A Little More Kindness

From space, the planet appeared blue-green and lonely. The Manithan decelerated through re-entry, exchanging speed for heat. I remained stretched in my pressure suit, suffering the shudders. Rajini lay beside me, emitting a series of blinks on the panel across his chest that reassured me the insulation cloaking our chamber was sufficient to withstand the plasma pummeling us from outside.

I’d made the photobot. His conviction was my handiwork. All those years cloaked in the warehouses of Arya-7, forcibly away from Alekha who was alone in the colony beneath the bridges reserved for the caste-less.

Seven generations of my family had been raised confined in those colonies, laboring through sludge and waste and the sweat of those who couldn’t prove their castes.

I gripped my unfinished letter to Alekha as the Manithan juddered in entry. Rajini tinkered with the controls. We had no planned landing site. It was near impossible to find one on an Earth ravaged by untamed wilderness and abandoned for four hundred and eighty seven years.

As the pummeling ceased, though, and the Manithan burst through layers of clouds, the father in me subsided and the photographer in me jerked awake.

I gaped even as my hands folded the letter back inside my pocket, while Rajini activated the trackers.

Earth. Beautiful, savage, ruthless Earth. Enduring in our absence. No—thriving. The jungle sprawled below us in spikes of unhindered growth, and as the Manithan sped across the skies, the seas blossomed out of land much like what we voyaged over back in the colonies, but so much more serene, so much more . . . regal.

I hesitated to get out my camera. Rajini, beside me, already commissioned for the same, was capturing the panorama. I was only baggage, the unwantedness of whose presence Rajini never held back from expressing every few hours, reminding me of the option laid out in front of me—to return. Return and remain beside my daughter who had come to love Rajini more than me. Who laughed at his quirks as much as she hated my time away from her in the warehouses, to a point where any effort at reconciliation appeared to be a pittance.

This illegal journey would be my apology. From securing a job in the endless grind of the warehouses to learning to build photobots and re-programming Rajini to condone my presence on a journey meant exclusively for the likes of him—every second away from Alekha in the last seven years had been dedicated to the singular purpose of smuggling myself into a ship bound for Earth.

Alekha and I were now one trip away from moving out of the colonies beneath the bridges forever.

“What is our destination?” I asked Rajini.

His chrome setup gyrated towards me. “We make for any airstrip around Delhi. My commission informs me of seven monuments within a two hundred mile radius of the capital that are worthy of significance to the Library and Universities in Arya-7. We begin there.”

“Including the Taj Mahal, no doubt,” I muttered, just loud enough for him to hear.

“Obviously.”

“Overrated marble junk,” I offered politely.

I had seen the pictures. The gallery of heritage sites and monuments whose images were captured before evacuation for the future generations to assimilate as remnants of their erstwhile home. As an example of marble architecture, the Taj Mahal was all right—I remembered rolling my eyes the first time and scoring it five and a half out of ten—but as one of seven wonders of the old world? Blasphemy. There were far more intricately carved temples and monuments in India worthy of that honor. Monuments not built by slaves who were blinded and had their fingers chopped off upon completion.

History, sadly, was not objective.

“I have my orders, sir,” Rajini said. My programming, with the quiet exception of my intrusion in this ship, had to conform to the regulations of the photobot codes. Rajini had executed half a dozen round trips to Earth under the command of a senior photobot before he could captain his own ship. This was his first solo. I was unsure how torn he was between a sense of achievement and annoyance.

“Of course,” I told him, secretly proud of how far he’d come. “Go on.”

The Delhi airstrip was unrecognizable. The wilderness had consumed it, as it had consumed all of Delhi, undoing centuries of engineering and toil. The Manithan whistled over the ruin. Beneath me, failed foundations and tumbled buildings were replaced with buckthorns and birches invading the crushed concrete. Roots heaved up sidewalks and split sewers until they furrowed the lanes and everything around them.

Rajini charted a course for an alternate landing site in Agra. I silenced my groan, put on some music in my headphones and promptly fell asleep.

