Science Fiction & Fantasy

lightspeed-728x90-burstsoffire

Advertisement

Fiction

The Moon Is Not a Battlefield

We’re recording.

I was born in the sky, for war. This is what we were told.

I think when people hear this, they think of ancient Earth stories. Of angels and superheroes and gods, leaving destruction between the stars. But I’m no superhero, no Kalel of America-Bygone with the flag of his dead planet flying behind him. I’m no angel Gabreel striking down Satan in the void or blowing the trumpet to end worlds. I’m no devi Durga bristling with arms and weapons, chasing down demons through the cosmos and vanquishing them, no Kali with a string of heads hanging over her breasts black as deep space, making even the other gods shake with terror at her righteous rampage.

I was born in the sky, for war. What does it mean?

• • • •

I was actually born on Earth, not far above sea level, in the Greater Kolkata Megapolis. My parents gave me away to the Government of India when I was still a small child, in exchange for enough money for them to live off frugally for a year—an unimaginable amount of wealth for two Dalit street-dwellers who scraped shit out of sewers for a living, and scavenged garbage for recycling—sewers sagging with centuries worth of shit, garbage heaps like mountains. There was another child I played with the most in our slum. The government took her as well. Of the few memories I have left of those early days on Earth, the ones of us playing are clearest, more than the ones of my parents, because they weren’t around much. But she was always there. She’d bring me hot jalebis snatched from the hands of hapless pedestrians, her hands covered in syrup, and we’d share them. We used to climb and run along the huge sea wall that holds back the rising Bay of Bengal, and spit in the churning sea. I haven’t seen the sea since, except from space—that roiling mass of water feels like a dream. So do those days, with the child who would become the soldier most often by my side. The government told our parents that they would cleanse us of our names, our untouchability, give us a chance to lead noble lives as astral defenders of the Republic of India. Of course they gave us away. I don’t blame them. Aditi never blamed hers, either. That was the name my friend was given by the Army. You’ve met her. We were told our new names before training even began. Single-names, always. Usually from the Mahabharata or Ramayana, we realized later. I don’t remember the name my parents gave me. I never asked Aditi if she remembered hers.

That, then, is when the life of asura Gita began.

I was raised by the state to be a soldier, and borne into the sky in the hands of the Republic to be its protector, before I even hit puberty.

The notion that there could be war on the Moon, or anywhere beyond Earth, was once a ridiculous dream.

So are many things, until they come to pass.

I’ve lived for thirty-six years as an infantry soldier stationed off-world. I was deployed and considered in active duty from eighteen in the Chandnipur Lunar Cantonment Area. I first arrived in Chandnipur at six, right after they took us off the streets. I grew up there. The Army raised us. Gave us a better education than we’d have ever gotten back on Earth. Right from childhood, me and my fellow asuras—Earth-bound Indian infantry soldiers were jawans, but we were always, always asuras, a mark of pride—we were told that we were stationed in Chandnipur to protect the intrasolar gateway of the Moon for the greatest country on that great blue planet in our black sky—India. India, which we could see below the clouds if we squinted during Earthrise on a surface patrol (if we were lucky, we could spot the white wrinkle of the Himalayas through telescopes). We learned the history of our home: After the United States of America and Russia, India was the third Earth nation to set foot on the Moon, and the first to settle a permanent base there. Chandnipur was open to scientists, astronauts, tourists, and corporations of all countries, to do research, develop space travel, take expensive holidays, and launch inter-system mining drones to asteroids. The generosity and benevolence of Bharat Mata, no? But we were to protect Chandnipur’s sovereignty as Indian territory at all costs, because other countries were beginning to develop their own lunar expeditions to start bases. Chandnipur, we were told, was a part of India. The only part of India not on Earth. We were to make sure it remained that way. This was our mission. Even though, we were told, the rest of the world didn’t officially recognize any land on the Moon to belong to any country, back then. Especially because of that.

Do you remember Chandnipur well?

• • • •

It was where I met you, asura Gita. Hard to forget that, even if it hadn’t been my first trip to the Moon. I was very nervous. The ride up the elevator was peaceful. Like . . . being up in the mountains, in the Himalayas, you know? OhI’m so sorry. Of course not. Just, the feeling of being high upthe silence of it, in a way, despite all the people in the elevator cabins. But then you start floating under the seat belts, and there are the safety instructions on how to move around the platform once you get to the top, and all you feel like doing is pissing. That’s when you feel untethered. The shuttle to the Moon from the top of the elevator wasn’t so peaceful. Every blast of the craft felt so powerful out there. The gs just raining down on you as you’re strapped in. I felt like a feather.

