The Last Fifth (Part 2 of 2)
by Naru Dames Sundar
Anur cradled his face in his hands, his split lip still oozing blood. It hurt, a kind of searing pain far greater than the dull ache of bruises he had suffered at the hands of the bullies at school. He tried to run when the men had exited the van, tried to get away, but he had tripped and fallen amidst the smoke and the wreckage. Bala, the man with the scraggly beard, hit him and dragged him by one arm back into the van.
The men had retrieved something from the wreckage. Anur had only caught a glimpse of it, a charred sphere the size of a soccer ball, bits of wire dangling from it. Tears welled in Anur’s eyes. He wanted to be at home, sitting on the big blue couch wrapped in a blanket while mummy fed him halwa and sweet tea with jasmine. But his tears and his wants didn’t help him, they didn’t bring him any closer to freedom.
Anur looked up, startled. The voice had spoken in his head. None of the men had spoken — it was a different voice, like a woman’s but distorted and echoing.
“You must whisper very very quietly child. Can you do that?”
Anur clasped his hands over his bleeding lips and mumbled,
“Who… who are you.”
“I am a drone mind of Command, and these men cannot have what I carry within me.”
“Drone mind? I… I don’t understand.”
“Who are you?”
“Anur Chapavelli, miss. Please, do you know how I can get away from these men? Please help me!”
“How did you come to be with these men? Do you know them?”
“No! They kidnapped me! All because I tried to take their little silver ball. Then they killed a rickshaw man and put me here.”
“I too am being kidnapped, Anur. But I’m stuck in my shell. Most of me is lost, but a few tricks remain. Perhaps — perhaps you and I could help each other.”
The word shell stuck in Anur’s mind. It was the charred sphere that was talking to him, somehow speaking words into his head.
“Miss, how are you talking to me?”
“The implant box inside of you. It’s close enough for me to effect via my short-range transmitter. I can’t reach much beyond that though.”
Anur didn’t understand her words at first, but then he remembered the time a doctor had come to see him at home. The man had injected something into his neck. It had hurt at first, but he had forgotten all about it afterwards.
“Can you use it to call my father? He’s in security! He can help us!”
“No, Anur, I can talk to you, and that’s about it. Unless you can bring me to a secure terminal we are both lost.”
“I don’t know how to do that, miss. I’m not anyone special. I’m just a little boy. I should never have gotten mixed up with these men.”
“I’m not that much older, Anur. And we are both little. But we can also be brave. You were brave to take something from them, and you can be braver still to defeat them. Can you do that, Anur?”
Anur didn’t know bravery. When the bullies came running after him, stones at the ready, Anur had always run and hid, waiting for them to get bored and go away before coming out. Yet in all of the films he loved to watch, every hero began somewhere small, and so Anur decided that he too could become someone brave.
“Miss, tell me what I must do.”
Radha was cut off from Mother and from Command, but she still had tools at her disposal. She scanned, reaching out into the spectrum on wide band, looking for a network to exploit. Luck favored her — though the van was an older model, it had been retrofitted with updated systems inside the chassis. Simple meshed sensor arrays and control structures with little security to withstand her own countermeasures. It would do. It would risk the boy, but she could not simply sit by and let these men dissect her innards, not without a fight. She was still a soldier of Command.
“We don’t have many options, and the best one I can see still involves risk to us both. But what these men intend is a certainty, and balanced against that we must act.”
“I’m… I’m scared, miss.”
“That’s all right, Anur. Being scared doesn’t mean you can’t be brave too. I’m going to blow part of the engine. Aside from stopping this vehicle, it will also trigger emergency failsafes on the rear doors. You must be prepared to jump out when this happens. Once you’re safe you need to find me. The crash should incapacitate these men. It is very important you find me, Anur. If you run, and these men do recover me, then many more people could get hurt.”
It seemed impossible and fantastic to Anur. Not something that a glasses-wearing little schoolboy like him was capable of.
“I don’t know miss.”
“You must trust yourself, Anur. Trust that you can be stronger than you think you are, braver than you think you are. Will you promise me that you will be brave?”
Anur very much wanted to be brave. Just once.
“I will do it miss. I will try.”
Radha considered the anemic remainder of her energy cells. She would have to be very efficient — even talking to the boy would slowly deplete those cells to nothing. Pooling her countermeasure suites, she launched them at the vehicle’s control array. They crumpled without a fight, giving her limited control of various diagnostic systems. With a little work, she manufactured an overload of the engine oil reservoir sensor.
