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Sanjeev and Robotwallah by Ian McDonald

CyberabadDays

In a review of Ian McDonald’s monumental novel River of Gods, the Washington Post called him “a writer who is becoming one of the best SF novelists of our time.” Certainly, he has tapped into the zeitgeist with his recent work, which charts the move from Western-centric science fiction to tales of emerging superpowers. The world of River of Gods has proven fodder for several subsequent stories, including the Hugo-nominated novella “The Little Goddess.” In the story that follows, McDonald takes us once again into his fascinating and utterly convincing world of mid-twenty-first-century India.

 

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 artificial intelligence 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 from 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. He could see nothing but 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 armor, 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 trees. Airdrones, Sanjeev realized 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 laboring 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 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 memorized manufacturers and models and serial numbers, weapon loads and options mounts, rates of fire and maximum speeds. To buy a Japanese trump game, he saved up the pin-money he made from helping old men with the computers the self-proclaimed Bharati government put into every village. No one would play him at it because he had learned every last detail. 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 defense bots, RED COLA riot-control robot.

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 who 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 centimeter 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 Kali-black 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 Desi-metal 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 coming 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 was 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 pick-up, 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 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. He was tall and very thin from the drugs, fidgety and scratchy, his bad skin ill-concealed with make-up. 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 glamor, 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 Armored and Recon Cavalry—sowars properly—worked out of a cheap pressed-aluminum 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 armor, 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 recroom 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 that 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, 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 favorite old faithful combat machine, scarred with bullet holes and lovingly customized 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 not 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 round 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.”

With what remained from his money when he had divided it between his mother and father and put some away in the credit union for Priya, Sanjeev went down to Tea Lane and stuck down the deposit and first payment on a pair of big metally leathery black-and-red and flame-pattern boots. He wore them proudly to work the next day, stuck out beside the driver of the phatphat so everyone could see them and paid the owner of the Bata Boot and Shoe store assiduously every Friday. At the end of twelve weeks they were Sanjeev’s entirely. In that time he had also bought the Ts, the fake-latex pants (real latex hot hot far too hot and sweaty for Varanasi, baba), the Kali bangles and necklaces, the hair gel and the eye kohl. But the boots first, the boots before all. Boots make the robotwallah.

“Do you fancy a go?”

It was one of those questions so simple and unexpected that Sanjeev’s brain rolled straight over it and it was only when he was gathering up the fast food wrappers (messy messy boys) that it crept up and hit him over the head.

“What, you mean, that?” A nod of the head toward the harnesses hanging like flayed hides from the feedback rig.

“If you want; there’s not much on.”

There hadn’t been much on for the better part of a month. The last excitement had been when some cracker in a similar go-down in Delhi had broken through the Kali Cav’s aeai firewall with a spike of burnware. Big Baba had suddenly leaped up in his rig like a million billion volts had just shot through (which, Sanjeev discovered later, it kind of had) and next thing the biocontrol interlocks had blown (indoor fireworks, woo) and he was kicking on the floor like epilepsy. Sanjeev had been first to the red button, and a crash team had whisked Big Baba to the rich people’s private hospital. The aeais had evolved a patch against the new burnware by the time Sanjeev went to get the lunch tins from the dhabawallah, and Big Baba was back on his corner of the sofa within three days suffering nothing more than a lingering migraine. Jemadar-woman sent a get well e-card.

So it was with excitement and wariness that Sanjeev let Rai help him into the rig. He knew all the snaps and grips—he had tightened the straps and pulled snug the motion sensors a hundred times—but Rai doing it made it special, made Sanjeev a robotwallah.

“You might find this a little freaky,” Rai said as he settled the helmet over Sanjeev’s head. For an instant it was blackout, deafness as the phonobuds sought out his eardrums. “They’re working on this new thing, some kind of bone induction thing so they can send the pictures and sounds straight into your brain,” he heard Rai’s voice say on the com. “But I don’t think we’ll get it in time. Now, just stand there and don’t shoot anything.”

