Saturday, July 12, 2008

Tales of the Orion Sapphire


It was difficult to see in the dark, but she guessed that the silhouette of the man hunched over her face was somewhat familiar. In his left hand he held a sword. The sword was a peculiar one. It was not straight, but curved and the tip was flat and broader than the hilt. She tried to remember where she had seen it before. Her thoughts were rudely interrupted as the man pressed the blade against her throat. Her first reaction was to struggle free, to throw off this fool who had dared attack her, and teach him a lesson he would never forget. But whoever this impudent idiot was, he had immense strength. He had pinned her on the bed with not so much scope as to move an inch. She could feel his hoarse and putrid breath on her face. It smelt of rotten vegetation and liquor. The voice sliced through the quiet of the night like ripping cloth," I've endured you for too long, yea too long. I haven't no patience anymore. You couldn't see what I saw, you couldn't accept what I asked and you wouldn't give what I want. Well! So be it! We have come to the end of this miserable journey it seems. After tonight I shall have no more need for you. Goodbye! M’dear." silence...The voice seemed completely unfamiliar but deep down she thought she knew who it was. Something told her that this was the end for her. For a second time her thoughts were interrupted by a flurry of movement. The man in front of her had drawn some kind of a spherical object from inside his clothes, a crystal orb, and was now pressing it against her forehead and muttering some incantation under his breath. For a split second the crystal orb lit up with a dazzling glow and the issued light caught the man full face. Those eyes were strange and mesmerizing, large eyes with round watery pupils the seemed to bore into her head, the nose was puckered up and the ears were slapped tight into the skull, and the strangest part of all- there was no mouth. Now what kind of a creature had no mouth?. But the shadow of a once human form still lingered. She cried out," You! Igor! You! What happened to you? What is happening? What are you say.....", the rest of the words she couldn't complete, for at that very moment she felt a terrible force drawing at her. She felt paralyzed and watched helplessly in horror as her body turned a glowing cobalt shade. She felt her whole body drawn from her being. And then there was a titanic burst of light as if a million suns shining in that small room. And then there was nothing....the envelope of darkness resealing its folds.
Amber woke up with a jolt, her whole body shaking like a jackhammer, sweat drenched her whole body and yet she felt like a sheet of ice was stapled to her spine. She got out of bed and crossed the room's length and stepped out onto the balcony, where a silent welcome breeze was blowing. Her mind was racing. This was about the hundredth time she was having this dream. Who was this woman that she saw again and again? And who was killing her again and again in that agonizing manner?' She swept a few stray strands of hair from her face. It made her feel sick.


6:30 pm
3rd January, 2004
47˚37'S, 150˚15'W
the Pacific Ocean

A maelstrom was frothing and pouring out of the heavens and the sea was a huge seething and boiling mass of darkness. Rain drops, the size of pebbles were hitting the tin roof of the cabin with a deafening smattering. The trailer wharf archaeopteryx was struggling in a half hearted attempt not to capsize. Sandler was finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate on the journal he was trying to write, what with all the racket the crew was making on the deck, added to the din of the storm. Then the small cramped writing table was not at a constant with respect to his pen. All this tossing and tumbling made his stomach do double flips. He was not cut out for the sea; he had only realized it too late. This was his first time so far out of coast and the idea of losing sight of land completely was not at all to his liking. He wondered for a moment if he would ever survive to see solid ground under his feet. Absently fingering the pen in his left hand, as was his unconscious habit when he was particularly in deep thought, he drifted to past events. Alan Sandler was an archaeologist and a historian, well known among his lot as the craziest, frenziest believer and seeker of the lore of the legendary Green Council. He was forty three and quite young at that. Medium build, with a square jaw and a wooden face gave his the pronounced appearance of a bulldozer. His colleagues secretly joked that, "add on a bit o' muscle you'll be a fine bouncer". His eyes were what spared this misjudgment, emerald green deep set in the skull, shone with the intellect that he possessed. His skin was tanned a shade of burnt sienna, owing to the years of digging and surveying under the relentless Sahara sun. Alan had done his graduation from Technische Universität in Berlin with a dual degree in Geology. He then moved on to Harvard for his PhD in Pre-Christian civilizations. It was during one of his field trips to Egypt that he blundered into a collection of forgotten and rotting old scrolls, salvaged from the ruins of the legendary Alexandrian Library. That was the turning point of his career and life, whether for good or ruins that remains yet to be seen, but the scrolls drew him with magnetic intensity, the portent of its contents unbeknown to him. He went so far as to learn the language of glyphs that the scrolls were written in. In fact he was so possessed with them that he learned the glyphs in less than a year, which is something. The concrete evidence of the fabled Green Council in those scrolls recorded in painstaking details by Gilgamesh's court scribe propelled his doctorate and career sky-high. His doctorate paper established that the Green Council was the first ever environmental awareness programme that forced the ruthlessly warring civilizations of early 326 B.C. to come together on a neutral ground. It was a singular most landmark event in the history of mankind, no doubt. The fact that back at that early stage of human evolution , people were aware of nature and it's disruption by human dominance resounded through the halls of U.N.O boosting Sandler's fame. But he didn't stop there. He had found a treasure trove of data and his enterprising nature found him another discovery. A mere tantalizing hint of a discovery which if found would have dwarfed every single greatest archaeological and historical achievement and etched his name in the halls of fame forever, above Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon. But he capable of doing it in one single lifetime, a question he realized too late, when he was already too deep in the quagmire, unable to pull back and no way ahead. The Alexandrian scrolls mentioned, in some places a delegation that presented itself at the Green Council. Most learned historians had by then taken any significant notice of this fact, perhaps due to the absence of its mention elsewhere in history. His only start was the mention of a certain kingdom of Pukhram whose delegation had chosen to present itself at the Green Council. The scrolls mentioned the kingdom to be located on an isle somewhere on the hitherto unchartered open seas. Another astonishing fact that the scribe wrote that could be very well passed away as a figment of imagination, that these subjects of the land of Pukhram were peculiar in their physical appearance. No deformities like pointed ears and snout nose were cooked up, only that the author felt that they were inhuman, abnormal in an inexplicable sort of way. The force of the author's words implied adequately the truth in them. What perplexed Sandler was why was there no mention of this Pukhram anywhere else in history? it could mean that they lived completely to themselves in secret and isolated from the rest of the world, which was not very uncommon among many self sufficient civilizations that thrived in that time period. Why then had they chosen to come out of their hiding to delegate themselves at the Green Council? Since nineteen years he had been on this hunt, and the deeper he waded into it the more he was appalled by the magnanimity of this Epoch revelation’s magnitude. But where was this Isle of Pukhram? He had never for once doubted its existence or the possibility that it may have perished in this thousand years but he had failed miserably to convince others. The few people that he had approached with his theory had laughed at his face. One had even gone so far as to say, "Sonny, there's no place in the entire solar system that we don't know of, let alone a small island on the face of earth!”. He didn't need to go to the rest of them to know what the response would be... "yes, I have come a long way," Sandler thought, "Nineteen years is a long time and I shall see it to the end if it is the last thing I'll do." With that ever blazing determination in his eyes, he bent his nose low over his journal and started scribbling furiously, this time unaware of the rocking ship or the sickness in his stomach. Maybe he didn't know it but the end that he so earnestly wished to see was not very far now.


16th December, 2004
Upper Muhall district,
Assam, India.

"Get up child, you're going to be late for school", her dad called impatiently from downstairs, “And I thought that, we didn't have to go through this every day." He said referring to her promise last Saturday about waking up early, and catching the school bus and not asking dad to give her a lift to the school almost every day. She buried her head deeper into the pillows, hoping against hope that it was Saturday and she didn't have to go to school, the same old dull boring school where no one seemed to like her. Last Saturday she had only made those promises to please her dad and stop him lecturing her about responsibilities and stuff. Speaking of studies, she now remembered that she was supposed to appear for a chemistry test that she couldn't afford to miss or better to say mess. "Yeah! Right, I am a mess. So much for the sleep and no preparation at all", she thought and got out of bed. The cold floor hit her warm feet like pine needles and the last remaining traces of sleep vanished from her eyes. Winter in India was different and here at this high altitude it was altogether unpleasant, a constant wind that chilled you to the marrow and drained all moisture from the skin. She put on a sweater and messed up her already tousled hair in the process. She never bothered to straighten up her hair, giving herself a tomboyish look. With much ado, she painstakingly went through her morning ablutions and dressed up for school and then scrambled downstairs for breakfast. Her father was droning on about responsibilities and punctuality. She took her eyes off the plate for a second to look at his face and suddenly she felt sorry for the old man standing in front of her. She had always been a troublemaker for him. At six she had tried to insert her fingers in an electric socket and had been stuck to the panel for an hour before anyone found out and rescued her. How she had survived the incident without any harm was known to none. At eight she had been introduced to the television and motivated by the cartoons, she had tried to fly off like the hawk girl and jumped off the balcony to land on the road where a speeding truck had braked only a few inches from her body that had miraculously survived the fall. Her father was almost on the verge of collapsing in panic and he had not let her out of the house for a whole month. But as she liked to tell her friends, she had never once cried. In the following year it so happened that Miss Elda, their housekeeper had slapped her for spreading mud on the sitting room carpet and amber had been angered so much that she had gritted her teeth hard and fainted on the spot. Miss Elda had run away from her in horror, for as the neighbours had found her, her body had turned completely blue in color. She had been rushed to the hospital but the doctors had been to understand or say nothing. She had remained unconscious for three days and for once her father had thought that he had lost her, but the blue color slowly faded and in one week she herself woken out the coma, all normal. Of course, Miss Elda didn’t work for the Loraine’s after that. And right now she was being a trouble again, for she knew that she was late for the test. “Dad can you give me a lift to school, please!”, she implored, “Just this once, please!”, perfectly aware that they were going to go through the same thing again tomorrow. Mr. Loraine had been expecting this obviously. “No, no no! I’ll not take you to school every day, I’m not going to encourage this”. Mr. Loraine replied determinedly, gazing fixedly at the table, not looking at her, as though if he did, he might lose his resolution. “Ok! Fine!” she said, changing line, “I got a test today and I’m going to miss it, all because my dad does not co-operate with my education.” He looked at her for a while, unsure what to do, then finally replied with a heavy sigh, “Okay, wait outside, I’ll get the keys.”
Ramón Aryan High school was located on a secluded 300 acres plot, a bit out of the city, placed in a valley of sub-tropical rainforests, bisected by the rapid waters of the Muhall River. The imposing Victorian architecture of the main buildings built solidly along the river banks, surrounded by equally old oaks, expressed aptly its everlasting tradition and heritage. The massive stone columns of its huge halls absorbed the fluorescent laughter and noise of teeming childhood into cold silences. The playgrounds and newer buildings, built farther out into the valley looked bright and cheerful in sharp contrast. The road that led to the school wound its way through two mountain faces, before opening up into the valley. It was one of the lesser frequented roads in that area, for there was not much civilization in the valley, except a few villages. Being lesser frequented, it also happened to be lesser maintained road, full of bumps and potholes that Amber was now experiencing as her father zoomed along just in sight of the school. Amber did not exactly dislike the school and yet did not like it either. The atmosphere was more congenial than the other schools that she had been through disastrously. It made her feel comfortable. Everybody in this school seemed to have taken her eccentricities for granted and there were only a few who kept ogling her as if she were a new species of monkey from the jungles of Africa. Most people chose to ignore her uniqueness or at least not make it obvious in front of her. Still, the fact remained that very few of the students were her friends, or wanted to be near her. Her friends, she had found out not very long ago that they were not friends but had come into her association just because she was exceptionally good in her studies and their interest in her company was purely academic. The rest of their classmates had named her friends as the Guild of Nerds, a group that was strategically important to the rest of the class but highly uncool and resultantly not interested or allowed in any fun-bound activities that the other students engaged in. Whatever her friends were, they were the only ones that she could hangout with and had therefore stuck to them ever since she had come to this school. The years of events ranging from interschool competitions, overnight projects and unauthorized excursions into the countryside, had gradually melted the cold façade that her friends had initially put on. Amber was happy with them, even if they happened to be little less than pale skinned indoor bookworms. She had not meddled with the rest of the students and they too had maintained their respectful distance. After all she was a classified nerd and none less than god in the eyes of fell students in the warlike situations of class tests and exams that challenged the unskilled warriors of the academic realm. And today’s chemistry test was no mean battle, considering her preparation was almost zero. Her reverie was broken as her father announced the arrival of her school. Without so much as a backward glance she dashed out of the car and through the wrought iron gates and towards her classroom just as the bell sounded. When she reached the classroom, the teacher was already handing out question papers and gave her a stern look before she allowed her to take her seat. She looked around herself, taking the world in. Some of them sitting near her heaved audible sighs of relief. She glanced to her left and was face to face with a large porky guy, with small piggy black eyes and stupid written all over him. She didn’t know his name but knew enough that the boy was the biggest bully in school and his cronies called him Buka. From the look on his face and the way he held his pen, she could tell that he would hardly know how many fingers he had on his hands. He had been trying to catch her eye, for as soon as she looked at him, he started gesturing frantically with crude sign language that he wanted to copy her answers and it would be good for her if she co-operated. Afraid to refuse she only nodded her head slightly and quickly looked away. She closed her eyes and tried to remember what she had studied the night before but her thoughts drifted towards the recent dream that she had had. Hesitantly, unwanting she let her mind slip back into the recollection of the dream, a part of her mind curious, searching, and urging her on. Another part pulling her back, warning her that this was not the right time and that she needed to focus on the test. But curiosity won and she delved into the fresh memories of yesterday night and images started flashing in her mind. Only this time they were a lot faster, whirring by so fast that she could hardly tell one from another or make any meaning out of them. Faster! Faster! With Lightning speed images flashed by, images that were not in her dream, images of things that she had never seen before. A woman crying over a child…….the apex of a volcano….the same woman climbing up a hill, her face blackened by soot and fire all around her……Lava flowing into the sea, hot molten magma quenched by the freezing water of the sea, with copious amounts of steam emanating from the surface…..white mist all around her, with no beginning or end. No ground no sky no hands no feet no body only a vast cloak of smothering mist….endless in time…..forever….forever. And just when her faculties were sleeping numb in the enchanting mist, the classroom swam back into view and the teacher was bending over her face and saying something, probably shouting, all distant, all so far and somebody else’s body that reality instead looked like a dream. And then all of a sudden everything came back sharp into focus with a click. “It’s okay, child. Sometimes people do overexert themselves before exams, I can understand, the teacher was saying, “but you have got only fifteen minutes left and I can’t give you extra time because you were sleeping.” She hurriedly started writing. No time to think about it now. What was the oxidation number of oxygen in super oxide?

The sky was a clear blue stretch except a few stray clouds and an occasional flock of birds. The vision from this point of the cliff commanded nothing but the sky and the sky alone, with no trees or mountains in immediate sight. Amber always came to this spot, if her mind were troubled or if she felt disturbed. The cliff was a lone outcrop from the hills that formed the valley and hardly half a mile from the school buildings. Few students chose to come this way during recess. But a lot many could be found in the seclusion of the surrounding forested slopes, mostly in pairs. The top of the cliff was not very broad, a bare few meters wide on all sides, the drop, a sheer 500ft. Amber sat as always, sat on the very edge with her feet dangling, feeling the wind in her face with a melancholy expression on it. The test hadn’t at all gone the way she had intended it to, Buka didn’t look pleased either. She had hardly answered five questions when the time was up, how the hell did he expect her to help him cheat. If she had fallen asleep, at least he should have woken her up, instead he sat there like a dumb moron, but she didn’t expect him to understand. However Buka was the lesser of her worries. Right now she was trying to puzzle out what had happened during the test. It was not a dream that was clear enough. Then what was happening to her. What happened during that void, it felt as if she had been seconds into it and actually a couple of hours had passed away. Was she going mad? The same questions that had perplexed her the night before arose again. And she was afraid to even think about it lest she be drawn back into the void again. This time she concentrated her thoughts elsewhere. She couldn’t let this problem eat her up on the inside. She had to tell somebody. But who? She couldn’t tell her friends, they’d only get another excuse to make fun of her. She was adequately weird as it was. Dad? What about dad? He would surely understand, but he would be worried as well. Probably think she was sick, seeing things, would make fuss over taking her to a doctor. No, that won’t do either. But then who else? Who else did she have to go to? God why did I have to be left alone? Why did you make me so different? If only I had my mother with me. All these years I felt I could done without my mother, but now I need her more than I ever did. Hot tears welled up in her eyes and the more she tried to stem them, the more they overwhelmed her. A deep sense of sorrow engulfed her and clouded her heart and she let the pent up tension wash away freely in rivers of tears. There was solace in grief itself that had absurdly surfaced. Abruptly a hand grasped her collar and almost lifted her bodily from the ground. Buka! Anger welled up inside her. Extreme anger and hatred as she had never known before. Anger at this oaf who had no mercy on a girl, lonely, crying, vulnerable. No longer so! No longer so! She could push back, retaliate. An unknown surge of energy coursed in her veins. Her pulse quickened and her body trembled with the flowing power in her. But she couldn’t feel anything, see anything except her hatred, a fire that burned in her heart that threatened to smother her or else smote to dust the being that tormented her. And she let loose the fire, the anger, or it itself loosened, she couldn’t tell, not knowing what was happening or what she did. It came out of every pore of her body, an incredible burst of energy, blinding white light. Gigantic shock waves, travelling at a million miles an hour, shattered and swallowed everything in their path. Nothing remained solid within a mile of the blast radius. And then it was all dead silence. Even the flakes of dust remained still in air. The limp form of the girl was also still, not the same girl, a stranger, stranger to those who could ever claimed to have known her, stranger than any human.

Thousands of miles away, a figure, human figure, moved. Moved for the first time in three centuries. Awakened by the shock waves generated in a distant land. A pair of eyes pierced the pitch black darkness, eyes like red hot coals with a fire in them, fire that gave no warmth but made the skin crawl with fear and apprehension of the unknown. Fires of hell. The darkness surrounded him completely so that none but those fiery eyes could be seen. And from the midst of that blackness came laughter, laughter like the sound of bones crushing that had no sense of mirth in it, instead threatened to suck out all the happiness from the world. He laughed to himself for a long time, after a long, long time. A deep, sonorous voice boomed in that cavernous dark, “And so we come to it at last.”


16th December
3 pm
RAW operations post,
Eastern Command, Fort William,
Kolkata, India

There were six men in that room. Four seated around a conference table and two were apparently guards, standing on both sides of the only door that led into the only door that led into that room. From the looks of it, it was an op room of some kind. There were no windows to the room and the wall opposite the door was completely covered with a L.C.D screen. And there were several radar scopes lining the wall on both sides. But the men seated at the table were not bothered by those. They had their heads down together deep in conversation. Some of them trying to put on a calm expression, without much result. But Gen. Morrison didn’t bother to hide his concern. In fact he was frowning so deeply that his were in the danger of getting exchanged. The rest of his wooden face was impassive. He was doing not much of the talking, but leaning back in his chair and listening intently, all the time pulling vigorously on a cigarette, as if trying to vent his frustration into it. The young major sitting across from him seemed a bit overzealous, the kind that made silly mistakes in an attempt to overdo their jobs. The major was talking and talking fast, eyes wide, chest heaving, mouth frothing, nerves straining on the temple.
“The goddamn crater is more than a mile in radius! Charred black as coal. The river’s filling in fast but we managed to extract some data from the ground tests. What fucks me up is that there’s not a single fuckin’ trace of radiation. I mean what kind of explosion could be this big without being nuclear”.
Gen. Morrison was in his office that afternoon when the call came. Bomb blast in Muhall district, Assam. School blown up. A thousand dead, all school children. The entire incident was on news before it could be suppressed. The government was going crazy, the media already so. He had been called in due to his repute with terrorist organizations, and a report was to be handed over in less than ten hours time. He directed his attention back to the present. Gen. Harvey was speaking now,
“We don’t need to know who did it. This act itself tells who did it. We need to know how they did it. If it’s not nuclear, it is something new that has such a blast scale, maybe more, minus the radiation. God knows what new devil they have created, as if we didn’t have enough weapons already.”
The room fell silent for a moment as if slowly taking in what the general had just said.
“Someone’s helping them, this isn’t their work alone.”
This time is was Commander Glover who spoke, the Intelligence Chief, who unlike other intelligence chiefs didn’t give the impression that he knew everything. Instead he felt it was his duty to bring everybody up to date with his know-how.
“Most probably it’s some first world country that made it and needed some test location. One more thing, if the school was at all targeted it was a pretty good hit. The ballistic had to be launched from somewhere close, ICBM’s don’t have this kind of CEP. Altus has this region well under their range, but their radars didn’t pick up anything. That leaves only one possibility open. The warhead or whatever it was, had to be ground launched. That means, whoever did this is still running free, or right now making his way out of the country.”
Gen. Morrison raised an eyebrow questioningly at the major, who replied promptly,
“We are having all the exits sealed. There’s a red alert raised and the military police has taken over. Containment has been set up in a head block radius of 100 miles. The fugitives could not have gone farther in 3 hours time if there are any fugitives, we will nail them for sure….”
“The satellite pictures should be coming in an hour or so,” Glover cut in between “But personally I feel it is all a wild goose chase. The bombers would most probably have been a suicidal squad. Otherwise they would have had to set it half an hour ago to themselves escape from the blast. And a warhead this size that too with a timer device that too in a school campus would have been hard to hide for half an hour. Probably a truck or something...” he broke off absently.
Gen. Morrison sighed, at their efforts. All speculations and guesses. They don’t have the slightest clue. He said at last,
“What about the outside scenario?”
Glover spoke up again,
“NSA satellites were there first and they got quite a few shots of the explosion. Come to think of it, I doubt if they were nearby happenstance or were collecting test data. Whatever it is, they are blaming it on us. Pentagon has launched a press statement that we were ourselves carrying out some tests that went wrong and are now trying to cover it up. Goddamn it! We can’t launch a counterattack unless we nail the bombers. It’s the only proof that we have not done this ourselves….”he paused thoughtfully, “or did we do it ourselves?” He raised a questioning eyebrow at Morrison, who failed to take the bait, totally impassive now. The conversations in the room were interrupted when the door flew open and another straight-backed officer strode in. He only paused for a second, scanning the room until his eyes rested on Gen. Morrison and he marched straight up to the general, saluted and produced a folder that he was carrying, “The satellite images, Sir.”
Morrison accepted the file and dismissed him. He waited until the officer was gone and then he tore open the seal on the folder and leafed through its contents, passing them to the others in process. Some were real-time long shots, others Infrared, mostly of the crater after the blast. He couldn’t make out much except the blackened crater, the river snaking through it and the charred terrain all around it. He glanced briefly around to see how the others were doing. The major was frowning at the photographs that he held. After a few minutes he gave up, exasperated, “Nothing in here, the pre-blast images are not much help. There are hundreds of kids swarming all over the place. It could be any of them. These need to be studied closely. Sergeant take them to the forensic labs.” He motioned to one of the guards standing by the door. Glover and Harvey also gave up muttering among themselves. But Morrison was not listening; he had sunk back into his brooding, so deep in thought that he was oblivious of the cigarette glowing in his hand and the ash from it falling on his lap. The last strands of hope were flowing out of their hands. Something had to be done, something to show that they had everything under control. But the whole thing was a puzzle with no meaning at all. And then it struck him. Something was odd with the images, but he hadn’t been able to put a finger to it. It had seemed just out of arm’s reach but now he got it. He interrupted the sergeant who was collecting back the photographs back into the folder, took them from him and after a moment of shuffling and suspense, found out what he was looking for. One look at the Infrared image and his eyes widened in disbelief,
“Impossible! This can’t be,” he stammered losing his calm, “is this some kind of a mistake?” He searched their faces; all of them looked genuinely bewildered. He ignored them and picked up another photograph. This time a visual image and the tightening of his lips told that his suspicion had been confirmed. Barely concealing the excitement in his voice, he asked,
“Tell me, Major, were any bodies recovered from the crater site or the surrounding area.”
“Surely sir, you are joking. There was nothing left there after the blast. Concrete buildings were razed to the ground. How do you expect to find a body? There were none, sir. I assure you.”
“Is it so?” his eyebrows shot up, “Well, that remains to be seen. Tell me, what time did this blast occur?”
“Approximately 12:50 hrs, sir.”
“Good! There are two sets of photographs here, one taken before 12:50 hrs, another taken after. Now, look at this one here, taken before the blast.”
All of them crowded over the photo.
“Now if you look closely, you’ll find that there are two persons standing in this place, which if you compare with the after-images, is about roughly the vertex of the crater. One of them is a female and the other a male, judging by their dresses. Both look like students. If they are standing at the location of the blast, it may be that one or both of them had planted or detonated the bomb; however there is no sign of a warhead in the vicinity. This shot was taken hardly five minutes before the blast, logically; anyone visible in this shot should not have survived the blast, least of all these two. Right? Now look at this IR image here that was taken about ten minutes after the blast. Look at this white dot, almost at the centre of the crater. A white signature on the IR means a living thing. Here it is big enough to be a human. Now, look at this shot and tell me, how you explain this.” he said, tossing a photograph towards the major. The photograph was a close enough shot of the crater with nothing much else in view. The crater itself was coal black and hazy due to the intense dust in the air. In the middle of the crater, almost unnoticeable, obscured except to the keenest eye, was a body. Unmistakably a human body, probably that of a woman.


