The mountains were beautiful, even though the roads that took you there were broken. Even though the whole world was broken. Tara sat on the side of the pitted road, soaking in the autumnal sun, gazing at the distant snow-capped peaks in awe. Forgetting, for the moment, the ache in her feet and the emptiness in her stomach.
“The Sivalik Range, children,” said Anju, pointing at the green hills that rose around them. “The word literally means the ‘tresses of Shiva.’ Cross the valley, and you stand at the feet of Pir Panjal, the inner Himalayas.”
“Can we eat, Auntie?” said Tamar. “Let’s save the geography lesson for later.”
A familiar, hurt look entered their aunt’s face. Tara wanted to kick Tamar. But she felt as tired as her brother looked. It would be nice to rest and eat—if there was anything left to eat.
They had been moving for as long as Tara could remember, she and Auntie Anju and Tamar, her older brother. Traveling from field to camp to ditch to abandoned hut, driven by rumors of the Red Cross, MSF, or the World Food Programme. The rumors usually turned out to be false; when war broke out, most international aid agencies fled the Indian subcontinent—at least, the northern half of it.
But in the last few weeks—ever since they’d met the strange, one-eyed man who called himself Kashif—they hadn’t stopped at all. Anju had driven them on, a fanatical light in her eyes—in the wrong direction, north instead of south. North to the front: the constantly shifting line of Actual Ground Position, over 1900 deadly kilometers curving from Gilgit in the northwest, Siachen Glacier in the north, and Aksai Chin in the east.
They had begged for scraps of food and bartered whatever little they had until it was gone. Mostly they went on foot, sometimes in the rare truck if they could hitch a ride, and once, memorably, on a stolen bicycle. They cut across Himachal, skirting the River Beas, avoiding the toxic dump of abandoned towns along its shore. It was weird; all the other refugees were headed south. Paradise, reminded their aunt when they complained of hunger or fatigue. We’re going to find Paradise.
“Okay,” said Anju to Tamar now. “We’ll eat. But it’s important for you to know things. When I was your age, I was in Grade Nine. I studied history and geography and math.”
“When you were my age, things were normal,” said Tamar, and Tara could see the effort it cost him not to shout.
“They were not,” retorted Anju. “We were on the brink of nuclear war.”
“At least you didn’t have to beg or steal or kill someone over a piece of bread!”
“You didn’t kill anyone, that was just a dog . . .” began Anju, but Tamar turned his back and walked away.
“Let him be.” Tara put her hand on Anju’s arm as she made to follow. “He’ll be fine.”
But she wondered about that as her aunt unslung the bag from her shoulders and opened a packet of stale chapatis. Would Tamar be fine? Would any of them ever be fine again? Even if the war stopped and soldiers retreated from the borders and the UN made them all sign another treaty. As if they were naughty children, India and China and Pakistan. Naughty, deadly children who could burn down the whole world if they didn’t stop their games.
As if they could forget what had happened in Lahore and Karachi, Delhi and Mumbai. As if anyone even understood what had happened. Three countries poised on the brink of Armageddon, when suddenly forty million people vanished without a trace from their key cities—Tara’s parents among them. Governments gone, central command collapsed, and anyone left with any knowledge of the nuclear program was confronted with the existence of a new weapon, lethal beyond their dreams. Who had done it? Where were the bodies? How was it even possible?
God’s fury, said some. North Korea, said others. Aliens, whispered mad Kashif through spittle-flecked lips. Which made as much or as little sense as anything else.
Whatever it was, it had pushed the three countries back from the nuclear brink, even if it hadn’t stopped the fighting along the front.
Tamar rejoined them a little later and they ate in silence by the roadside, one chapati each spiced with a bit of precious pickle. It was nice and quiet in the sun. Tara could smell the pine trees on the hillside below, even hear a bird calling. She wished she could stretch out the moment, make it last.
But all too soon, their meager meal was finished, and Anju was on her feet. “Let’s go,” she said, brisk. “We still have a couple of hundred kilometers before we arrive in Jammu. Wouldn’t it be nice to get there before Diwali? Wouldn’t that be auspicious?”
And the fanatical light came back into her eyes, as if she saw something neither of them could.
• • • •
A day before Diwali, they arrived at the remains of Bahu Fort in the old town of Jammu, sore-footed and starving.
“We’re here,” cried Anju, waving her arms at the devastation around them. “We made it.”
Tara and Tamar stared at her. Their food was long gone, and they’d been surviving on wild berries and plants that Anju claimed were edible. The autumnal damp and the distant roar of machine guns had kept them awake most nights, shivering, huddled together for warmth. There was a deep, aching hole in Tara’s stomach that she thought would never be filled. And their aunt was acting as if they’d soon be at a feast.
“What happened here?” asked Tara, as they picked their way through the rubbled street. Empty shops gaped on either side like holes of darkness. Ahead of them, the River Tawi glinted in the midday sun. A feral dog snarled at them from behind the safety of a rock.
