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Traveller of Both
Time and Space: Episode 13
“Kumar was wrong,” Shamshir Talatra said. He swatted a fat jhuraud fly that had landed on his breastplate. Around him, waist-high, brown grass swayed in the breeze. Before him, the lush, green jungle—buzzing and squawking with the calls of insects, birds, and monkeys—loomed. Behind him, a low hill, covered in grass, and the unremarkable entrance to the cave he had come from. The cave that led back to the planet he had been left on.
“Eh?” Raja Sabeer Ansari asked, scratching the tiger Panja behind his white-tabbed ears. “Wrong about what?”
“He told me he didn’t think I would ever come back here,” Shamshir Talatra replied. “To Veda. Yet, here I am. And I wish I knew what I was doing here.”
“You’re coming back home,” Raja Sabeer Ansari said. “Why else would Kumar have asked me to bring you here? I’ll signal the fortress and have them retrieve us. We can wait here until they arrive.”
“So, I’m just going back?” Shamshir Talatra asked.
“Of course you are,” Raja Sabeer Ansari replied. “What were you expecting would happen?.”
Shamshir Talatra shook his head. “Me going back with you is not a good idea.”
“Why not?” Raja Sabeer Ansari asked.
“If this—” Shamshir Talatra said, indicating the landscape—“really is Veda—”
“Of course it is.”
“—and if it’s from your time, meaning my past—”
“What difference should that make?”
“—then how am I going to fit in, here? You said yourself that during your time, I’m a seven-year old boy. What would happen if I went back to our fortress and met myself? What if I did something in this time that undoes something in the future? What if—”
Raja Sabeer Ansari shook his head. “Leave that to the Librarians to sort out. The important thing is that you’re back where you belong.”
“No, I don’t belong here anymore.”
“Don’t be stupid. Of course you do,” Raja Sabeer Ansari insisted. “Kumar told me you had been left behind. I rescued you. It’s—”
“Yes, I was left behind,” Shamshir Talatra said. “But that was because they wanted me to kill myself.”
Raja Sabeer Ansari didn’t say anything for a moment. “Who wanted you to kill yourself?”
“My advisor, Talwar Chakram, and Raja Khandar Madu. They had me removed from office”
“Why would they ask such a thing?”
“Because I got my men killed.”
“Every mission has casualties,” Raja Sabeer Ansari replied.
“I lost them all. All but one.”
Raja Sabeer Ansari stroked his beard. “That is bad,” he agreed. “But you would not be the first officer that has happened to.”
“I should have done better,” Shamshir Talatra said. “I should have known better. I was Raja.”
“Like you. In fact, in your future, you name me to succeed you.”
“I see,” Raja Sabeer Ansari said. “Well, what has happened has happened. And what will happen, will happen. It cannot be undone, else we would not get to this point.”
Shamshir Talatra shook his head, “All those Marines are dead because of me.”
Raja Sabeer Ansari placed a gauntlet on Shamshir’s shoulder, “That was a different life. An old life. This is a new one.” He put on his helmet. “I’m going to contact the base. They’ll have a Thunderhawk here in minutes. We’ll take you back home. You can have some food, a bath, some sleep. You look like you need all of those. Tomorrow, we’ll discuss how you fit in here.”
“All right,” Shamshir Talatra sighed.
“That wasn’t a request. I am still Raja, after all.”
Raja Sabeer Ansari stepped away and spoke into the comlink in his helmet. Shamshir Talatra crouched next to Panja, the big, mustard-colored tiger. “Hello,” Shamshir Talatra said. “How about a big scratch behind the ears? Would you like that?”
The tiger stared at him with yellow eyes.
Slowly, Shamshir Talatra reached out his hand.
“Don’t look into his eyes,” Raja Sabeer Ansari said. “He thinks you’re challenging him.”
“Right,” Shamshir Talatra said, standing up.
He waited for a few minutes while Raja Sabeer Ansari kept calling. Finally, the other man pulled off his helmet. “I can’t get anyone at base to answer. Before I left, the com-mechs had said there would be unusual sunspot activity, but I didn’t think it would be so soon, or be able to disrupt our channels.”
“Sunspots?” Shamshir Talatra asked.
Shamshir Talatra shook his head. “How long until you’re overdue and they send out a search party?”
Raja Sabeer Ansari checked his wrist chronometer. “Not for another three days. I thought this would take longer than it did.”
“And you just came by yourself?”
“I have Panja. Besides, are you really one to question? Kumar told me that you liked to do things… ‘independently,’ as he put it.”
“Did he now?” Shamshir Talatra asked. “Maybe we’ll just have to talk about what else Kumar told you about me. How far is it to base?”
“A few days’ walk, I think. I can’t be sure. I came by Thunderhawk.”
“Panja knows the way,” Raja Sabeer Ansari said.