16th December,
Somewhere in Assam

The sun had gone past the horizon long ago and it was completely dark. So dark, that it was almost impossible to find one's way through the jungle. The growth overhead, so thick that the trees blotted the sky, obstructing any possible light. And there was this oppressive silence all around, save the sounds of the jungle which made the quiet rawer. The legendary feeling of being watched haunted her. But the oppressiveness outside was nothing compared to the oppressiveness inside her. Amber was feeling a terrible sense of desolation that was on the verge of desperation and abandon. Such was her despondency that she blundered on in the intense wilderness, oblivious of the path she took, clothes torn hanging like rags around her body that had not failed to notice the freezing cold. Bleeding feet pushed on and on, numb from the relentless torment of the rough undergrowth. Amidst the whirlpool of emotions raging her mind, only one surfaced clear and bright, "I have to survive."
She had been wandering in that forest for hours on the end, without being able to find a way out. She didn't even remember how she had landed up in this jungle in the first place. Cold and hunger threatened to consume her senses, but she pushed on not wanting to wait and consider the possibility of failure. The terrain told her that she was still inside the Muhall valley. If only she could find the river, she would be able to backtrack to the school by following the river downstream and hopefully reach home in time enough that dad didn’t not anything wrong. Though she had no idea how she was going to explain her appearance. She didn’t even know what time it was. What wouldn't she have given now for a warm meal and a bed. She tried to push these panic stricken thoughts out of head and instead replaced them with more unpleasant ones that further unsettled her. What had happened there on the cliff top, when that burly fellow had barged in on her? Everything seemed hazy...something was happening to her, she could tell that much. All those crazy dreams that seemed more than dreams, and then she kept blacking out in unusual manners. She had read about psychological traumas and personality disorders. Hold on!. That was it!. Now she needed to get out of this place fast or god knows what else she'd start considering. Personality disorders! Heavens!. That pushed her into redoubling her efforts. Amazing at herself, why it had not occurred to her earlier, she started looking around searching for a tree good enough to climb. Soon she spotted one that had a knot in it's trunk and a particularly low hanging branch. She leapt up and grappled the branch, swung forward and placed a foot in the knot, and heaved herself up into a fork in the trunk. Above and all around her was a swinging, rustling canopy of leaves. Slowly she worked her way to the top of the tree through the maze of branches, once or twice slipping on her feet where the peeling bark on the branches gave away, cutting and bruising her further, in the process. As her head cleared the topmost branches, the cold breeze hit her face like a damful of water, stinging her eyes and cuts. She looked around herself. Dark shapes of trees stretched away in all directions as far as the eye saw. Straight ahead, more than a mile away, a huge mountain covered the entire horizon, stretching in both directions beyond vision, fading away into the dark. Behind her the ground rose steadily to the right giving way abruptly to a sheer cliff face that outright denied any possibility of ascent. She realized she had made her way through a gap in the block mountain unknowingly, and the only accessible route behind her was through the same gap in the range, if she needed to backtrack. Looking ahead she identified a gap in the tree line, not further than half a mile ahead straight as an arrow. The gap continued parallel to the distant mountain face. An elongated gap in the tree line? What kind of clearing that would be? A road or a river! In this case most likely the Muhall River coming downstream. She chuckled at her own brilliance. All she needed now was to go downhill and she'd definitely end up on the riverbank. From what little astronomy she knew, she figured out that the zenith lay perpendicular to the direction of the river. This meant that the muhall valley lay to her right, beyond the hills that she had just come across. All she had to do now was to go downhill until she ended up at the riverbank and then follow it downstream. This would eventually lead her to the school, where she would manage some help. The climb down the tree proved to be tougher than the climb upwards, considering the dark and the slippery branches. She was obliged to put her whole weight on branches, she was not sure, would hold. She felt relieved when her feet touched solid ground, though her sense of direction was a bit disoriented, upon making so many snaky turns along the tree trunk in her downward journey. Assuming the general downhill direction, she started out once again. It must have been an hour but it felt like years, by the time she made it to the river, walking on and on. First it was the sound of rushing water that she heard, the rapids foaming and gurgling over the rocks. Urging her feet faster, she felt the ground sloping away beneath her feet gradually, until it was only pebbles and rocks that made walking painful on those bleeding and bruised feet. Presently the tree line cleared and the river came into view. It was not very wide, maybe a hundred meters across. The water, milky white with foam, sped along at tremendous speed. The riverbed was not much deep, but the current so strong that it made swimming impossible, that's if the near zero temperature wasn't considered, which would make the hands and feet of the strongest swimmer go dead numb in a couple of minutes. She would simply have to follow the riverbank downstream, until she reached some village or habitation. Now that she had come this far, she was not sure she was capable of making her way back to the school or home without some aid. Guess dad would have to do without her for today.
The ground was all rocky on the riverbank and she wondered how she was going to walk her way across. She decided on a small respite. If she were to walk a long way on those feet that already felt numb from cold. If she could only rub her feet warm, she would be able to walk. Thinking this she chose a particularly flat boulder sitting between two massive oak trunks and sat down on top of it, resting her back on the tree trunk and pulled her knees up to her chin to evade the cold. Immediately all the pain came back to her that had been pushed into numbness by the cold. With pain came warmth and circulation and the tenses muscles relaxed, the relaxation spread slowly across the body, till her eyes grew heavy. She felt as if nothing in the world could move her from that position and she would stay like that forever. And before she knew better she was fast asleep, chin resting on hunched knees. Somewhere a wolf howled mournfully, answered seconds later by another, not far away, but amber slept on peacefully without any inkling. A pair of yellow eyes blinked into existence in a gap in the trees, followed by another to its right. Then another, and another and another. A deep almost choking silence reigned, as if someone had suddenly muted the volume. The air seemed heavy with an unknown tension, ready to burst into flames. A shadow moved among the trees. A shadow that could be seen in pitch black darkness. And one by one the yellow eyes winked out of existence as silently as they had come.


7:30 pm
17th December
District Police Headquarters,
Lower Muhall, Assam

Norman Loraine sat in a small windowless room, wringing hands impatiently. he was not a very old man, about 45 years, but a generous amount of grey covered his short cropped hair and numerous wrinkles criss-crossed his forehead, giving him a very aged look coupled with a permanent frown. He was stockily built and tall that made him uncommon amongst Eastlanders. Right now his mind was a whirlwind of emotions. Amber was missing, if not dead, god forbid. Some terrorists had bombed her school and there were no reported survivors. He was in the yard that afternoon, waxing his car, when he felt the slight tremor. A faint boom came seconds later. Then it was all over the TV minutes later. He still found it hard to believe. Why would someone do something like that? Bomb a school out of existence. Thousands of innocent children dead. Amber, his daughter, he had himself dropped her to the school that morning. God! he had treated her so badly and he felt guilty for that. Still his instincts told him she was alive. He had felt it right then when he saw other parents devastated wildly in so sudden an incident, left with not even a dead body to cry over. He knew she was out there somewhere and direly in need of his help. He had rushed down to the school and what he saw there, swept the ground away from under his feet. Nothing of the school remained, but a gigantic pit that had been filled by the river. The entire geography of the place was unrecognizable. One look at the place and any idea of survivors vanished. Next he had gone to the police and demanded a search party be organised for any survivors. The officer had laughed at his request and refused point-blank to do any such thing because they had more important things to concern themselves. He had returned home dejected and helpless. He was so consumed in his own grief that he failed to notice an unmarked vehicle standing in the dark alley beside his property, or the two men loitering casually across the street. Naturally he was surprised when his entered his house and found three well suited men sitting in his drawing room. They showed him an arrest warrant in his name and methodically searched the house from end to end and finally escorted him without a word to the place where he was now held captive. He didn't know or care what it was all about. He was wasting his time here, if this was going to take any longer, he might as well have to make his own way out. Just as he was thinking along these lines, the turning of the doorknob told him that someone was approaching. He composed his features and schooled himself into forced calm. He had a feeling whatever was coming was not going to be pleasant.
“"Mr. Norman Loraine? Right", the man spoke up from behind him. The voice was cool but held an undercurrent of great restraint. He just nodded in assent, assuming that the interrogator was watching him closely.
"I am Commander Grover, of the intelligence department, Ministry of Defense, Government of India." he tried to throw in his whole 100pound weight into the statement. “You have been detained for interrogation pertaining to certain 'incident' that has occurred today afternoon at 13:30 hours."
He paused to see the effect of his words of his words on the adversary, when he received none, he continued, “Understand this Mr. Loraine, It would be in your best interests to co-operate with us. How long have you been in Muhall?"
"12 years, I suppose."
"And what do you do for a living?"
"I run a Lumber camp in the Bongia Valley."
"Do you have citizenship of any other country?"
"Where, and what was your trade there?"
"I was born and brought up in Canada. I worked on a whaler for 10 years, before coming to India."
"And why did you do that?"
Norman looked incredulously at the officer, "Why did I do what?"
"Mr. Loraine, Why did you migrate to India? Are you hiding here from someone?"
Norman returned an acid stare, "I don't why you'd imagine that. My wife died in a tragic accident and my daughter was traumatized. The doctors advised me to keep her away from anything that reminded her of her mother. So I decided to come and settle here in hope of giving her a healthy childhood. But I don’t see anything that has to do with us here."
"Just a minute, Mr. Loraine everything will be clear to you, I promise. Now, How many members did you say, are there in your family."
"I believe I didn't. It's just me and my daughter Amber," he heaved a deep sigh, "I mean it used to be. My daughter used to attend the Ramón Aryan High School and she was at school today when...when it happened.” he finished choking on his voice. Grover's expression changed for a split second and then his face was all smooth again. It was as if he had been expecting something all along and was surprised when he actually found it. "I'm sorry for your child Mr. Loraine; we are doing all in our capabilities to find out the responsible parties. But the local police tell me that you had stormed into a police station and demanded that a search party be organised for your daughter. I understand how you must feel, but surely you don’t think she might have survived." Norman gave him such a look that even Grover recoiled back, unsure what to say next. After a stretched silence, during which the two men engaged in a staring match. Finally Norman spoke up,
"You don’t understand at all or you wouldn't be asking such a question. As it is I don’t know whether she is alive or dead. A part of my mind tells me that she's alive, but reason tells me it is impossible. As a father I want to believe the former and do what I can. Put yourself in my shoes mister, and see what you'd have done."
Grover said nothing just watched silently. The man was a tough nut but he was cracking slowly. All he needed was a final blow in the right place. It was time to bring out his trump card. Slowly he pulled out a folded printout from his coat pocket. "Mr. Loraine I wish very much to believe what you say, but when I look at this I'm lost. I’m forced to seek, Uh! Other alternatives, unpleasant explanations. Perhaps you'd be able to help me here." He straightened the folded piece of paper and shoved it under Norman's nose. Norman glanced at the printout, frowning. Then he peered closer and his eyes widened in disbelief. It was the same satellite image that General Morrison had shown to Grover a couple of hours ago. Norman fought hard to keep his face smooth but relief washed over him like a huge wave. Amber was alive! But a thousand questions piled up into his mind. Things that had long ago been pushed out of memory came back in a flash, things that he had never been able to comprehend,, things that were better left unanswered, thing that he wished, had never happened. He thought he had gotten past those days of his life and it was happening all over again. Not Amber, not her. O god! What had he done to deserve all this? But this time he was not going to sit back and watch. He had abandoned his wife and paid the price, he was not going to make the same mistake twice. he would not desert his daughter, his own flesh and blood. His mind was racing and at the same time he was conscious of Grover standing there, watching him. Now he really needed to get out of here. He composed his features and turned to Grover with an expression of utter bewilderment as if the page in his hands was hieroglyphics. Now it was Grover's turn to be jolted. He had expected the man to confess and now he was changing track. He had been long enough in the business to know when a man talked and when he didn't. A now he had a feeling he wouldn’t be able to juice out a single word from this fellow. He would just have to wait for more proof to, to bring him in. Both of them knew very well from the beginning that he had nothing against the suspect and it all depended on what the suspect spoke. And the man had chosen his words well, a pro. He motioned the suspect to leave. Norman got up calmly as if he had been expecting to be dismissed so abruptly. Somehow he was not surprised at that. As the door closed behind him, Grover bit his lip. The mouse had escaped its trap. Outside, on the road, Norman was walking hurriedly, keeping deliberately under the streetlights, in plain view. He was not sure he had escaped the trap yet. He kept walking and turned left at the end of the block. He only needed a split glance. As he had expected, there were two dark figures on the deserted road that he had just left behind. He could easily give them the slip but slowed down his stride. He wanted to make sure they followed him, for now.


The bed felt warm, her hands and feet felt warm, though the sores on her feet still sent stabs of pain whenever they brushed against the heavy blankets, and it was that what had woken her up. She had no idea how long she had slept or where she was now, or how she had gotten here in the first place. She gingerly peeked from under the blankets, unsure what she would find waiting for her. It was a small mud hut with a thatched roof, such as was common in the countryside. A small window to her left streamed a brilliant shaft of sunlight, illuminating the dingy interiors. A flimsy red curtain waved gently in the breeze, draped over a low set doorway in the opposite wall that apparently had no door. The hut was jammed with items of day to day life, indicating signs of habitation though rather disorderly. The cot she had been sleeping on was made of bamboo but pleasantly comfortable and creaky. She noticed a pitcher of water beside the bed and suddenly realised she was very thirsty. So far the hut looked empty save herself and a couple of sparrows chattering on an upturned pot. She raised herself to a sitting position, and drank some from the pitcher, her throat still dry and raw, a remainder of the expenditure yester night, that considering she had slept overnight. The water was delightfully sweet, sweetened by particular tree nectar, the local folk called ‘mahua’. It had a pleasantly filling odour & made her head swim on the hinges. She didn't feel much strong and reluctantly left the warm cuddles of the blankets, to look around and find out how she had come by this strange place.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Your feet are not good to support your weight, and if you fall down I’ll be happy to help you back in the bed.”
Amber looked around, bewildered, to see who had spoken and ready to fire a thousand questions but as soon as she saw the owner of the voice, she went as dumb as a rock, mouth hanging open unabashed. The owner of the voice was a very young man, hardly old enough not be called a boy. The most handsome person she had ever, was standing in front of her. Mesmerized, amber could only gape. It seemed that the creator had sent on earth, his most perfect creation. She observed every minutest detail of his features and form, and there was not one tiniest flaw that she could point out. Taller than most men but not awkwardly tall, broad shouldered, thick neck and lightly muscled body that seemed to have seen the most efficient workout without the overdo of steroids. Skin as fair as the sun, lustrous wavy black hair falling into the eyes unconcernedly. Large black watery eyes that made the firm jawed face look softer than that of the most delicate female. But she could look at naught but those eyes that seemed to draw her into them as a black hole draws mass. She has never seen such innocent eyes, like a leopard cub that looked harmless but held an air of mischief but mirrored the purity of the soul. Amber had never understood how poets had inspired themselves but now she felt she could write an ode to this man’s beauty. Meantime she was not aware how stupid she looked gaping at him dumbstruck, until she broke out of her reverie when she noticed an amused smile on his rosy lips. Finally he asked, “What?”
Her awe turned into a frown, so deep, her eyebrows were on the verge of being exchanged. “What what?” she stammered.
This time the man frowned, “What is ‘what what’?”
Amber was not amused either, but she was not going to answer first. She demanded, hands on hips “What is all this about?”
The guy looked at her for a second, and then tried to produce a croaky laugh to relieve the awkwardness of the situation. Nothing happened except the sparrows taking flight in alarm. Then he proceeded on to explain himself,

“My name is Ramms; I work in the bamboo plantations here. Yesterday evening I was returning from the town with supplies, by the river when I saw you lying unconscious on the bank, so I docked my boat and started searching for your companions, I searched in the dark for about an hour, but when I found none I assumed that you were lost. You had a fever and your feet were bleeding. I didn’t know what else to do, so I brought you to my place. I am sorry if I’ve done something wrong.”
Amber was still finding it difficult to talk, but she supposed she should return the civility.
“My name Amber Loraine and I sincerely thank you for your help and hospitality. But I’m afraid I have to get back immediately. Actually I came on a picnic in the woods yesterday with my friends. My dog suddenly took off into the jungle so I chased after him and got myself lost, I tried to go back to our camp but landed up god knows where. Last thing I remember was coming across a stream, after that I don’t know what happened. Anyways I must get back home as soon as possible. My dad would be very angry with me. Do you know how I can get some transport back to Upper Muhall?”
“I’m afraid it would be very difficult right now. The river’s not safe for traveling. It’s running very swift since yesterday afternoon. And the nearest road is 50km away and the nearest village where we can get a cart or motor vehicle is 30kms away. It would be risky and difficult to travel on foot through the jungle in your condition.”
Amber was calculating fast- 50kms to the highway, 30kms to the nearest road, how far was she from home? She sagged down on the cot feeling tired. The momentary zeal has drained out of her. She didn’t at all like the sound of it. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, bed sick with a complete stranger taking care of her, even if the stranger was a charming, well behaved person. In fact, the more decent a stranger looked, the more alert one should be, for traps.
“Do you live here alone? Do you have a family?” She asked warily.
Ramms caught the undertone in that question and his lips tightened.
“Shimei will come shortly with some food; you may ask all your questions to her. I have to go to work now, if you’ll excuse me,” he replied stiffly and stalked out, not waiting for a reply.
Amber felt a bit foolish and wondered what she’d said to offend him. Shrugging to herself she got back under the blankets. She was not as fit as she had assumed. And who was this Shimei? Was she his wife? He didn’t look old enough to be married, though it was hard to say, people married quite young in these rural areas. Hold On! Just a butter faced village lout and now she was thinking about marriage! She definitely needed some sleep now.

Amber slept throughout the day and when she woke up, it was quite late.
She lay there for sometime drinking in the aura of a completely different environment that she had failed to notice before. The slanting rays of the late afternoon sun streamed in through the window, making motes of dust swirl in the air. A light breeze stole in through the door, ruffling the curtains. Nothing disturbed the peaceful air of this place. She wondered if these people were contended with their simple lives, and would she have chosen the same, if she had the choice. She didn’t feel like getting up. With a slight pang of guilt she realized how worried her dad must be, by now. Probably turning the policemen upside down to find her out. Well! He would have to hold himself together for now. She had lost her cell phone yesterday, god knows where. And even if she had it, it was sure to have been dead by now. She made to get up from the bed. Then she noticed that someone had left a platter of food on a stool by the bed, covered with a white cloth. There was an assortment of fruits, bananas, apples and wild berries. A big jar of milk, which was still warm, a loaf of soft bread and a dish of honey. The food in front of her made her realize that she not eaten a grain since yesterday morning and all of a sudden she felt voraciously hungry. Without much ado, she attacked the food. A while later, the platter was almost empty, except the milk. She hated milk. Her stomach felt full and contended, ready for another nap. She didn’t bother to suppress a burp. She giggled softly in amusement but immediately went pink in the face when she saw three small faces peeking in through the doorway. Shyly one of them stepped in, followed by another and then another. Amber was looking at three young kids, much the same age, maybe around ten yrs old and by the looks of them, brothers. The word troublemaker was stamped all over them. The three of them stood there in front of her, as if they had no idea, how they had come into the room or why they were there. Finally the tallest of the spoke, quite impressed with her, “Wow! That was a big one. Even Sam here wouldn’t be able to do better.”
Sam happened to be the one standing in the middle, a particularly beefy and thickset fellow. Amber went redder with embarrassment, unable to speak. But the boy spoke on without noticing. Obviously he was talkative and went on and on once he started speaking.
“My name is Han. I am the eldest of us. Next here is Sam and the youngest one is Jupe. But you mustn’t take him lightly; he’s even trouble for us. We live nearby with our cousin Shemei. She sent us here to see if you needed anything. I suppose you haven’t met Shemei. Well, she was here you were asleep, so she left the food and told us not to disturb you. But you must already know Ramms, well, since you came with him. Ramms is a good friend of ours, but sometimes he behaves like an oaf. Won’t tell us anything about you, except that you are from town, and your name is Amber. Can we call you Amber?”
Amber was about to nod her head in acquisition, but he hadn’t paused for a reply.
“Is it true that you are from a town? Are you Ramms’ girlfriend?”
Amber tried to smile and blush at the same time, resulting in a frozen, squinted eyed look. Han kept chattering on, oblivious of her reaction or the looks his other two brothers were shooting at him.

