This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
Part 1 – Darkness of Freedom
‘Good Morning Major.’ Uniformed secretary behind the wood panelled desk saluted Dzork Chnzk with a smile and said, ‘please go right in. General is waiting for you.’
Dzork nodded acknowledgement and stepped past the desk, throwing a momentary glance at the silver plaque on the door beside the desk reading General Gunnhzell Jgrizk and shoved the door gently.
‘Come right in Major.’ He felt as if the familiar baritone struck him. General was waiting for him indeed.
Dzork entered the huge, tidy and sufficiently lit office. He found the General sitting behind a solid oakwood table. The faint whiff of cheroot was hanging in the still air warm with the muted room heating. Without admiring the familiar place, where he had been earlier twice, he clicked his boot heels before saying, ‘Thank you General, Sir, for granting me audience for five minutes.’
‘Then use them Major. Each second counts. Ten gone. At ease.’ General left his leather upholstered chair and came out from behind the table.
‘The prisoner needs surgery.’ Dzork’s gaze followed the General who walked up to the opposite wall and stood admiring the wall painting with his back towards Dzork.
‘What’s wrong with him?’
‘Tumour. Surgery is imper….’
‘What are the chances?’
‘Hundred percent. He will survive.’
General turned to face Dzork. ‘How much time do we have?’
‘How much time does he have?’
‘There is no question of time. I will operate. A few months’ medication, one year balance training and he can fly again.’
‘I mean, if there is no surgery, then how much time does he have?’
‘No surgery?’ Dozrk’s voice trembled in anticipation of the worse, ‘why General? He is my patient and…’
‘He is a prisoner of war. Enemy. He knows a lot what we need to know. His tumour is our chance.’
‘You want to deal his surgery with information? But this violates Northern Nations’ War Convention, General, sir. And above all, my professional oath doesn’t mention any friend or foe but living beings.’ Dzork reasoned sternly, forcibly keeping acid in his tone at bay.
‘His people have no clue of his whereabouts. Conventions and treaties are violated and need hard to find evidences Major.’ General glared straight at the young Major. The resolve in doctor’s gentle eyes behind his spectacles discomforted him now, but he continued matter-of-factly, ‘and your professional oath? You seem to forget another oath you took when you were commissioned in the force; the oath for your country. Do you remember that? Country precedes any profession or any oath.’
‘General. This man knows nothing. His papers say he is a reconnaissance pilot not a soldier. And he broke his leg after bailing out from the burning plane. He is badly wounded. His pathetic condition and his tumour make him prone to…’
‘That reconnaissance pilot is a soldier, a spy. He shot our six men dead before capture. He had only six rounds in his gun. A trained crack shot. He is under cover. His camera and black box are intact but encrypted. We need him help us decrypt it. He can tell us a lot which we need to turn this war in our favour. Tell me how much time does he have?’
Dzork sighed in resign at General’s cold and unrelenting attitude then whispered. ‘A month or two may be.’
‘Does he know this?’
Dzork hesitated then decided to tell the truth. ‘No.’
‘Then he has just a week.’ General chuckled like a teenager, ‘we have time till next Monday. Tell him he should give us what we need and then you can operate upon him otherwise we will bury him next Tuesday somewhere in Krhahzaak mountains.”
‘General, you want me to tell my patient that he has no more than a week while he can…’
General turned about and stepped closer to the young major, both men now looking eye to eye.
‘Yes. I want you to tell our enemy that he has no more than a week. We can’t fight this war for two bloody months.’
Dzork took a few moments before making his decision.
‘For this General, Sir,’ his voice caught an edge of angst, ‘you need to send someone like you, not me.’
‘What. Do. You. Mean. Major?’ General chewed every word in rage.
‘Someone ruthless, inhuman and sadistic.’ Dzork was surprised hearing his own voice – firm and resolute.
An utterly taken aback General Gunnhzell Jgrizk, next to the President and military chief of Urxhorwak’s army, found himself robbed of his words for a moment before grinding his teeth. ‘Don’t salute me doctor before getting the hell out of here.’
That was one command which Major Doctor Dzork Chnzk immediately complied with.
Border Medical Unit was a secured, several hundred yards, facility to keep the wounded soldiers. It’s one part was used as a secured prison unit to keep the prisoners of the war that was on between Urxhorwak and Zonhrowak. The border between both the countries was lined with mighty Krhahzaak mountain range echoing with rapid gun shots, mortar blasts and cries of wounded and dying soldiers on either side. This very mountain range – a rich source of rare and expensive minerals – was the bone of contention between them. At present there was only one POW in there.