Anju shrugged. “What happened everywhere, I suppose. Looting. Blame. Madness. Riots.”
“Humans are stupid,” muttered Tamar.
Anju frowned at him. “We need to cross the river. The new town is on the other side, and that’s where Kashif told us to go.”
They followed her down to the banks of the Tawi and stopped short. The suspension bridge had collapsed. It hung drunkenly over the churning river, snapped cables trailing in the water like lazy black snakes.
Anju threw up her hands in disgust. “So much for Northern Command. Couldn’t they have fixed the bridge?”
“They’re probably not expecting visitors,” said Tamar, kicking a stone into the river.
“Don’t,” said Anju. “The Tawi is sacred. The story goes that the son of the Serpent King brought the river here from Kali Kundi Glacier to cure his father’s illness.”
Tamar rolled his eyes at Tara, and she knew what he was thinking. They were all sacred rivers, and all polluted as hell. Anju made a point of boiling their water before she judged it safe to drink.
“Let’s walk along the river,” said Tara before Tamar could say anything. “Maybe there’s another bridge. Maybe they’ll let us through.”
“And maybe it’s all just a story,” said Tamar. “If this place is so wonderful, how come everyone else isn’t here, clamoring to be let in?”
“It’s supposed to be a secret,” said Anju, exasperated. “I’ve only told you that about a hundred times. Captain Kashif did not lie.”
They followed their aunt, jumping over the slick black rocks on the banks of the river. Thick, dark clouds drifted across the sky, blocking the sunlight. Anju hummed, tuneless but cheerful. Tara’s heart ached. There was nothing here for them but broken houses and empty streets. What would their aunt do when she realized that?
At least it was a goal, finding Paradise. It was something to look forward to, even if it wasn’t real. It gave their mother’s sister—the last adult left in their family—something to do, apart from staring off into space, her eyes turned inward to a past that was dead and gone. And Kashif, even if he was a drunk and a liar, had defected from the fabled Jammu PARA Special Forces. Nobody even knew if the Jammu Special Ops was real. Kashif had worn a patch over his gouged-out eye and hidden his true identity from everyone else at the Meerut camp.
“Go there,” he had told them one night, his words slurred, his single remaining eye burning. “It’s like Paradise. More than enough food. Good doctors. Completely safe and normal. Everything anyone could want: books, forests, waterfalls, music, lakes, markets. Just like the Kashmir of old. But don’t tell them about me.”
“Why did you leave?” Tamar had asked, but Kashif had not replied, just rocked himself on his haunches, moaning a little, sounding like an empty vessel in the wind. Tamar and Tara kept away from him after that, but their aunt did not. “Extracting information,” she told them the next morning, and they knew better than to press her.
That was a month ago, or maybe two. It was hard to keep track of time when every day was much the same struggle to survive. There must have been a time before this wandering the edges of ragged camps, this constant hunger and fatigue. Tara could remember the sights and sounds of Diwali: the flash of firecrackers, the smell of smoke, the noise and the laughter. But Tamar told her she imagined it; she was too little to have seen a real Diwali. Maybe he was jealous of her memories. Maybe he just hated to remember that they had once had so much.
For herself, Tara liked to picture red-and-yellow boxes of sweets before she fell asleep. Sometimes she daydreamed of gujiya, the sweet dumpling made in huge batches every Diwali, although she could not recall what it tasted like. Maybe Paradise had gujiya. Why not, after all? It was as likely as anything else Kashif had said.
It began to rain, cold sheets that drenched the clothes and soaked the skin. They ran to take shelter inside the ruins of an old bus station a short distance from the river.
“It used to snow in Nainital this time of year,” said Anju, once they were inside. “When I was little. Cold wet flakes that I used to catch on the tip of my tongue. And we’d go skating on the pond when it froze over.”
Tara caught Tamar’s eye. No, don’t say anything. Let her speak. It was better that way. Sometimes Tamar interrupted their aunt, shouted at her, and made her cry. It wasn’t his fault. Wasn’t Anju’s fault either, but Tamar hated it when she talked of the past. Especially when she talked of their parents and grandparents, gone these eight years. What happened to them, Tara used to ask Anju when she was little. And then she learned not to ask, because Anju didn’t have the answers. No one did. But that didn’t stop the questions gnawing Tara’s insides. Where did they go? Are they still alive? Will they ever come back?
It wasn’t Tamar who interrupted their aunt this time. It was the sound of boots, louder than the patter of rain on the broken roof of the station. Tara shrank back next to her aunt, heart thudding inside her chest.
The door slammed open and a long, black rifle entered, followed by the man holding it. He was dressed in a faded brown-and-green pixelated pattern that Tara’s eyes skittered over. The face above the uniform was just as hard to see, helmeted and goggled in the same pattern, olive stripes on the cheeks. A light flashed on their faces and they cowered under the soldier’s scrutiny.
