Escape Pod 792: A Little Bit of Kali (Part 1 of 2)

A Little Bit of Kali (Part 1 of 2)

By Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi

Where do old gods go to die?

Not to Mother Ganga, no. Not for us the fire that strips our sins from our bones, turns our bones into ashes, turns our ashes into a constellation of dust on the holy river. They say Ganga once took the seed from the fire-god Agni, which would have otherwise burned this world to a cinder, and cooled it in her waters: but even she will not take our kind. Ganga only takes the flesh and blood. Leaves the metal behind.

They tried. The government of India lay one of us down in the waters—a prototype Vishnu, I think, ’20, maybe ’21. A thing too difficult to burn it, so they lit a ritual pyre and let Him slide into the waters. He lies there still, decades of human rot piling upon His frame. Sometimes His eyes light up, throwing mocking shadows at those who come to worship him from the dead river-banks, and those of us who know Him shudder, because underneath the ceaseless filth something still lives.

Some of us go to Moradabad. Uttar Pradesh. They say great mountains of body parts line the horizon. People walk here and there like crows, picking what they can and sending it to the government line. Others go to the Himalayas. They say the march—if you can still march—takes you to the Independent State of Tibet, where the monks, if you ask them kindly, will bless you and bury your head in the mountains. The snow cools the great engines, dulls the fingers, freezes the mind: the slow sad suicide.

And afterwards the monks may return, to strip away your reactor core, send your body frame back to India, sell your CPU to China. Gods know why the Chinese keep buying CPUs, but the monks get to run their machine shops, the tourists get to take selfies, and both sides try not to invade a Tibet armed with dozens of nuclear cores. Everybody’s happy.

But I happen to disagree. There is a third place. A secret place.

Cast your eye down. Down, past Telangana, past Andhra Pradesh. Walk past the beaches with their rotten sand. Past the roads lined stuffed with filth and saffron and the dreams of dead men. Past the vast tenements and battle-cannon of Madras. The government calls it Chennai, but who cares? The memories of this city outlast names, dates, petty councils. The Portuguese came here, then the Dutch, then the English, then the French, then the English again. One by one they were swallowed up by the noise, the color, the heat, the smell. They call this place the Detroit of India, but Detroit is a city of bunkers and skeletons.

Here, across crumbling roads, to the sea.

Walls. A dome that could be marble, if you don’t look too closely. The first English fort built in India, named for St. George. The Tamil Nadu government used it before the invasion, but that changed when a demon landed too close for comfort. Bureaucrats are allergic to death, particularly their own. Arrangements were made in a hurry. The shoreline was declared unsafe. The fortress left behind.

Not that I could tell, the first time I came here. I saw the press of bodies outside, thousands thick, dressed in their finest. Saw electric lights snake between the trees, flickering in defiance. Saw the blood-oil on the old stone; the oil that they dipped their hands into, for luck, for a good show. Saw the stairs that separated us, sending the people to their seats, and us to the center, waiting for the death that comes in a shattering of steel and circuits.

This is the third, and last place.

This is where I came to die.

The colosseum, more in name and function than design, was a place of hard-packed dirt. It was of buildings promised but never to be. Their remains hung as skeletal frames looming over throngs of people too many to count. Old garden statues, hands gloved in moss, the feet coated with the patina of a million betel-leaves crushed, chewed and spat out. They gave way to monoliths of steel and electrical nerves. The empty shells of once-Shikari. They towered above all of us.

A first generation Vishnu, blue-hued, two hundred feet tall, with that Russian tank-gun attachment on one arm. They made only ten of those. On a good day two white lights crisscrossed over it, and you could see the three sigils of the government of India, the Tata logo, the sigil of Ambani metals on the breastplate.