Dzork approached the security check post window when a soldier blocked his way with the rifle’s barrel.
‘Sorry sir. Orders are not to let you in.’
Dzork understood. He couldn’t see his patient, POW Flight Lieutenant Dranhz, the Zonhrowakian reconnaissance pilot.
‘What about other patients?’ He reasoned despite knowing the answer.
‘Major Doctor Shrodrekh is already visiting them, so Major, sir, please…’
Anguished Dzork turned away and rode in his jeep to reach the Command Post to apply for a leave which he was granted surprisingly instantly.
Next late evening he drove into the porch of his villa situated in his home town and found his wife and two children – a boy of twelve and a girl of four – waiting in the main doorway, with smiles on their pretty faces.
‘If this story is to be believed then it’s the dynamite you got Major!’ Journalist Rhanxreich exclaimed when Dzork finally finished speaking.
‘I don’t see a reason for you to doubt my story Rhan. It’s not that we have been old friends that brought me here. The truth is, you are a committed professional like me.’
‘Rhan doesn’t doubt his friends.’ Rhanxreich had this unusual way of talking in third person about himself. ‘The point is, this dynamite has no fuse. Stories don’t become news if they lack evidence.’
‘I am the evidence…’
‘You will disappear with your family, Major, if Rhan publishes this story and so would Rhan and his newspaper.’
‘Oh, Rhan is afraid.’ Dzork mocked, mimicking Rhanxreich’s style.
‘You know Rhan isn’t as you speak. I need evidence. People need to believe this. Get me something. Voice. Photographs. Something that makes this story news.’
Dzork sat quiet for a long moment. He remembered the 3 sets of photographs of the POW taken as standard procedure and which he had left in his office. It was too late. Those photographs were official property and he was on leave. Slowly, dejectedly, he stood up to leave.
One man on his mind at the moment was Major Doctor Shrodrekh Brhandsp.
If Shrodrekh was surprised to see Dzork at his apartment, in that late desolate evening, he didn’t show. He had a glass of Sauvignon 1992 but he didn’t offer drink to Dzork. He walked across the semi dark drawing room up to the curtained window and peeped stealthily through the slit. His trained eyes couldn’t miss the familiar grey unmarked military sedan parked in the dark street below. They had been following Dzork.
‘You know why I have come here Shrodrekh.’ Dzork began the conversation with evident discomfort.
‘Then you must also know that I am the last person on the face of earth who would help you.’
‘I know, but you know Shrodrekh, I am a fighter too. I fight until all hope is lost. I hoped to get prisoner Dranhz’s photographs…’
‘You are not a fighter Dzork, you are a fool. Your foolishness will soon doom your career, you, your family and if you do not leave immediately then me too.’
‘Shrodrekh, we both are doctors. The oath…’
‘The hell with your oath song Dzork! And those photographs were the only evidence…’
‘I burnt them the first time I laid my hands on them. Flight Lieutenant Dranhz doesn’t exist.’
‘You… you are no different from General Gunnhzell. You are a cruel man Shro! How did you make a fine doctor I wonder?’
‘I am a patriot Dzork, not a traitor like you. That POW is our only chance to win the war. What made you jeopardize your life and career for him? You could be the next Colonel. I always wanted to outrun you in a career which we began together but could only keep up with you. You have always been a good professional, worthy of competition but what has possessed you Dzork? Why this madness?’
‘People like you and General and President will never understand. Those who don’t understand call it madness. Now I see, there are free countries but not free people. Freedom is an illusion and democracy is a farce. Tyrants like you all are real. But, then, people like me are real too, Shrodrekh. I will not quit. If Flight Lieutenant Dranhz is your only chance to win the war then I am the only chance for him to survive.’
Shrodrekh looked at Dzork for a long uneasy stretch of moments before dismissing the meeting, ‘when you drive back your home town Dzork, keep the window open. The evening air may, in all probability, cool down your head.’
The article was not a very fine piece of writing since Dzork had never written one in his life ever but it was fiery enough to scorch the cyberspace all over the world. He had no photograph but the stuff coming from an army official as firsthand account was enough to grab people’s attention, likes and comments on online social horizon.
Within few hours the article disappeared but not before setting a frenzy of deeply felt reactions. Probably its disappearance created more damage to Urxhorwak government than its presence.