Like a feather. Yes. I imagine so. There are no birds in Chandnipur, but us asuras always feel like feathers. Felt. Now I feel heavy all the time, like a stone, like a—hah—a moon, crashing into its world, so possessed by gravity, though I’m only skin and bones. A feather on a moon, a stone on a planet.

You know, when our Havaldar, Chamling his name was, told me that asura Aditi and I were to greet and guide a reporter visiting the Cantonment Area, I can’t tell you how shocked we were. We were so excited. We would be on the feeds! We never got reporters up there. Well, to be honest, I wanted to show off our bravery, tell you horror stories of what happens if you wear your suit wrong outside the Cantonment Area on a walk, or get caught in warning shots from Chinese artillery klicks away, or what happens if the micro-atmosphere over Chandnipur malfunctions and becomes too thin while you’re out and about there (you burn or freeze or asphyxiate). Civilians like horror stories from soldiers. You see so many of them in the media feeds in the pods, all these war stories. I used to like seeing how different it is for soldiers on Earth, in the old wars, the recent ones. Sometimes it would get hard to watch, of course.

Anyway, asura Aditi said to me, “Gita, they aren’t coming here to be excited by a war movie. We aren’t even at war. We’re in territorial conflict. You use the word war and it’ll look like we’re boasting. We need to make them feel at home, not scare the shit out of them. We need to show them the hospitality of asuras on our own turf.”

Couldn’t disagree with that. We wanted people on Earth to see how well we do our jobs, so that we’d be welcomed with open arms when it was time for the big trip back—the promised pension, retirement, and that big old heaven in the sky where we all came from, Earth. We wanted every Indian up there to know we were protecting their piece of the Moon. Your piece of the Moon.

I thought soldiers would be frustrated having to babysit a journalist following them around. But you and asura Aditi made me feel welcome.

I felt bad for you. We met civilians in Chandnipur proper, when we got time off, in the Underground Markets, the bars. But you were my first fresh one, Earth-fresh. Like the imported fish in the Markets. Earth-creatures, you know, always delicate, expensive, mouth open gawping, big eyes. Out of water, they say.

Did I look “expensive”? I was just wearing the standard issue jumpsuits they give visitors.

Arre, you know what I mean. In the Markets, we soldiers couldn’t buy Earth-fish or Earth-lamb or any Earth-meat, when they showed up every six months. We only ever tasted the printed stuff. Little packets; in the stalls, they heat up the synthi for you in the machine. Nothing but salt and heat and protein. Imported Earth-meat was too expensive. Same for Earth-people, expensive. Fish out of water. Earth meant paradise. You came from heaven. No offense.

None taken. You and asura Aditi were very good to me. That’s what I remember.

After Aditi reminded me that you were going to show every Indian on their feeds our lives, we were afraid of looking bad. You looked scared, at first. Did we scare you?

I wouldn’t say scared. Intimidated. You know, everything you were saying earlier, about gods and superheroes from the old Earth stories. The stuff they let you watch and read in the pods. That’s what I saw, when you welcomed us in full regalia, out on the surface, in your combat suits, at the parade. You gleamed like gods. Like devis, asuras, like your namesakes. Those weapon limbs, when they came out of the backs of your suit during the demonstration, they looked like the arms of the goddesses in the epics, or the wings of angels, reflecting the sunlight coming over the horizonthe light was so white, after Earth, not shifted yellow by atmosphere. It was blinding, looking at you all. I couldn’t imagine having to face that, as a soldier, as your enemy. Having to face you. I couldn’t imagine having to patrol for hours, and fight, in those suitsjust my civilian surface suit was so hot inside, so claustrophobic. I was shaking in there, watching you all.

Do you remember, the Governor of Chandnipur Lunar Area came out to greet you, and shake the hands of all the COs. A surface parade like that, on airless ground, that never happened—it was all for you and the rest of the reporters, for the show back on Earth. We had never before even seen the Governor in real life, let alone in a surface suit. The rumours came back that he was trembling and sweating when he shook their hands—that he couldn’t even pronounce the words to thank them for their service. So you weren’t alone, at least.

Then when we went inside the Cantonment Area, and we were allowed to take off our helmets right out in the openI waited for you and Aditi to do it first. I didn’t believe I wouldn’t die, that my face wouldn’t freeze. We were on that rover, such a bumpy ride, but open air like those vehicles in the earliest pictures of people on the Moonjust bigger. We went through the Cantonment airlock gate, past the big yellow sign that reads “Chandnipur, Gateway to the Stars,” and when we emerged from the other side, Aditi told me to look up and see for myself, the different sky. From deep black to that deep, dusky blue, it was amazing, like crossing over into another world. The sunlight still felt different, blue-white instead of yellow, filtered by the nanobot haze, shimmering in that lunar dawn coming in over the hilly rim of Daedalus crater. The sun felt tingly, raw, like it burned even though the temperature was cool. The Earth was half in shadowit looked fake, a rendered backdrop in a veeyar sim. And sometimes the micro-atmosphere would move just right and the bots would be visible for a few seconds in a wave across that low sky, the famous flocks of lunar fireflies. The rover went down the suddenly smooth lunarcrete road, down the main road of the Cantonment

New Delhi Avenue.

