by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi
First published 2019 in The Expanding Universe 5 (Goodreads link)
It is 2023. The world is beset by an endless rain of kaiju flung into Earth’s gravity well. Their origin? A comet that crashed into the Moon, sprawled across its surface, and revealed itself to be an assembler of nightmares. Their target? The most populated centers of the Earth. And the only thing standing between us and them are the Shikari: ‘Hunters’. Giant cyborg machines hammered together in the nick of time, fashioned after the old gods of the Mahabharata, and sent out to do battle against the demons.
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 others 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, and 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 care 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 phase. 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 Sankrit, 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.