Friday, 15 December 2017

Potol Babu And The Ghost (A Tale Of Bunglistan)

One day, when Potol Babu was going home from office, his neighbour  Keshob Babu called out to him from his window.

Potol Babu’s real and complete name was Nobinchondro Bhottacharjyo. He worked as a head clerk in an accountant’s office. He was very proud of his position, especially so when people asked him for financial advice. Or, at least, he had been very proud of his position until the accountant’s son had taken over the firm. He thought it was for financial advice that Keshob Babu had called out to him now, and that was why he made the bad mistake of waiting to talk.  

“Habh you seen the newj?” Keshob Babu asked, through the iron bars on the window. “They are saying a ghost has been seen een the town.”

Potol Babu rubbed his bald head. “Who eej saying thees?” he asked, reasonably enough. “You know eef eet eej een the paypaar eet may be a lie.”

“No, no,” Keshob Babu hastened to assure him. “Eet eej not in the paypaar. Eet eej on the telebheeshon.”

Potol Babu rubbed his bald head a little harder. If it was on the television, that was a different matter. He had total faith in the television, like everyone else in Bunglistan. “Well then, what deed thees ghost do?” he asked.

“Eet was seen near the feesh maarket,” Keshob Babu said. “Peepool going that way saw eet in a tree and told the pulish. They are now haanting eet ebhrywhere.”

“They weel catch eet soon, I theenk,” Potol Babu said. Inwardly, he was quaking. He was terrified of ghosts, and the very thought of a ghost on the loose was enough to send shivers down his spine. He’d always imagined that all the ghosts had been locked up in zoos long ago. Besides, he had planned to visit the fish market afterwards, and buy a kilo of carp. “Ghosts are not going to be able to esskep for long from the pulish.”

“Maybe eet weel come thees way,” said Keshob Babu, with relish. “Eet weel go into saam house and wreeng the necks of ebhryone there.” It was all right for him, because he had a wife and three children. One look at the wife would send any ghost screaming for dear unlife, while the children were even worse. But Potol Babu, whose own wife was enough to terrify a man-eating tiger, was away at her parental house, and wasn’t due back until the day after tomorrow. He’d been looking forward to an evening of peace, quiet and fish curry, but now fish curry was out of the question, and probably peace and quiet as well.

“I theenk I weel go and rest a while,” he muttered, and quickly walked home. As soon as he was inside, even before turning on the light, he slammed the door shut behind him and pushed home all the bolts. Then, wiping the sweat off his forehead, he hunted for the light switches, and walked into his living room.

There was a ghost sitting on the sofa.

Potol Babu stood staring at the ghost, and the ghost sat staring at Potol Babu. And both of them screamed together.

They were still screaming when the telephone rang.

It was an old black telephone with a rotary dial – Potol Babu did not hold with such fancy modern innovations as mobile phones, which, he was convinced, sent bad electricity into people’s ears – and, fortunately, was on a table right next to him. Still screaming, he picked up the phone.

“Bhottacharjyo!” It was his employer, the accountant’s son. His name was Amulyokumar Bishshash, so of course everyone called him Binoy Babu. “Why are you shouting like that? Stop shouting, you are making my ear hurt.”

Potol Babu bit off the scream so sharply he bit his tongue hard enough to draw blood. When he’d finished blinking with pain, he finally managed to reply. “Binoy Babu! There is a ghost here een my house. Eet eej here een thees room weeth me!”

“There are no such theengs as ghosts.” Binoy Babu sounded exasperated. “You are getting too old and too foolish, Bhottacharjyo. That eej the reason I am calling, anyway. Tomorrow, you take your back pay and clear out your theengs from the offish. You are fired!”

“Fired?” Potol Babu was so shocked that for the moment he forgot the ghost. “Baat, Binoy Babu, I habh been working for your faathar for thaarty years.”

“Yes, and that eej the problem. My faathar’s staff eej all old and incompetent. We need young blaaad een thees day and age, no? That eej why I am replacing ebhrybody een the offish. You are faarst, baat I weel sack all the aathars too.”

“Baat...” Potol Babu repeated “Baat, what weel I do for a leeveeng? I am too old to find anothaar job.” But there was no point. His employer had already hung up.

Potol Babu dropped the phone back on its cradle and then, as heavily as the phone, plopped down on the sofa. He plopped so hard that the ghost couldn’t move out of the way in time, and Potol Babu sat down on its tail. The ghost squeaked in pain and terror.

