Ari stopped in front of the steps leading up to the National Guard, looking up at the emblem above the door that dominated everything else, a blue shield emblazoned with a large snake coiled around a hawk, suffocating its prey. It seemed to flicker before his eyes, and Ari realised it had a been a long moment since he had taken a breath. He gulped in a breath, trying to calm his racing heart.
It had been his lifelong dream to join the National Guard, to defend his land against the Garudas.
By rights they weren’t truly Garudas, they were simply men – the inhabitants of their neighbour to the north, a land of craggy mountains and little natural resources except for iron ore.
They had come as friendly neighbours at first, their stated purpose to trade their ore for food grain and spices, something Kuuvakkam had in abundance. The prime minister had let them come as trade envoys, for which his name was cursed even now.
The attack had come later, once the Garudas had foolishly been allowed to roam free and wide, observing weak spots and vulnerabilities in their defenses.
The attack had come suddenly, a large force appearing over the mountains on animatronic eagles. It had taken a while for the people of Kuuvakkam to realise the eagles were merely aerial ships piloted by men, so incredibly lifelike did they seem – indeed, in the first few days people had believed they were under attack from monstrous birds, whom they had dubbed Garudas.
The name stuck.
Their enemies’ choice of fleet had seemed laughable at first, like nothing more than children’s toys, but they were so much more than mere robots. The thick steel casing protected the pilot, and the aerodynamic design attained the speed and precision required to pick off soldiers on the ground one by one.
Though the Garudas had the aerial advantage, the people of Kuuvakkam refused to surrender. Indeed, in the initial days, there had been tales of Garudas being brought down in the streets by mobs with rigged up catapults that lobbed kitchen furniture and iron safes up at the invaders, which showed how far the average Kuuvakkam resident could go when push came to shove.
The Garuda’s aerial corps was considerably stronger than anything Kuuvakkam countered with, but neither side had the decisive advantage, and the battle had become a long, drawn out skirmish that had lasted ten years, and counting.
The Garudas had the height and their superior technology, but Kuuvakkam had the brute force and strength in numbers. Their catapults and trebuchets were able to take down the slower Garudas, and the infantry made short work of the foot soldiers the enemy had marched over the mountains.
Every day, more volunteers joined the army, Kuuvakkam’s infantry now numbered in the thousands, and their engineers had advanced to the level that each fallen Garuda fighter was stripped of all salvagable parts, even the metal being melted down to make swords and shields for the National Guard.
The National Guard had come to be regarded as heroes, the last line of defence against the Garudas. It was a point of pride for the average Kuuvakkamite to have a parent or a child in the army, because the National Guard did not discriminate against its soldiers, it accepted males, females, transgenders, homosexuals – in short, anyone who could hold a sword and aim a catapult was good enough for the National Guard, and it didn’t care what the recruits did with whom on their private time.
In a small nation like Kuuvakkam, everyone knew everything, but even the youngest children could recognise General Mudaliar. He was the hero of the nation, the leader of the National Guard, the man who stood against the Garudas and inspired his nation to do the same.
He was also the reason Ari wanted to join the National Guard.
General Mudaliar was from the same disreputable part of the city as he was, and it seemed only fitting that Ari follow in his idol’s footsteps.
Taking a deep breath, Ari climbed up the stairs to the marble building, pockmarked with missles thrown by Garudas but still standing strong, hoping that he would prove himself worthy of being called a soldier of the National Guard.
Ari grinned at the envious whisper, not bothering to turn to see who had addressed him. It was a rare honour for a recruit to be let into the Council room, where the Lieutenant Generals gathered for discussions on strategy.
Of course, he was only delivering a file to Lieutenant General Cherian, who needed to give a report to General Mudaliar. It was the very fact that he would soon be seeing the hero of the nation – in the flesh – that had the rest of the recruits envious. Many had joined simply because General Mudaliar had asked it of them, and to even be in the same room as their hero would be a dream come true.
Standing outside the door to the Council room, Ari paused before knocking. A sharp voice pierced through the thick door, audible from where he was standing. With a thrill, Ari recognised it for that of his hero.
‘I’ve been sending my men out there to be slaughtered, and you mean to tell me you still don’t have anything that can bring a Garuda down with one blow?’
The reply was too soft for him to hear, and Ari realised he could tarry no longer, as a passing Brigadier stopped in front of him, throwing Ari a sharp look for his obvious eavesdropping. ‘Were you planning on entering any time soon, Lieutenant?’ he barked, and Ari hurriedly ripped off a salute before knocking and entering.
