A child kneels at the altar of a massive gothic cathedral, his hands clasped together in prayer. He is mumbling something under his breath. It is hard to make out the words from where I stand far down the aisle. There are marble busts of kings in rows running down the length of the aisle on both sides.
The busts are headless. The jagged surfaces where they were severed from the torso glint in the moonlight as refracted through the stained glass windows.
There is something on the altar, shrouded in shadows and partially blocked from my line of sight by the silhouette of the kneeling boy. A feeling of absolute dread settles itself in the pit of my stomach.
But I must know. I must look.
I move closer.
That feeling of dread roots itself in my stomach, radiating outwards in nauseating waves.
There is the outline of a body on the altar, a body wrapped in a thin white sheet.
I can make out the words the boy is muttering now.
“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity
Death to the Old Gods
Death to the pretenders
Death to the tyrants
Long live the Cult Of Reason
Long live the Age Of Reason
Our Father who art in Heaven
On the altar of Reason, I offer thy Name.
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity
Death to the Old Gods
Death to the pretenders
Death to the tyrants….”
It’s like a hymn the boy keeps reciting over and over, a quiet, fierce intensity in his bearing and his voice.
I reach out to tap him on the shoulder.
As he turns to look at me, the body on the altar sits up. The shroud slips from its place to reveal a pale-faced, muscular-looking middle-aged man with dark and somber eyes.
The man looks at the boy in shock and disbelief, and he screams a name.
Sizwe Bhengu awoke with a sharp intake of breath.
It was pitch black in the tent, and Bhengu was sweating profusely.
Loud snores from the other tents punctuated the white noise from the furious chirping of the emperor cicadas.
Bhengu shook his head. If the enemy attacked at night, they were most definitely done for.
He shut his eyes and went back to sleep. The rest of his night was dreamless.
They woke at the crack of dawn.
A kettle suspended over the campfire bubbled industriously, and the smell of freshly made Colombian coffee wafted through the campsite.
Wu Ming spread out a map on the ground as the forest erupted in birdsong while the river gurgled happily by the camp.
She didn’t look cheery. There was an expression of grim determination pasted across her face. But Bhengu hadn’t seen that face express much else.
“All right, listen up, you bunch of good-for-nothings! We’re camped here.” She pointed to a spot on the map just west of the Sungai Melinau Paku River at the turn where it exited the Melinau Gorge between Mt. Benaret and Mt. Api. From there, the river ran south, eventually meeting up with the Sungai Tutoh River several kilometers away.
“If we keep heading down the Sungai Melinau Paku for a few klicks, we’ll end up at a hidden entrance to the Clearwater Cave System here.” She tapped a spot marked with an “X” to the east of the river, right on the edge of the contours that marked the expanse of Mt. Api’s vast limestone karst system.
“The treasure we’re looking for is somewhere deep within the Cave System. But if you behave like good boys and follow my lead, we should make it.
Now the enemy knows we’re coming, so we can expect the hidden entrance to be well guarded.
It goes without saying that they will not hesitate to ambush us the first opportunity they get. So we shall adopt a three-pronged approach.
Bhengu, you will take the sampan down the river and act as bait for any potential ambushers. Feel free to exercise this opportunity to bring out some of your heftier weapons.” Bhengu grinned in delight.
“Ospina, you scout along the forested bank to the west of the river, stealthily eliminating any threats you find.
I’ll cover the bank to the east, keeping my eyes peeled for the hidden entrance. Legends speak of a giant crocodile with a white stripe on its back that guards the passage, but that’s just a whole lot of hogwash. We’re probably looking for the limestone statue of a reptile of some sort. Perhaps a shrine to some local deity.
Ospina’s pets can scout ahead down the river.”
Wu Ming licked her lips, secretly hoping for an ambush.
Wu Ming was thirsty for blood.
Jenny put her binoculars down and adjusted her position behind the cluster of Eugenia growing by the river. It was high noon.
Her mind drifted away to pleasant memories of the night before as she brought them back up, mechanically scanning the river in the upstream direction from bank to bank.
Their well-muscled back had arched luxuriously as they had told her of the plan. She couldn’t help but marvel at their brilliance. The secret entrance to the passage in the Clearwater System was a few kilometers downstream and south from a fork in the river.