Potol Babu, startled, turned to see what had squeaked, and found himself next to the ghost. For a moment he thought about beginning screaming again, but his head was already spinning so badly from the phone call he thought he might pass out if he began to scream. And then, when he was passed out, the ghost would wring his neck. So he just gulped a little.

It was a horrible ghost. It was black and red and orange, as though it was on fire in patches. It had a huge mouth big enough to bite Potol Babu’s head off, hands like slabs of coal and a head like a charred pumpkin. And, worst of all, of course, it was a ghost.

The ghost opened its huge mouth big enough to bite Potol Babu’s head off, and Potol Babu thought his last hour had come. Which, given that he had no job any longer, was fine with him.

“Pleej don’t call the pulish,” the ghost said. “I weel go right away een a leetle while, baat don’t call the pulish.”

Potol Babu blinked. “What? Aren’t you going to wreeng my neck?”

“Wreeng your neck?” The ghost’s orange and red charred pumpkin face looked horrified. “What a horribol idea! I don’t ebhen know how to wreeng a neck.”

Potol Babu gathered a little courage. “What are you doing here een my house?” he asked.

“Hiding,” the ghost said miserably. “The pulish is saarching for me, so I ran away and looked for a place to hide. Your house was empty and a weendow was open, so I jaamped in from the tree outside. And now you are going to call the pulish and they weel come.”

Potol Babu was horrified by the very idea. “Of course I weel not call the pulish,” he said. “My wife weel be back een two days and she weel say eet ees deesgracefool that the pulish came to the house. The neighbours weel be telling her and then she weel make my life hell. Of course,” he added, “she weel make my life hell anyway.”

“Why?” the ghost asked. “Was eet becauje of whatebhar you were saying on the telephone?”

“Yes,” Potol Babu confessed. “I habh lost my job and I am too old to get anothaar job. My new bosh eej a bad man. Not like heej faathar, who waj a good man, baat he died. Heej saan eej deesmeeseeng all the offish people.”

“That eej bad,” the ghost said sympathetically. “What do you theenk you weel do now?”

“What else can I do?” Potol Babu asked. “All I can do eej go weeth my wife to work een her braathar’s school as a teachaar. And I can’t stand cheeldren.” To his horror, he began to weep. “I may habh to commit sooicide. And then I weel become a ghost.”

“And then pulish weel haant you,” the ghost said, “and you weel be fleeing for your unlife. Like me. You theenk you habh problems? You should see my problems.”

“Well,” Potol Babu asked, irritated at the burden of misery being moved from him, “so what? What can they do to you? You are a ghost.”

“You theenk ghosts can’t be haarmed?” The ghost shuddered so hard that the sofa shook. Potol Babu grabbed hold of the armrest so as not to be shaken off. “Eef you only knew the danger from maastaard oil and gaarleec, you would not say that ghosts habh notheeng to fear.”

“What were you doing out near the feesh maarket, then?” Potol Babu challenged. “Deed you not theenk of the pulish then? Thees ees not the olden dayj, when ghosts could go anywhere. Why were you out where peepool could see you?”

“What was I to do?” the ghost whined. “Eet eej not as though I wanted to be out. Eet eej not as though we ghosts don’t know that theengs are not as they used to be once. Baat I deed not habh a choice. I was thrown out obh the house we were haunting.”

“Thrown out?” Potol Babu blinked. “What? Why?”

“Becauje obh obharpopulation,” the ghost explained miserably. “Eet eej not like before when we could leebh anywhere, when each tree and house was a home for a ghost. Now nowhere eej safe except a few haunted houses, where nobody goes. And so all the ghosts are crowded in there. And we are all getting angry weeth each aathar and fighting all the time.”

“And they threw you out becauje you were fighting?” Potol Babu asked.

“No,” the ghost confessed. “I am too cowardly to fight. They threw me out becauje...becauje...”

“Yes?” Potol Babu was fascinated. He had never imagined the unlifes of ghosts had this particular kind of drama. “Why deed they throw you out?”

“Becauje one new ghost came to the haunted house,” the ghost said. “And thees waj a bhery bhery beeg and strong ghost. I theenk een olden dayj he would habh been a zamindar, or a bandeet. He eej as beeg as a palm tree and haj teeth like radishes and ears like weenowing baskets. The aathar ghosts tried to throw heem out, and he began to fight them, aanteel they agreed that he could stay. Baat to accommodate heem, they had to make space, so they threw out two of aas.”

“Two? Why two? There waj only one of heem.”

“Becauje he eej twice as beeg as any aathar ghost, so to make space for heem they had to throw out two. One was the ghost who had arrived last. He died jaast one maanth ago. The aathar waj me, becauje I could not fight them to keep from being thrown out.” The ghost began to make horrible retching sounds. “And now I am a refoojee, being haanted like saamtheeng eevil.”