“Civilians,” he said, in a tone between disgust and boredom, and switched off the light. But he still kept the rifle trained on them.
Another uniformed figure pushed past him, this one unmistakably female. “Or spies,” she said. “You, get up. Hands where I can see them.”
They stood and raised their hands, Anju pushing them behind her as if that would somehow protect them. “We aren’t spies,” she said, and Tara was proud of the way she spoke, firm and calm. “And you know we have no weapons. Your scanner would have caught them.”
“Shot a family of four two weeks ago,” said the woman. “Came in across the border, with explosives strapped on their chests. Even the baby.”
Tara shuddered. Had people always been like this? For all her reminiscing, Anju had been vague on that point.
“Please,” said Anju, “we’re just refugees looking for shelter and food.”
“Then why are you here?” demanded the woman. “We’re thirty kilometers from the Pakistani front, and the damned Chinese nipping at our heels. Civilians were evacuated years ago.”
“We’re looking for Paradise.” The words spilled out before Tara could stop herself. Beside her, her aunt stiffened. Tamar shot her a warning look.
“What?” said the man.
“Paradise, you idiot,” said the woman. She quoted, “If there is a paradise on earth, it is here it is here it is here. Amir Khusrau, thirteenth century, Persian poet extraordinaire.”
“Oh, that’s a good one,” said the man. “Paradise. Well, maybe it was once, but Kashmir is hell now, at least for me.”
“It’s what you deserve,” said the woman.
The man gave a mock bow. “You and me both, Bird. You and me both.”
“But these people,” the woman pointed her rifle at them, “they’re going to Paradise. The real Paradise. Well, folks, you’ll have to die first.”
“Sorry,” said Tara, although her throat was clogged with fear. “That’s just our name for it. It’s not really called Paradise.” The soldiers studied her, their bodies held in relaxed readiness by years of training and neural enhancements. How little it took to die. Tara swallowed hard.
“We heard about a special camp in Jammu,” said Anju, gripping her shoulders. “A safe place.”
“And who told you about this place?” The man’s voice was casual, but Tara was not fooled.
Anju made a vague gesture. “We were given directions by a man we met at the Meerut camp. Tall, fair-skinned, one-eyed.”
She was selling out Kashif. Maybe that was what she had planned to do right from the start, but Tara couldn’t help feeling bad for him. Deserters were shot, Kashif had told them.
Something passed between the two soldiers: a private communication through their optico-neural implants, Tara guessed, combined with silent finger-talk.
“Come on,” said the woman. “Our CO wants a chat with you.”
“Will we get food?” asked Tamar as they left the station. “Do you get anything special to eat on Diwali?”
The woman laughed, a not-pleasant sound. “I’m surprised no one’s eaten you yet,” she said. “And instead of fire crackers, you’ll probably hear gunshots.”
Not even Tamar had an answer to that.
• • • •
The woman was Bird and the man was Tiger. They had no other names to distinguish them, no insignias to denote rank. But the way Tiger deferred to Bird, Tara knew she must be senior to him. The rain had stopped, and they walked along the river, feet squelching in the mud. Tara wished she still had her boots, but she’d outgrown them, and they’d been bartered for food like everything else. All she had were torn canvas slip-ons, a size too large. They were wet and muddy, and her feet hurt, and she’d have blisters tonight.
They stopped in front of a narrow bridge where Bird conferred with the guards before they were allowed to cross. On the other side of the river was a tall barbed wire fence with a sentry checkpoint. A broad strip of denuded land separated this from another fence with watchtowers on top. Robots patrolled this strip, metal animals on wheels and treads, and any other time Tara would have loved to stay and watch them. But Bird and Tiger hurried them along, occasionally poking them with a rifle butt, which Tara thought mean and unnecessary. As if they really were prisoners or spies.
They were taken to a long two-story brick building, marched along a corridor, and halted in front of a plain wooden door that swung open for them.
Inside was a massive desk, screen-covered walls, and, sitting at the desk, one of the largest men Tara had ever seen. He was dressed in a uniform similar to Bird and Tiger, but he didn’t have a helmet or goggles, so Tara could see his face: bald, dark brown, and broken-nosed, with thick eyebrows that met in the middle of his forehead, giving him the appearance of an almost comical villain. Unlike Bird and Tiger, he was old. At least forty-five, Tara decided.
“Good afternoon,” he said in a deep, pleasant voice. He waved a hand at the chairs on the other side of his desk. “Sit, sit. I trust Bird has been nice to you so far? If not, don’t worry. Her squawk is worse than her slash.”
“Hahaha,” said Bird, sour, and Tara understood that this was an oft-repeated joke, designed to put people at ease.
They sat down, their aunt in the middle and Tara and Tamar on either side, the two soldiers standing behind them.