Yes, New Delhi Avenue, with the rows of wireframed flags extended high, all the state colours of India, the lines and lines of white barracks with those tiny windows on both sides. I wanted to stay in those, but they put us civilians underground, in a hotel. They didn’t want us complaining about conditions. As we went down New Delhi Avenue and turned into the barracks for the tour, you and Aditi took off your helmets and breathed deep. Your faces were covered in black warpaint. Greasepaint. Full regalia, yes? You both looked like Kali, with or without the necklace of heads. Aditi helped me with the helmet, and I felt lunar air for the first time. The dry, cool air of Chandnipur. And you said, “Welcome to chota duniya. You can take off the helmet.” Chota duniya, the little world. Those Kali faces, running with sweat, the tattoos of your wetware. You wore a small beard, back then, and a crew-cut. Asura Aditi had a ponytail, I was surprised that was allowed.

You looked like warriors, in those blinding suits of armour.

Warriors. I don’t anymore, do I. What do I look like now?

I see you have longer hair. You shaved off your beard.

Avoiding the question, clever. Did you know that jawan means “young man”? But we were asuras. We were proud of our hair, not because we were young men. We, the women and the hijras, the not-men, told the asuras who were men, why do you get to keep beards and moustaches and we don’t? Some of them had those twirly moustaches like the asuras in the myths. So the boys said to us: We won’t stop you. Show us your beards! From then it was a competition. Aditi could hardly grow a beard on her pretty face, so she gave up when it was just fuzz. I didn’t. I was so proud when I first sprouted that hair on my chin, when I was a teenager. After I grew it out, Aditi called it a rat-tail. I never could grow the twirly moustaches. But I’m a decommissioned asura now, so I’ve shaved off the beard.

What do you think you look like now?

Like a beggar living in a slum stuck to the side of the space elevator that took me up to the sky so long ago, and brought me down again not so long ago.

Some of my neighbours don’t see asuras as women or men. I’m fine with that. They ask me: Do you still bleed? Did you menstruate on the Moon? They say menstruation is tied to the Moon, so asuras must bleed all the time up there, or never at all down here. They think we used all that blood to paint ourselves red because we are warriors. To scare our enemies. I like that idea. Some of them don’t believe it when I say that I bleed the same as any Earthling with a cunt. The young ones believe me, because they help me out, bring me rags, pads when they can find them, from down there in the city—can’t afford the meds to stop bleeding altogether. Those young ones are a blessing. I can’t exactly hitch a ride on top of the elevator up and down every day in my condition.

People in the slum all know you’re an asura?

I ask again: What do I look like now?

A veteran. You have the scars. From the wetware that plugged you into the suits. The lines used to be black, raisedon your face, neck. Now they’re pale, flat.

The mark of the decommissioned asura—everyone knows who you are. The government plucks out your wires. Like you’re a broken machine. They don’t want you selling the wetware on the black market. They’re a part of the suits we wore, just a part we wore all the time inside us—and the suits are property of the Indian Army, Lunar Command.

I told you why the suits are so shiny, didn’t I, all those years ago? Hyper-reflective surfaces so we didn’t fry up in them like the printed meat in their heating packets when the sun comes up. The suits made us easy to spot on a lunar battlefield. It’s why we always tried to stay in shadow, use infrared to spot enemies. When we went on recon, surveillance missions, we’d use lighter stealth suits, non-metal, non-reflective, dark gray like the surface. We could only do that if we coordinated our movements to land during night-time.

When I met you and asura Aditi then, you’d been in a few battles already. With Chinese and Russian troops. Small skirmishes.

All battles on the Moon are small skirmishes. You can’t afford anything bigger. Even the horizon is smaller, closer. But yes, our section had seen combat a few times. But even that was mostly waiting, and scoping with infrared along the shadows of craters. When there was fighting, it was between long, long stretches of walking and sitting. But it was never boring. Nothing can be boring when you’ve got a portioned ration of air to breathe, and no sound to warn you of a surprise attack. Each second is measured out and marked in your mind. Each step is a success. When you do a lunar surface patrol outside Chandnipur, outside regulated atmosphere or Indian territory, as many times as we did, you do get used to it. But never, ever bored. If anything, it becomes hypnotic—you do everything you need to do without even thinking, in that silence between breathing and the words of your fellow soldiers.

You couldn’t talk too much about what combat was like on the Moon, on that visit.