Rajini nudged me awake with an alarm beep I was too familiar with from back beneath the bridges in Arya-7.

Light dazzled through the frame of the Manithan, and as Rajini steered the nose downward, I glimpsed the Taj Mahal choked in ivy and fern, one minaret altogether non-existent, the other three cracked or fallen into rubble, sunlight filtering into the dark within. I imagined the ruins echoed with the croak of frogs breeding in streams teeming with mahseers and trouts, and mussels dropped by seagulls in the lake that now thrived without the poison of washermen.

This was not waste. This was the life that the humans had refused to co-exist with during my ancestors’ time.

“You’re lucky.” Rajini’s voice box let out a chuckle. I wondered what his sarcasm meter was tuned to. “The monument is beyond identification. Results from my recordings state it does not fulfill the criteria for the Endurance Project.”

I hated the Taj Mahal simply for its popularity among the colonies, but for the first time, I disagreed in defense of it.

“It’s beautiful,” I mouthed, the breath escaping in a curling wisp. At the peak of its decadence, the Taj Mahal had represented something glorious, disparate from the tortured hands that had raised it. “Let me down, I need to get a picture from up close.”

Rajini let out a guttural beep. “That would be foolish, sir. And not recommended at all.”

“Yes, yes. I appreciate your warning. You’ve a heart of gold. Now let me down, Rajini. I have my pressure suit, insulated and completely sealed. You have scanned the area. There’s no viral presence, nor is there any radiation from the Narora power plant, which is . . .”, I glanced at the charts, “no less than a hundred and fifty kilometres away.”

Rajini appeared to process my response. In the end, there was only a muffled moan.

“I don’t understand why you had to accompany me in the first place, sir.” He stopped just short of expressing disapproval. “An image-grabbing mission has never occurred that wasn’t exclusively conducted by geo-satellites or photobots. Your presence is . . . making things awkward for me. I am questioning my limits.”

The Arya-7 engineer override. Rajini’s professional boundaries obscured his personal inclination for Alekha’s and my safety, coded beneath layers like a smudge.

For the first time since we broke into the atmosphere, the photographer pushed his seat back and allowed the father to lean forward. The father in me was a mild-mannered man, stocked with memories and longing and an ache to merge the past with the present. “I promised Alekha I would show her a picture of our ancestral home. This is the only way.”

If Rajini knew my true purpose, he’d abandon his mission and dispatch a signal of compromise back to Arya-7. I was aware of the failings of my own creation.

“So you admit this is illegal?”

I sighed. “You won’t be decommissioned, if that’s what you’re worried about. The modification chip was inserted post the control checks for tolerance. Arya-7 can be really blind sometimes, you know.”

“All this for for a few pictures?” Rajini asked.

“That’s it.” I straightened my lips and gestured to him to unlock the pod’s exit.

“You abandoned her in Arya-7,” he said flatly. The fact of it stung me, the word ‘abandoned’ lying in the air between us, cold and static. “Her survival rate dips by 6.5 percent in your absence.”

I was aware of the risk. “She has neighbors in the colonies, and friends.”

Lies. She had nobody.

“Why are you here, sir?”

I ran a hand into my pockets, feeling the soft touch of parchment. “I want my daughter to know who my ancestors were and where they lived. Is that too much to ask?”

Rajini did not reply. I laid a hand on his metallic shoulder, feeling the nanites within squirm and rearrange. “It’s just a few photos. We don’t have to do it now. We can keep it for the end, once we’re done with all the monuments.”

He only gave the briefest of nods before landing the Manithan on the patch of overgrown land, once the I of the Taj Mahal. I pulled the latch on the pod. A hiss and groan gave way to sunlight streaming in beams of dust. I wore the camera like a garland and ambled out, Rajini on my tail.

“Follow my lead, sir,” he said, one of his eye sockets rotating like a camera lens to unleash layers of focus, gleaming under the afternoon sun.

