Escape Pod 793: A Little Bit of Kali (Part 2)


A Little Bit of Kali (Part 2 of 2)

By Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi

I can’t tell you how long I wandered. A failed soldier going home when India needed us the most. I knew I should have gotten back to my parents—but truth be told I couldn’t make myself go back. I ditched my gear, worked odd jobs, mostly bicycle repair. India is a country of motorcycles, and every village and every junction, those days, had a dusty little shop with a pile of half-rusted bikes outside and three grease-covered men inside screwing something onto and engine. I was one of those nuts. I worked in a two-bit town so nameless that you couldn’t find it on a map even if you wanted to.

One day a man brought in a bike I instantly recognized—a Royal Enfield Bullet. An ancient design, built to jump out of planes in the second World War, left to India when the British withdrew; now a stolid, reliable workhorse of a bike, one of the few capable of handling everything India could throw at it. I spent a bit more effort than I usually put into it.

The man who came to pick it up arrived in a long white Chrysler, kicking up fine dust. A floral print shirt stretched over an ample belly. Gold chains glistened on his neck. Two thugs got out with him—one swarthy and sweating in the heat, one pale and thin and unafflicted. Both wore white.

“Bad customer,” said the owner’s wife, and bustled out of there as fast as she could.

“So this is where my son ditched it, eh?” said the man with the gold chains, walking into the shop as if it were his. The owner cringed back. “Bullet? Black? That’s my property.”

This was Bullet Vinay. Named for his love of his Royal Enfields, though that I found out much later. I stood up from behind the bike—I’d been checking the spark plugs. The goons had fanned out. I knew I could take them if I wanted to.

A crowd was gathering outside. Bullet Vinay ambled to a halt in front of the bike.

“Hmm,” he said. “I was told the tank was cracked.”

“Fixed it, sir. New tank.”

“Silencer.”

“Also fixed, sir. No charge, sir.”

He finally shifted his gaze to me. Pale eyes. Lazy until they become intense. That’s Bullet Vinay. “The way you are standing,” he said. “You look like you want to hit Tiger here.”

Tiger was the swarthy man. “I don’t want to,” I said. “But if he moves any closer I will, sir.”

Bullet Vinay laughed. The laugh seemed to go on forever. “Military man? Arrey, don’t tell me. You’ve done a good job on the bike. Violence, get it out of here.”

The pale man moved forward, flicked me a smile, trundled the bike out of there. Bullet Vinay took off one of his chains slowly, ponderously, and with the air of an emperor giving a lordship to a lesser servant, he put it on the counter.

“Military man,” he said, shuffling his vast bulk around. “When you want to make some real money, come see me. Bullet Vinay appreciates fighting men.”

We watched the white Chrysler ride out of that dusty town. And behind it, purring smoothly, the Enfield Bullet.

That was how I ended up in Chennai.

Bullet Vinay ran a tidy operation. He was one of those people who Got Things Done. He worked for a local politician, doing the stuff that kept the campaign money going. The government had granted him—not in so many words, but wink, wink, nudge, nudge—three SRTS suits, second-generation discards from the special forces, as “bodyguards”—because in times of war you protected the people who Got Things Done. Bullet Vinay, in turn, made damn good use of the suits. Tiger, the swarthy man, operated one. Naan Violence—Kumar on the streets, but he really wanted to be called Naan Violence—piloted the other suit. By day they ran construction—nothing like an untiring 40-foot laborer doing the dirty work on a building for you, with the cops grinning and diverting the endlessly aggressive traffic around them. By night they ran “logistics”. Foreign currency, smuggled electronics, gold—a tidy little operation. Which left a third suit free.

“We’re in the South, yar,” Violence said by way of explanation. “Who cares about the whims and wishes of a bunch of suits in Delhi? Tamil Nadu is its own beast. This is the right way to live, you know. If you play your cards right, do a bit of bargaining, you’re good, they’re good, everyone lives. Someone seems upset, you offer to talk to them—”

Tiger snorted. “Like the time you offered to sit on the mayor’s house?”

“All a part of the bargain, my friend. They all know the dance, know the outcome. This is just ritualized behavior, you know. Somewhere in the middle you meet, everyone’s slightly unhappy, and that’s when you know you have a good deal.”