Right opposite to it was a Shiva. It was hard to tell what line it came from: the Shiva series iterated fast and kept the same shell. Maybe the 13th gen, maybe the 16th. It sat as Shiva statues do—in the stance of a yogi, or one deep in meditation. Long metal locks fell back from the perfect forehead and the almost sorrowful face. In the middle was the Third Eye, the LIDAR and tracking system that made the Shiva series so phenomenally accurate: I’ve seen my fair share of that graceful, deadly dance—a Shiva unlocking its Pinaka, the hand reconfiguring itself into the bow that smites all, the shoulders tensing, extending to three times their size, the arms launching arrow after arrow of guided missiles from which no enemy could run or escape. But here the Pinaka was missing. Instead someone had made a copy of the Trishula, the throwing trident; tried to mimic it right down to the stabilizer fins and the exhaust ports; and then mounted it rather awkwardly on Shiva’s crossed lap.

There was an irony to placing them here like this. On one hand, Vishnu, preserver; on the other Shiva, whose name comes from Sanskrit, śarv, “to kill”. Creator and destroyer. Vishnu’s avatar in the great epics was Krishna, who fought Shiva to a standstill—and yet the two were one and the same, complimentary parts of the same energy.

I paused among the stream of people threading their way between these two gods. I was here for my customary prayer. Nothing long, nothing exotic, just a brief touch. I need both on my side. People—faces- looked up at me, perhaps in awe, perhaps in confusion, wondering why a 40-foot metal giant paused with his hand on Shiva’s trident. Maybe they wanted to see me wield it.
I couldn’t.

Not all of us get to ride the Great Machines. Not all of us wake up as gods. Some of us have to be content with the cheaper, shittier versions, the same way that soldiers in war, stumbling about flat-footed, have to be content with being lesser than the tank. Not all of us get to claim a name like Vishnu. My suit was 38 ½ feet tall. I was sweating inside a steel cage inside. I was what the Army called an SRTS—Small-arms Reconnaissance Tactical Shikari—and what the rest of the world called a microshikari: a pale shadow of the original.

I was a pretender. I let my hand fall, let the crowd sweep me up—even a metal monster is no match for a Chennai crowd—and took my place among the other pretenders. We nodded to each other and turned to watch the thing that now walked through the fighters’ arches.

This microshikari was shorter than most I’d seen. Cobbled together from damaged parts, no doubt, some shit salvaged from the Bay of Bengal; damned if the frame wasn’t a bit lopsided. The kind of stuff they sent to the scrap heap, only if you knew a guy who knew a guy who knew the right quartermaster or warehouse manager you could get a mismatched box, every so often, and it looked exactly like that, a patchwork metal Frankenstein. Like an old car screwed together from the dross from similar models, but different years. The chest… too broad, carrying clunky paneled armor bolted on with inelegant arms. Gaps in the panels, wide enough for a grown man to slip his hand through. Colors like a sandblasted lightshow. The face looked like it’d been punched in and hammered out again—almost Neanderthal in the right light; crude brow, jutting chin, iron bands welded on to toughen them. It was like looking at puppet sewn together from other discarded toys. And the mech hung from limp strings.

The eyes glowed a dull orange and stared at the crowd without seeing anything. As if they barely held and life and light inside them.

No god. Just a shell piloted by a man on the inside. Something soft—cowardly, pretending to be something greater.

Greater. Something I’d once aspired to be.

Thunder sounded in the near distance. I turned toward the source. In the passing glance, I caught sight of the crowd.

They scuttled about like bees—ants, busying themselves with the little intricacies that made the great stage work. Hands exchanged crumpled bills and slips of paper—names of mechs they expected to win. A blue-white glare pulled a few eyes toward it, standing out even under the brightness of the overhead lighting. A rake of a man thumbed over a tablet, likely recording transactions and bets placed. All crypto, of course, no traceable rupees here. The government forbade places like these, but microeconomies had a way of happening whether the politicians wanted them to or not. Today there was serious money involved: I saw Bullet Vinay in his white coat, holding court before a murder of his thugs, sweating slightly in the heat. Bullet Vinay was a hard man, flush, not the type to step out for small cheese. Behind him, looking completely out of place and completely unperturbed by that fact, was Sonam, the actress. Fair, beautiful Sonam, the kind of woman they put on cosmetics advertisements to make dark-skinned girls feel bad. Vinay’s thugs were holding an informal cordon beyond her. Every so often a fan cried out, trying to climb over them, and she smiled indulgently as one of Vinay’s people dragged the poor victim off to a corner and gave him an autograph the old-fashioned way—brass knuckles to the face.