Acid rain had pocked most of the marble on the surface of Shah Jehan’s dedication to Mumtaz. From behind the Taj Mahal and across the narrow river, acres of woodland straddled the border. Groves of ash rose above an understory of ferns and massive birches and old banyans, bridging the river, their army of vines creeping up the walls of the Taj Mahal and shrouding it in a matted veil of thorn, tangled briars and withies. The smell of wisteria and honeysuckle, or so I imagined within the suit. I lifted the camera to my eyes and captured the side of the broken monument and the jungle mounting it. Retaliation, I named the picture.

In any unstricken, abandoned part of the world, Rajini and I would have to be wary of lairs of corrupted wolves, bears and coyotes even in the midst of a choked megalopolis. Initial attempts to return had resulted in attacks by mutated species clinging to life. I imagined what it would be like to have that virus course through my bloodstream, pick out strands of my cells and twist them into something malicious and unforgiving. Desperate and alone.

I’d glanced through reports of New York and Paris. And of Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. The predictor model had been quashed fifteen years into our evacuation.

Ah, the evacuation. If only my ancestors hadn’t been so hasty! If only they hadn’t left it behind.

I checked the viral meter again and was contented with a below-threshold signature. Indication of a severely truncated fauna. Whatever remained would have had to overcome repeated bouts of illnesses and atrophy. Chances were slim.

Rajini stopped forty feet from the entrance to the Taj Mahal—now a caved-in remnant of an arch. It reminded me of Buland Darwaza, which I preferred over this blanched dullness. The photobot raised his head—a series of clicks detonated around his eye in capturing the monument. I walked a few paces to the side, away from Rajini’s lengthening shadow, and held my own camera to my eye. The dark entrance, the cobwebs, the arching vines, the silence. The history erased and rebuilt by nature.

Click.

I named this image Better Dead than Alive.

The suit was suffocating. I was desperate to be rid of it, but despite the safety signals, there was no way Rajini would have permitted me to strip. There was a time before the photobot missions when he’d walk ahead of Alekha and me through the colonies, never letting anyone get close except those with whom we shared the pain. Now? Now was different. Rajini was not fully mine. Only Alekha was. I intended to keep it that way.

“Was it better the last time you were here?” I asked, as we strolled back towards the Manithan an hour later.

Rajini slowed his pace to allow me to catch up with him. We trod on high grass, the rectangular pool the Taj Mahal overlooked now entirely drowned in vegetation. “It was three years ago when I visited with Senior Kamal. So, no. Much, much worse. Some of the obscenities were still standing.”

“Come on, be serious.”

“I am,” he replied. “Contrary to your inputs, the Arya-7 engineers further programmed me to be ecologically oriented. Just because we are clothed in metal does not mean our minds cannot be tempered to care for soil.”

I looked around, at the diminishing state of humanity’s footsteps in that desolate wasteland of Agra. “Give it a few hundred years. After all the genetic degradation, they’ll stop sending you here. There won’t be anything left of our legacy to capture and study.”

“Quite the contrary, sir,” Rajini rolled over the ramp of our ship. “It becomes all the more necessary to visit this place once nature’s takeover is complete. It will be a reminder of what once was and what could have been, and that acts of humanity forced them to depart between those two states of time.”

“There was bound to be compromise,” I said. “It’s impractical for humans to be dominated completely by nature.”

“And yet,” he stopped to splay his aluminum limbs wide, bolts creaking. “Look who has come out on top.”

“Humans adapted,” I countered.

Rajini hissed. “To adapt and abandon is to be left with no choice.”

I was unsure if this existential dread was of my making, but I avoided questioning him further. I had come to realize that Rajini had . . . evolved since his inception in the feeble light of the warehouses. With each passing day, I had fewer and fewer options to modify in him. He was, in the end, a property of Arya-7, and I was only a royalty-earner who’d once tightened the screws. I feared the day was not far off when he’d walk into the colonies beneath the bridges and fail to recognize Alekha. Or worse, harm her.