They told us not to. Havaldar Chamling told us that order came all the way down from the Lieutenant General of Lunar Command. It was all considered classified information, even training maneuvers. It was pretty silent when you were in Chandnipur. I’m sure the Russians and the Chinese had news of that press visit. They could have decided to put on a display of might, stage some shock and awe attacks, missile strikes, troop movements to draw us out of the Cantonment Area.

I won’t lieI was both relieved and disappointed. I’ve seen war, as a field reporter. Just not on the Moon. I wanted to see firsthand what the asuras were experiencing.

It would have been difficult. Lunar combat is not like Earth combat, though I don’t know much about Earth combat other than theory and history. I probably know less than you do, ultimately, because I’ve never experienced it. But I’ve read things, watched things about wars on Earth. Learned things, of course, in our lessons. It’s different on the Moon. Harder to accommodate an extra person when each battle is like a game of chess. No extra pieces allowed on the board. Every person needs their own air. No one can speak out of turn and clutter up comms. The visibility of each person needs to be accounted for, since it’s so high.

The most frightening thing about lunar combat is that you often can’t tell when it’s happening until it’s too late. On the battlefields beyond Chandnipur, out on the magma seas, combat is silent. You can’t hear anything but your own footsteps, the thoom-thoom-thoom of your suit’s metal boots crunching dust, or the sounds of your own weapons through your suit, the rattle-kick of ballistics, the near-silent hum of lasers vibrating in the metal of the shell keeping you alive. You’ll see the flash of a mine or grenade going off a few feet away but you won’t hear it. You won’t hear anything coming down from above unless you look up—be it ballistic missiles or a meteorite hurtling down after centuries flying through outer space. You’ll feel the shockwave knock you back, but you won’t hear it. If you’re lucky, of course.

Laser weapons are invisible out there, and that’s what’s we mostly used. There’s no warning at all. No muzzle-flash, no noise. One minute you’re sitting there thinking you’re on the right side of the rocks giving you cover, and the next moment you see a glowing hole melting into the suit of the soldier next to you, like those time-lapse videos of something rotting. It takes less than a second if the soldier on the other side of the beam is aiming properly. Less than a second and there’s the flash and pop, blood and gas and superheated metal venting into the thin air like an aerosol spray, the scream like static in the mics. Aditi was a sniper, she could’ve told you how lethal the long-range lasers were. I carried a semi-auto, laser or ballistic; those lasers were as deadly, just lower range and zero warm-up. When we were in battles closer to settlements, we’d switch to the ballistic weaponry, because the buildings and bases are mostly better protected from that kind of damage, bulletproof. There was kind of a silent agreement between all sides to keep from heavily damaging the actual bases. Those ballistic fights were almost a relief—our suits could withstand projectile damage better, and you could see the tracers coming from kilometers away, even if you couldn’t hear them. Like fire on oil, across the jet sky. Bullets aren’t that slow either, especially here on the Moon, but somehow it felt better to see it, like you could dodge the fire, especially if we were issued jet packs, though we rarely used them because of how difficult they were to control. Aditi was better at using hers.

She saved my life once.

I mean, she did that many times, we both did for each other, just by doing what we needed to do on a battlefield. But she directly saved my life once, like an Earth movie hero. Rocket-propelled grenade on a quiet battlefield. Right from up above and behind us. I didn’t even see it. I just felt asura Aditi shove me straight off the ground from behind and blast us off into the air with her jetpack, propelling us both twenty feet above the surface in a second. We twirled in mid-air, and for a little moment, it felt like we were free of the Moon, hovering there between it and the blazing blue Earth, dancing together. As we sailed back down and braced our legs for landing without suit damage, Aditi never let me go, kept our path back down steady. Only then did I see the cloud of lunar dust and debris hanging where we’d been seconds earlier, the aftermath of an explosion I hadn’t heard or seen, the streaks of light as the rest of the fireteam returned ballistic fire, spreading out in leaps with short bursts from their jetpacks. No one died in that encounter. I don’t even remember whose troops we were fighting in that encounter, which lunar army. I just remember that I didn’t die because of Aditi.

Mostly, we never saw the enemy close up. They were always just flecks of light on the horizon, or through our infrared overlay. Always ghosts, reflecting back the light of sun and Earth, like the Moon itself. It made it easier to kill them, if I’m being honest. They already seemed dead. When you’re beyond Chandnipur, out on the mara under that merciless black sky with the Earth gleaming in the distance, the only colour you can see anywhere, it felt like we were already dead too. Like we were all just ghosts playing out the old wars of humanity, ghosts of soldiers who died far, far down on the ground. But then we’d return to the city, to the warm bustle of the Underground Markets on our days off, to our chota duniya, and the Earth would seem like heaven again, not a world left behind but one to be attained, one to earn, the unattainable paradise rather than a distant history of life that we’d only lived through media pods and lessons.