“They keep threatening to call in a proper Shikari,” said Tiger.

“Nonsense. This is a city of ten million people, yar. The collateral damage will be huge. Enormous. Million dead. Very bad political optics. Besides, any Big One will get stuck in the damn river, and we’ll end up charging extra to pull it out. They threaten, I offer to do up the municipal bunker for free, we go back to the way things were. Rituals, my friend, rituals.”

And so on and so forth. Until one day, Mic Peter arrived. The limping cord of a man bent Bullet Vinay’s ear. There was big money in fights, he whispered. The film stars, the social scene, they really want some action. There were people willing to invest. Paint us in their colors, have us dance a bit—a few wins, enough to buy new suits, yes, there was plenty of scrap coming down the system now, enough to wire together anything Bullet Vinay wanted.

Mic Peter’s operation drew a crowd, at least three new microshikari a month—some of them defectors; some from operations like Vinay’s; some replicas paid for by Bollywood stars. They gave us names, painted us, built little local legends around us. I became Kubera, named for the god of wealth, one of the semi-divine yakshas who protected the world. Tiger was painted in the Tamil Eelam colors—they gave him the sigils of the LTTE, the terrorists who had fought in Sri Lanka for so long, made up a story about him being the last LTTE fighter. Only Violence kept his silliness, a pasty white microshikari that brought a bouquet of orchids to every fight.

There was a line of sorts in Mic Peter’s operation. Tiger was the first to go, crushed under a second-generation suit—roughly my line, but with some hook-and-claw modifications I didn’t recognize. That pilot was mad, its battle-cry a stream of endless curses and screams, its armor painted the violent red and green of energy drinks. Violence was up next, and he taunted that bastard until it made a mistake, and Violence snapped his neck and staked him to the ground with what was left of a lamppost. Violence went down a month after that to some Nepali Gurkha—long-knife, third-generation suit and all.

And Mic Peter made millions, a good chunk of that sent straight to Bullet Vinay, who dutifully purchased the latest SRTS suits from the police and bought new warm bodies to fill them. While, we walked among the crowds; we let ourselves be touched and worshipped, cursed and praised, and died.

And I got my chance at godhood.

Little things like oil changes and hydraulics have, indeed, crept up on me. My engine sputters once every 713 cycles. My left shoulder throws sometimes. My sensors are not what they used to be. But in a land of dead things, I am alive, more alive than I’ve ever been.

Ah, sister, if you could see me now.


In the ring, Chennai Bloodhound reeled. Its front looked as if someone had flayed it. The wide gash across its belly had stopped leaking—no more coolant left to spray. Its left arm was gone—the shoulder was all that remained, and in the center a red, tangled mass of wire. The Blade of Rajasthan had been methodical.

The Blade itself had done well, surprisingly. Its face was a dented ruin: Bloodhound went for the head. The back had taken a pounding, and the right leg smoked a bit—servomotors burning, I think. But it was alive, and waiting.

A thin scream escaped the helm as the Bloodhound gripped the ring. Then it cut off and Bloodhound pushed itself upright one last time, stuttering—motors giving out, the load too much. A thick red ichor seeped out slowly around the broken hinges and the chest cuts.
The crowd held its breath. An un-Chennai silence. The Bloodhound, the crowd favorite, the scrapper we had come to know and love, bowed and quaking before the blue-black menace with the scarred chainsword. The Bloodhound seemed to nod—a small movement, almost indistinguishable from the motor shakes, unless you knew what to look for.

The Blade of Rajasthan blurred, extending itself in one perfect thrust, impaling Chennai Bloodhound. Chainswords ripped through the plate, through the metal beneath, bursting from the back.

The crowd erupted. Cheers; wails; fake flower petals fell from the ceiling in their millions; a band started playing, the lights strobed, and Mic Peter scrambled into the ring, screaming with the rest of them. Bullet Vinay was gesturing angrily at a man in a dark suit; no doubt he had good money on the Bloodhound. Sonam had strolled right down, just in front of the ring, posing for an assistant who tried to beat back the crowd and take a photo of her at the same time. I stood up and made my way to the back.

