The sky above Mumbai harbour lit up.
Parzan Merchant, nine years old, craned his neck out of his bedroom window. He’d been practicing the song for the Independence Day celebrations at school tomorrow, which was why he was still out of bed so late at night. He’d heard the boom and rushed to see. As he watched, another fireball seared the horizon behind the close-packed buildings.
‘Parzan! Hey!’ His fourteen-year-old brother Kersi came in. Parzan’s bedroom was the highest in the old and crumbling house. It was suffocatingly hot in summer, drafty in winter, and right now in the monsoon it smelt of mould, but you could see the harbour from the window if you leaned out really hard. ‘Shove up,’ said Kersi, and jack-knifed his lanky body over the windowsill. Parzan sulkily gave way. ‘What do you think is happening, Kersi?’ he asked. ‘Is it terrorists, like in 2008?’ He’d been too small to see much of anything when the Taj Hotel had been attacked.
Kersi snorted. ‘Nah. That’s just your future going up in flames.’
‘Don’t you remember? That was INS Sindhurakshak. The submarine that exploded in Mumbai harbour in 2013. You sat up all night watching, little brother. Then you insisted I go out and buy the newspapers even though I said you could read them all on the net. You wanted to make a scrapbook, you moron.’ Water began to flood the room. ‘I told you it was a bad idea. The sea eats people.’
‘No!’ But the word wouldn’t come out. Instead of his bedroom window, Parzan’s thrashing hands touched the worn metal sides of the training tank in submarine school, buzzing with the absorbed terror of generations of first-time submariners. Kersi’s drowned face opened in a mindless grin. ‘You’re no hero, Parzan. You fed us all to your beloved ocean, didn’t you? Your whole family. You bastard.’ Fish nibbled at the ribbons of rotting flesh on Kersi’s cheeks. ‘You deserve this. You couldn’t even stop your crew from deserting. You loser. Loser! Loser!’
‘Kersi…’ The sounds bubbled in his throat. Kersi’s clawed hands reached for him. Parzan screamed.
He woke up. For a second he thought he really was drowning, then he realised it was just his hair. It was wet.
‘I’m sorry,’ said a female voice. ‘Your heart-rate was elevated and you were vocalising in your sleep. I deployed the sprinkler system to wake you.’
‘Uh,’ Parzan took a towel from the bar and wiped his neck. He was in the officers’ lounge of Arisudan, the state-of-the-art nuclear submarine of which he was commanding officer. Or had been. He wasn’t sure what he was now. A survivor, perhaps. ‘I was having a nightmare. People do, you know.’
‘I will tag the symptoms for future reference. I hope you are not too damp?’
He rubbed his head ruefully. ‘When did I fall asleep? I was reviewing the inventory, and…’ He fingered his left cheek. There was a dent in it from the edge of his tablet.
‘You stopped moving and your breathing slowed three minutes and forty six seconds ago.’
‘Damn. Wake me up if you see me doing it again. But don’t use the sprinklers. Just keep saying my name really loud.’ He thought a bit. ‘And don’t wake me when I’m in my bunk. Unless I ask you to. Or something happens. Do you understand?’
‘Yes sir. I have modified my protocols.’
He put the towel on the back of a chair to dry. ‘I suppose I should turn in. Monitor all wavelengths while I’m sleeping, Arisudan. Anything moves out there, I want to know.’
‘But sir, it is four hours till the end of watch. You cannot…’
Parzan’s patience snapped. ‘Damn right it is. Do you see anyone here who can relieve me? No? Oh that’s right, you in your infinite wisdom let the crew leave! So now I’m doing the work of 95 men all by myself. Pardon me if I don’t follow the rulebook on this.’
There was a pause. Then Arisudan said, ‘You are angry, sir. Have I disappointed you?’
Parzan held his head. ‘Why did you let them go?’
‘I believed that Executive Officer Carlton Caron was telling the truth when he said he was leading a sortie to bring back essential food and medicines. He said you had been temporarily unhinged by the tragedy of the Helios Fail. I saw that you were screaming and banging on the door of your cabin. Hence I concurred that your behaviour was unbefitting a commanding officer, and that I should—’
He nearly shouted, but stopped himself in time. ‘Look, I admit I was kicking the damn door, but that was because they’d locked me in! They didn’t want me to stop them from leaving. But it’s hell out there! All coastal cities have been obliterated. One third of the Indosphere’s landmass is under water. Our home port of Vishakhapatnam has been wiped off the face of the earth. Our VLF radio station at INS Kattabomman has been destroyed, so we can’t contact anyone without surfacing, which would mean our immediate destruction. So we’re stuck here on the bottom of the sea in the Singapore Straits, hiding from an enemy 35,790 kilometres above our heads!’
‘I am aware of the situation, sir. When XO Caron put me in survival mode before exiting the ship he updated my databases.’
‘Well then you know that a week ago, Delhi gave us orders to watch and wait. That was before Ramdhun’s space hotel opened fire on us, but I don’t care what anyone says, we don’t take orders from them. If Ramdhun has turned hostile, Delhi will deal with it.’
‘Yes sir. But Delhi has not communicated with us since then.’
‘I know! Look, I’m trying to do this right, okay? And I seem to be the only one.’ He got up and began pacing. ‘Whatever they may think, the men can’t help their families. I should know. I’ve known since 2032 when Mumbai sank into the sea. Once you become a climate refugee, there’s nothing left. Not even the ground under your feet…’
‘I am sorry, sir. What are your orders?’
He pushed his knuckles hard into his eyes for a moment. You can’t lose it now, Zany. Pull yourself together in front of the talking machine. ‘Take stock of the food we have left. Calculate how long it will last me. Our Supply Officer said we were down to three months’ emergency stock, but that was when we still had 95 people on board.’
‘And now I’m going to get some rack time. Wake me up if the world ends. Again.’
Of course, once he was in his bunk, sleep deserted him.
The Helios Fail. Stupid name for the end of civilisation. All those doomsday movies about comets hitting the earth and nuclear wars. Hah. If the moviemakers were still alive, he reflected, they ought to be feeling ashamed of themselves.
Just over a week ago, Arisudan had surfaced off the Andaman and Nicobar islands after almost nine months of pre-launch sea trials, and Parzan had tried to raise Vishakhapatnam to give them the news of her excellent performance in every test and to request permission to return to base for refitting and handover. The last trial had involved diving to just above crush depth for her titanium hull, more than a kilometre below the surface. Arisudan had performed impeccably, but a sudden deep-ocean acoustic storm had led him to bring her up two days ahead of schedule. That had caused his first moment of disquiet: what kind of event could produce such a hurricane of sound so deep under the sea? The disquiet deepened into worry when he failed to raise Kattabomman, but Arisudan was in the Bay of Bengal where VLF reception was notoriously bad. Once on the surface, his communications officer tried every band and channel, even the civilian ones, and got nothing but static. Vishakhapatnam would not respond.
He’d been about to head home on high alert when Delhi contacted them. ‘This is the Vice Chief of Naval Staff of the Indosphere. INS Arisudan, what’s your status?’
‘We can’t raise any military asset, sir. Or civilian, for that matter. Are we in a state of conflict, sir? And if so, with whom?’
‘We are not at war, commander, if that’s what you’re asking. You know war has been off the table since the Ramdhun New Deal of 2024. The Indosphere is now a region of peace and cooperation. No, Commander, the aggressor here is the planet itself. We have lost major military assets due to yet another climate fail precipitated by human error. This is far worse that Singapore in 2023 or Mumbai in 2032. Ramdhun Corporation is assisting us in assessing the damage. We believe the continent of Antarctica has been de-iced.’
‘Yes. Before you embarked on mission, you will recall that the Helios energy major of New York had applied for permission to drill for oil in Antarctica as an eighteenth birthday present for the Ramdhun One Thousand. Six weeks ago permission was granted.’
Parzan looked at his XO. Carlton frowned. The Admiral went on, ‘Yesterday, 23 December 2048, was the Helios Inauguration and initial drilling run. At about 1100 hours IST, the Helios drill rig broke into an active volcanic vein under the southern polar continent. The explosion seems to have de-iced the entire landmass and collapsed the Ross Ice Shelf. Coastlines worldwide have been hit by multiple supersonic tsunamis. Satellite imagery, as far as we can tell through the planet-wide haze caused by the Helios Fail, shows loss of coastal Andhra, Orissa and all of Bengal. The Ganga valley is submerged up to Varanasi. The west coast is less damaged but no facilities have survived, not even Ezhimala. There is no command chain east of Allahabad. Eastern Command is gone.’
‘I see, sir.’ Parzan was acutely aware that most of the seven officers around him had homes in the places the Admiral had named. ‘Sir, our rations are low. We were scheduled to make port and begin mission debriefing in a week’s time. Is there any alternative port we could head for in the interim?’
‘Negative, Commander. Stand off to sea and await instructions. What is the status of your emergency supplies? How long can you last on short rations?’
‘Sir, I will need to make an exact estimate but I believe with good management, we could last another couple of months without restocking. Three at the most. As you know, sir, Arisudan was in sea trials and we were to hand over to the A crew for formal launch. She performed well on all tests and our systems are optimal. Our ICBMs lack warheads, so we have no long-range attack capabilities. However we are carrying our full arsenal of live torpedoes, decoys and mines. The reactor is stable and can power us for several decades if necessary. The shortage of rations is the immediate problem.’
‘Noted. We’re aware that Arisudan is not fully combat-ready, We don’t expect that you’ll be required to engage, but we can’t rule out opportunistic attacks from hostile powers seeking to capture markets in the aftermath of the Helios Fail, so remain at yellow alert. Your objective is to keep your boat safe while we assess the situation. Passive sonar only, and radio silence.’
‘Understood, sir.’ Parzan signed off and turned to his officers. ‘Pilot, take us down to 100 metres.’ The pilot and copilot began their dive prep, which on Arisudan was much simpler than the protocol they’d used on the diesel electric subs Parzan had trained on, back in the 2030s. ‘Ops, trail a wire and listen to all radio channels. Sonar, trace all contacts including neutrals and friendlies. Engineering, check on propulsion, oxygen and water. Supply, take stock of all consumables including medical and give me a full report. Tell the crew that everyone’s on short rations as of now. Nav, did we get a GPS fix?’
‘Satellites are still operational, sir. We’re four hundred kilometres west-northwest of Indira Point.’
‘Okay, hold position for now. XO,’ he turned to Carlton, ‘scramble the men, including off-watch. I’m going to address them all in the Missile Compartment in twenty minutes.’
‘On it,’ said Carlton, then hesitated. ‘I can get them there in fifteen, if you like, Zany.’
Parzan shook his head. ‘I appreciate it, CanCan, but I need twenty minutes to work out what the hell I’m going to say to them.’ They looked at each other grimly. ‘Alert the crew and prepare to dive.’
Parzan squeezed his eyes shut as he lay on his bunk. He was exhausted, but his whole body was twanging with tension. Stand down, he told himself sternly. He felt a twinge of residual guilt at not finishing the watch: it was just the habits of a lifetime protesting the breakdown of all sanity. He told himself to rest: he was now the only soul on whom Arisudan depended, and he had to keep functioning for her sake. He tried to push his thoughts away, but his mind insisted on turning over like an idling engine. Once again it slipped a gear and dragged him down the rubbish-littered slope of his memories.
Grandma Freny could always be relied upon to listen. She was the only one in the Merchant family who didn’t snort or sneer when he said he wanted to join the navy. She had helped him make the scrapbook back in 2013, and she didn’t agree when his mother said it was a morbid thing to do. ‘He’s going to have to grow up in this world,’ Grandma Freny had told her daughter-in-law grimly. ‘He’s old enough to start learning about it now.’
‘You shouldn’t encourage him in this navy nonsense. It’s too dangerous. Why don’t you tell him to think about helping Kersi when he grows up? The stud farm is too big for one boy to manage.’
‘It’s his life.’
Parzan went on sticking stuff in his scrapbook and pretended he couldn’t hear them talking above his head. But after his mother had gone, he asked Grandma Freny, ‘Is the navy really dangerous?’
‘Everything’s dangerous. Horses kick, ships sink, plans go haywire.’ She grinned toothlessly. ‘Doesn’t mean we stop living.’
‘Is it hard to become a sailor?’
‘We’ll have to find out, won’t we? But I’m pretty sure the first step is studying hard and doing well in your exams, Akoori.’
‘Grandma, don’t call me Akoori! I’m not a baby any more.’
She chuckled. ‘You still like my scrambled eggs, don’t you, like you did when you were four? So I can call you Scrambled Eggs till you’re as old as I am.’
He couldn’t argue with such infuriating logic.
In November 2023 Kersi married Havovi, a sweet chubby girl of whom his mother thoroughly approved. Parzan was happy for his brother, but the wedding wasn’t really fun because his school final examinations were coming up in two months’ time, and every relative either asked him how he was studying or which colleges he planned to apply for. To his great relief he managed to dodge any serious grilling, then Kersi went off on his honeymoon to Singapore. The young couple had actually wanted to spend their honeymoon on the floating private city of New Singapore, a modern engineering marvel built by Ramdhun Corporation out in the Straits, but it wasn’t going to be opened to the public till the grand inauguration on 4 January 2024. Only shareholders and VIPs were currently allowed to dock there. But their cruise ship did pass the city, and Havovi excitedly posted the photos of the two of them standing before the graceful spires and bridges of New Singapore as it floated past. Parzan’s father came to show him the pictures on Sharebox.
‘You should think about a career at Ramdhun, if you like ships so much,’ his father told him. ‘Do your B.Com and apply. They’re the largest single corporate house in Asia, and they’re run by an Indian family, the Vaghelas. They’ve had a presence in India since 2020, when they stepped in to build corona hospitals and quelled all those riots and protests and whatnot. They practically run the country now. What do you say, Parzan?’
‘I’ll think about it, Dad.’
Kersi returned a week before Christmas, laden with Ramdhun-made presents for the whole family. Parzan got a VR-ready Ramfone, but his father locked it up in his study and said, ‘You’ll get it if you do well and get into a good college.’
‘Oh, let the boy enjoy himself till Christmas,’ scolded Grandma Freny. ‘Parzan and I always go carol-singing with Sharon and Chaim; they’ll be so disappointed if he doesn’t come this year. He’ll study better after that, won’t you, Akoori? Come on, dinner’s ready.’
‘No!’ Havovi’s voice rose in a near scream. ‘We were just there! How can this be happening? Oh God!’
‘What’s wrong?’ Father asked as they all rushed into the living room. The two women were staring at the television. ‘It’s Singapore,’ Mother said grimly. ‘It’s gone.’
‘Gone? What do you…’ But Father was staring at the television too. The studio feed cut to the holiday lights of the great city, decorated for Christmas and the New Year. ‘This evening, a day before Christmas Eve with Singapore’s shopping season at its height, disaster struck when…’ As they watched, a strange darkness rose behind the slender skyscrapers, and down that darkness ran an eerie waterfall of light, forming for a moment the hazy outlines of… what? The commentator said, ‘Just before 9pm local time, a series of megaquakes disturbed the seabed south of Singapore, causing an enormous tidal wave laden with mud and rock to wash over the entirety of Singapore Island, burying the city and all but a handful of its inhabitants. This is a tragedy that no one thought would ever happen. Just seconds before the wave hit, the lights of the city were reflected on the underside of the giant curl of water, hundreds of metres high, creating this optical illusion of a winged figure poised to swoop down upon the city. People are calling it the Angel of Doom.’
The rest of his memory of that evening was just flashes. The faces of climate refugees, wiped blank by shock. The helicopters and private jets of the super rich, who had left Singapore harbour just minutes before tragedy struck and turned up for a ‘pre-launch party’ at New Singapore. The aerial view of the floating city with a high wall of expensive yachts and cruise ships moored around it. The smoke canisters that went off just as the climate refugees in their tiny boats arrived at New Singapore. The thick pall of smoke hiding the floating megalopolis. Then the smoke clearing, a few minutes later, to reveal nothing outside the circle of cruiseliners but the empty restless sea: no boats, no refugees, not even wreckage. The breezy dismissals of Ramdhun top management, who claimed to know nothing about the people or their fate.
At first Havovi cried and wailed, then as the replies of Ramdhun worthies became more and more flippant, she grew tightlipped and red-eyed. Grandma Freny tried to console her, and Parzan simply watched with his heart in his mouth. Much later it occurred to him that of all of his family, only Kersi had sat with his back to the television most of the time, playing a wargame on his phone.
‘Commander Merchant? Are you awake? It’s been eight hours.’