And now, here you are. On Earth.

Here I am. Paradise attained. I have died and gone to heaven.

It’s why I’m here, isn’t it? Why we’re talking.

You could say that. Thank you for coming, again. You didn’t have any trouble coming up the elevator shaft, did you? I know it’s rough clinging to the top of the elevator.

I’ve been on rougher rides. There are plenty of touts down in the elevator base station who are more than willing to give someone with a few rupees a lending hand up the spindle. So. You were saying. About coming back to Earth. It must have been surprising, the news that you were coming back, last year.

FTL changed everything. That was, what, nine years ago?

At first it brought us to the edge of full-on lunar war, like never before, because the Moon became the greatest of all jewels in the night sky. It could become our first FTL port. Everyone wanted a stake in that. Every national territory on the Moon closed off its borders while the Earth governments negotiated. We were closed off in our bunkers, looking at the stars through the small windows, eating nothing but thin parathas from emergency flour rations. We made them on our personal heating coils with synthi butter—no food was coming through because of embargo, mess halls in the main barracks were empty. We lived on those parathas and caffeine infusion. Our stomachs were like balloons, full of air.

Things escalated like never before, in that time. I remember a direct Chinese attack on Chandnipur’s outer defences, where we were stationed. One bunker window was taken out by laser. I saw a man stuck to the molten hole in the pane because of depressurization, wriggling like a dying insect. Asura Jatayu, a quiet, skinny soldier with a drinking problem. People always said he filled his suit’s drinking water pods with diluted moonshine from the Underground Markets, and sucked it down during patrols. I don’t know if that’s true, but people didn’t trust him because of it, even though he never really did anything to fuck things up. He was stone cold sober that day. I know, because I was with him. Aditi, me, and two other asuras ripped him off the broken window, activated the emergency shutter before we lost too much pressure. But he’d already hemorrhaged severely through the laser wound, which had blown blood out of him and into the thin air of the Moon. He was dead. The Chinese had already retreated by the time we recovered. It was a direct response to our own overtures before the embargo. We had destroyed some nanobot anchors of theirs in disputed territory, which had been laid down to expand the micro-atmosphere of Yueliang Lunar Area.

That same tech that keeps air over Chandnipur and other lunar territories, enables the micro-atmospheres, is what makes FTL work—the q-nanobots. On our final patrols across the mara, we saw some of the new FTL shipyards in the distance. The ships—half-built, they looked like the Earth ruins from historical pictures, of palaces and cities. We felt like we were looking at artifacts of a civilization from the future. They sparked like a far-off battle, bots building them tirelessly. They will sail out to outer space, wearing quenbots around them like cloaks. Like the superheroes! The quenbot cloud folds the space around the ship like a blanket, make a bubble that shoots through the universe. I don’t really understand. Is it like a soda bubble or a blanket? We had no idea our time on the Moon was almost over on those patrols, looking at the early shipyards.

After one of the patrols near the shipyards, asura Aditi turned to me and said, “We’ll be on one of those ships one day, sailing to other parts of the galaxy. They’ll need us to defend Mother India when she sets her dainty feet on new worlds. Maybe we’ll be able to see Jupiter and Saturn and Neptune zoom by like cricket balls, the Milky Way spinning far behind us like a chakra.”

“I don’t think that’s quite how FTL works,” I told her, but obviously she knew that. She looked at me, low dawn sunlight on her visor so I couldn’t see her face. Even though this patrol was during a temporary ceasefire, she had painted her face like she so loved to, so all you could see anyway were the whites of her eyes and her teeth. Kali Ma through and through, just like you said. “Just imagine, maybe we’ll end up on a world where we can breathe everywhere. Where there are forests and running water and deserts like Earth. Like in the old Bollywood movies, where the heroes and the heroines run around trees and splash in water like foolish children with those huge mountains behind them covered in ice.”

“Arre, you can get all that on Earth. It’s where those movies come from! Why would you want to go further away from Earth? You don’t want to return home?”

“That’s a nice idea, Gita,” she said. “But the longer we’re here, and the more news and movies and feeds I see of Earth, I get the idea it’s not really waiting for us.”

That made me angry, though I didn’t show it. “We’ve waited all our lives to go back, and now you want to toss off to another world?” I asked, as if we had a choice in the matter. The two of us, since we were children in the juvenile barracks, had talked about moving to a little house in the Himalayas once we went back, somewhere in Sikkim or northern Bengal (we learned all the states as children, and saw their flags along New Delhi Avenue) where it’s not as crowded as the rest of Earth still, and we could see those famously huge mountains that dwarfed the Moon’s arid hills.

She said, “Hai Ram, I’m just dreaming like we always have. My dear, what you’re not getting is that we have seen Earth on the feeds since we came to the Moon. From expectation, there is only disappointment.”