This was no common fork, though – the tributary that met the Sungai Melinau Paku at this fork was an underground river.
Underground rivers are not uncommon in karst systems, but what was rare about this one was that the cavern system it ran through was wide and tall enough to support a single sampan and its crew if they crouched low to avoid smashing their heads against the limestone.
This was perfect for an ambush. The enemy would be flanked from both sides of the river on the banks, approached head-on using sampans moving upstream, and attacked from the rear when the hidden sampan emerged from the underground tributary as the target crossed the fork.
“In strategy, it is vital to have knowledge of your terrain so you can use it to gain the upper hand,” they had declared as she ran a finger down the broad white stripe that started at their nape and ended at their tailbone…
Jenny was jolted out of her reverie when the barest of a splash in the river caught her eye. Baker Andstella had chosen well. Despite her penchant for the occasional daydream, Jenny was known for her hawk-like vision and her remarkable intuition. Right now, Jenny was sure she had seen a crocodile tail disappearing into the water, and she had a hunch that this was no wild crocodile given her knowledge of the targets.
Better safe than sorry.
She began to make a series of birdcalls that imitated the gruff, guttural dog-barks of the hornbill and was halfway through sounding the alarm when a dart struck her left arm.
She looked down in surprise as the curare poison began to take hold, choking her and cutting off her ability to speak as it paralyzed her respiratory muscles.
The hunt was on.
Ospina lowered his compound bow and hoisted it behind his back, unsheathing his combat knife as he stalked towards his downed prey.
Nina had always been excellent as a decoy, Ospina thought fondly as he retrieved the dart from the woman’s arm, refilling it with his supply of poison.
In terms of size, Nina was the smallest crocodile in the float. But she was also the fastest, prone to take point and make sudden moves to distract the enemy.
Pinto was the big, lumbering brute in the float, finishing the job Nina and Maria started or butting in when it was too much for them to handle.
Maria usually just followed Nina’s lead, coordinating attacks with her when needed. The three of them had taken Drilo’s loss much better than he did. Drilo had been the youngest and brashest, but Oscar had been more attached to it than the others. He vowed revenge on the man who murdered his pet and dared gouge out one of its eyeballs.
Ospina picked up the binoculars the lookout had been using, scanning the river and the bank across from it.
There was no sign of the enemy, which didn’t make sense since the lookout had got at least part of the alarm codes out before she had been silenced.
What were they waiting for?
His eyes widened as he noticed the narrow stream emerging from some limestone formations on the other side of the river. It seemed to be flowing out of a tunnel in the rock wall, the entrance obscured by hanging vines.
The stream was wide and deep enough to hold a single sampan.
Ospina cursed under his breath. He brought out his set of whistles and detached the unifying mouthpiece. He lifted the shortest whistle to his mouth and blew out a series of instructions.
Nina splashed her tail in excitement and began to swim towards the source of the stream.
Satisfied, Ospina began to turn back towards the forest when he noticed a single silent bullet whizzing through the air, striking the water in a splash where Nina’s tail had been visible a fraction of a second ago.
Based on the angle at which it had hit the water, he figured the shooter was on his side of the bank.
Based on the sound the shot had made, Ospina knew that it came from an ORSIS rifle.
He smiled grimly as the thrill of the hunt took him.
Abdul Abadi wasn’t getting away this time.
Sizwe Bhengu nodded when he noticed the small crocodile come towards his sampan. She liked to swim on the surface when she wanted to signal Bhengu.
This wasn’t his first rodeo working with Ospina’s float.
The play was simple enough. Nina would swim in the direction of the boat that needed to be attacked, marking the target. Bhengu would direct the full might of his weapons arsenal on the boat, but this was just a distraction so that the float could seize the element of surprise and attack the enemy crew when they were otherwise engaged.
He strapped his M2 Browning 50 caliber machine gun into place and made sure its specially fitted stand allowed him to swivel the gun 360 degrees in any direction.
He inventoried his supply of grenades.
To his surprise, Nina swam to the rear of his sampan and started trailing it.
Bhengu made a few rapid calculations in his head. It was this split-second thinking that had allowed him to survive in the game for so long.
