Cloudraker, share your finds
All your wonders at my demand.”
— Vienna Teng, “Landsailor”
Karim Narimani found the answer to his prayers in a pile of trash.
In this case, the prayer was, “please, God, give me something better to do than talk to bureaucrats.”
Karim was late for a meeting between kabul’s water systems engineers and an American satellite dish installation company. Their new building had working sewers, it seemed, but nobody in the district head’s office remembered putting them there. Calamity!
Karim leaned and steered his motorcycle onto a road with lighter traffic. His phone buzzed with a message from the band he’d played with three bands ago, finally getting around to firing him. The street that lead mostly directly to the meeting was blocked, so Karim kept going past the intersection.
His motorcycle coughed and rattled. Karim would have to go to Herat to get a new one. Or fix it himself, for which he’d need some lead to melt. There was a guy he knew on the corner. An electrician. But Karim didn’t need anything electrified at the moment so he rode on, by wishing the guy on the corner was Burhan or some other acquaintance who spoke English and could be pressed into translating for the satellite people. Were there any streets going in the right direction? Or would he have to turn around? Karim pulled over next to a pile of trash and took a moment to wipe his brow.
Sewers, for God’s sake, he thought. Next they’ll have me talking to the trash collectors.
Actually, that was a good idea. Organize pick up for the foreign firms. The district head wasn’t going to do it. He couldn’t even remember which pipes he’d had put in the ground where. This pile of garbage right here, for example, who was going to move it? Karim shut off the engine and dismounted his bike to examined the garbage.
He noted the absence of kitchen scraps and the presence of cinder-blocks. Maybe someone was demolishing a building? Karim knelt and picked up a block. It failed to do anything worthwhile, but Karim did notice his own wrist, on which someone had written, “Do the thing. Important. Don’t be late.”
Karim sat back on his haunches, trying to recall what the message might be about. Maybe the sewer thing? A musical gig? Faysal’s physical therapy? Not a date. Karim would remember if it was a date.
He shrugged and went back to the trash pile. The metals would all be gone by now – no lead – but there might be something else salvageable, something that those with less imagination failed to recognize as valuable. This black string bracelet for example…
“All right. You’ll do.”
Karim’s ears pricked. He spun in the dust and put his hand out. A half brick found it and he relaxed. Well armed now, Karim straightened and looked around. “Who said that?”
It stood between him and his motorcycle. Not a dust devil. Not a swarm of insects or a rain of metal flung from the roof of one of the other buildings.
Silver shapes hung in the air. Or the same shape multiplied many times. They were long and triangular, with thin subtly curving edges like ocean-going fish or knives without handles.
The blades hung unsupported in the air between Karim and his motorcycle. They seemed to range in size from the length if his foot to invisibly tiny needles. Except that the smallest blades were also the furthest away, so that as he looked into the cloud or swarm or flock, it seemed those blades weren’t small at all, just very, very far away.
Karim moved his head from side to side, trying to judge just how thick the flock of blades was. He dropped the half brick, which was useless, and wondered if he could make a dash around the thing.
Movement within those infinite silvery depths. Patterns swirled that might be an arm’s length away and the size of Karim’s palm, or else miles away and bigger than continents.
Ripples spread outward from those twisting clouds of blades. Or perhaps upward. Or in any case toward Karim. The flock of blades twisted against itself, flashing in the sun, and spoke.
“I am Vesht,” it said. “And you’ll do until I can find something better.”
Karim thought best on his feet. “I’m the chosen one, aren’t I?”
The blades dipped and rose as if nodding. They didn’t all move at the same time, but rather as if they were trying to move at the same time, with each blade watching and trying to copy the motions of its neighbors. With what eyes?
“You’re my Chosen One, anyway,” Vesht said. “The other gods have their own, and — ”
Karim spat. “You’re not a god. There are no gods but God. Haven’t you been paying attention to the muezzins?”
The blades rocked back and forth. “Fine. Maybe I’m a demon. Does it matter?”
