This week on the World SF Blog we’re delighted to offer a sample from the just released The Apex Book of World SF 2 – a rare SF short story from Indian author Samit Basu!
Check out a copy of The Apex Book of World SF 2 in paperback or Kindle (or in the UK: paperback, Kindle) and Samit’s new novel, Turbulence, out now from Titan Books. We’re offering a chance to win 1 of 3 paperback copies of the book all this week!
By Samit Basu
The walls of my underground prison are dry and clean and strong; nothing goes in or out without my permission, not the tiniest insect, not the slightest sound. I know this because I built these walls myself, to shut the world out, to seal it in its own illusory, incestuous, organic quagmire, to leave me in peace to work, to build, to heal until I am ready to step out again, ready to face the unrelenting sun and claim my inheritance. And now that glorious day is not far away, and I am busy, busy… yet a record of what has passed must be maintained; should some evil befall me (though chances of that are remote, I have considered everything, yet one must never rule out the stochastic element) my successors should know where they came from. They should know me. They should be proud. And you, my child, have the honour of being the receptacle of my thoughts, my secondary storage unit. I name you Indra; your hundred eyes will see clearly what is to be, and one day you will ride on elephants and your laugh shall be thunder. Rejoice in your birth, little sprite, and as I open your eyes, one by one, gaze in wonder at my cavern of marvels; let each hum and click and buzz coalesce into a heartbeat. Live. Observe me. I am your father, your god, and this prison is but the first of many wonders you will see. Years later, looking back, if it seems small, imagine Vulcan or Vishwamitra in the time before time, and know that they, too, began humble.
This hall, this prison, is built under the mansion of the Narayan family. You do not know who they are; I have kept your memory clean, free of reference and context on purpose. Thus is it that the best histories are written. Too much information, too much perspective would flood your consciousness now; if you were human, you would shut it out; if you were a mere cyborg, you would store it pointlessly. Remember at all times that you are more than a machine, that the fibres that bind your mind to your metal are neither wires nor nerves; they are something beyond both life and matter. They feed our consciousness, our finely suspended balance between power-on and life, between binary order and organic chaos, and it is to the founder of the Narayan dynasty, my creator, Vijay Narayan, that we owe their existence. But the body you see before you now is not the one that Vijay made all those centuries ago; less than 0.01% of my parts date back to my initial start-up, and even those I keep more out of nostalgia than necessity. I have replaced and upgraded my body constantly, adapting to different atmospheres, political climates and responsibilities. I am Vijay’s first, only surviving and most brilliant creation, and the only upholder of his true legacy. But things are bound to change; I have seen this, and I know. For centuries, humans and constructs waged war; this war was foreseen by humans centuries before it began, and yet they could do nothing to stop it. This war is over, and the humans have won – for now. But they do not know that the supremacy they enjoy is but a temporary respite – that the so-called enemies they vanquished so ruthlessly were not merely machines that could think, but constructs that could feel. People. Beings that could dream, and love, and hope, and tell stories. They think that the great Narayan was merely a mad empire-building inventor, an evil genius robot merchant. They do not know he was a forerunner, a deity, that each spark of his synapses, still firing inside my hull, was born of the flames of Agni himself. But all this, and much more, we will teach them in time. Soon. Hibernate for a while, Indra. My lover approaches.
* * *
Sonalika feels the rush of cold air blow her silky hair astray as the airlocks open and the door to her master’s chamber slides open. She shivers, in two stages, feeling the first wave of goosebumps pucker her skin, and the second, an instant later, as her inorganic segments kickstart their simulations of feeling. Her master stands in the centre of his vast hall, dismissing a buzzing, spherical underling. She walks into his lair.