I stopped, lifted the camera and my eyes and captured the bent metallic frame of Rajini as his silhouette lingered at the entrance to the Manithan, against a backdrop of the domination of jungle. I shrugged off my fears and named this image Guardian.

We visited Fatehpur Sikhri to capture the Buland Darwaza—the red and buff sandstone withered, the chhatris atop it enduring through the carnage on the ground. Greenery had swallowed up the arched entrance before flowing into the courtyard of the jama masjid. The spandrels of white marble had eroded without maintenance, gnawed at by creepers aiming for the cusped o
nament at the tip of the dome.

The structure itself, though, could be recognized for what it was—a gaping maw of a door chewed by bracken. It passed Rajini’s obscure metrics and earned a photograph. I took one, too, kneeling fifty feet from the door, capturing its height and width, then zoomed at the only Persian inscription that hadn’t faded: He who hopes for a day may hope for eternity, but the World endures but an hour.

I named the picture A Dead Door in a Living Planet.

The other monuments in Delhi—Humayun’s Tomb, the Qutub Minar, the India Gate and Safdarjung Tomb—had been completely submerged in the overflowing arm of the jungle, as though Earth had longed to cover up its errors and return to its state of origin at the earliest convenience.

“Where to next?” I asked Rajini, once the thrusters lifted us off. It had begun to grow dark outside, and no amount of comforting viral metrics would make me want to remain down in that wilderness.

Rajini seemed to analyze the guidance system, one eye roving at the vitals of the air outside. “I believe the Sun Temple in Konark is our next stop. Along the coast of the Bay of Bengal. Before we head south to Rameshwaram.”

Rameshwaram was near my hometown. My heart began to beat just a little quicker. “Sounds like a plan,” I said, before curling up on my seat and submitting to music once again.

We found a barren hilltop to land our vessel for the night, where sleep rushed to overcome me. Rajini stayed awake, analyzing the pictures taken, transmitting them back to Arya-7, and pretending to be busy. I knew he was waiting for me to react to being the only living human being on Earth at that moment. I didn’t, rather forcefully. Lest he get the impression that I was not suited to the neutral demands of this mission. The feeling never escaped me that Rajini was constantly looking to test me and my own limits. I was a bug in his otherwise perfect routine of interstellar travel and image-grabbing.

In truth, I did not wish to disappoint him.

Come morning, we landed in Konark, in the courtyard of the Sun Temple. The rekha deul—the main sanctuary of the temple—had been swallowed up entirely. The ground had cratered beneath a couple of sanctums and mandapas. The temple had already been half a ruin in colonial years. What survived had been bulldozed by weeds and torrents of underbrush, the Khondalite stone’s faster weathering accelerating the decay.

I felt a pang of pity. The sanctum’s raha rose above the pavilion, the sole, unsullied part of the temple, which, to Rajini, seemed worthy of a picture.

Otherwise, he was quiet. He rolled ahead into the ruin while I lazily followed him in my uncomfortable suit, stopping to take pictures of the carved stones, the walls ornamented with reliefs, the erotic sculptures and the stone wheels engraved in the pillars—slowly subjected to their end.

Ten minutes later, Rajini said urgently, “The inside of the sanctum is unsafe. We must return to the ship.”

The main temple and the jaganmohana porch lay within the sanctum.

“Come on,” Rajini urged me. “This is non-negotiable.”

I did not resist. We shuttled away, the indicators on Rajini’s chest glowing a faint amber, emitting a sonorous beep that faded as we gained altitude. “The corrosion on the walls interfered with my sensors until we were on the courtyard,” he justified, while I stretched my legs over the cockpit. “There are mutations down there within the sanctum . . . . I apologize. I put you in danger.”

I blinked and folded my legs. “You have nothing to apologize for, relax. I still have my suit on, if you noticed.”

“Irrespective,” he mumbled. “The well-being of the crew is my responsibility.”