The warning was still echoing in Sanjeev’s inner ear as he blinked and found himself standing outside a school compound in a village so like Ahraura that he instinctively looked for Mrs. Mawji and Shree the holy red calf. Then he saw that the school was deserted, its roof gone, replaced with military camouflage sheeting. The walls were pocked with bullets down to the brickwork. Siva and Krishna with his flute had been hastily painted on the intact mud plaster, and the words, 13th Mechanized Sowars: Section headquarters. There were men in smart, tightly belted uniforms with mustaches and bamboo lathis. Women with brass water pots and men on bicycles passed the open gate. By stretching Sanjeev found he could elevate his sensory rig to crane over the wall. A village, an Ahraura, but too poor to even avoid war. On his left a robot stood under a dusty neem tree. I must be one of those, Sanjeev thought; a General Dynamics A8330 Syce; a mean, skeletal desert-rat of a thing on two vicious clawed feet, a heavy sensory crown and two gatling arms—fully interchangeable with gas shells or slime guns for policing work, he remembered from War Mecha’s October 2038 edition.

Sanjeev glanced down at his own feet. Icons opened across his field of vision like blossoming flowers: location elevation temperature, ammunition load-out, the level of methane in his fuel tanks, tactical and strategic satmaps—he seemed to be in southwest Bihar—but what fascinated Sanjeev was that if he formed a mental picture of lifting his Sanjeev-foot, his Syce-claw would lift from the dust.

Go on try it it’s a quiet day you’re on sentry duty in some cow-shit Bihar village.

Forward, he willed. The bot took one step two. Walk, Sanjeev commanded. There. The robot walked jauntily toward the gate. No one in the street of shattered houses looked twice as he stepped among them. This is great! Sanjeev thought as he strolled down the street, then, This is like a game. Doubt then: So how do I even know this war is happening? A step too far; the Syce froze a hundred meters from the Ganesh temple, turned and headed back to its sentry post. What what what what what? he yelled in his head.

“The onboard aeai took over,” Rai said, his voice startling as a firecracker inside his helmet. Then the village went black and silent and Sanjeev was blinking in the ugly low-energy neons of the Kali Cavalry battle room, Rai gently unfastening the clips and snaps and strappings.

That evening, as he went home through the rush of people with his fist of rupees, Sanjeev realized two things; that most of war was boring, and that this boring war was over.

The war was over. The jemadar visited the video-silk wall three times, twice, once a week where in the heat and glory she would have given orders that many times a day. The Kali Cav lolled around on their sofas playing games, lying to their online fans about the cool exciting sexy things they were doing—though the fans never believed they ever really were robotwallahs—but mostly doing battle-drug combos that left them fidgety and aggressive. Fights flared over a cigarette, a look, how a door was closed or left open. Sanjeev threw himself into the middle of a dozen robotwallah wars. But when the American Peacekeepers arrived Sanjeev knew it truly was over because they only came in when there was absolutely no chance any of them would get killed. There was a flurry of car-bombings and I-war attacks and even a few suicide blasts, but everyone knew that that was just everyone who had a grudge against America and Americans in sacred Bharat. No, the war was over.

“What will you do?” Sanjeev’s father asked, meaning, What will I do when Umbrella Street becomes just another Asian ginza?

“I’ve saved some money,” Sanjeev said.

With the money he had saved, Godspeed! bought a robot. It was a Tata Industries D55, a small but nimble antipersonnel bot with detachable free-roaming sub-mechas, Level 0.8s, about as smart as a chicken, which they resembled. Even secondhand it must have cost much more than a teenage robotwallah heavily consuming games, online time, porn, and Sanjeev’s dad’s kofta pizza could ever save. “I got backers,” Godspeed! said. “Funding. Hey, what do you think of this? I’m getting her pimped; this is the skin-job.” When the paint dried the robot would be road-freighted up to Varanasi.

“But what are you going to do with it?” Sanjeev asked.

“Private security. They’re always going to need security drones.”