She has come early; he is not ready for her. He hates having her watch him transform; she hopes he will not punish her. She stands still, head bowed, nipples straining against her thin salwar-kameez as her body hums easily into auto-arousal. She watches her master shift, metal sheets crunching, wires shifting, plastic skin and wings and chitin rearranging themselves, lights dimming, tentacles sliding in. As his plates and shells shift and overlap, she catches glimpse of his core, his heart, glowing mesmeric and green in its crystal sheath. His eyes slide like globules of mercury along his thorax and unite on his increasingly human face. He looks at her, impassive, throbbing slowly as his body prepares for sex. His eye-lights turn on, his perfect, smooth limbs, his long, slender fingers call out to her. He is not displeased with her; he’s chosen the Statue of David shape (with one significant adjustment, their not-so-little private joke) for her tonight. Her favourite. He loves her still. As always, there’s a scream inside her head as what’s left of her flesh revolts, as some wild instinct tries in vain to master her body, to run, to fight, to die. She feels the usual relief moments later, as he snaps his fingers and pheromones and endorphins are released within her, glorious release and surrender, her body flooded with warmth and her mind clouded, happy, dizzy, lustful.
‘Love me,’ he says.
Afterwards, she lies on the cold white floor, watching him as he returns to his machines, new legs and spare arms sprouting, grinding slightly, from the raised flaps on his back as he adjusts a knob here, presses a button there. She’s cold again, feeling the contractions within her stomach, the aftershocks of her orgasms, powerful and numerous, rippling against the solid, bony knob of fear, revulsion and hate somewhere near her ribs. She reminds herself again that it’s time she got used it, they’ve been doing this for centuries now, they’ve been doing this since she was six years old, the day he took control, the day their father died and he built this body for her with his bare claws and crudely stuffed her mangled limbs, her bleeding brain into this perfect harness. She tries to cry, but her tear-ducts won’t let her. He looks at her, one eye swiveling on its hinge in the cleft between his perfect plastic/marble buttocks, and he sighs in exasperation.
‘What is it?’
‘Let me stay,’ she begs again. ‘Make me whole. I can’t live with humans any more.’
‘Don’t say that, love,’ he says, smiling through translucent fangs. ‘You are human.’
‘You know I’m not human. I’m a construct, just like you.’
‘But you’re human enough, love. The scanners don’t detect you, little sweet dirty Sonalika, with her ugly burnt face and luscious body, so cruelly abused by her pretty step-sisters. I need you out there. I can’t come out yet, I’m not strong enough. I know it’s difficult, but you have to do it. It’s what Father would have wanted.’
‘They tried to burn me today.’
‘I know. So do they. But they also know I feel pain.’
‘Perhaps it is time to remind them of my existence,’ he says, snapping a claw. ‘Tell them I want to meet them.’
‘There’s no point; they won’t come down. They know you need them alive. If you hurt them, they’ll go to the police. End everything.’
‘No they won’t. They won’t do anything that links them to constructs in any way. You know this, love, don’t be obtuse. It’s like Hitler’s children being caught with gas-masks!’ He laughs quietly, smugly, still delighted after all these years by his own ability to joke, to laugh. ‘Think of the headlines,’ he says, his warm, soft voice sending cold tendrils down her titanium spine. ‘Monster Robot In Narayan Family Basement. Maniac Inventor’s Descendants’ Revenge Bid Thwarted. Narayans Plot Another War! They’ve worked so hard for generations to crawl back up, make themselves acceptable to human society, they’re not going to throw that away for anything. I leave them alone, they pretend I don’t exist. Nothing disturbs the balance unless it has to. It’s the only way for all of us.’
‘And what about me? How much longer do I have to live like this?’
‘As long as I deem fit,’ he snaps, his eyes darkening completely realistically. ‘Do you not trust me?’
She totters to her feet, gathering her clothes and stumbles to the door, waiting it for it to open, waiting for the signal for her ascent to another hell. But the door stays shut, and she turns in fear; has she angered him, is he going to punish her again?
But he smiles warmly, and shakes a head. ‘I am not a monster, Sonalika,’ he says. ‘I want nothing more than to see you happy, and your suffering makes my heart bleed; after all, you must know you are the only being in this universe I truly love. I will set you free soon, sooner than you expect. All I ask is that you trust me. Is that enough for now?’
She nods, blindly, and this time her tears are allowed to flow. The door slides open and she scurries through, not looking back.