It had grown dark outside and Amber had lit a couple of lamps she had found. The three kids had stayed on to give her company. By the time Ramms was back, they were quite forthcoming and affable with her. They were just laughing on a joke told by Jupe, when Ramms came in; along with her was a motherly looking woman in her early thirties. Amber assumed her to be Shemei. As soon as she saw amber, she gave a kindly smile to her and came over to check on her condition. Ramms stood by a corner with a stupid look on his face. Jupe greeted Ramms, “Hello Dog, Where have you been today? Were you soaking in mud somewhere? Believe me, you don’t have to do that, you’re a born pig.” The three of them fell on their faces, laughing. Shemei shot them a warning look, while Ramms fidgeted on the spot, highly conscious of his disheveled state, peeking out of the corner of an eye to see whether she was looking at him, found that she was, and quickly averted his eyes nonchalantly. Amber was enjoying this so much; she had failed to realize that she was smiling, which didn’t go un-noticed. Unsure what to do, he scratched his head and left the already overcrowded hut giving the three brothers an I’ll-deal-with-you-later look. As soon as Ramms left, the three of them started laughing again. Amber was not sure she understood completely, instead she gave them a mock scolding,
“What did you do that for?”
If the three had been laughing earlier, they were now rolling on the ground, clutching their stomach. Amber felt a little foolish herself.
“Don’t take these scum seriously, they are mud themselves,” Shemei said in her tinkling sonorous voice, “here, take this salve, keep applying it on your wounds and bruises and they’ll heal fast enough. Why child! You’re so thin, don’t you townsfolk eat anything at all. I’ve seen town girls before, they were even worse than you. Why don’t you come over to my house, there you’ll be able to have a hot meal. What you need now, is to eat properly if you are to get well anytime soon. From what Ramms tells me, you were ready to run off today and get yourself killed. If you are in such a hurry to get well, it won’t do to eat like a sparrow,” she finished sternly. Amber tried to produce a chastened look and nodded.
“Yes I think I’ll do just that. I’ve been sitting here all day long and some fresh air would do me some good.”
Just then Ramms entered, washed clean, drying his hands in a cloth. When he was told of the proceedings, his face fell slightly, but he said,
“Can you walk with those bandaged feet? Perhaps I should make a litter for you.”
“Oh! Please don’t bother. I can walk perfectly all right and from what she tells me, her house is not far, but I’m afraid you’ll have to come along and lend a shoulder.”
The kids hadn’t noticed their conversation, and Shemei was busy packing her bundle. When she was finished, she handed Amber a thick woolen shawl.
“Here take this. It’s quite cold outside. Your clothes are almost rags. You can change clothes at my place. Till then, put this on.”
She wrapped the shawl around her shoulders. When they stepped outside, it was completely dark, but Hans was carrying a torch and leading the way, followed by Shemei. Amber hobbled on with Ramms shoulder for support. Jupe and Sam came behind them. They walked silently in a single file. Amber had to concentrate on the trail underfoot, so she had little chance to look around, where she was. The house was built on a huge flat boulder, jutting out of the mountain slope. The slope ended into a heavy forested valley hardly a hundred feet below. A glistening white river snaked its way through the valley. On one such meandering bend to the river, there was a clearing.
When they came closer, she could see the clearing dotted with thatched huts, some made of bamboo, others of wood and some others of stone and bricks. Fires were lit here and there and men sat huddled around them, chatting. Women stood by the doors of their houses, gossiping with a neighbor or watching the children play on the streets. Smoke rose in thin tendrils from the chimneys and the aroma of cooking food wafted in the breeze, filling her nostrils. Somebody was singing in the most jarring and grating voice, the singing so crude; it was not possible to make out the language.
“This is the village of Sleivh,” Ramms explained, “one of the oldest villages in these parts. This region is full of mountain tribes; each tribe has its own territory and villages. The tribals kept fighting among themselves for grain, cattle and territory. If a tribal from one tribe was seen inside the territory of an enemy tribe, he’d be instantly killed. The tribals have a very violent and bloody history. Sleivh was by an unspoken agreement, No Man’s Land. Sleivh belongs to no tribe and they never attacked this village. But refugees and outcastes from all tribes come and live here. Similarly, an outsider couldn’t come and settle anywhere in these mountains, for the tribe whose territory you’ve encroached will surely kill you. So outsiders could come only to this village. Hence this village has a very mixed and colorful history. But you don’t have to worry about tribals attacking you in your sleep,” he chuckled, “Nowadays the tribes have become extinct due to continuous warring and partly due to migration. They have become more and more secluded over the years. Business and industry has penetrated these deep and peaceful mountains. Today there are lumber camps and oil wells all over the place.” A sad look came over his face and he fell deep in thought.
“Who’s making that cacophony? Do you people all sing like that?” Amber asked irritated by the raucous singing disturbing the peaceful air.
“Oh! No! That’s Alsen; he’s a 1961 war veteran. When he retired from the army, he wandered all over the Himalayas and finally settled here. Now all he does is teach the kids to read and write, and in the evenings gets himself drunk and makes this racket. But no-one bothers. He’s a nice old man if he wants to be and he knows a lot more than the looks of him. Well, here comes Shemei’s house. I’ll take my leave here; I have a lot of work to catch up on. Be wary of Hans & Co. They are sure to play pranks on you.”
Shemei had already gone inside the house. The kids were nowhere to be seen, they had fallen back upon entering the village. So he helped her into a sitting position on the porch and made to go.
“But you…” she started and then bit her tongue abruptly. What was she going to say? That he was hardly staying around for her to talk. Why should he do that and why at all should she ask or expect such a thing. Was she falling for this guy? C’mon, her plate was already full. She didn’t need this to occupy her mind now. “Nothing,” she said, “Don’t you ever sit down to relax. You are always jumping around working and stuff.”
Ramms looked her straight in the eye, a piercing look that seemed to bore through her, reading her mind. He held her gaze until she fidgeted and looked away. “We, mountain people, lead a very tough life, madam.” He replied. The stress on ‘madam’ was unmistakable as was its intent. And with that he turned and walked away. She watched him go for a few seconds, then on an impulse called, “Hey! Ramms”
He turned around and looked at her inquisitively. When there was no indication of his coming closer, she got up and walked up to him.
“I didn’t have a chance to say this before. Thanks for saving my life yesterday, and doing all this for me. I’m so indebted to you; I don’t know what to say.” As it was, she felt awkward expressing her gratitude, without feeling it. To wait to hear a reply would have been more awkward. So she just turned around and went back to the house.
Ramms on the other hand stood there lost in translation, until he was brought back to reality by a jarring voice in his ear. He quickly disentangled Alsen from his arm and shoulder, who was both singing and sleeping all over him. He left the wretched old man singing to himself and made his way back home.

Shemei’s house was much larger and tidier compared to Ramms’. The furnishings were simple but comfortable, mostly bamboo or earthen. Amber sat down on a cot similar to the one she’d slept in, earlier that day, while Shemei brought her fresh clothes. It was a coarse woven gown of thick cotton. For her feet there were jute sandals, which were hand-woven and surprisingly soft, a relief to her bandaged feet. Shemei showed her to a well in the courtyard, where she enjoyed a while, washing up, using the bucket-pulley system. After putting on the fresh clothes and discarding the soiled and torn rags, that had once been her school dress, she wrapped the shawl around herself and sat by the kitchen fire while Shemei cooked a cabbage and onion broth for her. They talked about this and that among other things, for a while. Finally, Amber asked Shemei about Ramms.
“That poor boy has seen a lot in such a young age,” spoke Shemei’s voice from behind a cloud of vapor rising from the pot, “Ramms was orphaned when he was a kid, he knows little or nothing about his parents. I doubt he has a memory of them. They lived in some far off city. The reason of their death was also unknown. About 20 years ago a Northerner by the name of Hogan came to live here; with him he had a kid 2-3 yr old. That was Ramms. Hogan was a family friend of his parents and his only support in life.
But Hogan was a tramp, wandering from place to place. It was he who had built the house on that ledge up there. For a time we were worried the Ramms would also become a bum like his godfather. But then one day Hogan went out on one of his wandering trips, and never returned. When one year passed, I requested the village council to put the child in my care, which they were happy to do. Once he was old enough to take care of himself, he started working and living by himself in that house.” Both of them were silent for a while, Amber chewing in what she’d heard, and Shemei lost in the reflection of old memories.

The night was deep, when Shemei finally finished with her chores and sat down to her supper. Day- to-day life here was not as easy as she’d imagined, but she’d rested the whole day and felt fully awake and refreshed. The kids had eaten long ago and were sleeping in their room. Even the drunkard Alsen had stopped singing. Shemei finished her meal, washed her hands and feet, and sat down in the middle of the courtyard, spreading a bearskin mat, despite the cold of the night. In answer to Amber’s incredulous look, she said, “You ahead and sleep. I’ll take a while to meditate, I do this everyday.”
“Actually, I have rested the full day and don’t feel like sleeping right now. I was hoping I could sit down and just watch. I won’t disturb you.”
Shemei looked at her for a long time. Her expressions were unreadable in the semi-darkness, but her eyes were shining like little black beads. “Come here and sit by my side,” she said in the end, producing another bearskin mat. Amber sat down in front of her. Shemei took her hands in her own and looked her in the eye.
“I come from a very old family of Occults. Long ago, in a time not remembered or known, my ancestors were called the Readers of the Design. We have a very vast history, history that differs from yours. The true history of human civilizations to this date, which has been preserved in the safest hands possible. But now our kind has chosen seclusion and solitude due to the cynicism and skepticism that has bred itself into this ever-morphing human nature. But you are different from everyone else. Yes, you are very special, do you know that? You don’t look so surprised, now do you? But you are eager to know what I know, don’t you?”
As it is, Amber was having difficult making out meaning in her cryptic speech; the sudden focus on herself had unnerved her. Tongue-tied, she could only nod her head in acquisition. Shemei continued,
“Understand it this way; I’ve been gifted with extraordinary senses. When I close my eyes, I can still see each one of you with my mind, each human, each living thing as a tiny pulse of light. Sometimes it’s hardly there with a person, but sometimes it is as bright as a bulb, varies from person to person. But do you know what I see when I look at you? I’m blinded Amber, as if I were trying to look at the noon sun straight up. Blinding white light. Right now when I close my eyes, I can’t say whether you are sitting in front of me or to my left or to my right. I’m just completely surrounded by light; I can even feel you with my eyes open. I don’t know why this is happening or what is the significance of this. But this much I can say that you are a special someone. I’m not trying to scare you but I had to tell you about this. It has been troubling me all day long.”
Amber was now finding dry lumps in her throat. She was having difficulty, taking in all this. Nonetheless she assured Shemei that she had done the right thing, that she had herself felt sometimes that she was different from others in some way. Shemei’s spirits lifted upon hearing this. Slowly she slipped into her meditation. Amber watched her for some time then got up quietly and left. She needed some time alone to mull over things that had slipped her consciousness over the day, and had now come back in more troubling manner. She had hardly left the courtyard when she heard a deep throaty voice. Surprised, she turned on the spot to identify its source. What she saw chilled her blood and hackles rose in her back. Shemei was lying spread-eagled on the ground, face skywards. Her whole form shone with a divine light. The voice was coming from her throat, yet not her own. Amber was so shocked to see such a spectacle that she only half heard what Shemei was saying, which hardly seemed to make any meaning.

“When the skies all dark and the moon was new
The savior was born known to none but few.

The blood was dark but the bearer pure
Born in a land, not in tale or lore.

With her coming shall they die
The forbidden sin, she did not commit
They’d pay a price so high.

One close to her heart twice shall she lose and gain
To be one with it at last and endure eternal pain.

That which was hidden shall now be revealed
That which is unleashed shall forever be sealed.

When the skies all dark and the moon is new
The Messiah shall come, tear apart and make anew.”


3:45 am
20th December
Phuket Enclave,
Brussels, England

“Another two shots, minus the bourbon.”
The Barman glanced expressionlessly and started mixing the drinks. Sandler marveled at the professional ethics of these metropolitan barmen, to remain passive in front of such aggressively emotional and expressive behavior of people. They don’t give a shit, whatever you do, unless you do something offensive. And that idea would immediately go out of your head, once you notice the muscle-bound bouncers with their prototype Black Tees, standing in all corners. One of them was eyeing Sandler suspiciously, for quite sometime now. Sandler had had too many ‘shots’ this evening and was not sure how steady he was. All day long he’d been overcome by a dejected feeling, a morose sense of sorrow. And he had reason enough for that, his life and career was falling apart all around him, and what was worse, he could do nothing about it but sit and watch his own ruin.
“No! I’m not thinking about it tonight,” he said aloud. Then he looked around, nobody was paying him any attention. The barman pushed the drink forward on the counter. He had come here in hopes of getting rid of his disconsolation, but the bad mood had heightened with each passing drink. Still he took the glass and drained the shot in one go. He grimaced sticking out his tongue and squinting his eyes. He felt the rum burn down his throat and settle in his stomach. A slight feeling of nausea up surged, but he ignored it. He had spent so many years on the seas and so much time among sailors, that he’d taken a liking to rum. What would his harvardian colleagues say about it?

The Archaeopteryx had been his final chance, his last take at glory, shattered on reefs near the Fiji islands. But fate had played a cruel trick on Alan Sandler. He had survived to face his failure, his humiliation, ruined financers and loan sharks. He took another drink, after which he realized perhaps he had had enough for tonight. He decided to call it day; perhaps he’d be able to think more clearly tomorrow. He prepared himself mentally for the trip from the bar stool to the bed in his apartment, then raised himself with some effort and paid the barman, and then staggered unsteadily towards the exit, weaving a tortuous path through the crowd. The bouncers eyed him all along for any signs of trouble. To Sandler, the trip to his SUV in the parking lot happened in a haze. As he pulled out of the lot and started driving home, a thought struck him for the first time, “Maybe I was running on a wild goose chase all along and there’s no island to find.”
That was when he decided he was too much drunk and shouldn’t be driving. Even if he searched all his life and found nothing, he would not believe that the legend was false. The legend of Pukhram was his dream and his life. It wasn’t his ego of being wrong but his faith in life, that Pukhram still existed and would be found once again. That was the reason; he had not perished and had come back from the jaws of death unharmed, to stand one day on the soil of Pukhram. That was what fate had chosen for him. To spend twenty years of one life and effort on the basis of mere faith alone needed tremendous will power. The Archaeopteryx was his last meager crumb of hope. With its doom his faith was now crumbling, his will to struggle extinguished. Now, more than ever, he needed something to chew on, some substantial proof. If there was none in the past twenty, maybe there would be none in the next hundred years. If it were so, there was no reason for his existence, his life was meaningless. Silent tears glided down his face as he drove through the silent, dark, soulless streets of Brussels in the early hours of dawn. The warm droplets flowed freely, he let them be, they felt good. He had held them back too long.

Daylight illuminated the drawing room of Sandler’s apartment, yet he switched on all the lights, as was his habit when he came back home as if expecting to find murderers and villains in dark corners. He had driven around the streets for quite some time in his dejection, in hopes of getting lost but his keen sense of direction had turned him up in front of his apartment, without actually trying to do so. It was 5 o’clock in the morning and his head felt like a head felt like a 500lb slab of stone. He had a meeting at 9 o’clock with the Coromandel Shipping Company’s director Borden Cheyenne. Cheyenne was a pathetic blood sucking leech who had miraculously conceded on the lease of the Archaeopteryx. Today he was reporting back from the voyage, and had no clue as to what he was going to say. He went into the bathroom, filled the basin with cold water and doused his head in it and stayed like that for a full minute. It felt much better that way. Finally he toweled his head dry and went into the kitchen. He switched on the kitchen TV and flicked through the channels for the early morning news. As he prepared himself some coffee, he actually watched the reel that they were playing since the night before, about a bomb blast in some school in some third-world country. Sandler was least bothered. These kinds of things kept happening everywhere. That’s what the world was coming down to. People fighting over petty concerns when they fail to appreciate the intent of their being. He gave a passing glance to the report. Severe bomb blast at a school in India, more than a thousand dead and every brick razed to the ground, causes or origin of the bomb still remaining unknown. Surprisingly there was a single survivor, a school girl, who is assumed to be involved in the blast and is missing….and then Sandler dropped his mug of coffee that crashed to the floor, spilling coffee and china everywhere. But it didn’t register on his mind. What registered was the face he saw on the TV set, the face of the missing school girl from India. He couldn’t believe his eyes and yet it was unmistakable. Though he had never found any pictorial representations anywhere, he knew he would know instantly if he ever saw one of them. The color was unmistakable. Still he would have to make sure. So, Sandler sat down before the TV and watched three repeated broadcasts of the same news report until he could gouge out no new information out of it. Yes! He had found his proof at last, solid proof. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He was just in a state of extreme emotion, what we say the ‘hard to express feelings’ thing. But Sandler didn’t linger long on his ‘feel good’. This development changed everything he had been or was going to do. Ah! He’d waited too long and now. When the moment had come he was no longer able to contain himself. Time for some action. Fuck Borden Cheyenne. He picked up the telephone and called the one person who could help him best at this premature stage. His name was Code Sarron. Sandler had met him in Cairo in the process of his work in Egypt. A neo- robin hood, who worked under no authority and never hesitated to break laws. A genius hacker and communications expert, his chief skill and business was gathering and selling information, mostly confidential, at unimaginable prices. He had only two problems: he listened to excessively loud music and was a marijuana addict. But Sandler endured his eccentricities without complaints because he had saved Sandler’s neck quite a few times. On this particular occasion, Sandler braced himself for the moment when Code would pick up the phone, keeping the earpiece at arm’s length from his ear. As expected raucous music blared through the earphone before he could hear Code’s voice.
“This is Alan Sandler here. Turn down the music.”
He waited, tapping his fingers impatiently on the kitchen table. The cacophony died abruptly and he heard the familiar dreamy ‘hello’.
“Who’s this?”
“This is Sandler here.” He replied with forced patience in his voice.
“Hey dude! What’s up? Long time no see. Thought you’d forgotten me, huh. Heard you flushed that piece of junk down the hole. So what’s next now? Need a new boat?”

“Shut up and listen”, said Sandler irritated, “I have got something new. Can you spare some time? Tell me when you are free. I need to get some information on a person”
“Didn’t need to ask, man. Come over to ma place. We’ll find out what we can. By the way, what’s this about ‘a person’?”
“Can’t say now. Will tell when I there. I’ll there in an hour.”
“Okay. See ya then.”
Sandler hung up. A few seconds with Code and his headache was coming back on. He didn’t know how much time he had in his hands but his ground crew was dependable and the best that could be found. All freaks and oddballs with their own eccentricities. But they all had two things in common, they were good at their trades and they were all loyal to Sandler. He was calculating fast. Boris would come in later so would Jack. But the Wheeler brothers were the ones he always kept at hand. So he called them up, but there was no response on the number that they used for secure communications, so he left a message for them to call back ASAP. Sandler shaved for the first time in a month and the thick stub left his cheek reluctantly and painfully. He then took a shower and dressed in best business suit. All his important information and data, he kept in his palm frond so he never left home without it. He strapped it on his left wrist as was his habit, and left his apartment. He would come back later to pack. He wasn’t exactly hurrying, but a bit of haste was justified after waiting for twenty years.
Code Sarron lived well outside the city limits on a lonely sea cliff in a plush stone mansion, 18th century, built out of a single block of moss green granite and in very good taste. Under Code’s care the house was a sorry affair. Sandler drove up to the intercom by the mansion’s huge wrought iron gates and pinged. Code had been expecting him, the reply was instantaneous,
“I’m upstairs in ma bedroom, come straight over.”
The electronic gates slid apart to let him in. As soon as the tail of his car cleared the gates, they slid back shut with ultimate timing and precision. The laser detectors on both ends ensured that there were no unwanted intruders sneaking in through automatic gates. Code lived alone in the huge rundown mansion and his only employees were electronic gadgets. He operations were highly illegal and claimed huge penalties, hence all the security. He kept his surveillance and defensive gadgets in plain view which consisted of everything from CCTVs to state of the art Plasma film motion sensors to automatic machine battery to Helium-tube Burst lasers, everything controlled by his own developed AI. The house and its parent topography might have been considered a romantic’s rendition but for Code’s influence. He had added a few artistic touches of his own, what he called the ‘jingo’ look. The portico had been blasted apart and over the remaining hole had been constructed a huge demon’s head. The crunchy gravel drive led right up to the hideous monster’s lolling tongue. To enter the house you had to walk into the demon’s mouth. Code sometimes joked that he didn’t like entertaining light-hearted guests and this was his way of keeping them away. The sprawling expanse of the gardens was used up in some kind of plantation of chest high plants with needle like leaves that spread out in all directions. He had no idea as to what purpose they served, and why Code of all people, should engage in such an activity. Sandler drove up to the demonic tongue and walked up its length. He’d been through this door numerous times yet it felt like he was in some kind of carnival. The main entrance shut behind him silently. Compared to the outside, the inside of the house was complete chaos. A garbage can would’ve looked cleaner and ordered. The front hall was huge, one side of which was a glass window that overlooked the cliff and commanded a breath-taking view of the sea. The roof was luxuriously high and the sorry remnants of a fresco still remained in hazy clumps. Unfortunately the main hall had been converted chiefly into a Basketball court that Code used occasionally for party purpose and regularly for playing. A grand marble balustrade outlined the circular staircase that led up to the upper rooms. The basketball posts or the wooden flooring were in stark contrast to the imperial aura of the place, and if that was not enough, Code’s workstation stood in complete conflict, what with it’s array of hard drives and LCD screens and all kinds of electronic mumbo-jumbo. The place must have cost a lot, but Code earned a hell lot more. Though why he’d decide to live in such a old-fashioned place was a mystery. Sometimes Sandler found it a bit hard to cope up with his eccentricities, however the guy was amusing and more so, valuable. He hurried up to the first floor. All the doors looked same but finding Code’s bedroom wasn’t very difficult. There was only one door that was emanating noise. He pulled open the door and was almost thrown back out. A gale of putrid white fumes gushing out, hit him in the face, and the unbearably loud thudding stereo struck his ears like thunder. He almost choked in the smoke as it cleared out of the room. Slowly Code materialized through the smog, a reed thin man, with pale white skin and smooth black hair that flowed over his shoulders. His height was accentuated by his frail figure. With a sharp face with an aquiline nose and hazel eyes that spoke equal volumes of dreaminess and intellect, he looked like a misshapen nocturnal creature that had not seen the sun or fresh air in years. Sandler took his hand and gave him a warm smile in spite of himself. Code returned the same.
“Good to see ya buddy. Come on in and make yourself comfortable.” He gestured affably towards the luxuriously furnished room. Sandler took a seat on the couch while code handed him a beer.
“Yes, nice to see you too, Code. You haven’t changed a bit.”
“But you have. Where’s your beard man? It looked so cool on you. And these clean clothes and all?” he came closer, “Have you married someone?”
Sandler had lost the last remaining ounces of patience by now, “I’m sorry but I don’t have time for all this. In fact I even don’t know how much time I have. The lead I have is feeble. I’ve already told you I need to find a girl. And it had better be as soon as possible.”
“Aye aye Captain. I’m all yours to command,” Code replied jovially and produced a swinging salute in his lanky form. Sandler smiled, Code was always in good humor. Five minutes later Code was in his hot-seat hidden behind his army of computers and devices getting everything up and running. Sandler wrote out on a pad,

Name – Amber Loraine
Age – 16-18 yrs.
Location - Ramón Aryan High School, North East India.

