Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams

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Fiction

When We Were Gods

Mriti moves the blitzer methodically over the tiles. Like everything the Mohars fashion, it is silent and sleek, made of crystal chrome. It sucks up dust, spills, blood, and bacteria in micro-seconds. These were the first gift from the Mohars. How delighted the Jaani had been, Mama clapping her hands, declaring it a workers’ revolution, welcoming the Mohars with handfuls of rice and marigolds. Only Neer had rolled her eyes and snapped her gum—

Mriti grips the blitzer. Pushes the memory of Neer away. Eyes down, she reminds herself. Every inch of this bathroom is mirrored—doors, sinks, taps, even the toilets—the Mohars needing to admire their perfection the moment they enter any room. If Mriti isn’t careful, Neer stares back from each surface, hollow-eyed and wan.

A door slams.

The blitzer slips from her hands and clatters on the sink, whirring from its upturned position. A Mohar, wrapped in pale silk, emerges from a stall, bringing the smell of ice. The bar hasn’t opened yet, so this one must be back room clientele. Mriti holds her breath—the less sound she makes the better—but the Mohar ignores her, sniffing delicately and exiting without pause.

She waits a few seconds before taking hold of the blitzer and heading to the cubicle. One nudge of the door and she sees why the Mohar was sniffing.

Darkglitter.

The substance is strewn everywhere, scattered even inside the toilet, handled with uncaring fingers. Seeing the waste, the sacrilege, Mriti shudders—once—then secures her mask, reaches for the nothing-place inside her mind, and begins blitzing.

When she started this job at Samsara, the first glimpses of darkglitter, smudged on bar seats, streaking banisters, sunk into grout, made her recoil. Of course she’d known what the Mohars did with it, knew that fistfuls of the once-sacred matter could be found everywhere, in the heights and squats of the city of Khoob, peddled as a cheap drug. Mriti knew, yet, when she found it shimmering against the grime of her boots, something surged inside her, hot and angry and sick.

She’d pushed that down too.

Now, she blitzes and darkglitter fizzes up. Vanishes. Everything gleams. Even the smallest hint of a blemish on the Mohars’ reflections brings swift punishment, and the Mohars know too well what darkglitter does to the Jaani. Mriti learned that the hard way. Only last week, her cleaning was found less than pristine: cheekbone pressed against glass, darkglitter forced into her blood stream, a gush from her nose, electricity shooting up and up and up to the bundle of nerves and

—exploding—

Mriti has no memory of what happened after. When it was over, she dragged her sluggish body to the squat, sweating and shivering, tilting in and out of consciousness. She slept for thirty-six hours and missed her cleaning shift at the Gul-Mohars, nearly losing her position. That was the night, darkglitter coursing through her veins, that she first dreamt of Neer and the pit—and ever since, something inside her feels weakened, a hair crack leaking the past.

Before she discards her mask and leaves the bathroom, Mriti gives everything an extra acid rinse. Her bones ache from kneeling on the hard tiles, an echo of Mama’s early arthritis. She’s still got to blitz the taxidermy so she should pace herself. But she’d rather her knees grind to dust than make a mistake and have darkglitter forced into her again.

When she emerges into the hallway, someone is being escorted to the back rooms by a couple of Jaani bouncers, their muscles, no doubt pumped with darkglitter, bulging inside tight uniforms. There’s nothing unusual about the sight, yet something makes Mriti pause, an odour, heavy and musky, and a movement, like the swish of a tail—

Mriti’s chest tightens. She feels the sharpness of nails digging into her palms.

A godling.

She steps forward. Any second, they will disappear behind that door, into the thumping music and chilled smoke. Mriti must see. The air shimmers. She catches slanted eyes, feline features, midnight hair. A girl godling. Just before the door shuts, Mriti spots her tail, sable and glossy.

Like Neer’s.

Find or forget?

Mriti presses a hand to her throat, sticky where her nails have drawn blood. She leans against the wall and inhales deeply. Neer taught her to do this when the buzz of thoughts got too much.

Like Neer but not, she tells herself. Neer is lost.

Mriti knows what’s inside those back rooms: a flash of furred skin; a young body pushed onto a sofa; silvery figures behind the smoke, watching. But the only way to keep going is to forget. This. Neer. Mriti can’t return to the gutter gulleys. She’s done it once, when she thought she could survive Khoob without setting foot in it, but Mriti cannot go back. She needs this job. She needs to forget.