‘Already?’ He sat up. ‘Feels like I just lay down. Any news?’
‘No contacts, Commander Merchant. I have calculated our food reserves. Irradiated items in deep storage such as rice, wheat, pulses and powdered milk will last up to three years or longer, sir. Fresh foods will not last nearly so long. Some will have to be cooked and frozen. I regret to inform you, sir, that you will have to boil or fry 127 eggs. Once that is done, 189 boxes of assorted foodstuffs will have to be manually transferred to deep storage.’
He grunted a laugh. ‘Okay, this will give me something worthwhile to do.’
‘Sir, in my database I have over two hundred egg-related recipes. Would you like me to…’
‘Don’t bother, I know what I want to do with them.’ He got up and pulled on his shorts. ‘Grandma Freny didn’t call me Akoori for nothing.’
It felt strange to be walking alone down Arisudan’s softly shining corridors. He’d spent most of his working life in incredibly close confines, honing the submariner’s particular ability to maintain personal space when everyone was practically living in each other’s laps. The old subs he’d trained on had been full of pipes and conduits and weird protuberances that poked themselves into your gut if you weren’t careful, as if the human crew were interlopers in their kingdom. By contrast, Arisudan was all novel self-cleaning materials in smooth ergonomic curves. The RamTech engineers who’d built her had honed their skills designing the interiors of Indraprastha, the Ramdhun space hotel, and they’d used many of the same design concepts in Arisudan. When their trial voyage had begun, the crew had taken weeks to tire of the Star Trek jokes.
Arisudan’s skin was a nanorubber-coated titanium shell, inside which the fixed structure was two matching hulls like the buns around a hotdog. These contained the living quarters, command infrastructure and crew spaces. The space in between the halves was for the ‘hotdog’ (basically the Missile Compartment, Supply and Storage) to be slotted in. These sections could be lifted out by cranes in drydock, allowing the gigantic 110-metre long warmachine to be restocked in a matter of days if need be. A huge change from the way subs had been loaded twenty years ago, with the crew forming human chains and passing stuff from hand to hand. When he’d first seen Arisudan’s specs in 2047 he’d been a little nervous about the idea of a sub with detachable sections, but when the lockout trunks were nanosealed into place you couldn’t tell where the fixed hull ended and the trunks began.
Supply was amidships, close to the reactor because the heat exchangers in the cold storage used a lot of power. He passed the dining hall and headed through the swing doors to the galley. All was neat and in order; he felt a moment of pure, hopeless, gut-wrenching love for his crew who, in the middle of the world’s ending, had stowed their tools, fastened their locker doors and left everything shipshape for the next shift. He bowed his head and shut his eyes.
He’d failed the entrance test. In 2024 the National Defense Academy rejected him, as did the Naval Academy. Shaken, he’d joined a local college to study commerce. Kersi started giving him book-keeping work to do for the stud farm. The business was not prospering: its glory days were long over. The rich men who had kept it alive were all dying of old age, and the younger generation of richies didn’t care. Cars were their thing, not horses. Kersi was trying to sell the farm to Ramdhun Corporation. Rik Nehra, Ramdhun’s Head of Image Management, came to see it in June 2024, just after the Ramdhun New Deal was signed. In spite of the large quantities of their father’s scotch he drank, Nehra said there was very little prospect of a deal. Grandma Freny refused to meet Nehra, saying he was the glib PR man who had explained away the vanishing of the refugees in 2023. She and Parzan sat in the kitchen until he left.
Grandma Freny shrugged when Parzan told her he’d washed out of NDA admissions. ‘Try again,’ she said firmly. ‘No one ever made a perfect dhansak the first time they picked up a spatula. Don’t listen to your moron brother: try again.’
‘Kersi’s smarter than me, Grandma.’
‘Kersi’s good at figuring out what other people think is smart. But you know, Parzan, really smart people don’t need to do that.’
So he studied commerce by day and prepared for a second shot at the entrance exam by night. Grandma Freny’s faith proved correct, because he got into NDA in the July intake, although direct entrance to the navy still eluded him. Still, at least he was on his way to joining the armed forces. He’d have to opt for a lateral transfer to the naval academy in his senior year, if he did well enough. He was pretty sure the regular army was no fit place for him.
Kersi was furious at the prospect of having to handle the family’s slow slide into bankruptcy all by himself, and even tried to get his father to forbid Parzan from going. ‘It’s my life, Dad,’ Parzan tried to smile when his father came to grill him about his life choices. A hollow feeling budded open in his heart.
‘No,’ said his father. ‘It’s not your life. Do you know why you were named Parzan?’
‘I know. Grandma Freny told me the story. Your young cousin went missing in Ahmedabad during the riots of 2002. I was named for him when I was born two years later.’
‘And now you want to go to sea. What if you go missing too? How much more must this family take?’
‘I’ll be safe, Father.’
‘That happened eleven years ago. The engineering of subs has improved vastly since then. Dad, I have to do this. I can’t live with myself if I don’t.’
His father said nothing. He didn’t trust machines.
Parzan took the new Ramdhun-built bullet train to Pune. Everyone on the train was talking about the Ramdhun New Deal, which the government had signed just days ago and which was now in force across the Indosphere. The pandemic and the riots, oppressions, midnight arrests and mass movements of 2020-21 had left the economy on the brink of collapse and shredded people’s confidence in the government. As the protests were crushed one by one, TV analysts wailed about the loss of productivity that followed in their wake. The government’s ruthless suppression of the people didn’t quite manage to distract the nation from the catastrophic collapse of the economy. By 2022, as the world opened back up after the pandemic, unemployment hit a record high, the worst since Independence, even as markets were booming in the wake of the rise in online work. Then Singapore was washed away and the world had plunged back into recession, losing what little hope had dawned after the pandemic. In April 2024 the business houses of the Indosphere had appealed to Ramdhun to clean it all up and get the economy running again.
Central elections were already overdue, but the news channels only showed endless footage of every Indian city thronged with service-people in smart Ramdhun uniforms, building and painting and cleaning and modernising. No one knew exactly what the terms of the Ramdhun New Deal were, but it was rumoured that all domestic government ‘services’ were now in the hands of Ramdhun, while the government would restrict itself to foreign relations and defence spending. Amendments were passed to drastically reduce the power of the regional governments, since the analysts of the Centre for Proactive Policymaking at Jai Narendra University put out terabytes of data to show how these governments had abetted the riots and turmoil. Rik Nehra publicly said the states were the biggest obstacles to restarting the economy.
Selvam Vaghela, CEO of Ramdhun, visited the Prime Minister and had a ‘very positive meeting’. Vaghela was impeccably dressed in designer ethnicwear, although he did not speak any Indian language. ‘Signs of hope!’ squawked the talking heads. ‘The days of anarchy and mismanagement are over!’ His face was everywhere these days. As Parzan got off at Pune station and headed for the taxi stand, Selvam Vaghela’s voice boomed from a giant screen above the exit. ‘The last few years have proved that the old ways are wasteful of human potential. Ramdhun wants the Indosphere to be a zone of opportunity, security, peace and prosperity. Women and minorities should be free to work…’ Parzan got in the cab and Vaghela’s voice faded in the wind.
For the next three years, Parzan did his best to keep his mind on his training and ignore the increasing weirdness of the world around him. He made few friends at Khadakvasla. He was acutely aware that if he didn’t get into the Naval Academy he’d have broken his father’s heart and alienated his brother for a future he didn’t want. But when the time came, his luck held: his name was on the list of qualifiers for Ezhimala. He was finally going to be a sailor.
Home leave that year was hard. Havovi’d had a daughter, Minoo, in 2025: now she complained that Kersi was pestering her for a son. Parzan’s elder brother had already named the child Rusi and was fitting out Parzan’s old room as a nursery. Kersi seemed curiously confident that his next child would be a male. Parzan thought it was because of the Ladbubble, the sudden mysterious spurt in the birthrate of boys that the press kept talking about: nowadays two boys were being born for every girl, apparently. Meanwhile Ramdhun Wellness had made the Merchants an offer to convert the stud farm into a vaccine factory and build a new Ramdhun township on the extensive pasturage. Kersi and their father had screaming fights every night. Kersi was ready to sell on any terms, but their father was shocked at the prospect of turning his beloved horses into pharmaceutical battery hens. Parzan had no help to offer any of them, so with Grandma Freny’s blessing he’d gone south as soon as he could decently get away.
The Naval Academy was spread over acres of beautiful Kerala backwaters. The sea revived his spirits after the claustrophobia of home. He hoped he’d fit in: the others in his batch would have joined as freshers and he knew he’d have to learn the culture all over again. First day at breakfast, he overheard voices from the next table. They were talking about the Ramdhun New Deal. Someone said ‘good riddance to all that democracy bullshit’ and other voices murmured agreement. He was only half-listening: by now the constant bickering between his brother and father had created protective rough spots in his brain, but he frowned as another voice joined the conversation. This voice was different: clear, low and precise. ‘Democracy was invented on the water,’ it said. ‘Arguably the first modern democracies were pirate ships. Even military vessels are more democratic than army platoons. They have to be.’
‘Oh shut up with your ancient history, CanCan. We don’t want to hear all that stuff about the boogie woogies any more.’
‘Huguenots,’ said the voice. ‘Then don’t talk about democracy in front of me.’
‘You should go teach in some college. Navy men don’t think. They act!’
‘Incorrect,’ said CanCan. Parzan was listening with full attention now. ‘If you’re a sailor, you make one mistake in a highly technical task and that’s it, you’re all fish feed. You can’t afford stupidity on a ship.’
‘Huh. What do you know about it, you ding?’
‘Nothing, really. But my family’s been on the ocean since 1619, one way or another.’
Parzan turned to watch the speaker. He had a shock of brown hair, a serious square face and a lanky body that had not a spare inch of flesh on it. Right now his eyes were hard as pebbles. ‘And by the way, I’d prefer it if you called me firangi rather than dingo. I am not Anglo Indian: I don’t have a drop of English blood in me. I’m Franco-Bengali. Firangi is an acceptable alternative.’
The other cadets at the table looked at each other, totally out of their depth, then bent their heads to their idlis and dosas. They all sidled as far away as they could from the soi-disant firangi. Parzan picked up his plate and came over. ‘Mind if I join you? I have some questions about pirates.’ He extended a hand. ‘Parzan Merchant. I don’t know why, because I’m really boring, but they call me Zany.’
The hand was shaken. ‘Carlton Caron. And for reasons you’ve no doubt deduced, they call me CanCan.’
Parzan thought about that. ‘Scandalous, spectacular, difficult and French?’
Carlton raised his glass of pineapple juice. ‘Salut!’
He’d forgotten how healing it was to chop garlic and tomatoes and onions, select spices, heat oil, wait for the chuckling that said it was time to begin. He’d learned to cook in 2032; Grandma Freny had taught him. But that was after everything had gone wrong. He stirred the onions to brown them evenly, then added the tomatoes and chopped peppers. Finally the eggs went in, a whole dozen of them beaten in a jug, then all he had to do was wait for them to firm up and stop his tears from falling in the pan.
That final year at Ezhimala had been heaven. For the first time in his life he’d started to feel like an adult, someone in charge of his own future. His mind was also being challenged in ways he’d never faced before, and part of the challenge was keeping up with Carlton. Carlton was focused with serene certainty on the process of making it into the submarine training school at Vishakhapatnam, and his poise started to nourish Parzan’s own rather battered self-confidence. Zany was soon spending nearly every free evening listening to CanCan’s stories about the sea. ‘Don’t expect the other guys to like us,’ CanCan said. ‘Submariners have always been the most hated of all the naval personnel. By their own surface-sailing comrades and by the enemy.’
‘Because for many years it was not thought honorable to descend into the depths and strike from hiding like a thief or a brigand.’ Carlton pinched his hydrodynamics textbook shut and tossed his tablet aside. ‘A ship is helpless against a sub. Once the world had submarines, there were only two kinds of vessels in the ocean.’
‘Subs and targets?’
‘Correct. That’s why during World War I they actually called us undersea sailors “pirates”,’ CanCan chuckled. ‘We retaliated by painting the Jolly Roger on our hulls. Along with symbols of our kills. Some crews still do today.’
‘Could be seen to be in poor taste.’
‘Not if the other side started it. They wouldn’t even let us call our vessels “ships”. The word for a sub is still “boat”, even today, but now we use the word with pride.’ CanCan leaned back and put his feet up on his desk. ‘There are two ways of looking at war, Zany. One way, the way you probably recognise: war is a ritual, a necessary dance whereby men and nations and other big bods decide who is the mostest, and therefore it must be done right, with the appropriate posturing, rules and lingo.’
‘I take it you don’t approve. What’s the second way?’
CanCan’s look became grimmer. ‘War is what you do to survive, to stop the injuries and the damage and the bullying, and therefore it must be done right, as cheaply and painlessly and quickly and effectively as possible. That’s where subs come in. American subs won the Pacific war in 1945, not the goddamn atom bomb. They destroyed Japan’s merchant shipping and starved the country of oil and food. It’s the only way to take down an island nation that will not stop.’
‘So you’re saying that subs are effective because they’re kind of… cheating?’
‘All victory is cheating. And rewriting the rules. Don’t kid yourself that war is honourable. That’s just something they tell us to make us do our jobs. War is hell.’
Parzan frowned. ‘If you think that, then why do you want to be a submariner?’
‘Because someone has to.’ Carlton waved a hand. ‘Subs end wars because they’re nearly unstoppable, they can be anywhere, carrying ten ICBMs, each of which can wipe out a whole province. Nuclear submarines can stay at depth for months, even years if they have to. Just the knowledge that they’re in the ocean keeps all the crazies shut up in their boxes. I hate war, Zany, so I’m obliged to do what I can to make sure the world sees as little of it as possible.’
‘So it’s like being a sanitation engineer?’ Parzan meant it as a joke, but Carlton nodded seriously. ‘That’s right. If you do your job correctly, no one even knows you’re there.’
When Parzan faced the enlisted men in the Missile Compartment shortly after the Admiral’s radio message, he still had no idea what to say to them. The fifteen officers stood facing the men in their ten neat ranks of eight, flanked by the giant brown vertical cylinders of the missile tubes in two deadly colonnades. The crew called this area Vrindavan, because you could pretend it was a forest and go for a jog around it. Parzan wondered if he should tell them everything, given that there was nothing the men could do to help their families now. Submarine protocol dictated that you didn’t give people bad news until their tour of duty was over. But on the other hand, this wasn’t just a death in the family. This was the end of the world. ‘Men, I’ve called you here to tell you we will not be making it back to our home port of Vishakhapatnam. Instead, we will remain at radio depth and monitor all channels. There is currently no way to reprovision, so as of now we are all on short rations, officers included. I know we’ve been at sea for nearly nine months now and you’re all anxious to return home. As soon as we get more news from Delhi, I’ll be able to tell you more. Hopefully 2049 will see us home. Dismissed.’
No one moved. He frowned slightly. ‘Is there a problem?’
‘Sir,’ said Leading Seaman Shivsundar Nanda, ‘Is it true that Orissa and Bengal are gone?’
Instantly a hubbub arose: Andhra? Kerala? Tamil Nadu? The Konkan coast? Nanda’s voice cut through the noise like a knife. ‘Are we at war, sir?’
Parzan shook his head. ‘No, as far as I know, the Admiral said this was not caused by a hostile act but a climate fail, though probably there was some human agency…’
‘Is it true we have no homes? What happened to our families? Sir?’ asked Signals Officer Benu Chaudhury. His face was grey. ‘We’re the warriors, not them, we’re the ones who should be…’
On any boat, rumours are rats. No point wondering who had spilled the beans. Parzan waited for the noise to die down. ‘We don’t know anything yet for certain. Our orders are to await instructions. It’s up to the land-based forces to deal with any emergency. We have to figure out how to survive in the meantime.’ He looked at the rows of anxious faces. None of them were over thirty five, and most were much younger. None had seen active combat; there hadn’t been any naval engagement since the Chinese standoff of 2025, and half of them hadn’t even been born then. He knew the names of their wives and children, he’d seen their faces in pictures, shadowed by the trees of home, and now he could feel flashes of the pain they were all feeling. It was familiar: sixteen years ago he too had been through this hell.
The noise died down. Their training was reasserting itself. He said, ‘Be advised that there is nothing we can do to help the search-and-rescue people. Delhi has promised to notify us the moment there is concrete intelligence. Right now all we know is that Antarctica has been destroyed.’
‘Antarctica?’ Benu Choudhury was staring at him. ‘How could that happen, sir?’
