Stone Cold

by Kiran Manral

Format: Excerpt | Genre: Science Fiction

The moonlight was cold on her skin. The door, a massive, ponderous structure of wood, the one she guarded with him, was now shut. Their day’s work was done. Not much happened inside the building now anyway – it was good only for decay and disuse.

Outside the gate, the city waited for her, quiet, coiled and tense with the uncertainty of the darkness that followed the briskness of the day. She looked over at the road beyond the barbed wire on the shelled-out compound wall that kept the city out of this now derelict, sacrosanct site that held the wealth of the nation. On the other side of the massive door stood her brother, his undefined features contorting themselves into a yawn, awake for his nightly sojourn into the land of the mortals. He was ugly, with a protruding belly, and held on to his money bag with all his might. They were a contrast to each other, perhaps created that way – one to seduce with the gentleness of beauty, and the other to enslave with the arrogance of wealth.

Above them, a gibbous moon smiled through a swiftly streaming lattice of clouds beyond the Dome. An occasional star dared to twinkle through the carpet of smog that hung low over the horizon beyond. The pole star was nowhere to be seen, the crispness of the million fires across the city streamed upwards, towards a disinterested heaven. Citizens burnt their waste in symbolic bonfires every weekend, reminding themselves they were just as temporary and destructible. Only the Brotherhood was permanent.

The smoke from the bonfires would be filtered out through thousands of suction pipes embedded in the Dome. Freshly manufactured air would be pumped in, air infused with predetermined gases that kept the citizens alert during the day and sent them into somnambulance as night fell. These gases didn’t affect her. She was stone made flesh, and then made back to stone again.

The man who made her, with his unruly hair, crumpled face and kindly eyes, was long gone. He was perhaps the only man who had ever looked at her as stone and seen her in the flesh. To the rest of the world, she was just a sculpture, cold, monolithic, unresponsive. But he knew she existed in flesh and spirit beneath the stone carved out from the Baijnath mountains. Hacked out and transported first by narrow gauge and then broad gauge down to the plains, to the city. He had watched her come to life as careful hands had carved her from the squat stone, and gave her a face and a form.

The men who had carved her were from a place that was then called Guntur, in a state called Andhra Pradesh, 13 of them, under the guidance of the tousled-haired, kind-eyed artist. Their families had carved statues for centuries, and knowing how to make stone sing and curve it into form and flesh was in their blood. Now, of course, there was no ornamentation. No sculpture. No art. No music. No literature. Nothing to feed the mind other than what the Brotherhood approved of. Worthless pursuits, the Brotherhood called them, and did not encourage their existence.

Those 13 men had put her together piece by piece. Twenty-one feet high. Four stone pieces. She was joined together, head, neck, shoulder, belly, knee, foot. Each piece weighed 15 tonnes. She was magnificent when they were done with her, but she was doomed to never see her own magnificence. She stood unnoticed by most who used to enter the gates. They were always in a hurry, their movements hastened by the lack of time, the urgency of appointments to be kept, queues to be stood in, tasks to be finished. Humans and their obsession with time. Didn’t they know that they had enough of it, and it never ended? It only kept stretching itself out into a cyclical loop that spun through the fabric of space-time. Perhaps they didn’t. But she did. She sighed. It was so wearisome to count time in these minuscule human fragments. A blink of an eye to a god, a lifetime for a human being.

For centuries she had stood here, guarding the door of this repository of wealth, through the searing heat of the summer, the numbing cold of winter, holding in her hands a flower and paddy cluster, the emblems of prosperity. But, sometimes, she vacated her post; on some nights she slipped into skin.

****

Diksha stood in line for the phosphorescent graphic to be stamped on her wrist, allowing her entry into the club. The music was so loud that she felt it burn a hole through her eardrums, shredding the delicate membrane to tatters and rattling the three little bones within, that tap tapped their message into the cochlea. Incus, malleus, stapes. Hammer, anvil, stirrup. Some forgotten recesses of her brain dredged up an old lesson from the eighth standard, about ancient human anatomy, from the millennia before the Change.

Nothing had been the same after the Change, the tipping of the Earth’s axis, leading to a cataclysm on the surface. Those who survived kept getting retreaded, like tyres. Body parts replaced, cells rewired, devices inserted, kept functional by technology and chemicals. Most of the pure humans left were a precious species, protected by the Brotherhood, segregated, kept eternally. The rest were cyborgs, part human and part robot, created with a purpose, working till they wore out because a new batch could always be created. And then there were the Pure. Cloned from select humans, genetically engineered to fit the new norms of aesthetics, made to adapt to any kind of planetary surface, just in case they needed to exit Earth in a hurry.

She was one of the Pure. Born of genetic splicing and implantation into a human womb, and handed over to the CareCyborgs when she was removed from it. She was created for a purpose. She was among the few who were the future of humankind.

Next to her, Aman was rocking on his heels, his eyes zoned out, which could only mean that he was high again. She shook her head. ‘Listen, you’ve got to drive us back home – you’re not going to drink, okay,’ she yelled into his ear. ‘I’ll call you when I’m ready to leave.’