The seats and the crowds were only the front of the operation. Behind the stage there was courtyard, filled with emergency techs and shikariwallahs squatting and smoking the humid night away. Beyond them, a string of garages. Well, really old buildings that had once probably belonged to some fat government dignitary or the other, but when Peter’s people took over this place they stripped out the wood and windows and added poured concrete and steel cross-bracing.

Chennai Bloodhound came in through the courtyard on a trolley pulled by ten men. Muscles strained in the night. The shikariwallahs threw their cigarettes aside and lunged forward, grinning. The techs jabbered and argued. Bloodhound’s parts would never make to the garage.
I pushed them aside. One or two quick flicks, enough to crush a bone or three. The humans hung back, sullen and passive.

I looked at the thing on the cart. Bloodhound was dying. They knew it, I knew it. The arms hung useless. The helm was broken: shattered skin and a broken face lay underneath. The chest leaked machine oil and blood.

“He’s good,” said Bloodhound. “Bloody good. Angry fucker.”

“I know.”

“Ah. New people. I was in Assam Rifles.” One of the oldest paramilitaries in India, formed by the British in 1835, renamed, sent off to both World Wars, later deployed on the Myanmar border and in Sri Lanka. A storied legion.

I pushed the trolley to its garage. Other metal hands joined me. White hands, white body. The mech called Channa—a generation ahead of mine, or maybe a variant, slender and with a sniper rifle mounted on the back. Channa never spoke, never fought in the ring: she was Vinay’s latest, and ran security for Peter.

“My name,” said Bloodhound wearily and we pushed him across the humid night.

“You have family?”

“No,” said Bloodhound, and shook. “I can’t remember my name.” A sigh. “I can hear the sea outside.”

We pushed him into his garage, a sad, empty space full of power tools and space parts. Channa looked at me, nodded, and went off to wherever her rounds took her, as graceful as a cat in the night.

“This is it, then?”

“This is it,” I said.

Bloodhound tried to raise a hand. “Your fight tomorrow?”

“Yes, sir.”

It grunted. “Watch out for that sword. Keep your eyes on his shoulders. He leads with his left.”

“I will, sir,” I said.

And Chennai Bloodhound died. I watched the life drain from its eyes. And then it was just a pile of scrap and junk fashioned in the shape of a man—a crude Frankenstein. The throng of wallahs crept closer, cutting torches in hand. Flames, small and lively, sputtering at the ends of their tools. Insects come to claim the remains of Bloodhound.

Channa put a hand on my shoulder. A shake of the head. No, not our fight. So we watched them from the corner. They sang, these insects, some laughed, as they took fire to steel. The whole of it took place like an old ritual. The plates carted off, carefully; most of them would show up at Bullet Vinay’s house. The head—no, that would be a trophy. The engine—whoever scraped the blood and guts off it would see it to some autoshop nearby.

Ah, sister, see what we have become. The dream bastardized. No glory, save for that moment in the circle.

Would that be me?

What else could await me but that now? After all, this was Chennai.


Back at the colosseum, Mic Peter stood ready to announce the next bout. The crowd had settled a bit. Bets had been resolved, a few fights outside, the appetizer had come and gone. Now they salivated for something more. Chennai didn’t run on just one fight. No, there was more.

Me.

Peter had spun a legend around me, of course. I was an elite commando, he said, last of my squad, sent out to single-handedly take down a demon. So badly damaged in the fight I crawled into an SRTS suit, and from then on lived like one of the Shikari themselves. What bullshit. I’d never had to terrorize anything more than a few armed thugs. I’d taken more damage from all the idli I ate. I was a fucking washout, a painted face, lipstick on a pig.

But the crowd cheered. They stamped their feet. They wanted to see me. Wanted to see what the training and sacrifice of mine offered them as a spectacle. Not of the gods, but close enough for government work, as Vinay always said.

The music pounded, hard and fast.

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 –

The ring had been reassembled faster than I would have thought possible for the crews here. A massive cage of steel wire and bars ran around the arena, standing higher than what even a Shikari-full could reach. My sensors registered a low but persistent current running through the construct. It wouldn’t do much to me. So why was it there?