And handed it to Code, who studied it for a moment and then sunk back into his mumbo-jumbo.
“I want every last scrap of information you can find on this kid. Leave out absolutely nothing.” Sandler emphasized. Code responded with a brief ok without taking his eyes off the computer. He studied the piece Sandler had written down and decided he wouldn’t need to peek on any classified Databases. So a lesser secure connection would do. He pinged on door-3. Immediately 500ms delayed replies started filling up the screen. Code smiled. Though he had used door-3 numerous times, he was amazed every time he connected and found that it was still working. Door-3 was a specially designed router that was hidden inside a bookshelf of the Virginia State University’s Central Library which connected to the WI - FI network of the university campus and transmitted data in the form of UHF signals that was received all the way down to his place in Brussels by placing numerous mobile transmitting amplifiers along the way. Jamming or tracking was impossible and the university’s network was a highly reliable ISP. The user account in the wi-fi network then connected to an incredible chain of super-fast servers and ended up in Tokyo before accessing the web. In short he was untraceable unless he announced himself by providing any sort of identification over the net. And Code Sarron with his calm and calculated demeanor was very apt at hiding himself. Accessing Information over the web is no big deal, neither is hacking into databases. What is crucial is the sorting. There is so much information available on just about anything, that it is very difficult to sort out what is useful and what is junk. This is what makes Google as Google and Code as Code. They know how to pick out the required information from the monumental pile of junk. Code worked furiously for the next few hours, completely engrossed in his job, oblivious of what else was happening around him. He hardly glanced up from the console, eyes flickering from one screen to another. The only pause in his work was at a regular interval of 5 minutes when he paused to throw the spent butt in the ashtray and light a fresh cigarette. Sandler dragged up a revolving chair and sat behind him, watching, trying to follow what he was doing, got bored and finally dozed off on his own shoulder, awakened of his own accord, got up and strolled around, sat down and shifted listlessly through a stack of RSJs, got bored again and raided the kitchen, prepared coffee and sandwiches for both of them, which Code took and wolfed down silently and again resumed his work. Sandler ate his sandwich while strolling about the overgrown lawn, circled around the plantation, decided to keep his distance from the queer, stunted little plants. The sun was low in horizon and a chilly breeze was blowing inland from the sea. Sandler decided to get back indoors and resume his dozing on the couch.

It was 6 o’clock in the evening and the house was all dark and the same Code working-Sandler dozing situation when suddenly the printer beeped into activity and started baling out at high-speed, all the information that Code had gathered. Code leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes while the printer kept churning paper. After ten minutes he got up, stashed the pile of prints in a folder and handed it to Sandler. (Who had woken up due to the increased activity in the room.) He studied the reports without any comment. His frown deepened with every turning page. Meanwhile Code removed all traces of his day’s work from his computers and then turned everything off. He adored his gadgetry as his own children. Every piece of electronic equipment was future generation technology and the total setup would have cost more than a million dollars. But then a million dollars was nothing compared to what Code earned by Information Black marketing. By now Sandler’s frown was gone and he was deep in thought with a amused smile on his face. Occasionally he flipped back to the folder through the folder to check something and then go back into his reverie. After a while he sensed Code watching him and bade him sit down. When Code was settled, Sandler started, “Well! You wanted to know what I’m onto. I’ll tell you this; I am onto something very big. Bigger than man going to moon and bigger than Edison discovering electricity. There’s no money in it though, not that I know of. You have to understand that this discovery hangs from a very fragile thread. I’ve been hunting a myth for twenty years now; searching in vain for some evidence to my theory. I’ve found some too but it is simply not enough to present the world with such an overwhelming theory. Not to this world where fraudulence is at such extremes that countless discoveries and facts are lost into chasms of cynicism and skepticism due to lack of solid proof. A premature exposure of my theory would be a total disaster for it, like the SETI programs. Why am I telling you this? To help you understand why, whatever I say in this room stays in this room. Beyond which I’ll put my trust on you.”
Code’s effervescent smile had vanished and he shifted in his seat. Only Sandler could make him uneasy with his professor type droning. “Ye know ye can count on me. Though you sure sound dramatic, man. What are ya tryin’ to get me into?”
“As I expected. Well! To the point if you say,” Sandler inhaled a deep breath, let it out and started, “In the year 1986, I was working on my PhD thesis. During my research I came upon some scrolls in the ancient Egyptian library of Alexandria. The scholars of the world had amassed all the information that could be, till then. Much of it is now lost. Well, that’s beside the point. In my study of these scrolls I came across the mention of a certain civilization known as Pukhram. However there has been no knowledge of the existence of this civilization elsewhere. I tried to bring it up as a potential discovery to my seniors and other eminent scholars. Most of them discarded this information as legend or false artifact. I on the other hand saw it as a golden opportunity, a chance to prove myself. All I had to do was search out this piece of history and locate some conclusive archaeological proof of this empire and it would have been my ticket to fame. But alas! This was not to be. I searched and searched the mammoth annals of endless human history, but there was no documented evidence that could be considered conclusive. So I turned down every mountain and every rock on the face of earth for some archaeological remnant. I won’t deny that I found something, but my first five years was a complete wild goose chase. I got nothing, for my quest was ambitious and unscholarly. It took me five years of wandering to realize the mission of my life and I have pursued it to this day. The first hint I found, was in the most unlikely place. A French monk, who had traveled to South America during the Spanish Colonization of America, had written volumes on his experience in the land of the Indians. The monk had spent quite some time among the Incan priests to understand their philosophy and beliefs. One day he was invited to the temple of a special cult of Incan priests who worshipped cat gods. There he was requested to interpret a very strange dream that their Oracle had experienced. The dream was described to the French monk in very intricate details who had documented it equally thoroughly. Now, it was a very illustrious dream and I wouldn’t go into the details of it. It was apparent that the Oracle had visions of the Cat gods occasionally but in this case he had seen some thing else, a vast assembly of creatures, most of them seem to be either mythical or made up by his imagination, but there were also humans. Only they had slightly bluish skin, not like our auburn or sienna skin. They had very subtle and elegant features, almost like some astral species, with particularly pointed jaw lines and long peaked ears. I was more interested in the location. The account mentioned only this much, that the priest had seen himself standing at the base of a huge volcano, that spurted lava and gas occasionally. The volcanic mountains must have been on some sort of island, for there was sea all around on one side of the mountain. The most promising detail was that there were two man-made structures on the island. Pair of black stone towers, on the far side of the mountain, was visible from a distance. The strange people who spoke to the cat gods seemed to come from that direction.
Now if you come back to my research on the Alexandrian scrolls, this mysterious civilization was mentioned only because it had presented a delegation at an International Council on Sea Trades, called by Gilgamesh-III. The people, who came in the delegation, were mentioned to be of very peculiar stature, much like the rendition of the Incan Priest’s imagination. A bit strange isn’t it, a co-incidence maybe. But I took up the lead and started searching on archaeological terms. I thought an island with an active or dormant volcano and two stone towers shouldn’t be hard to find. If you come to volcanic islands, there are many on the Earth, but when you wish to explore any ruins of human architecture, it’s impossible to find, for fresh lava sheets covers the surface every few hours. Again it might not have been an island at all but a peninsula maybe. So I searched every peninsula with or without volcanic origin. But there’s nothing! Simply nothing to suggest that there were some such unknown civilization. I was on the point of giving up when 7 years ago, I personally discovered the site of an unknown Mayan temple buried under a mountain of earth and overgrown with forest, in the Zaire basin in Africa. I must tell you that It was a discovery of considerable proportions, but I have not yet revealed it. In the pagoda, I came upon some hieroglyphics. It took me and a trusted fellow historian, more than a year to translate the glyphs, but when we were done, the results were ground-breaking. What was revealed was unbelievable. The truth of Earth’s history right from genesis to their time. Truths conveniently veiled under myths and lore, invisible to the eyes of a skeptic scholar, if revealed would shift the ground from under our feet. That Earth had served as a battleground for supernatural elements and human races, a war more terrible and magnanimous than any we could ever dream of, a war that threatened to wipe away life itself. Fuck You! Man, don’t look at me like that. This is not some science fiction movie. There’s solid proof to crack your ass apart, proof that I need time to accumulate and put forward in an organized manner so that those sonofabitch cynics sitting in their oak-paneled offices could see the complete picture. The Arizona crater, the Aricebo depression, Bermuda Triangle, Werner Drift Theory, Big Bang, Nuclear Physics all of it is some lame concocted story that doesn’t ever come halfway near the truth. We have been groping and fumbling like lost children in the darkness. This is why I haven’t yet come forward with my discoveries. The truth is so monumental that most of us would be relieved to slip back into comfortable denial. I don’t intend to come forward unless I get the total truth…..” He trailed off into silent retrospection. Code was silent too, trying to digest what all he had heard and trying to reason, whether Sandler was mad or the rest of the world.

“That was all seven years ago,” Sandler was on again, “and these seven years have been the darkest in my life. Failures after failures, so very frustrated, being so near the end, I was on the verge of committing suicide, when I hit the jackpot. Or rather you hit it for me. This is it.” He tossed a printout towards Code. Code picked it up. It was a group photograph of the girl he was running the search on. He knew the picture, he had downloaded it. But Sandler had outlined the girl’s jaw line, the ears, and the slant of the eyes with a pen. Her color was bluish than the girl on her left but not distinguishably so, only when observed keenly. That was why Code had failed to notice this peculiarity before. He didn’t look up but he could feel Sandler’s eyes burning into him.


8:30 pm
20th December
Loraine Estate
Upper Muhall

Norman moved silently in the shadows, as silent as could be possible, while shaking horribly with cold. He was not worried about being seen by anybody, he was worried about being seen by ‘anything’. The ‘anybody’ he knew was a lone RAW agent, and nobody else for a mile around. The dimwit was posing as a Naga hermit, camping directly across his front door, but the fucker was nowhere near tracking Norman Loraine, Ex-operations chief, Seal-6 Canadian Rangers. Ten years, he had served the Canadian Army, leading an elite Counter-Strike squad, which had never been seen or known to be in action. He had the perfect alibi of a whaler. In fact he had been actually a whaler, before he joined the army. Ten years of selfless service, ten years of spotless record, until the ill fated extraction mission in the French Pyrenees in the March 1980. It was then he had met Sarah. He still remembered the moment when he had seen her for the first time, the moment when he stopped thinking sense. He had been in the fool’s paradise all the while, but he never regretted a moment of it. Two months later, his resignation had shocked everyone in his regiment. They had married and quietly retired to a lumber camp near the Alaska border. Amber was born a year later. He had thought he had left the ugly world behind and was hyperventilating into peaceful Ether. But a couple of years passed and he was dragged out of his Ether and things started happening, and before he could feel solid ground, he had lost Sarah. Amber was shelled, so was he. They had migrated to a remote world, his peaceful Ether, to escape the pain. And just as he thought he passed into it, the ugly world was pulling him back again. He had made the same mistake twice. There is no Ether, just the ugly world. But this time he won’t think twice before bathing in blood. He had lost his wife; he was not going to lose his daughter. In any case, it was clear Norman had not lost his touch. It would take a hundred ‘anybodys’ to track him down on his own grounds. He was not so sure about the ‘anything’, which happened to be the MILSAT array, a group of military remote sensing satellites that had been put into orbit in the recent years, for RAW’s perusal, equipped to the boot for high- tech surveillance, which included Thermal cameras, which was why he had been forced to take a sedative to lower his body temperature, resulting in a horribly uncontrollable shaking. He was not sure how much effective his method had been, so he was keeping as much cover as he could find. He climbed over the garden wall silently, straining himself as less as possible, not to generate any heat in the muscles. Then hid behind a flower bed and sat down. He didn’t bother with the boot prints. He would be long done with this place by the time they found out boot prints. He checked his watch. 8:32 pm. plenty of time left, no need to hurry and make mistakes.

Yester night Norman had been released after being interrogated by Commander Grover. He had made his way back home, very much conscious of the two agents tailing him. The past 24 hrs he had remained extremely careful not to make them suspicious. All night he sat awake in the dark house sizing up his plan and Modus Operandi. In the morning two had come down to one. He spent several minutes trying to find out where the other was, but gave up after some time. He went about his day to day activities. At 10 am he came out with shopping bags and walked down to the market. Soon there were two agents tailing him. He was able to give them the slip in the market. Cool logic had to be applied. From his interrogation yesterday he could tell this much. He was the secondary suspect and Amber was their primary suspect. They would first take him in and try to reach Amber through him. In any case he wouldn’t be able to help Amber, if he couldn’t help himself first. If he went underground, Grover would change track and focus on Amber. So he would have to act fast and reach her before they did. An agent was stationed permanently in front of the house and it had been thoroughly raided once and another was coming soon. And there was a probability, though a thin one that his little secret store-room under the garden shed would be found. And then things would get really messy. In any case he needed his satellite phone. He needed to call in support. He couldn’t do it alone not in such hostile grounds. If he were caught this time, there would be no ‘walk-free-with-agent -in-the-ass’ deal. Solid proof of terrorism that no embassy could deny. Also there would be no backup and extraction. A free lance, all out gamble. But his situation was equally desperate. He had set out with one thought: He didn’t know who was actually after his daughter, but whoever they were; they’d get it big time. He would not make the same mistake with Amber that he made with Sarah. He was on solid ground.

The luminescent dial of his watch now read 8:50. An unmarked van was parked in a ditch, a couple of hundred meters away, by a tea garden. He had estimated a minimum of three trips between the van and the Shed, to cart off all the stuff in his store. Each trip would take a minimum of twenty minutes. He should be done in an hour and be out of here without any mishaps. He made his way slowly to a drain that ran across the garden, passed by the backdoor, where it was covered with stone slabs. It then ran down straight to the garden shed, passing directly underneath it and went on into the next plot under the hedge. He slid into the drain wrinkling his nose. The murky brown water was chilling cold as well as foul smelling. He waited for a minute, immersed in the water, while the chill passed and his body became numb. He then started wading towards the shed making minimum sound possible while moving as fast as he could. After sometime he started feeling sleepy and knew he would blackout soon. He mused to himself; he was getting old and rusty. In actuality it took him only 7 minutes to traverse the whole length of the garden and reach the garden shed. He continued to crawl in the drain as it passed under the garden shed. Once he decided he was directly under the shed, he pushed the stone slab above his head and prayed the no tools were standing on that piece of the Shed floor. Apparently he had been careful enough not to keep anything above that slab and it slid away soundlessly. He hauled himself into the garden shed and sat down to catch his breath. A while later he had removed all the slabs from the shed floor that were covering the drain. Then with the help of two cement blocks, purposefully designed, he blocked the two ends of the drain coming into the shed floor. With a specifically designed pipe and pump apparatus he bypassed the flowing drain water, so that the blocked section of the drain remains dry. Finally with the help of two crowbars he was able to liftoff the concrete section of the drain bottom. Beneath it was a rectangular hole, a good two feet wide and several feet across. A series of iron rungs set in one wall of the hole led down to a small room. Norman climbed down with surprising agility and lit a low intensity sodium vapor light. The room was indeed small, hand dug in the earth and supported crudely by a set of haphazardly placed wooden beams. But it was both sound and heat proof. An incredible assortment of arms and ammunition as well as several other kits and gadgets related to warfare stacked and packed the room inch by inch. He immediately picked up an orange samsonite suitcase from a corner and opened it up. He rummaged through it for sometime, finally selected a zipped plastic pouch containing filled syringes. He pulled out one and removed the cap, then started pumping his left hand to transpire the artery and plunged the needle into it, gritting his teeth in the effort. As the sedative brought back his chilled senses he prayed that he didn’t catch Pneumonia. He placed the empty syringe back in the case and sat down on the floor for a few minutes, feeling the pleasant sleepy warmth seep back into his body. Finally he got up and changed into a more suitable garb of greenish-black overalls and then put on the heat suit. A state-of-the-art one piece thermal suit of armor that had been developed by the US army, that could evade any form of Infrared detection at any range, while maintaining the inside body temperature. It could be used in any terrain, even in space. It was built on the outside with a Kevlar type material and provided the best of camouflage. Slowly his body temperature returned to normal and he stopped shivering. Then he set about everything into large travel bags, even his discarded damp clothes. There was also a half ton wooden crate of raw dynamite which he couldn’t pick up all by himself. So he left it there and carried the six bags in his three planned trips, which were faster than earlier now that he had his heat suit on. On his last trip he booby trapped the last rung of the ladder with a trip detonator and placed it in the dynamite box. And climbed out of his rabbit hole for what he assumed was the last time. He made it to the van without any event, carrying the last of the bags, hauled them in the back of the van with the rest and checked his watch. 9:45 pm. 15 minutes extra. He was really getting old. He started the van and drove out of the place, out of Upper Muhall, for what he again thought would be the last time. He was done with this place; there was nothing left for him here. And he left with the satisfactory thought that he had swept away a truckload of arms right under the nose of RAW. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t know that the art of surveillance had improved significantly in the past 15 yrs. He didn’t know that Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) was a relatively new technology. He didn’t know that MR imagers composed images based on density of objects. He didn’t know that RAW had MRIs employed in their satellites.

Norman kept to the road for a couple of miles., then turned left into a jungle track, hardly wide enough for his van, and drove on for the next few hours. He had used this track before; he sometimes used it to reach his Lumber camp when the Highway was blocked. 50 miles deep into the jungle he left the track, and drove directly into the forest to his left. After going a hundred yards or so, a ramshackle log cabin materialized into view. It had been built by poachers and abandoned long ago after all game in this region vanished. This part of the jungle was barren and useless, hence uninhabited for miles around. Even the forest rangers didn’t bother to patrol in these parts, even though it was within the territory of the Kaziranga National Park. He parked the van in a dense grove of bamboo and unloaded the bags along with the supplies that he had purchased earlier. He forced the lock on the Cabin’s front door and entered. It was a huge hunting cabin, big enough for ten people to sleep in. Hardly any furniture was there except a rickety table and a couple of broken stools. A broken oil lamp and odd bits of camping material were lying around. He fished out a gas stove from his supplies and lit it, then made himself some coffee on it. While sipping the much needed warm liquid, he tried the satellite phone for a signal and was relieved when he received a good one. He placed an interstate call and was instantly put through. The phone rang for a few seconds before it was answered,

“Hey Marshall. Is it really you? I thought you’d….”
“Yes. It’s me. Norman.”
This time the response was a fraction second late, the voice uneasy,
“Wow mate! What a surprise. And why are you calling from this number. Is everything alright?”
“Yeah, it’s been a long time. The fact that I’m using this number spells trouble. Haven’t you been watching the news?”
“Of Course I’ve been. Don’t tell me you’ve got anything to do with it.”
“What do you think? Of course I don’t have nothing to do with it, but these RAW bastards have got me involved. Listen, I can’t be on this line much longer, so hear me out. Remember the time after I left the SEALs, and what happened, with Sarah and all?”
“That! Yes I do. How could I forget that?”
“Well, it has started all over again with my daughter Amber and she’s missing. There’s no other explanation why RAW would pin her for a terrorist attack of this scale. If you’ve watched your news you’d know she’s up to her knees in trouble. The biggest problem is, I fuckin’ don’t know where she is. I know this sounds impossible but I can’t do this alone….”
“Hey! Hold it right there, Marshall. You don’t say that to me. Man, I owe my life to you a hundred times over. When and where?”

At this point Norman choked his vocal chord. He had already put an enormous effort into bending down and asking for help to those who had been his one time subordinates. He hadn’t expected such a overwhelming response, and the fact that he hadn’t been embarrassed by pleading to his juniors, had embarrassed him. He just couldn’t find the right words of appreciation in time.
“Round up as many as you can, I don’t think many would respond, but if they do, pick up a dozen of those who are still in shape. And tell them all that there’s good money in it too. Gather them at your place latest by 24hrs. The job will be a regular scan-scoop-fly type; you know the terrain so pack your gear accordingly. I’ll call same time tomorrow. Good luck.”
“I’ll do my best Marshall. Good luck and take care, sir.”
The call had gone, better than he had expected. He only hoped the rest would think the same. He wondered whether it was selfish to put all their old bones in danger for his own ends. But these men were hardened veterans who had seen a lot more than such trivial jobs. But would it be the same after a gap of 15yrs. He would soon find out that. He unrolled a sleeping bag and snuggled into it. The gas stove he left burning. He had a feeling he wouldn’t be getting a peaceful night’s sleep for a long time, after tonight.

Vishnu Andrews sat lost in the imaginary archives of dusty stacked archives of old memories, for a while, until the hour gong of the clock brought him back to the present. He had a job to do and not much time to do it in, and none at all for his present lethargic demeanor. It took him an hour to rummage through his messy study to locate a battered old phonebook, another hour to browse through it and list the names he wanted to, which he again short listed. Finally he decided on 15 names, people who’d be interested and up to scratch. Old bones who’d love to be back in the field and strategically more effective than the trigger-happy kids these days. He had chosen the team according to their specialization and skills. It had to be a balanced team, specific to the job at hand and even the terrain type. He called them up one by one. It took him more than an hour to get to the end of the list. Most of then seemed eager to come. Some felt it was their honor and duty to oblige. Others decided the money was good enough to lure them out of their holes,. Still others, like Vishnu felt the cook pot would do for a change from their dull monotony. In total there were only two turndowns. Alex was going through an appendicitis operation; Bill was off on a honeymoon with what must have been his sixth marriage. Cooper, he hadn’t been able to contact at all, was off on a mountaineering expedition. Six of them would meet in Toronto, and fly straight to Delhi. Another four would come from Halifax. Kyle was in Texas and would reach Delhi by tomorrow night. Freeman was in Cairo and would be the first to report in. Vishnu didn’t feel like sleeping anymore, though he had a habit of going to bed early. He counted himself within the 40% of Indians who went to bed earlier than 11pm. He busied himself with other preparations, while the brain was dreaming back in his younger days.


