Dravid expected Kali border security to be much tighter than it was. All he got was a body search that was routinely thorough, and a few old-fashioned tests and checks. It reminded him of a visit he had made as a young rightwing Hindu activist to an Indian nuclear weapon testing facility back in 1998, after the Pokhran atomic tests. His briefings had been correct in this respect: Kali did not seem to have much use for 21st century safe-care.
The Border guards finished with him in a few minutes then led him down into the basement of the Border Post and on through a concrete corridor that was at least a kilometre long in his estimation. Although there were far too many turns to be certain: It could be twice as long, or half. He was surprised at the absence of defences. After all the build-up, it was an anti-climactic letdown. Could the disputed area truly be this easy to infiltrate? A single platoon of Black Cat commandoes armed with nominal safe-care weaponry could take this border post and entrance in a few minutes, he estimated. The dozen-odd border guards he had seen above ground had borne no visible weapons.
Then he remembered the first and longest of his briefings.
Shalinitai, the renegade Kaliite-turned-consultant to the Disputed Territories Task Force (DTTF) had commented on this very fact during her lecture on Kali's political history: "Do not be fooled by Kali's apparent lack of defences. Like the Goddess after whom it is named, the disputed region that aspires to nation status under the name of Kali is armed with something far more dangerous than physical weaponry. She is armed with the power of the spirit. The power of faith."
Dravid had resisted the urge to yawn. He had heard this kind of "empty-hand-spirit-power" mania too many times to even give it credence by mocking it. He had also seen any number of similarly deluded cults and spiritual blindfaithers walk like fools into the trajectory of safe-care weapons, only to have their very real physical bodies torn to shreds by unspiritual projectiles and explosives that needed no faith in invisible deities to perform their lethal function. Faith might move mountains; but lasers cut flesh. And without flesh to sustain it, there was nothing left to harbour faith.
Sensing his bored scepticism, the renegade had paused and sighed softly. Almost resigned to his indifference, she had added, "Kali exists only because the people support its existence and because India is still a democracy. That is a far more formidable defence than any safe-care arsenal."
This he found more acceptable. It was a political argument, one of the classic cornerstones of every nationwide cult that was allowed to fester in the armpit of a republic under the guise of freedom of faith and right to political dissension. There had been an adversarial gleam in her dark eyes as if challenging him to challenge this statement. But Dravid was too much of a cynic to waste time on political arguments either. As far as he was concerned, they could dispense with the briefings and motivational lectures. He didn't need the comfort of political conviction to help him do his job.
Assassination was murder no matter what the justification. The only motivation he needed was the paycheck. As if sensing this from his lack of risibility, Shalinitai had paused in her briefing. Deviating unexpectedly from her subject, she had poured herself a glass of plain water and said.
"You will find no resistance when you go to assassinate Durga Maa. It will be the easiest assassination you have ever committed."
Dravid had waited for the punch line he knew was coming. Moral lectures always had a punch line.
"It's living with the knowledge of your act that will make the rest of your life unbearable," she said.
He hadn't smiled. He hadn't needed to. She knew the smile was there, behind his inscrutable face. He read the awareness in her eyes and sought the inevitable frustration she must feel after having made her strongest argument and failed. There was none. Only a faint glimmer of sympathy.
"I pity your task, assassin," she had said. He hadn't smiled at that either. He had been pitied before too. It was one of the most predictable responses, apart from self-righteous rage.
The corridor curved one final time and ended abruptly in the entrance to a very narrow stairwell. Dravid drew his large frame in to accommodate the inconveniently low ceilings and close walls. As they climbed, their footfalls echoed jarringly in the confined space. The short lithe, smaller-built female guards moved easily upwards, setting a hard pace for him to match. He had visited enough ancient Indian fortresses to understand the principle: Invaders would be forced to attack in single file, crouched awkwardly low. A single guard could defend the stairwell, and the piled bodies of the wounded and dead would make progress even more tortuous.
