By IAN McDONALD Prometheus Books Copyright © 2009 Ian McDonald
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-59102-699-0
Chapter One SANJEEV AND ROBOTWALLAH
Every boy in the class ran at the cry. Robotwar robotwar! The teacher called after them, Come here come here bad wicked things, but she was only a Business-English aeai and by the time old Mrs. Mawji hobbled in from the juniors only the girls remained, sitting primly on the floor, eyes wide in disdain and hands up to tell tales and name names.
Sanjeev was not a fast runner; the other boys pulled ahead of him as he stopped among the dal bushes for puffs from his inhalers. He had to fight for position on the ridge that was the village's highpoint, popular with chaperoned couples for its views over the river and the water plant at Murad. This day it was the inland view over the dal fields that held the attention. The men from the fields had been first up to the ridge; they stood, tools in hands, commanding all the best places. Sanjeev pushed between Mahesh and Ayanjit to the front.
"Where are they what's happening what's happening?"
"Soldiers over there by the trees."
Sanjeev squinted where Ayanjit was pointing but he could see nothing except yellow dust and heat shiver.
"Are they coming to Ahraura?"
"Delhi wouldn't bother with a piss-hole like Ahraura," said another man whose face Sanjeev knew-as he knew every face in Ahraura-if not his name. "It's Murad they're after. If they take that out, Varanasi will have to make a deal."
"Where are the robots, I want to see the robots."
Then he cursed himself for his stupidity, for anyone with eyes could see where the robots were. A great cloud of dust was moving down the north road and over it a flock of birds milled in eerie silence. Through the dust Sanjeev caught sunlight flashes of armour, clawed booted feet lifting, antennae bouncing, insect heads bobbing, weapon pods glinting. Then he and everyone else up on the high place felt the ridge begin to tremble to the march of the robots.
A cry from down the line. Four, six, ten, twelve flashes of light from the copse; streaks of white smoke. The flock of birds whirled up into an arrowhead and aimed itself at the trees. Airdrones, Sanjeev realised, and, in the same thought: Missiles! As the missiles reached their targets the cloud of dust exploded in a hammer of gunfire and firecracker flashes. It was all over before the sound reached the watchers. The robots burst unscathed from their cocoon of dust in a thundering run. "Cavalry charge!" Sanjeev shouted, his voice joining with the cheering of the men of Ahraura. Now hill and village quaked to the running iron feet. The wood broke into a fury of gunfire; the airdrones rose up and circled the copse like a storm. Missiles smoked away from the charging robots; Sanjeev watched weapon housings open and gunpods swing into position.
The cheering died as the edge of the wood exploded in a wall of flame. Then the robots opened up with their guns and the hush became awed silence. The burning woodland was swept away in the storm of gunfire; leaves, branches, trunks shredded into splinters. The robots stalked around the perimeter of the small copse for ten minutes, firing constantly as the drones circled over their heads. Nothing came out.
A voice down the line started shouting, "Jai Bharat! Jai Bharat!" but no one took it up and the man soon stopped. But there was another voice, hectoring and badgering, the voice of Schoolmistress Mawji labouring up the path with a lathi cane.
"Get down from there, you stupid stupid men! Get to your families, you'll kill yourselves."
Everyone looked for the story on the evening news, but bigger, flashier things were happening in Allahabad and Mirzapur; a handful of contras eliminated in an unplace like Ahraura did not rate a line. But that night Sanjeev became Number One Robot Fan. He cut out pictures from the papers and those pro-Bharat propaganda mags that survived Ahraura's omnivorous cows. He avidly watched J- and C-anime where andro-sexy kids crewed titanic battle droids until his sister Priya rolled her eyes and his mother whispered to the priest that she was worried about her son's sexuality. He pulled gigabytes of pictures from the world web and memorised manufacturers and models and serial numbers, weapon loads and options mounts, rates of fire and maximum speeds. He saved up the pin-money he made from helping old men with the computers the self-proclaimed Bharati government thought every village should have to buy a Japanese Trump game, but no one would play him at it because he had learned all the details. When he tired of flat pictures, he cut up old cans with tin-snips and brazed them together into model fighting machines: MIRACLE GHEE fast-pursuit drones, TITAN DRENCH perimeter-defence bots, RED COLA riot-control robots.
Those same old men, when he came round to set up their accounts and assign their passwords, would ask him, "Hey! You know a bit about these things; what's going on with all this Bharat and Awadh stuff? What was wrong with plain old India anyway? And when are we going to get cricket back on the satellite?"
For all his robot-wisdom, Sanjeev did not know. The news breathlessly raced on with the movements of politicians and breakaway leaders, but everyone had long ago lost all clear memory of how the conflict had begun. Naxalites in Bihar, an overmighty Delhi, those bloody Muslims demanding their own laws again? The old men did not expect him to answer; they just liked to complain and took a withered pleasure in showing the smart boy that he did not know everything.
"Well, as long as that's the last we see of them," they would say when Sanjeev replied with the spec of a Raytheon 380 Rudra I-war airdrone, or an Akhu scout mecha and how much much better they were than any human fighter. Their general opinion was that the Battle of Vora's Wood-already growing back-was all the War of Separation Ahraura would see.