Tidying the tiny living room that night for his mother’s nine o’clock lesson, opening the windows to let out the smell of hot ghee though the stink of the street was little better, Sanjeev heard a new chord in the ceaseless song of Umbrella Street. He threw open the window shutters in time to see a object, close, fast as a dashing bird, dart past his face, swing along the powerline and down the festooned pylon. Glint of anodized alu-plastic: a boy raised on Battlebots Top Trumps could not fail to recognize a Tata surveillance mecha. Now the commotion at the end of the Umbrella Street became clear: the hunched back of a battlebot was pushing between the cycle rickshaws and phatphats. Even before he could fully make out the customized god-demons of Mountain Buddhism on its carapace, Sanjeev knew the machine’s make and model and who was flying it.

A badmash on an alco moto rode slowly in front of the ponderously stepping machine, relishing the way the street opened in front of him and the electric scent of heavy firepower at his back. Sanjeev saw the mech step up and squat down on its hydraulics before Jagmohan’s greasy little pakora stand. The badmash skidded his moped to a stand and pushed up his shades.

They will always need security drones.

Sanjeev rattled down the many many flights of stairs of the patriotically renamed Diljit Rana Apartments, yelling and pushing and beating at the women and young men in very white shirts. The robot had already taken up its position in front of his father’s big clay pizza oven. The carapace unfolded like insect wings into weapon mounts. Badmash was all teeth and grin in the anticipation of another commission. Sanjeev dashed between his father and the prying, insect sensory rig of the robot. Red demons and Sivas with fiery tridents looked down on him.

“Leave him alone, this is my dad, leave him be.”

It seemed to Sanjeev that the whole of Umbrella Street, every vehicle upon it, every balcony and window that overlooked it, stopped to watch. With a whir the weapon pods retracted, the carapace clicked shut. The battle machine reared up on its legs as the surveillance drones came skittering between people’s legs and over countertops, scurried up the machine and took their places on its shell mounts, like egrets on the back of a buffalo. Sanjeev stared the badmash down. He sneered, snapped down his cool sexy dangerous shades and spun his moped away.

Two hours later, when all was safe and secure, a Peacekeeper unit passed up the street asking for information. Sanjeev shook his head and sucked on his asthma inhalers.

“Some machine, like.”

Suni left the go-down. No word no note no clue, his family had called and called and called but no one knew. There had always been rumors of a man with money and prospects, who liked the robotwallah thing, but you do not tell those sorts of stories to mothers. Not at first asking. A week passed without the jemadar calling. It was over. So over. Rai had taken to squatting outside, squinting up through his cool sexy dangerous shades at the sun, watching for its burn on his pale arms, chain-smoking street-rolled bidis.

“Sanj.” He smoked the cheap cigarette down to his gloved fingers and ground the stub out beneath the steel heel of his boot. “When it happens, when we can’t use you anymore, have you something sorted? I was thinking, maybe you and I could do something together, go somewhere. Just have it like it was, just us. An idea, that’s all.”

The message came at 3 a.m. I’m outside. Sanjeev tiptoed around the sleeping bodies to open the window. Umbrella Street was still busy; Umbrella Street had not slept for a thousand years. The big black Kali Cav Hummer was like a funeral moving through the late-night people of the new Varanasi. The door locks made too much noise, so Sanjeev exited through the window, climbing down the pipes like a Raytheon 8-8000 I-war infiltration bot. In Ahraura he would never have been able to do that.

“You drive,” Rai said. From the moment the message came through, Sanjeev had known it would be him, and him alone.

“I can’t drive.”

“It drives itself. All you have to do it steer. It’s not that different from the game. Swap over there.”

Steering wheel pedal drive windshield display all suddenly looked very big to Sanjeev in the driver’s seat. He touched his foot to the gas. Engines answered; the Hummer rolled; Umbrella Street parted before him. He steered around a wandering cow.

“Where do want me to go?”

“Somewhere, away. Out of Varanasi. Somewhere no one else would go.” Rai bounced and fidgeted on the passenger seat. His hands were busy busy; his eyes were huge. He had done a lot of battle drugs. “They sent them back to school, man. To school, can you imagine that? Big Baba and Ravana. Said they needed real-world skills. I’m not going back, not never. Look!”