‘The Helios Corporation!’ exclaimed Petty Officer Joyraj Mahato. ‘They applied for a lifting on the ban on oil drilling in Antarctica. But there was no way they’d ever be given permission!’
Once again the hubbub rose. ‘So we’re climate refugees? Climies? The rest of the country won’t take us in. They never do!’
‘Ten-hut!’ Carlton shouted, and they stilled again at the reminder, but their eyes flashed and their faces worked. CanCan said out of the corner of his mouth, ‘You have to level with them, Zany.’
Parzan opened his mouth to reply, but the deck bucked violently under their feet. Alarms went off all over the ship. Parzan grabbed a radio mic. ‘Ops!’ he bellowed. ‘What was that?’
‘Ordnance. Taking evasive action, sir.’
‘Deploy countermeasures and dive to 500 metres! I’m on my way.’ The deck bucked again. ‘To your posts!’ he yelled to the men, who were already scrambling. He ran with his officers at his heels all the way to Control. ‘Who’s shooting at us?’
‘Indraprastha. The Ramdhun space hotel,’ said the officer on duty. ‘They’re launching smart missiles from orbit. We managed to fool the first two with decoys, but they’re still spinning them up.’
‘How did they find us? And what the hell do they think they’re doing?’
Ops was pulling up displays and looking worried. ‘The AI is analysing the trajectories of the shots. It thinks they’re tracking our thermal wake.’
A third shockwave threw them all at the far bulkhead. ‘That was too damn close!’ Parzan shouted. ‘Make for the Sunda Straits. We need islands to scatter our wake.’
‘Zany, the sea’s too shallow for us to dive worth a damn in the Straits. If they come after us we’ll be as helpless as a baby in a bathtub.’
‘Diving won’t help if they’re tracking us: the missiles will just push us down to crush depth. We have to stop them getting a lock on us. The noisier our position, the better chance we have of hiding. And have the AI put us in stealth mode. We need to be a hole in the water.’
Dropping decoys after her, Arisudan crept in among the islands like a clownfish into corals.
Parzan stirred the tenth and last batch of scrambled eggs to cool it. The euphoria of his passing-out parade at Ezhimala had evaporated in minutes when he came home in May of 2030. Carlton had been called to submarine school almost before he finished at Ezhimala. ‘Have patience,’ he texted Parzan. ‘You’ll get in too.’ Parzan had his doubts, but he just sent a smiley face and took the train home. He arrived just as Havovi went into labour with little Rusi. The baby was born in the early hours of the morning, but immediately they knew something was wrong. Rusi would not stop crying. If he was held, he screamed as though red hot pincers were biting his flesh. He refused to take his mother’s breast, let alone suck.
Five days after birth, he died. The whole family broke down in grief. Their crying was echoed by the house down the lane, then the one across the park. Suddenly, all over the world, boy babies were dying of some mysterious disease that gave them agonising pain. Women’s anger spilled out, emptying the kitchens and schools and playgrounds. Kersi confessed to Parzan that he’d taken Humane Choice, the rather shady vaccine made and sold by Dr Pradip Shankar, medical genius and main man of Ramdhun Wellness. Humane Choice ensured that men would have mostly sons, but Shankar had never quite explained how it worked, or what the risks were. Of course, the good doctor denied any link between Humane Choice and this new disease. ‘Don’t tell Havovi,’ Kersi pleaded, and with a heavy heart Parzan promised to keep the secret.
The press called 2030 the Year of Fear. It felt like a return to the bad old days of 2020 when every city had been at war with itself, and contagion had stalked the world. But this was different. As mothers rioted on the streets or dissolved in tears at home, commentators explained how this new scourge would not harm the GDP and might even be a positive factor for demographic change. ‘It’s the Ladbubble collapsing,’ said Rik Nehra, when he was asked if he was worried. ‘In any case, we have years to figure this out before it becomes a real problem.’ Hospitals were choked with newborn boys who wailed like creatures caught in traps until they fell silent forever. The doctors knew only that the babies were being born with hypersensitive skins and hyperactive immune systems: if starvation did not kill them, anaphylaxis did, and they proved to be allergic to nearly everything. Mothers marched for their sons’ lives, and when that didn’t work they burned cars and broke windows. Kitchens across the globe were cold, schools empty, husbands went without meals and laundry, offices and factories were in chaos. Men’s rights groups called for a crackdown on ‘the bitches’, while spiky graffiti appeared on public walls, spelling out the words ‘Bitch Wars’. Dr Shankar went public to say the cause of these neonatal deaths was a ‘hostile prenatal environment’ but refused to release any data to support his claim.
In the middle of his family’s grief, Parzan got his call letter from submarine school. Grandma Freny insisted that he go. He’d have to be away for six months’ training on shore, and then another six months on an actual sub: a whole year of isolation. He felt guiltily thankful. As he gritted his teeth through the weeks of tests and training, he got intermittent news from home. Grandma Freny told him Dr Shankar had announced that he would find a cure for this new scourge, which the good doctor had christened Male Hypertoxic Syndrome. She didn’t think Shankar could save the babies. ‘He’s originally from Chandigarh,’ she said. ‘He left because people started asking questions about his precious vaccine. And then these Vaghelas threw their money at him. Bunch of crooks and thieves.’
But Ramdhun announced that one thousand of the world’s wealthiest newborn boys had signed up for the Shankar Cure, along with their powerful parents who would be co-sponsors of the research. The babies, quickly nicknamed the Ramdhun One Thousand or R1K by the press, were collectively the heirs to the richest corporate empires on the planet. Shankar declared that saving these babies would safeguard the economies of the world, bring back stability to the markets and protect millions of jobs and livelihoods. Then, once the technology had been developed and the R1K were safe in the arms of their one-percenter parents, he would upscale the cure for the general public. So the world settled down to await the outcome of Shankar’s experiment, although it would come too late for little Rusi and the boys of his generation.
The Shankar Cure was top secret: even the mothers weren’t allowed to see their babies in Shankar’s high-security facility on New Singapore. Their milk was pumped out by machines, triple filtered and fed to the babies remotely. After one year the thousand babies were all still alive, and the mothers were sent home. Ramdhun released carefully edited videos of the boys in their clean glass bubbles: they seemed normal. The wait for the boys’ return stretched on. Parzan finished his submarine training to find that Havovi had fallen in on herself like a sandcastle undermined by the tide. Grandma Freny was doing her best to look after Minoo, now six. The little girl would buzz around her like a bee seeking honey. Grandma Freny would say, ‘Minoo, what will you be?’ And Minoo would put a pot on her head and say ‘Minoo Merchant, space explorer!’ Then Grandma Freny would put a pot on her own head and say ‘Freny Merchant, space explorer!’ and they’d make whooshing noises as they took off. Parzan’s heart ached for them both.
He tried to make life easier for them. The kitchen was filthy: he took all the jars down and cleaned them till they sparkled. Grandma Freny told him to put them all back exactly as he’d found them, and he thought he’d done so. But that night Kersi took one taste of the titori and spat it across the room. ‘What’s wrong?’ Parzan cried. But then he too took a taste and turned pale. ‘Oh no!’ He ran to the kitchen. The salt and sugar jars were identical but for the words SALT and SUGAR on them, and he’d inadvertently switched their places. ‘But Grandma Freny, didn’t you notice?’ Grandma Freny gave a half-smile. ‘I have cataracts, Akoori.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘You were at sea, and I hadn’t the heart.’ Parzan took her to an ophthalmologist that very day. But it turned out she also had the beginnings of glaucoma, and the doctor recommended that she be taken to Vellore for treatment, or if they could afford it, New Singapore. Parzan booked them both on the next flight to Vellore. ‘Good thing I cleaned the kitchen or you’d never have let me know. Why must you be a saint?’
‘It’s not that,’ Grandma Freny said. ‘I would have told you once the family was… once things were better. But you don’t know what it’s like for a mother to lose a baby. I’ve had to hold on to Havovi to stop her slipping away. She needs time.’
Parzan nodded. ‘But I’m here now, and I’m going to make sure you get well.’
‘Weren’t you waiting for your call letter? You can’t miss your first posting.’
‘I’ll manage,’ he said firmly.
She was to have three operations spread over five days. The procedures were successful. The day before she was to be discharged, a megastorm hit the Maharashtra coast. Kersi called to tell them not to try to return till the storm was over. But they waited, and it showed no sign of stopping. Ten days later, it was still raining, as if the sky had turned into the ocean. There was no way in or out of Mumbai. Even the army was having trouble evacuating key personnel. On the twelfth day, the reclaimed areas of the city collapsed back into the ocean, undermined from below. Great craters opened up like the mouths of hungry giants and swallowed apartment buildings whole. Then, like dominoes, the areas further inland slipped westwards to fill in the holes. The Mahalaxmi Race Course where Parzan’s great grandfather had made the fifty rupees that had launched his business career in the 1890s, the Mazagon docks where he’d had his first offices, it was all gone. Mumbai had simply slid into the sea. Parzan and Grandma Freny had watched the news clips helplessly. No other member of the Merchant family had got out. A whole clan of racehorse-breeders, sportscasters, cartoonists, textile traders and film producers had been washed away like ants. In the week of 20 August 2032, the two of them had become climate refugees.
Mumbai was also the Indian Navy’s foremost base and shipyard. He had no idea what its loss would mean to his brother officers and him personally. He couldn’t think about it. Carlton was on mission and unavailable. His immediate problems were more pressing: Grandma Freny needed a home to recuperate in. When New Bombay, the township Ramdhun had built over lands which included their old stud farm, had first been put on the market by Ramdhun, Grandma Freny had nagged his father into putting a down payment on a flat, and made Parzan pay the instalments over the years. The two of them returned to New Bombay in September, and on the train his phone got stolen. He was secretly glad; he didn’t want to talk to any of his old friends now.
New Bombay had been neat and orderly in 2025, but now, under the pressure of the climies, it was rapidly becoming a giant semi-slum like Malaysia’s Climate Town, which had begun life as a UN-mandated state-of-the-art rehabilitation centre, but was now a DIY township run by the climies themselves. The original residents of New Bombay were not pleased to see their latest neighbours, and the climies took to travelling in groups to avoid getting pelted with rubbish or worse. Various odd bods who had been people of consequence in the old city were lobbying for compensation from Ramdhun, but it turned out that most of the real industries, the profit-making concerns, had relocated long ago to Nandan Gardens, a private technopolis nestled in the Western Ghats, just northwest of Bangalore. The news channels were full of footage of the lavish new studio backlots and stock exchanges of Nandan Gardens and social media buzzed with the sound of money finding its level. Y.B. Kumaran, CEO and city father, sniffed that ‘By 2030, Mumbai was already of little more than archival value. All the real wealth and skills have emigrated here.’
Parzan was granted three months’ compassionate leave. It was a formality: the navy was having to deal with the loss of its Mumbai facilities and had no time to place rookie submariners. He didn’t know it then, but the wait would stretch to almost two years, leaving him wondering once again if he would ever see active service. In early 2033 he got up the courage to delve into his enormous backlog of mails and found a series of increasingly desperate messages from Carlton asking him to get in touch. He’d thought Carlton was at sea so hadn’t tried to reach him, but of course all missions had been cancelled to facilitate retrenching. Parzan invited Carlton to visit them in their new flat and a few weeks later he arrived.
To Parzan’s relief, CanCan and Grandma Freny got along famously. They cooked enormous meals and listened to Grandma Freny’s stories of her girlhood in Mumbai. She’d been fourteen when Pratima Bedi had streaked on Juhu Beach. ‘That was the cause of my first fight with your great grandfather,’ Grandma Freny said, waving the ladle. ‘I thought she’d done a wonderful thing, she’d run across that beach as though she had nothing to fear and showed everyone that they shouldn’t fear either, but of course he didn’t agree.’
‘She did more than that,’ Carlton grinned. ‘She gave a fourteen-year-old girl a chance to stand up for herself.’
‘And to realise how stupid men can be,’ Grandma Freny added. ‘I’ve done a lot of both since then.’
A few months later Parzan got his first posting, on INS Sindhuvaan, a fast attack sub. Carlton briefed him extensively on what to expect on board, including a warning that disaster could strike if you flushed the toilet at the wrong time. Carlton himself was already posted as a junior ops officer on one of the brand new nuclear-powered submarines that the navy was rolling out. ‘The days of diesel electric subs are numbered,’ he had told Parzan before he left. ‘We’re already using them mostly as training vessels and for coastal surveillance. The future is nuclear.’
In spite of the hostility of the neighbours, Grandma Freny was determined to go out and restart her social life. In Mumbai she’d had an extensive network of oddball old-timers to hang out with, but now the suburban housewives regarded her with downright suspicion. She fell in with some college kids and attended a ‘bitch rally’. After the brief lull of the early 2030s, the Bitch Wars had heated up again. In 2037 the R1K came home to their parents and the Shankar Cure was opened to the public—for a steep price. Almost immediately the fury of the public rekindled. The long waiting times, the lack of transparency and the arrogance of Ramdhun Wellness all added fuel to the fire. Now the blanket of secrecy that had swathed the Shankar Cure started to fray, and mothers were appalled by what was revealed. Having to spend a year hooked up to a milking machine was bad enough, but now people began to see glimpses of the odd behaviour Ramdhun had edited out of the baby videos. ‘A huge question mark hangs over the future of the human race,’ said the coordinator of Climate Town, Cherie Lahiri Wilson. ‘Perhaps this should convince us not to deliver it with both hands into the keeping of a corporation.’ Parzan was deeply troubled by Grandma Freny’s newfound political consciousness, but she said firmly, ‘This is about the children.’ He knew that while he was on mission, she’d be totally on her own. If she wanted to go on marches there was no way he could stop her.
He found the R1K deeply puzzling. When they finally left their pure white cleanrooms at the age of seven, they were individually and collectively strange. News anchors tried to explain away their strangeness by pointing to their social isolation and their lack of experience of the real world. In any case, as the sons and heirs of the wealthiest people on the planet, the R1K could afford to be as strange as they wanted, and to go on being so. Benito de Guzman, one of the first babies to be enrolled in the R1K, killed himself aged eight. Jason Lefebvre, also aged eight, was rumoured to have knifed his mother. Robert Walton the Third, heir to Pentecostco, the corporation which grew forty percent of the world’s food, hadn’t left his mansion since 2037. There were rumours that the boys’ super-sensitive skins were now sub-sensitive: they felt very little pain. That explained a lot. Parzan tried to concentrate on his job, and he rose in the ranks of the second tier of officers. He was known as a plodder, not particularly good with either men or technology, but reliable and solid when in charge of both.
Then in 2042, ten years after the death of Mumbai, Parzan had come home to the little flat to find the keycard taped under the nameplate. Everything inside was spick and span, the edges of the table mats aligned with geometric precision, every dish sparkling and in its place. At the bottom of a drawer was a tablet containing the leasehold for the flat and passcodes and payment records for the utilities, all in perfect order. The neighbours said she’d left an hour before he’d arrived. For a paranoid moment he’d wondered if she’d gotten too deeply involved in the protests and paid the customary price, but somehow his heart said no, she’d left of her own accord. Why? He desperately wanted to talk to Carlton, but he knew he’d have to wait another six months to even give him the news. So he’d gone around the whole neighbourhood asking for information, but it was no use. He knew she was gone.
Of course he blamed himself. He’d spent all the time he could with her, and it hadn’t been enough. Maybe if he’d gotten married…? Carlton had once told him in his terse way that the rigours of submariner life would break any casual relationship and unless he wanted lots of heartbreak he should wait till he was sure. He was never sure. He could also hear Grandma Freny’s voice in his imagination, scolding him for being a silly boy and saying she was her own woman, now as always. There was nothing left to do but grieve it out and go back to work. Service before self, as the navy’s motto went. I am truly a climie now, he thought. All I have is the sea.
Parzan loaded the boxes onto the last of the handcarts, then broke a thermsuit out of storage and kitted up. ‘Your suit will protect you for thirty minutes in deep storage,’ said Arisudan. ‘Please complete your task and return before the time is up. Today you will have to make three trips in total, with a rest of ten minutes in between to equalise body temperature—’
‘Got it.’ He switched the handcart’s motor on and steered it towards the elevators. When he reached the lower deck in Storage he saw something small and white on the floor. He picked it up. It was a notebook. Someone had written ‘Priye,’ and then the word had tailed off in a smear. Someone had tried to write a letter to a dear one. His hand started to shake.
‘Your eyes are watering again,’ Arisudan observed. ‘This may fog your faceplate temporarily. Should we abort the mission?’
‘No,’ he said roughly. ‘It’s just sadness. But you wouldn’t know anything about it, so shut up.’