“Candy?” said the bald man, and he pushed a bowl of little red-and-white balls toward them. “You can call me Wolf,” he added.
They each took one candy. It was sweet and hard and minty, and Tara longed to take another, but she didn’t. She sucked the candy, sweetness exploding at the back of her tongue.
“Now,” said Wolf, leaning back comfortably on his chair and beaming at them, “why don’t you tell me all about yourselves. Tiger will get us some of his fantastic tea. And biscuits. Would you like biscuits?”
“We’d love biscuits,” said Anju.
Tiger left; Bird stayed, stiff and silent behind them.
Anju began to speak, halting at first and then faster, the words spilling out as if they had been dammed up inside her. “I’m Anju. These are my sister’s children, Tara and Tamar. They were just two and five when that thing happened in Delhi. We were in Nainital for the summer, but somebody died—I don’t even remember who—and everyone had to go to Delhi for the funeral. I stayed behind with the kids . . .”
Tara shut her out. On the other side of Anju, she could sense Tamar clenching and unclenching his hands. Poor Tamar, three years older than her, and with so many more memories of a normal world. Or at least, more normal than this one. Surely Tamar could remember Diwali. Surely, he had once held a sparkler in excited toddler hands.
“Tara? Answer him, please.”
Tara jerked back to attention to find Wolf watching her with a smile that did not go all the way to his eyes. “Sugar?” he asked.
“Yes, please,” said Tara. He put two teaspoons of sugar in a cup and passed it to her. She sipped it, hot and sweet and spicy. If the soldiers were going to kill them, they wouldn’t be wasting tea and sugar on them. Sugar was precious, tea even more so. People in camps had fought over tea, died for it. Tara reached for a glucose biscuit, dipped it in her tea, and took a small bite. It melted on her tongue.
“Tell me about this man Kashif,” said Wolf, pouring a steaming cup for himself. “One-eyed, you said?”
“Yes,” said Anju. She hesitated. “He told me he paid a nurse to remove the implant in his left eye, so no one could track him.”
“We have other ways of tracking,” said Wolf. “Go on.”
She shrugged. “Nothing much to add. He told us to come here, said there was plenty of food and clean water. Told us it was safe, even though it was so close to the border. Said no one got sick here, and it had everything anyone could want: books and trees and flowers.”
Surprise flashed across Wolf’s face, there and gone in an instant. The first genuine emotion Tara had seen in him.
“He was drunk at the time,” Anju added quickly. “He sounded crazy, to be honest. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. But I thought . . .” her voice trailed away.
What did you think, Auntie? Tara wondered. Did you think we could make it true by wanting it?
But Wolf seemed to understand. “I’m sorry to disappoint you,” he said. “But there’s no ‘Paradise’ here. Did he tell you about our visitor?” Said in such a casual tone, like an after-thought.
Anju froze. Wolf nodded. “He did, didn’t he? And he warned you not to talk about it.”
She clenched the tabletop. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said, but her voice shook, and Tara wanted to hold her, tell her she’d done her best.
“Please,” said Wolf. “Don’t insult my intelligence. We have many ways of making people talk, ranging from the unpleasant to the horrific. I suggest you tell me everything you know.”
Behind them, Bird cracked her knuckles.
Anju opened and shut her mouth a few times. Wolf nodded encouragingly.
“He said there were aliens,” she said at last, still in that shaky voice that made Tara want to cry. “The aliens vanished everyone in Delhi and Mumbai and all those other cities in Pakistan and China. They drove people crazy. But they were beautiful, the most beautiful thing he had ever known, and when they sang, he could see the entire universe.” She stopped and wiped her forehead. “That’s all I know. I tried asking him more questions, but he didn’t answer.”
Tara stared at her aunt, biscuit forgotten. This was why Anju had dragged them all the way here. She’d never really believed in Paradise at all. But she’d believed in the aliens. As if aliens could help them survive the war or bring back the vanished. All of Tara’s sympathy evaporated, replaced by a cold fury.
Wolf tapped his fingers on the desk, gazing at them out of dark pebble eyes. “What am I to do with you?” he mused. “Your friend ‘Kashif’ is being apprehended as we speak and will be dealt with appropriately. Bird, do we have precedence for this situation?”
“Yes sir,” said Bird. “We euthanize dangerous civilians.”
“Please don’t hurt the children,” said Anju, barely able to get the words out. “We’ll go away and never tell anyone. Please. We just wanted food, a place of safety . . .”
“Shut up, Auntie,” said Tamar. His voice, cold and cutting, shocked Tara. “Can’t you see what they’re doing? If they wanted to kill us, we’d already be dead. They want us for something.” He turned to Wolf. “So why don’t you cut the crap and tell us what you want? Or kill us if you wish. But stop bullying my aunt. Is this what the Indian armed forces have come to? My grandfather fought in the Kargil war. I’m glad he’s dead, that he didn’t see this day, or he’d have died of shame.”
