City of the Dead
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
Coming down the stairs from the bank,
Tauseef saw the dead man for the first time. He was standing right at the
bottom of the steps, blocking the way, and made no attempt to step aside.
"Excuse me," Tauseef said.
The dead man did not react. He was dressed in a villager's loose robe, and had a turban on his head
which was unravelling so one end straggled on his shoulder. The beard on his
hollow cheeks was smeared with dust. Only his eyes moved, slowly, following
"I said, excuse me," Tauseef said, and tried to squeeze past. He'd just managed it when he felt a
hand tugging at his coat, dead fingers digging into the sleeve. He turned.
"What do you want?" he
demanded. "Let me go!"
The dead man's mouth
opened, the stiff bluish tongue within struggling to form words. One of his
cracked leather shoes scraped on the pavement, as though his whole body was
struggling together in the effort to talk. It was no use, and after a moment he
shook his head dismally.
Tauseef looked at him and
down at the hand which was still clutching his sleeve. The fingers were gnarled
and spotted with flecks of dried blood, the nails blue with dirt. He tugged at
his arm, and the clutching hand finally fell away.
"Bloody hell," he muttered to himself and walked away down the pavement. The dead were becoming a
real problem now. Once upon a time they were hardly to be seen, but now they
swarmed the city, doing what they wanted, where they wanted. There were more of
them than ever. And no wonder, too, considering what was going on in the
Briefly, he raised his
eyes to the yellow hills in the west. Beyond those eroded humps of stone and
dirt, the plateau stretched, beaten by sun and drought and civil war. Even here
in the city, food had become hard enough to come by. He did not want to think
A low flying drone buzzed
by overhead, the whirring propeller glittering in the sun, and there was a
flash. When he turned to look, the dead man was stretched out at the bottom of
the steps. The drone must have been on one of the anti-dead patrols the city
had started in an erratic attempt to do something about the problem. He watched
the small drone bank and turn away between two buildings, and was about to walk
on when he saw the dead man stir. Apparently the drone had missed.
Then he saw the dead man
try to rise, only to fall back again on the concrete. A couple of people had
stopped to look, but they hurried on quickly again. A dead man was far too
common a sight to waste time over, and besides, the drone might be back. The
drone operators didn't always care about who was in the vicinity when they
blasted one of the dead.
Tauseef hesitated. For
some reason, he felt a sudden surge of sympathy towards the dead man, even
though that was silly. There was as much point feeling sympathy towards one of
the dead as there was for a piece of stone or a fallen leaf. And yet when the
dead man raised an arm towards him, he turned and walked back, and, unmindful
of the dirt being rubbed on his coat, helped the corpse to its feet. The drone
had done damage. The dead man's robe was charred on the side, and there was the
odour of burned flesh.
"Where do you want to
go?" he asked the dead man, as though there could be an answer. The dead man
clutched at his coat with both hands and stared into his face. One of his eyes
was filmy, grey and blind; the other, for all that he was dead, was bright and
black. His mouth opened again, as he tried to talk.
"Do you want to go
somewhere?" Tauseef said, feeling stupid. "Is that it?"
The dead man shook his
head. Not much, just enough for Tauseef to be able to make it out, but it was a
head-shake, nevertheless. His clutching hands would not let go of the coat.
"Well, you can't stay
here," Tauseef said. "That drone..." he pointed up to the air. "It's going to
be back, and next time it won't miss."
The dead man's eyes, the
blind one and the bright one, followed his finger. The hands did not relax
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