Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Jackals of the Indus

I. Tuesday

The remainder of the day of the 22nd goes by slowly. Peter and Irene find themselves crowded from the trench by Humphries and Daniel, who are busy extracting and cataloguing yet more bricks, and by the grosser excavations of the Sindhi laborers. "Don't worry Ma'am-ji, Peter," Daniel cheerily assures them. "I'm quite sure that there will be plenty of dirt for both of you to dig tomorrow. Ha! – if you so please, Miss Howell!"

And so Peter and Irene pass the remainder of the hot day by themselves. At a loss for other things to do, Peter spends some time helping Irene to unpack and organize the veritable library of archaeological catalogs and other scholarly references that she has brought with her. And what a mass of ink and paper it is! In these books, there are countless descriptions of materials unearthed from sites throughout Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, Australia, South Asia, and North America. For all the economic, political, and strategic troubles inherent in managing such a vast dominion, one of the greatest outcomes of the British Empire is the accumulation and disciplining of such disparate sources of historical and pre-historical knowledge. Truly, without the heaving machinery that is the Imperial bureaucracy, the collation of such an extensive collection of comparative materials from the far corners of the planet might have been impossible.

For his part, the Major spends the rest of his time in his tent with the flap closed, permitting only his right-hand man, Mukherjee to enter. Late in the afternoon, as the Sergeant brings some chai to the excluded duo, he explains that, "Major McCormick is very busy writing letters to his family. And to Sir Marshall and Banerji as well." He leaves it at that.

II. That Night

It is cold tonight; surprisingly so. In their respective tents, Peter and Irene have bundled themselves in harsh wool blankets to fight off the unexpected chill.

Tonight, it seems, something has unnerved the jackals. They yap and chatter in the dark night, their squealing voices echoing across the Indus and into the camp, making it difficult to sleep. Are they hunting? Do they seek mates? Are they mourning? The Westerners in the camp hear nothing but cackling and screeching, and the jackals' voices tell no stories.

It is nearly three o'clock in the morning when the jackals suddenly and conspicuously cease their prattling. Perhaps there are wolves about? The larger canines are known to hunt their diminutive brethren.

If only! After some minutes, the jackals resume their galling chorus, howling more loudly and more madly before. Such a cacophony, neither Peter nor Irene have ever heard before – not in Egypt, not in the Sindh. The pitch of their feral cries climbs and climbs, escalating into a racket of whistles, not unlike the whining of worn brakes on a train, but staccato and even harsher to the ear. Something must be very wrong in the world of the jackals.

Irene, who is already a bit worried about her standing at the camp, finds it very difficult to ignore the jackals' cries. It seems to her that the jackals are speaking – but not to one another. To whom, then? She cannot seem to get the idea out of her head that there is some message in the frustratingly uninterpretable shrieks of the little beasts. Her mind strains against her will to decipher it. Perhaps her rationale has been aggravated by her linguistic hallucination earlier in the day, or perhaps she is simply over-tired and half-dreaming. Sleep comes to her only in brief fits.

She closes her eyes once again. In the space between two yelps, Irene hears something moving amongst the tents – some animal, she senses. Have the jackals come to scavenge?

Then – a sound like wood straining and splitting – and a crash! The source of the noise is just outside the front flaps of Peter's and Irene's respective tents.

Something is happening in the antiquities tent!

(Peter passes his sanity check vs. the jackals' unnatural chatter. Irene fails hers: -1 sanity point. Actions that have taken place between sections one and two may be privately emailed to me – but only if they would substantially interrupt continuity or if it is absolutely necessary that they be concealed from other players. Action picks up at the crashing sound, which both Peter and Irene hear. I will wait for responses from both players before commenting.)


HomoDM said...

Peter was cursed with the inability to sleep through even minor, mundane noises, let alone the constant, cacophonous caterwauling of these jackals.

Curled up beneath the abrasive wool blanket, he prayed for peace even as he attempted to muffle the sound by burying his head under two pillows. He smiled and sighed in relief when the jackals stopped the racket ("Finally! Thank God!"), and swore loudly when their calls intensified after only a few minutes of respite.