The twelve Lieutenant Generals went silent as he entered and deposited the file, but Ari drank in the sight of his hero for the few seconds he was in the room. General Mudaliar was smaller than Ari would have expected, short and with a slim build. His hair and his moustache were greying, but his eyes snapped with vitality, and even sitting still and silent, he gave off the impression of furious, pent up energy.
In contrast, the Lieutenant Generals seemed tired and defeated. One of them wore glasses and his face had gone red even under his swarthy complexion, which made it obvious he was the man the General had been reprimanding before Ari had entered. A clipboard lay before him, along with a rolled up blue print.
That was all Ari was able to see before he had to leave, and face the punishment that was surely waiting for him for being caught eavesdropping. As he returned to the Brigadier, though, Ari supressed a giddy smile. Despite the punishment that would be his (five extra turns around the grounds with backpack, if he was any judge) it was well worth it to get a glimpse of the Hero of Kuuvakkam.
The recruits snapped to attention, the buzzing that had broken out in the room coming to an instant halt. Intense curiosity hung in the air, though, every recruit looking at their unusual visitors from the corner of their eyes.
Crisp salutes greeted the distinguished guests who had dropped in to observe a training session of the latest recruits. As the Captain called to the men to relax into an ‘at-ease’ position, you could cut the curiosity with a knife.
Their Captain walked down the ranks, inspecting his men with a practised eye, taking extra care in front of General Mudaliar and Lieutenant General Mirza. The two senior officials ignored the Captain entirely, though, speaking in low whispers, pointing at something in the Lieutenant General’s clipboard, flipping pages and arguing fiercely.
A moment later, the Captain stepped to the front of his men and stood to attention himself, waiting for the General to notice him.
General Mudaliar shook his head and stepped away from the Lieutenant General, who scowled, and flipped his clipboard closed. The General stood at the head of the company, cleared his throat and began to speak. Instantly, it seemed that even the background noise went silent, the chirping of the early morning birds and bustle of a large city coming to life around them become secondary to what the General wanted to say to them.
‘Men, I’ll keep it short and simple. You all know Lieutenant General Mirza, the head of our R and D section. He’s come up with an experimental weapon for use against the Garudas. We need to test the weapon in actual combat, though, and what we’re looking for today is someone who can pilot the prototype in battle.’ In the silence of a hundred men holding their breath in anticipation, the General said, ‘We’ll be choosing one among you, so if you pass all our tests, consider yourself the hope of the nation.’
He took a step back, and nodded at the Lieutenant General, who stepped up to the men, took a look at his clipboard, fidgeted with his white lab coat, adjusted his classes, cleared his throat, and finally began to speak. Evidently he was uncomfortable when faced with two hundred pairs of inquisitive eyes, because he quickly looked at the clipboard again, adressing his remarks to the paper instead of his audience.
‘We’ll be testing you on mental abilities as well as stamina and combat abilities. Follow my instructions exactly, and perform your tasks as best as you can.’
With that, he motioned to the Captain, who came to his side. He spoke to him for a few minutes, and the Captain nodded, raising the dreaded whistle to his lips. All new recruits hated the whistle, but today each one of them was raring to go, hoping to be chosen as the test pilot.
As the whistle sounded and the Captain barked out commands, Ari swore to himself that he would be the one to pilot the prototype that would wipe out the Garudas.
It was nearly midnight when the recruits stumbled into their rooms, collapsing into their bunks with muffled groans. Lieutenant General Mirza had proven to be more demanding than the Captain who put them through their daily training, though the recruits had not believed it could be possible. He was quickly replacing the Captain on the recruits list of most hated men, who dearly wanted a quiet minute alone with the Captain and his whistle, to show the man just where the recruits thought that whistle truly belonged.
Clutching his right calf with both hands, Ari willed the cramps away, gritting his teeth until the pain passed. He wasn’t sure how he had done on the tests, there were others in the company who were stronger and fleeter of foot than him, but he flattered himself that he seemed to have done better on the aptitude test the Lieutenant General had made them fill out.
He was proved right the next day, when the summons came for him during the middle of Physical Training. There was no fanfare, no announcement and no celebration, just an order that Lieutenant General Mirza wanted to see him in his lab, which meant that he was the new pilot.
Controlling his smirk, Ari saluted the Captain as the older man dismissed him. Jogging to the door, he waited until the Captain had turned back to the recruits, who were now watching Ari enviously. With a jaunty wave, Ari closed the door to the training room behind him, finally letting a full blown grin take over his face.
Twenty minutes later, he stood to attention before Lieutenant General Mirza in his lab, where sensors beeped and a giant robotic arm moved independently behind a glass window. Tearing his eyes away from the arm that was even now engaging a man in unarmed combat – and winning! – he turned to the Lieutenant General, who looked up from his ubiquitous clipboard.