He had expected Nina to lead his sampan, not to trail it. What did that mean in relation to the enemy’s line of attack?
It could only mean that somehow, the enemy would launch an attack from the rear.
But he had to assume that the enemy would also have the resources to attack from the front. So he had to believe that they were boxing him in from both sides.
He tossed a handful of smoke grenades downstream from the sampan, rapidly swiveling his Browning around to the stern at the same time in one fluid motion.
The river erupted in the thunderous applause of gunfire.
The stage of blood was set.
Bullets from machine guns and rifles whizzed through the smoke wall created by the grenades, but the lack of visibility meant that Bhengu had a fighting chance.
A sampan came out of nowhere to Bhengu’s stern, but he was ready.
While Bhengu’s Browning engaged the crew of the rear sampan, Ospina’s flotilla glided towards it with the sleek primal swiftness of Death himself.
Nina took the port side while Maria took starboard, violently rocking the sampan from side to side till the crew lost its balance, and one of the men fell into Pinto’s gaping maw. The remaining two were split evenly between the float.
It was a fine feast.
Bhengu knew the crocodiles would take a few minutes to fully relish their meal before they moved to the next target. But time was a luxury he could not afford.
Where the hell was Ming and Ospina?
He swiveled the Browning around a hundred and eighty degrees as the smoke began to clear.
Wu Ming removed the Panang Ilang from its ornate sheath the instant Bhengu tossed his smoke grenades. She had been hiding in the riverine shrubbery, waiting for her chance to strike. It had taken all her years of training and experience in the field to exercise restraint.
The need bubbled in her blood with the force of a thousand tempests.
The need for slaughter; the yearning for the spurts of life force gushing out of the cuts she made with the sword. Her sword.
The extension of her soul expressed as poetry in the chaos of violence.
The moment was nigh now. The ambushers on her side of the bank had their attention directed towards the smoke and were firing with all the wisdom of a dog thrown a bone.
She crouched low in the stance she had been taught and proceeded towards her first target, sword poised close to her body. She took small silent steps, but she took them rapidly.
Upper attitude. Intention to cut.
The sword made a diagonal cut into the man’s neck from top right to bottom left. She immediately moved the sword back to its original position in Upper attitude.
She was on the next ambusher before the first one’s body touched the ground.
She visualized the cut, made it happen already in her mind’s eye.
Right attitude. Cut from bottom right to top left. The torso split open, spilling out its contents. Return to position.
Left attitude. Cut. Back to Middle attitude.
Lower attitude. Cut. Back to Middle attitude.
Her reflexes seemed to sharpen with every cut she made. She felt stronger, faster.
She had always found some tasteful butchery invigorating, but she had never felt so unified in its prosecution.
She was a god, and the sword was her instrument of judgment.
The east bank had now been effectively neutralized of all threats.
She slid into the water, the sword between her teeth, approaching the flotilla of sampans that were targeting Bhengu just as the smoke began to clear up.
The day could still be theirs for the taking.
Abdul Abadi popped a fresh stick of Big Babol into his mouth and began to chew at an even pace, scanning the river through the scope of his rifle. He was sure he had seen a splash five seconds ago, and he was sure it had been the tail of a crocodile.
The enemy was here.
The trained sniper mind of his calculated the path the crocodile was taking based on its last splash, using variables like the flow velocity of the river and the direction of the tail splash.
While he had a good idea of the route taken, he had no way of knowing when the crocodile would surface. So his reaction time still had a lot of margin for error.
Abadi liked a challenge when he found one.
The tail splashed again.
Abadi moved his scope along the calculated angle of displacement and fired without thinking, letting his intuitive brain make the split-second decision.
The bullet made a splash in the water.
Abadi stopped chewing for several seconds, scowling in frustration.
If the enemy was watching the river, they must have an idea of the general direction the bullet came from. He needed to be extra vigilant.
He scanned the bank on his side before doing a complete 270-degree sweep with his scope.
No sign of movement.
His shoulders relaxed a little, and he resumed chewing.
That was when the river erupted in a cloud of smoke and gunfire.
Abadi’s stick of gum fell out of his mouth.
He scanned the river up and down the range of vision afforded to him by his sniper nest in a bed of Vaccinium shrubs by the west bank, a few hundred meters downstream from all the action.