It was a virtually impregnable defence — a thousand years ago. He glimpsed tiny slits in the wall and ceilings, and recalled similar apertures all along the corridor. He had taken them for air vents at first but now understood that they were in fact guard posts. The corridor was lit from above, illuminating him and the guards as they climbed endlessly, but effectively concealing the watching guards stationed behind the walls.
Dravid wasn't impressed. Medieval subterfuge and manual defences were no match for modern safe-care. A single safe-care biogas capsule, delivered by any number of methods into the corridor, could wipe out the entire garrison of unseen defenders. The self-consuming biogases would take barely three seconds to render the air safe again and that would be the end of Kali's stupidly outdated defence system. He had climbed more than a thousand steps and was suffering from the bent posture and elbow-and-shoulder-bruising closeness of the concrete walls when the stairwell finally widened and rose high enough for him to straighten up. The alcove resembled a small circular chamber in a stone tower, again of obviously medieval design.
It was ironic in a way, he thought as the guards led him through a series of corridors and transitional chambers. Whatever little he had seen of Kali so far was clearly modelled on the architecture of medieval India. Yet Kali itself went to great pains to insist it was not part of India. Not according to the 700,000-odd renegades who had taken refuge in this tiny pocket of disputed territory, defying Indian national laws and international sanctions to declare its independence as a sovereign nation in its own right.
To these cultist fanatics, this little area of Central India bordering the legitimate Indian states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa was the nation of Kali, a concept as fiercely independent as the concept of Israel had become after the Nazi pogroms of World War II, almost three quarters of a century earlier. The world's only all-woman nation. To the Indian Government, though, this was simply Disputed Territory, just as areas of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir had once been designated before the ReMerger with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal ten years ago. United India could not afford to sanction a Kali, let alone acknowledge its legitimacy. That was why he was here now. To end the problem by rooting out the source.
Destroy the brood-mother and the species dies out.
The guards fell back, surprising him. He could not conceive of a reason why he should be allowed to proceed unescorted. Yet when he turned to look at them questioningly, the one who had led the detail, a short, dark skinned muscular woman with scar tissue obscuring her left cheek and neck, pointed unmistakeably down the corridor. He was to proceed alone.
Dravid shrugged, amused at yet another ludicrously amateurish security lapse, and walked on. He had gone several hundred paces before he realized what was odd about this particular corridor. His footfalls made no echoes. The reason for this became clear when he reached the end of the corridor, another circular chamber.
A slit in the wall revealed not the darkness of the subterranean passage or the diffused top lighting. Instead it exposed a slice of brilliant blue sky. He was undoubtedly in a tower. He realized with a start that this was the very same edifice that he had seen on various sat-images during his briefings. One of several hundred such towers positioned at regular intervals along the border of the besieged territory, ringing the entire disputed territory like giant stone sentinels. They were believed to be guardian outposts constructed to watch over the Line of Control that demarcated Kali's disputed landscape from the surrounding Indian territory.
"Envoy Dravid," said the woman who was waiting in the sunlit tower chamber. "Please be seated." She indicated a thin woven mat on the ground, identical to the one on which she was seated cross-legged in the yogic lotus posture. Dravid scanned the room and surrounding area and couldn't believe his luck. No guards, no weapons, no defences. In short, no Safe Care at all. Dravid was unable to believe that his mission could be this easy to accomplish. He looked at the woman who was watching him calmly.
"I am Durga Maa," she said. "The one you seek to assassinate. Tell me, Envoy, would you like to kill me at once, or would you like to maintain the pretence of a diplomatic debate for awhile?"
Dravid blinked rapidly.
She smiled. "I suggest that we get the assassination over with first. That way, your mind will be free to discuss the larger issues at stake here, without distraction."
And she opened her arms in the universal Hindu gesture of greeting. "Sva-swagatam, Mrityudaata." Welcome, Angel of Death.
.... There is more of this story ...