Karim didn’t pause to consider it. “No, I’ve got a good feeling about you. Give me whatever it is you’re going to give me.”
“You already have it.”
“The…” Karim looked around. “The brick?”
“No, not the brick.”
“My motorcycle?” He gasped. “Not my banjo!”
The blades quivered. “No, you idiot! Your banjo isn’t magical, it’s the thread! The Thread of Vijaya is in your hand right now!”
Karim opened his right hand. He was still holding the braid of cotton.
Now that he raised it to his eyes, Karim could see that the braid wasn’t completely black. A single thread of red wove through it like a poppy growing from a burned field.
“The thread of Vijaya,” Vesht repeated.
“Vijaya? What is that?” asked Karim, seeing how far he could push the demon. “Some Hindu myth? You could have called it the ‘Band of Rostam.’ That would really mean something.”
The blades swirled. “Fine. If you want to call it the ‘Band of Rostam’ instead of the ‘Thread of Vijaya,’ you go ahead. It’s not like either of those two people existed anyway.”
“Liar,” said Karim.
“Most of the time,” agreed Vesht. The blades waved lazily back and forth like leaves in a breeze. “So what you want me to look for some other ancient relic of power to give you? Or maybe I can find another champion who isn’t so picky.” The blades slanted upward. ” Which do you think would be easier?”
Karim held up his hands, red-and-black band dangling. “All right all right. I assume it goes on my wrist?”
Vesht nodded his blade flock again, and Karim tied the band around his right wrist like an amulet against the evil eye. It did look rather dashing.
“Now,” said Vesht, “tell it what you want.”
Oh, so this was one of those stories.
“Look, I don’t want riches,” said Karim, “or a princess to marry or my enemies defeated. I certainly don’t have any dead relatives I want to come shambling back to me.”
“Come on,” said Vesht, “stop fooling around and ask for something. It can be anything. A snack.”
“Okay,” said Karim. “I want a shish kabob.”
The thread tugged. It swung Karim’s arm up and pointed his hand down the street where, indeed, Karim knew there was a grill. Not very impressive, unless…
“I want some money I can use to buy a shish kabob.”
The band pulled his wrist toward his wallet.
“Very funny,” said Karim. “I want some additional money to pay for a shish kabob.” The thread tugged his arm around to point to a gutter. A coin gleamed there.
“Ehh?” said Vesht.
“It is more compact than most metal detectors,” conceded Karim. “But how about this? I want to do the shish kabob guy such a big favor that he will feel obligated to give me free food for the rest of my life.”
Karim’s arm moved like a compass needle, pointing into the city.
“What’s over there?’ asked Karim.
“I don’t know,” said Vesht, “but whatever it is, it will obligate that food seller to you.”
“If you say so.” Karim shrugged, trying to look as if he received objects of demonic magic every day. “What am I supposed to do with it?”
“Didn’t I say already? You’re my champion. The champion of Vesht. Now, go out and kill the others.”
Oh, so it was that kind of story.
“Uh,” Karim pulled out his phone. “Hey, look, I’m actually late for an appointment…”
The flock of knives flashed. “Do I look like I care about appointments? I’m appointing you right now! You’re my champion, Karim Narimani! Now go out and kill the others.”
Karim looked into the flock of knives. He smiled. “Sure thing,” he lied sunnily. “Kill the champions. I want to kill me some champions.”
The thread pointed him west.
“Ah. Well. Good,” said Vesht. “Looks like you’ve got things figured out. I got to go, but good luck! Make me proud.” The blades all angled away from each other, and flew off in every direction at once.
Karim stood there, the sweat running through the dust on his forehead, waiting until he was sure the demon was gone.
Then he whispered. “I want to stop these gods or whatever from screwing up people’s lives.”
The band quivered, but didn’t do much else. It kept pointing west.
“Oh, well,” said Karim. “I guess I’d better ask about human traffickers or document forgers or someth – ”
The thread pulled his hand upward. The movement was slow at first, but picked up speed as, in the distance, a sound grew.
The plane roared overhead and Karim scrambled for his motorcycle.