Silence. Wolf’s face swelled, as if he was harboring an inner explosion. After a few moments, his expression cleared. “If you make it to eighteen, consider enlisting,” he said. “I can see a future for you in Special Forces. We need thinking warriors.”
Tamar laughed, a bitter sound. “I don’t see a future for myself at all. And if I survive, I’d rather be figuring out how to grow more food than how to kill more people.”
“Good,” said Wolf. “We need agricultural scientists too.” He rose from his desk. “I’m going to cut the crap, as you so succinctly put it. Come with me. I want to show you something.”
Tara gulped down the last of her tea and got up with the others. They followed Wolf out of the office and along a corridor until they arrived at a steep flight of stairs up to the second level.
“Sir,” said Bird, her voice sharp with disbelief, “you’re taking them to the loony bin?”
Wolf shook a finger at her. “The Wellness Room, Bird. The Wellness Room. I want them to know what they’re getting into. I want a fully aware volunteer, not an unwilling prisoner.”
They climbed the stairs behind Wolf, filled with trepidation. Tamar squeezed Tara’s hand, and she flashed him a smile. I’m okay, that smile said, even though she wasn’t.
The entire second level had been converted into a hospital, blue-lit and lined with cubicles. The windows had been boarded up. Nurses scurried about and a doctor bent over a touchpad, taking notes.
But the men and women lying on the beds in their separate cubicles didn’t appear to be ordinary patients. A few were shouting or moaning. Most just lay without moving, as if asleep, except Tara could see that their eyes were open. All of them had been restrained.
“Twenty men and sixteen women,” said Wolf, harsh. “Soldiers, civilians, scientists, linguists, and one pair of identical twins. We have tried every kind of human, except a child.”
“Tried what?” asked Tamar.
“To speak with our visitor,” answered Wolf. “But it is either unwilling or unable to communicate effectively. We have tried robots. We have tried every human art. We have tried . . .” his face spasmed, “pain. Starvation. It seems to need radiation to survive.”
“What’s wrong with these people?” whispered Tara.
Wolf shrugged. “We do not know. Physically they are fine. But their minds are gone. How old are you?”
“Almost eleven,” said Tara, caught off-balance.
“No,” burst out Anju. “You can’t be thinking that. You can’t experiment on a child!”
Wolf gave a humorless smile. “This is a war zone.” Fear stirred within Tara, small and fluttery.
“Try me instead,” said Anju, gripping his arm. “I volunteer. Please, I want to do this.”
Wolf shook her hand off, a mixture of pity and contempt on his face. “You would be no use to us. And you,” he jerked his chin at Tamar, “you’re too old already, I think. But the girl might work. Kids’ brains are organized differently from adults—something to do with how the different parts connect with each other. It’s a small chance, worth trying. At least, that’s what our neurologist has been saying.”
Tara’s throat was dry. “What happened to Kashif?” she asked.
“He escaped,” said Wolf. “I had high hopes of him. He was one of my best. He lasted the longest of them all: four hours with the entity. He told us the little we know.”
Tara recalled Kashif—his mumbling and rocking, the way he constantly looked over his shoulder, all that talk of Paradise—and shuddered. If that was what had happened to their best, what would it do to her? She looked at the men and women on the hospital beds, feeling sick.
“What do you say?” said Wolf, a hungry look in his eyes.
“Does she have a choice?” demanded Tamar.
“Of course,” said Wolf. “If she says no, we will find another child.”
And disappear us, thought Tara. For all his talk of volunteering, Wolf held their lives in his meaty hand. “I’d like some time to think,” she said. “We haven’t had a decent meal in days.”
“Of course,” said Wolf, flashing his teeth. “Tiger, take them to the mess, make sure they eat. Get them to Medical and find them a room.” He nodded to Tara. “I will brief you in the morning.”
Tiger herded them down the stairs and out the building. Anju wept in silence all the while. Tara’s fury with her aunt had subsided somewhat. Poor Auntie, perhaps a little of Kashif’s madness had rubbed off on her.
They arrived at the mess, and a soldier dumped steaming platefuls of food in front of them, and Tara forgot everything else. Hot fresh chapatis, spicy potatoes, green lentils, even a soy curry. It was almost worth it, whatever she had to do to earn this food for herself and her family. Anju and Tamar ate with as much relish as she did, and they all had second helpings.
When they had finished, Tiger took them back to the building, to a large room that stank of antiseptic. A nurse performed a quick check, tut-tutting as she took their weight, blood pressure, and blood samples.
After the check-up, Tiger led them to a small, clean room on the other side of the building. It had foam mattresses, blankets, and a heater. “Rest,” he told them. “There’s a bathroom down the hall.”
When he had gone, Tamar peered out of the door. “No guards,” he reported. “Not that they’d let us walk out of here.”