A translucent container passed by on a cart. Viscous sludge the color of a spider’s innards filled the cylinder, visibly shaking within.

My scanners still worked well enough to analyze the contents properly and display the results. I couldn’t make out anything to identify which particular monster the gunk had come from, but I knew what it was valued at. The black market had high demand for any piece of our visitors from the stars. Messenger. Demon. Emissary. Hellspawn. Take your pick of names. The only message they brought was one of hatred and violence—one we answered in kind—and yet, here, as everywhere, people scuttled about bartering and scheming, and today Bullet Vinay would take the powdered nails, maybe the horn, in the belief that his waning libido would work as well as the pistol he kept tucked into his pants.

Mic Peter sauntered to the center of the arena. He carried his microphone in one hand, with a cord trailing far behind him. Stage lights gleamed off the bullet-shells embroidered into the tux he wore: I’d never seen the man without it. The rest of his features were lost. The lights took them. I knew what he looked like beneath the mask, of course, most of us did—a scrappy thing of knotted muscle and skin clinging to bone, barely worth looking at on the street, but here he was God.

“Varuga varuga!” Silence fell over the clamor. “Right, ladies and gentlemen, sit, sit, the first event you have all been waiting for.” Peter threw out a hand decked with wires, pumping it at the mech I’d first taken in. “On my right, refabricated! Part Shiva, part Hanuman, a brawler—bruiser—you all know and love…” he tilted his head back and paused for effect. “The Chennai Blooooooodhoooound!”

The crowd erupted into raucous cheers that dwarfed the earlier sounds of thunder I’d heard.

Chennai Bloodhound stepped forward into the circular patch of dirt, arms upraised. Pumped one fist as if already declaring victory. It was a first-generation SRTS suit—bulky, wide rather than tall, designed for munitions and long-range support work. The crowd loved it. I tried not to notice how much of that fist was cracked and spot-welded. That was the toll here. The slow damage, the endless breaking of the body, the slow crumbling of all that you could be. The cost of glory—of one last chance to be a god.

“Annnnnnnnd—” the announcer waited till the noise died, putting one hand to his brow as if trying to peer off into the distance. “Coming to the arena on my left, a warrior you all know and fear. A legend on this stage! Arrey, solid Japanese steel and Tata engineering, and they say—” almost in a stage whisper, now, “with a few bits of Kali…”

He raised a hand, and the roar that accompanied it increased in volume, rising in a crescendo until the first throat broke ragged, and like the master that he was, Mic Peter kept them going, up and up and up—

A few bits of Kali.

Peter didn’t know the meaning of what he spoke, or maybe he knew and didn’t care—I’d never been able to figure out that dog. Kali, the greatest and the most terrible Shikari series ever built; the six-armed goddess of destruction herself brought to wield her bloodlust and fire on those who would do us harm. Kali, the great, the magnificent, the doomed, because no Kali machine had ever escaped the descent into utter madness. It was their curse, the complexity of the Kali design, something about the human mind being unable to take the strain of a body map outside its own.

The Shiva design outside ran two arms, two legs. Shivas lasted a long time—enough to die of wounds as often as psychosis. The Vishnus, though not as stable, did the same: word was that they were figuring out how to add the other two arms but make them AI-powered, or maybe add a second pilot to the mix, so people wouldn’t be driven mad as fast. But the Kali design was pure poison—too many moving parts, too much raw power, too much for one human mind to handle. I had heard six months, nine on a particularly good pilot, and the ending was always violent.

“A shikari that has cut the competition into strips and ribbons . . .”

A few bits of Kali.

“A shikari that leaves nothing alive . . . arrey! I GIVE YOU THE BLADE OF RAJASTHAN!”