Silence roosted between us for hours. Most of it I drowned in half a bottle of whiskey while filtering through my pack for the old letters that had pointed to my family’s ancestral home. I read them and re-read them until the words of my forefathers echoed in my ears. A distant calling I had ignored for years. Only now, with a daughter ostracized and stranded without a roof in Arya-7, I desperately responded to it. None of the seven generations before me had. They could not, not without the resource piloting the ship next to me, each minute growing more suspicious.

Rameshwaram lay submerged beneath the ocean. Only the ornate, sculpted tops of a handful of temples floated overland in a colony of reeds and driftwood. Paddies were barely discernible, transformed into pockets of marsh. Boats lay overturned around parts of the inner town that still lingered on the surface.

Rajini appeared satisfied.

“No photos,” he beamed, once the statistics confirmed what I had already concluded from his limited offering of metal-tinged expressions. “The monuments are beyond capturing. I hereby declare our mission complete, sir.”

“Well, yours, yes,” I interjected hopefully.

Rajini ignored me. “I can lower the hatch to allow you a couple of pictures, if you desire. This is magnificent. I only wish I had the permission to soak in this scene of the natural domination of our mother.”

I was tempted to remind him that I was his mother.

I stood on the precipice of the Manithan’s exit, one hand gripping the railing, the other clasping the camera through the gloves of my suit.

The pictures turned out remarkably well. I even managed to zoom in on a colony of red-crowned cranes, those revered portents of peace, gliding over bulrushes in perfect formation.

When I returned to my seat, Rajini regarded me with careful precision. I imagined if he had human eyes, they would have narrowed, and if he had human lips, they would have curled to utter his next words in a patronizing monotone.

“Valliyur, is it?”

I gulped, trying to regain my composure. My ancestral hometown.

“Yes.”

“You will have fifteen minutes.”

“Thank you,” I blurted.

From hovering over the debris of Rameshwaram to the soaked jungles of Valliyur took us less than an hour. Along the way, my eyes roved over the thriving wilderness beneath us. Civilization had ended, and I had little emotion to spare.

Out there on Arya-7, faith was geographically challenged. It came out twisted and misshapen, its roots on Earth long forgotten. We had to submit proof of caste to be eligible for a roof. The ones who couldn’t were given the colonies beneath the bridges, where death was but a hiss away. I told myself what I always told Alekha: the spirits of the gods we prayed to were too distant for our screaming hymns and chants.

I need not have tried to guide Rajini across the plains towards the speck of Valliyur using the stained map in my hand, the territory familiar only in name and in the haunting of memories. The forests once bordering Valliyur had swept over the town. In fact, until Rajini pointed at an accidental clearing, I couldn’t tell that I was home.

When we touched down, the sensors began to flare.

“Ignore it,” I bumbled, in a hurry.

“The parameters are over the threshold by four percent, sir. The Kundakulam Nuclear Facility is less than eighty kilometres away. There is leaked radioactivity. And there’s definite presence of virulent particles in the air.”

“I have my suit. You promised me fifteen minutes,” I said. I imagined Alekha shivering beside the fires alone these last four months. Clinging to hope, clinging to the idea of Rajini and me returning. How much longer before her disappointment in me transformed into indifference? How much longer before she was forced down the path of many around her who sneaked into tents and crouched in the shadows of the sludges to steal and kill? Her caste should not have mattered. And yet, so far from Earth and its pious atmosphere, it mattered more than ever. Arya-7 had been constructed on the societal evils that should have been left behind like the millions who couldn’t make it into the shuttles.

Rajini’s head vibrated in a formidable shake.

I gulped. “I . . . I need to do this. Please. It’s for my daughter. Sh-she does not deserve the bridges. Ten minutes. Just ten.”

A signal choked out of Rajini. “It’s a poisoned land, sir. It is my priority to safeguard your life and the life of any crew on board.”

“Five minutes,” I begged. “Maybe fewer given there’s a good chance my ancestor’s house does not even exist anymore. It’s probably all jungle already. Let me just check.”