Potol Babu realised that the retching noise was meant to be sobbing. Instinctively he reached out to touch the ghost, and flinched back at the last possible moment. The ghost noticed, of course.

“See,” it said triumphantly. “Even you habh no real seempathy for me. You theenk I, an honourable bhoot, am beneath you. You don’t waant to taach me.”

“No, no,” Potol Babu said hastily. “Eet eej not that I am against you.”

“Then weel you let me stay in your house?” the ghost asked hopefully.

“How can I do that?” Potol Babu asked reasonably. “I am habhing my problems too.”

“Yes, your job. Baat whaat eej there to be daan about eet? Nothing, jaast like there eej nothing to be daan about me being weethout a house to go to. Me, and the aathar ghost who waj thrown out. Poor fellow maast be roameeng around saamwhere and weel be haanted too.”

“Yes, the aathar ghost,” Potol Babu said automatically. His mind was back on his lost job, and he was getting more despondent by the minute. If only Binoy Babu’s father had not died, none of this would have happened. Binoy Babu’s father had been a nice man, just and fair, who couldn’t stand his own son, and who had seemed to be in the best of health and all set to live many more years – until he’d been run over by a tram a month ago. Just a month ago, Potol Babu thought bitterly, his future had seemed secure and bright. And now...all of a sudden, something occurred to him.

“Wait, wait,” he said, interrupting the ghost, who was still going on with its litany of complaints. “You say thees ghost who waj thrown out weeth you only arrived one maanth ago? Who eej he?”

“Heej name eej Obonindrokumar Bishshash,” the ghost replied peevishly. “Whay, what daaj eet matter who he waj? He eej homeless now, like me.”

“I knew eet,” Potol Babu said. “He eej the ghost obh my old bosh. Eef only he waj steel alive...” He stopped. His mouth fell open. His eyes glazed over. He seemed to have stopped breathing. The ghost grew concerned.

“Heeyar,” it said. “Don’t die, or you weel be a ghost also, and there weel be three of aas trying to esskep the pulish, not jaast two.”

Potol Babu didn’t even hear it. He was getting the idea...or rather the Idea...or even the IDEA...of his life. Ideas did not come to him naturally or often, and his brain had ceased all other functions as it contemplated this one. At last, driven by the need to breathe – and to blink – he came back to himself.

“Look, ghost,” he said. “Do you know wheyar thees Obonindrokumar Bishshash eej hiding?”

“No,” the ghost said. “Baat I theenk I can find heem weethout deefeecaalty. He maast be saamwhere neaar the old haunted house. He doj not habh enough experience of being a ghost to wander far away from eet. Why do you waant heem?”

“Becauje...” Potol Babu summoned up all his cunning. It was even harder than working an IDEA, so it took effort. The ghost looked curiously at the drops of sweat rolling down his bald head. “Look, ghost, you can’t stay heeyar, right?”

“Jaast for a few dayj,” the ghost said wheedlingly. “Een a few dayj the pulish weel habh forgotten about me and I can go away.”

“A few dayj!” Potol Babu snorted. “The day aftaar tomorrow my wife weel be caming back from haar parents’ house, and then you weel be raaning fastaar from haar than from the pulish.” He got up, went to the shelf, and picked up a photograph in a frame. “Thees ees a picture obh haar. When she eej not at home I keep the photo taarned away, so aj not to spoil my mood. Look!”

The ghost looked, and an instant later, as though by magic, it was on the far side of the room. It had also gone so pale with fear that it was now pink and grey. “Pleej,” it begged, “protect me from that horribol monstaar. I weel do anytheeng you waant.”

Potol Babu didn’t resent his wife being called a horrible monster. It was nothing more than, as he acknowledged to himself, the truth. “So not only weel you be raaning away in two dayj,” he said, “baat you weel habh nowhere to go. Even eef you could stay longaar you would steel habh nowhere to go. Right?”

“Right,” the poor ghost agreed. “Whaat can I do?”

“I weel find you a place to stay,” Potol Babu said. “Eet eej more than large enough for two ghosts. You and thees Obonindrokumar Bishshash. You breeng heem heeyar and I weel tell you what to do.”

“Really?” the ghost asked, the dawning hope making it flush pink, like the morning sun. It was glowing so bright a pink that the room began to look like the set of the only porn film Potol Babu had ever seen in his life. It brought a blush to his face as bright as the pink of the ghost, so that the room looked more like the porn set than ever. “I weel go and look for heem right away.”