Thirty feet tall, even smaller than the Bloodhound. Blue, a blue so deep it was a shadow-black, polished to a fine gleam. Beautiful plate armor, the shape and musculature of a powerful athlete adorned in armor. Twin plumes of viridian for its eyes. Not a scratch, not a hint of damage. The eyes flickered and tracked rogue bits of movement in the crowd, drawing gasps here and there. This was a prime mech. Chennai Bloodhound, that old faithful, looked like a junkyard art project next to this.

One of its hands flexed. A chainblade burst from folds along its forearm. A copy of the weapon sprang forth from the other arm. It brought them together to form an X before its chest. The blades were the antithesis of the armor: ugly, pitted, scarred. It held the pose. More to play to the crowd than to intimidate Bloodhound. Then swiped—a single pose that shifted the metal feet, blurred the face, turned the arms into a brief whirlwind of lethal metal. A single statue shook, decapitated.

The crowd roared. A bastardized display of Shikari strength, bravery, and all that made us—them—worth the awe and respect the world gave us. And the irony, of course, of taking that brute force and turning it into cheap, cheap sport in places like this.

You should be on the front lines, I told it silently. You have no business here.

The Blade of Rajasthan stalked past, and now I could see. The scars, so cleverly painted over, where the original alloy had been replaced with cheaper scrap. The empty ammo ports. The gun-cowlings retrofitted and braced for those chainblades. That slight lag that it hid so well with its theatrics. Yet another failure, no matter how well dressed.

The two mechs came to a few feet of each other, faces almost touching. There was a point between their gazes where the lights from their eyes almost meshed, losing the individual glow of their own to become something else.

Silence spread between the two mechs. The silence rolled out to the entire crowd. Mic Peter bent, mic now aside, spoke to the combatants. Even the lights had stopped their dazzling show and now hung limp like a set of prismatic curtains. Sonam, the actress, leaned forward, and half a hundred leaned with her to see what had caught her eye. I knew what she was waiting for, of course—that one word to part the quiet, and the eruption that would follow.


Both mechs exploded into action. Bloodhound snapped its head forward, bringing the sharp edges of its brow down toward the Blade of Rajasthan’s head. Score! Metal met with an impact that brought back the earlier thunder. Bits snapped off the black helm, glimmering in the light. Both mechs wobbled back, taking a step to regain their footing.

The Blade was the first to recover. The chainswords screamed as it drove its right fist toward Bloodhound’s torso. Bloodhound’s pilot parried— a pair of quick steps backward, a sweep of the arm, a fist driven directly into the Blade’s face—but the Blade was already moving; the left arm swung, the feint now obvious, and with a scream, the Blade of Rajasthan twisted, dragging the sword across Bloodhound’s abdomen.

A shallow furrow crossed the multi-colored mech’s midsection. Hydraulic fluid spurted out from the gouge in pressurized mist.

That’s the coolant gone.

“First blood!” thundered Mic Peter. “It is not the first time the Bloodhound has bled, no sir, no ma’am, but how long can a dog run without cooling? In this heat?”

Laughter. Bloodhound’s pilot brought both of the mech’s hands overhead, slamming them down like a hammer. Both fists crashed into the Blade’s shoulders.

I knew the force of those fists, as did the people in the stands. The blue-black mech buckled under the weight. The metal around its neck warped, like a tin can being crushed by a particularly malevolent child. Miniature mountains formed along the Blade of Rajasthan’s collar. A steel plate popped out. Others peaked to jagged edges. The Blade tackled wildly, going for Bloodhound’s left leg, and down they went, the screaming blades chewing away at Bloodhound’s arm. Bloodhound’s coolant sprayed in the Blade of Rajasthan’s face, somehow: the bladed mech staggered back, and Bloodhound responded—jab, jab, uppercut, right into the weaving black helm.