All he could see was a wall of smoke. Smoke everywhere.
Abadi sighed and waited, popping another stick of gum in his mouth.
He chewed as the smoke swirled into the trees lining the bank and waited while the two sampan crews on his side kept firing till they’d emptied at least one rifle cartridge each.
He chewed as the smoke cleared slowly, revealing a big, dark, and muscular man sitting astride a Browning 50 caliber, shooting away like he was the last man standing, which from the look of things, he probably was.
Abadi moved his scope till the crosshair rested on Sizwe Bhengu’s head.
The poor bastard didn’t stand a chance in hell.
Wait a minute…
Three massive reptilian shapes were gliding stealthily towards the sampans firing at the maniac with the Browning.
Abadi knew he had to sacrifice a sure shot at the big muscular man to attempt a shot at Ospina’s dreaded float instead. The needs of his group outweighed the need to inflate his personal scoreboard.
He sighted his scope along the path of motion of the biggest crocodile.
Now he just had to wait till the beast came closer to the surface.
Closer, and nearing the sampan to its left…
There was no way he was missing this time.
Almost breaking the surface now…
Now. The time to shoot was now.
He slowed down his chewing, took a deep breath, and exhaled as he squeezed the trigger.
The bullet struck Pinto in the brain, killing him instantly.
The scream was almost feral and had seemed to originate somewhere to Abadi’s left, on his side of the river bank. He swung his rifle and squeezed the trigger, again using his intuition to make the split-second decisions needed for this kind of reaction time.
The bullet hit true this time, and Ospina clutched at his chest, blood spilling from his mouth. But it was still too late for the veteran sniper.
Abdul Abadi looked at the dart sticking out of his left arm in disbelief as the curare poison took hold.
The stick of Big Babol gum fell from his mouth.
The west bank was clear.
Bhengu was a soldier for hire. So honor did not factor into his value system.
He was well aware of how rapidly his ammunition belt was dwindling, and he had just seen Pinto rest with the fishes for good.
He was up against two sampan rifle crews, and now apparently, a sniper in the woods as well.
Sometimes, retreating was the most prudent path.
He tossed the last of the smoke grenades with a wild bellow and dove into the murky waters of the river.
Nina and Maria attacked the sampan near the west bank with vicious fury, as if avenging their bigger brother.
The crew members shrieked in fright, their rifles shaking as they frantically shot at the water around the boat.
Nina and Maria loved to play games.
A figure in a black chador sat in the center of the sampan, unfazed.
Baker Andstella was on the boat, and they sighed in resignation.
They hated the water. But they had a duty to their people and, in fact, a duty to the entire human race.
They removed the chador and dove off the side of the boat with effortless grace, life flashing before their eyes in the faction of a second it took for their body to break the surface of the water.
Memories of their father lying on his deathbed, holding their hand.
Telling them that as the eldest heir to the family name, they were now next in line to inherit the curse of the Bujang Senang, passed down from their grandfather when he was bitten back in the forties by a giant monster of a crocodile with a white stripe on its back.
The curse was first suffered by the proud warrior Simalungun and passed down the ages from bite to bite as the crocodile avatar “Bujang Senang” saw fit.
The curse of immortality was that suffering was immortal…
They began to morph as their body went under the water, rapidly transforming into a massive crocodile at least two and a half times Pinto’s size.
The Bujang Senang roared in its fury; a sacrifice needed to be made.
The sampan capsized and the waters frothed with blood for several minutes.
There was no more Nina, Maria, or sampan crew.
The crocodile god was satiated…for the moment.
Wu Mung climbed the sampan near the east bank from the stern.
If the enemy was so eager to see them killed, they must be on the right path.
Excitement glittered in her eyes as she began to make mincemeat of the crew on the boat…
But even Wu Ming was snapped out of her bloodlust when she saw the giant crocodile with the white stripe casually devour everything on its side of the river.
She had suspected that Andstella probably had a few tricks up their sleeve, but this was just, was just…
The Bujang Senang eyed Wu Ming from the water, its rows of razor-sharp teeth glinting in the sunlight.
Wu Ming eyed the crocodile defiantly from the anchored sampan, the Panang Ilang held high.