So I told her, “When you talk about other worlds out there, you realize those are expectations too. You’re forgetting we’re soldiers. We go to Earth, it means our battle is over. We go to another world, you think they’d let us frolic like Bollywood stars in alien streams? Just you and me, Gita and Aditi, with the rest of our division doing backup dancing?” I couldn’t stay angry when I thought of this, though I still felt a bit hurt that she was suggesting she didn’t want to go back to Earth with me, like the sisters in arms we were.

“True enough,” she said. “Such a literalist. If our mission is ever to play Bollywood on an exoplanet, you can play the man hero with your lovely rat-tail beard. Anyway, for now all we have is this gray rock where all the ice is underneath us instead of prettily on the mountains. Not Earth or any other tarty rival to it. This is home, Gita beta, don’t forget it.”

How right she was.

• • • •

Then came peacetime.

We saw the protests on Earth feeds. People marching through the vast cities, more people than we’d ever see in a lifetime in Chandnipur, with signs and chants. No more military presence on the Moon. The Moon is not an army base. Bring back our soldiers. The Moon is not a battlefield.

But it was, that’s the thing. We had seen our fellow asuras die on it.

With the creation of the Terran Union of Spacefaring Nations (T.U.S.N.) in anticipation of human expansion to extrasolar space, India finally gave up its sovereignty over Chandnipur, which became just one settlement in amalgamated T.U.S.N. Lunar territory. There were walled-off Nuclear Seclusion Zones up there on Earth still hot from the last World War, and somehow they’d figured out how to stop war on the Moon. With the signing of the International Lunar Peace Treaty, every nation that had held its own patch of the Moon for a century of settlement on the satellite agreed to lay down their arms under Earth, Sol, the gods, the goddesses, and the God. The Moon was going to be free of military presence for the first time in decades.

When us asuras were first told officially of the decommissioning of Lunar Command in Chandnipur, we celebrated. We’d made it—we were going to Earth, earlier than we’d ever thought, long before retirement age. Even our COs got shitfaced in the mess halls. There were huge tubs of biryani, with hot chunks of printed lamb and gobs of synthi dalda. We ate so much, I thought we’d explode. Even Aditi, who’d been dreaming about other worlds, couldn’t hold back her happiness. She asked me, “What’s the first thing you’re going to do on Earth?” her face covered in grease, making me think of her as a child with another name, grubby cheeks covered in syrup from stolen jalebis.

“I’m going to catch a train to a riverside beach or a sea wall, and watch the movement of water on a planet. Water, flowing and thrashing for kilometers and kilometers, stretching all the way to the horizon. I’m going to fall asleep to it. Then I’m going to go to all the restaurants, and eat all the real foods that the fake food in the Underground Markets is based on.”

“Don’t spend all your money in one day, okay? We need to save up for that house in the Himalayas.”

“You’re going to go straight to the mountains, aren’t you,” I said with a smile.

“Nah. I’ll wait for you, first, beta. What do you think.”

“Good girl.”

After that meal, a handful of us went out with our suits for an unscheduled patrol for the first time—I guess you’d call it a moonwalk, at that point. We saluted the Earth together, on a lunar surface where we had no threat of being silently attacked from all sides. The century-long Lunar Cold War was over—it had cooled, frozen, bubbled, boiled at times, but now it had evaporated. We were all to go to our paradise in the black sky, as we’d wished every day on our dreary chota duniya.

We didn’t stop to think what it all really meant for us asuras, of course. Because as Aditi had told me—the Moon was our home, the only one we’d ever known, really. It is a strange thing to live your life in a place that was never meant for human habitation. You grow to loathe such a life—the gritty dust in everything from your food to your teeth to your weapons, despite extensive air filters, the bitter aerosol meds to get rid of infections and nosebleeds from it. Spending half of your days exercising and drinking carefully rationed water so your body doesn’t shrivel up in sub-Earth grav or dry out to a husk in the dry, scrubbed air of controlled atmospheres. The deadening beauty of gray horizons with not a hint of water or life or vegetation in sight except for the sharp lines and lights of human settlement, which we compared so unfavorably to the dazzling technicolour of images and video feeds from Earth, the richness of its life and variety. The constant, relentless company of the same people you grow to love with such ferocity that you hate them as well, because there is no one else for company but the occasional civilian who has the courage to talk to a soldier in Chandnipur’s streets, tunnels, and canteens.