The crowd hooted and cheered. Music boomed from the speakers. The same goddamn ditty every time, Mic Peter ripping off some vaguely familiar song—

No fear, I’m standing right here
Eyes peer, with my mind clear, never look rear
Only up, never down, off the ground
Till I’m found, hear the sound, listen to me now

Imagine being reborn with all the grandeur and purpose of a god. To tower among all things man, monster, and made. To wield the power to shepherd the world… or destroy it.

One shot, that’s all you got
Take it right now, before you get lost, yeah

And then broken, left to dance to a tuneless song of screams and raucous laughter. Crowd singing YouTube rap. And you, a once-god playing for one last encore. Bits of Kali, indeed.

I turned away from the battle, knowing however it ended, two Shikari had still lost.

There was a time before this sordid affair, you know. Once I was a child, running through the hallways of my home, running after the colors of my mother’s sari. Then I was a young boy, proud of my grades, uncomfortable at how tall I was, at how bony my knuckles were, envious of easy riches of my friends. Then a man, filling in, learning the subtle art of making my way in a world that tolerated me only as long as I played by the rules.

It started and ended with my sister, of course. In my household, all things did. My sister was a couple of years older, the apple of my father’s eye. First thing she did after she came back from college in the US was to sign up for the Garud Commando—that elite Air Force unit, sent to fight behind enemy lines. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a Garud, but picture the American marines from the movies, under an Indian Air Force operation, add a whole lot of fanatic do-or-die on top, and that’s a Garud.

My sister’s batch was the first set of women allowed into the Garud, personally trained by Dr. Surbhi Rachoor—doctor, commando, CQC pioneer. At first they jeered—the politicians, the trainers, the other cadets—but where others saw a stupid mistake, my parents saw opportunity. My sister went through ninety weeks of training, up from the normal seventy-two. Agra for airborne training; then the Navy and Counter Insurgency for water and jungle operations; then survival training, with active missions thrown in almost as rewards. She came out a weapon; the perfect daughter, efficient, polite, deadly, a national treasure.

I knew the world my family inhabited—the soft comforts, the apartments, the revolving drama of politicians and whose family owned what—in all these my sister was a prize card, the ultimate trump. Here was something money couldn’t buy. Something nobody else could have. From that moment on I was the lesser sibling.

Did my sister understand? I think she did. I was the one who got angry and wanted to make a difference. She was a pit viper. She weathered both insurgents and my mothers’ marriage proposals with roughly the same attitude: kill them early, make sure they’re dead, move on. A casual cruelty there. She used to hum rap under her breath, committing light social atrocities to the sound of Eminem and whoever else she idolized that week.

In vain I tried to follow, to earn back some part of what I felt my family should have given their only son. I joined the forces, of course. My squad was sent to Ladakh—way up in the mountains, almost at the foot of the Himalayas. Word was a high-ranking Jaish-e-Mohammad warlord had gone to ground there—the Jaish had been running attacks since the early 2000s; now, hemmed in from all sides, this lot were trying to get to Aksai Chin, disputed ground between India and China. We had been sent in to finish the job. Picture a guillotine, if you will, dropping on a head from a great height: us, the blade, them, the unfortunate vertebra.

It was a beautiful country for a hunt. The valleys were of snow and stone — white-capped mountains, and water so clean and pure, unlike anything in the cities further south. Within that, the Jaish, spread through the forest, panting and panicked—and us, cutting them down by the tens, the hundreds.

But then the apocalypse happened. The radios screamed at us to pull back and return immediately. Someone had attacked Mumbai. The city was on fire. Blood ran in the streets.

That was where I saw the first demon. An ugly, clumsy thing, like a child-larvae barely hatched, wobbling over its own broken limbs. The force of its descent had ruined millions. A spider crack, an inferno, a crater in the heart of the city. We watched from helicopter gunships. And what should have been my first real mission—something that would have seen me decorated—was forgotten. Who gave a shit about some two-bit terrorists in Ladakh now? All of India turned around, angry, building for itself an anthem of steel. The Shikari.