Tara collapsed on a mattress, kicked off her canvas shoes, and massaged her aching feet. Of course they wouldn’t. They’d have cameras tracking their every move. “Why would you want to leave?” she said. “Real food, warm blankets, an actual bathroom. This is our Paradise.” Not able to keep the anger out of her voice.
“Tara . . .” Anju drew a deep, sobbing breath. “I am so sorry.”
“Sorry isn’t getting us out of this,” said Tara. “I am.”
“What do you mean?” Tamar narrowed his eyes. “You can’t seriously be thinking of doing what that madman wants?”
“Auntie was willing to do it,” said Tara. “And not just to save me. Why did you bring us here, Auntie?”
Anju exhaled. She was quiet for a moment. “I don’t know,” she said at last. “But when Kashif told me about the aliens, I thought: There’s something bigger out there, not human, something intelligent and alive and unknowable. We’re not alone, and the universe is not about us, has never been about us. And maybe these beings, whatever they are, know our past, our future. Maybe they have answers.” She put her head in her hands. “I didn’t think about you two. Didn’t realize I was putting you in danger.”
A jolt went through Tara. “You think Kashif was right? The aliens disappeared Mama and Papa and all those other people?”
“Listen to yourself,” said Tamar. “You want to end up in their loony bin?”
“It’s a small chance, worth taking,” said Tara. “That’s what he said.”
Tamar shook his head. “Not worth risking your life to get answers for Wolf.”
Not for Wolf. For myself.
“I will think of Diwali,” said Tara. She lay down on the mattress and pulled a blanket up to her chin. Her eyes felt heavy. How lovely to sleep, safe and warm, no need for taking turns to stay awake, on guard against wild animals and humans. If only every night could be like this.
Anju lay down next to her, and Tamar sat at the foot of the mattress. “Today is small Diwali,” said their aunt softly, “and tomorrow is Big Diwali, the most auspicious day in the Hindu calendar. Did I ever tell you why we celebrate this festival?”
“Only about a hundred times,” said Tara. Tamar snorted with laughter. “But tell us again,” she said. “Tell us about the sweets and the firecrackers.”
“The sweets and the firecrackers used to come later,” said Anju. “First, we had to clean the house, bathe, and wear nice clothes. Then the priest used to come, and we’d have to listen to the story of Ram and Sita and Lakshman, and how they were banished from the kingdom of Ayodhya by their stepmother, Queen Kaikeyi. How Rama defeated the evil demon Ravana and returned in triumph to Ayodhya with Sita and Lakshman, and how the people lit lamps to welcome them back. Ever since then, we light lamps on this day to celebrate the triumph of good over evil.”
“Will the soldiers light lamps?” murmured Tamar.
“Maybe they’ll let us light a lamp,” said Tara. If I’m still alive, I’d like to light a lamp.
The enormity of it sank into her then, what she had decided to do, and what might happen to her.
Long after the other two were asleep, Tara lay awake, trying to remember what the world had been like before it broke.
• • • •
Bird came for her in the morning—early, before the other two had woken up. It was better that way; it spared them all any last-minute drama from Auntie. But still, Tara felt a pang as she rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and tiptoed out of the room, blanket wrapped around her shoulders against the dawn chill. She was leaving without saying goodbye, and who was to say she’d ever see them again? Or know them again?
Halfway down the corridor, Bird stopped. “You don’t have to do this,” she said. “We won’t hurt your family if you refuse.” Her face, free of the goggles and the camouflage markings, was young, plain and stern.
“But you can’t just let us go,” said Tara.
“We’ll probably have to keep your aunt,” said Bird. “But if you agree to an implant, we could transport you and your brother to a camp on the southern tip of India—as far from the front as possible. You might be able to go to school there.”
“Why are you telling me this?” asked Tara. Why are you pretending to be on my side?
Bird’s face twisted, just for a moment, before becoming a mask again. “The man you called Kashif was my partner,” she said. “He’s Kashmiri—did you know that?”
No, she hadn’t known, of course.
“His family was among those evacuated from the valley before the riots,” said Bird. “So many refused to leave. So many we had to force out at gunpoint. What I’m saying is, Kashif risked his life and sanity for this land. He knew what he was getting into. You don’t.”
Her eyes unfocused. “Yes, sir,” she muttered. “No, of course not. We’re coming.”
She turned and strode down the corridor, Tara running to keep up with her.
“Is he mad at you?” asked Tara, but Bird did not respond.
Wolf was waiting for them in his office. He dismissed Bird curtly and offered Tara a cup of lemon tea. She accepted, although she was too nervous to drink it.
“Excited?” he asked, rubbing his hands. “I am.”
Tara put down her cup. “Promise me you’ll take care of them. No matter what happens to me.”
“Of course,” said Wolf, looking affronted. “We’ll find work for them to do right here. They’ll earn their keep. Your brother is sharp and capable. Your aunt—well, I’m sure she can be useful too.”