“What you doing here?” The Jaani bouncer with the kind eyes is in front of her, brows raised.

“Just finished up the bathroom, cleaning the taxidermy next.”

“I’d do it quick. The Bikash-Mohars are coming.”

Mriti doesn’t need to be warned twice; she hurries to the wall where the mount is displayed. A familiar smell creeps towards her. Musk and brimstone. The faintest smidge of what it would’ve been. Once, this would’ve made Mriti weep. But the shock of seeing a god-head nailed to a bar wall has long faded.

Close up, the hide is wrinkled, as if the head continued aging even after it was lopped, dripped of fluid, and cased in resin. Mriti knows from the misshapen jaw that it was a botched job. But down here, close to the slums of the Jaani, far from the opulence of the real city of Khoob, botched heads too can pass for finery.

An animal is an animal after all.

She changes the setting on the blitzer and places a hand on the fur. The moment she touches it, something sparks up her arm. Alarmed, she looks down.

Fuck.

She’d forgotten about the blood on her palms, now smeared on the god-head like an offering of old. She glances around, but the manager is nowhere to be seen. Sighing, she turns back, thinking it must’ve been static—when she sees it.

In the glassy eyes of the god-head, a reflection.

There’s a figure standing at the far end of the room. The curvature of the mount’s eyes distorts the image so she can’t latch onto its shape. Its mouth looks pointed, like a snout, but that can’t be. What is it?

She whips her head around—

The wall is empty. Particles of darkglitter float in the streak of light. Her quickened pulse is loud in her ears.

“You, girl,” the manager calls, sticking his head out of the back room, interrupting Mriti’s daze. “Work the night. The Bikash-Mohars are in attendance.”

“I have to ride into Khoob for my other job.” Even shaken as she is, the lie spills easy from her lips and she adds, “Sir.”

The manager’s face darkens, eyebrows gathering, the veins around his forehead bloating. He’s quick to anger, quicker to ring up his workers, hand them over to the Mohars for punishment. His type of Jaani is the reason they’re damned—Mriti stops. Here she is, scrubbing floors the Mohars trample on, touching god-heads like it’s no sacrilege, forsaking the person who matters the most in the world. Some would call her the sell-out.

The manager’s tirade is cut off when the door is flung open.

Light bursts in and the Bikash-Mohars enter. They bring with them the whiteness of glaciers drifting in vast oceans. Each has rimmed their eyes with kohl in the manner of the old Jaani gods. The taller one has Sarpa fangs piercing his ears. The one draped in silver silk is holding a purse. When the light glints off it, Mriti sees that it’s beaded with Biralo eyes. She thinks of the young godling in the back room, those same bright green irises.

Forget.

Mriti swallows it down. You’ve seen this before. You’ll forget this soon.

As they walk past, limbs fluid, the Bikash-Mohars fix their gaze on her. Sweat pricks her face. They turn and step into the thudding beats and vapours of the back rooms. Mriti takes a shuddering breath. Just before he disappears, the taller one stops, looks back, slips out his elongated tongue and licks his lips.

• • • •

The moment her shift is done, Mriti powers down the blitzer, puts it away, and heads to the C-train hovering high in the sky. It arcs from one corner of Khoob to another and, like the Chitwa racing on sun-gold plains, is lightning-fast.

The escalator takes her up and up. Mriti looks through the gaps of each step where flashes of orange appear. She imagines bodies hunkered beneath. In the gutter gulleys, they’d heard whispers of a secret underground enclave, of sunken-eyed, spine-twisted forms emerging from the depths of abandoned tunnels, transformed into something new.

There’s been a spate of disappearances in the slums, people leaving without a word, without their meagre possessions, even though squat space is premium. Not many but enough to notice. Well, enough for Himal. Sunheri’s been missing for a week. Don’t you care? Himal who wants to believe Sunheri is in that mythical enclave. Himal who cares so much. The truth was Mriti hadn’t noticed. Sunheri huddled in the dark, reeking of dried blood, babbling about the gods risen again, her mind addled from too many darkglitter punishments. The girl moved like she was only half in this world, animal-like. Noticing Sunheri meant remembering the past, the gods, the person Mriti once believed herself to be. One who vowed never to step inside these wretched trains, because of what they were, what fuel they ran on. Yet she climbs onto them every day, sits down, and lets them take her where the Mohars demand.

Now, entering the C-train, Mriti avoids the brush of other commuters’ eyes, avoids sitting near the slinkers who watch them all silently.