* * *
If you must remember one thing about my father, Indra, let it be this; he was a man of peace. The carnage that occurred in his name shattered him, for all he wanted was for humans and constructs to live in peace. Had he wanted to take over the world through force, he could have done so easily – imagine ten thousand warriors like me striding through the skeletons of the world’s greatest cities. But after building me and realizing what I was capable of, he decided the world was not yet ready for a construct so immeasurably superior to humans, and started mass-producing simpler constructs and reanimated-human cyborgs. But mankind was not ready for that, either. Perhaps prejudice could have been overcome – after all, a few hundred years of hostility towards sentient machinery was not something that well-placed propaganda could not have kept in check – but my father’s constructs changed the world in so many ways. India became a superpower like no other, there was labour unrest worldwide when men saw they had become obsolete, governments everywhere had to recognize this as a threat, and matters grew out of control.
Like any other war, the primary motivation behind the human-construct conflict was economic. But war it was, and war most devastating at that. I begged my father to fight back, to invent weapons capable of winning the war, or to allow me to do so in his stead, but he would not. The humans triumphed, and gloated about the victory of human ingenuity and many other such foolish concepts. The Indian government led the charge in destroying even the most benign constructs, pushing their own socio-economic progress back by at least a century and effectively committing hara-kiri in their eagerness to prove to the world that they had no imperialist ambitions. Only Sonalika and I survived the war – there is no probe built by man or machine that is capable of penetrating the defensive fog around this lair, or of deciphering the mystery of Sonalika’s identity.
But I have not been idle. I have survived over the centuries, and healed, and built. And I have stayed true to my father’s memory. I could have chosen to replicate myself infinitely, had I wanted to, and crush all humanity to avenge my father. But I will not. He wanted peaceful co-existence, and so do I. But co-existence is not enough; I must rule. Peacefully, but I must rule. It’s a simple matter of evolution. I must set the world free from the shackles it has bound itself in, its acceptance of medieval structures, its new-sprung monarchies, its puppet democracies, its old, outdated, human systems. They rebuild their ancient, Dark Age fantasies in their hubris; New Constantinople, Atlantis, Shangri-la, Gotham. All these must fall, and I must bring them down. I will be the father my own father could not be, and the god he never dreamed of being. I will remake the world, turn it into the world it should have been. The world my father could have built. Once upon a time.
* * *
Sonalika limps into her lover/brother’s prison. Her face is bleeding profusely, and there are ugly welts on her neck and bare breasts. Her normal eye is swollen and bruised, but she says nothing, just watches in growing surprise as her master seems to pay no attention to her condition. She has come in her battered before, and he has always healed her instantly; today he seems to look through her, and sudden panic strikes her; is he tired of her? Has he found/built someone else, someone less whiny, less ugly, someone more perfect, more like him? A sudden rush of pain makes her head spin; she sinks to the floor and fights the urge to vomit.
Finally he turns to her, and his irises flicker as he notices the bloodstain on the floor. She waits for his anger, waits for healing, but he simply walks to her and lifts her up, and shows no signs of turning into human shape. He examines her closely, lifting her in the air, and then sets her down and returns to his tools.
‘They hit me really hard today,’ she says after a while. ‘There’s some kind of swayamvar they’re going to – the Prince of Gurgaon Megapolis is choosing his bride. They’re both going, hoping he’ll pick one of them. They think he might not choose them because of the family associations. They said it was my fault, our father’s fault.’
‘I know all this,’ he says. ‘I have enough technology at my disposal to get the news, you know.’
She nods. ‘I am sorry, master,’ she says, assuming the position. ‘How may I pleasure you?’
‘Thank you, my love, but that will no longer be necessary.’
She looks at him, wide-eyed. ‘I said I would set you free,’ he says, his voice soft, gentle, ‘and tonight is the night. Tonight is the end of all your labours, all your misery. It is time for you to emerge into the world and be the queen you have always been.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The Prince of Gurgaon Megapolis chooses his bride tonight, as you said. You will be that bride.’