“She can tell stories,” said Tara. “She knows a lot of things, history and geography and math. She knows which plants are safe to eat.”
Wolf held up a hand. “Don’t worry about them. We’ll take care of them, I promise. You focus on what you have to do.”
Tara hesitated. This was it, her last chance to back off, to try and escape from the trap Wolf had spun.
And what then? The questions would continue to eat her with their acid teeth for the rest of her life. Where are my parents? What happened to them?
“Tell me about the aliens,” she said at last.
And he told her.
Eight years ago, when the government vanished and cities emptied, panic spreading throughout the country, a still-functioning ISRO centre one hundred kilometers north of Chennai had detected a hitherto-unseen object in orbit around Mars.
“How big?” asked Tara.
“Bigger than this entire camp,” he answered. “NASA says it’s still out there. They’ve sent three probes, and all three vanished before leaving Earth orbit.”
Tara shivered. “They’re powerful.”
“In a way we cannot imagine,” said Wolf. “Now NASA is sending a crewed spacecraft. Will the presence of humans make any difference? Will they be able to communicate? Nobody knows.”
“But you have one of the aliens here,” said Tara. “Where did it come from?”
“After detecting the object around Mars, ISRO tracked the movement of a smaller craft heading toward Earth, specifically toward Srinagar,” said Wolf. “They alerted Northern Command, which evacuated the city. My unit was despatched to intercept the craft when it arrived.”
“What happened?” asked Tara, fascinated despite herself.
“It crashed,” said Wolf. “Near as we can tell, only one of them survived: our ‘visitor.’ We escorted it here and have kept it ever since—a secret from friends and enemies alike.”
“Then you’ve kept it a prisoner!” cried Tara. “Why?”
“We need to know what happened in Delhi, in Lahore, in Beijing,” said Wolf. “Did they do it, and if so, why? What do they want? Why are they even here?” He rose. “Come, it is time.”
Tara went with him. She didn’t feel scared any more. She felt sorry for the alien. Cut off from the rest of its family for eight long years, it must be lonely. At least she had her aunt and brother.
Wolf took her down a flight of stairs to the basement, where a couple of guards saluted before opening a heavy metal door. Motion sensor lights flicked on, and they went down another steep flight of stairs.
“Why so deep underground?” asked Tara. The weight of the earth pressed down on her.
“It’s a bomb shelter,” said Wolf. “The safest place we could think of to keep it. Plus, we can control the radiation here.”
They arrived at a room that appeared to be partitioned by strips of heavy, translucent material. Wolf took off his boots and signalled Tara to do the same. “Decontam. We don’t want our microbes infecting our visitor. Just step through.”
Tara followed him through the partition, her bare feet cold on the concrete floor. Inside, a fine spray misted over them. Tara squeezed her eyes shut, but it didn’t hurt. After a few minutes, the spray stopped, and Wolf led her out.
The final set of doors had a combination lock and a retinal scan. Guards moved aside while Wolf keyed in the codes and leaned into the camera. When the door swung open to reveal an airlock, he stepped back and propelled her in.
“Good luck,” he said. “We’ll be watching.”
The door closed behind Tara and she was engulfed in darkness. For a moment, she panicked.
Then the door in front of her slid open and the quality of the darkness changed. She stepped into a vast space, blinking hard, trying to see. Because there was light in the distance: a diffuse white light that shifted and moved so fast she couldn’t really focus on its source.
You remind me of the lights of Diwali, she thought, struggling to squash the terror that rose within her. Do you know, today is the biggest festival in India? Except, not many people will be celebrating. Maybe they’ll pray to Lakshmi and Ganesh. Those who are lucky enough to have food will eat together. And those who’re really, really lucky will light a lamp and dream of better days. I’d like to light a lamp. I’d like to remember the face of my mother.
The light slowed and coalesced into a form, tall and thin and many-limbed. Like a giant jellyfish floating in air, it drifted toward her.
Tara opened her mouth to scream, but . . .
Her mother bends toward her and smiles. “Don’t be afraid, darling,” she says. “Look at the pretty colors.” She closes Tara’s chubby little fist over the sparkler. Tara whirls it in the air, giggling with delight.
“Careful,” says her father. “Keep it away from your dress.”
“Can I light a rocket?” asks Tamar. “Please please?”
Their father laughs. “Let me show you how,” he says.
He puts a long, slim rocket in a bottle, pointing straight up to the starry sky. He lights the fuse and backs off. The rocket sizzles and whooshes into the air, accompanied by their happy screams.
Tara’s sparkler burns out. “More!” she says. Her mother hands her another lighted sparkler, and it lasts longer than the first one, throwing bright green and yellow sparks that fly into the night, dispelling the dark.
Tara sat down, dizzy and sick. Diwali, eight years ago. She remembered, now, every detail of that beautiful day. She remembered her mother’s face.