It wasn’t always like this. Before the Mohars, the Jaanis considered themselves sisters and brothers, different in look, heritage, but children of the same gods. There were the Jaani godlings, blessed with the features of the gods themselves: Biralo-eyed, Sarpa-fanged, Chitwa-clawed, Baagh-striped, Syaal-haunched, Mayur-feathered. But after the Mohars butchered the gods, the godlings were the first to perish. The Jaanis who remain, peopling the slums under the city the Mohars built, are dirty-browned and animal-blooded but hardly touched with the gods. Everything that made them Jaani has been eviscerated, so Khoob can shine, stripped of musk and brimstone.

Mriti wraps a hand around the pole as the train speeds, the cool chrome soothing the cuts which have started seeping again. Her blood smears the metal. She stares at the glass opposite. This blank space between the heads of other commuters is the safest place to rest her gaze.

Until something broaches the gap.

In the reflection, there’s a figure next to her. An incongruity in the shape of its head, a pointed aspect. Once again, she glimpses the impossibility of a tapered snout.

It twists its neck to look at her. Leans close as if to whisper something into her ear. She sees the protrusion of canines, feels the warmth of musky breath on her cheek—

She jerks away.

When she turns to look, the seat next to her is empty.

• • • •

At the door of their squat, the smell of steaming momo greets her. For a second, Mriti is elsewhere, entering her childhood home. A fire crackling in the hearth; Mama wrapping balls of minced meat, air stinging with raw onion. Each parcel, Mama used to say, was an offering. Each mouthful, communion with a god. Close your eyes, children, bite in. As the juices flood your mouth, you will taste the essence of the animal who gave its life for you. Feel its presence. Heed the images the gods show you. Neer rolling her eyes, gobbling up her momo so fast all the gods must’ve melded together on her tongue.

Heat wells in Mriti’s eyes. She tries to push the memories back as she shoves the door.

In the steam-filled kitchen, Himal’s smile is wide. He’s trying. He wants to recover the days they’d clung to one another, when these slums held the promise of community. But that time’s gone. This squat is just a squat, squeaking rats and fluttering roaches, damp so bad the walls are splotched black. Most days the pipes rattle empty. Filth and stink seeps into their pores. Eating a badly wrapped momo, filled with meat they can’t name, will not transform the squat, will not scrub their past, will not bring back Mama or Neer.

Himal reads the simmering anger on her face because his smile drops. He whispers, in the smallest of voices, “I’m sorry,” and she feels a twisting inside. She should’ve just eaten the damned momo.

Later that night, when the lights have fused out again, and there’s nothing to do but climb onto sagging mattresses, Mriti lets Himal climb on top of her too. Doesn’t look at him as he thrusts and pushes against the sand-dryness of her, doesn’t wince. The pain used to be something once. At least, she doesn’t have to worry about babies; the Mohars made sure of that, choosing which of the Jaanis were allowed to breed.

When Himal rolls off and sighs, she turns away, hearing him drag his mattress over to Kajal and Chamak, the smell of sex swelling the air, everyone long ago deciding that fucking through the night was better than the nightmares.

And it’s always the same nightmare when they fall asleep, a mockery of a time the Jaani sat around fires, myth-telling and song-making, dreaming the same dream. Now, they’re condemned to relive the moment they discovered the trains hanging over the old Jaani city, the moment everything changed.

Tonight, Mriti can’t even sink into that nightmare. Images keep circling her mind: the strange figure glitching and blurring; the Mohar licking its lips; the girl godling, hands trembling; hot breath on her neck; that impossible snout.

It’s almost dawn when she manages to skim the scummy surface of sleep, and when she does, it’s Neer she sees.

Neer kneels by a large pit, shovel in hand. Her shaved hair is electric blue. On her bare shoulder, the right one, is the Syal etched in ink, resplendent in russet, a tribute for Mama who doted on the trickster god.

Neer’s hands move rhythmically, the muscles of her upper arms tightening and loosening. There’s a growing heap of darkglitter beside her, and behind, filling the cavernous chamber, piles and piles of it, such that legions of gods must’ve bled dry for it. Dream-Mriti balks at the sight, steps back, but Neer looks up just then. Smiles. That soft-mouthed smile Mriti could never mimic though their faces are identical.

