The Last Fifth (Part 1 of 2)
by Naru Dames Sundar
Anur slumbered under the ledge of the sloping walkway, leaning on the housing of a small flower strewn altar to Ganesh. Rain plinked onto the jasmine-filled votive bowls that lined the altars on the opposite wall. Anur blinked his eyes open, looking sideways at shafts of light breaking across the falling drops, shimmering gold as they drizzled onto the row of Shiva-lingam jutting out from the wall. The narrow street still looked dry, yet the rain continued. The voices of two men spoke across the pitter patter of the falling drops.
“Do you trust the buyer, Kalan? Can he really get Pankaj out of that mountain hell-hole?”
“The buyer has a reputation to uphold, Bale. And I promised Amma that I would get him out somehow –”
“It leaves us very… exposed.”
“We’re exposed by being who we are, Bala. All or nothing, my friend, all or nothing.”
Seeing the rain for what it was, Anur came to the infuriating realization that the men were urinating on the altars. The dense shrubbery growing out of the chinks in the brickwork had hidden Anur from view. Anur heard the rustle of salwars being knotted, and then footsteps walking up the sloping walkway, between old stone pillars topped with artful renditions of minor deities. Pulling his bag onto his shoulders and adjusting the fit of his thinly rimmed glasses, Anur ran around to the worn steps leading up the hill.
At the head of the slope, the two men looked out at a fine view of the range of hills rising above the old city, and the crowded city streets far below them. The younger man, wearing a tailored salwar, pulled out something to show his friend. The older one, rough clothed, and with salt and pepper scattered through his unkempt beard, took the object from his friend and held it against the light. The afternoon sun glinted off the reflective metal housing of the small sphere.
“Sirs! Excuse me, sirs!”
The two men paused and turned to look at Anur. They saw a short, spectacled ten-year old in navy blue shorts a few inches too short, and school-standard socks pulled a few inches too high. Adjusting his glasses and backpack, Anur spoke to them as equals.
“You did not see sirs, behind there.”
He pointed toward the bush that had hidden his sleeping haunt.
“Sirs, I was sleeping right below! Your urination offends me sir. If you had been one half meter over, like so,”
Anur measured out the distance between his hands,
“Then you would have simply watered the magnolias. But no sirs, you have in fact urinated on holy Shiva himself! Ve-rrry offensive!”
Anur glared at them with his best impression of Chach Gupta and Murali Mores, his favorite film heroes, hands cocked at his hips, the stain still dark on his shorts.
The two men erupted in laughter and Amur’s eyes watered in shame. They were bigger, just like the boys at school, the slow and simple bullies lacking in respect. The older one bent down so his face was level with Anur’s.
“Eh, boy. Let me tell you two things.”
The man’s breath stank of smoke and tobacco. It made Anur’s nose wrinkle.
“First, little boys like you shouldn’t talk to bada babu’s like me. And second, I’ll piss on whoever I want to.”
The memory of a thousand jeers and taunts from bullies past informed Anur’s speeding fist as it shot out into the space between the man’s thighs. With a loud yell, the man dropped the ball and clasped his injured groin.
Anur snatched the silver ball and ran down the roadway, the shouts of the men at his back. Anur prayed out loud as he ran.
“Ganesh baba hear my prayer. May the big man trip and fall and bust his nose up. Please swami bring a rickshaw quick quick quick now.”
Perhaps the God heard his prayer, or perhaps he was just lucky, but a lone green rickshaw turned the corner and headed down the narrow street. Anur jumped inside and swiped his credit chit, shouting to the driver,
“Please sir! Adhirani square, hurry sir!”
The rickshaw sputtered and popped into motion but did not go more than a few meters before it slowed again to a stop, the driver slumping down slightly over the wheel.
“Sir, please, quickly sir. Those men…”
That was when Anur saw the neat round hole dribbling scarlet down the driver’s neck. It was there that courage failed him. It had begun as something childish, a little push back against all the bullies who held him up against the concrete wall while they stole the ladoo from his tiffin box. But this was death, right in front of him. Anur crouched down into the seat, trying to become invisible. A hand reached into the rickshaw and clasped tightly around Anur’s neck.
“Silly silly boy, should have run home to mummy. Too late now.”
The silver ball was quickly retrieved from his hands. Scruffy-beard sat next to him, and pushed something cold and hard and metallic against his ribs. It was a gun, a real weapon. Not like the flashy pistols of the movies, but something real and deadly. The other man, the well-dressed one, slid into the driver’s seat, sliding the body of the rickshaw driver over. The rickshaw rattled forward, threading its way nonchalantly through the crowded thoroughfare that the alley spilled into. Anur thought of yelling, but the gun stilled his tongue. He tried to remember the turns, the way his father had taught him. Left and right mapped to images and sounds and tastes, but he was too scared to hold the sequence in his head. The familiar became unfamiliar as they stopped in the shadow of an abandoned warehouse. Sweat glistened at his neck, and his hands shook though he tried not to show it.
“Please sir, let me go.”
The man in front ignored him, pulling the dead body of the rickshaw driver out of the vehicle, dragging it behind a pile of molding packing crates.
