Shikara – 4: The Fiery Serpent

by Paul du Pré

Africa, in an alternate world.

A 9+1-part series.

Jigi-dog, jigi-dog,

Bitches cominaroundme,

For da jigi-dog, jigi-dog,

Cominaroundme, cominaroundme.

Ten-four.”

Middle of the next set and the band grinds to a halt while Saleem continues prancing, megaphone in the air, waiting for the crowd to subside. “Let me introduce the brother who’s been sparking for you. Put your hands together for…Bulumko Gumede!” Cheers and applause. “He’s a talented dog! Those were his rhymes I been dropping – hey, ‘jigi-dog, jigi-dog’.” Saleem gyrates and the crowd laughs approval. “He should be rapping!” Saleem turns, “Hey, sparky, lazy-ass, why you shy? You should be doing your own work.” Bulumko grins and raises his palms in surrender. “Not like I haven’t got plenty rhymes of my own, I should be doing you favours all-a-time.” The crowd winces, puzzled: sourness is not like Saleem… “But, he’s not shy to spark,” amends Saleem, triumphally. “He’s gonna show you what he can do!”

The crowd pulls back, opening up the dance floor, as Bulumko wheels up a steel trolley, its battered state disguised by electric-blue bunting and lightning-bolt decals. On the lower of two wide trays is a large, home-made voltaic pile; on the upper, a chunky transformer and heavy-duty isolator switch, and a pair of electrodes coiled beneath a polished bell-jar.

Bulumko doesn’t waste time grandstanding. He pulls on a billed cap complete with ear and neck flaps – its exterior festooned with a rainbow array of different sized capacitors, its interior rubber-insulated – flips the isolator switch to ‘on’, sets the bell jar on the floor, and takes a steel-tipped electrode in one gloved hand. And touches it to the other electrode, coaxing out a small spark.

The crowd takes a collective breath. A small beginning, but they know what comes next.

Bulumko strokes one electrode with the other while making elaborate passes with his free hand. (Unnecessary – the real work is being done by the ‘Organelles of Benford’ that augment Bulumko’s frontal lobes – vestigial in most of the population, but unusually developed in Bulumko’s case: he is among the seven percent who have an appreciable aptitude for the manipulation of electricity.) More sparks follow, a whiff of ozone, and then a small, brilliant arc forms. Smoothly, Bulumko pulls the electrode back, increasing the gap, and the arc stretches – an incandescent electrical snake hissing and writhing – and breaks free. (This is a delicate moment – the ‘spark’ is big enough to be sentient, but small enough to be capricious. Concentrating, Bulumko projects soothing geometrics, and probes tentatively, waiting for it to show receptivity.) The crowd oohs and aahs as the arc floats towards the ceiling – expanding, becoming larger, but less intense – and begins to cycle through the colour spectrum: amethyst, sapphire, emerald, topaz, ruby. (Loop! commands Bulumko, imagining a fiery ouroboros eating its own tail – an often-used initial, or ‘training’ instruction. But the spark shows no sign of responding.) Pulsing, contracting and expanding, it drifts towards the back of the room – as the crowd shrinks back, girls clutching at their men, squeaking.

Out of control…

No! This is not happening. Not on my show, denies Bulumko.

…The arc drifts towards an enigmatic, slick-haired woman.

Shikara!

…And pauses above her, contracting, glittering a brighter amethyst – concentrating energy towards the intense, high-frequency end of the spectrum.

Bulumko is alarmed – he’s never seen this behaviour before.

…It extrudes a tendril of violet fire towards the crown of her head.

PROTECT! It’s a primordial impulse that short-circuits thought. Bulumko snatches a condenser pole, charges forward, passes it through the arc’s tail, wills the spark to go to earth, invoking images of discharge and dissipation. For a moment the arc wavers, shimmering, and Bulumko, his mouth dry and heart pounding, thinks it will obey.

But, it turns on him, flaring violent spectral aurorae, and accelerates…

Past him – Bulumko flinches as it brushes him by.

…And plunges towards the electrodes where it attaches an end to either terminal.

Feeding!

Incandescent once again, its body balloons, a voracious, thrumming and sputtering python. The voltaic pile on the trolley’s lower tray begins to melt, zinc and copper disks fusing, steam rising in clouds. At first Bulumko thinks it’s the brine electrolyte boiling out under high temperature, but then he sees flames: the oxidation of the zinc is so rapid that the hydrogen produced is alight, reacting with atmospheric oxygen to form clouds of steam. The trolley is on fire, blue bunting ablaze, decals de-laminating in a stench of burning plastics.

But…how?

‘How is the arc overcoming the high internal resistance of the voltaic pile – a natural safety feature?’ That’s the question Bulumko doesn’t have time to properly formulate, never mind ponder.

He leaps, slams up the isolator. Breaks the circuit.

Too late. The serpent rises, writhing fire and, gathering itself, strikes straight for Shikara.

Bulumko gets there first. Accidentally bowls her to the floor with a careless shoulder, but puts his body between her and the hissing worm of fire, while the crowd scatters, shrieking, pressing back against walls, choking doorways.

Looming over Bulumko, the serpent crackles with power, filaments of flame spawning from its front – drifting, sizzling. Undaunted, Bulumko pulls up an abandoned cocktail table, climbs onto it, shoves his face towards the electric conflagration.

And wills it to attack him, screaming, “You dumb bastard, come on. Zap me!”

It does. With an explosive crack!

Bulumko hurtles backwards, crashing to the floor. The cocktail table spins the other way, clattering rudely in the sudden, traumatized stillness.

Torn from his head, his cap lies charred, fabric smouldering, its capacitors adrift, burst from their seams and scattered. But fully charged now, the energy of the monster caged within them.

The fire burning on the trolley gutters, dies for lack of fuel. A cloud of acrid smoke hazes the ceiling. Begins to disperse.

Women sob, clinging to their partners.

Getting to her knees, Shikara crawls, reaching for Bulumko.

Hesitantly, she touches his face…

Calm.

So peaceful in repose.

“Wake up,” she pleads. “Please don’t die!”

And brushes her fingers lightly over his eyelids.

He twitches.

“What. A. Rush. Whooooooooo!” he hoots, lurching to his feet.

***

Image Credits

Woman underwater – Free-Photos on Pixabay

Disclaimer, Copyright and Permissions

Shikara is a work of fiction by Paul du Preez, writing as Paul du Pré. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents are the product of Paul du Preez’ imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

All rights are reserved, including without limitation, the right to reproduce Shikara and the original art or music associated with it, or any portion thereof in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of Paul du Preez. Copyrighted 2020 by Paul du Preez.

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