When Neer turns, her nakedness is a shock. They haven’t seen each other since they bathed as children, screeching and upending buckets of cold water. Their bodies are echoes, except that defining difference, Neer’s beautiful tail, curled by her feet.

Neer opens her mouth—a cloud of hot musk envelopes Mriti—and says:

Listen.

• • • •

It’s dark outside when Mriti scrubs her underarms with a wet cloth, the last of their soap devoured by mould. She’s thinking of Mama again, fingers folding and pressing the momo. Neer with juices dripping down her chin.

The ache for them blooms inside her.

Forget.

The electricity is still out when she goes to the kitchen to stir stale coffee granules into bottled water. On the counter, a bunch of bananas, overripe and black, leak dense sweet rot. The momos have been left out next to them, no doubt spoilt by the heat of the night.

She probably shouldn’t eat them.

She plucks one out and places it in her mouth. The moment she bites in, sound floods her ears, and an image burns the back of her eyelids.

A figure in a black suit, everything below its shoulders fading into nothingness. Neck up, blazing fur, eyes like obsidian, a tapering snout.

It opens its mouth and speaks. Words rush into Mriti’s ears, but they are too fine, too sharp, not meant for human ears, and the thin membrane splits—

She claps her hands over them, runs to the bin, and spits out the momo.

Forget, forget, forget.

As she crouches, breathing hard, blood trickling out of her throbbing ears, she reminds herself:

The gods are dead.

The gods are dead.

The gods are dead.

• • • •

Listen, children, tell us how did it begin?

With the revels, with the wine.

The revels, hosted by the Mohars to honour their new alliance. The Jaanis, drunk on Mohar liquor, filled up on their strange, sweet fruit.

Children, tell us how did it begin?

With the song, with the cries.

The Jaani, falling into deepest sleep. Starting awake. What awoke them? The air, thick with charred musk. A song, eerie and loud. They spilled out of their homes, entranced, and saw the sun glinting off the metal structures crisscrossing above their heads.

Children, tell us how did it begin?

With the first drop, the first scream.

Something wet spattered on their skin. Darkglitter, the Mohars called it because the Jaanis never needed a name for this. Terror as they realised what fuelled the unholy trains. The Chitwa-train, shadow-fast as the Chitwa. The G-train lumbering like the Gaida. The M-train shining blue like a Mayur.

The Mohars tutting and sighing about pesky leaks, and the Jaanis screaming and screaming as the blood of their gods rained on them.

Children, tell us—

• • • •

Later, at the Gul-Mohar residence, Mriti changes into her chrome-like uniform, lightweight and spill-proof. As it goes on, it catches on her body hair and rips.

“There you are, Jaani.” Karina Gul-Mohar comes to stand in front of her and holds out a hand, wrist bent delicately. It carries the scent of frozen oceans. Her lips are painted silver; a sheen of powder shimmers on her face. Once, Mriti would’ve considered her the most beautiful creature. When the Mohar delegates first arrived, the Jaanis lined up from the gates of their city to welcome them with thalis of diyo and phool. Mriti peeked from between Mama’s legs and asked, Are they gods, Mama?

Now, Mriti bends her head over Karina Gul-Mohar’s hand but doesn’t touch.

“Here’s your uniform for the fundraiser tonight,” Karina Gul-Mohar says, voice a slip of ice in water. She gestures to the slinker behind her and it lopes forward, soundless and elegant like its masters, holding a pool of glittering cloth. “Do you need me to go over your duties?”

Mriti shakes her head. They’re not supposed to speak unless asked to, accents too guttural for sensitive Mohar ears.

Satisfied, Karina Gul-Mohar leaves. Mriti keeps her eyes down until she disappears, before making her way to the bedrooms to start her usual blitzing routine. There are a couple more slinkers along the corridors, a sign of the Gul-Mohars’ wealth rather than a need for security. The first slinkers also arrived with the first Mohars, tall and silver-chromed with needle-thin arms and legs. The Jaani had admired how silk seemed to flow inside their metal bodies. In a gesture of good will, the Mohars donated some to rural Jaani communities to help till the land, draw water, construct homes and schools.

The slinkers helped with other things too: sowing disease into crops, turning rich loam barren; tearing down archives and temples; and later, when everyone knew to fear these silent machines, Mriti remembers that silver arm twining itself around Mama’s throat.

Forget.

A scratching catches her attention. Listen. It’s coming from inside the show rooms. A heartbeat in which Mriti considers walking on. For so long, she’s trained herself to ignore what’s inside this room. But she finds herself pausing, tilting her head, something clamped tight within her . . . loosened.