Of course my sister volunteered. In vain I pleaded with her not to do it—the tech was too early, too untested, the program put together by a scrapheap bureaucracy. But she passed with flying colors. Became one of the very first Kali, the first six-limbed goddess of destruction to score a major kill.

We were forbidden by law to initiate any contact, but that didn’t stop me from tracking her on behalf of the family. Her first kill was off Neo-Delhi, the one they called Tir. It had the face of a ram, and the body of a hound, with tentacles snaking along its back—a vast and bloated demon that gamboled in the clear waters and soiled them with its poison. Her second was a joint action; a smaller horde of demons attempting to take the land bridge between India and Sri Lanka. She worked with the Sri Lankan Hanuman mech on that mission—and carried it back in her arms when it went down. She was on every recruiting poster thereafter. Talk of the town. My parents were toasted, again and again, for producing the perfect child for the new age. Me, I was the dregs at the bottom of the barrel.

She died six months later. Officially, KIA. Off the coast of Goa. In reality, she had gone mad, slaughtered her entire support staff, laughed and shrieked as their blood and entrails pooled around her. And her last act was to somehow arrange to have the footage sent to both our parents and every single one of their little dinner circles. The who’s-who of Delhi woke up one day to see the talk of the town butchering six hundred civilians and dancing in their gore. There was one message waiting for me. A link to a song.

One shot, that’s all you got
Take it right now, before you get lost, yeah
One shot, that’s all you got
Write your own story, you control the plot, yeah

I listened to it over and over again, thinking I understood.

When I woke up the next day, GANESHA COMMAND had blacklisted our family and all our relatives, branded us for life as traitors. The day after that the banks pulled out of my father’s business ventures. And thus in her own way, she broke us all. And every time I saw a Shikari striding across the horizon I flinched, knowing that that could be me, that should have been me, if not for my damned sister.

Write your own story, you control the plot, yeah.

I don’t rightly know when the microshikari became a thing. People like Bullet Vinay (who I once shared a grand total of three drinks with) will tell you it was Tamil Nadu that started the whole process: wary of the central government having too much power, they set about building small scaled-down versions of the real thing. Suits of armor you could bolt on to a reasonably fit person, much more conventional weaponry. Strength in numbers. The official excuse was, of course, to help the local police special divisions handle the smaller demons that dropped every so often. Reduce the burden on India’s defenders. The real reason was that Tamil Nadu politicians wanted their own metal men. It was a show of force to the Delhi government. A pissing on the border line. Thus far and no further.

Me, I think that’s just one version of it. In India one event will spawn a hundred different stories and all of them will be true. I think what really happened was the bigger sharks in business—not the Silicon-Valley-of-India types, but the older breed—figured out that if you put a few guys in 30-foot metal suits on the docks you could run damn near anything into and out of a city. So they started looking for soldiers with nothing to lose.

I had nothing to lose. More importantly: I had nothing to gain. They had attached us to STS—Shikari Tactical Support. It was the closest I could be to those machines, so I took it, figuring I could at least participate, earn some glory; at least enough to sit down years later and tell tall tales of the day we marched alongside the gods.

What dreams. When Tir II landed in Kashmir they sent six squads of us out to deal with it, plus one Vishnu. Tir saw us coming: there is no subtlety with a Shikari. The plan was for Vishnu to distract it while we clawed our way up the sides, took out its eyes, dropped munitions down its throat, and let the wet thump and the chunks of alien flesh tell the rest of our tale. Didn’t happen. Vishnu went after that thing with a vengeance, and all we could do was stand on a damn valley lip and watch as the god battled the demon. The clunk-thump of Vishnu’s main cannon made our ears bleed. Tir II hit the ground bleeding and screaming and the impact shook the mountains. There was no place for us in that fight. We crawled back like ants. On the way our scans picked up a training camp, crushed flat beneath a single Shikari foot. The last of the Jaish in that area, I think; Vishnu had finished what we started.