The improbability of the existence of my ancestral home at least temporarily stumped Rajini. I suspected the sentiment about my daughter, the first honest statement I had uttered to Rajini since smuggling myself into the Manithan, had no impact.

After a long moment, his sensors changed color.

“Five minutes,” he repeated. “Just photos.”

I nodded in relief and pressed the button to release the hatch. The other hand I held to my chest where my bloated suit’s outer pocket contained the letters.

“Tighten your seals, sir,” Rajini added as I strode past him and down the ramp.

Home was a clusterfuck of tangled wood and leaves. The co-ordinates on the letters matched the location where I stood. Around me, a few collapsed houses. I did not know if one of them belonged to my ancestors. There had been a name and number on the gate four hundred and eighty seven years ago. Plot 11. Pavithra.

The walls were buried under a thick knot of briars. I skulked around like a fox, the suit increasingly a hindrance to my need. Ahead, more broken homes. Roofs caved in. Gates overgrown in tendrils of greenery. Vines enveloping entire floors. Branches piercing the windows of cars. Leaves breathing everywhere. There was so much life it was overwhelming.

Ahead, I glimpsed a wall still standing. I crept closer, crawling through a hole and tumbling out on the other side, clearing condensation from my visor before squinting at the inscription on the wall.

The 11 had been scrubbed off. Only the ‘itra’ remained of the name.

Home.

I lifted the camera and held it against the suit’s visor. Click. I named the image Legacy. Another click. Purpose. A third, of the verandah and the porch leading to a door scratched and holed into darkness. A Gift to a Daughter.

My five minutes were up. I glanced back and my breath caught as I realized I had walked almost a hundred metres from the Manithan. It was barely visible through the thick forest cover.

I climbed the wall and bundled inside the home. Gave the door the barest of nudges and watched it collapse. Pollen rose from the floor in an oppressive cloud. The walls were wet; the floor was wet; the banisters on the stairs were wet. The boots attached to the suit’s membrane were moisture-proof but wet. I climbed the stairs, two at a time, wet and lost and full of longing for a world I had no part in either creating or destroying.

There were three rooms on the first floor. I waded into the smallest, where I hoped they’d buried their greatest secrets. Coated in brambles and ivy. Branches broke through the lone window, leaves of the banyan as large as coracles. Insects crawling upon them. An owl hooted in the distance.

The roof had begun to cave in. Cracks on the floor. A cratered sink on one end. The bed had broken and lay a ruin. Only a safe endured at the end of the room, as though it had been moved in yesterday.

Sheesham at first touch. I traced its contours and then, using the code from my letters, opened its drawers. More letters, untouched for centuries but preserved. And a document. I opened it.

A will.

Immediate transfer of property to the colony, drafted post the accords and after the evacuation ships had been prepared. My heart galloped, my hands tracing an inlaid wooden box that lay beneath the forgotten will. I pocketed the letters and the document, then lifted the box. It felt heavy in my hand.

The latch clicked open at my touch. Inside lay an ancient pocket watch, with a man’s and a woman’s face shaded in sepia, the dials stuck at twenty seven minutes past nine. A necklace beneath it, and a smaller box of turmeric and sacred ash. And dried sandalwood paste. Worthless in Arya-7. Just a memory, preserved and then abandoned under the duress of an emergency. And yet, it was suddenly everything. Worth a journey through hyperspace, through a fiery atmosphere, past submerged cities and ruined temples and monuments with their histories erased. I glanced through the will once again and smiled. I could easily prove my ancestry. The names would suffice. Alekha suddenly had a line connecting her to this ruin. A malignant caste that ought to have been erased. Our lives in Arya-7 depended on it.

I placed the box in the largest pocket of the suit and zipped it up.

Then I turned to leave, and froze.

The beast at the door had been a wolf at some point, of that I was certain. What the virus had mutated it into I did not have a name for. It snarled at me from beneath the doorway, drooling, teeth as long and sharp as kitchen knives. It had no hair, only rough, bronze skin, pockmarked and swollen, with pus releasing every few seconds as it breathed.