• • • •

Now the Moon is truly a gateway to the stars. It is pregnant with the vessels that will take humanity to them, with shipyards and ports rising up under the limbs of robots. I look up at our chota duniya, and its face is crusted in lights, a crown given to her by her lover. Like a goddess, it’ll birth humanity’s new children. We were born in the sky, for war, but we weren’t in truth. We were asuras. Now they will be devas, devis. They will truly be like gods, with FTL. In Chandnipur, they told us that we must put our faith in Bhagavan, in all the gods and goddesses of the pantheon. We were given a visiting room, where we sat in the veeyar pods and talked directly to their avatars, animated by the machines. That was the only veeyar we were allowed—no sims of Earth or anything like that, maybe because they didn’t want us to get too distracted from our lives on the Moon. So we talked to the avatars, dutifully, in those pods with their smell of incense. Every week, we asked them to keep us alive on chota duniya, this place where humanity should not be and yet is.

And now, we might take other worlds, large and small.

Does that frighten you?

I . . . don’t know. You told us all those years ago, and you tell me now, that we asuras looked like gods and superheroes when you saw us. In our suits, which would nearly crush a human with their weight if anyone wore them on Earth, let alone walked or fought in them. And now, imagine the humans who will go out there into the star-lit darkness. The big ships won’t be ready for a long time. But the small ones—they already want volunteers to take one-way test trips to exoplanets. I don’t doubt some of those volunteers will come from the streets, like us asuras. They need people who don’t have anything on Earth, so they can leave it behind and spend their lives in the sky. They will travel faster than light itself. Impossible made possible. Even the asuras of the Lunar Command were impossible once.

The Moon was a lifeless place. Nothing but rock and mineral and water. And we still found a way to bring war to it. We still found a way to fight there. Now, when the new humans set foot on other worlds, what if there is life there? What if there is god-given life that has learned to tell stories, make art, fight and love? Will we bring an Earth Army to that life, whatever form it takes? Will we send out this new humanity to discover and share, or will we take people like me and Aditi, born in the streets with nothing, and give them a suit of armour and a ship that sails across the cosmos faster than the light of stars, and send them out to conquer? In the myths, asuras can be both benevolent or evil. Like gods or demons. If we have the chariots of the gods at our disposal, what use is there for gods? What if the next soldiers who go forth into space become demons with the power of gods? What if envy strikes their hearts, and they take fertile worlds from other life forms by force? What if we bring war to a peaceful cosmos? At least we asuras only killed other humans.

One could argue that you didn’t just fight on the Moon. You brought life there, for the first time. You, we, humanswe loved there, as well. We still do. There are still humans there.

Love.

I’ve never heard anyone tell me they love me, nor told anyone I love them. People on Earth, if you trust the stories, say it all the time. We asuras didn’t really know what the word meant, in the end.

But. I did love, didn’t I? I loved my fellow soldiers. I would have given my life for them. That must be what it means.

I loved Aditi.

That is the first time I’ve ever said that. I loved Aditi, my sister in arms. I wonder what she would have been, if she had stayed on Earth, never been adopted by the Indian government and given to the Army. A dancer? A Bollywood star? They don’t like women with muscles like her, do they? She was bloody graceful with a jet-pack, I’ll tell you that much. And then, when I actually stop to think, I realize, that she would have been a beggar, or a sweeper, or a sewer-scraper if the Army hadn’t given us to the sky. Like me. Now I live among beggars, garbage-pickers, and sweepers, and sewer-scrapers, in this slum clinging to what they call the pillar to heaven. To heaven, can you believe that? Just like we called Earth heaven up there. These people here, they take care of me. In them I see a shared destiny.

What is that?

To remind us that we are not the gods. This is why I pray still to the gods, or the one God, whatever is out there beyond the heliosphere. I pray that the humans who will sail past light and into the rest of the universe find grace out there, find a way to bring us closer to godliness. To worlds where we might start anew, and have no need for soldiers to fight, only warriors to defend against dangers that they themselves are not the harbingers of. To worlds where our cities have no slums filled with people whose backs are bent with the bravery required to hold up the rest of humanity.

Can I ask something? How . . . how did asura Aditi die?

Hm. Asura Aditi of the 8th Lunar Division—Chandnipur, Indian Armed Forces, survived thirty-four years of life and active combat duty as a soldier on the Moon, to be decommissioned and allowed to return to planet Earth. And then she died right here in New Delhi Megapolis walking to the market. We asuras aren’t used to this gravity, to these crowds. One shove from a passing impatient pedestrian is all it takes. She fell down on the street, shattered her Moon-brittled hip because, when we came here to paradise, we found that treatment and physio for our weakened bodies takes money that our government does not provide. We get a pension, but it’s not much—we have to choose food and rent, or treatment. There is no cure. We might have been bred for war in the sky, but we were not bred for life on Earth. Why do you think there are so few volunteers for the asura program? They must depend on the children of those who have nothing.

Aditi fell to Earth from the Moon, and broke. She didn’t have money for a fancy private hospital. She died of an infection in a government hospital.