“Be careful of the pulish,” Potol Babu said, but the ghost had already disappeared.

With a sigh of his own dawning hope, Potol Babu got his shopping bag and went out to buy some fish for his dinner.

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

The next morning Potol Babu went to work as usual. Without surprise, he noticed that Binoy Babu was late coming to work.

“Maybe he eej seek,” one of the other clerks said.

“Maybe,” Potol Babu suggested nonchalantly, “he had veeseetors who kept heem awake all night.”

“Veeseetors?” the other clerk scoffed. “You are getting stupeed een your old age, Potol Babu. Who gets veeseetors who keep them awake all night?”

Potol Babu shrugged. “Eet waj jaast saamtheeng I thought,” he said.

Binoy Babu stumbled in just after noon. He looked horrible. He was unshaven, his eyes were bloodshot and his hair was stuck up in spikes all over his head. He looked around and finally focussed on Potol Babu.

“Bhottacharjyo,” he said. “I habh been theenkeeng about that phone call I made to you laast night. I habh decided to forget about the matter.”

“Yes?” Potol Babu said. “That eej nice, saar.”

“More than that,” Binoy Babu gulped, “I habh decided to eencreese your salary weeth eemediate effect. Een fact, I weel daable eet.”

“Thank you bhery maach, saar,” Potol Babu said.

As Binoy Babu turned, tottering, to go to his cubicle, Potol Babu glanced at the corner of the office. Above the row of bookcases stuffed with ledgers, he caught a glimpse of something dull orange, and, beside it, another something that was black as midnight, except for a white flash of grinning teeth.

Then he turned back to his work, and when he looked again, the black thing and the orange thing had retreated into the shadows, out of view.

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

Potol Babu’s wife returned the next day. After stamping around the house like a rogue elephant, as was her wont, she turned on Potol Babu.

“What habh you been doing when I waj away?” she demanded. “Waatcheeng more obh those feelthy foreign feelms weeth naked women?”

“No, no,” Potol Babu protested. “I deed notheeng like that. I ebhen habh saam nice feesh caary for you. And the bosh haj eencreesed my salary.”

Potol Babu’s wife grunted, like a rogue elephant that has just found a bale of succulent grass. Potol Babu began to breathe easier, hoping the crisis had passed. He hoped too soon.

He found that out when his wife wandered into the living room. “What eej thees?” he heard her scream. “Why eej my photo taarned backwards on the shelf?”

Potol Babu sighed. Maybe he should commit suicide after all, he thought.

At least, as a ghost, he knew where he could go.


Copyright B Purkayastha 2017



Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Battle Of Pluto

This summer Timur’s parents took him to Pluto on holiday.

Timur was very excited to go to Pluto. They travelled on a spaceship that was golden in colour and looked like a bottle, which Timur thought was quite funny. The spaceship was called Crossbow. A nice name, wasn’t it? They had a good room to themselves, though it wasn’t large, and when the ship took off after the compulsory hymn of praise to the President-Emperor, it was so smooth that none of them felt it at all. The spaceship was fast, too, so that before Timur got too bored with the confines of life on board, they arrived on Pluto.

The hotels on Pluto were filled with young couples, who spent their time looking soppily at each other in the restaurants and kissing over their drinks. Timur’s mum told him not to stare, and explained that they were all people who had come to Pluto because the heart-shaped mark on its surface was so romantic.

“It’s just marketing,” Timur’s father said grumpily, but Timur’s father was grumpy about everything. “They market it as the dwarf planet of love, and the silly fools come all the way out here to spend their money.” Even Timur knew that this didn’t make much sense, because hadn’t his father brought him and his mum here? But his mum merely grinned and said they should go have an ice cream, so that was all right.

The ice cream parlour they went to had a ceiling in the shape of a dome, on which the image of the sky was projected. Timur couldn’t see Earth, of course, but he could see the stars, and the sun, too, a tiny, bright white dot. And then the moons went by, one by one, Charon among them, so large and low overhead that it seemed as though it would come rolling down on them.

“Mum,” Timur said, “when are we going to the War Museum?”

The War Museum, of course, was on Charon, and that was the place that Timur had been excited about, ever since his parents had told him about the holiday. They had studied the War against the aliens in school, in history class just this year, and all about the tremendous victory at the Battle of Pluto that had won the war once and for all.

“Why do you want to go there?” his father said, irritated. “You’ve already seen all the pictures, in school.”

“But those are just pictures,” Timur said. “We’ve come all this way, and it’s just on Charon. Besides, there isn’t anything to do here.”