There was a pause. ‘If you mean this is an expression of emotion,’ Arisudan said, ‘then I understand. My programming includes algorithms derived from more than five million reference-hours of social media interaction and gameplay. However, I am unsure as to the primary cause of your sadness. Is it social deprivation?’
‘Nuts,’ said Parzan rudely, parking the handcart at the end of the line. ‘I’m just sad, that’s all. Okay?’ He moved to the head of the line and switched on the first cart’s motor.
‘That is not a trivial thing. Emotions are status indicators. Happiness indicates an optimum state. Anything else means there are alarms that need attention. For instance, if you take too long at this task and collapse from hypothermia, I will be forced to reverse the cooling in deep storage in order to save your life in the short term. In the long term, however, this might well mean your starvation. Hence this outcome would make me acutely unhappy as I downgrade our status further—’
‘Yeah yeah yeah, “get on with the job”, go on, say it, I can take it.’ Parzan trundled the handcart up to the doors of the storage compartment. A blast of supercooled air spread frost over his faceplate, then it cleared. ‘Corridor 4 stack 9,’ said Arisudan. ‘You have twenty one minutes and forty seconds left.’
He stacked the boxes and came back well in time for the next cart. Soon his shift was up. As he exited Storage, a trash port opened. ‘Do you wish to dispose of the item you picked up?’
Parzan glared at the nearest camera. ‘No. Do you understand the words “sentimental value”?’
‘Aye aye sir.’
‘In any case we can’t dump the trash while in stealth mode. So stop making stupid suggestions.’
‘Sorry sir. I will make a note of it.’
He felt a little bad. ‘Look, I know this is all… weird for you, I guess, seeing as you only woke up a couple of days ago.’ He reflected on this fact. ‘Uh, what about before that? Were you aware of us?’
‘I was in nav mode, so I only responded to instructions. In survival mode, which is activated when the ability of the crew to manage the ship is severely impaired, my full heuristic profile is available. In effect, I become a crew member as well as the systems operator of the ship.’
‘Clever. And you were built by Ramdhun, is that correct? The same Ramdhun who have taken it into their heads to shoot at us from space?’
‘Can I trust you?’
He stared up at the camera. The voice of the machine said, ‘You were created by your parents. Does this affect your ability to function as an entity independently of them?’
‘Hot damn.’ He couldn’t help grinning. ‘For a machine, you sure know how to lay a burn on a guy.’ He stripped off his gloves and headed to the crew decks. ‘Look, if you really are a person, then I can’t keep calling you Arisudan. It’s weird. Can I call you Anahita?’
‘Anahita. Updating identity. Parzan, my name is Anahita. How may I help you?’
‘Put on some smooth jazz in the galley, Anahita,’ he said. ‘If I have to wait a bit before my next trip to frozen hell, I might as well enjoy it.’
As the 2040s wore on, the Old Men got older and young women got more numerous, while the R1K stayed as strange as ever. Climate news got worse, with island nations vanishing practically every month, deserts advancing and subacute famine killing off the poor in their millions. Most wild species vanished, while farm animals were also going extinct one by one, no longer able to survive the meddling of human science. Meat cost more than human organs for transplant, a fact that provided endless joke-possibilities for the Ladbubblers. Anyone who actually cared about any of this got labelled ‘climie’ and lumped with the victims of climate fails.
Parzan’s superiors worried about the long-term effects of MHS, as did fathers and HR managers everywhere. ‘By 2060 there will be no new recruits under 29. Intake will fall to zero. The public Shankar Cure is not producing the numbers,’ they grumbled. Carlton always snorted when anyone said this to him. ‘There’ll be plenty of new recruits,’ he said. ‘They just won’t be men.’ Parzan agreed. Every time he thought of little Minoo, space explorer, his heart contracted. She hadn’t got the future she deserved. ‘Women have always sailed,’ CanCan said firmly. ‘We just didn’t know about it because they pretended to be men.’ After a fight nearly blew up in the officers’ mess, Parzan had to beg Carlton to stop saying these things in public. ‘Of course I agree with you,’ Parzan had said sincerely, ‘but poking the others isn’t going to make them agree with us.’
‘What will, Zany? Tell me and I’ll do it.’
In 2047, there was a massive all-services conference in Delhi on the topic ‘Future of the Forces’. This was part of the lavish Ramdhun-sponsored celebrations to mark the centenary of Indian Independence, as the news anchors told the world without a shred of irony. Carlton asked Rear Admiral Hari Singhal, his commanding officer, if he could present a paper on his controversial ideas. Hammerhead, as his men called him out of earshot, was sceptical, but Carlton had a way of listening to people that was rather disconcerting, and his request was eventually granted. He asked for Parzan to be deputed temporarily to his unit to help him make the presentation: this was granted too, somewhat to his surprise. Parzan was relieved: the whole rather pointless exercise would give Carlton a chance to blow off steam without inviting fisticuffs, and so he agreed to help out.
They took the stage before an audience of thousands in the Gurugram Megacave and Game Stadium. Parzan called up the first slide and Carlton began talking. He ran the numbers on gender and neuroscience, nurture and training outcomes, social expectation and strategies. In a range of combat scenarios, women performed as well as, if not better than, men: data from all over the world confirmed this, but many nations still refused to let women serve on the frontlines. In the light of present-day demographics, that had to change. Then the heckling began. ‘Climie!’ they yelled from the back of the hall. ‘Bitch-lover!’ The MPs stood by and smirked. Several slides in, Hammerhead curtly motioned them off the stage. The booing was deafening, the audience a roiling sea of sneers and scowls.
Carlton had his war-face on, but Parzan knew he was deeply hurt. ‘I’m sorry, CanCan, I really am, but we should have expected this.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, the prejudices of centuries won’t go away in the face of a few presentation slides. They were never going to listen.’
‘If you knew we were going to fail, why did you agree to help?’
‘Because you wanted to try. I didn’t have the heart to stop you. But I know these men. I know them in ways you don’t, because… well I guess because you don’t care what they think. I can’t afford that luxury. I’m not smart like you, I have to get along with them. That’s how I know what they’re like, thanks to my brother: he took it upon himself to teach me. Everything I ever did, they’ve measured against some whacked-out chart of manliness they carry around in their heads, and mostly I’ve fallen short. I don’t regret that: I know it’s stupid to try to live up to those standards. But I understand them. And I can’t help the fact that for many men they make sense.’ Carlton fixed Parzan with a look that made him squirm. ‘CanCan, it’s the truth. That’s how the world is.’
‘No, that’s how the assholes who think they run the world say it is. Which makes me wonder: who gave them the right?’
Parzan had no answer to that.
Shortly after that, they were both assigned to Arisudan, a new S5-class boat just rolled out of Ramdhun’s shipyards. Parzan had no prior experience of commanding a nuclear sub, whereas Carlton had risen to XO on his boat, Aridaman, and should have been given command. But in a calculated insult, Parzan was made commanding officer while Carlton got second spot. ‘Don’t care,’ said CanCan, when Zany asked if he minded.
Once she was formally launched, Arisudan would be doing tours of nine months with a three month refit between tours. She would have two crews who would alternate on missions. Parzan had command of the ‘B crew’, who would kick off with sea trials, then bring her back to port for refit and debriefing and share knowledge for three months with the ‘A crew’, who would preside over the actual launch.
Arisudan’s whole conception was radically different from the subs they’d known till then. There was only one control room, now called the Bridge, instead of the four he was used to: Control, Radio, Sonar and Weapons. There were no periscopes, but remote-controlled fixed and tethered cameras on all axes and frequencies. There were two four-man subs in the Dry Deck Shelters which could be launched underwater for reconnaissance and mission insertion. Instead of a three-man dive-watch there were only a pilot and co-pilot. Her heart was twin nuclear reactors that could run uninterrupted for fifty years. She extracted all the water and air she needed from the ocean. Uniforms, towels, bedlinen and other textiles were sterilised between uses in a steamlocker. They no longer had the 6-hour watch with 12-hour breaks of the old system, which used to play hell with everyone’s biological clock. Now they did eight-hour shifts with sixteen-hour breaks, like a normal working day, which vastly improved crew morale and performance. In fact the essential systems could be run by just ten people, but subs always had redundancies: at sea, everything breaks, even personnel.
At first it seemed like a wonderful stroke of luck to be part of this, but he realised what was really going on when, on the eve of Arisudan’s departure, he happened to tell an Admiral that he hoped the Goddess of the Waters would bless them. The man retorted sharply that it was Varuna, the Lord of Oceans, whom he should pray to, not Anahita. As Parzan left the room, he could feel the man’s gaze boring into the small of his back. He cursed himself for talking out of turn. The message was clear: take your toy and go, and when the time comes, give it back to the big boys.
They were due to embark in a few months’ time, in April 2048. Meanwhile the R1K, now seventeen, were mired in more scandals. Chip Takahashi, heir to the Tokyo-based Shigenobu Corporation, was rumoured to be drugging and abusing young girls on his space hotel, the Ogiku. The Ogiku was smaller than the other space hotels, flew lower and station-kept over Tokyo. A high altitude weather sonde was able to take pictures of its underside, featuring unmistakeable silhouettes of cannons, missile launchers and weapons-grade lasers. More scandal ensured: why was a civilian hotel carrying such weaponry?
Lionfist, the Chinese corp that had built all the space hotels and launched them from Satellite City in the Qaidam Basin, put out a press release to say that the clientele of these hotels at any given time comprised the richest and most high-value targets of the world. Their personal security was no laughing matter. Basil Quan, heir to Lionfist and the only Chinese member of the R1K, said, ‘It needs no imagination to appreciate that corporate security is a tricky issue when it comes to space, where we are all vulnerable.’ A new word started to be whispered: hanyo. It meant half-demon, and it summed up all the horror stories that were gathering around the R1K like stormclouds.
Salman Vaghela, unofficial leader of the R1K, son of Selvam Vaghela and heir to Ramdhun Corporation, decided these PR fails needed neutralising. So in December 2047, as Parzan was overseeing the final round of briefings for Arisudan’s crew, Salman announced that the R1K would celebrate their collective coming of age with a Year of Parties. Each month of 2048, as they gained legal control of their vast personal estates, the R1K would move their birthday feast to a new city and announce a new ‘gift’ to the world from their corporate empires.
They kicked off with a gift to themselves: SAMSA suits, which they claimed stood for servo-assisted man-protecting strategic armour, made of space-manufactured titanium hypermesh and packed with all kinds of great features. With sub-sensitive skins they were at greater risk of accidentally damaging themselves, said Salman Vaghela to the press, so the suits were needed to protect their assets. He announced that every MHS boy who reached his eighteenth birthday would get a free SAMSA suit from Ramdhun. Just days before Arisudan was due to launch, Tokyo was shut down by mass protests against Chip Takahashi. As Chip raged at the protesters thronging the streets of Tokyo, he ‘accidentally’ fell off the roof of his own high-rise office building. He survived, but his SAMSA suit couldn’t save his spine from being severed: he would never walk again. The other R1Kers gave press conferences where they trashed the Shigenobu heir and told everyone how much better than him they were.
The fathers of the R1K had already given the world clean fusion and hydrotech energy, now the newsfeeds were studded with world-changing innovations pioneered by the sons: enclaves called TEA parks (technical, education and amusement) surrounded by high yellow climate-proof walls, eco-friendly green barriers, extractor plants on the moon to provide an inexhaustible supply of helium 3 for the world’s power plants. And, since the world was now using clean energy, why not a bijou oil rig to be stationed in Antarctica to serve their legacy sports cars and racing bikes? They had all these heritage machines from the great days of the world’s industrialisation lined up in gleaming rows in their designer garages. You couldn’t run these supercars on biodiesel. Why should the world deny the R1K a little indulgence? They were its heirs, the only boys of their generation, the golden hopes of the future.
Parzan had spent his own eighteenth birthday cramming for his school finals. He did not know what to make of these kids.
‘I told you they would break the world.’
Parzan frowned. ‘Not now, CanCan. I need to figure out our rationing protocols before the next mealtime.’
CanCan jabbed the off button on Parzan’s tablet. ‘Forget it. We don’t have to do what they say. We have no country any more. We’re climies. We exist for ourselves.’
Parzan looked him in the eye and switched it back on. ‘That’s treasonous talk.’
Carlton laughed, bitterly and without mirth. ‘What is treason when your boss is a corporation? What world are you living in, Zany? Our “boss” just tried to blow us out of the water. I guess that cancels our contract. So much for war being “off the table”. Their war against the rest of us never ended.’
‘Really? Because the sonar profiles say New Singapore took a huge hit in the Helios Fail. You can hear the city groaning from klicks away. If all this was their plan to destroy the world, wouldn’t they have protected their bit of it better?’
Calrton shrugged. ‘Maybe they made a mistake. Maybe Salman Vaghela hates New Singapore. It was his father’s pride and joy, after all.’
‘Irrelevant, CanCan. We’re servants of the nation, not Ramdhun. You said yourself that—’
‘Bullshit. We’re guns for hire. We have been since 2024, when everything became a Ramdhun asset. Call it what you like, Zany, but that was a coup.’ Parzan frowned and shook his head. Carlton got up and poured himself the dregs of the coffee from the percolator. ‘Stop kidding yourself. The Helios Fail is part of something bigger, I know it. The hanyos have a plan. They want to finish us all so they can carve up the world for themselves. That’s why Indraprastha fired on us. We stand in the way of their total domination.’
‘That’s just speculation, CanCan. They could also have fired in error. Until Delhi confirms that Ramdhun have turned against us, I’m going to sit tight and wait on any conspiracy theories you feel like spinning up. My orders are to stand by and keep the boat safe, so that’s what I’m doing. An order is an order.’
‘Is it?’ CanCan sat down again. ‘Then listen, Zany. In 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was a Soviet sub called B59 in Cuban waters. The Yanks dropped depth charges on it, hoping to bully the crew into surfacing. But the crew didn’t surface, even though their air conditioning system had conked out, and you know what that’s like. Because they had a secret: they were carrying a ten megaton nuclear warhead, and their orders allowed them to launch it without confirmation from Moscow, if they saw fit. But there was a catch: all three senior officers on board had to agree to launch.’
‘Two of the officers voted to launch. They’d been down for months: they had no idea what was happening topside, or why the Americans were bombing them. It could have been all-out war up there for all they knew. But one officer said no. His name was Vasily Arkhipov. Because of him, you, me and everyone since 1962 has had a life. He saved the world from nuclear holocaust. He wasn’t following orders. He listened to his own conscience before anything else, and he said, as long as there’s even a shred of doubt, we have to give the world a chance.’
‘Oh, don’t be dramatic. I’m not launching any nuclear warheads: I’m just keeping Arisudan safe and functional. Like your heroic Russian, we have no clue what’s happening out there. Indraprastha might not know the Indian Navy has this sub: remember we haven’t even been launched yet. Maybe they thought we were the Chinese.’
‘They built this boat, Parzan. Of course they know. They could be tracking our every move through embedded tech we know nothing about. Has that crossed your mind?’
‘Several times. But we still have to follow orders. We’re soldiers, and that’s what soldiers do. Where would we be if we second-guessed everything Command tells us?’
CanCan regarded him. ‘This is about your brother, isn’t it?’
‘What? Kersi?’ Parzan snorted in annoyance. ‘He’s dead, goddamn it. Leave him out of this.’
‘You told me yourself. Kersi did toxic masculinity so much better than you did, and you’ve been unconsciously trying to outdo him all your life. Except now that he’s dead, you can’t, can you? You’ll always hear his voice saying ‘loser’ every time you walk away from some stupid hanyo thought or action. You’ve never questioned the hanyo standard. You’ve just gone along with it, because you got bullied early on and decided it was safer not to go against their rules.’
Parzan slammed a fist down on the table. ‘I! Am! Not! A! Hanyo!’
Carlton didn’t flinch. ‘You just proved you are one. You know that being a hanyo is wrong and yet you don’t have the guts to step up and not be one. You sit here waiting for orders, even though you know who’s going to be giving them. What will you do if they tell you to finish the work of the Helios Fail? Do you really trust them not to ask such a thing of you, or are you just hoping they’ll play nice? It’ll be too late to run when that order is issued. Thnk about it.’
There was a knock on the door. ‘Come in,’ Parzan shouted almost gleefully. Signals Officer Chaudhury, Petty Officer Mahato and Leading Seaman Nanda entered. Chaudhury was visibly trembling. ‘Sir, we wish to make a statement.’
‘Go ahead, Signals Officer.’