She looks around to make sure none of the slinkers are watching before slipping in.

A blast of ice—and under it that familiar musk.

There are three of them inside the cage. Godlings. Heavily sedated. They barely move, and when they do, they lope and drag their back legs like animals of the ground, the Mohars forcing the godlings to be what they believe them to be.

Most of the godlings that’ve survived are kept as drugged-up pets and circus freaks; some are like the ones brought to the bar, warm holes to quench the secret thirsts of Mohars. Back when fire still raged inside Mriti, she scoured every bar, every freak show, every cage she could sneak into, searching, searching, every second of the day for Neer.

We’ve been blessed by the Syal, Mama used to say, stroking Neer’s soft tail. How Mriti longed for one in the dark days, desperate for any clue of Neer. Maybe if she was god-touched too, she’d be where Neer was, instead of living this nothing-life without her.

Find, she thinks as she walks towards the godlings.

One raises its head, ear twitching. She approaches slowly, refilling their bowls so they know she means no harm. It lumbers over to lap at the water. Another comes towards Mriti. She lifts a hand and reaches out. When the godling doesn’t bristle or flinch away, Mriti brushes off the flecks of blood on her muzzle.

“Do you remember me?” She whispers, stroking the godling’s once lustrous fur, feeling a thrill as she speaks their language in a place she’s not supposed to speak at all.

A hand, claws unsheathed, shoots out to grab her wrist. Mriti’s skin burns on contact, even through the suit. She’s pulled towards the cage. Her face is close to the godling’s, the breath whiffing out so pungent she almost believes she’s in the presence of a god.

Can you hear them?

Mriti gasps. The godling’s mouth hasn’t moved but Mriti hears her voice, raspy, grated with rust. The Mohars did something to make the godlings lose their speech; how is this possible?

She can’t help glancing at the door but the godling grips harder, pulls her closer. She sees raw patches where fur has been torn out. Scorch marks around the mouth. The godling’s eyes which seemed clouded with darkglitter now bright and sharp.

You’ve seen them. Mriti’s ears pulse and images flash in her mind: the figure in the bar, the train, the blank nothingness below its head.

The godling lets go of her abruptly, retreating to the shadows of the cage where the third one lies limp.

A creak. When the slinker enters the room, Mriti is on her knees, blitzing the floor, heart pounding.

It stays there watching until she finishes and leaves.

• • • •

That evening is Karina Gul-Mohar’s monthly fundraiser. Mriti wears the shimmering body suit, its reflective surface manufactured so she will seem invisible in any room. Apart from her face, nothing of her deformities show, not her gnawed fingernails, nor her coarse hair and skin.

She stands in a corner; on her palms, a platter stacked with chilled vials and syringes of darkglitter. The cold of the metal sinks in through the suit. It spreads inch by inch to her nails, her teeth, her eyes. If she focuses on it, she can ignore the throb inside her ears.

In the middle of the room is a circular platform where the holos are projected, and around it the audience. Lights dimmed, the Mohars seem shadowy masses, half-glimpsed glaciers encountered in the dead of night. They arrived an hour ago slung with the latest trends: Baagh-claws glued over nails, belts of teeth around waists, purses of Sarpa-skin in their hands.

Now, they watch a live feed of the Gul-Mohars’ vidrone. On the screen are the slums outside Khoob, squats identical to the one Mriti lives in. The gulley tour is a monthly feature at these fundraisers, yet today it’s a jolt to see her home broadcast inside Karina Gul-Mohar’s opulent manor.

The vidrone pans out till the buildings turn into ridges, then zooms in to the outskirts of the slums. The camera pauses on a bundle of bodies. A close-up shot of a naked child follows, its belly bloated with gas. A rare glimpse of someone young. The child’s ankles and wrists are slinker-thin, its skin cracking from lack of water and sun. It stares unblinking as the vidrone gets closer and closer.

The Mohars gasp when they see the child’s hands submerged in coils of shit.

The vidrone continues moving across the gulleys, pausing on another body then another, but the lights come on, the sound fades away, and Karina Gul-Mohar moves to stand at the front, clasping her hands gently.

“Friends, these poor creatures need our help.”

There’s a murmur of assent from the crowd. Mriti looks at them: among those leaning forward and nodding, she spots blank expressions and bored looks. Hands toying with glittering vials. The Gul-Mohars settle for nothing but the purest darkglitter, lavishing it on their guests; it’s no surprise the elite and nouveau-elite flock here at every invitation.