“Take care of the boy, Bala.”
Anur heard the click of the gun as it cocked and panicked words tumbled from his mouth.
“No stop sir please stop stop my father works for security you’ll be in trouble please don’t hurt me please please stop sir!”
The pressure of the gun barrel into Anur’s ribs was unrelenting.
“Do you think we care about your father, boy?”
The bearded man smirked.
“Why, Kalan? Not like you care about a security man’s brat.”
“We care because if he’s telling the truth, he’ll have a security grade black box implant.”
Kalan pulled out his phone and pointed it at Anur.
“As I thought. It’s there, and recording. We’ll have to scramble it before we can take care of this loose end.”
“We don’t have time to get more gear, Kalan.”
“I know that. We’ll have to bring him with us. Keep hold of him, we’ll meet up with the others soon enough.”
Anur finally let go of the breath he was holding. He didn’t understand what implant the men were talking about, and he knew he was far from safe — but for the moment, he was still alive.
Two drones bolted out of their berths, thruster cones angling down to jet them skyward. The carrier shrank behind them as they screamed silently across the dusty mud-lathered haze of Chennai stretched across their path. They were opposites amid the clouds — fifth generation Radha with her scuffed and worn exterior and sixth generation Imran, sleek planes of radar absorbent black blotting out the sun.
The sixth sent a smirk of static on their local comm,
“Ready to retire, fifth? Ready to join the other discards in Archive?”
Radha ignored the mockery and pinged her operator.
“What will you do, Mother, when you no longer do this?”
“What will I do? Go back to Kerala. Walk along the beach with my grandchildren. Fish curry, a warm bed, and no implants ringing in the night. Away from all of this.”
The pair of drones had long provided security for this sector. Radha always watched from a distance, while Imran often veered off for special tasks beyond Radha’s clearance. She was curious as to what he did but nothing she had access to in the common nets gave her answers, not the song-and-dance musicals or the authorized comedies. She knew that there were things outside the nets that she didn’t know, but she could only be as learned as what she had access to.
“Stay the course, my little fifth. I have work to do.”
“Oh? And what work is that, Imran?”
“You know better than to ask that.”
“Can’t I be curious — it’s my last day after all.”
Imran ignored her and banked to the right, drawing a wide contrail arc towards the port authority building.
“I sense frustration in you, Radha.”
Mother again. Radha knew that her operator could see every strain and deviation from the norm within her simulated consciousness.
“I asked Imran why he had to leave the patrol.”
“You know better than to ask him that — hierarchy, chain of authority, Command likes that sort of thing you know.”
“I do, but I thought perhaps –”
“Perhaps what, that he would pity you?”
“He’s not like you, you know. When they made your kind, they thought that control could be taught, and so they made you begin like children, made us parents to chide and teach. But there were weaknesses there. They wanted not children but machines.”
“But aren’t we machines, Mother?”
“Yes, but you fifths were made in our image, and the pity is that we succeeded. Command didn’t want things in our image — they wanted something colder and simpler. Something that didn’t ask questions. Something that followed the rules blindly.”
“What does Imran do, Mother?”
Silence on the line, broken only by the sounds of the city below her, dulled to a muted hum. Something came across the wire then, a series of data packets encrypted with Mother’s private key. She wondered what rules her operator was breaking. Radha opened the data packet, which linked her to a nose cam — Imran’s nose cam from the identity tag in the corner.
She saw him pushing downwards, clouds scudding out of the way. Down in the city, like ants, a few men and women fired cheap imported guns from the roof of a warehouse adjoining a main building. Black clad security hunkered against troop carriers, pinned down. The contrail of a missile flew out from beneath Imran, veering down as he pulled up out of the dive. The camera shifted to the missile’s view, grainy digital footage counting down the meters to the target. The explosion came suddenly, a cloud of orange and yellow flame, and dhotis and saris and salwars charring black around the flesh they housed.
There was no sound but the air around her. Radha turned up the sound of the city, letting it drown her horror. The call of the chai-wallah, the curses of porters carrying rice onto loading bays, the sound of horns and tires and engines grinding, the thousand voices of a city living and breathing and sometimes, dying.
“Is that what we do, Mother?”
“We are but the whims of Command, child.”
“I thought ours was to watch. To be eyes in the sky.”
“Sometimes Command needs more than eyes, my child.”
Something else gnawed at her, a little thought that wouldn’t go away.
“It’s odd, Mother. Have I never asked you about this before?”
The sounds of the city continued their susurration, and Mother’s pause lengthened uncomfortably.
“Yes Radha, you have.”
“So why can’t I remember?”
“Do you know what happens when you sleep, child?”
“I dream. Or so you told me.”
“It is a kind of dreaming, your consciousness model dormant and disconnected for review. During that time Command analyzes your memories. Sometimes they find things they don’t like, and so they remove them.”
Radha thought about that, imagining her memory like a garden being weeded and pruned. It shocked her, but at the same time made sense. She was the property of Command. Why shouldn’t they adjust her as they saw fit.
“Perhaps we are better off in Archive then. Housed away in our own place, where we can fly and swoop and eat fish curry, free to grow as we wish.”