Mic Peter took the stage. The lights all died save for one, carrying the soft subtle glow of pale moonlight. It filtered through a few levels of intensity before settling on the right strength. The beam centered itself on Peter as he brought the microphone to his mouth.

“Arrey, arrey! How about that fight with Chennai Bloodhound and the Blade of Rajasthan, ah? Ah!” He waited for the crowd’s response, going as far as putting a cupped hand to one of his ears. Mic Peter knew the applause would come.

And it did, like a drubbed storm—beaten into life from stomping thunder and hailstorm clapping.

Mic Peter played to them, waving in arm, motioning for them to be louder. Loud enough that the world outside Chennai would hear her cries for attention this night. They gave it to him before he cut them off like a conductor. A simple slash of his hand and it all died.

Silence. He held onto it, toying with us all. He knew anticipation for the main event would only build the longer he stretched it, molded it into an unease and curiosity that would have the most patient of stones rocking back and forth.

Once I felt the blanket of quiet couldn’t hold up any longer, couldn’t smother the anticipation of the crowd, he ripped it free with a grandeur and smoothness only he could command.

“Tonight’s main event is on us. No refabbed dolls now—oh-no! No bits and pieces of Shikari. No! You don’t want toys now, do you?” He repeated the question, louder, turning in place to stare at the crowd.

They screamed their response, their excitement at wanting something more. Something grander.
“Arrey! You want a battle of gods and monsters? You want what spectacles light up your cell phones and television screens? You want Shikari and demons! You want the Bay of Bengal, horror and excitement! Monsters and gods here in Chennai tonight!”

In another moment, another time—a human one—I could have appreciated Mic Peter’s crowd control. But there was a loud clank, and the fighter’s arch opened. The Blade of Rajasthan stumbled out. His fists clutching a tight bundle of chains that led into the darkness. A savage yank pulled him back. He pulled, the chains snapped tight, and something screamed from the pit.

I tensed.

Clank.

A step. Blade of Rajasthan tugged. Again. The outline of a jaw, teeth that gnashed, tongues that forked—

Clank.

And the demon unfolded from the darkness.

I swear I jumped to my feet, shouting. We all did. Alarm; panic; a scream at the front and the audience fought to get away. Sonam, the actress, rushed past me, her bodyguards bouncing off my plate as one by one they tried to push me aside on instinct and realized what exactly they were trying to brush aside.

“SIT DOWN!” thundered Mic Peter, cutting through the noise like a whip.

By all the gods, a real, live demon. Starspawn. An actual alien, moon-born enemy, chained, trussed, brought here. So this was Mic Peter’s gambit. The man’s ambition truly knew no bounds. As the thousands of phones came out of the audience, I realized that the social media shares on this alone would double the crowd next month, nay, triple it, with Bullet Vinay smiling all the way to the bank. Now I realized what the electrified cage was for.

“BEHOLD!” thundered Mic Peter, his voice rising to a fever pitch. “Look upon your enemy, eh! Look upon our enemy! Look upon those who would take our world from us! Our damnation—our malediction, Phatakaar!”

And then I saw what I should have seen right at the start. This demon was crippled, barely fifty feet tall, a bizarre cross between lobster and arachnid. Far too many legs across a body tapered too thin to handle them. A grotesque set of mandibles that overlapped oddly, almost as if they had been an afterthought more than part of its original design. They rattled against one another, their alignment leaving them to grate violently. Each of its legs visibly quaked under its awkwardly distributed weight. Its carapace carried the dull coloring of worn and unpolished onyx, still managing a subtle shine when it caught scant bits of the arena lighting.

It was a giant, yes, but not one of the terrible giants that the real Shikari battled. Its lunges at Blade of Rajasthan were less a predator’s leap and more like shackled hobbles. Rajasthan hauled it, straining right to the edge of the case.

“But,” came Mic Peter’s voice from the speakers around me. “In every age, in every legend, India has had its protectors. Every time the demons came, our heroes came forth, too, striding out legend—STRIDING, I say—to do battle. And! Tonight! Ladies! And Gentlemen! I give you! Our hero!”

