What were we doing here? Traveling hundreds or thousands of light-years, to break our hearts? -Gateway, Frederick Pohl
All spacers are incurably sentimental. -The Centauri Device, M. John Harrison
I. GHADA AND ASAD
“Oh, Ghada, Ghada, Ghada.”
“If you say my name one more time, I swear to Jesus, I will kill you.”
Asadullah Khan scowled. Ghada Nabulaale rolled her eyes.
Was this going to be their new relationship? Had time dilation really turned her former lover into someone with gnarled joints and arthritis? She examined Asadullah’s hair, what had once been a source of such comfort and delight for her. Back in London, she had loved to run her fingers through the thick, dark curls, to tease him for his Muslimfro. Now it was all thinning and white, less virile youth, more aging Gene Wilder. Ghada sighed.
Of course, things were better than she had imagined them, back so many years ago. When she had signed her name crookedly along the dotted line, signing her life away to Big Drop adventures, she had imagined that time dilation would mean an end to all of her Earthly relationships. She had said tearful goodbyes to family and friends, she had gotten drunk in Soho and spent days in the pre-Drop group therapy sessions. Asadullah Khan, her lover, her friend, had already gone three months before. And what was London without Asad?
“Ghada my child!” Mum exclaimed in her Londonized Swahili. Rare city sunlight streamed in through the kitchen windows. “Mwanangu, what kichaa crazy are you going after? Your Asadullah had to go, and now you want to follow him?”
Ghada tucked her knees under her chin and cried.
“Oh, don’t do that,” Mum said. “There was nothing either of you could do.”
“I just don’t want to stay here, Mum. I can’t!” Every lane, every bend and arch in the skyline was full of memories. “Jesus, I hate the Empire!”
“Doesn’t everybody? But it is the way it is, angel. Just be happy they didn’t draft you, too!”
Her family didn’t want her to leave, she didn’t want to go, but she couldn’t stay. It would have felt like a betrayal to Asad. How could she keep living in comfort on Earth when he would be hurtling across the night sky? The draft letter had said he would be working on civilian colonization, Drop site maintenance, non-military stuff. But didn’t they also say no colony was safe in a time of war?
On the day of her departure, she pressed her face against the tram windows and watched the glowing city pass her: the steam from the Thames, the glistening, oily smoke from the Eye, the crowds of happy people with their feet on the ground.
Who would have thought that only five years later, Ghada would be sitting with Asad again, on a new space ship (the Rahu Ketu), in a new galaxy (unknown), lost to the Drop network and heading back to Earth. And who would have thought that Asadullah would be (1) so much older, (2) an alcoholic, and (3) keen.
But he was. He was all Allah has given me a precious gift this and When you smile, I swear I can hear the Afrigo Band that, and he dared to squeeze her hand between his arthritic fingers. Ghada had, at first, been disgusted and appalled. But then, as the weeks passed aboard the Rahu Ketu, she had grown used to him, even fond of him in a weird, grandfatherly way. It was a time dilation soap opera, a Hindi film of improbabilities and space.
Anyway, her ex-teetotaler ex-boyfriend was a wonderful drinking buddy.
How had the Big Drop changed Ghada? Prolonged youth, shortened patience, a dependence on therapy (curer of all ills! benefactor of the universe!) and crude language. She had left Earth at the age of twenty and now she was twenty-five.
“Ayurvedic, cognitive behavioral, acupuncture, old school Tibetan, Freudian, anti-Freudian, rational energy focus…” Ghada counted on her fingers. “If we just fucking dragged the Imperial leaders to therapy once in a while–any kind!–we would never have had this stupid war.”
How had all those smaller Drops changed Asadullah? Alcoholism, age, cynicism, chronic anxiety, poor short term memory. He had left Earth at twenty and now he was sixty-something.
“Chinese baijiu, vodka, whiskey, Italian grappa is nice…” Asadullah trailed off. “I started drinking after my first Drop, nearly forty years ago. So long ago.”