This was not quite true, but only as far as children were concerned. There was plenty of entertainment for adults on Pluto, but most of them were out of bounds to children. Timur didn’t miss the quick glance that passed between his parents, and pressed the advantage.

“You don’t have to go,” he said. “I can manage quite well by myself.”

“How do they go to this museum?” his father asked. “I don’t know. Do you?”

“Of course I do,” Timur snorted. “They’ve got daily guided tours, from the hotel,” he said. “I checked their website. They go up by shuttle and come back the same evening.”

His father tried one more time. “I’m sure they won’t let a child go alone,” he said, “and neither your mother nor I are interested in this war museum of yours.”

“They do,” Timur said triumphantly. “I checked. They have tours only for children, and the hotel arranges them.”

“Wait,” Timur’s mother said, and began whispering something to his father. Timur only caught a few stray words, like “big party today” and “won’t be underfoot as usual.” Finally, his father nodded reluctantly.

“All right,” he said. “We’ll go back to the hotel and see.”

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

The shuttle wasn’t what Timur had expected. It was shaped like an overturned funnel, and everyone sat on padded benches round the inside of a round chamber, with straps around their shoulders to stop them falling on their faces. In the centre of the chamber was a little grey box about the size of a loaf of bread, and this was the pilot of the shuttle.

There were about ten children in the group, all about the same age as Timur, and a lady in charge. Her name, according to the badge she wore on her dress, was Sara. She was pretty and young, and all the other boys in the group were already in love with her, but Timur wasn’t, because he was more excited about the War Museum.

There were no windows in the shuttle, and it only shook a little when it took off from Pluto, and after a little while shook again when it landed on Charon. All the while Miss Sara was talking about the history of the War.

“It was when the human race was divided into all kinds of different nations, which were mostly fighting against each other. The Enemy thought they could take advantage of our quarrels to defeat us, and that was why they attacked us.”

Timur had heard all this in his history class, of course, but he still listened avidly, because he was passionately interested in the War. He had long ago decided that when he grew up he would write a book on it.

“The Enemy – the aliens – were horrible,” Miss Sara said. “They sent their huge battle fleet against us, and in the lead was their strongest battleship, which was called the Azag. They thought they could break past our defences around Pluto, and once in the inner solar system they would have had us at their mercy. But it didn’t happen like that, because of Captain Erdogyahu.”

Everyone’s eyes turned automatically to the portrait of Captain Erdogyahu, which was painted on the wall of the shuttle. It showed him in his full dress uniform as Grand Admiral, which he’d become after the battle, and before he’d been elected the first President-Emperor of Earth. Timur was fascinated with all the pale gold braid and the stripes on his uniform. His chest was so covered with medals that there didn’t seem room for any more.

“Captain Erdogyahu,” Miss Sara said, “was in charge of the defence outpost on Charon. It was only a small place, with a few launchers, a couple of short range gunboats, and a handful of missiles. The Enemy must have thought that it could be ignored, because certainly such a puny station could not dare to defy them. But they hadn’t reckoned with Captain Erdogyahu.

“Captain Erdogyahu knew that if he merely sent word to Earth about the Enemy invasion, by the time the Earth battle fleet was dispatched, the Enemy would already have captured the outer solar system and would have been threatening Mars and perhaps Earth itself. So, in an act of tremendous bravery, he decided to fight the alien invasion with his two gunboats and his handful of missiles, even if it meant certain death. And that was what he did.”

Miss Sara’s eyes grew misty as she looked up at the portrait with adoration. “The Enemy was taken totally by surprise, and annihilated,” she said. “Most of their ships were turned into slag before they could fire a single shot in return. Only the Azag survived the initial attack, and tried to flee.

“Captain Erdogyahu, however, was determined not to let a single Enemy ship get away. Despite the immense danger, he led his two gunboats in pursuit of the Enemy battleship. It was already so badly damaged that it could not make great speed, so the gunboats caught up with it before it could reach the Oort cloud. And there, on the outer fringes of the solar system, the two little gunboats fought the mighty Enemy battleship in one of the most terrific battles in history.

“The two gunboats,” Miss Sara continued, “closed with the fleeing Azag until they could see the gaping holes torn in the battleship’s hull from the missiles earlier. They then kept pumping missile after missile into the Enemy ship, from such close range that debris from the explosions almost struck them. Finally, there was a tremendous flash from the stricken battleship, and it stopped trying to manoeuvre in an attempt to escape.

“The victory was complete, but it was not enough for Captain Erdogyahu. Ordering his gunboats to close in on the wrecked battleship, he attached lines to it, and then he towed it all the way back. He brought the wreckage all the way back to Charon, and it is there now, the centrepiece of the War Museum.”

