Life time does not return

THE BOY WANTS to say goodbye to his mother, but he wakes after everyone. A vigorous shake from his uncle and a string of sharp commands sends him hurrying to dress. By the time he makes his way through the dark, night-soaked courtyard to the van, his mother is inside, eyes closed in transcendence, fingers clicking polystyrene beads. He climbs into the front, next to his uncle.

An early dawn is infecting the summer night as the Solurban van clicks into its journey, leaving behind the middle-management colony occupied by men like his uncle for a more amorphous world of data havens, pharma labs and fertility clinics, their squat outlines cradled in swathes of ReliGrass and intrusive cat-eye sensors. Then come the control towers for the underground factories, followed by the security barracks and, finally, the concentration of worker hives around the bus terminus where infomercial neons, Bollywood remixes and the cloying grease smell of protein kebabs already permeate the beginning of the day.

When they emerge onto the highway slicing through the desert, it is hard for the boy to tell if the unexpectedly lurid quality of the desert is an early morning phenomenon or a constant feature of the landscape. The desert is red, he notices with surprise as he peers through the razor wire, solar panel fences lining the highway. Red sand, stretching almost evenly to the horizon, its smooth lines broken occasionally by a cactus, a blackened roadside shack or a burnt-out vehicle.

It is nothing like the place he has lived until now – a resource extraction town in the foothills of the Himalayas. When he was there, this would have seemed fantastical to him, the setting of a first-person shooter game with lumbering monsters, platoons running counterinsurgency operations and drone strikes taking out vehicles carrying subversives to clandestine meeting points. But now, sitting hunched up in the Solurban, his former home – where he had a father, mother, other family and friends – is less real to him than the desert floor. Of their destination he knows nothing, except that it is a school where he will be put up for adoption.

The school was mentioned the day after he had arrived at his uncle’s house in Amaravati Colony, Phase Seventeen. The boy found himself in the garden, a small strip of green with saffron and white cultivars, the colour scheme matching the national flag. At that hour of the morning most middle-management employees were either at work or recovering from the night shift. The boy’s uncle was home, very much awake and aggrieved, his right hand fingering the locket dangling from his neck as he approached his nephew.

The boy guessed the conversation would be about enrolling him somewhere. ‘Education is a Must,’ Miss V had reminded him often enough in his former school, taking as much pleasure from reiterating the Ministry slogan as she had from pinching his ears. With the right programming he could become anything: a technician, or a skilled service provider. Even if he fell out with his teachers and his grades dropped below average, his synapses overcooked on a combination of data surfing and cough syrup, he would have possibilities as a drone worker, still part of the system.

‘Does time go backwards?’ his uncle asked.

‘Yes,’ he said, wondering if this was a trick question. ‘Time can go backwards.’ He saw his uncle’s eyes flare in anger and hurriedly added, ‘On aircraft crossing the international date line. In a relative way, of course. Perhaps in supercolliders. Or in other universes where the laws…’ He stopped when he saw that his uncle wasn’t angry, just sad.

‘Aircraft time may go backwards, but life time does not,’ his uncle said. ‘Life time does not return.’

Then his uncle began to weep like a child, clutching his Omchakra locket. From the blabbering, the boy made out that he was going to be given away.

His uncle held out a booklet in the middle of his crying fit. It was printed in smudgy black type, the paper thick and rough. Inside were test questions:What was the name of the Indian Sanskrit scholar who flew a mercury engine aircraft in 1895?

Which great Indian epic, the Mahabharata or the Ramayana, depicts a nuclear war?

Why did Hitler send expeditions to India and Tibet?

What stories can you point to as evidence of the knowledge of plastic surgery in ancient India?

‘The school makes it by hand, the paper,’ his uncle said. ‘It even smells pure.’

He sniffed it, trailed off and began fingering the locket again. His maharaj had given it to him, a thing with an ornate, expensive 24-carat shell housing a cheap, generic operating system. An ashram sales assistant had provided the new disciple with copious instructions on how to use it, along with an upselling spiel about the advantages of going for a more expensive OS, one based on a hack-proof Israeli core. The boy’s uncle did not display the Omchakra locket openly at work because the company had its own guru, but at home he fondled it at all hours. Sometimes, he spoke into it, asking for advice on how to emigrate. The boy once walked in on the locket talking back, but he couldn’t tell if it was a recorded speech or if the maharaj was actually live, at the other end of the data stream.

The boy looked at the booklet again while his uncle chattered away, sounding like some distant junkfeed. He knew the answers to most of the questions – the Ministry directives and Miss V’s teaching on Vedic science had made sure of that. But he wondered if, after he was adopted, he would still be part of the system, still have the options that had been his before, or if he would have to become something else entirely.