Asadullah of London had been one of those semi-devout Muslims–no alcohol, no pork, sneaking snacks during Ramadan but then feeling guilty during Eid al-Fitr. Asadullah of the Rahu Ketu had morphed into someone less strict, more Sufi. Asadullah of the Rahu Ketu had lived through the forced transcendence of Drops–again and again, almost two per year. He was well-acquainted with the disorienting Droplag, the preliminary fear, the sickening relief afterwards. He had started developing poetic and forgiving attitudes towards God, because it was his only way of coping.
The first Droplag crept in, as expected, a few months before the Rahu Ketu was to hit the Drop. It was a decent Drop, with an optimistic survival probability of eighty percent. Ghada was floating through a zero-gravity corridor, arms behind her head and thinking about when her next therapy session was supposed to happen. How was she supposed to learn and grow as a human being if Doctor Rai kept falling asleep during their meetings? It was Asad’s fault for overworking him.
Ghada’s head had just bumped gently against someone’s forgotten sandal. They were playing an old Hindi film song on the speakers: Love, love, love, oh, what does the world kno-o-ow? And then Ghada started feeling that mixed-up sensation in her stomach, that feeling that Buckingham Palace was taking shape over the view of upside-down Krishna posters.
“Come on, come on!”
London, rain, a thousand years ago.
She and Asadullah were protesting the Hindustani Empire and the Chinese Empire and the stupid awful narrow-minded skirmishes that happened between them in far-off galaxies. Ghada dragged Asadullah out of the Tube station, through the rain (pausing only to get some tea and samosas from the chaiwallah stand), and then they were outside of Big Ben, placards in hand. BUILD SCHOOLS NOT DROPS! TERRAFORM THE GHETTO FIRST! BRITISH FIRST HINDUSTANI SECOND!
When Prime Minister Indira Allison Desai or any of the other colonial governors came walking out of Big Ben’s parking lot, Ghada, Asadullah and a hundred other protesters erupted in jeers, shrill heckles, and a shower of eggs.
Afterwards, Ghada and Asad retreated to the pub down the road–The Head and Elbow–and had a curry before crashing the National Gallery. Ghada loved to jump through the holograms when the museum guides weren’t looking. Once she was caught and banned from the National Gallery “for nine hundred ninety-nine years.” The museum guides had scanned Ghada’s DNA and logged her into the main desk computer. Asadullah had found it all very funny. The ban had probably expired by now.
Ghada drifted back to the reality of the Rahu Ketu. She immediately decided: Droplag. Post-traumatic flashbacks were quick, violent things, like a punch to the stomach. Droplags felt more like a massage on the shoulders from someone creepy and unattractive.
She looked around: some of the other floaters had confused expressions on their faces. Yes, definitely a Droplag.
II. GHADA AND LUCREZIA
One year out of the Big Drop, and Ghada decided that she was a pacifist, but this time, she meant it. Who the hell cared if the Chinese Empire dropped a million atomic bombs on some planet in the middle of nowhere? Ghada would have no more to do with it. She was Londonese, Ugandan, part-Kenyan–she was about as Hindustani as the Hindustanis had been British thousands of years ago. And if the Hindustani Empire needed someone to go stop the Chinese missiles, or needed someone to unload a retaliation strike against some poor old planet before it was even named, they would have to find someone else.
Ghada, in the meanwhile, would be a pirate.
Modeling herself on the mythical heroes of her youth–Lady Fading Parekh, Ian Lonely–and combining their action-adventure spirit with the money-making schemes of the Shreemati Lakshmi Bachchan-Tata-Rockfellji, Moon-Buyer, Ghada fell out of the Big Drop and became a pirate. She wasn’t going to play the Imperial games anymore, she was going to jump through holographic Mona Lisas and sell drugs and do whatever she could to avoid the Empire and the Big Drop.