It was not. The men did return. They came by night, walking slowly through the fields, their weapons easily sloped in their hands. Those that met them said they had offered them no hostility, merely raised their assault rifles and shooed them away. They walked through the entire village, through every field and garden, up every gali and yard, past every byre and corral. In the morning their bootprints covered every centimetre of Ahraura. Nothing taken, nothing touched. What was that about? the people asked. What did they want?
They learned two days later when the crops began to blacken and wither in the fields and the animals, down to the last pi-dog, sickened and died.
Sanjeev would start running when their car turned into Umbrella Street. It was an easy car to spot, a big military Hummer that they had pimped Kaliblack and red with after-FX flames that seemed to flicker as it drove past you. But it was an easier car to hear: everyone knew the thud thud thud of Desimetal that grew guitars and screaming vocals when they wound down the window to order food, food to go. And Sanjeev would be there, What can I get you, sirs? He had become a good runner since moving to Varanasi. Everything had changed since Ahraura died.
The last thing Ahraura ever did was make that line in the news. It had been the first to suffer a new attack. Plaguewalkers was the popular name; the popular image was dark men in chameleon camouflage walking slowly through the crops, hands outstretched as if to bless, but sowing disease and blight. It was a strategy of desperation-deny the separatists as much as they could-and only ever partially effective; after the few first attacks plaguewalkers were shot on sight.
But they killed Ahraura, and when the last cow died and the wind whipped the crumbled leaves and the dust into yellow clouds, the people could put it off no longer. By car and pickup, phatphat and country bus they went to the city; and though they had all sworn to hold together, family by family they drifted apart in Varanasi's ten million and Ahraura finally died.
Sanjeev's father rented an apartment on the top floor of a block on Umbrella Street and put his savings into a beer-and-pizza stall. Pizza pizza, that is what they want in the city, not samosas or tiddy-hoppers or rasgullahs. And beer, Kingfisher and Godfather and Bangla. Sanjeev's mother did light sewing and gave lessons in deportment and Sanskrit, for she had learned that language as part of her devotions. Grandmother Bharti and little sister Priya cleaned offices in the new shining Varanasi that rose in glass and chrome beyond the huddled, peeling houses of old Kashi. Sanjeev helped out at the stall under the rows of tall neon umbrellas-useless against rain and sun both but magnetic to the party-people, the night-people, the badmashes and fashion-girlis-that gave the street its name. It was there that he had first seen the robotwallahs.
It had been love at first sight the night that Sanjeev saw them stepping down Umbrella Street in their slashy Ts and bare sexy arms with Krishna bangles and henna tats, cool cool boots with metal in all the hot places and hair spiked and gelled like on one of those J-anime shows. The merchants of Umbrella Street edged away from them, turned a shoulder. They had a cruel reputation. Later Sanjeev was to see them overturn the stall of a pakora man who had irritated them, eve-tease a woman in a business sari who had looked askance at them, smash up the phatphat of a taxi driver who had thrown them out for drunkenness, but that first night they were stardust and he wanted to be them with a want so pure and aching and impossible it was tearful joy. They were soldiers, teen warriors, robotwallahs. Only the dumbest and cheapest machines could be trusted to run themselves; the big fighting bots carried human jockeys behind their aeai systems. Teenage boys possessed the best combination of reflex speed and viciousness, amped up with fistfuls of combat drugs.
"Pizza pizza pizza!" Sanjeev shouted, running up to them. "We got pizza every kind of pizza and beer, Kingfisher beer, Godfather beer, Bangla beer, all kinds of beer."
They stopped. They turned. They looked. Then they turned away. One looked back as his brothers moved off. He was tall and very thin from the drugs, fidgety and scratchy, his bad skin ill-concealed with makeup. Sanjeev thought him a street-god.
"What kind of pizza?"
"Tikka tandoori murgh beef lamb kebab kofta tomato spinach."
"Let's see your kofta."
Sanjeev presented the drooping wedge of meatball-studded pizza in both hands. The robotwallah took a kofta between thumb and forefinger. It drew a sagging string of cheese to his mouth, which he deftly snapped.
"Yeah, that's all right. Give me four of those."
"We got beer we got Kingfisher beer we got Godfather beer we got Bangla beer-"
"Don't push it."
Now he ran up alongside the big slow-moving car they had bought as soon as they were old enough to drive. Sanjeev had never thought it incongruous that they could send battle robots racing across the country on scouting expeditions or marching behind heavy tanks but the law would not permit them so much as a moped on the public streets of Varanasi.
"So did you kill anyone today?" he called in through the open window, clinging on to the door handle as he jogged through the choked street.
"Kunda Khadar, down by the river, chasing out spies and surveyors," said bad-skin boy, the one who had first spoken to Sanjeev. He called himself Rai. They all had made-up J-anime names. "Someone's got to keep those bastard Awadhi dam-wallahs uncomfortable."