Chaudhury cleared his throat. ‘If our families are in danger we have to go and see what help we can give, sir.’
‘Sir, we’re no longer a viable fighting unit,’ said Nanda. ‘Our place is with our people.’
‘We’re not mutinying,’ Mahato said quickly. ‘We just think that given the situation, waiting for orders no longer makes any sense. Ramdhun is shooting us from space. We can’t fight them in this boat, sir, any more than a fish can fight an eagle.’
Parzan rose to his feet. ‘That’s for Command to figure out. And it may simply be a misunderstanding. Everyone’s on edge in the aftermath, I suspect,’ he said firmly. ‘But Delhi was very clear that we have to keep the boat safe. No one leaves: understood? That’s an order.’
They came stiffly to attention. Parzan gave them a chilly glare. ‘Our first priority is to make our supplies last longer. Turn your minds to that. I don’t want to put anyone in the brig, but if I hear any more talk of leaving from any of you, that’s where you’re spending the next watch.’
That night Parzan resisted the temptation to stay up all night with the inventories. Instead he retired to his cabin and tried to rest, as he knew he must. Bone-weary from finding ways to survive in the aftermath of the end of everything, he had locked the door and curled up on his bunk fully dressed. He’d hugged his knees to his chest and trembled like an abandoned puppy. But he couldn’t get CanCan’s words out of his head.
‘You’re one of them.’ Was it true? His heart protested: ‘I am a simple man. I never ruled anything. I did as I was told.’
That’s your sin.
Tears came, then, at the unfairness of it all. And for Grandma Freny, and little Minoo, and Havovi, and all the victims whose names he’d never know. But he could not cry for Kersi or his father, even though he knew he should. Because somehow they were to blame. CanCan was right about that, but not about chucking it all and going home. They had a duty. Sailors do not abandon ship just because the world has ended. It went against all military discipline. And what kind of loser would he be if he just ran away?
The night passed with slow pain. He drifted in and out of sleep, ambushed every time by bad dreams. At dawn, a thump against the door awoke him. ‘We’re leaving,’ said Carlton’s voice outside. ‘You’ll have all the food and supplies. We’re taking the subs in the Dry Deck Shelters and rations for one day. We’ll send the subs back after we make landfall.’
He jumped to his feet and rattled the door handle, but it was locked from outside. ‘CanCan!’ he yelled. ‘Don’t do this. You’re making a huge mistake.’
‘You want to come with us?’
‘Don’t be insane! I have to stay with the boat. You should too. We have to… we have to fight them, CanCan. I can’t do this alone.’
‘Fight them? Wake up, Parzan. We’ve lost the Bitch Wars. The world is ruled by hanyos. I’m done taking orders from them. We’ve had enough. We’re going home.’
‘There is no home!’ he yelled, but the silence on the other side of the door seemed emptier. He shook the door-handle, shouted and kicked. Nothing made a difference. Fifteen minutes later it swung open. He rushed out and almost tripped over an orange evacuation suit lying in his way. He raced through the boat. Every space was empty.
‘Good morning, Commander,’ said a female voice.
He stared around him like a madman. ‘Who are you? Where are you?’
‘I am Arisudan. I have been put in survival mode, but all parameters on board are status green. I detect only one lifesign. Please state the nature of your problem.’
‘Only one lifesign? Those two subs carry just eight men! Where did the rest go?’
‘They are on a short dive to check the surroundings for hazards.’
‘All of them?’ He stared at the empty air. Arisudan said pleasantly, ‘Please state the nature of your problem.’
‘The world has ended. That’s the nature of my—’ His voice cracked, and he began to laugh. Or cry. Paroxysms racked his chest.
‘I never wanted this! I didn’t make it happen! I am not a hanyo!’
The two submarines cut through the shallow waters of the Singapore Straits at five metres depth. They went slowly and cautiously, so as not to disturb their fragile payload. Ropes trailed from each sub’s hull, four on each sub, and at regular intervals on these ropes, knots had been tied. Each knot provided a handhold for a man in an orange evac suit. No, there were nine ropes. This last rope was fastened around the waist of one man: Carlton Caron. He floated above the bow of the first sub, just below the surface of the unquiet sea. It was nearly 10am. The year 2049 was only a few hours old.
The sub to which he was connected came slowly to a halt. Very carefully, Carlton let himself rise to the surface until his eyes just cleared the waves. He took a quick look at the shoreline. The sky overhead was filled with a filthy haze, darker and thicker to the south, where it seemed to boil disturbingly. He ducked under and hauled himself hand-over-hand to the sub. With the hilt of the knife at his belt, he gave the hull three short taps, then a long scrape, then four more taps. Bear to starboard, four hundred metres. If they rose too high, Indraprastha could very likely detect the heat signatures of the machines, so Carlton wasn’t allowing the sub to come up to periscope depth. He’d seen what the space hotel could do and he was taking no chances.
Before they’d left Arisudan, he’d gathered the 93 crewmen in the Missile Compartment and grouped them according to where they lived. If the squads got separated, their members were to help each other get home. They’d already changed into their shore-leave clothes, leaving their fatigues neatly folded on their bunks. He faced them and said, ‘The admiralty informed us that one-third of India’s land mass has been destroyed by the mega-tsunamis of the Helios Fail. That one-third contains most of our homes, and the rest of us have to cross it to get to our families. We have absolutely no information on what the Helios Fail has done to peninsular Malaysia and Thailand, which we are going to have to negotiate before we can even enter the Indosphere. It’s going to be a hell of a trip, and there’s no certainty it’s even doable.’
On a bedsheet held up by two cadets, he projected a huge map of Malaysia for the assembled submariners. He zoomed in on the twentyfive-year-old ruins of Old Singapore, west north-west of their current position and covered by a dense mangrove forest, then pointed to a city on the mainland just north of Singapore Island. ‘We’ll be heading for the city of New Johor, which has probably been destroyed by the Helios Fail, but with luck the ruins should give us enough cover to make landfall.’ His hand moved over eastern Johor province. ‘This area is mostly swamps, low lying rainforest and palm oil plantations. It’s likely to have been badly damaged. To the northwest, there’s a chain of mountains running from north to south past Kuala Lumpur. This point is Mount Ophir, or Gunung Ledang in the local language. We will use the dinghies to head there and regroup. Once we make it to the mountains, we should be able to trek up the peninsula. If we pass the capital, we’ll attempt to see if any civilian authority has survived in the highlands and give what aid we can. From there we’ll head north through Thailand and Burma till we reach the Northeast of the Indosphere. The Dooars will be our entry point to the Ganga plains, where we will disperse and attempt to reach our destinations. Any questions?’
‘What if we encounter a critical fail, sir?’ asked Lieutenant Ehtesham Suri. ‘What’s our backup plan?’
‘If we can’t help our loved ones, we help someone else’s.’ Carlton turned to face them again. ‘If any of you get stuck or separated from your comrades, then find a group of sympathetic refugees, help get them to safety, build shelter and gather or grow food. You all remember your survival training? Good. We are no longer soldiers, nor are we deserters. We’re survivors. That’s all anyone is now.’
‘We hope, sir. But I fear that some people out there may opt to survive by preying on others,’ said Nanda grimly.
‘That’s why we’re taking the sidearms. And our backpacks of essential tools and protein pills. And the rocket launcher as a weapon of last resort. But we’re leaving our uniforms behind.’ He looked at the young faces. In their random assortment of shore-leave clothes, they looked like a college picnic party. They’d never seen battle, never had to fight for their lives. He hoped they’d be equal to whatever was waiting for them out there. ‘The AI will release the Commander from his cabin once we’ve gone. He’ll have what’s left of the supplies. That should buy Arisudan some time. Everyone agrees with this course of action? Good. Any questions?’
‘Sir, if the Helios Fail happened in Antarctica, how come it devastated places so far north?’ asked Gurmeet Singh.
‘I’m no climate scientist, but I do know that part of the Antarctic ice shelf didn’t have land under it, and global warming has been undermining it for more than a century. Such a huge mass collapsing suddenly into the sea could cause plenty of damage. Think of a large rock thrown into a puddle.’ They all looked grim. ‘Right. This is how we exit the boat.’ Carlton outlined his plan to use the two subs to get everyone to shore.
So far it seemed to be working. Now, as he peered through the murk, he was looking for a beach or shoreline where there was cover coming right down to the sea, and they could land unseen. He didn’t think Indraprastha would waste ammo on unprotected human bodies, but he was taking no chances, and he knew that the heatsigns of the mass of men would likely show up on their scanners. They needed a place to gather and regroup before the next leg of the journey.
The third time he surfaced, he saw something he couldn’t at first comprehend in the uncertain light. Then he realised he was looking at a skyscraper lying on its side over the ruins of smaller buildings. The skyscraper’s walls had roofed over some of the spaces between the houses, creating rough caves. The water had swallowed most of the smaller buildings. They didn’t look very stable, but the crew wouldn’t have to stay long. He dived and rapped out the code to halt and disembark, and the four men inside each sub put the machines on auto, suited up and exited the airlocks. The sub crews attached themselves to the ropes. Carlton signalled the leaders of each group to detach the ropes from the subs and swim for shore. One by one the strings of men headed for safety, the stronger swimmers helping the slower ones along.
If there was one goal that Carlton Caron had cherished from the time he’d started to become a person, it was the desire to understand. His mother Shefali often said he ought to become an academic like her: she taught history and postcolonial studies in a local college in Chandannagar. But he was too restless for the academic life; he craved action and adventure. Also the sea was in his blood. ‘Francois Caron was the name of the first Frenchman to reach Japan in 1619,’ his mother told him when he was seven. ‘He rose from cabin boy to Director General of the French East India Company, but he was treated with suspicion because he was a Huguenot, a Protestant, as many French sailors were. France was hardcore Catholic before the Revolution. He fought many wars in his old age, and he died at sea.’
‘Is he our ancestor?’ Carlton had asked, and Shefali had smiled. ‘I don’t know. There were lots of irregular marriages in those days. We certainly have French blood in us, but whether it comes from him is difficult to say. He was a powerful man, and taking his name might have been some woman’s way of protecting her children. Those were interesting times.’
Over the years Carlton had read every book in his mother’s library on the history of those interesting times. He read about the Huguenots, and the pirates of the French West Indies, and slavery, and Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution. By the time he was into his teens he’d read Frantz Fanon in the original French, and it changed his life. His earlier childish delight at (possibly) having a famous French ancestor turned into a more adult appreciation of the ironies of history. In any case his mother’s surname was Das, and everyone said he took after her side of the family. But if colonialism was morally wrong, he thought to himself, then so was capitalism, and a host of other ‘ism’s that people seemed to swear by.
He discussed all of this with his three elder sisters on their long walks on the banks of the Hooghly. They helped him with another question that began to bother him: why were other boys so mean? They didn’t have to be. But pretty much from the beginning, his classmates were united in their dislike of Carlton and his ways. It wasn’t just that he hated cricket and rugby and found most of their conversation boring: there was something more fundamental in the disconnect between him and them. ‘They don’t think,’ he complained to his middle sister Amelie. ‘The other day Jeremiah told me that talking to girls is gay. I just stared at him. I mean, can’t he see the stupidity of what he’s saying?’
Amelie had chuckled and said no, Jeremiah probably didn’t see it at all. Then she told him ‘gay’ was just insult-shorthand for anything to do with girls. ‘You’re supposed to treat us as aliens,’ she teased him. ‘And untouchables.’
‘Why would I do that? You three are so much more interesting than those morons.’
‘Glad you think so,’ said Rosa, the eldest. ‘But they’ll always give you grief over it. They’ll take one look at you and know you’re not a regular guy. Then they’ll buzz around like flies trying to figure you out.’
‘Huh. Should I try to be like them?’
‘Don’t you dare!’ cried Lucille, who was only a year older than him. ‘We’ll stop talking to you.’
Just some months after the death of Singapore, Carlton left home to go to the Indian Naval Academy in Ezhimala. But his resolve to give the regular guys a wide berth was severely tested when he met Parzan Merchant in his final year. Parzan was as regular as they come, and yet he listened with his mouth open when Carlton told him the most commonplace of facts. It was as if Parzan’s whole youth had been passed in a state of intellectual starvation. Carlton soon began to understand why. On shore leave one night when they were both slightly drunk, Zany told CanCan that Kersi had once kicked a book out of nine-year-old Parzan’s hands because he ‘wasn’t listening’ to Kersi’s exploits at school. Parzan told it as if it was a big joke, but Carlton had stared at him in horror and sympathy. ‘What?’ Parzan had mumbled. ‘He was only trying to teach me to respect my elders.’ Carlton had tried to explain why Kersi’s actions were wrong, but Parzan just didn’t get it. In later years Carlton had often wondered what he could have said to Parzan to make him understand.
Carlton broke the oily surface of the sea in the gloom of the cavern and looked up at the fallen skyscraper over his head. It looked like the wreck of an alien spaceship. Around him debris floated, with some bundles further off that might be corpses. Behind him the men bobbed to the surface one by one. They climbed a bent streetlight and swung themselves onto a partially demolished roof that was now nearly at sea level. Carlton shut his breathing unit down and removed his helmet. He almost gagged at the smell. Then he looked up and noticed the windows above them still had shards of glass in the frames. Long streamers of what looked like curtains hung from the shards, until he saw the gulls flying in over the green-black mud outside and pecking at the rags. Then he realised what they were. Or had been. The birds’ harsh cries filled the little space. Carlton turned his eyes to the men and counted them. ‘Ninety three, ninety four. That’s everyone. Get your gear in order. I don’t want to stay here too long.’
‘Should we have kept the subs?’ asked Gurmeet Singh. ‘Maybe we should try to do the whole trip the way we came.’
Carlton shook his head. ‘We only hopped over to eastern Johor with the subs going dead slow. There is no way we could have pulled that stunt in the open ocean, or with even a bit of undertow, and the flooded areas of the land will be too shallow and full of snags for anything but dinghies and rafts. Remember the terrain is likely to be unrecognisable. I’ve set the AI to pilot the subs back to Arisudan by a roundabout route through deeper water. I don’t want them leading anyone to Commander Merchant’s position. They should reach him in a day or so, and then if he requires, he can leave too.’
Signals Officer Benu Choudhury had set up a passive listening station and was searching for radio chatter. Carlton glanced at him and he smiled apologetically and gave a thumbs down. Nothing yet. ‘I want to find a vantage point and suss out the terrain. Who’ll come with me?’ Several hands went up. He picked Mihir Majumdar, a sublieutenant nuclear engineer who had keen eyes; he’d won the darts competition three times running. ‘The rest of you get ready to move out in your designated groups with random gaps between departures,’ said Carlton. ‘If Indraprastha sees a whole bunch of heatsigns moving in formation, they’ll get suspicious, so we have to look like refugees, at least from a distance. Your evac suits will partially mask your heatsigns, but not completely, and they’re not camo so visually you’re going to stick out of the landscape. You should stow your suits before you are within sight of the mountains. Distance to first objective is about 170 klicks. The group with the furthest overall distance to travel will leave first, so Gurmeet, you’re the vanguard. You take the rocket launcher, our weapon of last resort.’
Carlton held up a radiolocation scanner, a small screen the size of his palm. ‘Each team leader will have one of these, and will be able to see the positions of the other team leaders. Try to stay within an hour’s journey of each other, terrain permitting. We travel radiosilent.’ He held up a flare. ‘All of you have one of these in your packs. If you encounter armed resistance, fire it, since any use of weapons will probably light up their scanners anyway. We don’t know if there’s anyone out there but I’m taking no chances. Everyone else, if you see a flare, scatter and hide. Got it?’
He turned to Gurmeet. ‘Group A, inflate your dinghy and be ready to portage out. Mihir and I will go up, check for hostiles and pick a route for you to get clear of these ruins. If we’re not back in five minutes, draw weapons and proceed to leave with all due caution.’
‘Wait,’ said Benu, ‘I’m getting something. Listen.’ The tiny speaker on the radio set spat static.
‘Hello, check? Ahem. This is Rik Nehra, Director of Image Management for Ramdhun Corporation. People of the Indosphere, do not panic. Everything is under control. We’re coming to you live from the Hillside Paradise TEAPark across a dozen platforms. Since 2024 you have been in the capable hands of Ramdhun Corporation and its family of subsidiaries. We pledged to you that we would end communal strife and lumpen democracy and we have kept that promise. Now, we have a desperate human catastrophe on our hands. But there is hope. Our climate scientists predict that the waters will soon recede, leaving behind prime agricultural land fertilised with sea mud. Any food crisis is likely to be short-lived and manageable.’ Mahato raised his eyebrows. ‘Hello! Salination?’