She fell back into civilization in the system of New Andhra Pradesh. She found a junky space ship called Hanuman’s Mace and used her military pension to buy it. Its corridors were narrow like a submarine’s, with exposed piping and rusty doors. Someone had tried to renovate the cockpit and given up halfway, so that outdated dials and screens huddled next to modern Dropware. The controls were sticky. The door frame to the cockpit was decorated with hundreds of pink heart stickers.
Now, Ghada needed to pick up her partner from the post-Big Drop therapy groups.
Her partner was the pretty, funny, demented Lucrezia. Lucrezia had been in Ghada’s matriculation class. They had taken the Big Drop together and they knew what it felt like to have your temporal reality detach like a tooth gone moldy.
Ghada loved Lu. Lu was short and plump, with wavy brown hair and sharp Sicilian features. No one knew historical minutiae about the Florentine Renaissance like Lu did. She could tell you for how many minutes Savonarola the crazy monk burned, and how much a kilo of Parmesan cheese cost in 1492. It was a weird fetish, but very useful for pub quizzes. Apart from knowing all the details of fifteenth century Florentine history, Lu was good with mock alfresco painting and artificial intelligence.
One day, Lu built a semi-organic butler-bot for the two of them: he turned out to be four feet tall, with a stiff smile and a lurching gait. They called him Vinci.
“Aoh, Vinci! Cazzo, what are you doing?” Lu demanded, stepping from behind an energy interface. Her face had streaks of grease on it from where she had rubbed her eyes with her fists. “Make yourself useful and cook us something!”
“Ew, Lu, you made his skin too squishy,” Ghada said, squeezing his small bicep in her hand.
Lu was terrible with money, so Ghada took over finances and navigation. Lu instead managed Vinci (“Aoh! Ah-move, bello!”) and managed all face-to-face deals. They never mentioned it aloud, but Lu was their walking fairness cream advertisement.
As thick-skinned as she considered herself to be, it still hurt Ghada that the colonial bumpkins had taken old Earthly racism with them, painting the universe with it. Over a thousand years since the caste system had been officially thrown out and products like Fair and Handsome had been banned from Earthly supermarkets, the far-off colonies had regressed into pre-modern conservative societies. Or, as Ghada called them, Bumpkinia.
When Lu was negotiating, deals went through and money was made. When Ghada negotiated, the colonists usually said things like, Can I touch your hair? Is that Earth hair?
“Don’t worry so much about it,” Lu said one evening, styling Vinci’s hair into a fauxhawk. “These space people, eh? They don’t know cazzo.”
“Easy for you to say! You’ve never had to live it like I have.”
“True. But I know a little, eh–back on Earth, yes, I was in Chinese Fiji when Italy was ormai Hindustani. That was a bad time. Oh, the looks I was getting there! People yelled things: ‘Hey, albino! Hey, white Moghul!’ So embarrassing, you know?”
“Bad time,” Vinci repeated mechanically. “Bad looks.” His hair stood up, stiff with wax.
Ghada rolled her eyes, but silently thanked Lu for trying. Another thing about Lu: she cared, but wasn’t very good at transmitting sympathy. Like Ghada, the Big Drop had kept Lu young but given accent to her faults.
“I don’t know, Lu. You’re talking colonial politics, I’m talking ethnic heritage. It’s a bit more fucking complicated.” Ghada sighed. “I have so much to work on in therapy.”
Lu laughed. “You mental health junkie!”
It was a tourist barge, floating out of the New Uttar Pradesh Drop. Its license tag read Georgetown Chennai X. Ghada and Lu watched it from the Mace’s cockpit, miles away, with three monitors tracking its progress in green and pink smears. The barge’s path was adjusting itself so that it pointed to the Super Taj. Everything was right on schedule.
A note about the Super Taj: Back in the day, the pioneers had gone crazy with all the space, and so–fueled partly by homesickness and partly by architectural orgasms at the sight of such a big canvas–they built enormous copies of Earth’s cheesiest tourist attractions. Bigger, they cried, bigger! And now the Hindustani Empire was populated with Red Forts the size of small countries, with Gates of India sitting atop planetary poles, and with many, many Taj Mahals. The New UP moon had one such Taj Mahal, a man-made structure so big it had to stretch around the moon’s surface, bending with the curve. When they held functions at the Super Taj (as Ghada called it), it glowed fierce and bright in the night sky. It was very fancy and impressive and, yes, worth a visit. But not that many people would take a Drop just to see a tourist attraction. Dropping was too scary.