“Of course he does,” Shamshir Talatra
They walked for two days and two nights through the sweltering, screeching jungle, the towering tree canopy blocking most of the light. They ate only a few rations, drank sparingly from streams they crossed, rested briefly and slept not at all, relying on their superhuman stamina. Panja seemed to share their strength; on the few times when the Marines stopped, the great tiger paced, tail twitching, as if annoyed at the delay. Every so often, Raja Sabeer Ansari would attempt to contact the base, but received only static.
On the morning of the third day, they emerged from the jungle onto the golden, grassy plain that covered most of the continent.
“That’s where we’re going,” Raja Sabeer Ansari said, pointing to a tiny, dazzling white speck on the horizon. “Our fortress.”
“I thought you said it was only a few days’ walk,” Shamshir Talatra replied.
“My estimates seem to have been off.”
They tramped on for two more scorching days and nights, eating little, not sleeping. The white speck slowly grew larger and larger, but neither man could contact it by comlink. On the morning of the third day, the sixth since they had started walking, it resembled a small cloud at the end of the sky. At about noon on that day, Shamshir Talatra stumbled and fell, nearly crashing into Panja.
Leaping aside, the tiger snarled at him, baring its fangs. Raja Sabeer Ansari took Shamshir Talatra’s arm and helped him sit up.
“You’re exhausted,” Raja Sabeer Ansari said. “We’ll camp here. I’ll hunt up some decent food for you, not these rations. Perhaps there’s fresh water nearby.”
“No,” Shamshir Talatra said, hauling himself to his feet. “I’m all right. I can make it.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Raja Sabeer Ansari replied. “How many days were you wandering around that other planet before you fell down that fissure?” He grabbed Shamshir Talatra’s wrist and read the monitor there. “Look at your vitals: all your levels are dangerously high. It wouldn’t surprise me if you have an infected wound or an alien virus.”
“I’m fine,” Shamshir Talatra said. “How about if you try hailing the fortress again?”
Raja Sabeer Ansari tried again while Shamshir Talatra rested, eyes closed, for a few minutes.
“No luck,” Raja Sabeer Ansari said.
“Of course not,” Shamshir Talatra growled.
They went on. As the afternoon waned, they saw trees ahead and caught the faint whiff of wet rot. When the sun was descending behind them, casting long shadows over the land, they found themselves at a dark swamp.
Panja began leading them southeast, around the swamp. Shamshir Talatra stopped.
“What is it?” Raja Sabeer Ansari asked.
“Why aren’t we going through?” Shamshir Talatra asked. “The fortress is that way,” he said, pointing east, into the swamp.
“You want to walk through there, at night, in your condition?” Raja Sabeer Ansari asked. “Are you daft?”
“It does seem like the wrong decision,” Shamshir Talatra said. “But Kumar once told me that I should make the wrong decision.”
“It seems to me that it was a series of wrong decisions that brought you to this point in your life,” Raja Sabeer Ansari reminded him. “We’re following Panja and going around.”
“No,” Shamshir Talatra said.
“What do you mean, ‘no?’ I am your Raja. The ground you are standing on is mine. The air you breathe is mine. Your armor, your weapons, your rations—those are mine. You are mine. Your life is mine. Don’t you dare say ‘no’ to me, Marine.”
Shamshir Talatra unholstered his bolt pistol and held it out, handle first.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Raja Sabeer Ansari said.
“I’ve already been thrown out of the Tigers,” Shamshir Talatra replied. “You want to throw me out again? Or do you just want to shoot me? Either way, I don’t care.”
For a few moments, neither man said anything. Panja growled softly.
Shamshir Talatra holstered his pistol. “I’m going that way,” he said, jerking his head towards the swamp. “And you’re going to come with me. Kumar asked you to bring me to the fortress, and for some reason that I don’t know yet, bringing me to the fortress is important.”
Raja Sabeer Ansari sighed. “It is important, but Kumar asked me not to tell you why—not yet. If you are dead set on going through the swamp, then we will.”
“What about him?” Shamshir Talatra asked, glancing at Panja.
“Tigers like water. Don’t you know anything about animals?”
“I’m learning more than I like,”
Shamshir Talatra replied.
They headed off—Panja first, then Raja Sabeer Ansari, then Shamshir Talatra—into the swamp, pushing their way through thin, green grasses taller than the Space Marines; past ferns that emitted a stench like rotting meat; around thick bushes with broad leaves that had serrated edges. At first, the water only covered their ankles, but as they went on, it grew deeper, until it came to their waists and Panja was paddling from one hammock to another, wending their way east.
Flies and midges, mosquitoes and moths buzzed and whined and flittered through the night air, but the Marines took no notice of them. Snakes and small crocodiles sometimes swam by for a look at them, but a growl from Panja or a splash from the Marines chased them off.