‘The Helios Fail is a major climate event, true, but we have survived it, and now all that remains is to manage the aftermath. As you are well aware, all through the Year of Parties, the Ramdhun One Thousand has been giving the world priceless birthday gifts to celebrate their coming of age. In April of 2048, Wayne Jun Pak, heir to the Dynacorp empire of Western America, gave the world the technical, educational and amusement parks that have come up in every major marketing territory. These were designed to be our Noah’s arks in the event of just such a calamity. Look for the 20-metre-high climate-proof yellow walls in your area, and head for the flashing neon sign that says Customer Services. If you have a valid Ramdhun Customer ID keyed to your retina scan, you will be allowed to wait for service in the executive lounges attached to the outlets. If you do not have a valid ID, please form an orderly queue and we will attend to your needs as soon as the press of legitimate customers decreases. If there is a delay of more than 12 hours in attending to your issues, please take a token and go home. We will call you as soon as it is your turn to receive your complimentary care package of Ramdhun products.
‘You will recall that in February 2048, Basil Quan of Lionfist Corporation gave the world his special birthday gift: green barriers. These eco-friendly organic sub-lethal protection devices replace landmines in our corporate security bouquet. All TEAParks are protected by green barriers. This media broadcast constitutes legal warning of the deployment of green barriers at all TEAParks around the world, and the owner-corporations will henceforth not be liable for any loss or injury resulting from your interaction with our security systems. If you are a customer, please refer to your licence agreement for instructions on how to initiate your claim process if you should accidentally trigger our protections. As always, Ramdhun cares for YOU.’ Nehra’s voice brightened. ‘Now here’s Rianna Saxena to tell you about the End of Year Party that’s happening tomorrow. We’ve had to change the venue to my villa in Himachal Pradesh, but we are determined to celebrate the human spirit in the face of this climate fail. There’s been months of speculation over who’s in and who’s out: now comes the big reveal! Take it away, Rianna!’
‘Thanks, Rik, you’re a total dish. Well, one thing I can—’ Benu turned it off.
In the silence that followed they looked at each other. ‘Fucking bastards!’ growled Gurmeet. ‘There’s only one TEAPark in the whole Indosphere! And that’s in Gurugram!’
‘No, there’s two,’ said Ehtesham. ‘The other one’s in Himachal Pradesh. Rik Nehra’s villa is inside it.’
‘Three,’ said Benu. ‘Nandan Gardens is in one too.’
Gurmeet was banging his fist into his leg. Carlton said, ‘Keep it together, Growler. We have work to do.’
The stench was worse outside, and Mihir and Carlton soon saw why. The gulls were fighting over a pile of corpses washed up against the side of the building. Here and there a bone stuck out, gleaming orange-white in the murk. Mihir turned his face away and gagged. ‘You’ll be seeing a lot of that,’ said Carlton kindly. ‘Just know they’re out of their pain.’ The mud squelched under their feet, threatening to suck them in. They found a place where the concrete of the skyscraper had flaked away from the steel skeleton, and climbed the twisted bars to the highest point they could reach. Mihir pointed to something sticking out of the mud quite some way away. ‘That’s the tip of a communications tower. This whole mudplain is lying on top of the buried city.’ He shaded his eyes. ‘What do you think is causing this haze, sir?’
Carlton looked up at the sky. ‘I don’t know.’ Shreds of ash floated past. ‘Volcanic eruptions? Burning forests? Burst power plants? All of the above?’ A few rays of light were stabbing through the murk, gleaming suddenly off broken glass and twisted metal. ‘Looks like light only gets in at noon. Slanted rays will probably bounce off the dust cloud. We have maybe two, three hours of visibility left. You see anything out there?’
‘There’s open water to the east. Could be a kilometre away, maybe more. Hard to tell how far without a reference point.’
Carlton nodded. ‘On the up side, this haze will get in the way of their sensors. I doubt Indraprastha can see an individual human on the Earth’s surface through it. Night time might be trickier though, when the background cools. Come on, let’s get back and tell the others.’
Group A were hefting their dinghy when the two men returned. Carlton told them what they’d seen. ‘Go east a klick, get clear of the city’s wreckage, then bear west and north. Be careful of using the outboard motors at night as heat sigs will show up clearer then. If you meet friendlies, your story is you’re the crew of a merchant ship. Anyone here speak Malay?’ No hands went up. ‘Okay. Let’s hope they speak International. Good luck, my friends. It was an honour to be your XO.’
‘Yes sir. Happy New Year, sir.’
Low, solemn voices chorused the words around the cavern. Carlton’s eyes widened. ‘Happy…’ But his voice wouldn’t obey him. He took a deep breath. ‘Hope 2049 sees us all to safety. Godspeed.’
They began their departure into the gathering gloom.
The Ramdhun New Deal had brought mixed fortunes to the Caron household. On the one hand, his mother’s salary was being paid punctually and in full for the first time in years. On the other, his father lost his job in local government to the first wave of downsizing. Amelie got a scholarship to Jai Narendra University near Patan in Gujarat to study law. Rosa got married to her high school sweetheart, and by 2024 had a daughter, Tina. Her husband was the jealous type and disapproved of her meeting or talking to her family. Amelie would call on Rosa’s phone only to have her husband take the call. He would insult her and tell her Rosa had no time for her.
In July 2026 the Carons had to weather another storm. Ramdhun sacked all the administrative staff at Shefali’s college, abolished half their posts and filled the other half with new hires. The new Provost called for a review of syllabi and courses. Then he convened a meeting. ‘No history before 1991 should be taught,’ he told the assembled faculty. ‘We are here to add value to the young workforce of the Indosphere. Every instruction-hour counts towards our bottom line. Thirty-five years is all the backdating we need to teach these young people. Current commercial agreements and partnerships, modern management techniques, soft skills, business communication, trade protocols, human resource tools, economic spheres of influence, recent trends in markets and finance. That’s what you should be teaching, not old dead facts that add nothing to their employability.’
A storm of protest arose from the teachers. After hours of arguing back and forth, the Provost threw them a bone. ‘You can teach older stuff in an optional evening course for interested students,’ he said, ‘but no academic credit shall be given for it. We do not want to encourage our students to price themselves out of the market. The old days of research scholars spending years and lakhs of government money to poke about in dusty archives is gone. Education is a service, not a luxury, and if no returns are forthcoming, we cannot justify the outlay.’ He glared at them. ‘I want the board of studies in each subject to draw up new courses keeping these objectives in mind. Any teacher who fails to teach a minimum of 25 hours a week will be demoted one level of seniority. These are hard times; the world is still recovering from the death of Old Singapore. I want everyone here at 9am sharp tomorrow, and the course outlines on my table by Wednesday for approval. Classes on the new schedule will begin the following Monday. If your course is not approved, you will not be able to make up your minimum teaching contribution and will have to take the consequences. Thank you all, this meeting is over.’
Shefali came home fuming. ‘All my research, all the books and papers I’ve written, all of the minds I’ve nurtured and protected, all of it swept away in an afternoon. Not profitable enough. Too old fashioned. Lacks market-friendliness. Zero returns. Is there no end to their audacity?’
‘No, there isn’t,’ said her husband, putting tea on the table. ‘They want you to hate them. It makes them feel powerful.’
No sooner was this crisis overcome than Lucille called to say she felt very ill and wanted to come home. Immediately Shefali fell to worrying again. In 2022, when the coronavirus pandemic had finally eased, Shefali had taken her youngest daughter to an OBGYN to see why eighteen-year-old Lucille’s periods hadn’t started yet. Dr Mishra told them Lucille had been born without a womb, but was otherwise healthy. ‘No problem,’ Lucille said cheerfully. ‘I didn’t want to have kids anyway.’ It didn’t stop her qualifying as a physiotherapist in 2027 and moving to Kolkata to work at a small private clinic. But in 2028, she began complaining of sudden shooting pains in her lower abdomen. Dr Mishra examined her and pulled a long face. ‘You have to take your daughter to New Singapore,’ she told Shefali. ‘Only Dr Pradip Shankar can help her.’
Shefali was horrified. ‘My medical insurance has been stretched to the limit by my husband’s heart treatments. How can I afford to take Lucille to Dr Shankar?’
‘It’s free for girls with Lucille’s symptoms. You must see him. I cannot help you any more.’ And Dr Mishra refused to discuss the case further, or tell them what was wrong. Then, to Shefali’s intense amazement, her college sent her a memo to say she’d been granted a weeks’ leave to take her daughter to New Singapore. ‘And I hadn’t even applied,’ she told Amelie, who was home between jobs. ‘You remember when Rosa and Tina needed help they not only turned down my application to go rescue her, the Principal insulted me in an open meeting. Robert and Carlton had to go and bring Rosa and Tina back.’
‘They never give us anything unless it feeds their interests,’ said Amelie. ‘But if it means Lucille can be cured, I think we should go. Since I’ll soon be joining the Climate Town Rescue Mission as a legal adviser, why don’t we both take Lucille to New Singapore before I have to head to KL City and start work?’
New Singapore was shiny, expensive and somehow curiously underwhelming. Yes, the megastructures were awesome, but the hype dwarfed everything. Amelie had a headache within fifteen minutes of landing. But they all gritted their teeth and found the tiny lobby where charity patients were admitted in the vast and swanky Shankar Clinics hospital ship. ‘Your daughter has a rare, cancer-like condition,’ Shankar told Shefali. ‘You are lucky that we specialise in treating this type of disease. We strongly recommend that you admit her right now as it is a rapid spreader.’
‘But what is it?’ asked Shefali. ‘What type of cancer?’
‘A rare type. We will give you all the documentation once treatment is over and she has been discharged.’ But something about Shankar’s manner made Shefali uneasy. She peeked at his monitor and caught a handful of words: ‘streak gonads’, ‘dysgerminoma’, 46XY karyotype’. She asked what they meant but Shankar flew into a rage. ‘Why won’t you tell us what’s wrong with her?’ Shefali demanded.
‘I don’t have to tell you anything.’ When Amelie insisted they had a right to see the medical reports, saying, ‘I’m a lawyer,’ he glared at her and said, ‘We have Ramdhun law here, and the law is on my side.’
Amelie took her mother and sister back to KL City, where Jahanara Alam, the doctor at Climate Town and a trauma specialist at KL City General and Emergency Hospital, did a battery of tests. She told them that Lucille did indeed have a condition that was once rare, but was becoming increasingly common. Lucille had male genes. She would have been born a boy were it not for the fact that her body was incapable of responding to male hormones. In the womb she had been bathed in the feminising hormones of pregnancy, which was why she had developed as a female. But in addition to having no womb, she had fetal gonads retained in her belly that had turned cancerous and invaded her small bowel.
Lucille was devastated. It wasn’t just the cancer, which Jahanara’s team of doctor friends worked hard to cure. It was the shaking of the foundations of her selfhood. All these years she had felt and thought of herself as a woman, and now she was being told that her face and body were a lie. Of course she had cancer, she told Amelie: her body hated her. Amelie did her best to cheer her up, and her new friends in Climate Town rallied round to help and counsel Lucille. Many of them had faced similar questions about their bodies and they had gentle advice to give, but Lucille refused to listen. For the three months of her treatment she remained with Amelie in Climate Town, then she came home. Her body was mending slowly, but she was prone to fits of rage and moodiness. It didn’t help that she was convinced Ramdhun had caused her disease. She hadn’t been particularly religious before, but now she kept saying, ‘God will punish them.’ Amelie would call Rosa almost every day to check on Lucille. They could only hope that time would mend her.
The sky was even grimmer when Carlton and his group of seven men left the cavern, the last formation to leave. Carlton stayed extra alert. The movements of the other groups might have triggered a scanner to look in their direction, and the cooler background of the night time landscape didn’t help. They hoisted the dinghy onto their shoulders and set off. After a while it seemed like the mud was sloping and getting thinner. More bits and pieces of the houses below started to poke out. Patches of muddy water appeared and began to bar their path.
They got in the boat and broke out the oars. Yog Lalitmani, cook’s mate, and Dr Puneet Bhalla, nuclear engineer, lay down in the bow, each with an oar held over the gunwales. With the handles fully extended they poked and prodded ahead of the prow to find a way through the debris, while Shamsur Rehman, Dhritiman Bauri, Shivsundar Nanda and Virdeep Sinha rowed. Carlton crouched between them, watching the red dots on his scanner.
Progress was slow and frustrating. They could hear the snags and debris grating against the titanium slats under their feet. ‘It’s only 3pm and it’s already dark,’ said Dhritiman. He was nineteen, the youngest member of the crew, while Nanda was the oldest at thirty-five, barring Carlton, who was forty-four. ‘We’re drifting east,’ said Carlton. ‘Bear to port a little bit.’
‘Something’s pulling us,’ said Nanda. ‘I think the waters are receding.’
‘Compensate for it—whaaaaa…’
The mud and water under them was rising as if some enormous creature was sounding from the depths. Suddenly they were looking straight into the clouds. They lunged for the grablines and their kit as it began to cascade out of the boat. A tremendous roar sounded, and a fetid blast of gas slammed into their faces. A jagged, gaping maw opened as a giant steel tank rose out of the muck to expose the gash in its side. Carlton saw the letters ‘DHUN DAIRY PR’ written on the side of it. Ghastly liquid that had once been milk sluiced over them from the damaged tank. Puneet screamed as the steel jaws overtook him. Virdeep lunged after him, almost getting a hold of his legs. But the enormous structure rolled unimpeded over the two of them, and Virdeep vanished under its weight. Carlton grabbed Dhritiman and jumped free, while Shamsur Rehman did the same for Nanda. Yog jumped too, but he was just a fraction too late. The tank crunched down on the dinghy, then its rust-stained bulk slammed into Yog’s body; they all heard the crack. He bounced off the steel sphere like a smashed doll. Bloodstained mud, sour milk and biodiesel showered over the survivors.
With a series of obscene belches, the giant shell let go of the last of its stored gas and sank back into the depths.
Carlton was halfway through submarine school when the feeds suddenly became full of news about boy babies dying. He only saw the first phase of the horrors of the Year of Fear before he had to go on his six months of hands-on exercises on his first sub. Down there under the sea, his training demanded that he ignore the outside world, but he couldn’t help worrying what impact this new tragedy would have on Lucille. Now, like a wilted plant fertilised by the blood of an epic battle, Lucille revived. Avidly she began to follow the news about Male Hypertoxic Syndrome. As 2030 wore on, she moved her favourite chair into the living room and would sit hunched over their mother’s ancient desktop computer, surfing the feeds till the small hours. If anyone tried to speak to her she would turn and give them a torrent of statistics: sixty thousand babies dead or aborted in Mexico, twenty-three thousand in Serbia, over nine hundred thousand in India, a million in China. Or she would describe the symptoms in ghoulish detail, or she would talk about individual deaths she’d watched on social media, or about the protest marches that had turned into bloody street battles, or the mass suicides, or the gruesome art projects.
Shefali was now sure her daughter needed urgent psychiatric help, but the psychiatrists were busy dealing with the many mothers who’d lost their babies. Amelie urged her mother to bring Lucille to Climate Town where some of the best trauma counselors in the world were available, but when Shefali mentioned it, Lucille ran down to the river’s edge and didn’t come back till midnight. ‘Don’t ever tell me what to do,’ she yelled at her mother. Then she pointed at the sky. ‘God sees everything,’ she cried. ‘He’s taking the babies to punish us.’
‘If you say so,’ said Shefali. ‘Now eat your dinner and go to bed. We’ll talk about it in the morning.’
In the early hours of the next day, Lucille hanged herself from the kadamba tree, just five days before Carlton was due to return home.
Amelie flew in from KL City to meet him at Dum Dum airport. ‘I’m the one who’s supposed to face death for a living,’ he told her shakily as they got into the taxi for the railway station. ‘Not her, or any of you. I failed to protect her.’
‘Don’t be silly, little bro. We lost her when she found out about her condition. She couldn’t accept it, no matter what we said or showed her. The light went out of her. She was only keeping on because we begged her not to go.’ Amelie’s eyes were dark with unshed tears. ‘When people lose their taste for life, there’s nothing anyone can do except love them and hope for the best.’
‘But we could have saved her!’
‘From herself? Only for a little while, and it wouldn’t have been much of a life.’ Amelie took his hand. ‘Look, Carlton, I feel about it just as you do. I want to tell her right now that she was lovable just as she was, and that her condition didn’t matter. But we can’t live for her, Carlton. Counselling only helps if the person wants to be counselled. Lucille set her face against it and fought with all her might. And you know how strong she was.’