Sanjeev dared a glance at the treasure in Rai’s palm: a curl of sculpted translucent pink plastic. Sanjeev thought of aborted goat fetuses, and the sex toys the girls had used in their favorite pornos. Rai tossed his head to sweep back his long, gelled hair and slid the device behind his ear. Sanjeev thought he saw something move against Rai’s skin, seeking.

“I saved it all up and bought it. Remember, I said? It’s new; no one else has one. All that gear, that’s old, you can do everything with this, just in your head, in the pictures and words in your head.” He gave a stoned grin and moved his hands in a dancer’s mudra. “There.”

“What?”

“You’ll see.”

The Hummer was easy to drive: the in-car aeai had a flocking reflex that enabled it to navigate Varanasi’s ever-swelling morning traffic, leaving little for Sanjeev to do other than blare the triple horns, which he enjoyed a lot. Somewhere he knew he should be afraid, should feel guilty at stealing away in the night without word or note, should stay stop, whatever it is you are doing, it can come to nothing, it’s just silliness, the war is over and we must think properly about what to do next. But the brass sun was rising above the glass towers and spilling into the streets, and men in sharp white shirts and women in smart saris were going busy to their work, and he was free, driving a big smug car through them all and it was so good, even if just for a day.

He took the new bridge at Ramnagar, hooting in derision at the gaudy, lumbering trucks. The drivers blared back, shouting vile curses at the girli-looking robotwallahs. Off A-roads on to B-roads, then to tracks and then bare dirt, the dust flying up behind the Hummer’s fat wheels. Rai itched in the passenger seat, grinning away to himself and moving his hands like butterflies, muttering small words and occasionally sticking out of the window. His gelled hair was stiff with dust.

“What are you looking for?” Sanjeev demanded.

“It’s coming,” Rai said, bouncing on his seat. “Then we can go and do whatever we like.”

From the word ‘drive,’ Sanjeev had known where he must go. Satnav and aeai did his remembering for him, but he still knew every turn and side road. Vora’s Wood there, still stunted and gray; the ridge between the river and the fields from which all the men of the village had watched the battle and he had fallen in love with the robots. The robots had always been pure, had always been true. It was the boys who flew them who hurt and failed and disappointed. The fields were all dust, drifted and heaped against the lines of thorn fence. Nothing would grow here for a generation. The mud walls of the houses were crumbling, the school a roofless shell, the temple and tanks clogged with wind-blown dust. Dust, all dust. Bones cracked and went to powder beneath his all-wheel-drive. A few too desperate even for Varanasi were trying to scratch an existence in the ruins. Sanjeev saw wire-thin men and tired women, dust-smeared children crouched in front of their brick-and-plastic shelters. The poison deep within Ahraura would defeat them in the end.

Sanjeev brought the Hummer to a halt on the ridgetop. The light was yellow, the heat appalling. Rai stepped out to survey the terrain.

“What a shit-hole.”

Sanjeev sat in the shade of the rear cabin watching Rai pace up and down, up and down, kicking up the dust of Ahraura with his big Desi-metal boots. You didn’t stop them, did you? Sanjeev thought. You didn’t save us from the Plaguewalkers. Rai suddenly leaped and punched the air.

“There, there, look!”

A storm of dust moved across the dead land. The high sun caught glints and gleams at its heart. Moving against the wind, the tornado bore down on Ahraura.

The robot came to a halt at the foot of the ridge where Sanjeev and Rai stood waiting. A Raytheon ACR, a heavy line-of-battle bot, it out-topped them by some meters. The wind carried away its cloak of dust. It stood silent, potential, heat shimmering from its armor. Sanjeev had never seen a thing so beautiful.

Rai raised his hand. The bot spun on its steel hooves. More guns than Sanjeev had ever seen in his life unfolded from its carapace. Rai clapped his hands and the bot opened up with all its armaments on Vora’s Wood. Gatlings sent dry dead silvery wood flying up into powder; missiles streaked from its back-silos. The line of the wood erupted in a wall of flame. Rai separated his hands, and the roar of sustained fire ceased.