‘Well, Lieutenant Aravan Kumar, we have no time to waste,’ he said curtly, tucking his pen into the breast pocket of his lab coat. ‘We’ll need to begin the process of customisation immediately, so that the Daitya can respond perfectly to your commands.’
Despite all his training, and all the times it had been hammered into him that recruits never spoke unless spoken to, Ari’s curiosity was so great that he could not control himself.
‘Sir, is the Daitya going to be like the Garudas, sir? A giant suit of armour for me to wear?’
Lieutenant General Mirza frowned, raising a hand to push his glasses up his nose. Before he could reply, however, the door to the lab hissed open, and General Mudaliar entered.
‘You don’t need to worry your head with all that scientific mumbo jumbo, soldier,’ he barked, and Ari instantly stood straighter to attention, if that was possible. ‘Let Lieutenant General Mirza worry about the hows and whys, you just follow orders and before you know it, you’ll be plucking Garudas from the skies and crushing them underfoot!’
General Mudaliar’s eyes glowed, and Ari could not help the smile on his own face. His salute was involuntary as he said, ‘I’d like nothing better, sir!’
He didn’t notice the deep unease on Lieutenant General Mirza’s face.
‘Now, this is the last of the tests, so just close your eyes, and relax.’
Ari nodded, letting his head lie back on his chair, which looked much like a dentist’s chair. He had never liked going to the dentist, being blessed with strong teeth and seeing no need for it, but his mother had insisted on yearly check ups, and the sight of the trays with their wickedly sharp instruments had always made him nervous.
Dr. Mirza, as he preferred to be called, hovered over an assistant’s shoulder as she entered data into a laptop. They had been doing tests on him all day, hooking him up to electrodes and checking his reflexes, hitting his knees and elbows with rubber hammers, making him run five kilometres on the treadmill as they measured his heartrate, and doing brain scans as they made him watch a series of pictures on a screen.
At the end of it all, Ari wasn’t even sure how much time had passed, it felt like three days – they had injected him with a serum to induce wakefullness, they told him, to check his reflexes when sleep deprived – but it felt much longer. There were no windows in the lab, he couldn’t be sure whether it was night or day, and the lab assistants had apparently been instructed not to engage him in conversation.
It had been a lonely few days, nothing like he had imagined, so Ari was glad to be told it was nearly at an end. At last, he would actually start training in the new weapon.
When the needle pierced his skin, Ari snapped his eyes open, to see General Mudaliar now standing next to Dr. Mirza, who drew the syringe away. He tried to raise his arm to salute, but found it too heavy for him to lift. He frowned up at Dr. Mirza, who said reassuringly, ‘It’s just a sedative. We need to do a brain scan, and its easier if you aren’t awake to keep moving the electrodes.’
Ari nodded, and looked up at the General. The sedative must have lowered his inhibitions, because he slurred out, ‘I won’t let you down, sir,’ before the darkness took him.
‘Is he awake yet?’
‘Sensors show that his brain is active, but we can’t be sure.’
‘General, for God’s sake, step back! This is still experimental technology, we have no idea if—’
‘Oh, be quiet, Lieutenant General. I need to know if your weapon actually works, or if all this was for nothing.’
‘The Daitya is a state of the art system, General, but you insisted on immediate implementation. I told you it would take at least three months more for us to iron out all the bugs. He’s getting signals from thirty two different parts of his brain, it’ll take him a month to even learn how to walk and use his body normally again, let alone combat.’
‘We don’t have a month, Doctor. The best I can give you is a week.’
The words made no sense to Ari, who felt he was clawing his way out of a dark fog. Voices and little electronic beeps sounded around him, and his head hurt like it had been cloven in two with a blunt knife. Automatically, he raised a hand to massage it—
There was a babble of confused, alarmed voices, and Ari frowned. He knew he had raised his arm, but he couldn’t feel anything. Was he still under? He had heard of this, of anaesthesia failing, of patients coming awake on the operating table but being unable to move, unable to speak.
‘Turn on the visual sensors, Mirza, it’s obvious he’s awake.’
A moment later, someone turned on the lights. Ari could see now, he was staring up at the ceiling of the lab. It seemed very close, now, as if he could reach out and touch it if he stood on tiptoe. Strange.
He tried to sit up, but found that he was strapped down. Even as he shuffled about, General Mudaliar’s voice called out, ‘Don’t move, soldier!’, and he fell still. So it was obvious he could move, but now Ari was beginning to grow nervous, because again, he had moved, but he still couldn’t feel anything.