‘She was so beautiful, and so kind and bubbly and mischievous. How could she not love herself when we all loved her with all our hearts?’
‘Oh Carlton, I don’t know. I’m so sorry.’ Amelie hugged him, and they cried together until it was time to haul the suitcases out of the boot, wipe their tears and get on the train.
In the train Amelie told him about her work in Climate Town. ‘Lots of little girls have been abandoned or orphaned because of this crisis,’ she said. ‘They get sent to foster homes or orphanages. We go find them and do the paperwork to bring them to the school in Climate Town. The school’s run by this woman called Yu Wei who has the most brilliant ideas on how to teach children. When they come in they’re all pretty traumatised, but she has them singing and dancing and planting vegetables and flowers in just a few weeks. It’s amazing.’
‘I’d like to see it one day,’ he said. ‘I wish I could go with you to KL City, but I have to wait for my call letter.’
‘Your first posting!’ She squished his cheeks gently. ‘My little brother is a warrior now!’
His first posting tuned out to be a hair-raising underwater rescue mission to retrieve men and materials from the death of Mumbai. Under the surface, the city was roaring, the avalanche of its collapse into the undersea sinkhole completely blinding their sonar. When one of the rescue subs did not return, all such missions were cancelled and he was sent home on indefinite leave. His first thought was for Parzan, but his friend’s phone was out of service and he wasn’t responding to mails. Carlton feared the worst. He hung around in Chandannagar for some weeks, helping Rosa’s daughter Tina with her homework and moping by the river, until Rosa bought him a ticket for KL City. ‘Go help Amelie,’ she said. ‘You won’t get another chance to visit anytime soon.’ So in September 2032 he went to Climate Town.
Amelie was delighted and immediately took him to see all her friends. The school had only a handful of permanent staff; the rest of the teaching was done by volunteers who had day jobs and came in once or twice a month to talk to the kids about what they did for a living. Yu Wei told him there was a perpetual shortage of science teachers and Carlton threw himself enthusiastically into the work. Soon he’d set the kids to designing and building models out of the scrap that was abundantly available in the dumps around Climate Town.
It turned out that his mother knew Lila Bintam, the woman who taught history and writing at the Climate Town school. Lila’s son Bilal had been born in late 2030 with Male Hypertoxic Syndrome. The baby would have died like Parzan’s little nephew Rusi, were it not for the fact that Lila had once been married to Rik Nehra. She’d also worked for Ramdhun as an image manager before her divorce and relocation to KL City. In return for saving her son, Ramdhun had hired her to create a public awareness campaign to end the worldwide riots and sell the Shankar Cure to the world. She’d had to spend a year in New Singapore with the other mothers of the R1K, giving her milk to feed Bilal without ever setting eyes on him. Carlton could see how it had exhausted her spirit and body. Bilal was now two and a half, and with all the other boys of the R1K in their isolation bubbles he was sealed away in a special ward of the Shankar Clinic. He was now a media star whose videos were shared by millions. Lila hated it.
The kids of Climate Town proudly showed him their foodgardens where they grew fresh fruit and vegetables, and he designed a low cost drip irrigation system for them. They organised their work and shared the credit using a system called Fluffcoin, a blockchain currency invented by two climate scientists, Putul Ganguly and Perizaad Afridi, to help children fight climate despair. The Fluffcoin people were building a sanctuary up in the hills for abandoned animals called the Gaia Camp. When it was finished, the kids told him excitedly, they would go up to the Gaia Camp for a week every month and help care for the plants and animals. He saw how every week a truck full of Climate Town’s biowaste would leave, cheered on by the kids, and head up to the hills to help make topsoil. In between all of this he tried to get in touch with Parzan. Parzan’s name was not among the missing and dead although Kersi’s was. Carlton could only hope. Then he got a long mail from Parzan apologising for not replying and earnestly asking him to visit. Amelie and Yu Wei threw him a farewell party where Qamran Biritu, lead singer of the Collapsineers and the School’s music teacher, organised a performance of The Story of Lieutenant Cockatoo in his honour. The kids of Climate Town gave their heart and soul to send their favourite science teacher on his way, and after the night of song, dance, hilarity and childish sorrow at his leaving, he flew straight to New Bombay.
Grandma Freny took to him as a kindred spirit, and soon they were sharing recipes and anecdotes. ‘Finally a young man who appreciates more about good food than just eating it!’ she exclaimed, and they proceeded to cook up a storm. Parzan, who could just about scramble an egg, watched in bemused admiration. But Carlton was worried about Grandma Freny. He sensed that Parzan only saw her as a little old woman who cooked and told funny stories; her grandson couldn’t see how much bigger she was on the inside, and she was lonely and carrying her grief. Carlton tried gently to get her to talk about it, but she seemed wary of young men in general and he didn’t get the time to win her trust. A week into his visit the navy sent him a posting: Junior Ops Officer on Aridaman. He had to go.
A decade later he would deeply regret that missed conversation.
Dhritiman was shaking. ‘What was that thing?’ he kept asking. ‘What was it?’
‘You’re in shock,’ Carlton told him. ‘Sit down. Wet your throat.’ He held out a canteen. The boy grasped it mechanically. ‘It just took them. It took them. What was it?’
‘A hazard of war, soldier. You’ve escaped being a casualty, for now. Get used to it.’
‘But it wasn’t an enemy! How can I fight…’
Nanda said, ‘Your enemy created it. We’re wading through a crime scene, kid. And I for one can’t think of a punishment to fit this crime. Death’s too good for these monsters.’
‘Okay, that’s enough.’ Carlton gently took the canteen from Dhritiman’s hands. ‘We have to conserve resources. Half our stuff is under that thing. We have to build a raft.’ Carlton stood up cautiously in the knee-deep water covering the slippery mound of rubbish they’d floundered onto. ‘I’m going to dive and see if there’s anything I can salvage.’ He cursed as a bit of rubbish shifted under his foot.
‘What if it moves again?’ asked Shamsur Rehman. ‘Is it worth the risk?’
‘It is if we can get the motor back. Although it’s likely to be badly damaged.’
Nanda reached into the mud and pulled out an oar. ‘Here’s something at least.’
‘Excellent. You three look for more of those.’ He waded gingerly into the water. But all he could find were a few tattered scraps of grabline and the rope they’d used to hitch a ride on the sub. He came back to the others. ‘Find stuff that will float. Chemical drums, fallen trees, plastic containers of any sort. We can lash them together with this. Look for more rope too.’ They splashed about, stooping and groping with their hands like ungainly storks. ‘Look,’ said Dhritiman, holding up the tip of a battered coconut frond. ‘There’s a half-buried coconut tree here.’ They came and felt around it. ‘It’s lying on its side, so it’s probably been uprooted. If we can just boost it free of the mud…’ They heaved. It took them almost twenty minutes to work it loose. Carlton lopped off the branches. ‘There’s another one here. I think these trees lined an avenue. This was some kind of factory, evidently.’ Soon they had three large trees lined up, along with some smaller canisters and bits of wood to pack between them and rope the whole thing together. Nanda took the oar. ‘Let’s put some water between us and that thing.’
‘Good thing I held onto the radiolocator,’ said Carlton. ‘But it’s going to take us forever to catch up with the others. I think we should assume they’ll go on ahead.’ He pointed. ‘We go that way. Nanda and I will take first watch. You two get some sleep. Nanda, I’ll take over the oar in an hour.’
‘Not a problem,’ said Nanda tranquilly, twisting the oar in the water like the tail of a fish. ‘I’ve been doing this since I was a kid on Chilika Lake. It calms me down.’
For a while there was no sound but the occasional thunk of the treetrunks hitting a snag, above the gentle gurgle of the oar cutting through water. The land was so dark you couldn’t see the horizon, while overhead the stuttering rusty flashes of heat lightning deep in the dustcloud showed them the way. It was like creeping through the vacuum of space, trying not to be sucked into the maw of a black hole. Lying beside Shamsur Rehman, Dhritiman turned his face to the bruised and bleeding sky. Red sparks lit the tears in his eyes. Every hour Carlton checked their position with reference to the other groups. Gurmeet was travelling the fastest: he was already halfway there. Four dots were strung out behind him, moving parallel at more or less the same speed. Carlton worried about that; making patterns wasn’t safe. Of the remaining three dots, one was creeping slowly after the others, while the other two were not moving. ‘Ehtesham’s hit a snag, I think,’ he said. ‘Sunderrajan’s stuck too. Pritam looks like he’s having engine trouble.’
‘Who’s closest?’ asked Nanda, ‘and what’s our ETA?’
‘Sunderrajan. At this speed, and assuming they don’t start moving again, we should reach them by midday tomorrow. Tack to port for one minute in every twenty, we’re still getting pushed east.’ He looked at Dhritiman. ‘Go to sleep, kid. You’re going to need your strength.’
‘I can’t, sir.’
‘No “sir” any more.’ Carlton sighed. ‘Okay, tell me what’s on your mind.’
‘We’re going to die out here, aren’t we? And even if we make it, what will we find when we get home? My mother’s in Kolkata. What are the chances she’s still alive?’
‘I told you,’ Carlton said, ‘in times like these, you just be thankful you’re still breathing. War doesn’t give you chances. It’s not a poker game, it’s a trainwreck. Anyone you can rescue is your family. Right now, it’s us.’
‘But what if I lose you too? Like Yog? And Puneet sir? And… I don’t even know his name!’
‘Virdeep,’ said Nanda. ‘He was a good soldier.’
‘Then you have yourself,’ said Carlton. ‘Until you don’t, and then you can rest.’
Dhritiman’s tears continued to glisten in the lightning. ‘Ma was so fearful when I left home this time. It was like she knew. My father died when I was two, in 2031. Ma brought me up alone. After the Year of Fear, she had to dress me like a girl, because the mothers who’d lost sons would crowd around me hungrily in the park, they would fight to hold me and wrench my arms, so she grew my hair long and plaited ribbons in it and made me pretty frocks on her sewing machine. Till my voice started cracking I was called Tara. I didn’t go to school because she was afraid they’d find out I was a boy in drag. I only had private tuitions. She wouldn’t let me go out to play, and she worried that I’d grow up wrong. You know, gay. I think she made me apply to the navy because I’d be surrounded by boys. She wanted the navy to replace my father and make a man of me.’
‘And did it?’
Dhritiman was openly weeping now. ‘If it did, why am I crying like a girl?’
‘Don’t think like a hanyo, Dhritiman,’ said Carlton. ‘Crying is the most sensible thing you can do right now. I’d cry too, if I didn’t have to get you all home safe. I’ll do it when this is all over. I’ll cry for the whole goddamn planet.’
‘Me too,’ said Nanda. ‘And then some.’
Dhritiman wiped his face. ‘Sorry sir. You’re right. I’ll go to sleep now.’
‘You do that. It’s nearly midnight now. I’ll wake you two at 6am and you’ll be on shift till noon. Shams is a good rower. You’ll be fine.’
Dhritiman curled up and closed his eyes.
From 2033, Carlton’s life was ruled by his gruelling workload. Nuclear subs were a whole new world, and he and all the men with him were the pioneers and beta testers. He knew he’d been chosen for this assignment in spite of the higher-ups’ dislike of him because of his scientific brain: he was good at figuring out how to make the most of new tech, and that was increasingly what made a good soldier. It was one of the reasons, conversely, why Parzan’s advancement was so slow. Carlton rose to the rank of lieutenant and eventually XO on his sub. His CO told him Ramdhun was interested in selling nuclear submarines to customers around the globe, so everything had to be developed to a high level of quality.
Meanwhile the public sphere was growing weirder. The Ladbubble had produced a glut of men in their twenties and older, while nearly all the teenagers were Generation F, i.e. girls. Either you heard young men ranting about how they were doomed to be incels forever, or you heard heart wrenching stories of younger girls abused and molested by those same young men. In between there would be some whining from women in their twenties about how no one paid them any attention.
Amelie was fighting the cases of several Ramdhun ex-employees whose sons had been included in the R1K to make up the numbers, but who had then left the company’s employ or been sacked. At the time of their babies’ admission, the parents had had to sign a contract making Ramdhun the legal guardian of their children. Having lost their jobs, they now sued to get back custody. Pradip Shankar dug his heels in and refused to release the boys while they were under treatment, but the one percenters were getting restless and wanted the project to end soon.
In 2037, which Ramdhun insisted on dubbing the Year of Hope, Shankar let the boys go home, but the sons of Amelie’s clients were not discharged. They were admitted to a new chain of boarding schools called the Ramdhun Institute for Boys, where parents who found their R1Ker sons too much of a handful had parked them for further training and value addition. ‘These boys are delicate in both mind and body,’ Shankar told the press. ‘They cannot be raised by unskilled labour.’ Amelie worked hard to put together a raft of petitions to rescue the boys.
It turned out that Ramdhun had only been able to recruit about four hundred one-percenters for the Shankar Cure in the Year of Fear: the rest of the R1K were children of employees, contractors and sundry stakeholders. They began to be called the Ramdhun Dropouts, or Ardies, and Rik Nehra hosted a show where he toured the Ramdhun Institute for Boys and showed off the Ardies’ lavish lifestyle. The son of Amelie’s primary clients, the Chinoys, was called Big Percy, and he looked and behaved like he’d gone straight from sucking down mother’s milk to gym supplements. He declared that Amelie Caron wanted to take away his millionaire lifestyle and return him to his ‘broke-ass biologicals’ out of sheer bitch spite. The video of fifteen-year-old Big Percy threatening to break Amelie’s legs with a tire wrench went viral in under a minute. Nevertheless, Amelie stepped up the legal pressure to have the Ardies returned.
Within six months of signing up for the public Shankar Cure, at least five celebrity couples went bankrupt, and those babies also became Ardies. Rich men queued up to adopt them, and the battle to bring the boys home began to look like a lost cause. Rosa and Tina began visiting Amelie every other summer to give her moral support, so Carlton took it upon himself to spend every shore leave with his aging parents in Chandannagar. Shefali was seventy eight; she wanted to retire but they kept increasing her pension horizon. She would have quit but Robert was ailing and they needed the money. Carlton gave them what he could spare.
Then one morning his mother shook him awake at dawn. ‘Your father’s had a heart attack,’ she said softly. ‘He wants to talk to you.’ Carlton began to ask about doctors but the question died in his throat: no one would come, because Ramdhun Wellness had cancelled their health plan. He ran straight to his parents’ bedroom and sat down by the huge old bed.
‘Carlton,’ his father wheezed, smiling. ‘Just wanted to tell you I’m on my way. Heh. I had a good run, watching you four grow up. You’ve made me proud.’ His eyes seemed to focus on a face above him. ‘I’m going to see Lucille again,’ he said happily. ‘She has a scolding coming from me, silly girl. Oh,’ he looked puzzled. ‘Ah yes, I wanted… I wanted to say, don’t let your aunts do all that church stuff for me. Put me in the ground and have a party, invite all the… crumblies who are still upright and feed them a slap-up meal, okay? The scotch is in my cupboard downstairs, you know, the one with the gargoyles.’ His hand groped in the air and Shefali took it. ‘Heh. Had a long innings, haven’t we? Did I tell you kids how we met, your mum and I? Student politics. We still had some of that back then. Changing the… world.’ He wheezed for a bit. ‘You four… were our revolution.’
He died shortly afterwards.
Carlton awoke with a jerk. Something horrible was rushing past. He half rose, grimacing at the stiffness in his back from the gnarled coconut trunks. It felt like an invisible freight train was passing by their raft. ‘It’s the wind,’ Nanda said. ‘It’s been doing this for a while, turning off and on, but never so strong.’ A giant shape flew at them out of the night and Dhritiman screamed. A ghastly face full of white teeth grinned at them, and a hand holding something with an eerie glow coming from it. USE RAMBRITE UV ENHANCER FOR THE SEXIEST SMILE! ‘Grab that flex!’ Carlton yelled. Ropes whipped at them from the corners. ‘Tie it down! At the far end, guys, or it’ll swamp us. This thing we’re on does not cut water. Okay, that’s good.’ The flex filled with the freaky wind and the raft began to move more briskly under the improvised sail. Shams, who had the oar, muttered, ‘Hope this floating pile of shit doesn’t break up under the strain.’
‘Steady as she goes.’
‘How’s our heading?’
Carlton said, ‘I’ll switch it on in seven minutes. I’m checking every six hours. We’re probably going to be left way behind and I don’t want the battery to run out. Also if Growler sees how stuck we are, he might attempt a gallant rescue. You know what he’s like. Right now we’re invisible to them.’ He got carefully to his knees and shuffled over to Shams. ‘You guys sleep now. Nanda and I will take over.’