“It’s got it all in here, everything that the old gear had, in here. Sanj, everyone will want us, we can go wherever we want we can do whatever we want, we can be real anime heroes.”

“You stole it.”

“I had all the protocols. That’s the system.”

“You stole that robot.”

Rai balled his fists, shook his head in exasperation.

“Sanj, it was always mine.”

He opened his clenched fist. And the robot danced. Arms, feet, all the steps and the moves, the bends and head-nods, a proper Bollywood item-song dance. The dust flew up around the battle-bots feet. Sanjeev could feel the eyes of the squatters, wide and terrified in their hovels. I am sorry we scared you.

Rai brought the dance to an end.

“Anything I want, Sanj. Are you coming with us?”

Sanjeev’s answer never came, for a sudden, shattering roar of engines and jet-blast from the river side of the ridge sent them reeling and choking in the swirling dust. Sanjeev fought out his inhalers: two puffs blue one puff brown and by the time they had worked their sweet way down into his lungs a tilt-jet with the Bharati Air Force’s green white and orange roundels on its engine pods stood on the settling dust. The cargo ramp lowered; a woman in dust-war camo and a mirror-visored helmet came up the ridge toward them.

With a wordless shriek Rai slashed his hand through the air like a sword. The bot crouched; its carapace slid open in a dozen places, extruding weapons. Without breaking her purposeful stride the woman lifted her left hand. The weapons retracted, the hull ports closed, the war machine staggered as if confused and then sat down heavily in the dead field, head sagging, hands trailing in the dust. The woman removed her helmet. The cameras made the jemadar look five kilos heavier, but she had big hips. She tucked her helmet under her left arm, with her right swept back her hair to show the plastic fetus-sex-toy-thing coiled behind her ear.

“Come on now, Rai. It’s over. Come on, we’ll go back. Don’t make a fuss. There’s not really anything you can do. We all have to think what to do next, you know? We’ll take you back in the plane, you’ll like that.” She looked Sanjeev up and down. “I suppose you could take the car back. Someone has to and it’ll be cheaper than sending someone down from Divisional, it’s cost enough already. I’ll retask the aeai. And then we have to get that thing . . .” She shook her head, then beckoned to Rai. He went like a calf, quiet and meek down to the tiltjet. Black hopping crows settled on the robot, trying its crevices with their curious shiny-hungry beaks.

The Hummer ran out of gas twenty kays from Ramnagar. Sanjeev hitched home to Varanasi. The army never collected it, and as the new peace built, the local people took it away bit by bit.

With his war dividend Sanjeev bought a little alco-buggy and added a delivery service to his father’s pizza business, specializing in the gap-year hostels that blossomed after the Peacekeepers left. He wore a polo shirt with a logo and a baseball cap and got a sensible haircut. He could not bring himself to sell his robotwallah gear, but it was a long time before he could look at it in the box without feeling embarrassed. The business grew fast and fat.

He often saw Rai down at the ghats or around the old town. They worked the same crowd: Rai dealt Nepalese ganja to tourists. Robotwallah was his street name. He kept the old look, and everyone knew him for it. It became first a novelty and then retro. It even became fashionable again, the spiked hair, the andro make-up, the slashed Ts and the latex and most of all the boots. It sold well and everyone wore it, for a season.

_____

‘Sanjeev and Robotwallah’ appears in Cyberabad Days, a collection of  seven stories. Reprinted here with permission.

Ian McDonald
Ian McDonald is a science-fiction writer living in Northern Ireland just outside Belfast. His first novel, Desolation Road was published in 1988 and won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. He's published 18 novels since then, and three story collections, a picked up a Philip K Dick Award, a Hugo Award, the Jon W Campbell Memorial and Theodore Sturgeon AwardsBSFA award three times, and he's been nominated for the Nebula and Arthur C Clarke Awards. His most recent novel is Luna: New Moon, currently in development with CBS TV. The sequel Luna: Wolf Moon will be published in autumn 2016. See Goodreads and Amazon.

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