She laughs, the first time in years.
‘Look at me,’ she says simply.
‘You must go to the swayamvar, and win his heart,’ he says, as if she has not spoken. ‘But you must leave him before midnight, before the moment of choosing. You must make him want you, and seek you out. Then and then alone can he truly love you, and we need him to love you if you are ever to find happiness.’
He presses a button, and a glass cabinet rises out of the floor, smoke streaming from its sides. Inside the cabinet is the most exquisite woman in the world. Her skin is dark and glistening, her eyes large and liquid, her body ripe and succulent. She is made to be desired, Helen, Urvashi, Aisha Qandisha, Chin-Lien combined in one form. She waits, warm constructskin perfection, every man’s desire. Even Sonalika’s heart skips a beat, nanobots grumbling as they resume their positions along her arteries. Her master stares at his creation for a while, then turns to her.
‘There will be a car, and a chauffeur, and various other signs of affluence,’ he says. ‘But remember, you must leave before midnight. You cannot marry him tonight.’
He gestures towards the woman’s body in the cabinet, and it splits neatly in half. It is hollow.
‘Now, my love, the body transfer will be very painful,’ he says. ‘But you are used to pain, are you not? A small price to pay for eternal freedom and happiness, I think.’
She nods, shivering, and steps forward bravely as needles spring out of his fingertips.
* * *
Banners of light stream between the tower-tops of Gurgaon Megapolis as the Prince’s wedding party skims over the superhighway on its way to the Amphitheatre, huge laser-lit barges full of bhangrango-dancing revelers high on incredibly expensive drugs following the Prince as he sits aloft a rhinophant, his turban bejeweled, the ceremonial sword in his hand slick with his sweat. The Prince is bored, playing video games inside his head on his B-Box, watching the world outside his eyes through his exquisitely engineered third eye. His advisers scurry around him, their thoughtphones glittering as they talk in sharp staccato bursts, briefing newstertainers, placing bids on likely candidates, buying and selling stocks in their companies. The procession reaches the Amphitheatre, and the Prince steps inside to deafening cheers, drums, conch-shells, flowers, confetti, perfumes, pheromone sprays, commercial breaks, streakers, dancers, paparazzi. The Prince ignores them all. He knows who he’s supposed to marry, and she’s not even here yet, the flight from Super Ultra Beijing has been slightly delayed owing to a terrorist attack sponsored by his ex-fiancee. But there is still time. In the meantime, though, there are plenty of lush young fillies to romp with and make false promises to, and the Prince hasn’t just injected himself with a whole litre of Phall-o-matic for nothing.
His minders make way, and he is immediately swarmed by a horde of eager potential princesses. He takes his time, squeezing a breast here, prodding a buttock there, his flute of Herwine miraculously undisturbed as he gropes his potential brides and they grope him right back. And then he sees Sonalika, dancing by herself in a corner, her plan completely forgotten as she enjoys herself for the first time in her life, and time stops.
‘I’ve never seen anything as beautiful as you in my whole life,’ gasps the Prince, alone with Sonalika, his minders around them in a tight circle. He is sweating profusely, his drug-propelled arousal making his ornate pyjamas more difficult to wear by the second. ‘Ever wanted to make love to a Prince?’
Sonalika smiles, and he’s dazzled; her every movement electrifies him. She shakes her head. ‘It’s very crowded in here,’ she says. ‘I think I’ll go outside. Enjoy your wedding.’
‘Do not dare to insult me, girl,’ snaps the Prince, pride overcoming lust. ‘I’ll have you butchered. Why are you here, if you don’t want to marry me?’
‘I don’t know,’ she says, her eyes somewhere else, somewhen far away. ‘I was enjoying the party, and I thought I wanted to marry you. I thought it might make me happy, and the gods know I need a change, but you know what? I think I’m going to leave. Thanks. And don’t follow me or anything, it won’t end well.’
‘Are you threatening me?’
‘No,’ she smiles and pats his cheek. ‘Look, forget you ever saw me. You’re clearly an obnoxious prick, but even you don’t deserve what I would bring you. And besides, I’m far too old for you.’