“Will we be seeing it, Miss Sara?” someone asked.

“Indeed we shall,” Miss Sara said, smiling. “Now, we’ve just arrived, so please get up and line up behind me, and we’ll start the tour, shall we?”

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

The War Museum was vast. It was so huge that Miss Sara said that a full tour would take days, but they would get the children’s special, which was designed to be over early enough so they could get back to their parents by dinnertime. So they bypassed the section which had the old station and offices in which Captain Erdogyahu and his men had lived, and the buildings that chronicled the history of the Space Navy, and went directly to the section reserved for the Battle of Pluto.

The Battle of Pluto had its own segment in the War Museum, a dome that towered over the other buildings, and larger than the rest of the Museum put together. Miss Sara showed their passes to a guard at the entrance, and turned to the children.

“Before we go in,” she said, “remember to stay with me. There’s a lot of machinery in there, and you don’t want to get lost or hurt.”

Timur began to nod, and stopped in mid-nod as they passed through the door. His mouth dropped open.

Before them lay an immense space, so gigantic that he felt for a moment as though he was outside, under the open sky of Earth. Far above, the blue-tinted metal of the dome soared upwards, and huge white lamps set into it threw down light so bright it left no space for shadow. Set around the walls were the weapons that had won the Battle – the batteries of missile launchers, the noses of missiles still poking out of the tubes, and on each side, like two hump-backed beetles, squatted the black shapes of the two gunboats, the Millennium Enterprise and the Star Falcon, which Captain Erdogyahu had had under his command. But Timur’s eyes went right to the thing that rose between the gunboats, huge and angular, towards the dome above.

It was the Enemy ship itself. It was the Azag, dragged down as a prize of war and made secure.

It was flat planes and round bulges, sharp angles and smooth lines. It was huge and so ugly that it was beautiful. Timur had seen pictures of it, many times, but he had never thought it would be like this. He had never expected the lights to shimmer and glide off the metal, as though they were oil on water.

It called to him, and he wanted to go to it.

“This is what they were like,” Miss Sara said, and Timur turned reluctantly back to her. She was pointing at a sculpture of one of the Enemy. “This statue is life size, and was modelled on the Enemy corpses taken from the battleship. You can see how horrible they were.”

The children stared, fascinated. The alien was white and yellow, and all limbs and spikes and pincers like hooks and scissor blades. High above, poking out of the oval shield that covered the head, were two round brown eyes on stalks as long as your arm. It looked as though it was about to jump off the pedestal on which it was mounted and bite you in half.

“Where were they from?” someone asked. It was a small girl with brown hair and a sharp voice. “Miss Sara, where were they from?”

“Who knows?” Miss Sara shrugged. “Nobody ever found that out. Not that it matters. They were our Enemy, and they were destroyed. That’s all we need to know.” She turned away from the sculpture and gestured. “Now follow me to the next exhibit here...”

Timur barely heard her. The next exhibit was one of the missile batteries, and he wasn’t interested in them. They looked a little like wooden packing cases stacked on each other and mounted on a tractor. He was much more interested in the Azag

“Miss Sara,” he called out, when the young woman had paused briefly in her lecture. “Are we going to go into the ship?”

“Into the ship?” Miss Sara blinked at him. “Inside the Azag, you mean? Oh, no, that’s far too dangerous for children. Only special tours of historians are allowed to do that.”

“But I want to look inside,” Timur protested.

“You’ll see the photos later,” Miss Sara told him. “There’s a video show as well. And we do show you the outside of the ship, from quite close. We will go inside the gunboats, though.”

“Couldn’t we take a look inside, just for a little bit?”

“What an idea!” Miss Sara snapped. “Only historians with special permission, and some scientists, are allowed inside. Why, even I have never been inside that ship.” Turning away, she returned to her lecture.

Timur had stopped listening. He stared longingly at the Azag. There it was, only a short distance away across the concrete floor, and there was nobody else to be seen. Except for their own group, the whole immense space under the dome was empty.

“Now here we have the very radio with which Captain Erdogyahu sent the news of the great victory to Earth,” Miss Sara said. “You see here the chair he sat on while composing the message, and...”

Timur slipped quietly away. He didn’t really know he was about to do it until he had already walked halfway towards the Azag, and then when he looked back over his shoulder nobody had seen him. They were all looking at Miss Sara, and she was looking at the radio. So Timur just kept walking.

The Azag grew as he came closer, and grew. Now it was a wall, a cliff, a mountain reaching up towards the metal sky. The planes and facets on its surface glittered like crystal, the edges lines of liquid fire.