Angrily, he threw off his coverings and jumped out of bed. "Enough is enough!" He cried, retrieving his revolver from its trunk. Hopefully the sound of gunfire would convince the canine vermin to quiet their voices or take their congress elsewhere.

Peter had put on a long coat and was lacing up his second boot when he heard the crash from the direction of the antiquities tent.
Was it a thief? "Oh, no you don't," Peter promised grimly, grabbing his weapon and charging into the night.

Irene Howell said...

It was awful, more terrible than anything that Irene had heard before. She was no stranger to wild animals and the sometimes disturbing noises that they could make, and she had even heard jackals before when sleeping in the dig house. But this was different; these animals were making wholly unnatural noises that seemed to weave together into a sinister conversation or argument about…well, Irene could not guess what they were shrieking about, but it was nothing good, that was for certain. It was a bad, bad omen. She shivered even though she was sweating from tossing and turning in fright.

She knew she would not sleep well, if at all again before morning, and that made her angry, which helped to chase away some of the fear. She tried again to press her pillow over her ears, but she could still hear them. The horror of it! How could anyone sleep through it? Or were they all cowering under their pillows like her? Probably not. Judging from how well she was operating today, this was likely to be an auditory hallucination.

But Irene was positive that she was not going mad, not yet. In fact, as she dared to believe, the yelps were further apart now. Perhaps the horrid creatures were tiring of their games. Tentatively, Irene pulled the pillow away and then immediately wished she’d kept it to her ears. There were other noises now, and these were worse than the screaming scavengers.

Something, Irene realized with remarkably calm that only comes with a realization so inevitable that it numbs the mind, was outside amongst the tents. Something or someone was prowling right outside her tent...

And then the crash came and Irene let out a brief cry of shock and was out of her bed before she could think twice. At least her instinct was still to head towards danger rather than run from it; the jackals had not abolished her courage entirely. She didn’t know where her little pistol was, so she grabbed her knife instead. It probably wouldn’t do much good, but she felt better having it nonetheless.

Peter had gotten outside before her, and he too was racing to see what had happened. She opened her mouth to speak, but she had no idea what she ought to say, so she simply dashed after him towards the antiquities tent, her eyes darting around madly to catch a glimpse of anything out of the ordinary.

da solomon said...

Finally, Peter's irritation had erupted into wrath, and he burst out of his tent with no pretense of stealth. Even with his eyes already half-adjusted to the dark, it would take a moment for them to come to terms with the starless night. And so in that half-second, an animal-like wariness cooled the flames of his wrath into a smoldering ember. He carefully extended his pistol forward and swept his free arm to the side, assuming a martial crouch. There was silence.

Then – a sound of someone emerging from a tent to his left. He brought his gun around in that direction. "Peter, it's me!" cried Irene. His anger ebbed a bit more – less for having pointed his gun at her, and more for the realization that he was not alone in the dark.

Before they could exchange another word, they heard another sound – ahead of them, in the tent again – a rustle of sail clothe in the wind. Or tent clothe! In their separate kinds of courage, Irene and Peter rushed forward.

He was not obvious to them before. Closer to the entrance now, they could see the Indian soldier who had been posted to guard this tent. He stood there, rifle at his side. His eyes stared ahead, open but insensible. He did not move when they approached, remaining petrified at pseudo-attention.

Irene and Peter could hear others stirring in the camp now. "Chor! Chor!" someone shouted; it seemed that everyone nearby had already agreed that it was a thief.

With the imminent arrival of more people, the dread with which the scene had opened began to recede. Judging from the state of the guard – Was he drugged? – the thief had accessed the storage through the one and only entrance. But where were they now?

"Come out!" ordered the Major from the opposite side of the anitiquities tent. In a second it is clear that if the intruder had escaped by going underneath the walls, they would have needed to elude McCormick. Peter wondered about how easy that could have been. Perhaps he was a better soldier than scholar.

Irene heard a shot from somewhere ahead and saw the front flap of the antiquities tent jerk. In a curious split-second of reflection, Peter noted that the bullet passed by his face slightly before he registered the pistol report.

HomoDM said...

Peter would have time to process his close call and thank his lucky stars once he was out of danger. For now, instinct demanded that he put something between himself and the next bullet. Ducking slightly, he scurried toward the immobilised guard, and stood up perpendicular to him as though he were hiding behind a column, keeping his gun arm (his left) cocked.