When Norman called the next night, he heard a chorus of voices on the other end of the line. He had guessed as much, they would be celebrating reunion and recounting tales of old adventures exchanging drinks by warm fireside. He wished terribly, he could be back with them, but his present situation didn’t afford him to think of merrymaking. He asked for Vishnu was came on the line after a few moments,
“Yes Sir. I mustered as many as I could, at such short notice. There are twelve good men here sir. There’s Kenny, Freeman, Crespi, Stirling, Rav Moses, Reynolds, Quade, Hunter and Calvin. Three of the girls are also here. There’s Barb, Clare and Frances. Counting me makes us thirteen. It’s as good as the SEAL-6 team. Only cooper are missing“

“Good. Fourteen would do very well though I had planned on a lesser number. Yeah I’d have also liked to see Cooper. Anyways don’t waste any sleep over him. I’m sure he’s busy in his own world. Now’s what you’ll do. Take a domestic flight to Guwahati. Ensure all of you are on tourist visas or. Though I doubt they’ll monitor incoming traffic. Still be on the safe side.”
“Don’t worry about that Marshall. I’ve arranged Press ECNRs. We’ve also got some TV media gear to cover it up.”
“Very well. You’ll be able to rent cars outside the airport. Make sure you hire SUVs, there’s quite a bit of rough ground here. Take the NH-65 towards the Upper Muhall district. I’ll intercept you 3 hours from Guwahati on the highway. Also I won’t be expecting you before 6pm, so be late but don’t be early. Also ensure that there’s no one with or behind you. Any questions. ”
“None that I can think of.”
“Good, then see you all tomorrow evening.”
After disconnecting the call, Norman sat still, in a trance like state for a long, long time, thinking hard. He had thought of everything, but there was always some loose end. So far all had gone well. Tomorrow he would have to drive down to Guwahati. He would wait near a motel on the bypass and intercept the team on the highway. Guwahati was not far from Upper Muhall but he’d have to make a huge detour through old roads and jungle tracks to avoid the police check posts and roadblocks. He would have to start early. It would take 6 to 7 hours to reach the rendezvous point and he wanted to be there a couple of hours earlier than time. If all went well, he would have them briefed and operating by tomorrow night. Every passing day was like a whiplash on his back. He had no idea what his poor girl would be doing now, in what condition she would be. He punched in his palm in frustration. This was taking far too long for his liking.

Next day morning, Norman hurriedly prepared ate a cold breakfast of local bread, cheese and canned peaches. Then he packed up everything in his camp back into the travel bags and hid them. The gun cache, he wrapped in water tight water-tight plastics and sunk them into a nearby rotten bog full of mosquitoes and leeches. Anyone who blundered into this campsite would now know that it has recently been used, but by whom or what, there would be nothing to say from. He carried nothing with him except the satellite phone and a pair of binoculars and some cash. It was 8am and the sun was high up in the sky. He checked the tires, the petrol in the tank and the toolbox and started out. He was following the same path that he had come through, but in the opposite direction this time. The jungle was silent except the chirping of birds high up in the trees. An occasional squirrel or wildcat came across the path, but he drove on without any incident through the jungle. Twice he had to make detours, where the path was blocked by fallen trees, and had to halt a good number of times to check whether the ground was hard enough to support the weight of the vehicle, such that the wheels would get stuck in the mud. After a couple of hours the sound of rushing water met his ears. To his left, though the gaps in the tree line the sparkling white water of a young river was visible, not more than a hundred yards away. After a while, the jungle gave away into a teak plantation on his right side. On the left, the river was now neck to neck with the road, a good fifty feet drop into the water. Though a teak plantation was hardly noticeable from the regular jungle, one could see long distances diagonally along the ordered growth of trees. Norman didn’t need to see far to know that there was a village ahead and he should avoid it by all means. So he drove right into the plantation making a kilometer wide loop around the village, praying that the vehicle was not making much noise and there weren’t any wandering villagers on his trajectory. Villagers everywhere had an uncanny habit of studying strangers and outlanders very keenly and remembering them long, especially if the stranger was wanted by the police. He gritted his teeth as the van crashed though hedges, jolting over uneven ground and zigzagging through gaps in between the high columns of the Sal and Oak trees. Gradually the village fell back and when he decided he had put a good couple of miles in between them, he struggled back onto the road. Though the situation didn’t improve much, going was considerably faster on the foot path. After going on for another half an hour, the path opened up onto the Bongia Interstate Highway - 37. The highway was the only route that connected the Bongia city to the Upper Muhall district. The jungle track he had just left behind opened up onto the road a good 50 miles from the city limits of Upper Muhall and he was not likely to encounter any check posts. The shiny new expressway was a heavenly contrast to the jungle track and the going was both faster and comfortable. Consequently he found himself speeding along the bypass over Bongia within an hour. One kilometer out of Bongia, he left the expressway and turned down a lesser used road the crossed the interstate border without any tollbooths and highway patrols. The road ended up in Jamtoda, a quaint town in the state of Meghalaya. From Jamtoda he would be able to take another highway that would take him back into Assam and lead directly up Guwahati, with the least risk of all possibilities. The only reason he was making such an effort, was because of the containment perimeter set up around Muhall. The distance he was traveling now was more than three times the actual distance between Guwahati and Muhall. It was 1pm when he entered Jamtoda and re-fuelled at a pump. After a brief lunch at an adjoining diner, he took a short walk around the town square, smoking his way through a half dozen cigarettes as blood circulation returned to his legs. He had developed several cramps during the 4 hour long drive over the horrible broken road. Out of Jamtoda, on the smooth highway he managed an average of 60 miles per hour on the rickety old van. Still it was 5pm by the time he passed by Guwahati and came upon the motel where he intended to meet the team. It was already twilight by the time he parked the van in front of a tea-shop and climbed out of the seat. He walked into a clump of trees on the pretence of peeing. Once safely out of sight he switched on the satellite phone and dialed Vishnu’s cell phone. Vishnu answered on the first ring and informed that they were about one hour away from the rendezvous point. He gave Norman the description and numbers of the three jeeps that had been hired. Norman in turn described to him the light blue battered van that he was driving, which would be impossible to miss, once described. He hung up and returned to the tea stall. There he spent the better part of the hour sipping tea and smoking. At the end of the hour, he started out towards guwahati. He prided in the Seal’s understanding of distance and time and their precision in predicting on that. He was not disappointed this time. He had hardly gone a couple of miles when his headlight hit three jeeps speeding on the opposite lane, in his direction. He slowed down to read the license plate, but he didn’t need to do that. The fact that the three vehicles had pulled to a stop by the side of the road, identified them. He went ahead and crossed the lane into the opposite side at the first opening in the divider and came up behind them. He slowed down to an idling when he came abreast with the first jeep. The window pane was lowered. In the reflection of the dials, he saw the dimly greenish, ghosted face of Vishnu at the steering. Though he could see a lot of flashing teeth in the background, he couldn’t identify anyone in the darkness. There were no hellos and greetings. There was time for none. Instead he asked, “All rested?”
Vishnu nodded in reply. Norman explained to him the containment barricade around Muhall and the reason for them taking the detour, followed by instructions to stick close. He started out once again on the long hard road back to Muhall with the three jeeps tailing him. It was not unusual for four vehicles to go together on the road at night. In fact vehicles moved in large groups on the highway after sunset, for fear of robbers. They drove on, non-stop through the NH and stopped only once at Jamtoda where they refueled both the vehicles and themselves. Once they left the road after crossing Bongia, taking the jungle track, going became excessively slow. The toughest part was the detour around the village where they had to switch off the headlights and drive blindly through the trees. For someone else it would have been impossible to drive with what minimum moonlight was filtering through the trees, for someone else but the Seals had seen worse driving in their days. But they were forced to go at snail’s pace for fear of making much noise. Four vehicles wandering through the plantations at such odd hours would not only attract attention but also hostility from the villagers. It seemed an eternity as they crashed blindly through the trees. Finally when the village was left a mile behind and the sound of dog barks faded into the dead silence of the night did Norman turn back onto the path and switched on the lights. An hour and a half later the familiar clearing of the log cabin materialized into view and Norman himself heaved a sigh of relief. He had spent a whole day behind the wheel. His whole body was cramped and his butt was as good as waxed. The others were feeling the same way as they hobbled out of the jeeps and straightened themselves. There was a round of handshakes and well-being enquiries. Soon a campfire was got up and they gathered around it, warming their feet. Drinks were passed and toasts were made, but the faces remained serious. Norman studied them silently from a corner. If anyone was in a gay mood of being together after a long time, they restrained their feelings and respected Norman’s. Suddenly he realized that they were all silent and looking towards him. He took a deep breath. They expected him to speak. He started as best as he could,
“I don’t know how to thank you people. That you all have come at my call and at such short notice overwhelms me. I don’t have words enough to express my gratitude. I….” he stopped overcome by emotions and at a loss of words. For some time he stared silently into the fire. But he needed to talk business and thee men needed rest. So he started again.
“Things are going to be different this time. We are completely on our own here. There will be no base, no backup and no emergency Evac. Resources are limited and the smallest mistake can doom everything. You may know some of it but this is the whole situation. My daughter somehow survived the bomb that went off four days ago at her school. I don’t know how this miracle has happened, neither does the govt. But they have found someone to blame. Point is, these bastards have to show that they are doing something and they don’t have the slightest clue as to what happened. So they jumped the only lead, that’s my daughter. The major problem is, my girl is missing. She may be hiding somewhere or may have been kidnapped. In any case I can’t find her, neither can the raw. So they brought me in for interrogation. They got nothing from me so they started tabbing me. I lost them and called in you guys. What we need to do now is find my daughter ASAP and leave country. Gist is, the entire intelligence department is onto my ass. Surveillance and tracking technology has advanced a lot in the past ten years. If we are caught, our govt is sure to disown us, coz these Indians are very good at making political agendas out of anything. This job is more demanding than any we have faced before. Hell! I’m not trying to scare you guys but make sure you know where you stand before risking your lives. If anyone amongst you chooses to back out, he or she must do so now and believe me, there would be no hard feelings about it. After tonight there would be no turning back. You all know the rules of old and we’ll play by them.”
Norman knew the effect his words would have on these people. He had phrased them deliberately. Still he searched the faces for a weak link. He found none. Each one looked him in the eye, eager and challenging. He decided to lighten up the spirits a little.
“Good. That’s what’s expected from the Seals. We’ll make our move tomorrow 5am. Be ready for briefing by 4:30 am. Party’s over for tonight. Catch a couple of hour’s sleep while you can. And what’s that Kenny? Is it your tummy? I want to see you on the doubles all the time and Vishnu ensure he gets half his ration.” Everybody laughed at that while Kenny waved a hand adoringly on his belly and looked sad. Slowly the group dispersed in groups of twos and threes. Sleeping bags were unpacked and the sore Seals retired for the night.

Next morning it was drizzling lightly outside the log cabin, as Norman’s team breakfasted on instant noodles and coffee while Norman briefed them and issued movement orders to all.
“Vishnu and Hunter will dress up as locals and watch the house.” He unfolded a map of the Muhall district. “This is the house here; you two will take this path, go through the Tea gardens here and station yourself at this and this point.” He placed two crosses diagonally across the house. “There’s a RAW agent directly across the street from the front entrance disguised as a hermit. Don’t run into him. And Vishnu, did you get the cell phones I asked for?”
“Yes Marshall.”
“Good, you will carry one of those. Also you two will carry some low firepower. Regard it just as an extreme measure. Keep low and keep under cover. Fuckin’ Milsat’s trained all over the place. We have got heat suits which you’ll put on after dark. If you happen to make contact with the subject you’ll not make a move unless I say so. Any other development, you’ll report to Major. Stirling here. Any questions?”
“No sir.”
“Good. The rest if you will split up into two groups. Kenny, Freeman, Max and Reynolds will come with me. Remaining people will be under the command of Capt. Barbara. For today Capt. Stirling will hold the base. Barbara and I will carry the cell phones. We will check in with Capt. Stirling every 3 hours. There’ll be no other means of communication. One more thing before we move out, for visual identification, here’s a photograph of my daughter, Amber.” He pulled out his wallet from within the combat fatigues and took out a postcard photo of amber with himself, taken about a year ago. The photo was passed around. When Barbara took the photo, she exclaimed, “Oh Dear! She’s quite grown up and looks so much like her mother. The same chin, same oval face, same hair. Only the eyes say that this is not Sarah. She was just a baby when I last saw her. You’ve taken good care of her Marshall.”
Norman didn’t reply. He had a sad, dreamy expression on his face and was looking at his feet. Barbara’s face wilted and then her eyebrows creased in a frown. The frown deepened with rising anger. “I don’t know who did this but I know that they are going to pay for it,” she said angrily shaking her fist and left the room. Everybody was decidedly not looking at anybody else. Finally Norman spoke up, “Well, now that the briefing is over. Let’s get going. Max and Moses follow me.”
They went to the bog where he had hidden the bags of arms. Laboriously they dredged for a couple of hours and extracted the six bags out of the mud and took them into the cabin. Once inside, Norman removed the plastic coverings of the type-III Markov body bags, that wouldn’t disintegrate in a chemical environment for decades. Once the guns and ammunition were hauled out, the Markov type-III proved its worth. The C4 charges seemed dry. There was a wide assortment of warfare equipments. Norman spoke up while the others just stared in awe,
“Back in the days, I was a bit of a collector. I used to research the latest weapons and gadgetry. When I cleared out my hole I found out, it has become quite a pile. He pulled out a futuristic looking weapon from the pile.
“This is the Heckler & Koch G-11 assault rifle with a strap in shoulder pad. An electric 10000 rounds per minute, state-of-the-art caseless cartridges and an incredible bullpup design 300 round magazine. The problem is; full metal jacket lead cartridges pull this gun down to 15 kgs. Hence the shoulder straps and built in hydraulic shockers. Reward is a 6000 joule delivery and 1 kilometer range. Comes with a mountable Leopold-II autofocus IR telescope. In short the ultimate death machine ever devised by man. And this, will be your primary weapon, on this mission.” The Seals eagerly picked up the G-11s and started examining the rifles, except one of them. Calvin Meyers preferred his custom-carved old fashioned Remington-700 semi-automatic sniper rifle. When asked why he went around carrying the pre-historic relic when there were a hundred times better sniper rifles on the market, he would simply reply; Sniper rifles are all heavy and compensate movement for power and range. The Remington-700 is a perfect balance of everything; it allows fast movement and is exceptionally suited for sniping moving targets. And he had proved his words at all the right times.
After the Seals had finished adoring the sleek G-11s, Norman continued. For your secondary sidearm there’s a choice between Desert Eagle, SOCOM and VZ-36 Scorpion. The inventory has full scope for customizing your weapons. There are silencers, mountable flashlights, viewfinders etc. There are two types of bullets on the 9mm caliber. The usual lead tipped and the new gas-expanding bull-stoppers. For tactical gear, we have all kinds of grenades including these Thermite-Amatol Demolition charges and the plain old C4 wads. Finally the heat suit, which some of you may be acquainted with, is a 30 pound coverall, made of Kevlar type fabric, end to end bulletproof. Helmet comes with attached nightvision and throat-mike with a 5-channel microwave intercom. The heat suit is mandatory; as you very well know MILSAT’s is covering this area full time. And that was all about the gear. Now here’s your movement order. (He drew out a map of the valley) We will start from here. This is the school here. My team will start combing the forests west of the school and Barb’s team will take the east side. Any questions so far?”
“Okay, so what is your priority?”
“SEALS first, last and always.” They chanted in unison.
“Well that’s done it. You’ve got 30 minutes to prepare your inventory.”

It was not more than fifteen minutes later that the three SUVs started out from the cabin. Only this time, two went in one direction, and one went in the opposite direction.


The afternoon sun scorched the black tin roof of the shed and the inside heat was adequate for one to willingly drink liquid nitrogen. Vishnu was stuffed to the boot in the silly armor suit underneath his clothes and sweated profusely. Surveillance was a boring job and demanded extreme patience. Unfortunately he had been selected for the shit-hole because he was the one amongst then who could do it best. Aaron Hunter, his partner, was in a better situation. He had put on a TV reporter guise, complete with a FOX ID and a battered camcorder with ‘press’ printed on it. He was out interviewing everyone in the neighborhood except the trees and the dogs. Till now he had been able to unearth nothing. He had himself broken into an unused garden shed standing on a neighboring property, which didn’t seem to be occupied at the moment. He had a nice view of Norman’s house from the left side and also the RAW agent posing as the naga sadhu. Hunter would be positioning himself diagonally opposite the house, so that together they would cover the house from all sides. He picked up the binoculars and scanned the area in front of him. Nothing stirred except the heat waves off the pitch road. The silence made the shed more oppressive and stuffy. Suddenly he sat up straight, ears cocked. Did he actually hear what he heard or was it his imagination? He went near the door and pushed his ear against the gap. Yes! A phone was ringing, but where? He was not sure about the direction. He pushed a finger inside the cuff of his shirt and pressed a button on the hidden wristband.
“Come in Blue2, this is Blue1 on channel 3,” he whispered, the throat mike picking up the vibrations on his vocal chord and transmitting analog signals on microwave frequency. He waited for a response, and then repeated again. This time, Hunter’s voice came into his earpiece.
“Blue1, this is Blue2. What is your position?”
“Blue2, I think I can hear a telephone ringing from the house. Are you in vicinity?”
“Affirmative, I’m in position.”
“Can you get nearer and get a confirmation?”
“Roger that.” The line went dead. A couple of tense minutes passed while Vishnu tried to stretch his olfactory lobes, in hopes of hearing the ring, at the same time scanning the neighborhood with his binoculars. The naga sadhu was not moving. The earphone cackled to life suddenly and Hunter’s voice came in,
“Blue1 this is Blue2 on channel 5, do you read me?”
“Blue2 this is Blue1, Go ahead.”
“Blue1 I have a confirmation, the phone is ringing in the house alright. I’m at your 10 o’clock position. Do you want me to make a move now?”
“That’s a negative, Blue2, I repeat, Negative. Keep moving south and wait for orders.”
“Roger that.”
Hunter signed off and Vishnu pulled out a cell phone and called one of the two numbers stored in its memory. The phone rang for a brief moment before it was picked up and he heard Norman’s voice on the other end of the line.
“This is Red1. What’s your position Blue1?”
“The phone is ringing at the house. Waiting for your orders, Red1.”
“Hold your position, Blue1. Repeat, hold your position. The call may or may not be from the subject. In any case our religious friend’s brothers might get to know the subject. Do not make a move.”
“Message copied. Will do the same. Blue1 out.” Vishnu disconnected the call.
It is well known that zillions of conversations on mobile phones pass through supercomputers of Intelligence agencies, which search for ‘key words’ on a call such as ‘kill’, ‘RDX’ , ‘Al-Qaeda’ etc. Such calls are immediately flashed and they invite detailed attention of the intelligence agencies. Norman had been cryptic but the message had been clear. The phone call could not be received. The lines were sure to be tapped and any attempt to receive a call from Amber would only betray her to RAW. They would have to find amber on their own terms.

The short winter afternoon faded quickly into twilight and darkness engulfed the neighborhood. The phone had rung a few more times that afternoon but towards evening and throughout the night, it remained silent. Nothing of incident happened overnight except another a red clothed hermit wandered into the area, similar to the one already squatting under the tree. The newcomer stopped in his tracks when he saw the other one, then walked over to him. The two hermits sat together chatting animatedly for some time. Presently one of them left, Vishnu was not sure which one. ‘Change of shift’ he thought wryly. Well, for him there was going to be none. At 11pm Hunter came into the shed as stealthily as a cat. Together they had a frugal supper of sandwiches and roasted oats which Hunter had packed from a nearby diner. Nothing happened throughout the next day and Vishnu felt overgrown with moss and mould sitting at same position all day. Finally at noon Hunter relieved him for a short break. Vishnu discarded all materials on him that would make him stand out amongst the locals. He had decided to risk a visit to the local market to pickup the town gossip. Though it was difficult to separate fact from fiction in such sources, the information almost always proved useful. With his Caucasian origin his features weren’t noticeably different from the average Assamese Indian. He gathered the general direction of the town-center and marketplace by asking around. As he approached, the part of town grew more and more frequently populated. There were more people on the road, driving by or walking on the roadside. There were shops here, there and everywhere, little shops that offered everything from vegetable to drill-bits to mink cardigans. Most of their wares were displayed on strings, sticks or tables that came right up to the road. The owner’s name or the shop name could be seen on brightly colored billboards that hung or stood on every available vertical surface. Finally he entered the esplanade of the town center. This small section of the town was cluttered with auto rickshaws, Lorries and wagons all honking their horns loudly to get in or of the hustle. Hawkers sat under the open sun or makeshift tents made out of sewn gunny bags, all crying out their wares at the top of their lungs. Vishnu stood in front of a tea-shop and bought a cup of tea. The tea came in a conical earthen vessel. He sat down on a bench beside several others. He lit a cigarette and started sipping his tea slowly, extending the focus of hearing in all direction. Almost immediately his ears strayed into the conversation of a group of old men sitting across him. A tiny, hook nosed fellow, wrinkled to the bone, was saying in a hollow tone that could be easily overheard, “The shit’s in the fan. The police are turning the whole district upside down in search of the goddamned terrorists. So many arrests are made each day that lockups are bursting full. Hah! If these assholes could catch the terrorists, then they’d have done so…”
A paperboy passed by flashing the morning newspaper in front of his nose. It was not the boy that caught his attention or his words, but a small photograph printed at the bottom of the front page with a WANTED written in bold red letters on top of it. He fumbled with the collection of coins in his pocket for a while before he could extract the exact price and buy the paper. One look at the photo would have identified her. And if there were any doubts left the name below it cleared them. He quickly scanned the advertisement from end to end. There was a price of 1 million INR. This was bad news for them, for the kid. Though the bounty had been raised by the Muhall Police Department, had had a feeling this was directly handled by RAW. This also meant that they were getting desperate. However the bounty complicated things. The six zeroes on the front page were going to catch a lot of unwanted attention. The Marshall had to be informed immediately. He needed to get to a secure spot. He hurriedly left the marketplace but not hurriedly enough to be noticed. Agents were crawling all over the place like ants. Once out of the market, he walked on for a couple of blocks and turned down a deserted alley where the houses and shops were either closed or abandoned. He fished out the cell phone and was just about to dial when he heard a voice somewhere ahead. He couldn’t point it out at that moment but it was the Scottish accent of English that struck him out of place in that situation. He edged closer slowly. Whoever the owner of the voice, he wasn’t bothering being overheard
“…..I don’t care how you do it; I just want to reach the girl. A bloody hell lot is at stake than this fuckin’ bloody terrorist business.” The man was openly shouting now. Vishnu didn’t have to work his cogs hard to put two and two together. He could see the speaker now, he didn’t to see his features to identify his nationality. Obviously the man was interested in Amber Loraine. But the other statement made no sense. If he wasn’t interested in the terrorist business, then what was he interested in? Surely these people were not interested in the bounty. The prize money was big but not big enough to attract international bounty hunters.
The sudden lack of shouting brought back his focus. He barely had time to duck behind a garbage bin before the wooden faced guy stomped past him murmuring angrily to himself. Vishnu decided he was going to follow this guy.