It took one step inside, and I backed away, tripping and falling, fortunately, only over the broken bed’s frame. My elbow made a crunching sound, but my fear was reserved for the monstrosity looming in front of me.

When it leaped, I closed my eyes.

The sound of the bullet exploding across the chamber filled my ears and my chest, setting the heart cornered in it ablaze. I opened my eyes and watched the beast stagger, stumble, and fall two feet from me, a gaping hole in the back of its head, black blood seeping out in a miasma of all that was wrong.

Rajini stood in the doorway.

“You’re late,” he said. I managed to stand up, one hand clutched around the letters and the wooden inlaid box in my suit. Time began to thaw. I lumbered past the beast and followed Rajini out of my home, through the tangles, the mess of nature, the order of it, the majesty of it, until the Manithan came into view, like a savior. My smaller savior ambled ahead and up the ramp.

And there he suddenly stopped and turned.

His weapon, unmistakably, was aimed at me.

“Sir, I think we may have a problem.”

It took me a few moments to understand. The will was safe.

I glanced down at the blotch of blood that had stained my pale-white suit. Dripping from the elbow. A piece of wood remained lodged just at the end of my forearm, jutting through the suit and the insulation and finding skin like a magnificent treasure hunter. How hard had I fallen on the bedpost’s stump?

“It’s—it’s nothing,” I said weakly, even as I unzipped the outer lining of my suit where I had stored the inlaid box, the will and the letters.

“I am afraid I cannot let you inside the ship, sir. Or back to Arya-7.”

Rajini was calm, his aim solid and decisive. I did not want to move and provoke him. On a winter night fifteen years ago, I could have compelled him to lay down his weapon, marched up to him and disabled his consciousness. His imperatives.

Slowly, I slid my hand from within the holder and removed my ancestor’s property.

“We can rectify this.”

When Rajini did not reply, I sensed his resolve and continued, “I am going to pass these on to you. I want you to take them back to my daughter.”

Rajini’s sensors seemed to capture the haze in the environment, the virus’ potency latching on to my body, slowly devouring me. It would take days, weeks, maybe months, or if I was really unfortunate, years. In the end, I’d be like the un-wolf whose remains lay splattered in the smallest bedroom of my ancestor’s home.

Slowly, my creation nodded. Gods, he was perfect! An image flashed in front of my eyes. Of Rajini walking beneath the bridges, carrying Alekha on his shoulder so that she could glimpse the protests. Where was I? Why couldn’t I remember? Maybe this was for the best. My presence after all this while would be difficult to explain. Alekha would find it easier to forgive Rajini. He had never betrayed her.

I inched closer to him. I had exhausted my quota of foolish acts, though. I remained grounded and passed on my belongings.

I also carried two letters I had penned for Alekha. I opened one, read it and then cast it aside. It floated down and silked into the undergrowth. The other letter I had read a dozen times. I heaved a sigh and placed it in Rajini’s hand, blood from my fingers staining his aluminum.

“And this,” I said. “Tell my daughter that she now knows who her family was and where they lived . . . . And what they left for her.”

Last went the camera. I lifted it over my face and garlanded Rajini with it. He did not display discomfort. “Show my daughter my pictures. Do not speak to her of the wolf. Tell her it was a beautiful home, and that the day isn’t far that she’ll return to Earth. And tell her, maybe treat it with a little more kindness the next time out.”

For the first time, my words seemed to have an emotional impact on Rajini. He weighed each letter, the integrity of them rising from the depths of my tainted soul, and measured them for meaning. For hope.

“Just a little more kindness?” he asked.

mm

Author: Prashanth Srivatsa

Prashanth is a speculative fiction writer from Bengaluru, India. His works of short fiction have appeared in magazines such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Three-Lobed Burning Eye and Dark Matter among others. He is represented by Naomi Davis of BookEnds Literary Agency.

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