"He's armed!" Peter warned, lest there be any confusion as to whom had fired, and announced, "I'm covering the entrance, Major!" At the same time, he used his free hand to signal Irene to fall back to safety.

Looking for a nearby stick or rod of some kind, Peter's eyes settled on the stuporous soldier's rifle. He searched for any reaction in the man's face as he reached out to take the weapon into his right hand.

A plan had formed in Peter's mind to catch one of the loops on the front flap of the tent upon the rifle's bayonet, and wait for the right time to pull it back and expose the thief inside.

As reinforcements arrived, Peter spoke to the thief in Urdu, using the form of address reserved for unfamiliar persons, rather than the derogative which had become McCormick's trademark:

"You are encircled by many, many men with guns. Please come outside in peace, and you will not have to die."

Irene Howell said...

Irene, quite familiar with the sound of gunshots, recognized the crack immediately, and positioned herself on the other side of the door. She was not sure what she could do, but she wasn’t about to leave now. If whoever was in there tried to come out, she would happily trip him or, if he was brandishing a weapon, give him a little help walking into her knife.

She peeked around the tent, keeping an eye on the side, but then she looked back as Peter spoke. He was behind the guard now, and Irene found herself looking at the frozen man and feeling that her eyes were stuck on him. He was so…so wrong! What on earth could be done to a man to make him so stiff and unresponsive, but still allow him to stand without overbalancing? It was frightening to think that anyone could be so incapacitated. In a way, it was worse than a physical wound, to be so trapped in one’s body.

Irene was a bit surprised that Peter had spoken only in Urdu—which she recognized but did not understand—for why could the thief have not been a foreigner? The anti-imperialist in her was about to say something sharp to him, but it really was not the time to do so; instead, she merely frowned at him briefly. To be fair, it was likely that the thief was a local who knew of the dig and had heard of the great finds. She doubted that the Major had been discreet when it came to the “Lord of the Beasts.” But, still, it was not a wholly fair assumption, that the intruder would be a local. There were foreigners here, after all, and the black market for antiquities was a tempting thing for many men and even the occasional woman who needed a bit of cash.

She pressed her ear closer to the tent, trying to see if she could hear anything, if she might be able to perceive any movement that might tell them where he was headed.

da solomon said...

McCormick's men tromped loudly towards the site of the disturbance. There were perhaps five or seven of them – but who could be sure? – and they were bearing three lanterns. With the rifle's bayonet ready to lift the tent flap, Peter cried out to the thief.

For her part, Irene heard him utter a string of sounds, some of which made sense as words. Two even had meaning for her: "guns," which Peter spoke in English, and "aadamee." Man.

"Haathe ur jaa!" shouted the Major – "Get your hands up!" Irene strained to focus her senses into the tent and away from the oncoming racket of boots and light and cries of "chor!" For nothing:

Another pistol shot; Peter shrank behind the stiffened guard and Irene was instantly aware of her lack of cover. "Aa! Aa jaa! I got him!" The Major again.

The soldiers arrived. Two came up to the front, and the others ran around the side towards the Major's commands. One of the two, carrying a lantern, stopped some yards from the tent entrance. He dropped into a crouch and aimed his sidearm. His fellow came to his side and followed suit with his rifle. "Psst – Mohan! Move it!" hissed the rifleman. "Psspsst – chalo!"

"I got him!" yelled the Major again.

Behind all the noise, Irene heard a soft shattering sound. Some delicate clay or porcelain thing had been broken inside the tent.

(Irene passed a listen check.)

HomoDM said...

Peter promptly complied with the soldier's commands and pulled the tent flap aside, making sure to keep himself positioned between the frozen sentry the intruder's line of fire.

Noticing that Irene was still in danger and lacking any such cover, he barked, "Get down!" Heaven forbid, if she were struck, by what means could she be saved in this primitive place?

For in the dark of night and the chaos of the melee, Peter could not be entirely certain of who had been firing at whom. He just prayed it would be resolved quickly, preferably with the relics intact and without any injury to the company.