The light snapped on me, blinding. The audience washed out in that glare. All I could see was the demon; Channa had joined the Blade of Rajasthan, and together, white mech and black manhandled the alien into the ring, cut the chain. It unfurled its extra limbs, those I hadn’t noticed properly.

Pincers, armored in chitin, stretched out from the center of its chest. Free of the chains, they snapped at thin air. I saw the creature’s eyes swivel, focusing on the crab-like appendages almost as if it had forgotten them. It gnashed its off-center mandible again. I saw rows of serrated teeth, all sprouting at wrong angles like a chainsaw blade off its guide bar. Now that was troubling.

A Misprint. The bastardized crosses in designs our enemies on the moon sometimes made. We don’t know what fuckery they used to make those demons, but every so often they churned out things like these—design experiments, maybe, hybrids between individual creature platforms that worked well enough in nature when left alone. Mixed, they presented problems. The failed prints were still dropped into our oceans as fodder. Some were unable to survive the rigors of the drops or strength of ocean swells. They died as soon as they met our waters. A shame this one hadn’t.

There was a certain symmetry to this. A small demon, a runt. Versus me. The runt of our family in a line that stretched to Kali. Gods versus monsters, played out in the perfect microcosm. And audience waiting, captive in heart and mind. The answer of who would triumph between us.

A hollow dread filled me. I stood up. I barely heard Mic Peter’s rehearsed monologue as he chanted the terrible sins of this demon. Buildings torn down, aye, people ripped from homes, children cut down where they stood, blood in its wake. I focused on getting down there. One step. Two. People threw flowers at me; garlands. I batted them aside. Sonam’s bodyguards, again caught in my path in the actress’s constant migration around the stage. One of them put a hand on me, made a fist, cheered. The music blared.

As the beat pounds every ounce
Of my effort pouring out, so you never have a doubt
Do you like me now? Am I good enough now?
Should I get more loud, till you hear the fucking sound?

Backstage. The yard. The wallahs staring at me with their curious eyes. The arch that led to the underchamber that led to the stage.

Beyond, I could see the ring, lit up; Mic Peter, outside, working himself up into that fine edge of manic and statesmanlike gravitas that defined a match; the crowd on their feet, roaring and hissing at the demon that prowled, snarling, in the cage—

In the cage meant for me. I entered, knowing that once it shut behind me, only one of us would leave alive…

At best.

“ROUND ONE! FIGHT!”

I surged first. Micro or not, the only way out of this was to come down like the old gods in the Mahabharata. Steel and thunder. I sent a heavy fist toward the center of its knife-lined maw, putting every ton of my weight behind the blow. The strike connected and chitin cracked around the monster’s mouth. Teeth split and enamel shattered as the beast staggered to one side.

Phatakaar. So much for that. It crashed to one side, legs scrambling beneath its elongated body in hopes of righting itself. The crowd chanted. I closed in, intending to kick this frail and pathetic excuse into the ground.

Phatakaar lashed out with two claws, swinging them like crude cudgels. Fast! So fast! Their bulk struck the side of my left leg and took the strength from me. I toppled to one knee as Phatakaar followed up with a succession of clubbing bows. The remaining pair of pincers slammed into the broad of my back, trying to bring me fully to the ground.

I planted my hands against dirt and stone. Synapses burned, my mind churned, and the whole of me pressed against the earth to drive me back and away from Phatakaar. I rose to a stand and pivoted, bringing an elbow down between the demon’s twin stalks.

The base of my armored joint struck home and cracked a portion of carapace like a jackhammer on concrete. It split, spider-webbing with cracks over a distance as large as both of my palms. Phatakaar wobbled in place. Stunned? Good. I intended to do far worse to it. I twisted at the hip, striking again for that break.

At the last second, it seemed, the creature regained a semblance of clarity, in the space my attack moved, closing the gap between us, taking the brunt of my attack against one of its pincers. The remaining three weaponed limbs crashed against my torso and hip like flails. Each of them hammered me like stones on a sheet of glass ready to give away. I pivoted away; beat it back. The limbs crashed on me, relentless. I buckled. Down. Down to my knees.

I barely swatted the next two strikes away, before the other pincer came, sending me staggering backwards.