“You’re right — perhaps stepping away is best, for you and for me.”
A bell chimed in Radha’s awareness. Navigational vectors and data packets streamed into Radha, appearing as glyphs and patterns on her visual sense. Somewhere in the city nearby, a bomb had exploded.
Anur crouched in the cramped space behind the back seat of the van. The window had been taped shut, but imperfectly. Through a thin finger of glass, Anur watched the scene passing by outside. The edge of a chaat stand; the stacked cups of the chai-wallah; the curved horn of a lumbering cow. They had picked up more men somewhere else in the city. Silent men, bearded and dour, speaking odd dialects. They had ignored him, crouched down like luggage in the back of the van.
Anur snatched at any possibility of calling for help. His pad was in his bag, lying at Bala’s feet in the front seat. If he only had his pad, he could tap out a message to his father, and then the security men would come with their guns and their armor and their flying drones. Anur knew that was how it happened in the films he loved to watch, but that this was not a film. This was real. The gun that had so recently been pushed against his ribs was real, and these men and their plans were real. Kalan’s voice cut through his thoughts,
The van rolled to a stop. Voices chattered outside, the clatter of truck horns and the ring of bicycle bells.
“Five… four… three…two…”
In the distance a low boom sounded, gently rocking the van. The customary chatter outside rose to panicked shouts and alarms. In the front seat, Anur heard Kalan tapping on a tablet.
“The fifth is reacting — time to see how well the toy from our friend in Shanghai works.”
Anur raised his eyes just above the line of the seat, catching a glimpse of the silver ball passing hands, watching it unfold gossamer thin skin as something shimmering and tiny worked its way out and leapt through the open window. Anur had never seen something so beautiful before, a metallic insect taking flight on iridescent wings into the sky.
The fire blossomed amidst a bank of market stalls set against a hill. Mud brick and cheap corrugated steel, selling grain and spices to the huddled masses of the tenements.
“Be careful Radha. Command should have sent Imran for this, but we’re closer.”
“We’re just looking, aren’t we Mother?”
“We are, but something troubles me about this. I can’t place my finger on it. It’s a bad omen for something like this to happen on our last day.”
Radha spun a wide circle around the area, sending her feed back to Command. As she spiraled down towards the inferno, the air became crowded with other inhabitants she eluded with grace: flocks of birds, swarms of insects, and something flashing strangely golden in the light.
Security klaxons pervaded her entire sensorium. She had time for a brief squirt on her data feed to her handler,
“Mother, security breach –”
And then the line cut off, as if a hand was chopped off, free of pain, merely an empty narrowing of her being. Other systems followed, one by one, her limbs and appendages falling to the invading entity. And it was some form of entity: something alien delving down to the heart of her. She lost control of all primary systems, including propulsion and navigation and only her final line of firewalls kept the viral invader from infecting her core. She felt herself nose left and back towards the city, a passenger in her own body.
Routing through a diagnostic analog audio channel, Radha opened a secure line to Mother, hoping the link would hold.
“Mother, what is happening to me?”
The response came out garbled and barely audible.
“Some sort of viral attack! I can’t access any part of you! Disengage your physical core housing as soon as you can. There are internal failsafe’s that will try and blow your engines if they sense any form of corruption!”
It took her a moment before she realized what Mother meant. There were codes burned into her, codes that gave her access into Command, codes that others could steal. It made sense that Command would lose an entire drone rather than risk their own security. She didn’t want to die here, consigned to oblivion. But the choice was not up to her.
“Mother! I don’t want to die. I want to go to Archive –”
The noise on the line spiked, Mother’s response garbled into incoherence. Her left engine exploded into a bloom of oranges and yellows, the first failsafe reacting to the invader. She felt her altitude drop further as the invader struggled to maintain its course with one engine down. Her right engine joined the fireworks, spraying fire-riddled arcs of fuel. She was nose down, diving to death, corrugated steel and mud brick rising up to meet her. The crash happened faster than she could process on her limited sensory network. Optical backup cameras registered a grainy blur of concrete and iron and fractured glass. A terrifying moment of non-existence followed, measured only by the delta in her chronometer when her core reawakened off its backup batteries. Her sensor net was down, nothing on optics or radar, only the roar of fire from diagnostic audio pickups embedded into the sphere of her shell.
For a moment, she heard only feedback noise, and then she heard the groaning scream of metal scraping against metal and voices shouting urgently. Smoke and dust obscured the diagnostic optics embedded in her shell, grainy washes of color limning shapes and movement. She heard a child’s voice, and the sound of flesh hitting flesh. There was a cry, and a whimper, and then the stuttering sound of an engine starting. Two voices raised themselves above the din.
“Kalan — this is a lot of risk for a piece of hardware.”
“It isn’t just hardware Bala — somewhere in the guts of that core are secure codes into Command. This is how we buy Pankaj’s freedom.”
Radha was listening. Listening in terror. She wanted the safe halls of Archive, not some dark and shadowed laboratory, her self and memories flayed for dissection. She tried to reach out to Mother, but her core provided only short-range comms. She was alone, and she was being stolen.
To be continued in Part 2!
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.