“I propose we make a gesture of aid.” Karina Gul-Mohar’s voice is solemn, wetness glimmering in her eyes. “It breaks my heart to see such suffering.”

One of the Mohars says, “We could fly out some parcels of food.”

“Wonderful,” Karina Gul-Mohar’s face lights up, “I will put it forward as an action.”

“Shall we donate water? I’ve heard diseases are running rampant down there because of the Sen-Mohars’ mining tender.”

“Darling, you can’t be suggesting that when we’re having a shortage of our own. If they need water, they can dig, they did perfectly fine with wells.”

“Yes, Karina, we’ve been meaning to raise this issue. We’re not happy with the council driving up water prices.”

Karina Gul-Mohar tilts her head. “Now, friends, let’s not exaggerate and forget the numerous fountains we are blessed with in our homes.”

A different voice from the back, languorous and cool: “If we’ve decided on our charitable action, perhaps we can move on.”

Karina Gul-Mohar’s smile doesn’t change but there’s the slightest arch to her eyebrows. A beat, then she tilts her head in acquiescence and signals to a slinker by the door. At this, there’s a collective straightening.

“As you know, I do not condone violence.” Another murmur of assent from the crowd, but also an undercurrent, a frisson. They know what’s coming. Mriti knows too. Usually she’d reach for her nothing-place and at the end of the night, she’d have no memory of what passed. Today, she finds herself here, in the room, unable to leave. “But I am a firm believer in rehabilitation, and we know the proven method is negative reinforcement.”

On cue, a slinker enters dragging in the Baagh-striped godling. The one who smelled like a god, the one who’d spoken to her. The faint reek of vomit and piss fills the room.

“Friends, it saddens me that one of my pets, despite being given everything it could want, has been,” Karina Gul-Mohar’s voice becomes quiet, “Showcasing violent behaviours. I’ve been . . . nervous in my own home.”

Noises of sympathy and alarm. One audience member reaches out to brush her arm, and she nods at the support. They watch as the godling is deposited on the platform, a heap of fur and bones. No sound, not even a whimper.

Karina Gul-Mohar says one last thing before she retreats: “We must be brave, and we must do what we have to.”

Another Mohar steps up and takes the floor. “Who shall go first?”

The crowd begins raising its hands.

Mriti looks away. You’ve seen this before. You’ll forget this soon.

But it isn’t working. From the corner of her eyes, she sees movement, flashes of action.

There’s a whip, a hot poker, and the sound of someone unzipping.

The tray trembles in her hands; the vials clink together. Her ears ache. Whatever was loosened inside her is letting everything in. She can’t escape.

The grunting starts.

And then she hears it: one word in the old language she’d recognise even in death.

Sister.

Mriti cries out. Karina Gul-Mohar’s attention snaps to her, forehead creased, mouth curled in displeasure. Fear trickles down Mriti’s back as she tries to control her shaking body.

She doesn’t want to look at the godling, but her head turns of its own accord. Her eyes meet the godling’s. They are clear and bright.

Sister.

Mriti wants to weep. She hears Neer’s voice calling from the past. Sister dear. Every time she wanted a favour, money, to give their mother the slip. Dearest Neer, always spending, always seeking thrills.

This godling isn’t her real sister; she isn’t Neer. But Neer could be this godling, somewhere in this cursed city, Neer could be on that platform with another Mriti standing close, doing nothing.

Sister—

This time the godling speaks the word out loud for all to hear. Something snaps. The Mohars, taken aback by the guttural noise, raise the alarm. There is commotion. They demand more force. They demand a breaking. In the midst of it, Mriti is splitting open. She hears the godling’s voice clear in her mind: Sister, release me. They are waiting.

Her body responds. In that moment, it isn’t her but the ancestors moving through her. She crouches and lunges. Vials slide and crash to the floor. Glitter and glass fly everywhere, shooting into the crowd. Mriti hears shouting and the clicking swiftness of slinkers. Only seconds before they will get to her. She clutches the platter in one hand. When she lands on the platform, she thrusts it at the Mohar standing there; the Mohar stumbles back, eyes wide. The poker clatters to the floor.

It’s enough.

The godling moves like lightning. A paw grabs the poker, brings it above her head, and plunges it into her own neck—

Her roar is terrible.