There was no one incident, no great mistake. Instead there was sortie after sortie, mission after mission, and with each time we grew more and more useless. My squad went from being an anti-terrorism unit to a bunch of glorified mechanics. We had Jaipal, who we called Jumpy. His specialty was weapons. Kumar and Kabir—two identical twins, Indian mother, Sri Lankan father—they saw to armor and structure, testing frame stress, replacing hinges. We traveled as a crew, always hungry, always eager for our chance in the spotlight. Once I even got to see a Kali unleashed, ripping monsters apart with her bare hands, shrieking and breathing fire into the sea, and it was then that I really understood. There was no place for us anymore.

There’s a reason that all the epics name the heroes and the gods, but the people who fight and die for them are just nameless numbers. That was us. Just the bit players in the new Mahabharata.

I think in the end it was the warehouses that got to me. The endless darkness, stored away, yearning for a chance to be useful. The waiting. Then the sudden explosion—a brief chance to see the world outside, however dark; seconds to wonder at the lights, the cities, the demons themselves—and then back to camp we went, our usefulness ended. Sometimes we rode helicopters; sometimes there were armored cars to pick us up; but we were just janitors here. Our job was to set up the cordons, shout valiant greetings at the Shikari who brooded over us, and then fuck right off.

A kind of gloom took over me. A strange lethargy wrapped around me like an iron hand; and yet around it a restlessness, a yearning for something, anything. The world moved around me. I stood alone, exhausted, at its center. Had I been a Shikari I could have done something, anything, but instead there I was, waiting in the darkness, listening to the slow cycling of engines.

First came the mental fog, that slow surrendering of thought. Then, two months later, worse; I was charged of breach of duty, because I apparently sat there and watched a Vishnu blow himself up and I did nothing. I couldn’t even remember the battle. A year down the line I could barely move. My lethargy was infinite. I wanted nothing.

My captain was an old man with that terrible comb-moustache and hard eyes. Rejected, he said, over and over again. No, the Shikari program didn’t need me. I had a job to do. And if I couldn’t.

“Before you cause . . . further embarrassment,” he said. “I can give you one last mission. Make it official. Have you wired up with a suicide vest. Do some good for the country.”

“No,” I said.

“You have no choice,” he said. “You are a soldier. In this army. In this war.”

“Then I quit,” I said. I’d never quit anything in my life before. It felt . . . strangely empty.

He gave me a blank, unreadable stare. “Return to your berth,” he said softly.

In the end, it was my father who came through. I don’t know how he did it: a phone call here, a favor there. All I know is that before dawn the next day, I was kicked out of my bunk, marched out of the hangar, right to the gates. The soldiers opened them; miles of broken land and scrub stretched out before us. My captain was just outside, a bent old man smoking a cigarette.

My status updated in my display. MIA, Missing in Action. Then my network access vanished.
“You’re not the first, you won’t be the last,” said the old man. “Useless soldiers make others around them useless. Go. Go now and die in whatever way seems best to you. I’ve given you every chance. Tell your father, Mohan is done coddling his son.”

About the Authors

Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is the Nebula Award-nominated author of Numbercaste, The Salvage Crew, and several other stories. He works as a researcher with the Data, Algorithms and Policy team at LIRNEasia, a think tank working across the Global South; he also cofounded Watchdog Sri Lanka, a factchecker. His fiction has appeared in Wired, Slate and become brief bestsellers worldwide.

Find more by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

R. R. Virdi

R.R. Virdi is a two-time Dragon Award finalist and a Nebula Award finalist. He is a fantasist, authoring The Grave Report and The Books of Winter, the first of which was lauded by Jim Butcher. He has worked in the automotive industry as a mechanic, retail, and in the custom gaming computer world. He’s an avid car nut with a special love for American classics.

Find more by R. R. Virdi


About the Narrator

Kaushik Narasimhan

Kaushik is a management consultant by day and moonlights as a one man band with a variety of instruments and an electric guitar. He also enjoys writing, reading and listening to speculative fiction. He runs a flash fiction podcast called with a friend – short speculative fiction from South Asia.

Find more by Kaushik Narasimhan