“You see?” Shamshir Talatra said. “This isn’t so bad.”
“If you say so,” Raja Sabeer Ansari replied. He was using his combat knife to hack away vines and other foliage that blocked their way.
“Why don’t you use the Ebon Blade for that?” Shamshir Talatra said, pointing to the sword on the other man’s hip.
“That weapon is sacred and is the symbol of my office,” Raja Sabeer Ansari replied. “It is not a gardening tool.” He glanced back at Shamshir Talatra. “I am curious, when you were stripped of your title what happened to the Ebon Blade? I’m assuming you were carrying it.”
“Talwar Chakram gave it to Chandramatie Bahl, my second-in-command, and named her Acting Raja.”
“A woman in charge of our jatis? Unthinkable. It goes against tradition.”
“She isn’t the first. Khandar Madu, the Raja of Mahaduyana, is also a woman.”
“And that’s how they refer to her? As ‘Raja?’ Not ‘Rani?’”
“She kept the masculine title out of respect for tradition.”
Ansari snorted. “If she really respected tradition, she wouldn’t have accepted the regency in the first place.”
“I’ve never cared much for tradition. That was apparently one of my failings,” Shamshir Talatra said.
“It’s important for a leader to know and be mindful of tradition,” Raja Sabeer Ansari replied. “Even if it means little to him, it may mean a great deal to his followers—or to his peers.”
“Before I went on the mission—the last mission, when I lost all my men—” Shamshir Talatra said, “Khandar Madu and her advisor and Talwar Chakram and I met and argued over tradition.” He chuckled. “Talwar Chakram told me she regretted that you had made me Raja.”
He reflected for a moment. “Kumar was there. That’s when he told me he didn’t think I would ever come back to Veda. What do you know about him?”
“Kumar?” Raja Sabeer Ansari asked. “Not much. He’s more like a sorcerer than he is an Inquisitor. He can travel through time and space at will, but I don’t know how he does it.”
“He has some kind of grey orb,” Shamshir Talatra said. “I saw him use it to stop time.”
“Interesting. Kumar was the one who re-discovered Veda, back when our people were primitives enslaved by the Ozone Scorpions. He told the Imperium about Veda and suggested that a chapter be raised to liberate it. He guided the first Fighting Tigers here.”
“I’d heard that.”
Raja Sabeer Ansari smiled. “Ah, so maybe you did learn something in your history training. After the Scorpions were driven off, he helped our founder, Shiva, defeat the demonic rakshasas that dwelt in wild, dark places.”
“That's fortunate for us,” Shamshir Talatra said, pushing wet, black leaves out of his path. “I’ve traveled all over Ghuyarashtra, but I don’t recall this swamp.”
“Neither do I. But as you might have guessed, cartography and navigation are not my strengths.” He stopped and looked over to Shamshir Talatra. “Speaking of strength, we should find a hammock or a big tree or somewhere else out of the water and let you rest.”
“I am very tired,” Shamshir Talatra said.
“Finally, he admits it,” Raja Sabeer Ansari replied. “Look there,” he said, pointing east.
They had sloshed through to a wide space—a pond—where the grass was shorter and no trees grew. The silver moon gleamed overhead. Something huge and dark squatted on the opposite shore, where the trees began again.
“Undoubtedly, that’s deep water ahead,” Raja Sabeer Ansari said. “But I think that’s a building on the other side. Can you make it?”
“I can make it,” Shamshir Talatra said.
The Marines sealed their helmets, turned on their re-breather equipment, lit their shoulder lamps, and trduged on, descending into the water. When it went over his head, Shamshir Talatra watched Panja’s powerful paws paddling above him. Then a thick brown cloud of mud and silt engulfed him.
“Damn!” Raja Sabeer Ansari said, coming through the comlink in Shamshir Talatra’s helmet. “I slipped in this muck and— AAUUUGH!”
Through the mud, Shamshir Talatra caught a glimpse of something long and black wrapping itself around Raja Sabeer Ansari’s helmet and torso, pinning one of his arms. The python was as thick as either Marines’ waist, an ancient monster that did not fear these armored intruders.
“Hang on!” Shamshir Talatra called, drawing his knife and lumbering forward, the water and his fatigue slowing his movements. He stabbed the python, but the serpent only enveloped Raja Sabeer Ansari in the rest of its coils and started crushing.
“Find its head! Find its head!” Raja Sabeer Ansari called. He slipped again and crashed to the muddy bottom of the pond, the python still wrapped around him. Shamshir Talatra lost precious seconds looking for the snake’s head, then dug the knife into the python’s side and dragged the blade up, up, up, along its thick body. A red cloud of blood blinded him. His arms ached from the strain as he sliced further and further. His twin hearts pounded and his lungs burned. Suddenly, the snake went limp and slid off Raja Sabeer Ansari, its guts washing away, its loosened coils sinking into the mud.