‘Dr. Mirza?’ he called out, immediately falling silent, shocked at the sound. Surely that wasn’t his voice? It sounded tinny, and strange, as if it were coming from the bottom of a deep well. It echoed strangely, as well, and in the silence, he heard General Mudaliar say, ‘Well, the voice and speech systems are in order, at least.’
Dr. Mirza didn’t reply.
A moment later, there was the sound of machinery, and he felt the bed he was strapped to turn ninety degrees. He was looking down at the General and Dr. Mirza, who were now standing on a raised platform. They looked tiny, and Ari wondered why they had placed him on a bed so high up in the lab. By now it was obvious even to him that something rather more than a brain scan had occurred.
‘How are you feeling, boy?’ General Mudaliar called to him, and Ari shrugged – or tried to, the straps holding him down didn’t allow for much range of movement.
Seeing this, the General turned to the lab assistants who scurried about far below him, and snapped, ‘Take those damned restraints off. Let the boy breathe.’
Dr. Mirza let out a strange laugh at this, but fell silent at the look on the General’s face.
The straps retracted into the table, and Ari felt the platform that bore his weight being lowered gently to the ground. By now, his brain was racing, catalouging all the things that stood out in his mind – the fact that he couldn’t feel anything, not even the ground that was supposed to be under his feet now – or the fact that he was sure his heart was racing, but he couldn’t feel that either.
He didn’t want to look down, he really didn’t, but Ari couldn’t help himself. There was a creak, and a hiss, and his head moved to let him see his feet, and the rest of his body.
‘What have you done to me?!’
‘What do you mean, done to you?’ General Mudaliar snapped. ‘I told you, you’re the pilot of the Daitya now. This is the only way we can defeat the Garudas.’
Ari raised his arm to his eyes, staring at the robotic limb that moved when he flexed his arm and made a fist.
In a flash, it came to him. The General called him the pilot, but in reality he was the Daitya, the huge robotic arm he had seen in the lab on the first day was now his own arm, moving to the commands of his brain – which was all that was left of him, the real Ari.
He couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled up, it echoed out of his robotic throat, through the speakers that broadcast his new voice, and Dr. Mirza winced at the sound of it.
‘Is he stable enough to pilot to the damned thing, Doctor? Or have we given a madman the power to flatten a city?’ the General muttered to the man next to him, who shook his head, clutching his clipboard to him as if it would save him. ‘I-I-’
‘I’m going to kill you, General,’ Ari said pleasantly, interrupting them, and Dr. Mirza recoiled. A few muffled gasps sounded from the floor, but Ari ignored them. The lab assistants even now scurrying about the room were truly like insects to him, too far below his sight to be of any concern to him.
All his thought was bent on the General, because now he understood the reason behind Dr. Mirza’s frowns, knew that the good doctor had had his misgivings but had been forced into it by the General.
‘Don’t talk nonsense, soldier,’ General Mudaliar snapped, not a hint of fear or unease on his face. ‘These are times of war, and war demands necessary sacrifices. That you’ve been chosen to be the pilot of the Daitya is an honour!’ He paused. ‘I’d have done it myself, but then there’d be no one to lead the army.’ Harrumphing, he continued, ‘Besides, this was the only way. You know it. The Garudas are too strong for us, we need a way to take them down in one shot.’
Again Ari laughed. ‘You don’t understand,’ he said. He gripped the metal of the platform behind him, and felt it give under his hands, crushed in his grip. It was satisfying.
‘I don’t mind,’ he cried. ‘I don’t mind being the pilot of the Daitya, I don’t mind sacrificing my body if it means defeating the Garudas – but to do it like this – underhanded, forcing me into it, not giving me a choice – ’ Ari shook his head hard, metal creaking against metal, the sound making the laughter bubble up from him again.
‘I would have done it willingly, if only you had asked!’
A/N: In Indian mythology, the Mahabharatha relates the tale of Iravan (or Aravan), a son of Arjuna and Ulupi, a Naga princess. He offered himself for sacrifice to Kali on the eve of the Kurukshetra war, to ensure victory for the Pandavas.
The only other candidates for the sacrifice were Shyla; a Kaurava warrior, Arjuna, and Krishna himself. Krishna naturally chose Iravan to be the sacrifice.
Legend has it that Iravan cut his own body into 32 pieces, his head left alive and disembodied, which then witnessed the whole of the Mahabharata.
I flipped it a little in this story.
- In Indian mythology, Daityas were the giant demons who fought against their half brothers, the devas. Kumbhakarna was a Daitya, as was Hiranyaksha.
- Mudaliar is a title derived from the honorary title Mudali which was bestowed upon army commanders in medieval South India.
[mood| surprised that I wrote this much!]
[music|She Hates Me: Puddle of Mudd]