The Supremo’s personal pod was inaccessible to all except his most trusted lieutenants. He usually preferred to meet his team at ofﬁcial venues. General Kokh was one of the few to have the honour of visiting him at his residence.
Tonight, however, the Supremo was his escort to another meeting. The General sat and waited patiently for his buzzer to go off. He didn’t have to wait long. A large moon-like asteroid enveloped in mist appeared on his oculus, a screen that showed him what was directly above on the surface, for the General’s abode was deep under the ground. General Kokh tapped his brother on the shoulder and both men disappeared through the reinforced metal walls, their arms linked.
They found themselves in a brilliant white hemisphere, the upper half of the pod, the Supremo’s public domain. They were seated on a long, white sofa in the softest leather. Behind them was a mahogany twenty-seater table. In front of them was a massive desk of black, polished wood, with gold edgings, ﬂanked by two huge, circular white rugs made of silk. Behind the desk, where the hemisphere nearly ended, was a domed staircase leading down to the sanctum sanctorum, the Supremo’s living quarters. The chair behind the desk was made of pure gold. On it was seated an enormous ﬁgure. The Supremo.
His snout-like face, under its mane of curly black hair, surveyed them in an unblinking stare. His black uniform with its thick gold braiding dazzled their eyes. As the twins had expected, the room was heavily, even cloyingly scented—but an all-pervading putrid smell, like rotten corpses, ﬁlled the air. Years of experience ensured that both men kept their faces impassive, although their complexions paled under the onslaught.
‘Greetings Kokh-Vikokh. I trust all’s well?’ The voice was unexpectedly soft and seductive. A large tongue lolled out, unguarded. The Supremo often had a problem with the size of his tongue. His lieutenants knew better than to ever mention it.
‘We are well, Supremo, just surprised at this rare honour,’ replied Vikokh, careful with his words.
‘Take a look outside,’ said the Supremo, not explaining himself yet.
The landscape had changed; they were hovering above Earth, over a barren patch of land with a few ﬂickering ﬁres. Skulls and bones were strewn all over. It was isolated, although the bustle of the city surrounding the spot could be seen below.
‘A cremation ground. Where exactly are we?’
‘At Kaalikshetra—or Kolkata as it’s now called. That is Keoratola, a favourite spot for our quarry,’ replied the Supremo. ‘I have a guest for you two, I think you’ll ﬁnd her both interesting and informative, especially given the task at hand.’ He pressed a buzzer on his desk and spoke into it: ‘Bring Dhoomavati up, Durukti.’
‘You have the Seer for us, Supremo? Has she anything new to tell?’ Vikokh leaned forward, his voice sharpening in excitement. The Seer had not been seen by anyone on Vishasha but Kali, and was a subject of endless speculation.
‘You two are masters at ferretting out the truth. Who knows, seeing her in person and discussing the prophecy might bring up some clues. Perhaps there’s something I haven’t identiﬁed yet that you’ll ﬁnd. But I have to warn you, she’s in a foul mood—didn’t take kindly to being brought here from Earth, I expect. Got a sharp tongue, too, so watch your temper. And remember she’s a goddess. You don’t want to get blown to smithereens with a curse.’
‘No risk of that one while we’re together, Supremo,’ said General Kokh, touching his brother’s arm lightly.
A most ungodly goddess entered the room.
Dhoomavati looked like a mad old beggar in the last stages of starvation. She was enveloped in a cloud of smoke, one hand clutching a half-smoked cigarette, the other, a winnowing basket. Her matted hair was white but nicotine-stained. Cigarettes stuck in the tangles made her head look like an albino porcupine. Her dark skin was as wrinkled as crepe paper, either from extreme old age or excessive smoking—it was difﬁcult to say which. Her tattered sari, once white, now muddy, hung loose on her emaciated ﬁgure. Her eyes were bloodshot and she seemed drunk.