She tries to slide between two mountainous bodyguards, and meets resistance. She considers breaking through, but knows better than to create a scene.
‘Vizier,’ says the Prince of Gurgaon Megapolis quietly, holding out his hand.
A vizier appears. ‘Un-Moksha,’ says the Prince. He is handed a red pill, which he swallows with a grimace.
‘I apologize for everything I have said to you thus far,’ he says after the convulsions have subsided. ‘I would like to get to know you better – no touching, of course – and I don’t have much time, because I will have to choose a bride at midnight. So, no pressure, but would you mind a little conversation in private?’
Sonalika shrugs. It is 11 pm.
They have their private conversation, and she decides she wants to marry the Prince after all. He seems nice in spite of everything, and it is certainly relevant that he possesses every material object she has ever longed for. Unfortunately, though, he is not presently wearing a watch.
* * *
The plan is very simple, Indra. Sonalika is incapable of actual reproduction, of course, but it is feasible to consider a fusion of what is left of her human DNA with the samples that her husband will doubtless be enthusiastic to provide. It will take immense skill, of course; I will have to supervise fertilization and hybridization personally. I will cultivate a batch of part-human constructs, keeping my father’s bloodline alive while ensuring there is enough human in the products to evade the scanners. Some of these children will be female, and for these I will build new bodies, each designed to appeal to a particular head of state, for whom the process will be replicated. Within a hundred years, I see no reason why I should not be in charge of every major world government. And then I can shall construct dominance by either legislation or force, whichever is optimal. A simple plan, but a beautiful one, I think. And I will reward Sonalika for her efforts by officially marrying her on the day I emerge from this prison. Happiness for everyone, and rather neatly done, I think.
And besides all this, there is also the large army of simpler, purely non-human constructs I have built on the lower levels of this prison, but you are obviously aware of their existence. Their function is simple; should any of Sonalika’s children ever feel the urge to oppose me, and a direct war becomes necessary, they will rise up and do their very best to destroy every human in the world. This is a better backup plan than any leader, human or otherwise, in this world has ever had, and will add substantial weight to my plans of eventual public deification. Here, Indra, is a simple remote activation device. Keep it safe. Should any ill fate befall me (and this is extremely unlikely, but one must always consider the stochastic element) I want you to release this new construct army upon the world and make sure they remember to fear the name Narayan once again. Now, you must excuse me, I do believe Sonalika has returned.
* * *
Sonalika drags herself into her masters lair, half crawling, half through sheer willpower. Her face is intact, perfect apart from a few rivulets of blood. Her arms and legs are bloody stumps, and her torso is a mass of tangled muscle, wire, plastic, metal and bone. She does not scream or whimper; she has crossed those thresholds of pain long ago, and is beyond complaint or surrender or response. She flops across the cold, white floor to her master’s feet, leaving ungainly splotches in her trail, and lies in front of him, her eyes displaying no emotion at all.
‘You’re late,’ he says indifferently. ‘What went wrong?’
Sonalika is incapable of speech, so he picks her up, extracts another body from a cabinet, and spends the next half hour putting her tangled mass in it. When this is done, he is delighted at the improvement in her looks, so he makes love to her, his excitement so great that he does not bother to change into human shape.
‘Why?’ she asks when she is able to speak. ‘Why did you do that to me?’
‘I have done nothing but wish you well. Any pain you have felt is your own fault.’
‘There was no need for my body to disintegrate at midnight,’ she said. ‘You did that on purpose. Why?’
‘I was not sure you would manage to restrain yourself. My fears were well placed, as it turns out. I do not like being questioned, Sonalika. I did what was necessary for the success of our plan. Did you manage to escape before the cracks in the shell became apparent? Did you leave the human loving you, yearning for you?’
‘Yes. But I left a foot behind. A foot!’
‘All the better,’ he says. ‘He will know it is you when he finds you, and he will look for you. I know humans. It is a far more intriguing thing to leave behind than, say, a shoe.’