He nodded, his eyes still focused on something she could not see. They trundled into the flashing dimness of the club. The crowd engulfed them as they spilled in – the friends, the acquaintances, the noise, the bonhomie. Gove, the one who took charge of forbidden supplies, raised an enquiring brow at her. She shook her head; no substance today, perhaps some shots later. It exhausted her. In fact, all of it tired her. This group, this determination to make merry, to be hedonistic in a world where hedonism was forbidden. Any gatherings other than rallies for the Brotherhood were banned. This was underground, where the drones couldn’t track them. On the surface, below the Dome, they were constantly monitored, the trackers implanted in the back of their necks pinpointing where they were at every given moment to the Keepers of the Brotherhood. Within the Dome, millions of tiny eyes beamed back all human activity to the distant control room in the reconnaissance headquarters of the Motherland. Somewhere in those dank cement bunkers, miles below the surface of the earth, the heart and internal organs of the Brotherhood fed off the infinite lives and loves playing out on the datastreams that gave them sustenance

There was no hiding on the surface. There were lights in every corner, and you knew you were being watched. But you figured out how to get around it. With a duplicate chip available in the black market that you could activate on the nights you wanted to go underground. Diksha had deactivated her original one with the help of a hacking device that allowed the chip to still show as ‘active’ in the system. She had then activated the duplicate chip, to be valid for eight hours of escape, once a month. She had paid a fortune in food credits for it. To the Brotherhood, she was asleep now, in her compact bed, back in her cell at the Centre for the Pure. If they ever found out that she was one among the Rebels, her ambition to become among the first women to be inducted into the Brotherhood would be doomed. She knew that. But her need to defy the constricting system battled fiercely with her desire for power – and, more often than not, the defiant side won. But in reality here she was, inside the dark dank space of an old, disused building, the stairway crisscrossed with deflecting sonic waves acting as a sonar fence. They were as safe as they could be. Drone eyes could not penetrate this space, the trackers couldn’t track them. The ones who visited here were protected. But just for a while. Until they went out again through the octopus-like tunnels that led out from the discotheque into a warren of tightly packed neighbourhoods. Tunnels that were locked behind wardrobes and which opened only on nights on which the whisper network unlocked them, and the homes they led into emptied themselves of their decoy occupants to let the revellers escape.

She stepped onto the dance floor, feeling the music work its way through her skin, her muscles, her bones, her body moving of its own accord, her heart pounding in symphony with the beat. She was beautiful when she danced – she knew that. The floor cleared a bit for her, and then some more. A woman came through the crowd, a stranger. Diksha had seen her here before. She was different in a way that no one was these days, full-bodied with high round breasts and broad hips that seemed to move on their own. The regulation body suit she wore stretched dangerously as she walked, taut to the point of splitting itself. Diksha noticed the gaze of the men shifting from her to the woman. They stood around, watching her, their eyes dilating, the lust she aroused in them something they could not explain or control anymore than they could stop themselves from watching her. She looked around the gathered ring of men like gladiators bristling for combat, their breathing heavy and ragged from desire, and her eyes fixed on Diksha. They were heavy-lidded, almond-shaped, Diksha noticed, as their eyes locked. A hint of a smile appeared on the woman’s face. Just as Diksha was about to take a step forward, a man pushed her aside and strode up to the woman. He began dancing with her, his movements jerky and uncoordinated, dissonant with naked desire.

Diksha watched on from the fringe of the dance floor, fascinated by this strange woman, her skin the colour of molten gold. Who was she, where had she come from, why was she so different from the rest of them? Hour-glass. That’s what they used to call the shape of this woman’s body, the shape that women aspired to before the accepted aesthetic demanded tall, androgynous bodies. Those hips, the wide, child-bearing hips required for the bones of the pelvis to separate and allow the head of the offspring to pass through the birth canal. But women didn’t bear children anymore. They had no need of such hips. They needed to be, like the men, lean and highly effective, strong and totally without desire. Only those without desire or those who had no fornication transgressions against them were selected for positions in the Brotherhood. The rest were Workers.

The woman moved with the man who had approached her on the dance floor, her body a groundswell of want and yearning, exuding promise and fulfilment. Then, just like that, the lights went off for a second and they both disappeared. The crowd looked around, startled for a moment, snapped out of the trance she seemed to have drawn them into. ‘They must have gone into a pod,’ one of the onlookers muttered, and went back to moving in a desultory manner on the dance floor. The music pulsated on, the DJ spun his tracks, the bar got crowded, people came in and went out in waves of bodies, but all the energy had now been vacuumed out of the space.

This excerpt from Magical Women has been reproduced here with the permission of the author and the publisher, Hachette Book Publishing India. All rights remain with them.

You can purchase the book at: Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.in.

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KIRAN MANRAL

A TEDx speaker, columnist, mentor with Vital Voices Global Mentoring Walk 2017 and festival curator, Kiran Manral published her first book, The Reluctant Detective, in 2011. Since then, she has published nine books across genres till date. Her books include romance and chicklit with Once Upon A Crush, All Aboard, Saving Maya; horror with The Face at the Window, psychological thriller with Missing, Presumed Dead and nonfiction with Karmic Kids, A Boy’s Guide to Growing Up, True Love Stories and 13 Steps to Bloody Good Parenting. Her short stories have been published on Juggernaut, in magazines like Verve and Cosmopolitan, and have been part of anthologies like Chicken Soup for the Soul (Westland), Have a Safe Journey (Amaryllis, 2017), Boo (Penguin, 2017), The Best Asian Speculative Fiction (Kitaab, 2018) and Magical Women (Hachette, 2019).

She was shortlisted for the Femina Women Awards 2017 for Literary Contribution. The Indian Council of UN Relations (ICUNR) supported by the Ministry for Women and Child Development, Government of India, awarded her the International Women’s Day Award 2018 for excellence in the field of writing. Her novella, Saving Maya, was longlisted for the Saboteur Awards 2018, UK, supported by the Arts Council England. Her novels, The Face at the Window and Missing, Presumed Dead were both longlisted for JioMAMI Word to Screen. You can find her on Twitter at @KiranManral.