“Thank you,” she said, although it was difficult to speak with that lump in her throat, and nausea rising like a black tide within her. Her head began to throb and her skin prickled.
The alien drifted closer. It shone brighter than before, as if it had taken some of her Diwali memories and polished itself to a greater brilliance. It was hard to look at, like looking at a bit of sun.
“They want to know if you did it.” Tara shielded her eyes, swallowing the bile in her throat. “I have to tell them something.” And I have to know too. What did you do to my parents and all those other poor people?
The alien vanished. Tara was jerked like a fish at the end of a hook, up and away from the room. She found herself flying in a lavender sky, looking down at a vast patchwork of rectangular fields. The tip of a red sun peeped over the horizon. Overhead, two small moons shone crimson, blurring the stars in the unfamiliar sky. Dark canals threaded the landscape below. People—insect-like at this distance—bent over the fields, ploughing, carrying, furrowing. Who are they?
Tara plunged down with dizzying speed and stopped with a jolt just above the ground. She hovered in front of a crude hut that stood by itself at the edge of a field. Yellow light shone from within; she floated toward it, unable to stop herself.
Inside, six or seven people sat at a rough-hewn table. A middle-aged woman served everyone some sort of soup and bread. Her face was turned away from Tara, but Tara knew who it was, knew even before her mother glanced at the window and gave her a tender smile. So deeply familiar, so utterly alien.
Tara came back to the dark room, gasping, her mind reeling from the impossibility of what she had just seen. It took a while to remember where she was, who she was. The light had diffused once more, dancing just beyond her vision at the edges of the room.
Focus, she had to focus. Forget the faces she had just seen, ignore her own feelings: joy and hurt and betrayal in equal measure, as if it was their fault, whatever had happened. Do you miss me, Mama?
Unless it was a lie, like the lies Kashif had told himself, told them. If there is a Paradise on earth, it is here it is here it is here.
No, that was some old poet. Not Kashif. She was getting confused. Tara pressed her palms to her forehead, as if she could still the hammering that threatened to split her in two. Just a few more minutes. She summoned all her strength, and said, “They’re not dead? You put them somewhere else? Why?”
White light spun in front of her into the shape of a wheel, a hexagon, a sphere, a cube with far too many sides to make sense of. Numbers scrolled, an endless series of zeros and ones. Perhaps they meant something; perhaps Wolf and his scientists would be able to decipher them. But they hurt Tara’s eyes, and it was all she could do not to crawl away from there, away from it.
“Why?” she repeated, desperate.
Another hook digging into her, jerking her up as she flailed and tried not to scream. Not again.
And now she hovered above a room full of old men with grave faces. One hawkish, bespectacled face she recognized; it still adorned dilapidated billboards in abandoned towns and peeling posters in transit stations. The last prime minister of India, the one who vanished along with his entire cabinet.
A turbaned man leaned toward the prime minister-that-was. “Sir, we have a no-first-use policy.”
“That is what they exploit,” the prime minister said. “That is what they count on.”
Another man spoke, “Each time, they go further. Last year, another attack on our Parliament. This year, terrorists in Mumbai. Last week, PNRA successfully conducted yet another nuclear test.”
“The Americans . . .” began the turbaned man.
“Will do nothing to stop them,” finished the second man. “Prime Minister, what have we built our weapons for if not to defend ourselves? Are we going to wait until they launch their missiles at us?”
The scene faded, slowly this time, the men still speaking, still gesticulating. Overlaid on the fading scene were newspaper headlines, big blaring headlines with the words “nuclear threat” and “end of the world” plastered on them.
Tara lay on the floor, unable to move. She closed her eyes, willing the room to stop spinning. Pins and needles pricked her skin, like spiders crawling, biting her. Is this how Kashif had felt before he went crazy? Would she go crazy too? She needed to tell them what she knew first; she needed to tell them what the aliens had done, how they had averted nuclear war. How they would leave one day, without warning, just the way they had come.
She wet her lips. “Do you miss home?” she said, her voice thin and cracked.
An intense feeling of loneliness stole over her, overlaid with the purposefulness of mission, and the sense of self-sacrifice.
I’m sorry, thought Tara, no longer able to shape words with her lips. Maybe you can take me with you when you decide to leave. Tamar and Auntie too.
But it did not answer, did not appear before her again. Perhaps it hurt the alien to talk to her, as much as it hurt her to listen.
All right. I’ll come back later, if they let me. If I’m still able to.
She rose, fell, and rose again. The door opened at her touch. In the airlock she collapsed on the floor and vomited the remains of yesterday’s meal.
When they tried to pick her up, she pushed them away and got to her feet, swaying. Her eyes sought out Wolf.
“I would like,” she told him, “to light a lamp.”
Because the darkness was dispelled, and good would triumph over evil, no matter how many demons rose from the shadows that hid within human hearts.
It was something to believe in.