“Aarghh!” Code Sarron spat into the cup after taking a sip of the instant coffee that Sandler had offered him. Code was putting last minute touches to the tracer machine he had built overnight. Broken and burnt circuits and parts littered the only table in the room. They had been camping in the two adjacent rooms in motel on the interstate highway since yesterday. Other than Sandler and himself, there were two gunmen with them. Mark Wheeler was basking in the morning sun, sprawled on an armchair in the cramped balcony of the motel room, which nonetheless offered a breathtaking view of the valley ahead, especially at this early hour of the morning, with the tea gardens rolling down the hills and the sun glinting off the fresh dew on the leaves, the mist just clearing around the hilltops. Code sometimes paused to savor the vista, though he found it hard to believe he was a nature buff. Ralph Wheeler was out scouting the Loraine house. He was to give the green signal for Code mission in one hour. The Wheeler brothers were professional hitmen, one of the best in the business. Sicilian by origin, they had no ties with mafia. Code had known them for more than ten years now. The Wheelers were set upon him by an American drug lord for swinging deals. The chase had been long and bloody and by the end, both parties had realized that they were facing a formidable quarry and so they called it quits. Since then they had pulled each other some favors from time to time. This was their first job together. Sandler had hired the Wheeler’s services of his own accord. And already Mark was encroaching on Code’s limited stock of ace quality grass. The 5th member of Sandler’s team was using the only bed in the room, his snores insufferably loud, face buried in the pillow. Lying spread on the bug riddled mattress, he was sleeping fully clothed. He was surprisingly ready for any kind of action in spite of his hazy demeanor. Dr. Roshan Belzam was a short, wiry fellow with a bald patch and
a springy gait. A renowned historian and professor of medieval history at Cambridge, Massachusetts, he had spent most of his life in the field and was as much at home with dangers of such activities as the Wheelers, though he didn’t look it. How Sandler had managed such a high profile scholar on this wild goose chase was a matter of speculation with Sandler himself. Sandler was standing by the door partly because of the congestion in the room and partly because he was expecting Ralph’s call any moment now, to go about gallivanting off in the blue. Code had finished on the tracer and spent the better part of the next hour cleaning up the electronic debris that had littered the room and testing other instruments that he needed to take along. Nobody showed any signs of activity during this whole period.
Suddenly Sandler started jumping on his balls as if he had an eel in his pants. It took him a minute to realize that his cell phone was buzzing. He answered with a brief ‘yes’ and disconnected the call. Everyone else was on their feet by the time Sandler had opened his mouth. The motel room contained nothing except Code’s gear which he had already packed up. Code and Mark slipped out through a back entrance while Dr. Belzam and Sandler checked out at the desk. They all presently met inside a white All Terrain Vehicle parked in the lot that contained all their gear and personal effects. It had been left unwatched for a minute while Mark left the balcony and came down into the parking lot. Code took the wheel because he knew the ways better. The highway crowded owing to the clear weather and busy morning hours. Hence the passed the two police check posts on the way with minor interruptions. Code deviated from the highway just as they were in view of the township. He took a dirt road that went straight for a mile and ended up in a ‘saguan’ plantation (a source of teak wood). As they passed through the plantation and came up on the other end, Code spotted a young fellow perched on top of a rock outcrop. As soon as the boy saw the vehicle coming, he started waving vigorously. He was the care taker of the plantation, whom Code had taken into confidence with a little ‘pocket-warming’ as they would call it in these parts. The ATV would be completely unnoticeable in this forest of massive lumbering trees. Just as the tree line cleared, the ground sloped downwards rapidly for half a mile, rose again for another mile or so and became level. The whole depression was a tea-estate. The level ground on the other end was the beginning of housing structures of upper Muhall. Somewhere ahead, at eye level was Amber Loraine’s house. According to Code and Ralph’s investigation, the girl lived with her father in this place before the incident. Now she was in hiding. Her father had been picked up by the police several times, and after a while he too had gone underground. Now if both of them were in hiding, who was calling whom. As far as they knew, the Loraines had no living relatives. Nobody else would keep calling all day long. It was probably the girl, trying to make contact with her father. This also meant that the father was nearby. Code plan was a snatch and run, though this would risk the attention of other parties watching the house. The other alternatives were time and money consuming. And those were the two things Sandler was short of. Code’s job was simple. He would break into house, tap the phone and then run for it while the Wheelers covered his back. Mark was already setting up his gear on the elevated rock outcrop from the earth. He had spread a canvas mat on the stone and had placed a sack full of soft earth at one end of the mat. Now he was busy pulling out gun parts from their thermocol padded notches in a huge samsonite case and assembling them dexterously. Code had seen photographs of this weapon and heard about it, but this was the he was meeting the monster in person. The sleek black M8A1 auto-sniper with it folding tripod and long, long barrel. With its 25kg weight, the gun was never meant to be fired without mounting. Its powerful thermal viewfinder could detect heat pattern though ten inches of concrete. The gun had a deafening boom unless silenced. 150mm cartridges, shoulder ripping recoil, almost no rifling and 40mm lead projectiles that punched through Kevlar like paper. It would be cruel to use such a weapon on a human target. From more than one mile away, Mark would be able too cover the south and east of the Loraine residence. Code produced his binoculars and scanned the open country in front of him, careful to shade the lenses from the sun. It took him ten minutes to spot the 55inch barrel of another M8A1 sticking out of the leafy canopy of a banyan tree. Ralph was so well hidden that though Code could see the gun partially he couldn’t see any part of Ralph. On the contrary, Ralph must have spotted him, for at that moment Sandler came up to Code waving the cell phone. The mission was a go. The phone had been ringing for a couple of minutes now. Code gave thumbs up sign to Mark, who nodded grimly and sunk back into his scope. Code strapped on his belt pouch and sprinted down the slope at a light pace, taking a straight path through the tea gardens. Tea plants on both sides of him hid him up to the chest. Anyone on the other side of the depression could maybe see him running down the first slope, but it would be impossible to notice him coming up the second rising slope. He reached the house inn almost no time though a bit out of breath. As he jumped clean over the low garden wall and came up to the back porch, he heard the distinct ring of the telephone in the silent environment. The back door was easy with a skeleton key. He found himself in a lavishly furnished kitchen. The owner had left in no hurry; everything stored and packed neatly as if they didn’t expect to be back for a while. There were no unwashed dishes and half eaten food.
Code hastily unstrapped his pouch and fished out the tracer. He unhooked the cat-3 telephone cable from the wall socket and instead plugged in his tracer’s lead jack. A green LED immediately lit up on the machine indicating the active port. He connected the other ‘lead out’ of the tracer into the now open socket of kitchen phone. To say simply, he routed the telephone line to the kitchen phone through his tracer. Another green LED lit up indicating that the connection was now ‘live’. He hardly had to wait for ten seconds. The phone rang up. Code took a brief glance at the tracer, and picked up the phone and listened cupping the mouthpiece, eyes darting from the tracer to his wristwatch, back to the tracer. There were two red LED below the green ones. One of them was now lit, indicating that the trace was hot. It was the other unlit LED he had his attention on. The call would have to be active for at least 30 seconds for the trace to complete. And no, it didn’t depend on the distance to the source. On the other end of the line, a male voice said a brief hello and (from the shuffling sounds) the phone changed hands. He glanced at his watch.
15 seconds more…
He removed his hand from the mouthpiece and breathed into the receiver. The tracer was programmed to randomly alter the pitch of his voice so that it would not be recognized by any human or software. As such a breath into the microphone would produce a cackling noise on the other end which would make the person on the other end feel as if there were some disturbance on the line and the voice was getting distorted due to static.
8 seconds…
The effect was as he had expected. The girl spoke frantically, “Hello, dad, is that you? I can’t hear you? Hello?” Code smiled in spite of the tense situation. It was the Loraine girl on the other end. His smile widened as the second red LED lit up on the panel of the Tracer. At the same moment he heard the front door smash open. The smile vanished. In a flash he tore the tracer out from its attachments and made for the back door when a lot of things happened at once. Glass shattered somewhere inside the house, the backdoor flew open and he found himself facing a silenced Colt.36. The owner was the oddest of men, a red clothed hermit with trousers and sneakers. Some had blown their cover. The man opened his mouth, but the voice he heard was of Mark’s, coming from his earphone.
“I’m taking him out. Move fast, there are two more approaching the house. ”
A split second later his opponent was thrown forward with tremendous force as if hit by a speeding truck. Code was already on the ground out of the way of defragmenting bits of lead. As for the hermit, his face exploded open, spattering blood and brains everywhere. Before the beheaded body even hit the ground it was struck by another shot, smashing the sorry pulp into the kitchen counter, shooting chunks of bone and torn globs of flesh everywhere. Code got up slowly and got out of the back door even more slowly. There was no guarantee that the two snipers were incapable of making mistakes. Once out in the open and in clear view of both snipers, he ran hard, real hard, and didn’t stop until he was inside the ATV, its engines running. Mark jumped in behind him and the ATV sped off instantly leaving a cloud of dust in its wake.
A minute later they were on the highway. One and a half minutes later, they rendezvoused with a rented Maruti-800 and Ralph joined them, leaving the smoking car by the roadside. Three and a half minutes later, they were through the two check posts and speeding along the Bongia interstate expressway. A full seven minutes later a high level alert was broadcasted on the Highway patrol’s wireless intercom.

Code fished out his laptop and once his internet connection was active, he hacked into the telecom department’s mainframe. He looked up the traced number in the database, which turned out to be a pay phone booth in a village named Kurd in the Bongia district. Sandler immediately produced a regional map and quickly located the village. Code studied the map for a while. The village was almost straight north of Muhall, about 100 miles away. All they had to do now was to keep heading in the same direction. Speed was all that counted at the moment. Code was beginning to feel relaxed after the tedious and tense events of the morning and he utilized the next half hour smoking a couple of joints (shared by Mark). As they sped by the motel they had previously occupied, a white Suzuki compact car started up behind them. It took the driver of the car a good 15 minutes to catch up with the ATV. He maintained a safe half mile distance between the ATV and himself. If he had chanced to glance in the rear view mirror, maybe he would have noticed three similar looking SUVs coming up behind him fast.


25th December, 2008
12:15 hrs
Somewhere in the jungles of Assam

Moranghatu was scratching his cheek distractedly, where a mosquito had bitten seconds before. The Left Liberation Front’s high command’s attention was primarily focused on the wraith like lanky and thin 15 yrs old boy, standing in front of him. The dark skinned youth, bare bodied except for a faded old pair of shorts, was gesticulating with his hands and speaking real fast, his big glassy eyes wide, his words barely coherent due to his excitement. Moranghatu was able to make out this much; he had seen a foreigner, a young girl, traveling on the river. Moranghatu mulled over the information. Foreign or even local tourists never came this deep into the country. Rarely scholars or prospectors penetrated these parts sometimes. This was a government declared Insurgency Area and he was the insurgent. People with no business didn’t come into this green hell. Another interesting information registered on his mind at the same moment. The Muhall police department in its 41 years history had announced only two bounties. In both cases he had an inside tip off before the Police went public. One was on his Uncle Sorabhatu, the founder and first high command of LLFA. He had collected the reward himself. He had a feeling he was going to collect the second one too. Of course the little girl was hiding in the bush from the boogeyman. There was no hurry though. He had all the time in the world to hunt her out. This was his turf and he knew it like the back of his hand. There would be no competition for him. Though there were other issues to be considered beforehand. Large scale bombings, bounty hunts, all this smelled of big fish. Further disturbing was the incoming intel from the police contacts. Heavy activity of military and civil intelligence was not healthy for his trade. What puzzled him the most was why the govt. was stressing so much on capturing one girl. This only meant one thing, that she was not a regular pay-and-hire suicide bomber but a vital link to the organization responsible for the bombings. In that he could maybe strike a deal with the big fish using the girl as leverage. A miner knows where to sell his gold. According to the informer’s description, the girl was making daily trips to Kurd from somewhere lower down the valley. He could pick her up publicly in Kurd without losing sweat. But if there were more of them at wherever they were camping, he didn’t want a blade in his back. He would have to follow the snake to its hole.
Moranghatu’s office was a small but tidy affair. Brick and mud plastered, with a tin roof and no windows, made it not much better than an oven that was heating up progressively with the passage of the afternoon. This room had never helped him keep his cool. He suddenly got up from his table, so suddenly the chair toppled backwards, crashing into the cabinet behind. He had been sitting still and silent for so long, immersed in his thoughts that the sudden activity surprised the other inhabitants of the room. The young informer drew back a few steps, not looking at him. With his huge build and several scars crisscrossing his face, Moranghatu had a formidable appearance and a commanding presence that had along with his other achievements, assured his position as the High Command of Eastern India’s most notorious terrorist organization, Left Liberation Front of Assam. He walked stiffly up to a corner cabinet and drew out a much battered regional map. He spread it out on his table as his men watched silently. He silently studied it for a couple of minutes and suddenly barked,
Everyone jumped again. Kalan, an unbelievably tall and bearded monster scurried in front of him and saluted.
“Prepare two contingents of 20 comrades each. Fall in at 7:30 pm for my address and march at 8 pm. Send scouts up the Koena River. I want full intel on population, terrain and possible resistance in this village ‘Sleivh’,” he put down a fat ugly finger on the map.
“Yes Sir,” replied Kalan.
“Pick experienced men. Carry Light weaponry and no supplies. Only water cans. We will be finished by daybreak. Well what are lounging here for you double ended maggot? Send out the Scouts now!”
“Yes Sir,” came a hasty reply form somewhere beyond the door.
If the foreign bomber was hiding somewhere in his region for the past week, there was only one place without his men knowing about it. Ages ago, his ancestors had by mutual consent, declared Sleivh as no man’s land. His uncle Sorabhatu had honored their ancestors and kept Sleivh out of his extortion routine. Moranghatu had not noticed or known this discrepancy until today. They had left the village have it’s own way for so long now that there was no saying what was to be expected there. ‘Hope for the best and prepare for the worst,’ he murmured to himself.


7 am
25th December
Bongia Dist, Assam

The white mist hung over the village like a huge blanket embracing the houses, in its ephemeral folds, shielding its sleeping inhabitants from the bright rays of the sun, as a mother holds a sleeping infant in the arms. Yet the mist, however dense it might be, cannot fight the wheel of time. Daylight was slowly claiming this small hub of humanity in the midst of the wilderness, as the mist thinned before her eyes. She held her shawl closer around her shoulders a soft, chilling breeze tried to steal its way in. The same wind was blowing the fog away into the mountain passes. The meandering river lazing around the sleepy village came into view. A dazzling band in the landscape, its surface reflected the sunlight like a mirror, the stillness disturbed occasionally by gusts of wind or flocks of swan taking flight. Silence, thicker than the mist, hung over the village, while its dwellers still slept on blissfully. From the rock outcrop where Amber sat, the valley down below seemed like a frame out of a fairytale. Sitting here, in this place, it was hard to believe the rough truths o f life that fate had flung in her face. ‘No! At least not now. For once, she won’t dwell on the madness of reality.’ She closed her eyes, facing the rising sun, drinking in the warmth and energy of its pure, morning rays. A whiff of soft breeze hit her, almost caressingly bringing with it the aroma of fresh brewed coffee. Surprised, she opened her eyes and looked around for the source of the smell. Almost immediately she spotted Ramms coming down the slope from his house, carrying two earthenware mugs, steaming profusely in the misty atmosphere. His natural, silky black hair shone in the sunlight. Amber had a momentary impulse to run her fingers through his hair. Although it had been six days since she had first met him, but she was swept every time she saw him afresh. He always reminded her of Da Vinci’s ‘Vetruvian Man’. Anatomically perfect. In these past six days she had come to know him better. Ramms had this child-like innocence both in his speech and actions that suggested his ignorance in worldly affairs of ambition, deceit and selfishness that were a part of human psychology in the urban world. He was like a fresh flower, preserved by nature in this hidden alcove of wilderness. She had tried, directly or indirectly, to drop hints more than once that she wished him to come along with her to Muhall and set himself up into a more advanced and meaningful life, but he had yet to take those baits. She could easily tell though that he liked her as much as she did. She had seen him looking at her, when she was not looking at him (that happened rarely). He made every attempt to impress her, one of them being a futile attempt to bully the three stooges, as she had named Shemei’s nephews. Once he caught Jupe scheming to drop a sack load of cow dung over Amber’s unconcerned head that resulted in the dung going over his own head instead and him chasing after Jupe all around the village smeared in cow dung. The thought made her laugh out abruptly. She checked herself immediately as she sensed Ramms approach behind her. She waited for a wiseass comment. It came instantly,
“It’s good to see you laugh. You always look so worried and sad, more so since yesterday. If you wish I could……” he trailed off, refraining from saying whatever he was about to say, handing her a mug of coffee, which she took with a frowning expression on her face.
“You could what?”
He sat down beside her, dangling his feet from the ledge. He answered instantly, “Nothing” and fell silent, gazing down into the valley.
A few minutes of silence remained, while each thought that the other was immersed in their own thoughts whereas actually both of them were hesitant to speak when the conversation had taken an uncomfortable direction. Finally Ramms could hold it no more and said,
“Amber, at the beginning you were so insistent on returning home and we had so much trouble keeping you from running off. That same urge was in you till yesterday as if you are only physically here and your mind is with your family and home. But since yesterday when I took you to Kurd, you’ve been so preoccupied and worried. I don’t know what’s troubling your mind but I thought I’d let you know that there are people here also, who care. I’ll do anything that I can do to help you. I suppose I don’t have any right to say all this but maybe saying this might comfort you.”
Amber’s heartbeat had increased with every word uttered and now it was pounding so loud against her ribs that she was concerned he would hear it or notice the paleness of her face. In actuality she had been so preoccupied lately with her problems that she had not realized her tensions were showing on her face and affecting people around her. She had hardly been able to think of anything else when she saw yesterday’s local newspaper, when she had gone to the telephone booth in Kurd to call her dad. Although most of the details were sketchy, she got this much, there had been a terrible bomb blast in her school the same day the ‘incident’ had happened with herself. The bomb had killed everyone at the school but since she was somehow alive, she and her father were now primary suspects of the police. Her prolonged absence had aggravated matters. But it didn’t bother her much that she had been branded as a terrorist and there was a reward on her head. Considering this past week, if someone told her she was an alien, she wouldn’t bat an eyelid. The problem was she had no idea what to do and by unfortunate circumstances, she was now separated from the only person she could trust. Automatically her thoughts shifted to Ramms, simple as he was, he had just confessed his love for her in his simple unknowing and innocent way. But she was not sure of it which could just be a fantasy, a momentary whim carried by the wings of imagination and lightheadedness, simple but impractical. In any case, just how far was he willing to help her? She didn’t question his morality or character; he had already saved her life once. Question was, when they faced the heat, what costs was he ready to pay for love? Some people had very idealistic and chivalrous views of romance, but life’s crude realities eroded away these fantasies. However he was the only option open to her at this moment. She made an inner decision to succumb to him laying aside her dignity and ego, though there were other issues that motivated this decision, but she firmly pushed them out of her mind. But she had a moral duty. She had to tell him the truth, at least whatever truth she knew, before he jumped into the cookpot. She drew a deep breath and started,
“There are things that you need to know,” she continued over the slightly surprised expression on Ramms’ face.
“You must understand this beforehand that my keeping it from you, was partly because I didn’t want to involve you in my problems, partly because I thought you wouldn’t believe me and mostly because I didn’t know much of it myself prior yesterday.” She then went on to elaborately explain everything starting with her dreams and finishing with yesterday’s disturbing news. It was as if an imaginary link had been created between their hearts and all the pent up worries and doubts that had haunted her and clawed at her conscience were pouring out and passing into him. All the while Ramms had listened without any comment or expression, with his head bowed down. She had fallen silent quite some time while he was still like that. When he raised his head, she could clearly see the response in his eyes. Deep sympathy and sorrow. That last cue broke the dam and she felt her eyes burning with silent hot tears. She didn’t know if those tears were of relief or sorrow or happiness or pain. She just felt an intense desire to cry and so she hid her face in her palms and broke into sobs. A pair of filling arms embraced her, holding her head against a warm chest. She didn’t have the will to resist and cried to her heart’s contentment into his shirt. They sat like that for a long time, bathed in the glorious sunshine.
After a brief breakfast of bread and fresh curd Ramms and Amber once again set out for Kurd in Ramms’ dilapidated boat. Ramms sat in the middle of the boat guiding it with a single oar in the swift downstream currents while Amber sat at the bow, immersed in her own thoughts. They had decided it would be best to contact her father through phone. Amber had vehemently opposed on surrender. What little ideas she had of the country’s political situation, she knew the TADA courts were merciless and trials were just a formality. Even if she had to surrender she would have to wait for some time for the heat to dissipate. In any case she couldn’t do anything without consulting her dad first. Contacting her dad was the most important thing to be done. So they had decided to go back to the village of Kurd which was the only place in this region that had a telephone. Yesterday she had tried the whole day but the phone kept ringing. She couldn’t understand where he was and why wasn’t anyone answering the phone. She guessed she had to keep trying.
They traveled downstream for about an hour, surrounded on both sides by a dense forest of oaks and pines. The Koena River itself was solitary except a few occasional boats traveling downriver like themselves. An hour later they reached the confluence of two rivers where the Koena met the wide muddy brown waters of the Muhall coming down from the north, in a gurgling and swirling expanse of white foam. Ramms skillfully maneuvered through the rapids, deftly countering the subsurface currents and presently they were slowly laboring upstream along the Muhall. Unlike Koena, the Muhall was a major navigation route and the river was speckled with dinghies and an occasional motorboat but the major traffic consisted of logger trains, floating by midriver, hurtling downstream so fast that anyone in their path would hardly have time to move. Ramms labored with the oars without any signs of fatigue. His bare back glistened with sweat that dripped down the cuts of perfectly toned muscles moving like machine parts. At another time Amber might have enjoyed the sight, but she was in a different world now.
The sun was getting hotter by the minute as they dredged upriver. Almost two hours had passed when they saw the small adobe of humanization in the midst of dense green wilderness. Ramms docked his boat amongst countless others like his, on the wooden pier that jutted out a good fifty meters into the river that seemed solid enough to have been standing there since the turn of the century. The village looked equally old. Amber and Ramms wove their way through a thin stream of fruit and vegetable vendors who were on their way to the marketplace under the noon sun, shading themselves with the loaded baskets that they carried on their heads. A garishly painted structure, one of the few that stood out promiscuously in the marketplace, announced with a still cruder signboard that it was a pay telephone. Although the marketplace was crowded, the phone booth was empty save the owner who was lazing on a vinyl chair behind a moldy aged table that held a couple of 18th century telephones and a billing machine. The owner looked up as they entered and motioned wearily towards the telephones. Amber sat down to the arduous task of listening to incessant ringing of the telephone on the other end of the line while Ramms strolled about the marketplace, occasionally coming back to check in on her.
It was at the end of the third hour when Ramms surprised her as he came in with a bottle of coke which he offered to her. Amused, she took the bottle, handing the phone over to the operator (since Ramms was not very good with these things.) She took a break, swallowing the Cola and massaging her left ear. She was so surprised when she heard the beep indicating that her call had been answered, she almost dropped the bottle of coke. The operator responded with a hello, and then a puzzled frown appeared on his face. By this time Amber had reached him overcome with anticipation and snatched the phone out of his hand, speaking frantically into the phone. Immediately the earpiece burst with static. She listened hard through the noise, trying to find a pattern or sound remotely similar to human voice. She looked doubtfully at the century old phone. She was sure her dad was able to listen to her, but the line or the phone was faulty. Stupid village. Stupid phone. Well maybe if he could hear her she could give him a message. Just as she started speaking into the phone it was rudely snatched out of her hands and slammed down. “Fools!” somebody muttered behind her, threw a couple of notes on the table and hauled her bodily out of the booth. It was only when they were outside, was she able to see the source of all this trouble and exclaimed in surprise. “I was Alsen, the drunkard from Sleivh, only he didn’t look much drunk now. One look at his expression told her that he was in complete command of his faculties.
“Fool!” he said again so vehemently that she doubted that she was in complete command of her own faculties. Ramms stood to a side decidedly not looking at anyone. The initial surprise was replaced by burning outrage and humiliation, but before she could open her mouth, she found that he was again yanking them away in the direction of the docks. Ramms, surprisingly, didn’t object. Alsen, muttering in an undertone told them to be quiet. There was such urgency in his voice and wariness in his bearing that Amber surprised herself by complying with him. They walked fast through the crowd but not fast enough to draw notice. At the dock, Alsen untied Ramms’ craft and hauled them into it. He handed the oars to Ramms and himself picked up the spare ones. They rowed at breakneck speed, silently downstream in the afternoon haze, dodging through the lumber trains and smaller crafts. Only when they had put a good many miles between themselves and the village did he slow down and indicated Ramms to do the same. He simply said to Amber,
“Have you ever considered that your phone might be tapped?”