And now he could see the holes the missiles had gouged out of its metal skin, the rents like frozen tattered cloth. Each was almost as big around as he was tall. Rising on his toes, he peered through one of the nearest. He saw torn wires and twisted, broken metal struts, scorched the colour of half-burnt coal.

There was an entrance, a door with a short stretch of red carpet leading up to it, blocked by a length of cream-coloured rope propped on stands. With a last quick glance over his shoulder to make sure nobody had noticed him, he ducked under the rope and in through the door.

After the brilliant white light outside, the light inside the ship seemed so dim that he had to pause a few moments to allow his eyes to adjust. He was in a grey metal passage that curved to both sides, the walls of which were carved with symbols he could not understand. Even the ceiling high overhead was carved, and when he looked down at his feet, he saw that the floor was etched and marked with carvings as well.

The light was soft and bluish, and was coming from the left, so that was the way he went. The further down the passage he walked, the wider it became, and the more elaborate the carvings on the walls. All of a sudden – Timur, who had been looking at the carvings, almost stumbled – it opened into a room that was as round as a ball.

Timur stopped, looking around. The passage he was in had come out near the bottom of the ball. All around, in the walls, there were other passages, some at the same level, some far higher. In the middle of the ball, held up by struts, was a glowing sphere from which the bluish light was coming.

For a moment Timur was tempted to go back. He could still easily find his way back to the entrance, but once he was inside one of those many other passages it would be easy to lose his way. Then he remembered that he was the only one of them who had been inside the ship – not even Miss Sara had – and that he had to make the most of the opportunity, if he was ever to write that book on the War. So he climbed down to the round floor of the room – it felt strange to walk on a round surface – and entered another of the passages that was at the same level as his own.

It twisted and turned like a snake, rising and falling, and splitting again and again. By the time he had gone a hundred paces, Timur was already lost.

Thrusting his head forward between hunched shoulders, Timur plunged on.

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

For what seemed like hours Timur wandered through the ship.

Sometimes he came on vast rooms, so large that in the ever present soft bluish light he could not see the far side. Sometimes he found himself passing between slab-sided stacks of machinery or ducking under rods and spheres and cubes that stuck out haphazardly. Once he turned a corner and walked into a room set with perches like in a bird cage all along the walls and ceiling, and another time into a chamber with round blank sheets of something that looked like glass on all sides. Though there were no seats, there were more perches on the walls, the floor, and even the ceiling, and he thought that this might have been the control room where the Enemy, with their many legs, had squatted and run the ship. One of the walls of this room was crumpled like a sheet of wadded paper, and there were gashes in the wall as though gigantic claws had torn into it. A missile must have burst through the wall right here, Timur thought, and he felt a fierce satisfaction at the idea of the Enemy commander and his – her? – officers crumpling and dying in the blast. That had showed them!

After a while he wandered away from the control room. He wanted a look at the battleship’s weapons, but he hadn’t found them yet. Perhaps the gun turrets and missile launchers were in the upper parts of the ship, where he’d not yet ventured. He was looking for a way leading upwards, but each upwards passage he reached only dipped down or sideways again, and led to yet more machinery spaces or perching chambers.

It was intensely frustrating, and he was just about to start kicking at the walls when he heard voices. At first he thought it was just his imagination, because he’d been thinking about the battleship as it had been during its last moments, the scuttling, terrified Enemies all around, shrieking as they ran fruitlessly from Captain Erdogyahu’s missiles. But then he realised that the voices were real, and, what was more, they were human.

Then he thought they belonged to Miss Sara and the others, who had come into the ship. But it was not Miss Sara’s voice – there were at least two voices, and they were both adult and male. And Miss Sara had said that she wasn’t allowed inside the ship.

But the voices meant that there were people on the ship, and that meant they could at least perhaps tell him the way out. He felt suddenly hungry and thirsty and tired, and he wanted to get out. He’d already seen enough of the ship to write about in his book. Anything else he’d find out from the pictures and video.

Moving slowly – he was in a passage which was not well lit, and whose floor, moreover, was broken in places, the plates buckled and twisted from a blast underneath – he came closer to the voices. Now he could hear them clearly, from a chamber round the next corner. He paused a moment, listening.

“But this isn’t what they say in the history books, Professor,” one voice said.

“The real story is suppressed, of course,” another voice replied. This one was older and heavier. “It’s a convenient fiction, and it makes everybody happy. The truth is only known to a small circle, and you’ve been included in it.”

“But why?” the first voice asked. “I don’t understand.”