She never did see the Himalayas. Nor have I.

I’m sorry.

I live here, in the slums around Akash Mahal Space Elevator-Shaft, because of Aditi. It’s dangerous, living along the spindle. But it’s cheaper than the subsidized rent of the Veterans Arcologies. And I like the danger. I was a soldier, after all. I like living by the stairway to the sky, where I once lived. I like being high up here, where the wind blows like it never did on the Moon’s gray deserts, where the birds I never saw now fly past me every morning and warm my heart with their cries. I like the sound of the nanotube ecosystem all around us, digesting all our shit and piss and garbage, turning it into the light in my one bulb, the heat in my one stove coil, the water from my pipes, piggybacking on the charge from the solar panels that power my little feed-terminal. The way the walls pulse, absorbing sound and kinetic energy, when the elevator passes back and forth, the rumble of Space Elevator Garuda-3 through the spindle all the way to the top of the atmosphere. I don’t like the constant smell of human waste. I don’t like wondering when the police will decide to cast off the blinders and destroy this entire slum because it’s illegal. I don’t like going with a half-empty stomach all the time, living off the kindness of the little ones here who go up and down all the time and get my flour and rice. But I’m used to such things—Chandnipur was not a place of plenty either. I like the way everyone takes care of each other here. We have to, or the entire slum will collapse like a rotten vine slipping off a tree-trunk. We depend on each other for survival. It reminds me of my past life.

And I save the money from my pension, little by little, by living frugally. To one day buy a basic black market exoskeleton to assist me, and get basic treatment, physio, to learn how to walk and move like a human on Earth.

Can . . . I help, in any way?

You have helped, by listening. Maybe you can help others listen as well, as you’ve said.

Maybe they’ll heed the words of a veteran forced to live in a slum. If they send soldiers to the edge of the galaxy, I can only hope that they will give those soldiers a choice this time.

I beg the ones who prepare our great chariots: If you must take our soldiers with you, take them—their courage, their resilience, their loyalty will serve you well on a new frontier. But do not to take war to new worlds.

War belongs here on Earth. I should know. I’ve fought it on the Moon, and it didn’t make her happy. In her cold anger, she turned our bodies to glass. Our chota duniya was not meant to carry life, but we thrust it into her anyway. Let us not make that mistake again. Let us not violate the more welcoming worlds we may find, seeing their beauty as acquiescence.

With FTL, there will be no end to humanity’s journey. If we keep going far enough, perhaps we will find the gods themselves waiting behind the veil of the universe. And if we do not come in peace by then, I fear we will not survive the encounter.

• • • •

I clamber down the side of the column of the space elevator, winding down through the biohomes of the slum towards one of the tunnels where I can reach the internal shaft and wait for the elevator on the way down. Once it’s close to the surface of the planet, it slows down a lotthat’s when people jump on to hitch a ride up or down. We’re only about 1,000 feet up, so it’s not too long a ride down, but the wait for it could be much longer. The insides of the shaft are always lined with slum-dwellers and elevator station hawkers, rigged with gas masks and cling clothes, hanging on to the nanocable chords and sinews of the great spindle. I might just catch a ride on the back of one of the gliders who offer their solar wings to travelers looking for a quick trip back to the ground. Bit more terrifying, but technically less dangerous, if their back harness and propulsion works.

The eight-year-old boy guiding me down through the steep slum, along the pipes and vines of the NGO-funded nano-ecosystem, occasionally looks up at me with a gap-toothed smile. “I want to be an asura like Gita,” he says. “I want to go to the stars.”

“Aren’t you afraid of not being able to walk properly when you come back to Earth?”

“Who said I want to come back to Earth?”

I smile, and look up, past the fluttering prayer flags of drying clothes, the pulsing wall of the slum, at the dizzying stairway to heaven, an infinite line receding into the blue. At the edge of the spindle, I see asura Gita poised between the air and her home, leaning precariously out to wave goodbye to me. Her hair ripples out against the sky, a smudge of black. A pale, late evening moon hovers full and pale above her head, twinkling with lights.

I wave back, overcome with vertigo. She seems about to fall, but she doesn’t. She is caught between the Earth and the sky in that moment, forever.

Indrapramit Das

Indrapramit Das

Indrapramit Das (aka Indra Das) is a writer and editor from Kolkata, India. He is a Lambda Literary Award-winner for his debut novel The Devourers (Penguin India / Del Rey), and has been a finalist for the Crawford, Tiptree and Shirley Jackson Awards. His short fiction has appeared in publications including Tor.com, Clarkesworld and Asimov’s, and has been widely anthologized. He is an Octavia E. Butler Scholar and a grateful graduate of Clarion West 2012. He has lived in India, the United States, and Canada, where he completed his MFA at the University of British Columbia.