Once again Peter raised his eyes briefly to scan the face of the inert guard in front of him, who had not so much as blinked when the bullets began flying. The man must either be drugged or mesmerised, he concluded. The intruder, it seemed, was something more than your average burglar.

Then he heard the Major crow for the second time, "I got him!" There hadn't been another gunshot.

Thank God. Was it over?

Irene Howell said...

Irene heeded Peter’s advice and stepped back from the tent, though she could not bring herself to depart entirely or to hit the dirt, as the saying went. As soon as the Major shouted that he had the intruder, Irene was back to her original position, pressing her ear back to the canvas.

After the Major’s second shout, Irene’s face went pale and she turned to look at Peter with a horrified expression on her face. She had come to treat the destruction of or damage to antiquities as a crime nearly equal to murder. And the thought of any of the beautiful finds being manhandled by a clumsy intruder… There was color in her cheeks again as anger rose within her.

“Something has broken,” she told Peter, her voice a mixture of anxiety and rage.

She nodded her head almost violently to the side, indicating the flap of the tent and silently, but quite pointedly, encouraging Peter to go in. He had the gun, after all, and would probably not like it if she went charging in. If he went, she planned to follow him. If he waited too long, she was going to go in first herself.

HomoDM said...

Peter sensed Irene's urgency, and though he was likewise eager to survey the damage and discover the identity of the intruder, he remained in place until it was clear that the emergency had concluded. Martial matters were the Major's bailiwick, after all, and just as Peter had resented him for offering his unsolicited, inexpert opinions on archaeological affairs, he knew it would be no less obnoxious (and quite possibly dangerous) to take any action that might compromise McCormick's operations and those of his subordinates.

Once the "all clear" was sounded, Peter stashed his pistol within a side pocket of his coat but kept hold of the rifle. Before stepping inside the tent, he caught the arm of one of McCormick's men to alert him that something was amiss with the guard posted outside and that a doctor should be fetched.

He entered the tent behind Irene and looked around.

da solomon said...

The kneeling pistoleer adjusted the lantern's hood and projected a beam into the open tent. The rifleman peered ahead. After a few seconds, he stood and approached the entrance. Stepping behind Peter and the petrified soldier, he rested his rifle on the ground and took the corner of the tent flap, fastening it. He retrieved his rifle and whispered to Peter in English. "Wait."

He quickly rounded Peter and the guard, and ran into the tent. After a few seconds, he announced, "No one is here."

The pistoleer holstered his weapon and brought the lamp to the entrance of the tent. Peter grabbed his arm. "Get a doctor for this man!"

The soldier nodded – "Sir." – and moved to hand his lantern to Peter – but, seeing the rifle in Peter's grip, he turned around and passed it to Irene instead. "Daaktar!" he cried as he dashed back into camp.

Peter and Irene could see the rifleman's head and hunched shoulders above the crates. "Something is broken?" he muttered from inside. "Bring in the light."

Peter entered the tent behind Irene and looked around.

"I think I see-" started the rifleman, but before Peter or Irene could react, the soldier's words were choked off. He doubled forward and fell behind the crate, out of the lantern beam's reach.

The archaeologists could yet flee, or run to the soldier's aid.

HomoDM said...

"McCormick!" Peter called, "Something's wrong! Get in here!" Against his better instincts, he made for the fallen soldier's position. "Light!" He directed Irene as he slung the rifle over his shoulder and attempted to grab the man by his collar and drag him outside, where he hoped a doctor would soon be arriving.

da solomon said...

Peter rounded the crate and moved to grab the fallen guard. He seized the man's collar -

A bundle of cloth, a big knot of scarves burst from the shadows.
There was a glint of metal. A thin, dark arm slashed at Peter with a knife, but found nothing to cut. Peter stumbled backwards, he dropped the guard, he brought his arms up defensively -

McCormick yelled, "I'm coming!"

The attacker blew past him, nearly knocking him down. The ragged bundle ran directly towards Irene.

She was blocking the thief's escape.

HomoDM said...

As Peter jerked backward to avoid the assailant's knife, the rifle's strap slid off his shoulder and got caught the crook of his elbow, leaving the weapon dangling awkwardly. He grabbed the gun by the muzzle with both hands as he recovered his footing and courage, swinging it like a club toward the back of the thug's skull. (He did not want to kill the man, just incapacitate him or occupy him long enough for Irene to escape and help to arrive.)