That afternoon they doubled up on themselves twice over and hid in the thickets by the riverbank, concealing their boat, after they had entered the Koena River, for Alsen to be convinced that they were not followed. By the time they reached Sleivh, the sun was setting in the mountains spreading a serene crimson aura over the village, which was a hive of activity as men were returning from work and women were hurrying about, finishing the last outdoor chores before the darkness set in.
Ramms moored the boat in its usual position and they trotted back to the village. Alsen kept their company instead of going off on his own. Soon they were gathered at Shemei’s place, seated in one of the several thatch-roofed rooms, illuminated by a solitary hurricane lamp. Shemei’s nephews were playing in the courtyard when they came in. The three brothers joined them after washing up. Amber was surprised to see their grim expressions which looked unwelcome on their usually jovial faces. They too had sensed the mood in the air. Shemei sat down with them after passing around refreshments. After everybody was seated, Alsen directly addressed Amber and said,
“There are many people in these parts who would go to any length, for this much money. Not to mention the authorities or the people after you. You may think no-one knows you are here but people have ways of finding out what they want to find out. I don’t know how long you would be safe here, but if you don’t want to fall into the wrong hands, you’ve got to be on the run. As for me, my major concern is the safety of these people, which I cannot compromise for any reason. Though the bounty was announced yesterday, I think we may have a few more days. Nevertheless all of us should move over to Ramms’ place which would be a safer place, in case we are in threat.”
“Yes, that would be better,” interrupted Ramms, “and in case we have to flee, we can move up into the mountains from there. There is a gorge upstream, which is accessible only by water. Beyond the gorge is a well-hidden labyrinth of caves that no one knows about. We can take refuge there if need be. Anyone could keep searching for us there without finding the slightest trace,” he finished glowing with pride as of one who had just announced the discovery of a new continent. Alsen looked slightly surprised as were the three kids. Shemei had a dazed look on her face, only paying half a mind to what was going on. Alsen continued as if he had never been interrupted,
“So here’s what we are going to do. All of us are going to move into Ramms’ place for tonight. Tomorrow I will go with Ramms and check out this place he’s suggesting and if it suits us we’ll hole up there for a few days. Shemei and Ramms, it would be better to gather provisions for the time ahead. The rest of you kids start moving the supplies to Ramms place. And that includes you too girl. I have some other matters to look into. I’ll meet you there in a couple of hours. Get this done as quickly as you can.” With that he was up and gone leaving Amber dumbstruck and fuming.


Norman and Vishnu had to put little effort in concealing themselves as they followed the two RAW agents, who in turn were following the Englishmen through the crowded streets of the small riverside village. Norman had his own doubts as to what they were doing this far from Muhall. He considered the possibility that the RAW agents were barking up the wrong tree, that these five Europeans may be a diversion and that another larger group was on the real trail. But his suspicions were buried when he saw the guy who had broken into his house, head for a solitary telephone booth while the RAW agents kept their distance. That was a good sign, but it also meant he had placed a tap on Norman’s phone. Well that didn’t make any sense either. They couldn’t be govt. insiders and if they were why was RAW tailing them. Something fishy was going on. He and Vishnu kept to the shadows of descending twilight as they waited for the Englishmen. The tall fellow came out ten minutes later and said something to the others. One of them, the one Vishnu had seen first, smiled and nodded. They all hurried down towards the jetty with the RAW agents on their tail. Norman sent Vishnu to check out the story on the booth and himself kept an eye on the departing group. He was beginning to feel real hope. Presently he arrived at the jetty, hot pursuit. The English were already boarding their boat, the diesel engine already chugging and belching huge amounts of black smoke. Further off, on the other end, the RAW agents were hardly visible in the darkness, as they boarded their motorboat. Norman had difficulty finding two large motorboats to carry his company, at such short notice when they realized they would have to travel by river onwards from Bongia. Vishnu had freely parted with some cash to acquire those boats. At first he had thought that the noisy motors would give them away but soon it was clear that one could barely hear himself over the rattle, let alone hearing other approaching boats. His team was waiting a good half mile upriver. He called in to issue orders. Barbara, call sign ‘Barb’ was to follow them Europeans with her boat while Capt. Stirling, call sign ‘Walle’ was to join him. Hardly five minutes had passed when Vishnu, call sign ‘Robin’ returned, just as Walle pulled into the jetty with four good SEALs. As soon as they were in the boat Norman asked,
“What did you learn?”
“As good as we need to know. The guy at the booth was a gold mine. Your daughter was here. She had been calling for three days now, from this booth. He even showed me your number and the call durations. There was also a local with her, male, age 20 to25. The guy at the booth said he was a from a nearby village called Sleivh. Problem is, the Briton asked the same questions. He even had the village shown to him on a map. Without doubt they are headed that way, leading the whole country up to your girl.”
“Hmm…Now that we know where we are going, we don’t want these RAW agents to bother us. Do we? Also it wouldn’t be nice if their superior get to know where they are going. Let’s close the gap between them and ourselves.”

The night was so black that the banks couldn’t be seen from the boat. The overhanging trees blotted out the thin strip of starry sky overhead most of the time, completing the darkness. The only intruders were scores of unmoving yellow eyes dotting the gaps between the trees on the riverbank and the distant orange halo of a sodium vapor floodlight on the hardly discernible motorboat. In heavy contrast to the silence that accompanies darkness, the racket in this pitch black was unbearable. After they had entered the Koena, which was completely solitary at this late hour, Norman had had the headlights switched off on both of their boats. The river had sufficient depth so that they were not in fear of running aground in the dark. In fact they were now going full-throttle, catching up fast on their quarry. The RAW agents wouldn’t even hear them approach until he was upon them, owing to their own magnificent diesel engine. Infact he himself wouldn’t be able to see them but for his IR scanner on which the diesel engines stood out like beacons. Norman, now in full combat dresses, took out his sidearm, a SOCOM automatic pistol from its thigh holster and screwed in the silencer. The hull of the other boat appeared in view. The silhouettes were clearly visible now, one at the bow looking ahead with his binoculars on, and the other at the rudder. There were no fancy words and no unnecessary risks. Just a single shot at the back of the second agent’s head, just as their motorboat jolted the smaller craft, which spun slightly out of direction. The other agent turned around in surprise only to receive a bullet in between his eyes and topple back into his seat. As the boat drifted past their own, Norman pumped three more shots into each of the already inert bodies, the spatter of brains and blood shining in the silent muzzle flash, as the larger boats shot through the river with cutting speed, now creeping in on the halogen aura of the other motorboat.

Code watched the green scope of the handheld GPS tracker with increasing concern. He didn’t lift his eyes off the screen the whole time the third and fourth boats approached the second boat. So they were already starting to get nasty. The high sensitivity satellite cameras identified silenced gunfire, the heat signature of the diesel engine went off the map and the boat drifted downstream. He watched as the larger boat continued coming up without losing speed, this time after them. Code never lost stride either. He had so many courses of action planned; he had difficulty choosing between them. What he now saw on screen helped him make his decision. Another fourth boat coming up, slowed down near the drifting abandoned boat that contained the still warm bodies of the dead men. Someone from the larger boat jumped onto the smaller boat and the two dead bodies winked out of existence as they were tossed overboard. Norman was standing on the gunwale, holding the iron railing with one hand, the other hand holding the IR scanner to his eyes as they cleared a wide bend in the river which had kept their quarry out of view for almost ten minutes now. Their own boat negotiated the bend at full throttle tilting the huge boat and spraying the near bank with a wave that it kicked up in its wake. Presently the river straightened into a long flat stretch. Norman noticed the oddity at the same time Vishnu shouted from the Wheelhouse, “The boat’s drifting. Looks like they’ve abandoned it.”
Norman was already scanning the banks but nothing relevant showed up.
“Probably they’ve found out about us,” said Vishnu “Though I don’t see how. They must’ve taken to the jungle. Also it may be, we are near the village and they are combing the area.”
Norman didn’t think so. He fished out the map to check his theory which only confirmed his theory. The oxbow lake and the meander which identified the village on the map was still a mile off from their present location. The Englishmen had detected their presence and now were trying to throw him off pursuit. Norman made some quick calculations and decided to continue upstream. His priority was to reach Amber first. These guys had a serious sniper with them, and if they got there first matters would get complicated. Going through the jungle on foot, that too in the dark would be far slower than by a motorboat. By the time these fools reached there he would be in and out of that village. And so at his orders they continued upstream. They passed the abandoned motorboat with its engine running. The lights had been switched off, yet Norman focused a flashlight on the far bank. Several sets of footprints were what he wanted to see on the muddy bank. What he didn’t see and what would have been impossible to notice at that distance was the fact that half the print were going up the bank while the other half were coming down and that all the prints belonged to a single pair of shoes. Also none of the fourteen SEALs noticed that when their boats were half a mile ahead of the bend, five dark shapes silently emerged from the water and climbed into the abandoned boat, which with its halogen lights now turned off, had started following them like a ghost.


11 pm
25th December
Upper Muhall

The dark shapes of forty comrades of the LLF under the command of Moranghatu waited in the bone chilling cold in the shadows of the massive trees, their stealthy forms hugging the trunks of the oaks which lined the far bank of the Koena River that meandered around the sleepy village of Sleivh almost in a semi-circle. Moranghatu glanced at the luminescent dial of his wrist watch. They had been there for more than an hour now, waiting in the complete darkness, breathing frosty vapors into the moist and dewy air that made their wet hair stick to the scalp as zillions of bloodthirsty mosquitoes sucked the life out of their veins. The steel barrel of the AK-47 felt cold against his neck as he exercised his shoulders, stiff from the 15 pound weight of the rifle slung across his shoulders. Sometime later he heard the faint rustle of dry leaves as someone moved through the trees but he didn’t see Kalan, his second in command until he was only two paces away. Kalan moved with a feline grace that suggested the traits of a born hunter, despite his mammoth bulk. Kalan came up to him, pressing his mouth against Moranghatu’s right ear, he whispered in the quietest whisper,
“The scouts are in the village, they arrived four hours ago but they have not seen the girl yet. One of them interrogated a villager. The girl’s been here for the past 3-4 days and she’s alone. They confirmed that there are no others with her, either here or nearby. No one seems to be sure who’s housing her. Our men think the villagers are protecting the girl. They’ve hidden her somewhere. People seem reluctant to talk when the girl’s mentioned. Maybe we can ‘persuade’ someone to talk.”

“And give them a chance to escape.” Moranghatu retorted sarcastically, “Here’s what you’ll do. You take half the men and cover all exit points, both land and water. I’ll take the rest of the men and cross the river at the ford and raid the village. You’ll have approximately five minutes to secure the village and cover us while we move in. Shoot to kill any hostile behavior. I don’t want any casualties in my ranks. Move, now!”
Kalan hurried to comply, signaling the men to divide into two contingents. Then he took his twenty odd men and melted into the darkness. Moranghatu watched them recede into the forest, their forms dissolving into the pitch black dark. Then he turned his attention to the twenty odd men standing expectantly, patiently. There were no sharp breaths and feet shuffling, only steeled calm in the silent immobile figures that identified them as hardened veterans. He didn’t have to raise his voice to be heard in that timeless quiet as he briefed them.
“We will cross the river at the ford straight ahead of our position. Beyond that all will spread out to perimeter the village, and then move inwards. I want every living human being in this village gathered in front of me within ten minutes of contact. Kill anyone who tries to escape, except the town girl. Her, I want alive at all costs. Search every hole and drain. On the Move! Godspeed.” He unshouldered his rifle and removed the safety, and moved out of the cover of the trees at a slow trotting pace, his men fanning out behind him in an arc to get more room. They broke out of the tree line at the same pace, out into the open under a starry sky and above a muddy patch that separated the forest from the river, a good 20 meters and slowed their movement as their feet sank into the mud. The river was not wide enough, less than a hundred meters maybe, but it was evident that it had swollen recently as the ford was not visible a few feet ahead of the banks. Crossing a swift river on submerged stones, that too quietly was going to be something. The village slept through the dead calm of the approaching midnight as Moranghatu clenched his jaw before stepping into the freezing water. He remembered the day when he just 17 yrs old and short listed for elite commando training. They had put a 50kg backpack on his shoulders filled with bricks and straps made of nylon ropes that were meant to cut into the skin. He had to run 70 kilometers overnight scaling and climbing down three hills and afterwards he had willingly peeled off the skin from his back with his own hands. That was how he had learned to sleep on his belly without tossing or turning. As he groped and felt for the next stone underwater with his feet going numb, the situation felt comparatively comfortable with respect to those training experiences. Still he had to struggle to keep his balance on the slippery stones which had gathered moss staying underwater for too long. The currents were not strong enough to sweep them off but it sure slowed them down. They slowly waded through the knee deep water for more than 15 minutes before getting to the other side of the river. Moranghatu scanned the immediate neighborhood for any signs of activity. Nothing stirred in the shadows of the huddled houses except the leaves of a massive banyan tree that stood majestically, ruffled by an occasional breeze. The cold shrouded deeply all around. Moranghatu entered the one wide street of the village that ran parallel to the river, obviously the hub of the village’s commerce. The solitary banyan tree stood in the middle of the street like a village square. Around the tree’s trunk was built a packed earth circular dais. On this Moranghatu stood with his feet planted apart, airing himself as his men ruthlessly dragged out the sleeping inhabitants of the village out of their beds and gathered them at the village square on gunpoint. Most looked terrified and compliant, which was all the better. A few who had taken advantage of the confusion and scuffle, and had tried to run, were shot down. The village was established in such a manner that it was shut on one side by the Davadhi plateau that would make dedicated climbers exclaim. The river roped around the rest of the sides in a huge bend. To the north the river came out of the plateau through a gorge. To the south the river ran parallel to the plateau with a half mile gap in between. This region was thickly forested, and into this stretch of woods a few of the younger and able bodied men had attempted to make an escape. Unfortunately the woods were separated from the village by an open stretch of ground that served as a football ground. The villagers were cut to shreds from both sides. From behind Moranghatu’s men had spotted them even before the first man reached the trees where five of Kalan’s men were awaiting them. Four bullet riddled bodies lying on the football ground convinced the rest of them to turn back and comply with the LLF militants. For a while the only sounds in the village were the heartbroken laments of the kin of the dead as the bodies were hauled in front of everyone. Another series of shots rang from the other end as a woman was shot to death when she refused to part with the gold chain on her neck. Moranghatu stood watching impatiently as the crowd in front of him grew and bamboo torches were lit to see the faces clearly. But nowhere in the crowd could he see the girl matching the description he wanted. Even his scouts turned up in front of him. Kalan and his men were keeping their cover for the moment. His bewilderment rose as the last of the villagers joined the crowd and there was no sign of the girl. His instincts told him that the girl was somewhere around.

Sleivh, midnight.

Vishnu had cut the engines instantly as he heard the unmistakable echo of gunfire in the valley and turned the boat towards the left bank. Norman mouthed the word ‘impossible’ as he wondered how their adversary could have reached so fast. He wondered what had caused anyone to resort to gunfire and whether she was safe. The thought of Amber brought him back to the present. He ordered everyone off the boat and into the woods. Norman checked his map, the village was hardly a speck on it but the geography of the region told him that the only point available for silent insertion was a half mile wide stretch of forest that opened up on the south of the village and was directly ahead of their position. They moved as two separate seven men units, one team keeping to the south west of the other. Norman was heading the first team while Vishnu was coordinating the other. They linked up the intercoms with instructions from Stirling. Team leaders stayed on channel 1 while the rest of the two teams switched to channel 2 and 3 respectively. This ensured complete coordination between the SEALs. In spite of frequent rains most of the undergrowth in the woods was dry and moving stealthily cost a great deal of effort on their part, mostly due to the heavy weight of the heat suits which they donned after entering the woods, and the shoulder strapped rifles, partly because they had to keep their eyes trained on the IR viewfinders in case of contact with any hostiles or wild animals and partly because they had been out of field service for a long time. Nonetheless their movements were quiet enough not to wake the jungle around them. They labored on in the darkness for god knows how long when suddenly Calvin, who was with the first team, caught movement on his scope. He silently signaled a halt and checked the surrounding woods. The Infra Red viewfinder sensed heat waves and formed images based on temperature variations of different objects to generate a color-coded video. All non-living objects in the region of ambient temperature showed in different shades of green. Living things showed up as white or semi white, the intensity depending on the temperature level of the being. As such the Seals had eyes only for curved shapes that identified humans or living animals. Same thing happened when Calvin swept past a particularly thick tree and it was only when he turned away and stepped unconcernedly on a particularly dry twig that snapped with a loud crack, did he realize that he had seen the unmistakably unique muzzle of a still smoking AK-47 and missed it because on his viewfinder it had looked almost the same shade as the tree trunk from behind which it was protruding. With superb reflex, born of years in the rigorous army life, he turned around, raising his gun and clicking off the safety catch in one fluid motion. It was this sudden movement that saved his life, as two bullets whistled past his head and one grazed the back of his skull tearing loose hair and scalp into an ugly gash. His raised gun however didn’t stop until it traced the arc it had meant to and Calvin had a fleeting glance of the owner of the AK, a body half hidden behind the solid trunk of the oak tree, as he pressed the trigger. The titanic gun blazed open the fire of hell, its 5cm thick lead projectiles splintered the wood and slammed into the body of the misshapen person, who had been on the verge of firing a second volley. The fleeting instant in which Calvin had pressed the trigger, pumped so many bullets into the trunk of the tree that now the massive oak groaned ominously as it gave away at the damaged section. Calvin and the rest behind him had barely time enough to move out of the way as the huge tree fell with a deafening crash taking with it a number of younger shoots, that woke those last remaining inhabitants of the jungle for a couple of miles around, who might have missed the booming fire of the G-11. A dead quiet followed as everyone stood rooted to where he or she was, unsure what to do, trying to look all directions at once. Calvin’s quiet whisper came over the intercom ‘Ambush’. Norman heard him without the intercom, as he was close enough. He climbed over the fallen tree to see the body, moving as quietly as possible, ignoring the incoming on cahnnel-5. From what remained of the tattered and mutilated body with the AK-47 lying beside he summed up it belonged to one of the few terrorist organizations. This complicated matters further. Maybe they were paid by the English or they were acting of their own accord. He didn’t know their numbers, he didn’t know their position and the element of surprise was lost. He realized he could be leading his men directly into a trap. But the choice was not his to sit and wait, his daughter’s life was at stake. He decided to move in. He spent the next couple of minutes flicking switches on the intercom and issuing movement orders. Their Modus Operandi was such that Norman’s group marched straight like an arrow, blowing cover moving as fast as possible in closed formation. The other two teams would spread out in an extended line and come up slowly from behind, combing the jungle thoroughly as well as covering the advance team. Norman and the other five SEALs crashed through the jungle at a run, eyes trained on the viewfinder, covering ground in short bursts of speed after brief sweeps through the IR. They didn’t encounter anything until they saw the woods thinning up ahead. They took sudden fire from somewhere to their left, this time most of the bullets hitting home due to their closed formation. Instead of engaging, they scattered running for cover in different directions, multiplying a single target into many. Seconds later another burst of gunfire came, wildly fired to create confusion, and they fired back blindly in the direction of fire, only to hit nothing, their reflexes not fast enough. Norman anticipated that their quarry was moving continuously through the trees. He indicated the SEALs to be ready and pulled out his flare gun, firing a shot skywards. The flare shot straight up through the branches of a tree and high up, it exploded in a brilliant shower of sparks that floated down lazily, bathing the forest in a red sepia glow. The SEALs saw immediately, two fugitives running around them in a wide circle, going in opposite directions, caught in the light like rabbits out of their holes. They didn’t even have time to think about cover as the five G-11s pulverized their anthropomorphic bodies to a bloody pulp of flesh and bone. Without losing stride, the SEALs regrouped and carried on ahead with only dented and scratched armor against which the enemy bullets had unsuccessfully tried their mettle. Only Stirling stayed behind, camping into the folds of a tree with a splintered knee cap as he waited for the rear team to come up with first aid.
It was when Norman fired the flare, Vishnu spotted two of the terrorists stalking Norman and his men form behind, closing in rapidly on them. They were so far off that they looked like little white dots on the viewfinder so he zoomed in to focus, crouched on a knee and taking careful aim, fired a short burst that took his quarry in the back plummeting him headlong into the tree in front of him as his companion ran for his life. The fellow was so fast that he was out of visual range in the blink of an eye. The misshapen fellow unfortunately, in his hurry ran right past Stirling who was camping in his alcove. The guy was dead even before he knew it. About this time Norman’s team breached the tree line, beyond which lay an open stretch the size of a football ground. Plain, open ground where the largest stone wouldn’t even hide a rat. Littered by the corpses strewn across its length. The houses stood at the end of the stretch, silent and dark, no movement discernible over the shrill sound of the wind cutting through the trees, rustling the leaves like the fur of a giant animal. There was no telling how many muzzles were aiming on their heads right now. A sudden burst of gunfire and a shriek on the intercom identified their first casualty that night. He watched the exposed and mutilated body of Adrian Pullman from behind a tree. His gun had led him to his death. Pullman had been moving from the cover of one tree to another, his gun slinging down his shoulder. He had forgotten to switch off the IR on his viewfinder. Norman realized that from the vantage point of the enemy, the gaps in the trees looked like bloody black holes in which even the faintly glowing green screen of the IR stood out like a beacon. For someone who had already been aiming into the trees, estimating the target’s position would not be very difficult. The accurately aimed volley of an AK-47 was held by the Kevlar breastplate and helmet owing solely to the long range. But one unfortunate bullet passed under the helmet and hit the left eye and lodged straight through into the hypothalamus causing an extremely painful yet fast death. The SEALs once having guessed themselves the enemy position, due to the momentary muzzle flash, poured out the wrath of their guns into the windows and walls of the houses, while Norman pulled back the lifeless form of Pullman into the trees. Though they didn’t realize it, their return fire had caused havoc in the LLF men hidden in the houses. The mud walls of the huts were as good as tissue paper in face of the mammoth G-11s even at 300mts.