A black plastic Kali swung from the rearview mirror, red-tongued, yellow-eyed. The skulls garlanded around her neck had costume sapphires for eyes. Sanjeev took the order, sprinted back through the press to his father's clay tandoor oven. The order was ready by the time the Kali-Hummer made its second cruise. Sanjeev slid the boxes to Rai. He slid back the filthy, wadded Government of Bharat scrip-rupees and, as Sanjeev fished out his change from his belt-bag, the tip: a little plastic zip-bag of battle drugs. Sanjeev sold them in the galis and courtyards behind Umbrella Street. Schoolkids were his best customers; they went through them by the fistful when they were cramming for exams. Ahraura had been all the school Sanjeev ever wanted to see. Who needed it when you had the world and the web in your palmer? The little shining capsules in black and yellow, purple and sky blue, were the Rajghatta's respectability. The pills held them above the slum.
But this night Rai's hand shot out to seize Sanjeev's hand as it closed around the plastic bag.
"Hey, we've been thinking." The other robotwallahs, Suni and Ravana and Godspeed! and Big Baba nodded. "We're thinking we could use someone around the place, do odd jobs, clean a bit, keep stuff sweet, get us things. Would you like to do it? We'd pay-it'd be government scrip not dollars or euro. Do you want to work for us?"
He lied about it to his family: the glamour, the tech, the sexy spun-diamond headquarters and the chrome he brought up to dazzling dazzling shine by the old village trick of polishing it with toothpaste. Sanjeev lied from disappointment, but also from his own naïve overexpectation: too many nights filled with androgynous teenagers in spandex suits being clamshelled up inside block-killing battle machines. The robotwallahs of the 15th Light-Armoured and Recon Cavalry-sowars properly-worked out of a cheap pressed-aluminium go-down on a dusty commercial road at the back of the new railway station. They sent their wills over provinces and countries to fight for Bharat. Their talents were too rare to risk in Raytheon assault bots or Aiwa scout mecha. No robotwallah ever came back in a bodybag.
Sanjeev had scratched and kicked in the dust, squatting outside the shutter door, squinting in the early light. Surely the phatphat had brought him to the wrong address? Then Rai and Godspeed! had brought him inside and shown him how they made war inside a cheap go-down. Motion-capture harnesses hung from steadi-rigs like puppets from a hand. Black mirror-visored insect helmets-real J-anime helmets-trailed plaited cables. One wall of the go-down was racked up with the translucent blue domes of processor cores, the adjoining wall a massive video-silk screen flickering with the ten thousand dataflashes of the ongoing war: skirmishes, reconnaissances, air-strikes, infantry positions, minefields and slow-missile movements, heavy armour, and the mecha divisions. Orders came in on this screen from a woman jemadar at Divisional Headquarters. Sanjeev never saw her flesh. None of the robotwallahs had ever seen her flesh though they joked about it every time she came on the screen to order them to a reconnaissance or a skirmish or a raid. Along the facing wall, behind the battle harnesses, were cracked leather sofas, sling chairs, a water cooler (full), a Coke machine (three-quarters empty). Gaming and girli mags were scattered like dead birds across the sneaker-scuffed concrete floor. A door led to a rec room, with more sofas, a couple of folding beds, and a game console with three VR sets. Off the rec room were a small kitchen area and a shower unit.
"Man, this place stinks," said Sanjeev.
By noon he had cleaned it front to back, top to bottom, magazines stacked in date of publication, shoes set together in pairs, lost clothes in a black plastic sack for the dhobiwallah to launder. He lit incense. He threw out the old bad milk and turning food in the refrigerator, returned the empty Coke bottles for their deposits-made chai and sneaked out to get samosas which he passed off as his own. He nervously watched Big Baba and Ravana step into their battle harnesses for a three-hour combat mission. So much he learned in that first morning. It was not one boy, one bot; Level 1.2 aeais controlled most of the autonomous process like motion and perception, while the pilots were more like officers, each commanding a bot platoon, their point of view switching from scout machine to assault bot to I-war drone. And they did not have their favourite old faithful combat machine, scarred with bullet holes and lovingly customised with hand-sprayed graffiti and Desi-metal demons. Machines went to war because they could take damage human flesh and families could not. The Kali Cavalry rotated between a dozen units a month as attrition and the jemadar dictated. It was not Japanese anime, but the Kali boys did look sexy dangerous cool in their gear even if they went home to their parents every night. And working for them cleaning for them getting towels for them when they went sweating and stinking to the shower after a tour in the combat rig was the maximum thing in Sanjeev's small life. They were his children, they were his boys; no girls allowed.
"Hanging around with those badmashes all day, never seeing a wink of sun, that's not good, for you," his mother said, sweeping round the tiny top-floor living room before her next lesson. "Your dad needs the help more; he may have to hire a boy in. What kind of sense does that make, when he has a son of his own? They do not have a good reputation, those robot-boys."
Then Sanjeev showed her the money he had got for one day. "Your mother worries about people taking advantage of you," Sanjeev's dad said, loading up the handcart with wood for the pizza oven. "You weren't born to this city. All I'd say is, don't love it too much; soldiers will let you down, they can't help it. All wars eventually end."
Excerpted from CYBERABAD DAYS by IAN McDONALD Copyright © 2009 by Ian McDonald. Excerpted by permission.
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