A chain reaction spread through the system, fused silica smoking and sparking its way through the main fuel chambers. The front reservoir combusted entirely, generating enough downward force to lift the van up onto its side. Momentum pulled Radha out of the hands of the man holding her, sending her tumbling. Her countermeasures prevented the general door release mechanism, allowing only the rear doors to open briefly for Anur’s exit. Radha registered this just as the network dissolved into a burst of static. Radha heard shouts and screams just before the heat overwhelmed her sensors.
Anur raised his face from the wet sticky mud. It reeked of something foul, but it was freeing to not be trapped in the back of the van. He desperately wanted to run far away from all of this, but he had promised to be brave. The wrecked van lay smoking on its side, its roof crumpled against the side of a hill.
Rising to his feet, his body wracked with bruises, he tottered closer to the van, searching for a sign of the sphere. It lay nestled in the scorched arms of a body. Anur didn’t want to go near the dead man, he didn’t want to smell the burnt flesh — but for the first time he felt something spark within himself, something bold that pushed him forward. Grabbing hold of the warm metal, Anur pulled it free. No voices called out to him, no guns raised their barrels towards him and for a moment Anur thought he was truly free.
“Miss, I have you! I don’t see any of the men!”
A voice groaned, startling Anur.
“Bala. Gods, not you too. Get up, Bala. Get up.”
Kalan knelt near the hood of the van, trying vainly to wake his friend, but Bala was dead. Kalan’s head turned and saw Anur holding the sphere.
One of Kalan’s eyes was melted like a runny egg, and gashes covered his entire shoulder and leg. With shaking hands, Kalan grabbed Bala’s pistol and began thumbing his way through the authentication cycle.
The drone’s voice whispered in Anur’s ear.
“Run, child. Run.”
Tall banyans shaded the road on which the van had crashed, thick sedge encroaching on the asphalt. The road curved out of sight in both directions. Few options seemed viable, until Anur spied the familiar columns of a temple rising from behind a banyan in the distance.
Tucking the sphere under his arm, Anur slipped through the sedge. He worked his way through the dense grass, following the sound of bells and the murmur of prayer sounding from the temple. Branches scraped against his skin, but fear drove him onward. Behind him he heard the chime of the gun accepting Kalan’s thumbprint. The temple boundary was marked by a large gate, clusters of deities carved across the tall spire of the traditional gourami that crowned it. As Anur passed under the gate, he heard the bark of the gun and shattering fragments of carvings fell behind him.
A scattering of worshippers, prostrate against the earth, looked up at the sound of falling stone and the strange sight of Anur carrying the core. One of them stood up quizzically, and the gun barked again from behind Anur. A body fell and panic ensued, worshippers stampeding into the surrounding vegetation. Only the priest, draped in orange, remained to look down at the dead man, before another bullet toppled him as well. Anur, his heart hammering like a drum, didn’t need to look behind to know that Kalan was close. He picked the first hall on his right, running under a series of ornately carved arches, etched with Sanskrit.
Beyond the last arch a large courtyard lay open to the dusky sky. Dozens of statues of Ganesh dotted the courtyard in ordered rows. In another time, Anur would have enjoyed walking amongst them, seeing the variations, the poses, the symbols and manifestations carved in stone. But fear drove him. Rushing towards the back row, Anur huddled behind the large plinth of one of the statues, pungent from the magnolia garlands draped upon it. Kalan was close. Anur could hear the wounded man’s limping walk, the scrape of the weaker foot across stone tile.
“Just give me back the core, boy. Then I’ll let you go.”
The man’s breathing was labored, but Anur could feel his anger from where he lay hidden. Anur whispered into the charred sphere.
“Miss! What should I do? He said he’ll let me go.”
“Don’t listen to him, Anur. How many people has he killed already. He won’t want to leave witnesses.”
“Then, what should I do? I’m scared!”
“I’m thinking, Anur. I’m thinking. How far is he?”
“Maybe.. Maybe twenty meters, miss? His leg is dragging.”
Radha had run out of options. If he took her, the boy would die, and the man and his brethren would carve out Command’s codes from underneath her skin. Their pursuer had used an authenticating weapon, that much she knew. It implied batteries and circuitry within the gun — electronics susceptible to the one countermeasure she had left.
The wounded man continued to speak as he moved closer,
“My brother Pankaj is just fifteen, boy. Caught on the wrong side of the border. But the ministry won’t negotiate for his release, not for one of us — so I have to do this. Why do you resist, boy? Think of Pankaj, not much older than you. Won’t you help him?”
Radha could hear the boy’s labored breathing on her audio pickup.
“I know you’re scared Anur. I know he is close, and I know he has a gun. We can do something about that, you and I. But it will require a little more of you. A little more courage.”
Anur could only think of how near Kalan was. He whispered in panic,
“He’s coming closer!”