Shamshir Talatra hauled Raja Sabeer Ansari to his feet. “I’m all right,” the Raja said. “It couldn’t crush my armor. If it had burst a hose or a cable, though…well, that would be another story. How are you?”
“I’m…all right,” Shamshir Talatra gasped, resting his hands on his knees.
“Let’s get you ashore,” Raja Sabeer Ansari said. Taking Shamshir Talatra’s arm, he trudged forward. After a few minutes, they came out of the water and on to a series of mossy stone steps. Panja sat at the top of them.
“A lot of help you were back there,” Shamshir Talatra said to Panja. The great cat flicked his tail once and yawned.
“What’s this?” Raja Sabeer Ansari asked, pulling off his helmet and mounting the steps. A low stone building with a domed roof lay at the top.
“Some sort of temple?” Shamshir Talatra asked, also removing his helmet.
“A shrine, I think,” Raja Sabeer Ansari corrected him. “There is a difference.”
“So you say,” Shamshir Talatra replied. “Our comlinks worked back there, in the water. Maybe the interference is gone. Maybe you can call base.”
“All in good time,” Raja Sabeer Ansari said. “Let’s go inside so you can rest.”
The shrine was covered in moss and vines, and even with their superhuman strength, it took both of them two tries before they could wrench open the corroded bronze doors.
“Let me go first,” Raja Sabeer Ansari said, snapping on his shoulder light and drawing the Ebon Blade.
“Is he going to be all right out here?” Shamshir Talatra asked. Panja had stretched out under a tree and was already asleep.
“At least as well as we’ll be in there,” Raja Sabeer Ansari replied.
Ducking their heads as they went through the narrow doorway, the two Marines crept inside. The shrine was a single room with an arched ceiling. On a pedestal in the center of the room was a bronze statue, twice as tall as them, of an eight-armed Marine, in armor, standing atop a tiger-headed demon, also of bronze. Six of the Marine’s hands were empty; one held what looked like an actual sword; the last hand gripped a real tiger pelt.
“What is this?” Shamshir Talatra asked, his shoulder light trained on the statue’s face. It was a young face, with a thin nose and the hint of a smile. The sculptor had forged long, curly locks spilling onto the Marine’s shoulder pads. Shamshir Talatra couldn’t tell if the figure was supposed to be a man or a woman.
“It’s Shiva,” Raja Sabeer Ansari replied, running his fingers along the bared bronze fangs of the snarling monster under the statue’s feet. “Apparently, you didn’t learn very much in history training.” He looked up and read the ancient script etched along the arch. “See? It says, ‘Shiva Nagordarika, Founder of the Fighting Tigers, Maharaja of Veda, Conqueror of the Rakshasas.’ I suppose this fellow is supposed to be one of them. The rakshasas, I mean,” he said, touching the demon’s face again. “Curious that the artist chose to depict the rakshasa like this.”
“What do you mean?”
“Rakshasas were shape-shifters, masters of illusion. They could appear in any form.”
“And those things?” Shamshir Talatra said, pointing to the statue’s hands.
“Relics,” Raja Sabeer Ansari said. “The Scepter of Shiva and the Pelt of the Great Man-Eater.”
“How long do you think all this has been here?”
“Thousands of years. Five thousand, actually. It was probably built soon after the Tigers took control of Veda.”
“How can you tell?” Shamshir Talatra asked.
“Well, as I said, the language used is very old. That, and there’s no mention of further events,” Raja Sabeer Ansari explained. “No mention of Shiva being ambushed and crippled during the Shindering of the Templars, centuries later. No mention of him being put into Dreadnought armor, or the Ultramarines temporarily taking over Veda. No mention of the Battle for Bray, when he destroyed the Avatar of the Eldar Burning God. Or any of the other battles he fought.
“But enough of that,” Raja Sabeer Ansari said. “It’s late, and we’ve traveled a very long way without rest.” He snapped off his shoulder light.
Shamshir Talatra doused his as well and the shrine was dark save for a shaft of moonlight that came through a hole in the ceiling. The moonlight illuminated the statue. Shamshir Talatra sat down with his back against the base of the pedestal. His head was already sagging to his chest from exhaustion. “I’m tired. Let’s stay here tonight.”
“Yes, this is far enough,” Raja Sabeer Ansari said from the darkness. But as he stepped into the moonlight, the figure of Sabeer Ansari was gone. In his place was a seven-foot tall monster with the fur-covered body of a muscular man and the head of a tiger. In place of the Ebon Blade, it held a scimitar. A ghostly green aura covered the rakshasa and its sword.
“I’ve done everything Kumar commanded
me to do,” it growled, and raised its weapon.
Posted June 2007
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