She stood with her hands on her hips, swaying slightly. The cigarette smouldered near her right hip, burning a hole in her sari, but she didn’t seem to notice. She took one last drag and threw it on the plush white carpet, unconcerned.
‘Supremo? That’s what you’re calling yourself these days? Whatever happened to the good, old- fashioned name your father gave you, eh, Kali?’ She paused and allowed herself a look round the room.
‘Nice pad you’ve got yourself—not bad for a banished god, not bad at all! A far cry from the earlier barren planet, eh?’ She cackled, clearly pleased with her own humour.
The Supremo sat still at his desk, toying with a gold paperweight. His eyes ﬂashed golden for one brief moment, at the word banished. When he spoke, his voice was normal, pleasant even.
‘Have something to eat, Dhoomavati,’ was all he said. A retinue of silent staff brought in trays of food that covered the entire length of the large, twenty- seater table.
Dhoomavati uttered a little shriek. Without speaking a word, she seemed to carve through the mountain of food. She didn’t just gorge, she devoured. Her toothless mouth opened wide as she shovelled food in, indiscriminately and without any pleasure. In no time, the emaciated old woman stood in front of a sea of empty dishes and belched loudly. Then she opened her mouth wide and simply sucked in the whole table with the empty dishes. She looked as underfed and hungry as ever when she ﬁnally turned to face Kali.
Archly, she said, ‘I see your obsession with gold still carries on. Maybe you should’ve made yourself a gold suit with the braiding in black instead. Now, why did you send Dreadful Durukti to abduct me?’
‘You forget that I am gold, Dhoomavati,’ replied Kali calmly. ‘And all the vices too,’ he added, nodding towards the cigarette stub on the carpet. ‘Which is why you worship me more than you know, and I have my power over you just like I do over every other being on Earth.’
‘The great Mahesh made me this way and I serve his grand purpose. If he needed me to be a nurturing goddess at this time, you would have seen me as Kamala. The time for dissolution is near; I have had to change myself.’
‘Brazen words Dhoomavati, but your eyes betray your doubt. It can’t be easy, being abandoned like this. All beings on Earth are under my sway now. Why don’t you join the side where the power lies?’
‘Almost all beings,’ snapped Dhoomavati. ‘There are still people wed to the better principles of humanity. And their day is coming.’
‘A negligible minority,’ shrugged Kali. ‘The rest can be bought or seduced or imprisoned. Gold, money, prostitutes, alcohol, drugs, power—I rule them all. This epoch is all mine, and don’t you forget it.’
‘Your epoch, as you put it Kali, is ripe for dissolution. Have I not told you before? Shambhal has fulﬁlled its destiny; the child has been born.’
‘Are you sure?’ asked Vikokh in his crisp voice.
She spun on her toes to face him, noticing him for the ﬁrst time. ‘Why the devil should I answer to you, minion? Know this, Kali— the avatar was born when the Sun, Moon and Jupiter were in Pushya nakshatra in Karkata. That was nearly fourteen years ago. This child is still safe and secure and hidden and it is now fourteen years of age.’
‘Is it male or female?’ persisted Vikokh, in the same crisp voice.
A subtle change came over her expression, like an invisible hood. She hesitated for a fraction of a second. In the pod, they all felt it.
‘I don’t know,’ was all she said. ‘All I know is that this child will challenge and overthrow the existing order.’
‘Where is the child now? Who looks after it? Who are its parents?’
Again, they felt the same reticence. Then she spoke. ‘As I said before, the child is hidden well, and away from its birth parents. It will move all over, as is its destiny. You can try to ﬁnd Shambhal, for a start. Some say it’s in the Ganga valley, or near the Chengapattanam–Andhraka region; or maybe it’s where the Buddhist Shambhal is—close to Tibet. Others have another name for it—Shangri-La.’ She leered with glee at Vikokh. ‘You magician boys have your work cut out for you, don’t you?’
Then she disappeared in a whiff of smoke, leaving behind the dying fragments of her malicious laughter.