Irene Howell said...

(OOC: This is all provided that Peter does not stop the man with his attempted blow:)

There was only one way that Irene thought she could stop the intruder without being stabbed by his knife. It was not a foolproof plan, but she had not had much time to think. She needed to trip him, but to do so with her leg would be stupid and dangerous, for he would likely see that coming and give her a slash or two with his weapon.

So, instead, she took a deep breath and launched herself towards the floor of the tent, directly in front of the man’s legs as he ran towards her. Now she was quite a large obstacle, and if he had the foresight to try and jump over her, she was ready to grab his legs before he did so.

da solomon said...

Peter swung the butt of the rifle around his shoulder and into the back of the intruder's head – forcefully. Peter relaxed his muscles a little, but the gun did not immediately fall away from its mark. It was stuck.

The intruder faltered, stopped, shifted stance. Peter saw the knife flash. The intruder's body followed the arc of the knife and the narrow side of the gun's butt finally dislodged.

Peter felt the rustle of scarves. He felt the flesh of his belly split.

Each combatant stumbled backwards a step, away from each other.

Peter clutched the gash across his abdomen with one hand and recklessly held the gun by its muzzle with the other. He sucked breathe through his teeth – in a second, he learned that inhaling too deeply pulled at the edges of the slash – and watched. Two dark eyes peered back at him from a gap in the knot of deep red and black clothe.

The mass heaved. Eyes flown wide, the thief lunged.

No – he was falling.

Peter staggered with surprise. There was the sound of teeth knocking together in the intruder's jaw as it came into sudden, hard contact with the ground.

The lantern was on the ground near the entrance to the tent. In its light, Peter could see Irene. She was on the ground too, arms wrapped around the intruder's legs.

From the ground, Irene caught sight of Peter – he was bleeding from his belly. The thief's heels rested uncomfortably and unmoving against her rib cage. From behind her she heard men rushing up.

"We're here!" announced the major. McCormick wore a fine set of silken Indian pajamas; red with gold trimming. His usually tidy hair was mussed from sleep. In his right hand he clutched a pistol. He assessed the scene: one down, one-maybe-two injured. The intruder was incapacitated. He ordered his men, "See to everyone here. First aid!"

A soldier came to Irene's aide and helped her to stand. "I'm not hurt!" she protested. He tried to help her to her feet anyway.

A soldier placed his hand on Peter's back. "Come," he said as he began to guide Peter outside.

The Major stepped up to the dark bundle. A pair of thin legs protruded from one side. They were bare except for a fat wooden anklet. "Here!" yelled the Major. In Urdu: "Give them some help." Two soldiers knelt and lifted the intruder. It looked like they were carrying a load of filthy laundry.

Irene stood by. The soldier who had helped her to her feet stood with her.

The Major took a few steps out of the tent and shot a harsh look to the frozen soldier. "You! Mohan!" he barked in Urdu. He began to issue an English order to the poor guard – "Don't just stand!" – but he realized his mistake. "This man, too! Take him! Something's wrong." Another soldier picked Mohan up around the waist. The guard remained just as stiff as ever as he was carried off.

The soldier at Irene's side finally touched her elbow and said in English, "Ma'am. Please come with me to your tent." McCormick looked at Irene. He nodded grimly, just once. In doing so, he gave the soldier's request all the weight of an order from his own lips.

Irene was shown to her quarters. The soldier squatted outside the entrance and lit a bidi.

After some time, the human noise began to fade. There were no more tromping feet, no more shouted orders. In a few minutes, even the distant sound of voices in the other tents went out and the night became very quiet. Irene listened very hard. She thought she could hear the rushing of the Indus. The other, even more faintly perceived sounds of the night were lost behind it, in the shush-shush of the water.

In the sick tent, Peter was laid on his back. Mukherjee was at his bed. His long hair, usually hidden beneath a turban, was tied into a topknot and his beard rolled up in a net beneath his chin. As always, he looked deathly serious in the midst of his beard. "You will be okay," he assured.