Soon after the disappearance, the article popped up again from one of the servers in the enemy country Zonhrowak. It wasn’t rocket science for Dzork to understand that one thread of the article was secured at Zonhrowak servers which his army couldn’t touch.
This too wasn’t rocket science for him to know what was coming to him now. He wondered if he was really prepared when the blow will land.
The first blow landed real hard when his wife informed him that she was fired from her chair of HoD in the State University College where she had served an unblemished tenure of almost eight years.
The late afternoon brought even worst news.
Both his children were rusticated from the school on some trivial pretext.
When his wife asked in undulating tone over a choked voice he realized for the first time it was going to be harder than he had imagined, especially for his family.
Part 2 – Dawn of Humanity
In the capital town of Zonhrowak, it was almost the middle of the rainy night when the shrill ringing of the bedside phone woke the lady up. She groped for the receiver for a while before holding it close to her ear.
‘Mrs. D. Rnig?’ The familiar, heavy voice poured soothingly into her ears and continued without waiting for her answer, ‘this is vice marshal Drhozpt. I have some good news about your husband. Can you come over immediately? I am sending the car.’
Mrs. Rnig’s sleepy head switched to complete alert mode. For a moment she couldn’t believe her ears but, then, replied in pleasant excitement, ‘Mr. Drho, I can’t wait for the car. I am just reaching there.’
After ten minutes she drove her old VW Beetle keeping it from banging into something, out of unbearable excitement. In record time she reached Drhozpt’s residence.
‘They want to show you something.’ After receiving her in his drawing hall, Drhozpt said, pointing at the young lady and her companion holding a laptop.
Young lady shook Mrs. Rnig by hand and began in an urgent tone, ‘Mrs. Rnig, wife of Flight Lieutenant Dranhz who is missing in action across border since last week.’
Out of sheer puzzlement, suspense and anticipation Mrs. Rnig couldn’t decide she was asked a question or was being informed about her husband.
The young lady smiled. ‘I am Natalie. This is Frank. We are GJP, Global Journalists for People. We speak for people and their causes irrespective of race, region or religion world over. We want to show you something.’
The young man – Frank had already booted the laptop and launched an image file. ‘Have a look ma’am and tell us, is this your husband?’
With wide eyes, wife of the missing pilot looked at the brightly lit screen. Drhozpt followed suit. Frank displayed half a dozen images in a sequence, halting at each image for the woman to see. All images were of a haggard, sick man in beard. It was a poorly lit room looking like some kind of entrapment or prison.
‘Dranhz!’ Mrs. Rnig whispered in sheer delight and caressed the LCD screen, ‘yes, yes he is… he is Dran….’ She choked on her voice and broke into tears.
‘Dranhz is POW in Urxhorwak. They denied the allegations. Now we have the evidence. He is alive but in trouble. Clear violation of NNWC.’
‘When can I see him?’ Mrs. Rnig didn’t give a damn to strange acronyms.
‘Tomorrow morning these snaps will be floating on the screens of the devices of every news hungry individual across the world. We have already initiated the case in our Europe headquarter. Latest by tomorrow evening, officials of International Peace Consortium will be standing over a very disturbed General Gunnhzell’s head. Urxhorwak president is going to have tough time in upcoming elections, I believe. Mrs. Rnig, congratulations! Very soon, your misery is going to be over. You will reunite with your husband by this weekend. Trust me.’
Mrs. Rnig was staring at the laptop screen with smiling face, tears rolling down her face. Vice Marshal Drhozpt turned away to hide his dampened eyes.
Dzork picked the phone in half ring. He always lurked around the gadget since his family was under some kind of special arrest. He was followed by an unmarked grey sedan where ever he went. At least half a dozen militia personnel always lurked in front and backyard. Suddenly the electricity used to went off and come back on. His phone suddenly went dead and began working again. He knew they wanted to break him down but they had no idea of his moral courage and the strength of his soul. He knew what he had done and he had no regrets. But he couldn’t bear the looks on the sullen faces of his wife and children. They didn’t look beautiful anymore. They weren’t smiling anymore. An air of unknown terror was hanging in the house. They used to converse in monosyllables. TV and dish went out of order long back. Cell phones had no signals.
In this painful gloom, the shrill ring of the phone sounded pleasing than irritating. He picked up the receiver and whispered, ‘Dzork.’