THE BOY TURNS around as soon as he wakes up. His mother is not there. He is alone in the Solurban, sweating profusely while the van plays an endless loop of junkfeed on the screens. It’s as if the command system is unable to decide which demographic the boy belongs to. The infomercials loop through job opportunities in PakAf, services for emigration to High Net Worth countries, an uncensored official release of the game CounterTribal WarFare and a discount on Modification brand Air Pollution Filters. When the van begins to show him infomercials for whitening skin grafts, he climbs out in irritation.

His family seems to have made a breakfast stop at a Bhojan- Donalds branch, a two-storeyed prefab jutting out of the desert like a fortified bunker, heat shimmering round its edges. Brown and white neons for Mother’s Milk energy drinks glimmer in the doorway as he walks in. His uncle is giving breakfast orders to the waitress, whose face is fixed in the required rictus of welcome, while his mother clicks her beads, her headscarf slightly askew. He glimpses her shaven head and the incision scar that looks like a railway track.

He wants to talk to her, about what has happened and what is about to happen.

‘Ma?’ he says. The eyes that look at him are not quite blank but unfocused, almost infant-like. Her fingers keep moving the beads, an infinite loop of clicks. A vague beatific smile occupies her lips. Then she looks away, staring at the waitress repeating their order.

Filled with a sudden rage, he walks off towards the restroom. When he finds a door marked ‘Exit,’ he takes it. The boy walks as if he is going back home on foot, back in time on foot, walking away from the restrooms and the drive-throughs and the loading docks, heading for the red desert, as if just beyond it are the mountains he has looked at all his life.

The heat beats down on him as he walks, the glare fierce in spite of his FC Barcenal cap. Then, suddenly, he is in a camp. He smells the inhabitants before he sees them. A low-grade but intense odour of shit floats above cooking oil, diesel and antiseptic.

In the open, uneven ground between desert and parking lot sits a jumble of plastic tents – a camp of displaced people or nomads or rejects, he realises, although he has never encountered such a population live before. They are part of some alternative reality, belonging to the appendices of lesson plans in schools, the world of resettlement figures, compensation plans, alternative employment schemes, corporate good governance and charitable giving, but never central to the tests. Now he stares at them and sees lice being picked from hair, bandaged stumps and eye patches, and something skinned, the size of a dog or a goat, with its legs splayed.

He remembers the warnings in school, of chicken flu and Ebola outbreaks, of the dangers of unmediated contact. He recalls the orders preserving boundaries and knows he should leave and not just stand there, looking for someone he can talk to.

MISS V’S HUSBAND was a Commandant, who not only ran industrial security for extraction companies but also liaised in private with bounty hunters from afar – gaunt men and women working in small teams, sometimes just in pairs, chasing leads about people trying to vanish into the wastelands of Zomia.

The boy now knows that it was the Commandant’s private work that led Miss V to call in the boy’s father, although the meeting was ostensibly a parent–teacher conference. His father worked as a labour contractor for Advaita, one of dozens of similar operations clustered around their part of the Himalayas. His father, along with three other labour contractors, took a commission for every tonne of ore extracted, eager to ensure that two hundred and fifty workers were never sitting around idle. One of those workers was of some interest to a team that had contacted the Commandant, Miss V explained. The boy’s father would provide all the personnel data Advaita had on the worker, lead the team to the target and step aside. The team, consisting of four men, two Indians and two foreigners, were professionals. It would be a swift, efficient rendition, with no fuss. There would be a handsome percentage.

The boy was not present at the meeting, but he knows all this. He has seen footage of the meeting, shown to him by the interrogation team in a room surrounded by military guards. In the footage, Miss V wears designer sunglasses pushed on to her forehead and is wearing some kind of Velcro jumpsuit with paisley patterns on the sleeves. His father is wearing regulation labour contractor gear: tieless business suit combined with heavy work boots, an Advaita pin on his lapel. His father looks worried, although he says yes, of course, as long as there is no trouble. In the footage the boy was shown, Miss V never says why the team wants Miner 57.

The interrogators encouraged the boy to speculate on reasons the team might have been interested in Miner 57. They mentioned their possession of a lie detector, of narco drugs, of brain mappers. ‘But you, being a minor, cannot be lie detected or narco drugged or brain mapped with regard to the miner,’ Interrogator One said, chuckling for a while at his play of words. Interrogator Two, tall and angular, scowled and muttered that all they needed for that was a magistrate’s order. Interrogator One, ignoring him, went on in genial, avuncular fashion, explaining to the boy that they – these two men dressed in identical grey Ministry safari suits – were there to discover truth the old-fashioned way, by simply asking the right questions. They already knew what was to be known. Their questions for the boy were just to see if they could clear up a few corroboratory details.

