sequence never before committed to cinema history, Bloodhawk flies his helicopter at almost ground level right up to the ETW’s house. His front rotor’s immense blades crash through the wall of the dastardly residence, sending a mass of rubble falling into the dusty street. Then he backs away and begins to swing around for another go.
But, look! Who is this slim, lovely figure who dashes from the broken house? Why, it’s the BYG! She’s free! But only for the moment, for behind her lumbers the form of the ETW! He wants her back! He’s too close to her for GFJW to use his machine gun! She’s almost caught!
And here comes Quislinguddin, armed with a piece of wood from the ETW’s own demolished house! He hits the ETW alongside the turban with the half-plank! ETW’s down for the count!
Bloodhawk, delicately as a feather, lands his helicopter next to Quislinguddin and the BYG. GFJW urgently beckons them aboard, but the girl’s afraid to climb on. Quislinguddin has to push her from behind and GFJW pull her by the arms to get her into the chopper. Finally she’s in, and Quislinguddin begins to clamber aboard himself.
But, wait! The ETW has recovered! Clambering to his feet, his mad eyes glaring, he reaches inside his sleeveless jacket and brings out a (Russian, this was given to him as bounty for killing US soldiers!) Tokarev pistol. Just as the helicopter lifts off, he shoots at it, and the bullet, going through the door, takes Quislinguddin through the chest.
As GFJW pilots the Chinook towards Kabul, Quislinguddin looks up at Bloodhawk kneeling over him on the chopper's floor. “We did rescue her, didn’t we?” he whispers, a heroic trickle of blood seeping photogenically from the corner of his mouth.
“We did,” Bloodhawk says. “We did.”
“I should never have saved your life,” Quislinguddin says, and grins painfully in the best buddy war movie tradition. “You just keep getting me into trouble.”
“That’s right, you shouldn’t have,” Bloodhawk replies.
“I won’t do it again,” Quislinguddin says, and dies in Bloodhawk’s arms.
Oscar material, yo.
The tide travels
Licking and rising
At Cuban beaches
At Iraqi deserts
At Vietnamese jungles
At Afghanistan's hills
At Gaza's crowded alleys
At Yemeni mountains
At Donbass villages
At Baghdad's slums.
Looking for a breach
Looking for a fissure
And where it is turned back
It moves elsewhere
To try again.
Overhead the blood moon
Draws the tide, commands it,
But the blood moon's orbit
The hungry ocean awaits it
The vengeful desert
The patient hills.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2021
(I dreamt the first lines of this poem, woke at 4 am, and wrote the rest before I forgot. Good job, too, because I didn't remember a word of it later.)
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