It splinters mirrors. It pierces Mriti’s ears. She is on her knees, clutching her head, begging it to stop please stop—

listen listen listen

—and then they are on her.

• • • •

Mriti hears the ghost of Neer’s voice. She turns towards the door, the tree, the garden but there’s not even a hint of her sister’s tail. Neer is very good at hiding. Mriti hates being the one to seek. It always feels like Neer is playing a big joke on her, sneaking off to the neighbours’ or snuggling up with Mama, leaving Mriti to wander outside for hours.

Her mind’s in knots and she’s sobbing when Mama finds her.

“Honey, what’s wrong?”

“I can’t find Neer,” she hiccups.

“Oh sweet child.” Her mother swoops in for a hug and she presses her nose into Mama’s neck, breathing in incense. “Maybe she’s hiding at the temple.”

“Mama,” she says, an idea popping into her head, “Can I ask the gods for help?”

“Oh child, the gods are not to be trifled with. They do everything in their power to grant our wishes, but they don’t see things the way we do.”

Mriti leans back and takes her mother’s face in her chubby little hands. “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” Mama says, kissing her on the forehead, “you shouldn’t ask much of the gods. Anything you ask for, they must ask in return.”

When Mama urges her inside, Mriti insists she’ll find Neer first and stays put. Mama shakes her head and tells Mriti to be careful of the roads, then leaves her be.

Mriti isn’t sure what Mama meant, but she closes her eyes, scrunches up her face, and calls to the gods. After a few moments, she peeks through one eye. The leaves rustle. Nothing happens, except she can see a flash of russet slinking behind the tree. She hears Neer’s voice in the wind, the way the twins can hear each other from afar: Follow the Syal.

A clue! She knew Neer would never abandon her, just as she would never abandon Neer. She laughs and runs after the Syal.

• • • •

When Mriti stirs, she thinks: I am dead. All is black. There’s weight on her, the stench of rot and blood.

Sensation returns like the pricking of slinker needles on tender skin. Each of her joints are hot and swollen. The undersides of her body, the shameful secret places, are scraped raw. What happened to her? When they grabbed her and pumped her with darkglitter, what happened? She doesn’t know. Her body might, but it doesn’t speak.

It’s been dumped inside an open gutter. She heaves herself out with the heel of her palms, elbows juddering with the weight of her body.

Sister.

An image of the godling comes to her. The poker in her neck. Her upturned mouth, the serene look on her furred face. Neer would’ve been proud, Mriti thinks and gets up. Her right knee squelches and gives way. Fuck. She takes care to drag it as she walks.

It’s a soupy dark. There is glitter everywhere, brimstone floating in cloud-like gusts. She wipes her nose and the back of her hand slicks with blood. A leak from her ears spills onto her neck.

She doesn’t recognise this slum but there’s a sign nearby: S-train. Small and pointed like the Syal. Mriti imagines her and Neer as babies riding a Syal and giggles. The train station is deserted. Everything swims past. Mriti feels herself flickering in and out, too-much sensation then a dulled darkglitter haze. She’s frightened—no, not frightened, entranced.

On the way up, she leans close to the gaps in the escalator, reaching for the gleaming light. Her finger gets caught. A chunk of flesh slices off; a memory solidifies. For a few seconds, she’s in the past again.

They are three years old, daring one other to stick a hand in sacred fire. Mriti is fine when she does, the flame a cool touch. But Neer’s hand blazes bright. That night, her tail sprouts and Mama throws a celebration. Both her and Neer, despite their new difference, are united in sticking their hand in the aloo ko achar, scooping the diced potatoes into their mouth, and smearing everything they touch. They laugh as they run off with the whole bowl.

Mriti feels no pain. She goes up and up and up into the sky. When the world comes into view, she’s sitting in a train carriage, blood soaking her lap, and the figure is there with its human body and jackal head.

Instead of jerking away, Mriti turns and the jackal-headed being is warm and solid next to her.

She greets it in the old way and asks: “Are you real?”

A grin, or the baring of teeth. Almost.

“How?”

By the grace of the gods, by the grace of those like you.

The words try to sink in but waft away instead. When she speaks, her question are you a god? comes out a jumble: “Am I a god?”

A cackle. Anyone can be a god if they are willing.

There’s no desire for godhood within her, only one question: “Do you know where Neer is?”

I can show you. Will you come with me?

It’s not quite an answer, but it’s answer enough that when the jackal-headed-almost-god stands and beckons, Mriti doesn’t think, just follows, steps off the train into a tunnel of dark.