The boy told them what he knew. That the extraction team, plus the boy’s father, had made their way to the pit where Miner 57 was working. The security cameras there were jammed, so no footage was available to indicate what happened inside. But Miner 57 and his associates had managed to disarm the group, taking it hostage, which forced Commandant V to go in with a riot team. This intervention did not lead to the desired objectives of intimidation and pacification. Instead, the disturbance spread further, to other pits where miners successfully used Gemeinschaft diggers to fight off the security forces. Specialised industrial assault units were flown in from the nearest divisional headquarters, but by the time the rioting had been quelled, much of the town was in ruins.

The school had been burnt down.

The Commandant, the extraction team, four paramilitaries, nineteen miners and the boy’s father were dead. And Miner 57 had vanished, if he ever existed.

Interrogator One clucked sympathetically and asked what the boy knew about Miner 57. The boy told them the rumours he had heard. That Miner 57 had been the only worker to survive the nuclear leak at the Downion plant, remaining for seventeen days in a safety chamber, found unconscious but alive by robots finally sent in to unseal the chamber. In the cover-up that followed the leak, Miner 57 had been dismissed, his card topped up with extra credit and a couple of inner line permits. It was only after he vanished that a field test report from the leak began making its rounds and that, combined with the story of his survival, made him a person of extraordinary interest to labs specialising in mutations.

The boy had also heard that Miner 57 was the Karmapa and the rendition team either Chinese or a breakaway Shugden Dorje faction from California. That Miner 57 was not fully human but a clone of the Nanasaheb, returning to lead an uprising against the English, who these days were Indians. That Miner 57 was a robot, a cyborg, an AI. That Miner 57 was an undesirable who had murdered his way to possessing Identity data. That Miner 57 was a guerrilla leader from a resistance formation created by Kashmiris, Manipuris and Naxalites, a man who quoted Marcos, Maqbool Butt and Kishenji to his fellow miners, and that the rendition team consisted of men from Military Intelligence. The interrogators had clucked their tongues, shaken their heads and laughed when they heard that last bit.

AS HE LOOKS at the tents, a Ministry slogan comes to his mind. ‘Cleanliness Must Always Be Next to Cleanliness.’ There were kids in his school who said the slogans were all lies, and talk of the great nation the biggest lie of all. Around the mines and the factories was toxic waste, the ruins of former cities occupied by warlords and millenarian prophets. The farms and river valleys were mostly covered by red sand and the government was controlled by cabals living in Dubai and New Jersey. Blacktech clips were passed around in school by the lower-class kids, videos of warlords and millenarians, some as young as him, exhorting people to take up arms and march on New New Delhi, clips that were hidden when the Ministry slogans began blaring ‘Education is a Must’ to signal the end of lunch break.

The man who comes out of the tent in front of him does not seem surprised to see him. He looks scruffy with his three-day beard, and the blue hospital scrubs he wears have no logos and are stained with what looks like blood. ‘I’m the technician,’ he says. ‘The Middle Stage Technician.’

He steps back into the tent and gestures for the boy to follow. It takes the boy a few seconds to adjust to the change in light. The tent is bigger than he thought, filled with what looks like junk. But in the junk, amid the clutter of castoff plastic and tins and sacking, he begins to sense a pattern: a chair, consoles, screens wedged between flattened cardboard, one of which catches his eye because it is footage showing his mother and two men in grey safari suits.

The footage is grainy, the sound out of sync with the video. His mother is strapped into a chair, surrounded by levers, cables, nodes and screens. Her head has been shaved and an army medic is making an incision on the skull and applying blue gel. The boy watches as the medic attaches electrodes and adjusts the screens. ‘They’re looking right inside her mind,’ Middle Stage Technician says. ‘But they can’t find anything. She erased herself. Reset her counter to zero long before they showed up.’

He is standing next to the boy, a syringe gun in his hand. ‘What are you doing?’ the boy asks. Middle Stage Technician places the gun against the boy’s arm and fires. The boy recoils in shock and remembers, in rolling waves of nausea, the visit to the dentist the day before the shootout. The miner in the waiting room. His mother hugging him close. Something about another technician. The Beginning Technician? The Starting Technician?

AN HOUR’S DRIVE from the BhojanDonald, after they’ve already turned off the highway, the monitors on the Solurban van begin to flicker. The command system gets increasingly irritated, asking the designated driver to improve reception quality. The boy’s uncle looks sheepish, rolls out a physical map from his bag and switches to manual mode. He grips the wheel far too tightly as he guides the van around the various potholes.