The bell rang.

The cage opened. Two shapes, moving at lightning speed. Blade of Rajasthan and Channa, the white Shikari, rushed to restrain Phatakaar. Electrified chains once again bound the Misprint of a demon as it was pinned and fastened within the arena. Phatakaar shrieked in electrified agony.

I barely noticed. I reeled back, stumbling, through the darkness of the fighter’s arches, far from the clamoring and screams. From Phatakaar and the screams of the crowd. Bits of me pounded in confusion. A hammering that belonged in a man, not a Shikari.

That was not how it should have gone. Gods versus monsters played out in the smallest of form factors. It should have ended then and there. Microshikari, broken and refabricated, echoes of old gods, triumphant over a Misprint. I should have won.

Fuck. My thoughts scattered. Bullet Vinay’s mechanics swarmed across me. An almighty banging ensued.

I’m telling you: something else drove me that night. Perhaps Shiva smiled down upon me. Or perhaps Vishnu did. Or perhaps the pieces of me that were supposed to be Shikari spurred me back to the ring.

Mic Peter didn’t waste time with theatrics. He sliced upward with a hand, cutting through the air and noise with that singular motion. Everything went silent. And down came the hand.

Round two.

I exploded into the cage just as Phatakaar’s chains fell free. The impact of our crash shattered more of Phatakaar’s carapace, leaving me free to wound it further. I stiffened the fingers of my right hand into something like a crude shovel, plunging it through the crack with as much force as I could muster.

Phatakaar’s core opened up like the shell of an egg. Inside was the softness, the weakness within. Before I could reach any deeper, getting to the heart of the monstrosity, it bucked and pulled away from me, visibly bleeding, great gouts of gore splattering the ring. In sheer, blind panic, it seemed, it struck, as if seeking to bury me under the flurry of maddening blows and their weight.

And it worked.

The first pass sent electrostatic bursts through my vision. Seconds later, I realized my cameras were off; perspective skewed. Input lag kicked in. Phatakaar washed over me with another series of clubbing attacks. A distant scrawl of data informed me more of my sensors had faltered. My left shoulder now registered as shattered—useless. No amount of commands would reach it.

I staggered to one side once again. Arm up. Arm up. In case the Misprint tried to bludgeon me as I recovered. I had acted in haste, like an idiot. I batted my good hand at the demon. Jab, jab—if I could get one good fist in there—

I failed.

It reached out, taking my limp arm at the bicep between one of its pincers. The claw shut, hard. It dug into the metal of me. I planted my feet and yanked, trying to disrupt its footing and smash my free fist into its face. Its weight tumbled away from me, but its grip never faltered. More of my arm crumbled under its pressure. It hit me again, and again, that unbalanced body unpredictable.

A savage fury of sparks, my sensors giving out. One more pass of blows from Phatakaar. I reeled, suddenly unable to breathe. Visor. Visor. The cue must have been given for the round end, because metal hands—Channa—yanked the demon away from me, and I was left shuddering and stumbling backwards. Flipped my visor up. Gulped air. The roar. The crowd screamed. The speakers, horribly distorted, spat out their poison beat –

Oh no, I’m losing my shit again
Having a fit again, man, I’m forgetting when
I used to have some friends, I used to play pretend –

Visor down again. Better the darkness than the noise. I was on my knees. Where? Edge of the ring. The arches beckoned. The repair crew. A dark shape loomed through the haze. It was Blade of Rajasthan. His violet eyes glared at me. A focus point; I snapped to, the blurred crowd traded away. This close I could see every scratch on that helm—every inch of the punishment Bloodhound had meted out before he died.

A hand clanked onto my shoulder. I stiffened. Rajasthan. I leaned on him. My arm, my actual flesh arm, I was sure, was pulped, mangled beyond recognition. I was being half-lifted, half-dragged to the edge, into the darkness, away from the noise. Hands reached for me, cutting torches—no, I batted them away. My suit was broken. The crew retreated.

Something slapped me. Hard. I tasted blood in my mouth.

“Your sister says to stop running,” said Rajasthan, locking violent eyes with me. It had a strange voice: guttural, but I couldn’t place it.