She hears an echo of Neer’s voice—Follow the Syal, sister dear—before the darkglitter clouds her mind.

They are going down. She feels her feet slipping, knees buckling, but she keeps moving. Down and down into the flashing orange, more down than she thought possible. Heat. Flames dancing on skin. A pulse inside her—Neer Neer Neer—beating faster, harder.

When they finally stop, her sight sharpens. She’s in the underground cavern of her dreams, the rich scent of loam and brimstone assailing her. Here are the pits. Some look freshly turned, some freshly covered with bumps that could be an errant knuckle, a chin, a nose. Here are the heaps of darkglitter, black and shimmering, so much of it, gods so much, the nightmare come to life.

Mriti stumbles back, her throat seizing as brimstone drifts into her mouth.

Where is Neer?

Neer should be here, kneeling, smiling her soft smile.

Mriti is tipping in and out of the darkglitter haze again. She says, “Neer.”

The jackal-headed-almost-god’s voice in her head: She looked much like you. Yes, she was here. Now, she’s out in the world.

Neer was here. Nothing else matters.

Do you want to join her? The question sludges towards her. She feels musky breath on her face.

Find or forget?

Not forget, never forget.

“Yes.” The words are a chant. “Find, find, find.”

What are you prepared to give up?

For Neer?

“Everything.”

Good.

The world comes into focus again. She sees the jackal-headed-almost-god gesturing. She thinks: we are not alone.

They emerge from the shadows of the cavern into the flickering light. They are the muscled and god-strong. They move with ease, limbs lithe and sinewy. She tracks them, how they step so lightly, how they walk without sinking into sandy heaps, how they get closer and closer—

They grab her arm.

She snaps out of the daze. She doesn’t like their hands on her. Their touch burns. She takes a step back—can’t. Their hold is iron. She tugs, hard, and gets free. But there are more behind her, holding her shoulders, more in front of her, crowding her, snatching up her legs.

“NO.”

Her scream is swallowed up by the motion of her body being lifted.

She struggles and writhes, slipping from their grasp. Her body thuds. Blood spills from her nose and ears. Hands and knees on the ground, she scrabbles to get away, but there are pits everywhere and the sand scorches her palms.

Darkglitter surges up her veins.

She is screaming. Her body is twisting and bucking as she is dragged to the edge of a pit.

Don’t fight us. You’ll be with your sister soon.

A shot of lucidity. Fear spikes through her. Something holding her head. Hands thrust inside her mouth, tugging down her jaw, another curved into the roof of her mouth, crushing her nose. They grip both parts and pull

The last thing she sees is the jackal-headed-almost-god’s eyes gleaming from the light of the furnace.

Then, she is wrenched apart.

• • • •

When you wake, there’s an image of someone in your head. Buzzed hair. Electric blue. The picture of a snout on a shoulder blade. Like a wisp of smoke, she vanishes from your mind.

You are empty and clear-headed. You realise you are a we.

We are buried under layers of black sand. A paw, freshly clawed, erupts from a pit. Then, a bloodied torso. We climb out with unsteady joints. The black plugs our nose, our mouth. Its dry crackling smell makes us dizzy. We want to spit it out, to scrub it from our flesh but we realise we are the sand.

We crouch at the lip of pits and see ourselves, legion, thrumming with the same purpose. We lick our fur, feel our new-fanged teeth, and know we are both gods and the children of gods. We growl and the ground shifts as we find our new voice.

Listen.

There was a time when the gods walked among us and we throned them and they smiled and said they didn’t need a throne. We can live as one, they said, we want to be with our children.

Listen.

They perished for their kindness. They were snatched from us, cut up, strung into something grotesque. That is how the story goes.

Now, it’s time for a new story. Time to scour this land, shatter metal and ice, guzzle the black matter.

Don’t be afraid.

Yes, blood will gush from our nose, gush through our veins, gush into our brains where it will spark and explode but we will rise, we will rend. We are the children of the children of gods. We will not forget.

Isha Karki

Isha Karki

Isha Karki is a writer based in London. Her short fiction has won the Dinesh Allirajah Prize, Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize, and Mslexia Short Story Competition. Her work appears in publications such as khōréō, Lightspeed Magazine, and Best British Short Stories 2021. She is a graduate of Clarion West and currently a PhD student. You can find her on Twitter: @IshaKarki11.