The red sand becomes steadily less visible as the road twists and turns past gutted structures, stripped of everything but the concrete. Scraps of rubber and plastic blow across their path, the ruins around them making a wind tunnel of the road. The boy sees a gigantic building on his right, fifty storeys high, a bite-shaped hole at its top as if a monster tried it out before deciding it was too hard, too tasteless. There are more buildings, some with roof collapses that impart an angular playfulness to their regulation boxy structures, surrounded by parking lots laced with tufts of weeds. The boy stares at the graffiti and slogans as they make a turn, coming up behind the first vehicle they have seen for a while.

It is moving very slowly. It consists of a man in rags, head covered in a loose turban of sorts, feet encased in giant white sneakers, straining behind a pushcart piled high with junk. The man looks up as they pass. Then he laughs, haha ha HAHA, jeering and stamping his feet, pointing at the stuff he is carrying – old screens, motherboards, printers, copying machines, all entwined with wires and cables. The ruins along the road have given way to what the boy can only call mountains in progress, as high as the tallest of the buildings they’ve passed and filled with junk of the sort the old man is carrying – mountains that are grey heaps of silicon, plastic and metal. He sees tablets and palmers, phones and cash registers, routers and prosthetic arms, anything that at one time required a circuit and some source of power.

The junk mountains keep getting more complex. He sees one that seems made up almost exclusively of old drones, with a severely bent manual fighter plane at the very bottom, crumpled like an empty toothpaste tube. Then he sees it.

It is an angel, dead, almost as big as the fighter aircraft but humanoid, statuesque. Its black wings have been partially eaten away, exposing the strut work of cartilage under the feathers. Its eyes are open and glassy, its hair greasy. It looks, lying on its side, as if it is not dead but resting, dreaming with eyes wide open, of the war between heaven and hell.

People are crawling on the mountains of debris, and sitting on benches in front of shacks at their bases. The shacks appear to be part home and part shop, and the people resemble those he saw in the encampment behind the BhojanDonalds.

‘There it is,’ his uncle says.

The boy can’t tell what his uncle is referring to. An old police jeep stands mired in the dirt, stripped to its bare metal chassis. Behind it squats a shack with a stencil on it, a bearded man’s face against a backdrop of old-style metal barricades and the sign, Delhi Police: With You, For You, Always.

The van comes to a halt, but the engine keeps running. The door on the boy’s side opens and he knows, without a word being said, that he has to go into the shack.

He walks slowly, taking his time, and as he looks around he sees that there are train tracks in front of the shack, dull metal lines making their way through this city of trash. Trains stopped running decades ago. He wonders what it would have been like to be a child in the old days, riding trains. He looks down the tracks in both directions, but there is too much dust, too much haze, to see.

He knocks on the door, on the stencilled image of the bearded man’s face. The man who opens the door, smiling, is wearing an old, faded khaki shirt that says, Habu Lal Fitter. The shack is a cleaner, more organised version of the tent in the camp. Less junk, more machines, more monitors and consoles glowing busily. ‘You’re almost there, sit,’ the man says. ‘I’m the End Game Technician.’

The boy sits back in a chair, waiting as patiently as he did that day with his mother when the first technician –it was the Opening Move Technician – uploaded the data into him.

The End Game Technician works just as efficiently. Nodes are attached. A final set of syringe shots are fired into the boy and he is done. The End Game Technician holds up to the light something that looks like a vial attached to a data drive. He puts this into a waist pack and zips it up. Then he leads the boy back outside.

‘Your work is done. Thank you,’ he says, guiding the boy to the van where his uncle grips the wheel and his mother clicks her beads.

‘And now?’ the boy says.

‘Goodbye,’ the End Game Technician replies and walks away.

There is a humming and a shaking. The tracks shiver. The boy turns. Out of the haze, from behind the city of trash with its junk mountains, he sees a rectangular engine pulling carriages, the first train he has ever seen. The train is old and dirty and faded blue but it is still a train, moving slowly, with people sitting inside, their faces visible through the open windows. A door opens and the End Game Technician swings easily onto the footboard, waving at the boy.

‘Get in,’ his uncle says.

‘No, wait,’ the boy shouts at the End Game Technician.

Who wants to go back to the unknown school, to be reprogrammed and serve as an adoptee to some lonely couple in Atlanta who long for a traditional Indian child schooled in the ancient Vedic sciences? Who wants to go back to Miss V’s school for that matter? Life time does not return, does it?

He takes one last look at his mother, head shaved, counter reset to zero, spinning her beads. She could be his sister now, or his daughter, someone for whom he will have to come back when he is older. Then he turns and begins to run alongside the tracks, the train picking up speed, the carriages starting to outpace him. The End Game Technician stares at him from the open door and shakes his head. The boy keeps running. Just as he feels he will stumble, a hand reaches out and he is airborne. He is on the train.

He turns in the direction of his mother and then turns the other way, towards the shacks that the train is speeding past, towards the red sand and the distant horizon, beyond which, he thinks, must be real mountains.


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