Sleivh, 1:15am

Moranghatu could hear the thundering crossfire at the south end of the village, from where he stood under the banyan tree. He had not accounted for this. He suppressed the panic that was trying to creep into his features but his insides squirmed as a runner reported six casualties. He had expected the girl to have company but this! From the incoming intel there must be at least 50 men in the woods and armed to the teeth. Good news was, his men were still holding their ground, braving the heavy fire. Finding the girl had become all the more important now. She his was going to be his ticket out of this hell hole alive. His men had been questioning the villagers for about an hour now. They had searched every hole and ditch without any trace of the girl or her companion. He watched with waning patience as the miserable villagers cringed and cried denying any knowledge of the girl’s whereabouts. Suddenly he jumped down from the dais, driven by an impulse and fed by his frustration and drew out a C96 Mauser sidearm from his belt and addressed the villagers, who drew back in fear clutching their young ones tightly to themselves. His eyes fell on a young girl, a child barely ten years old, holding on to her mother in fright, the latter almost equally frightened. He caught the girl by her hair despite the mother’s futile attempts top fend him off. He pressed the pistol against the kid’s temple and bellowed to the crowd. “You miserable filthy pricks, you people are hiding the girl aren’t you? That terrorist, whom the police want, for the murder of a thousand little innocent children. Her people have attacked this village from over there. My men are out there risking their lives so that your miserable fucking holes remain intact. Tell me where the girl is and we can all go home safely then. Do you understand that?” he waited for a reaction. Anyone. Anything. But each face was as impassive as the next. He inhaled a deep breath to calm his anger and spoke again, “from now on I’m going to shoot one child every five minutes unless one of you decides to open your mouth.” He cocked the pistol and was about to shoot the kid when her mother rushed to his feet wailing, speaking so fast that he could not make out what she was saying, so he kicked her in the face, flinging her to the ground.
“Speak clearly and loudly” he barked. The woman relieved at the chance wiped her bleeding nose unconcernedly, smearing her face in a bloody paint. She started speaking again, this time slower,
“Honestly, none of us know where the girl is now. She was last seen yesterday afternoon with a woman named Shemei who lives here with her three children. None of them have been seen since yesterday evening. The girl was brought in our village by a man called Ramms and she goes around the village most of the time with Ramms. Ramms doesn’t live in our village but his house is somewhere up that mountain to the north of here, where there’s a wooden bridge. Maybe she is hiding up there….”

Moranghatu didn’t need to hear anymore to the pleadings of the woman as he shouted orders and released the child, the latter running to her mother and the two of them crying together holding hard, the joy of being spared with life. Moranghatu left five men at the southern front to exchange occasional gunfire with the enemy skulking in the darkness of the forest. He left two other men in the village square and sent a runner to Kalan who was still on the other bank. That left him six men remaining. They moved out at a dead run, weaving through the narrow streets and gaps in the clustered houses and in a couple of minutes the northern bank of the river encircling the village. There it was, standing only a few meters away was the wooden bridge, spanning the river, the water foaming around its thick columns. The bridge itself was a petty affair of fallen logs, without any support from the sides to keep you from falling into the river. However it looked strong enough to sustain their weight. So Moranghatu took the initiative of crossing the bridge first.
Sorabhatu, his predecessor had told him long ago that on the battlefield the word ‘unexpected’ was fatal and had to be avoided at all costs. One may be lucky enough to survive through as ‘unexpected’ but no-one had lived through to tell the tale of a second unexpected. These were the last thoughts of Moranghatu as he took a .50 caliber aluminum tipped projectile straight through the chest and staggered a moment before falling into the river. He was dead before his body hit the freezing waters of the Koena with a loud splash and was carried away out of sight in the swift currents.

By the time Alsen reached Ramms’ house, the little gathering, young and adult alike, had settled themselves had settled themselves comfortably in the cramped interiors, where on one side Shemei was cooking rice and potatoes, while Ramms was putting up makeshift hammocks for the boys. As soon as he saw Alsen, he left the work to the boys and joined Alsen outside, as they scouted the surroundings going around the house, which had been built at such a vantage position and with such ingenuity that it was shut off on two sides by sheer cliff faces and on one side by the 200 feet drop over the outcropping rock slab, which they called the ‘Ledge’, that jutted out a good many yards out of the mountainface. An underground stream continuously gushed out from under the ledge and spread evenly over the slick, smooth surface of the mountainface made of solidified lava flow. The constant trickle of water on the rock had created a greenish slime of thick moss over which the water ran in a thin film, making that part impossible to climb, by any means. The only route of accessing the Ledge was by a beaten path that snaked through a forested section of the slope left of the Ledge, that ended up into the final stretch of muddy banks, before the river plunged into the gorge. The path led right up to the wooden bridge, spanning the river into the village. It was so well hidden in the trees that grew on the gentler slope pf the hill that a person looking from the village would be bewildered to see a bridge leading to nowhere. Ramms’ house too was well concealed but itself had a bird’s eye view of the entire valley, the borders of the forest, surrounding the village and the river, as it emerged from the gorge and disappeared into a dark opening in the forest, far south. Alsen marveled at the builder’s choice of such a strategic position that was so well suited to keep the enemy out at he same time musing at the fact that it was also well suited to keep themselves in. They were trapped in a box with one side open and no means of escape! But as long as there was a single man to defend the opening, they could live through anything except an air strike, which was highly improbable. Alsen chose a particularly tall tree, with sturdy branches and a dense canopy of leaves not far from the bridge. He relayed to Ramms that the tree would be his watch post for tonight, who only nodded his head in acquisition. They went back to his house and ate a frugal supper of boiled rice and mashed potatoes, after which Alsen excused himself from the company and left with a heavy bundle, tucked under his arm and wrapped in a black tarpaulin sheet, which he had brought earlier in the evening and had carefully kept out of everybody’s sight. He made his way to the chosen tree swiftly and scaled the tree with some considerable effort, owing to far spaced branches and the heavy bundle tied to his back. He found a spot to his liking after he had climbed a good 40 feet, where a number of branches crisscrossed each other, making a sort of stable platform, ideal for camping and in excellent view of the bridge. He sat down with his back resting comfortably against the wide trunk, and his legs dangling in the gaps of crisscrossed branches. He then untied the bundle he had carried up and revealed one of his most prized possession, a US Army standard issue M4A1 carbine, customized to his personal taste with a retractable butt and an extra elongated barrel which the manufacturers had later done themselves to the later models, but his gun was almost ten years old , a sleek black thing of beauty that fit snugly under his shoulder and had an unmatched deadly accuracy for an assault rifle. He checked each part keenly before assembling the gun to be sure it didn’t jam on first use. He screwed in a M4OD- QD silencer and jammed in a 30 round clip and taking a deep breath laid his back to rest against the tree trunk, in anticipation of a long wait, the gun resting across his lap, eyed narrowed in the process of sweeping the territory that lay open in front of him. He had been like that, sitting still for god knows how long, as slowly activity dwindled in the village, people retired to the comfort if their homes and warm beds, then the lights went out one by one. He sat there in the melancholy dark of a new moon night, senses sharp, but missing his daily booze. It was deep into the night, well past midnight, that he noticed activity on the eastern perimeter of the village, along the river bank. He peered closely, until he distinguished the faint forms of about two dozen men, and by their movement, militia. He admitted, he was surprised at such a fast response and thanked himself for the precautions. The first thought that came to his mind was the loss of his stock of Dewar’s scotch that he had left behind at his place, which was sure to be looted if not anything else. Nevertheless he reminded himself of the task at hand. Silently and swiftly he climbed down the tree leaving his gun behind slung on a branch. He then made his way back to the house noiselessly and crept up to the Ramms. However Ramms was not be taken by surprise. His left hand was inside his shirt, clutching the hilt of the kukri knife that he always carried, and his senses were fully alert. Though he relaxed visibly when he saw it was Alsen. In hushed tones Alsen relayed what he had seen, instructing Ramms to be very, very careful not to attract attention to their position by means sound or light. Ramms assured him that he would take care of the women and children and bid him return to his post to keep an eye on things in case they had to make a retreat. Very softly he woke the sleeping inhabitants of the house and told them what was happening. Panic flashed across faces despite the fact that they had been expecting this the whole time. Alsen was back on his watch-post in a matter of minutes. He watched them cross over the river into the village, he watched them pillage and loot, he watched them herd the villagers in the square and he watched them kill those trying to escape. He sat there watching for the best part of an hour as the militants laboriously searched for what he could guess very well. Sometimes one of them came within his range and he was tempted to avenge his scotch but he sat still. Obviously their quarry had no idea where they were and he preferred to keep it that way as long as possible. It was around 1 am that he heard a fresh wave of gunfire form far south that felt like a whole fusillade of machine guns firing in unison. A tree crashed somewhere in the forest and minutes later a bloody battle was pitched across the playground. White muzzle flashes and streaking bullets lit up the region like fireworks. Alsen didn’t like what he heard. The sound of heavy automatic gunfire smelled of special Ops which didn’t fit into the equation and was not a good sign at all. He waited it out patiently, ignoring the twitching nerves and mosquitoes, reminding himself of the duty he had sworn to. He didn’t have to wait too long. Presently, six hostiles appeared in view suddenly from a gap in the houses made a dash for the bridge. Alsen’s cross hair was trained on them even before the last man made it out in the open. Visibility was poor wand there were multiple targets moving very fast. So he decided to let them come closer. Once all of them were on the bridge he chose the largest of them, who was coming in lead and loosed a short burst that took the fellow square in the chest and the mutilated body was plummeted into the river. The others were so stunned by their companion’s death that for a moment they stood gaping wildly as he shot another one of them. It was when the third man fell that they guessed the general direction of incoming fire and scattered running for cover. Unfortunately, the river bank, strewn with rocks and boulders provided plenty of cover. From his elevated position Alsen still had a visual on the remaining three hostiles but now they were out of range. His bullets hit the boulders shattering and showering rocks on them till he realized he was wasting ammunition. As soon as his fire stopped, the hostiles ran for the village and were swallowed into the darkness of the houses in a matter of seconds. Alsen didn’t feel good. He had let them escape and now they were going to come back big-time. He had exposed himself. They didn’t know where he was but they knew he was there. Question was how long he had before they came back. In any case he had to wait the night out. He checked his wrist watch, it was 2 am and he had more than 3 hours until daylight. He rested his back on the tree trunk and relaxed a little, scratching impatiently where the mosquitoes had bitten.
He had been sitting there for quite some time when suddenly something hit the tree trunk with a loud ‘thunk’ somewhere below him and he was propelled straight out of the tree by a shockwave as a RPG shell burst several feet below, tearing the tree apart into smithereens. He found himself sailing through air for a second as the tops of the trees further down the slope rushed up to meet him. He tried to reduce the impact to his hands and feet as his body shot through a canopy of thoroughly twisted branches. And then his head hit something solid and blackness ensued.

Sleivh, 2am
Code Sarron ignored the intense feeling of claustrophobia and struggled on slowly. The connecting rope went taut for the third time but he heard nothing and saw nothing. The immense envelope of nearly 5 meters of water flowing overhead, had shut out the world from his ears, and the pitch black underwater allowed him to see absolutely nothing except the faint glow of the waterproof GPS unit he was carrying in his hand. The had been walking underwater for more than an hour now, on the slippery river bed of Koena, struggling against the flowing wall of water that slammed on them continually like infinite battering rams. Their pace was slow and they were using up the air tanks fast. Code cursed himself for the thousandth time. It was his idea and he cursed the moment when he had seen the white samsonite cases marked ‘scuba gear’ among many of Sandler’s endless luggage. Scuba suits were mandatory for marine exploration and subsequently Sandler had not failed to bring them. It had been only a couple of hours, since he had pulled them all out of a tight spot. He recalled the moment when they were pursued by all kinds of bounty hunters and special ops units. As their pursuers were rapidly closing the healthy gap between their boats, he was desperately searching for some way of throwing them off. It was then he had this idea of the scuba suits. They had quickly donned the diving suits and had gone underwater abandoning their boat near the bank, making their quarry believe that they had gone ashore. They all waited underwater as the other two motorboats passed overhead and then they doubled back into their own boat. After that they had gone on upriver for a good mile from where the other two boats were docked, the Wheelers had guided the boat into a secluded, empty channel and they sat out through the whole battle that raged in Sleivh, monitoring everything from an array of Satellite video feeds. Although Sandler was emphatic about protecting the girl, Code had persuaded them from jumping into the cook-pot. It was around 1:30 am that he first noticed the anomaly. He was re-routing an IRS camera to focus on a fire-fight going on around a bridge at the northern bend of the river, when he noticed a whitish blur spreading in from the top of the screen. He was no expert in remote sensing and had no idea what could cause that much noise in a visual feed. Maybe an EMP, but the generator would have to huge. He zeroed in on the center of the white noise and brought up an additional Thermal feed. It registered nothing except a couple of human heat signatures. The source of the noise was moving in the visual feed, surprising not more than 10m in diameter. He remembered NSA had recently added MRI scanners to their array of spy satellites due to the growing use of Electro-Magnetic-Pulses in weapons. These scanners could pick up all kinds of electronic signals by resonating Earth’s magnetic field with highly powerful coils. He started checking the orbital schedules of those satellites. Good! One was due overhead in approximately ten minutes. About as much time he would need to hack in the NSA’s GIS mainframe to access and re-route the satellite. Ten minutes later Sandler was at his side as the first MRI sweep showed up on his laptop screen. Yes, the noise was still there and it was an EMP, only this time he had trouble believing his eyes as he saw the digits registering energy levels climb at incredible speeds, units changing from Mega to Giga Electron Volts and finally the scanner went berserk predicting catastrophic geophysical activity. The only person among them to be affected in an unexpected way due to this was Sandler. For some reason he was in seventh heaven and hopping all about the boat in ecstasy. It took Code quite a bit of effort to cool him down, and when Sandler did sit down, he was still beaming at everyone, “Man! This is solid. You guys saw that, didn’t you? If you don’t believe me still, there’s no other way you would. This is NOT a wild goose chase.” He muttered hoarsely.
Code felt sorry for the beaten fellow sitting in front of him, so he put it mildly, “You know Sandler, I never doubted you. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here sticking my neck in this hell-hole. Is there anything in this that we could use? We aren’t exactly here for Charismas and Miracles.”
Sandler’s grin slid off. “Man! You are dumb. That girl just sent out a signal flare for us. Now we know where she exactly is, in this chaos.”
“That’s all very well,” Ralph Wheeler voiced in, “But if we are to reach those slopes, we will have to make our way through these woods and almost direct across the village if we are to reach them before dawn. And from what’s going down there, it would be suicide.”
And it was then that Code hatched his harebrained plan. Wading along the entire length of the river, underwater! They would surface near the opening of the gorge and creep up the forested slope. He regretted every bit of it now that he dragged himself in the heavy diving suit, coupled with a gun and various equipments that he had thought necessary to bring along. They also had to bring along Dr. Belzam since they couldn’t leave anyone behind. The frail little scholar was hardly cut out for these kinds of things and kept stumbling and falling over the countless objects that littered the river floor, a rotting, sunk boat here, broken bricks there. The most difficult was the ford where the river bed was paved with boulders and the depth was hardly a couple of feet and they had to crawl on their bellies to remain submerged. The black murky envelope was so smothering, that they had a hard time keeping their sense of direction. They had to tie themselves together with a length of bungee cord to keep themselves from getting separated, with code in the lead, guiding them with his handheld GPS tracker.
A small tug on the rope told him that they were ready to move again, bringing him back to the present. He started ploughing against the currents once more. A few minutes later he consulted his GPS tracker which told him that they were not far from their destination. Almost immediately, as if in confirmation, the shadowy submerged columns of the wooden bridge loomed into view. The columns had not been placed much widely apart and they had a degree of difficulty, squeezing through the gaps. They walked on for another five minutes and when Code started feeling a gradual increase in the current underfoot, which was an indication that the river was narrowing and they were approaching the Gorge, he decided to surface. It was as if the world rushed back to meet him and for the first time he appreciated the import of all sensory organs in his life. The distant booming of the gunfire and the explosions felt like from another world, but the still glowing remnants of an explosion on this bank looked pretty much real. He unhooked a hunting knife strapped to his thigh and freed himself of the connecting rope, dragging his weary body somehow into the safety of the trees. He jumped up with a start as soon as he sat down, realizing what was missing. The explosion must have happened not more than a couple of minutes ago. He unslung his gun, a short-range semi-automatic ECS P-90 and peered hard at the opposite bank. Yes! There was a dark shape of a man crouching in the shadowy depths between two closely huddled houses. Also visible was the unmistakable silhouette of a shoulder mounted RPG apparently reloading the weapon with a second shell. By and by, another armed fellow appeared into view, whom Code had not noticed earlier but who had in turn spotted Sandler, who had just surfaced and was plodding towards the bank with slow unsteady steps. There was no way, no time to warn Sandler before the assailant pulled the trigger, so he did the only other logical thing to do. A few times in his illustrious life, he had been forced to take life as the only available option, but the faces remained with him. Abruptly he opened fire on the two men hiding on the far bank. He only stopped when the full 50 rounds in the magazine were spent. Miraculously both men were hit, and hit hard; the mangled corpses now lay in plain sight. Sandler looked, first at him; they at the opposite bank in amazement and then ran wildly into the trees. Dr. Belzam whose head was bobbing on the surface a minute earlier, promptly ducked back underneath at the sound of gunfire but was dragged out of the water bodily, the bungee cord pulling his small wiry frame helplessly as Sandler gallivanted off into the trees. Before Code had time to cut him loose or stop Sandler or reload his weapon, a torrent of bullets assailed him, whistling past his ears, showering rubble and splintering wood. This time Code didn’t look anywhere but followed behind Sandler dodging bullets by the width of a hair. Behind him, he heard the Wheelers cursing fluently as they urged Dr. Belzam up the slope. Another rocket shell came whizzing through the air and smacked the earth only a couple of feet behind them in a tremendous boom that erupted the ground all around them, uprooting trees and spraying dirt everywhere. Code was too dazed from the shock of the explosion to realize he was completely. He saw Mark Wheeler say something but his ears didn’t register anything. With mechanical logic he urged his body off the ground and started running up the slope again behind Dr. Belzam who was now speeding with mortal fear. He saw Mark fall back into the trees lower down the slope, his connecting rope now cut loose. There was no way to understand who was doing what, the only choice was to do what he was doing and trust others judgment. Mark knew how to take care of himself. Code’s own thighs were burning with the steep climb, what with the fatigue of the underwater expedition. Sandler on the other hand, maddened by the prospect of meeting the girl, was running hard, already a distant speck in the shadows of the forested slope. He had managed to cut himself loose from the group. Over the sound of distant gunfire, Code heard the unmistakable thunder of Mark’s 7.62 caliber L96 Magnum Sniper. Good! He thought, at least we have some cover now. Without warning, his feet struck against something and the ground rushed up to meet him in the face. He had barely time enough to cushion the fall with his free hand. To his horror he realized he had fallen on a living creature, a live, breathing human body. He scrambled off immediately. When he looked again, in the dim dark he saw the figure on the ground was that of an old man, who was probably unconscious. He had felt the rhythmic breathing alright when he was on top of the man, and no one could have slept on with people tripping over them, at least not here. The embers of a shattered tree still glowered nearby. It didn’t take much to put two and two together. The old timer was guarding the house on the hill which meant that he was an ally to the Loraine girl, probably her father. He studied the charred stump of the pine several feet up the slope. It looked like it was hit by a shell. The fellow must have been knocked off in mid air. The fall to the ground must have knocked him out. In any case, the fellow’s ears were bleeding and there was an angry gash on his temple. He was loosing blood fast. He heard Mark fire a second shot. This time it was not that far away. Their opponent was gaining on them fast. He cursed himself foully and picked up the dying fellow on his shoulder in a fireman lift and trundled up the slope as fast as he could under the dead weight. He labored on in the darkness, burdened by the injured man on his shoulder, his gun and the array of equipment he was carrying added to the weight and poor mobility of the scuba suit which he hadn’t had time to take off. Sweat beaded his forehead and ever so slowly trickled onto his nose with a cruel itching sensation which he couldn’t relieve himself of. He gritted his teeth and plodded on. Almost suddenly the shadows around him thinned and he ended up on a flat clearing of basaltic rock bed, in the middle of which stood a lone hut. Sandler was standing in the doorway talking gibberish as a young native lad held a long curved blade of a knife to his throat.

Dear Reader,
I've done more than 300 pages on this plot and still counting, electronic drafts will be published here as soon as they get a go from my editor.
Please do leave a comment/remark here.

No comments: