The Soma Script
Summary: Archeologist Durbar Chatterjee has discovered the secret behind the legend of the Vedic gods' immortality: soma. Strange assassins pursue him across the contested Kashmir border between India and Pakistan, and he has no choice but to work with unlikely allies.
A chill wind blew through the valley, bringing with it a desperate traveler. Along either side of the steep, ochre hillsides were stone and mud buildings predating modernity. A handful of electric lights illuminated the village, as a crimson sun sank beneath the hillside. A hooded figure ascended a narrow footpath, approaching a structure built partially into the hillside. He carefully descended a creaky wooden staircase, as though each board would yield beneath him.
The figure knocked gently on the door, before pushing it opened. He removed his heavy coat, setting it on a peg beside the door. Underneath was a tall, stocky man with a week's growth of beard. His sunken, bloodshot brown eyes hinted at a lack of sleep. He wore a brown leather bomber jacket, with blue jeans underneath. Slung over his shoulder was a small pack of supplies, and a hand-made jezzail long-rifle. He carefully surveyed the room as he closed the door behind him.
"Of all the people in the world," said the man behind the counter. "It just had to be a walking disaster area like you, Durbar Chatterjee."
"Good to see you too, Imran," Durbar replied. "I'd like to rent a room."
"What makes you think I'd rent to you, after last time?" Imran asked.
"Because you don't have many other customers at this time of year," Durbar replied. "And after what happened last time, I know you need the money."
"Pay up front," Imran said. "Your room is the one under the stairs."
Durbar stumbled up to the counter, exhausting taxing each step. Imran watched with apprehension as he staggered forward, as though his guest would crash like a felled tree. Imran muttered to himself in Urdu as Durbar scanned the room. He saw they were not alone. He reached the wooden counter, and he slammed down a fistful of banknotes: Pakistani and Indian rupees, US dollars, and Chinese yuan. He stared at the third person, whom he'd missed when he first entered.
The man sat comfortably in the corner, drinking a warm cup of chai. He had a neatly manicured beard and hair pulled back, the distinctive grooming of a Sikh. His build was muscular and lean, like a human stiletto. He raised his cup to Durbar. "May the eyes of eagles guide thee, friend," he said. "Would you care to join me?"
"I am afraid I must decline," Durbar said. "Because I am a few steps from unconsciousness."
"Very well," the Sikh said. "I have a long journey ahead of me, so I understand."
The Sikh finished his cup, and he headed towards the door. Durbar saw him enter one of the rooms, and he emerged with a heavy backpack. He inwardly winced, imagining such a burden on his own back. The Sikh, presumably an off-season pilgrim, placed his room keys on the counter as he vanished outside.
"Can I get you anything before you fall asleep on my counter?" Imran asked.
"Just the normal," Durbar said. "I don't want trouble."
"Nor do I," Imran said. "Especially after how expensive remodeling was."
Imran slid a brown paper bag across the bar. Durbar took it, and he retreated to his rented room. He slammed the door's deadbolt shut as hard as a boxer's hook. Before him was a small wash-basin, a mattress, and battery-operated lantern. He noted the lack of windows with simultaneous relief and solace.
"Imran, you cheap bastard," he said, grinning. "Thanks for that."
Durbar opened the brown paper bag. There was a fresh canteen of water. There were some trail rations, dried fruit and nuts. There was a box of fresh 0.32 S&W Long cartridges. He reached into his pack, rummaging around for a moment. He removed his kukri, and he found what he was looking for: his IOF revolver. He owed both his life, and he kept them well-maintained. He opened the cylinder, and empty brass cartridges chimed on the floor. Reloading his pistol was his last act before succumbing to sleep. He already knew he'd need it when he awoke.
Durbar Chatterjee received a PhD in civil engineering, but he applied his skills almost entirely to archeology. He believed knowing the future required looking to the past. The earth was full of fallen empires, each bearing its warnings and lessons for posterity. It was one such excavation that his current troubles started.
Durbar originally wanted to restore ancient structures, to rebuild the architectural wonders of antiquity. His actual work turned towards the other extreme: excavations. With so many structures entombed by the earth, he applied his skills to gaging structural stability and craftsmanship. It was those reasons that led to his current predicament.
Durbar preferred to survey dig-sites by himself, as to avoid the attention of the looters that followed larger groups. With great care and concern, he surveyed a lonely river along the Line of Control between India and Pakistan. He came to rest beneath a lonely stone shelter, from which led an easily missed path. Closer examination revealed it to be a stepwell, eroded but distinctly Harappan in style. His troubles begin with the inscriptions he found there.
Durbar awoke to the creaking of the outside stairs. Footfalls moved in a disciplined, precise, and familiar fashion. He heard orders barked, and he reached for his revolver. At least they'd given him some chance to rest. No longer exhausted, he grabbed his other weapons for use. The commotion would undoubtedly wake Imran, but the innkeeper already knew trouble was coming. Otherwise, Durbar would not have come here.
The door flew opened, and a well-organized stack entered. Their eyes were concealed beneath the high-tech American night-vision goggles, making them look like bug-men from a science fiction film. They fanned across the room with bullpup Chinese QBZ-97 rifles, searching for their quarry. Durbar braced himself behind his door, holding the jezzail beside him. From beneath the door, he saw them breach a room opposite his. Thankfully, they'd started on the other side.
While he did not know what dialect or language they spoke, Durbar knew how they'd search. They'd go room by room looking for him, and any other witnesses, and kill them all. He'd read about military tactics before coming to the Line of Control, to avoid any unwanted attention from either side of the border. On a frontier between nuclear powers, tensions and trigger fingers from either side could spell certain death for a lone archeologist. He heard the footfalls outside his door, and he drew the long-rifle closer. He waited for them to breach.
A steel-tipped boot came crashing through the door, splintering it with a single kick. At that same moment, Durbar pulled the trigger. The jezzail discharged in close quarters, causing a cloud of gunsmoke to engulf the doorway. He brought his kukri into the back of the gunman's Achilles tendon, sending him crashing to the floor. The others fired into the cloud of gunsmoke, being unable to see their quarry. Deafened by the close-quarters report, he focused.
Acting on instinct, Durbar rolled forwards, knocking the rifle muzzle aside, and he pressed his pistol to inside of the second gunman's groin. He pulled the trigger, putting a bullet in a particularly humiliating place. The second gunman stumbled back into the third. He fired twice at the third gunman, but only struck the second in the neck. His fourth shot struck the third gunman in the center of mass, but did not even make the man flinch.
Durbar recognized the man's vest, military-style body armor. Almost too late, he noted he'd just struck the man's the ballistic plate. The prone archeologist fired again, but the gunman continued bringing his online. His revolver went empty before his opponent did. As the gunsmoke from the antique black powder rifle dissipated, he saw his enemy's face. There was a sadistic grin as the third gunman pulled his trigger.
A gunshot rang out in Imran's inn. Its report was throatier and deeper than the rifles and revolver, like a terrible dragon rising from rest. Like cannon in close quarters, the blast shook the entire structure around them. Durbar cautiously opened his eyes, expecting to see his innards on the walls and ceiling. Instead, he saw the third gunman's body, minus his head. Behind him, he saw Imran standing behind the counter, both barrels of his shotgun smoking.
"You owe me once more, Dr. Chatterjee," Imran said.
"Add it to my tab," Durbar said. "And here I was, thinking that time with Amrita was bad enough."
"Her dacoits were at least polite," Imran said, gesturing to the bodies. "Watch out!"
Durbar turned to see the first gunman, whom he'd sent crashing to the floor, still moved. He reached for his rifle, but Durbar leapt atop him. He mounted his adversary like a mixed martial artist, prepared to pummel his face in with his fists. Instead, the gunman's mouth foamed like a rabid animal. His foe's body went motionless, and his face forever frozen in a smug, shit-eating grin. In that smirk, Durbar saw the false tooth, which undoubtedly contained a suicide pill.
"Dr. Chatterjee, I do not know who you angered," Imran said. "But these men are nothing like the typical looters and robbers. Too professional."
"Imran, I'm going to take a rain check," Durbar said. "Those weren't the last ones."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm leaving, and I suggest you do the same," Durbar said. "Because there are more coming."
Durbar had barely gathered his things went the first grenade sailed through the window.