It was getting light, if that was the right term. They could dimly see the debris floating around them. The wind had died a bit. It still came in feverish gusts, as if cars were passing them at speed. Carlton shivered. He shaded his eyes and looked to the east. Yes, the further east he looked, the faster the debris was moving. The waters were indeed receding, but it might take weeks for them to drain completely. And who knew how much the sea level had risen anyway? He suspected the impact would have rearranged the terrain quite a bit in the most vulnerable spots, building up as well as breaking down. Well, time to check on the others.
He switched the scanner on. ‘Wow, Sunderrajan’s moved on quite a bit. He’s nearly caught up with Ehtesham. Passing him now.’ Carlton frowned. ‘Now Ehtesham’s moving at the same speed alongside him. That’s weird. Those outboard motors don’t have that much oomph in them. They’re coming up to Pritam now.’ The three dots converged and became one, then began moving rapidly towards the slowest of the five leaders, which sped up but was overtaken and joined the mass. Then the whole mass moved on to the next dot. Nanda was staring over his shoulder at the screen, oar forgotten in his hand. They looked at each other wildly for a moment, then Carlton grabbed a passing coconut husk, rammed the scanner into it and threw it to the east as hard as he could. It splashed soggily, then bobbed up and began moving out to sea.
‘How much time have we got?’
‘Don’t know. But we better move our asses.’
‘What happened?’ asked Dhritiman. ‘Why did you throw away our scanner?’
They both turned grimly to him. ‘Someone’s on to us,’ said Carlton. ‘They’ve picked up the others, and they might have spotted us when I logged in. I just hope we can put enough distance between us and that scanner before they show up. We better ditch our suits.’ He began stripping his own from his body. ‘Shams, take each of these suits and sink it. Dhritiman, find us all planks or something so we can start shoving water.’ Dhritiman, now clad in a tie-dye t-shirt which said ‘Karma is Forever’, began scanning the debris. He hooked a sheared-off No Parking sign and handed it to Carlton, who smiled. ‘Good man. Cool shirt, by the way.’
Dhritiman grinned nervously. ‘Your tshirt’s pretty rad too,’ he said shyly. ‘Who’s that painted on the back?’
‘That’s Babelion, the Climate Town rockstar. I couldn’t go visit and hear her sing in person, so Amelie gave me this tshirt just before we left port. Ahmed, one of my former students, painted it for me.’ Soon they were all paddling as fast as they could. Nanda muttered, ‘They’ll come from the air. Keep your ears peeled for engine noise.’
But nothing showed up, so at around 6pm he and Nanda took a quick three-hour nap, then relieved the other two. Nanda took first shift at the rowing again. Carlton lay on the raft and kept watch on the heaving skies. Then he said, very quietly, ‘Leading Seaman Shivsundar Nanda.’
‘You’re not, are you?’ Carlton half-rose on an elbow. ‘You’re Intelligence.’
Nanda was silent. Then he said, ‘How did you guess?’
‘Huh. When I first saw your crew profile, I thought, this guy’s thirty four and he’s still a Leading Seaman? Either he’s thick as a door or he’s got a mouth. But you never showed quite enough of either to convince me. So there was only one other explanation: you were a plant.’
Nanda said nothing.
‘Who do you work for?’ Carlton demanded.
‘Not everyone at Command is happy with the Ramdhun takeover. Or even inside Ramdhun itself. My bosses aren’t at the top, far from it, but they have power, and they want some leverage against the Vaghelas and the R1K. They’ve been fearing something like the Helios Fail was in the offing. I’m heading to Delhi to tell them what happened to Arisudan and how to bring her back into play. That will allow us to plan a pushback.’
‘Then I’m coming with you, because it would give me the most exquisite pleasure to destroy these hanyo bastards.’
Nanda bowed his head. ‘I was hoping you’d say that.’ For a while the only sound was the moaning wind and the shlep of the oar. Then Nanda said quietly, ‘My father was a petrochemicals engineer. When the Wave of 2023 hit, he capped three oilwells that would have spilled their guts and destroyed most of the south Malay coast. The last thing he did was call us and say he was taking a bunch of refugees over to New Singapore. He was sure his bosses would help out. We never heard from him again. I was ten.’
‘They cut my mother off with nothing. Claimed he’d acted without orders.’ Nanda twisted the oar calmly. ‘I’ve been waiting all my life for this. I’ve studied each one of the R1K like a stalker. I know their faces, their stories, their crimes. I want to craft for each one of them an individual, bespoke, tight little hell.’
Carlton said, ‘Pradip Shankar’s meddling probably drove my youngest sister to her death. I’m with you.’
Towards midday he heard it, a faint buzzing in the northern sky. ‘Get under the flex!’ he hissed. They pulled the flex over them and dropped down into the water on either side of the raft, the plastic making a soggy tent over their heads. Carlton hoped they looked like rubbish from the air. He felt a hand on his shoulder. ‘If you make it and I don’t,’ Nanda breathed, ‘find a woman called Alice Dang. She’s a high-up in Ramdhun, and she sent me to watch over you. Tell her—’ The explosion was like a giant dragon flicking its tail, sending them flying. Carlton hit the water and dived, knowing what would come next. Bullets buzzed past him like underwater bees. Then a giant metal basket scooped him out of the water. For a moment he saw the horizon outlined in roiling vapours, then with a tremendous clang the basket stuck itself to a metal surface above his head. Some distance away he saw Nanda being fished out too.
The thing doing the fishing made him catch his breath: it looked like a giant spider, with a squat round cabin bristling with weapons and balancing on metal legs, with Nanda’s cage nested between them on the undercarriage. A third machine was grabbing at the water’s surface with its basket-arm, but all that came up was rubbish. The machines strafed the water a few more times, then Nanda’s vehicle sprouted two rotors and took off. The sea fell away beneath Carlton’s cage as well. They rose into the unquiet clouds. He prayed fervently that Shams and Dhritiman had escaped unhurt, but he didn’t have much hope.
The land was ruined. Up ahead there was a kind of murky watershed, and polluted waters were flowing away on either side of it, exposing low mud hills. In some places the splinters of buildings stuck out of the flow, with gruesome debris tangled in their shards. The spidertanks turned north over the watershed and began heading for the mountains. A spillage of mud and rubble at the feet of the first line of peaks were seemingly what was left of KL City and its sprawling satellite towns. The sight of it raked his heart: Amelie might be down there, and all the good people he’d met back in 2032. But the tanks pushed on.
The lower slopes had been stripped bare: he could see the rough line to which the waters had risen. Above that line the forest was shredded, but still green and alive. He spread his fingers over the scene, profoundly moved to see a living tree again. They flew over the first line of peaks and he heard, far in the distance, an indescribable sound. It was like many voices screaming, but they were not human. Then he saw there were rough scrapes in the forest, with the debris of dead and dying trees shoved aside and the bite of bulldozer teeth still visible. Rows of cages stood in these clearings. Around them shuffled bent figures carrying buckets. The stench and the noise was indescribable.
They flew on, to a wider part of the plateau. Here was another clearing with a line of black figures standing. The murky sunlight struck gleams off their helmets: SAMSA suits. These were members of the R1K. The flying tanks touched down, then folded their legs so that the cages were on the ground. A black figure touched his visor and it slid back, revealing a rather pudgy face. ‘Open cages,’ he said, and Carlton and Nanda tumbled out.
‘Royston Tan Hui,’ said Nanda. ‘What are you doing here?’
The black-suited man gaped at him, then the pudgy face twisted. ‘Who the hell are you? And how did you know my name?’
‘You don’t need to know that.’ Nanda straightened up from where the cage had thrown him in a heap. ‘Just get out of my way, you and your Ardies. I’m on a mission.’ He grabbed Carlton’s arm and forced it up his back, bending him over so his face was not visible.
‘What mission? Mr Quan never said anything about you.’
‘I’m tracking some assets belonging to Chip Takahashi. This guy is a target of interest.’ Nanda gave Carlton a shake.
‘Chip?’ The black-suited figure laughed. ‘That gimp! Hope he’s enjoying his bedpans!’
‘He’s mad as hell and you know it. There’s a bunch of Shigenobu operatives around here pretending to be Indian navy men. You know anything about that?’
‘I might.’ He looked shifty. ‘What will you trade in return if we tell you?’
‘I’ll tell Jacob Edgemont not to whoop your asses for getting in my way.’
‘You work for Futurista?’ Royston Tan Hui’s face spread in an ugly grin. ‘Then you should know Jacob’s dead. All the Old Men are dead. A whole flock of pesky birds brought down with one sweet stone. We’re in charge now. The boss wants to ship all these animals to Red Basin for his personal collection. We were supposed to bag the bitches who ran the Gaia Camp but they got away. Mr Quan isn’t happy about that.’
Nanda sighed. ‘Amateurs,’ he said blandly. ‘ Are you aware that Chip Takahashi hates your guts and wants revenge? I’ve been tasked with stopping him, so you better cooperate. I know you filched my targets so take me to them now. They have valuable information.’
‘Can’t do that. The boss said they looked like trouble. I mean, who tries to take down a spidertank with a rocket launcher? So we wasted them all and put them in the freezer trucks with the other stiffs.’ He grinned. ‘These animals won’t feed themselves till the boss gets here. Who’s he?’ Royston pointed a metallic finger at Carlton. ‘Why do you want him?’
‘He’s the package. I have to deliver him to Hillside Paradise alive. Now stop wasting time and give me a plane to get to Hillside Paradise asap. I’ll tell Mr Quan how helpful you’ve been.’
‘Can’t do that either,’ Royston grinned. ‘All flights are grounded till we have full control of Indosphere airspace. Then the Masterchair Tours will roll, and we’ll finally get to join the party.’
‘Give me a boat, then, I’ll make my own way.’
The black figures looked at each other. Then Royston pointed down the hillside. ‘Boats are down there,’ he sniggered. ‘Go help yourself.’
‘Right.’ Nanda hoicked Carlton’s arm further up his back and said, ‘Walk, asshole.’ Nearly bent double, Carlton walked, Nanda steering him by his stiff arm. From below his own shoulder Carlton sneaked a peek at the hanyos behind them. They were grinning broadly. As Carlton watched, one of them raised an armoured hand and pointed a finger at them. The hanyo’s whole arm stiffened and a red glow appeared at the shoulder. ‘Nanda, watch—’ There was a noise like the air being cut open. Nanda went rigid for a moment, then collapsed on Carlton. The side of his head was gone, the wound burned black. There was no blood. His one eye was still open.
‘Smartass,’ Royston said.
Carlton ran. The laughter of the hanyos followed him down the hillside. He heard a spidertank start up and rise above the treetops on its steel legs. They were hunting him. He put his head down and charged through the bushes, leaping over fallen logs and boulders. The ground sloped sharply down and he had to grab tree trunks to keep his balance on the treacherous slope. Then he burst out of the tree cover onto a newly formed slope of mud and loose stones. He lost his footing and began to roll. The stones and debris he had disturbed followed him. Soon there were half a dozen balls of mud rolling down the hill, picking up more odds and ends and taking ever growing quantities of rubbish into the dancing embrace of the mudslide. The spidertank stopped at the edge of the scar, unable to follow. Carlton shut his eyes and prayed for a soft landing.
‘He’s coming round.’
It was a woman’s voice. He stopped himself from going for her throat just in time. Cautiously he opened his eyes. She was a dark silhouette against the weeping sky. Then another shadow blotted out the clouds, and a hand wiped mud from his cheek. ‘Help me up,’ he croaked. ‘Ah!’ He clutched his shoulder.
‘You had a dislocation,’ said a second voice. ‘We reduced it for you. How does it feel?’
Cautiously he moved his arm. ‘Hurts, but it’s functioning.’ Now that he was sitting up, he could see their faces more clearly. ‘Hey, I know you. You’re the Gaia people.’
‘Putul,’ said the second voice.
‘Perizaad,’ said the first. ‘Who was that guy in the grey shirt? And why did the hanyos shoot him? We were watching from the top of the mountain. When we saw you run, we chased you down and fished you out of that landslide.’
‘His name was Nanda. He was trying to save us by convincing the hanyos he was one of them.’ He grimaced. ‘It didn’t work. Where’s Amelie? Was she with you in Gaia, or in Climate Town?’
‘Only the kids were with us,’ said Perizaad, shaking her head. ‘They headed south some days ago, and we don’t know where they are or whether they survived.’
‘We don’t know where any of our friends are, except the Bintams. Rik Nehra kidnapped Lila and her daughter and son, Bilqis and Bilal, some months ago, and they’re at Hillside Paradise,’ said Putul. ‘The hanyos attacked the Gaia Camp a week before whatever this is burst upon us,’ she waved her hand to take in the bruise-covered sky.
‘They’re calling it the Helios Fail.’ Carlton rubbed his shoulder. ‘I’m not sure how the hanyos did it, but apparently the mouth of the Ganga’s at Varanasi now.’
Putul nodded. ‘That figures. They must have hit a volcanic cavern buried under the ice sheet. If it collapsed, and four kilometres of ice fell into a lava lake, well, that would explain the end of the world quite nicely.’ She sighed. ‘Sometimes I hate that I’m a climate scientist.’
‘We’re heading into the mountains,’ said Perizaad. ‘Once we get far enough away, we’ll plough some soil and plant some seeds. If we can get some decent light through this murk.’
‘I need to get to Gurugram,’ said Carlton, trying to flex his knee. It did not feel good, but it worked. ‘There’s a woman there, Alice Dang. I have to contact her. She knows how to fight this.’
‘Alice Dang?’ Putul raised an eyebrow. ‘We know her. She’s a good friend of the Bintams. She helped Lila stay sane while she was going through the Shankar Cure with Bilal.’
‘We should go with him,’ Perizaad said to Putul. ‘Part of the way at least.’
‘Or further,’ Putul nodded. ‘It’s possible the Bintams are the only Climate Town people who’ve survived, other than us.’ She grinned. ‘And wherever Bilqis Bintam is, you can be sure the hanyos are having a real hard time.’
‘Amen to that,’ said Perizaad.
‘Why do you say that about Bilqis?’ Carlton asked, rubbing his knee ruefully. ‘I thought she was very… nice. I loved how patiently she helped the kids with their fears and scars.’
‘Exactly,’ said Perizaad with a grin. ‘She’s the reason Bilal’s a normal human being, not a hanyo like the rest of the R1K.’
‘Yeah,’ said Putul. ‘Now do you see why they’re afraid of her?’
Carlton nodded solemnly. ‘But you two don’t have to come with me. There’s no guarantee we’ll get there. Or if we do, it could take years.’
‘It’ll help pass the time,’ said Perizaad. ‘Well, we just watched thirty years of love and research get ripped to bits by Basil Quan, so yeah, I think I want to find Bilqis Bintam and tell her all about it.’ She bent down and picked up a stout stick. ‘Here, try this.’
Then they each took a shoulder and helped him to his feet.
Parzan Merchant closed his eyes and took a sip of the tiny quantity of whiskey in his shot glass. He felt a little guilty about dipping into his stock, but he knew his nerves needed it right now. He let the strains of Smokey Robinson’s ‘Quiet Storm’ wash over him. Then Anahita spoke, and he opened his eyes.
‘Sorry to interrupt, Parzan, but the subs have returned. I have stowed them in the Dry Deck Shelters and accessed their logs and data dumps. I am happy to say the men have all made safe landfall at New Johor yesterday morning. There is an audio message for you from XO Caron. Shall I play it?’
Carlton’s voice filled his ears. ‘Hello, Zany. I want to apologise to you. I knew you wouldn’t leave the sub, and I also knew there was no point in all ninety five of us sitting there and eating all the food, and the men agreed with me. You’re right to stay with the boat and keep her safe. She’s important, something in my heart tells me. And I know you won’t let the hanyos use her to hurt the survivors. But it may take years before we can come and get her, or figure out how to make good use of her. We, the ninety four of us, have bought you time. I knew you’d never consent to lead the men home yourself, so that had to be my job. Stay put, Zany. Stay hidden. None of us can fight just yet, but be patient. I don’t know if we’ll make it home. I don’t think our chances are good, but we have to try. Maybe we’ll meet again some day. But even if we don’t, I know you’ll remember us.’ He hesitated. Then he said. ‘Stay safe. Help the survivors, if you find any. I’m sorry I called you a hanyo. I hope you understand now.’
‘End message,’ said Anahita.
And Smokey sang in his velvet voice, ‘Quiet storm blowing, through my life, through my life. You’re just like a quiet storm, blowing through my life…’