They stared at each other for some time—the last two aggressors in this bloody battle of attrition.
The sun was beginning to set.
Finally, the crocodile god spoke in a deep, rumbling voice.
“Tell me, Wu Ming, why do we fight?”
“Foolish reptile, I don’t need to answer to you!”
The Bujang Senang growled, and the sampan Ming stood on shook violently.
“Humor me for a second, Madam Ming.” There was a hint of sarcasm in its voice.
Wu Ming steadied herself. It was hard to be too rude to a god.
“I fight to serve and protect the interests of my country, obviously!”
“In what way are these interests served and protected?”
“Well the old Gods are returning aren’t they?
Humanity has forgotten what it is like to submit to the absolute authority of higher beings. Spoilt by a lack of supervision, humans have run rampant like errant children – failing to look beyond their own selfish interests to the detriment of the planet and their sisters and brothers.
So the Gods are returning to teach them their place whether they like it or not – the only way men can learn to be men is under the heel of a boot.
My nation wants to get to the portal first, so we can strike a deal that hopefully works in our favor.”
“What if I told you,” rumbled the crocodile avatar of Baker Andstella, “that the Gods never left?”
Wu Ming stared at the reptile.
“You mean minor gods like yourself? You don’t really matter that much!”
More rumbling. Wu Ming was reminded of the distant thunder of an approaching storm. It slowly dawned on her that the Bujang Senang was laughing.
“Haha, no, Madam Ming, what I mean is that there has never been a time on this world without any Gods. It is simply that the New Gods have replaced the Old Ones.”
Wu Ming looked confused.
“Whatever the hell do you mean, O wisest of reptiles?”
“Remember the French Revolution.”
“The French Revolution?” Wu Ming recalled her history lessons at school.
“The eighteenth-century movement that resulted in the overthrow of the French Monarchy and the dissolution of the Church? Purportedly in favor of a new age of Reason that proclaimed Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity for all?”
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.
Bhengu listened intently from his hiding place in the foliage by the east bank – vague recollections of his dream from last night came to mind.
Liberty. Equality. Fraternity.
“And did everyone live happily ever after?”
Wu Ming remembered the chapter on the Reign Of Terror – the undiscerning guillotine coming down on everyone in the name of Reason.
The crocodile deity seemed to read her thoughts.
“Precisely, Madame Ming. Once again, humanity committed Unreason in the name of Reason. In the end, none of the problems the Revolution had set out to solve were actually solved. Because the old cults had been replaced by a new cult with a different name, the Cult of Reason.
The subjugation continued, and the oppression continued. But this time, the boot heel was called ‘Reason’. The new Gods of Greed held their sway.
Humanity talked about how far they had come, patted itself on the back in the name of Progress.
But the poor and unfortunate in city slums continue to bow to the rich and wealthy because Wealth is God. Selfishness is a divine value. The rich get richer, and the poor rarely get a fair fighting chance.
Different political systems are just other names for the same problem since they eventually devolve into systems designed to concentrate power into the hands of the few anyway.
Because Power is God and goes hand in hand with the God of Selfishness.”
Wu Ming digested this for a moment.
“So if I take what you say at face value, how does getting to the portal help any of us? If the Old Gods are released, they aren’t going to be any better than the new ones, are they?
If the portal is blocked somehow, the New Gods still hold reign, and humanity still gets the shit end of the stick.”
“Very good, Wu Ming, we finally get to the crux of the problem.
Humanity needs to free itself from the yoke of all Gods for good, whether they be Old or New.
I’m not saying that the result would immediately be a utopia. There would be growing pains, but the learning curve would be worth it.”
“How in the name of Earth and Hell are we going to do that?”
The giant crocodile’s beady reptilian eyes flickered and rested on the Parang Ilang.
“With the help of the sword and its Blood-Servant, of course.
The Parang Ilang has seemed to take a particular liking to you.”
“Oh has it now?” Wu Ming knew she should be appalled, but she couldn’t help sounding pleased.
“Wu Ming”, rumbled the Bujang Senang, “We will need you to step through the Gates Of Hell and thrust the Parang Ilang into the heart of the Psychic Link Generator.”
- Submitted by Ishan Chopra, India