“Yes, but I will take care of that. What I need from you is to remember something. It’s a kind of key — a string of numbers. There is a button underneath my shell. You’re going to have to press it. Once you do you will need to recite the sequence correctly. I cannot help you, once you press it, I’ll be disconnected from the rest of the core. Trust me, Anur. This is the only way to stop that man.”
Anur was good with numbers. His father had taught him a game, a memory game to see who could remember the longest sequences. Anur wasn’t as good as his father, but he was better than the other schoolchildren. He remembered the moment when he had punched Bala, that moment when he had felt strong and powerful. He could relive that moment again here, he could rise to the challenge, just like in the films.
“I can do it miss. I can do it, but please hurry.”
Anur listened to the sequence of numbers, visualizing just as his father had taught him. A number alone was an abstract thing, and so to make it easier, he tied it to things he loved, things like food.
Zero was a syrup-lathered gulab jamun pastry.
One was a chili-studded pakora, fresh out of the fryer.
Two was an idli, soft and tender.
Three was lime pickle, sour and biting.
Four was chaat fresh out of the tawa.
Six was halwa, sweet and luscious.
Seven was tea, with milk and honey.
Eight was a dosa as large as his arm.
Nine was garlic-suffused lamb curry.
Anur imagined a table reaching out to the horizon. He saw the dishes laid next to each other, matching the sequence that the voice gave him. When it was done, the voice felt silent. It was up to him now. He reached underneath the shell, nervously watching Kalan and his gun, slowly creeping closer. He found the button and pressed it. A small bell chimed, just as the drone had mentioned.
Anur began to recite the code. Pakora to dosa to halwa to lime pickle. Dish after dish, redolent in spice and flavor and memory. The scraping of Kalan’s wounded foot came ever closer, but Anur ran through the sequencing with increasing confidence. He reached the end of the table, seeing that last dish, the halwa, as sweet and subtle as the best his mother had made.
Anur had done it.
A low frequency vibration emitted from the inside of the shell, growing in intensity.
Radha hung in the silence and stillness of the diagnostic frame of her core. She was disconnected from the external sensors and all of the other systems that surrounded her essence. She had put her faith in the boy, an act of lunacy perhaps to someone like Imran. Mother had taught her something different though, she would have understood Radha’s gamble. Radha filled the empty, interminable moments with memory.
Mother talking about fish curry and smoky black cardamom.
Her first flight, thrusters down and nose up into the sky, a pristine wash of blue.
That first darkness, the bloom of awareness as Mother voiced her name for the first time.
Radha felt Anur’s success first as a hum, a low frequency rumble rising in pitch. The boy had done it. He had unlocked the immolation protocol. She prayed it had been in time. The rumble rose, energies unfurling within her, a beating heart of electromagnetic discharge, spinning through the loop amplifier until it exploded in a violent eruption, searing her mind and all of the surrounding electronics in an outward wave of disruption.
Peeking out from behind the plinth, Anur saw Kalan standing four meters away, gun raised. The hum within the shell pitched to a screeching whine before something warm rippled out from the sphere like lightning, blue aura sparking across Anur’s belt buckle. His skin crawled as the aura expanded through him, and something burned needle sharp in his neck. Light and flame flashed from the rear of Kalan’s gun and battery fragments exploded across his face.
Kalan collapsed, blood pooling from his head, an expression of surprise on his face. Anur heard him gasp out a long wheezing breath.
“I’m sorry Pankaj. Who will remember you now? I…”
The sentence never finished. Wearily, Anur stepped out from behind the plinth, eyeing the stillness of the body. He tried to talk to the sphere but no further words issued there either. Whatever weapon he had unleashed had destroyed the core as well.
Looking up at the darkening sky, Anur realized he was free. He turned to the tusked face of the nearest statue and clasped his hands in prayer, reaching out to holy Ganesh under whose auspices his terrifying adventure had begun and ended. He prayed for assistance to find his way home, to his mummy’s sweet halwa and jasmine tea. He prayed for little Pankaj, alone and forgotten somewhere. Most of all, he prayed for the soul of his shiny friend, now gone. Already the sights and smells of the ordeal were shifting into the oversaturated artificiality of film. But no parade of ankle-belled dancers appeared to raise him up on their shoulders. Anur’s victory was solitary and unwitnessed, his and his alone.
About the Author
Naru Dames Sundar writes speculative fiction and poetry. His fiction has appeared at Shimmer, PodCastle and Kaleidotrope among others. He lives amongst the redwoods of northern california. You can find him on twitter as @naru_sundar and online at www.shardofstar.info.
About the Narrator
Proud Pakistani American. Guitar player in 2 rock bands; songwriter, and occasional singer. Sharpie Artist. Beatlemaniac. Passionate about seeing the world.