Mukherjee wore a long white nightshirt. Except for the blood stains, he looked rather like a pilgrim. The path of the knife stung and stung at Peter's belly, as if the blade was still there, still cutting him. It was made no better when the Sergeant tore Peter's shirt apart at the buttons. He dashed cold-burning alcohol over the wound and applied pressure through some gauze. "You've been badly cut. But, it is just meat."

After several minutes he released the pressure. "You will go to the village in the morning. Sit, if you can." Mukherjee started to help Peter up. In his belly, Peter could feel muscles tearing as they tightened. Seeing the pain in Peter's face, Mukherjee called two more men over. Half-dressed, they propped Peter up on his hands and gave him support while the Sergeant wrapped him tightly round the abdomen in gauze.

When finally left to lie on his back, Peter found himself reflecting on how busy one's belly muscles must be: nearly every movement he tried to make required some tightening in his gut. Peter found himself unable to tolerate anything beyond lifting his hands and turning his head. Only after some time did he find the presence of mind to investigate his surroundings.

Soldiers were standing somewhere nearby, arguing, beyond his feet, where he couldn't look without lifting his heavy head. One asked him how he was feeling.

Obviously, his gut hurt, and he felt that this should have been clear enough to the soldier that there would be no need to state it aloud.

Instead, Peter looked around as best he could. There was a lantern behind him somewhere, and to his left, a small naked man was laid on another table. The man's face was turned in Peter's direction, but his eyes were closed. Cotton bulged from one side of his mouth, which was held open with a bent metal tongue depressor. Peter recognized the wooden bangle around the man's ankle, and noted that his feet were bound. His arms were spread out on the table, his hands hung over the edge. They were each manacled to separate table legs.

On another table to Peter's right: a person beneath a sheet. The face was hidden, there was blood on the sheet – they were dead.

"Tired," Peter answered the guard. And that was it – he closed his eyes and slept.

Peter rouses early in the morning as he is being shifted from the table to a pick-up truck. He is laid beside the injured man, who is now conscious but silent and still bound. Beside him, the corpse. The three of them are looked after in the back of the truck by one of the soldiers who had supported Peter last night. Strong enough to sit up a little now, he can see that the now un-petrified guard is leaving with them, as a passenger in the truck cab. Mukherjee is driving, and between them sits another soldier.

The helpful soldier has a little 'bat-chit' with Peter on the way to the village. Though the ride is bumpy enough to be painful, the information he has is interesting. "This is the one Miss Howell grabbed. He nearly bit his own tongue off – according to Sergeant – and smashed his jaw to pieces. Major McCormick shot this one dead." He adds, "chi-chi-chi," expressing his disgust with the corpse. The soldier – Kiran is his name – makes a face like a dog trying to lick something out of its own mouth. He leans closer to Peter, and goes through all the motions of backroom confidentiality – yet in the back room of the pick-up, as it were, he still must raise his voice to be heard. "Really bad syphilis." He points at the sheeted man's groin. Now that Peter is looking especially in that direction – why, yes, the thief's lap seems to be entirely swollen. Vile.

"Who are they?" Peter asks

"Who are they?," Kiran repeats. "I don't know – neither one of them can talk."

Peter welcomes the clinic and its ceiling fans.

McCormick visits Irene early in the morning, dismissing the guard. "Miss Howell!" he calls from outside the tent. "Please, if you are quite decent, come to my tent in a few minutes and have a cup with me."

(Peter was cut clean across the belly! Luckily, Mukherjee applied first aid. -4 hit points. Also, Peter passed a large club check and Irene passed a grapple check.)

da solomon said...

(End of episode. Irene's Sanskrit (26+3=29) and psychology (5+4=9) skills have increased. For stopping the thief, Irene has recovered the sanity points lost earlier (+2). Peter's dodge (40+9=49) skill has increased. Peter also has gained a little self-confidence for his part in stopping the thief (+1 sanity).

Action picks up in personal blogs. It is 23 April 1924. Peter is in the clinic in Ihsaan Waahaan, being tended to by a doctor. Irene is in her tent. It is daylight and they're both feeling well enough to do as they please.

I will send each of you private e-mails with ideas for your next posts. Refer to the new post on the Ghosts & Time blog for notes on skill progression and gaining sanity.)