“The Rud Yard” – Fiction by Vajra Chandrasekera

Illustration for Rudyard Kipling's "With the Night Mail" - F.X. Leyendecker, 1905
Illustration for Rudyard Kipling’s “With the Night Mail” – F.X. Leyendecker, 1905

Should you care for another taste of our Spring 2015 issue before it flies on March 20, here’s “The Rud Yard,” Vajra Chandrasekera‘s hilariously terrifying take on the future of the surveillance state.

{ X }

HE SAYS HE’S ALLERGIC TO EVERYTHING, only as if he’d like to be bitten by a radioactive spider and wake up the next morning without any allergies and with 20/20 vision and surprise abs. What he has instead is a pain in his belly from, he claims, the constant stress of the surveillance state. He refuses to let me use his name, so let’s call him M.

I get M’s shirt off and discover a belly like that of a woman just barely pregnant. I place my hands on it reverently and make a face like the baby just kicked.

“You have a radiant glow,” I tell him. Then I have to explain that this glow has nothing to do with the radioactive spider, and we get sidetracked into an argument about the Radium Age of science fiction a hundred years ago. Specifically, about Kipling’s Aerial Board of Control stories, which he thinks should definitely count and I don’t, mostly because I haven’t read these stories. M says they’re about airships that rule the world or something like that.

“Oh, like drones!”

M says no. Not like drones. He says one time when he was twelve the President came to his school for prize day.

“What does this have to do with Kipling?” I say, “Or for that matter, the surveillance state?” and he says shush, wait for it.

So the President came to his school for prize day and the entire auditorium was full of important people and parents –these were non-overlapping groups, with the important people in the front and the parents in the back– and there was no room for the kids, so they set up some plastic chairs outside the auditorium, under a tin roof still glowing cherry red from the afternoon sun.

Sweltering under it and choking slowly to death on their ties, the boys –it was a boys-only school, he says, all rum and sodomy and the lash– practiced their bad seventh-grade French, which consisted entirely of all the French swear words they had learned to that point, and the useful phrase je ne sais pas.

“The two most important stages of language acquisition,” I say.

Yeah, M says, the parts of speech that are always permitted: swearing and denial.

The reason M refuses to let me use his real name is, of course, the surveillance state. It’s not that he thinks they don’t already know it, as M always says, but it makes him uncomfortable to hear it said at all any more.

Anyway, he says, so the kids listened to the speech that the President was giving inside the auditorium, which they could hear even if it was a little muffled. The speech veered alarmingly between advice to young people for their educational betterment and bitter condemnations of his political enemies. It was as if he was giving two speeches at once, to different audiences, only the kids found the condemnation speech much more interesting than the betterment speech.

The highlight of the condemnation speech was when the President railed against the dirty politics of character assassination.

“It’s not true that I shave my eyebrows,” the President roared. “I have a condition.”

The President then expressed a preference, if it came right down to it, for literal assassination over character assassination, because he just found the latter so offensive.

“Isn’t this the President who was assassinated?” I interrupt, and M shushes me.

Yes, he says, this President was assassinated shortly afterward. But the point, M says with a wounded glare, was the highlight of the betterment speech. This included lengthy quotations from Kipling’s “If”. Everybody knew “If” because it was on the O-Level syllabus. Only the President kept pronouncing Kipling’s first name as if it were a place, to the point where all the kids started to vividly hallucinate it as a real place.

“I don’t think you should make fun of the President for bad pronouncing,” I say, severely. “He was our only working-class President, not like the one that learned her English at the Sorbonne.”

You don’t learn English at the Sorbonne, M says.

“Je ne sais pas,” I say.

M takes a break from his own story for a shower, and comes back damp and gasping for breath. M reacts to every shower as if it were waterboarding. M also believes that every door is a trap set to break his fingers. He’s cradling his belly protectively, as if he really were pregnant, or maybe it hurts, his stomach ulcers brought on by excessive surveillance.

“What did you mean by a place?” I ask, to distract him. “What place?”

A place called the Rud Yard, he says. His eyes are still red and wet and panicked from the shower.

“Like the opposite of Scotland Yard,” I say, understanding immediately. “The Rud Yard, where crimes are crimed.”

That’s exactly what we all thought too, M says. See, it’s the first thing everybody thinks, which means it’s probably true in a parallel universe where the law is red in tooth and claw.

“Or even just our universe, if we stop pretending,” I say.

We both knock on wood to signal to the government wire-tappers that we’re just kidding. The wire-tappers tap back a message of sympathy and understanding, or so we imagine, since neither of us speaks Morse, not even the swear words.

We’re quiet for a minute. You never know when you’ve crossed the line, so traditionally you wait long enough for the snipers to have a fair go. If you’re still around after that, it means you didn’t cross the line.

“Anyway,” I say, “A man who would quote ‘If’ to twelve year olds probably deserves to be assassinated.”

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, he says, then you’re probably not being shot at by snipers.

“You’re probably allergic to snipers,” I say.

Everybody’s allergic to snipers, he says, and as if to prove it, he breaks out into hives.

{ X }

vajra_chandrasekera_1VAJRA CHANDRASEKERA lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka. His stories have appeared in Black Static, Shimmer and Lackington’s, among others. You can find more work by him at vajra.me.

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