“No, of course you don’t,” the first voice sighed. “The world needs to believe that there was a great battle here, and that...” The voices faded, and Timur slipped around the corner, just in time to pick them up again, coming from another passage on the far side of the chamber.

“It’s not just a convenient fiction,” the older voice was saying. “It’s a necessary fiction. It’s what justifies the World Government that keeps the peace now, and the position of the President-Emperor. If it was known that – ”

“But Erdogyahu fought the battle, didn’t he, Professor?” a third voice broke in. “Didn’t he destroy the enemy fleet in a battle?”

The older voice, the Professor, laughed harshly. “He certainly claimed to have,” he said. “But ask yourself why not a single weapons system has ever been found on this so-called battleship. Either the aliens had weapons that were so outside human experience that we can’t recognise them for what they are – weapons that, moreover, were so far outside our experience that they couldn’t do us the slightest harm – or they had no weapons at all.”

Timur crept after them into the passage. He could see them now, three men at the far end, looking at a huge missile hole in one of the walls. “So what was it, Professor?” the first voice asked.

“Who knows?” The Professor moved on past the missile hole, and the other two followed. Timur crept after them, as silently as he could. “Most likely an embassy ship, coming to contact us. Maybe it was a trader. Maybe it was just lost.”

“And the others?” the second of the younger men, who must be students, asked. “The other ships destroyed?”

“What others? Apart from Erdogyahu’s own claim, what proof is there that there were any others?” The Professor chuckled. “He did do a great job of manufacturing a heroic victory for himself, didn’t he?”

Timur was just opposite the missile hole when one of the students began to turn around. Without thinking, quite instinctively, he ducked into the hole. From within it he heard the Professor.

“What is it,  Xi?”

“I saw something out of the corner of my eye,” Xi said. “You did say the ship was reserved for our use today, Professor?”

“That’s right. There shouldn’t be anyone else here. By the terms of opening the ship to historians they aren’t even permitted to monitor us remotely.” The Professor snorted. “So you must have imagined it.”

“I’m sure I didn’t,” Xi said. “I’ll just walk back a little and check.”

“Suit yourself,” the Professor said. “It’s just a waste of time, though.”

“Even so.” Xi’s voice was growing louder and closer, and Timur began to panic. He squeezed further into the missile hole, past a twisted piece of metal, and suddenly found himself in bright white light. Blinking, he saw that he was standing just above the War Museum floor.

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

Timur found Miss Sara and the others not far away, beside the door through which he’d entered the ship. None of them noticed as he quietly joined the group.

“This door was actually a hole blown into the hull by a missile,” Miss Sara said, pointing. “You see how Captain Erdogyahu won the war, and saved humanity, without losing a single man. It was the greatest and most precious victory in human history.” She turned, smiling. “Now let’s take a break for lunch, and then we’ll all go back to Pluto.”

They had lunch in a small restaurant in another part of the War Museum. Timur had wanted to sit alone, but the sharp-voiced girl with brown hair joined him. “Where were you?” she asked, through a mouthful of food. “You missed seeing the gunboats.”

“Just around,” Timur shrugged. “Did anyone say anything?”

“I don’t think anybody noticed,” the brown haired girl said. “Except me, I mean. I notice everything.”

“Well, I’m glad,” Timur said, and turned to his food. “I’m glad you had a fun time.”

“I’ll bet it was more fun than what you did,” the girl said challengingly.

“I’m sure it was,” Timur said. “I have no doubt about that at all.”

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

When Timur got back to school after the summer holidays, his teacher asked the class to write an essay on what they’d done during the vacation. Timur refused.

“Why?” the teacher stared at him. “I heard you went to Pluto. You must have seen a lot and have a lot to write about.”

Timur shook his head and stared down at his desk.

“I didn’t see a thing,” he muttered. “Nothing at all.”


Copyright B Purkayastha 2017


Monday, 4 December 2017

Word Of The Day




Russian bot , n.

Definition : Anyone who wins an argument against a liberal. Anyone who uses facts instead of hysterical accusations. Anyone who opposes imperialist wars on the excuse of "humanitarian intervention."

Etymology: From Russia, an unknown and vague land of Absolute Evil which exists in a parallel dimension and sends liberals stomach upsets, head colds, and bad dreams

and bot, a catchall phrase for anything online that makes a liberal uncomfortable.

Synonyms : Putinist, Putin-bot, Russian agent, Russian troll, Comrade, fascist, communist.

Example : "I can't believe how brazenly the Russian bots claim Hillary Clinton bombed Libya and made slave markets possible!"