“What did you say?”

“Your sister,” said Rajasthan. “Your sister. Your sister. Your—your—your—” it stuck, like a broken robot caricature. The violet eyes dimmed. Then something rebooted inside: I heard it whine upward. “Time’s up. Go show them what you are. Or what you aren’t.”

My one good hand must have been like a vice grip, because I pulled Rajasthan bodily towards me. “Show yourself,” I hissed at it. “Show yourself!”

Lag. The violet eyes flickered. Then Rajasthan pushed me away and turned around, hunched, the back plates sliding apart. To show the pilot’s harness.

Empty. No human arms in that frame. Instead a red-tinged hulk of metal, all lines and circuits. Parts of it badly cracked; other parts looking like they’d melted and run to slag. But at the core, that unflinching red dot. I knew what it was. And, judging by the faces of the mechanics around me, they did, too.

A Kali core. One of the thirteen processor units that housed a Kali personality. Gods help us, someone had wired it into a SRTS suit. A little bit of Kali. Bloody hell. Mic Peter hadn’t been kidding.

Rajasthan turned around. A forty-foot machine of war, violet eyes glimmering in the darkness.
“How? You—you went mad—”

“Madness runs in the blood.” The Blade of Rajasthan froze again. Again that reboot. Again that upcycle. Outside, the speakers blared.

I tried lifting my arms. One responded. The other didn’t. I could no longer feel it.

“One shot, that’s all you got,” Blade of Rajasthan hummed, the harsh voice holding perfect time to the speakers outside. And then it clicked.

The old song, her last message to me. The head tilted. One arm lifted. Pointed at the stage. The roar of the crowd hid the words, but I didn’t have to hear Rajasthan to know what it was saying.

One shot, that’s all you got
Write your own story, you control the plot, yeah.

Phatakaar shrieked, thrashing, attacking the cage. A Misprint. A mistake. Versus me. The misprint. The mistake.

I staggered. Put up my one good fist. And stepped forward again, into the light.


Host Commentary

by S.B. Divya

The authors have this to say: “This story is set in a universe where aliens versus giant mechs became a thing; except instead of DC getting wiped out, it was Delhi that the aliens hit, and India, China and countries in South and South East Asia that did a lot of the fighting back. Think a love letter to Pacific Rim, but where a mechanical Kali grins over the Bay of Bengal instead of Gypsy Danger.

“The sister referenced in the story is based on Dr. Sreema Rao, quite possibly one of the most badass women to ever walk the earth. Her Wikipedia article constantly has large chunks of it deleted, so the TL;DR is: close-combat specialist, doctor, author, commando trainer, Jeet Kune Do blackbelt, Miss Universe finalist. At the age of 50, her preferred way of keeping fit is by sparring with MMA fighters. You can’t make this up.”

My thanks to the authors for doing some of my work for me in this commentary. The best fiction draws its inspiration from real life. As authors, we do make stuff up, but most everything in our heads is a product of something we’ve seen or read or experienced. Genius often takes two disparate or seemingly unrelated ideas and mashes them together brilliantly.

In this case, that’s taking mecha and kaiju and placing them in a polytheistic culture that loves its ancient mythology. The Hindu gods and goddesses are worshipped, but much like the Greek, Roman, or Egyptian pantheons, they are also seen as very human and allowed to walk among us on Earth. Nothing in this story stretches my credulity … except for the alien mega-monsters, but we’re fans of kaiju here at Escape Pod, as you’ll see a few episodes from now.

At the same time, this is a quiet story. It’s about veterans and what it means to go on in life after you’ve been trained to be a weapon. About making peace with loss and sacrifice and lack of purpose. As with a lot of manga and anime, this story allows space for its characters to think and feel and not simply act. And ultimately, it’s in those spaces where we find meaning in our lives.

Our closing quotation this week is from the poem, “Kali the Mother,” by Swami Vivekanada:

“Who dares misery love,
And hug the form of Death,
Dance in Destruction’s dance,
To him the Mother comes.”

Thanks for joining us, and enjoy your adventures through time and space.

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.

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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.

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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 unseenfiction.com with a friend – short speculative fiction from South Asia.

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