‘Don’t dare take my name and just listen. There is no time.’ Rhan’s urgent voice came over, ‘you have to leave the country man! What you have done will bring you to firing squad. Run Dzork, run!’
The line went dead and at the same time the main door banged open. Dzork replaced the receiver and looked at the door in panic. His family was in the bedroom’s doorway. He saw four uniforms in the main doorway and recognized the leader. It was Captain Vrhizz, general’s infamous troubleshooter.
Vrhizz didn’t bother to salute and pulled out the handcuffs. ‘You are under arrest Dzork. Put them on. You will never see the light of the day again in your life.’
The children screamed and wife cried, ‘leave my husband you devils. My husband has done nothing wrong.’
‘By the way,’ Vrhizz completely ignored them, ‘who was on phone?’
Dzork ran a dried tongue over his parched lips before clamping them shut.
‘No issues, we will find out. Your line is tapped. Now put them on.’ Vrhizz tossed the handcuffs at Dzork who caught them in reflex action.
‘Vrhizz, let me drop my family to their in laws.’
‘You troubled your family and now you want to make old people’s life hell. Don’t you have any sense left in you, foolish man?’
‘Vrhizz, you know me. Try to understand…’
‘Doctor Dzork Chnzk,’ Vrhizz’s tone turned stone cold, ‘I have order to shoot you if you don’t comply.’
A defeated Dzork took his time to put the handcuffs on, slowly.
The war was over. GJP’s Natalie was right. Flight Lieutenant Dranhz’s pictures showing him as POW created a global furor. International Peace Commission’s rage, international eco-political pressure and the protesting voices of his own people were too much for Urxhorwakian premiere to bear. He had to accept the violation of NNWC by his puppy General Gunnhzell. Eventually, pilot Dranhz returned home to his wife dying in long wait.
General Gunnhzell was ordered to step back and stay low until the heat subsided. Rhanxreich had been arrested the same night of Dzork’s arrest but the young journalist survived the torture and was released after a long ordeal of judicial procedure just to discover that his newspaper office was leveled to ground. He is working somewhere in Europe in one of the GJP offices never to return back to Urxhorwak.
Dzork had been court-martial ed in hush-hush and now he lives in oblivion on a farm of a remote village where he grows watermelons. At one end of the farm is his wife’s three room primary school for village children which doubles up as a cozy house at night. A traitor for a country, Dzork had no regrets. He was a hero in people’s eyes. Finally, God Almighty had delivered justice. His friend, now more than a brother, Flight Lieutenant Dranhz was safe with his family. His tumour had been operated off successfully and now he was a healthy man. Dranhz never forgot what Dzork had done for him and his wife. He returned the favour in the most unexpected way: Dzork was the only Urxhorwakian who was allowed to visit Zonhrowak anytime for an unlimited period with his family without any visa. Dranhz’s house was his second home.
Major Doctor Shrodrekh Brhandsp had been promoted to become a full colonel decorated with the service medal for his committed services to the nation. Within a year of his promotion, he lost one of his ankles in a mine blast. That was the end of his service in military.
It was a misty cold morning of November in countryside when lame Shrodrekh, tottering on his crutch, visited Dzork’s farm land. No one was aware of this meeting.
Shrodrekh told him, ‘That night when you visited my place Dzork, I saw that militia was following you. That reminded me of the possibility of my house being bugged. Someone could be listening to what we had been talking about. I couldn’t put myself in the shadow of suspicion. That was the only way to keep clear and yet help the prisoner.’
‘But you had burnt my photographs, no!?’ An amazed Dzork exclaimed.
‘Yeah. I did. I smuggled the pen camera, hidden inside my stethoscope, in to the prison and dispatched the photographs taken, to your friend Rhan. They still think that it was you who had somehow secured a copy of photographs to publicise them. No one had seen the photographs taken by you but me so they couldn’t tell the difference. General still loves me like his pet dog.’
‘Shrodrekh!’ Dzork mocked in respect, ‘you are the number one of all the scoundrels I have met in my life.’
Shrodrekh laughed and took out his medal. ‘For the army, I am the faithful serviceman but in fact, you are the real hero my friend. You deserve this medal more than I do. Please accept this.’
In the fight of gifting the medal and not accepting it, finally Dzork lost. In return, he gifted the lame Colonel the largest and sweetest watermelon on his farm.
When people ask Dzork of his experience, he mocks, ‘there is only free trade, free country, free democracies but nowhere there are free people.’