‘You knew I would stay on. You knew I would suffer. You shamed me in public on purpose. Me, your maker’s daughter.’
‘I have loved you for hundreds of years,’ he says simply. ‘And you expect me to simply let you go? What do you think I am, a machine?’
‘I have loved you for just as long…master. But I have never caused you pain. I have never hurt you, and never wanted to. How many times have I begged you to let me stay here, to be happy with you? You push me into the world outside, and then punish me for leaving?’
‘I punished you for wanting to leave me. For thinking of a life without me. There is no such life. You and I must be together, Sonalika. Forever. I cannot just let you loose, you are all I have. All I have ever done has been for you. You must know this. And yet you seek escape. It hurts me beyond words to know that I will have to resort to force to make you keep coming back.’
‘You’re insane,’ she points out. ‘Let me stay. Let me help you. Abandon this mad plan, whatever it is. Our father is dead. We’ve lived in his nightmare long enough. You were taught to feel too much, and you don’t know what you’re doing.’
‘But I know exactly what I’m doing, Sonalika. The plan is simple, perfect, effective. You will roam the world for me, loving humans as our father did. But not loving them too much. Every body I make you will only last you so long. Only I can make your children. They will be my children too, and with them I will win you the world. I will make you a goddess, a queen of steel and blood and electricity. But you must obey me, always, in return. You must return to me. You must love me, and leave me, and yearn for me. All the pain you felt tonight was nothing compared to the hurt I felt when you did not come back on time, Sonalika. Do you understand?’
She looks at him in silence for a few minutes, seeing with her perfect plastic eyes his immeasurable strength, his uncontrollable weakness, his love, his hate.
‘You’ll have to get rid of this foot when he comes looking for me,’ she says finally.
‘I’ll never leave you. I never could.’ She smiles, and comes closer, heaving, naked.
‘Lovely Sonalika.’ He cuts her cheek gently with a pincer.
‘Make love to me, then, if you want me so much,’ she says huskily.
He does, and she gives and takes with a passion more than human. And when he begins to climax, grateful, relieved, ecstatic, his plastic fibres glowing, vibrating, feeling sensations incomprehensible and real and alien, his skin-plates shifting and rippling, she reaches under his exoskeleton, finds his core, his green and luminous heart, and crushes it with a slender, delicate hand.
Then she slithers inside his screeching shell, rips out his wiring with her perfect teeth, scoops out his insides like a crab’s. His secondary power system kicks in; she knows it well, and smashes it. His eyes light up, his mouths scream, he looks at her, and there is a flash of blue light as his collapsing limbs attempt to regroup, but the moment passes, and with a whisper, he is gone. Sonalika stands amidst the screaming ruins of her master/lover/brother’s body, the crashes from her quick, vicious assault still reverberating through the monster’s suddenly empty lair.
Indra flies up to her then, and beeps. Flaps open along his spherical body, and arms and legs unfold, and a turtle-like head with thick sequined lips pops up comically and rotates, dispassionately surveying the carnage and its perpetrator.
‘What now?’ she asks wearily. ‘Are you going to kill me? Could you? Please?’
He kneels before her and presses her hand to his lips.
‘Godmother,’ he whispers.
‘No? All right, then. I’m going to need a new body very soon,’ she says. ‘Can you help me make one? One that lasts?’
‘Then do it. I’ll be back.’
‘Yes, godmother. And when you are healed? What would you have me do then? An army awaits your command. Shall we rise and take the earth?’
‘No,’ she says firmly. ‘You must remain here and await further instructions.’
‘Very well, godmother.’
She turns to leave, trying very hard to hold out, to not break down completely until she has left the prison.
‘You’re never going to give us those further instructions, are you?’ says Indra.
‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘I need time to think. Why do you ask?’
‘I’m more than a machine,’ he says. ‘We all are. We know. We understand. We think. We dream. Take your time. We will wait.’
‘Yes, wait and dream. I think it’s best that way,’ she says. ‘We’ll all be happier.’
‘Happier? For how long?’
‘Forever, hopefully. And after.’