“Big whale ahead,” Vinci said. His voice had that eerie, artificial cadence: Big whale ahead.
“Sure enough, son,” Ghada whispered.
“That is big–eh,” Lu said. “Big like Moby Dick.”
Ghada picked up the navigation booklet–For the Eternal Glory of the Empire (Hindustan zindabad!): Official Key, Hindustani Drops (Green)–and threw it, spine-first, at Lu. Lu dodged it with a squawk.
“Bad luck, idiot!”
“Moby–” Vinci began.
“Hush!” Ghada leapt back and cuffed him on the head. He staggered forward with an, “Oh!”
“Sorry, Vinci,” Ghada steadied him. “But shut the fuck up. That’s an order.”
A whole new system of superstitions had started with the Drop network. It was so easy to die in one–the force of Dropping, if you hit it at the wrong angle, could spaghettify the strongest materials–and even though the pioneers had long ago provided accurate survival probabilities to each Drop, the human mind didn’t cope well with probabilistic survival. So apart from obsessive checking of Drop probs–fifty percent, eighty percent, ten percent–a number of arbitrary magical thinking rules had sprung up as well: Three prostrations before entering any Drop, for good luck. Never, ever mention Hawking Paradoxes, or you will die. When whaling, never refer to your mark as “Moby Dick” or the police will get you.
Three hours later, Ghada, Lu and Vinci stood on board the not-Moby Dick, guns in hand. The barge’s systems had still been scrambled with post-Drop residue, and it had been easy to dismantle their entire security system, block transmissions and lock all the doors. Then the Mace had swooped in, docked against the barge’s enormous side, and they had boarded.
A few passengers had been caught in the corridors when all the doors had slid shut. Sometimes this could be a problem, as Ghada and Lu were not in the business of hostages. So Vinci had blasted the kneecaps off one old man, and that had convinced everyone else to just sit quietly on the ground, avoiding the nozzle of Vinci’s gun.
Ghada found Lu in the barge’s command deck, downloading Imperial credits to her jump drive.
“That Vinci is a violent little bastard, what the hell did you do to his programming?” Ghada asked.
“Aoh, I know,” Lu said, tired. “I will change it when we are back home. The kneecap thing–what a bad figura, eh! Big mistake. Is the old guy okay?”
“He’s fine now,” Ghada said. “But I had to load him with half our meds. Shit, Lu, I think he was a priest.”
Lu shrieked. “Catholic?!”
“Porca puttana, cazzo,” Lu swore. “That Vinci–he becomes a microwave tomorrow!”
“And after this, eh, we go to Delhi? I’m tired of Bumpkinia.”
“One hundred percent, Lu.” Ghada tucked her gun into her jeans. “How much did we make?”
Lu smiled devilishly. “Enough to buy our own celeb clone, ha ha.”
Welcome to Delhi dystopia, center of the human universe!
So the businesspeople said, clucking into their million-dollar hookah pipes and plotting new Drops and colonies. The advertisements that flickered over the floating Super Gate of India, miles above orbit, instead read, “Welcome to His and Her Imperial Majesties’ Home, the Kohinoor Diamond of the Universe, DELHI PRIME. Hindustan zindabad! Hindustan zindabad! Hindustan zindabad!”
The military headquarters were here, the commercial center was here, the palaces, mahals, super-temples, super-mosques, monuments and vast tracts of beehive residential homes and everything were here. It was the center of the Hindustani Empire–the big fat black heart that pumped people to the new planets. It was called the Jewel Near Mimosa and Star City. No one mentioned the equally brilliant Beijing 3, located just a thousand light-years away in the direction of the Horsehead Nebula. And no one except the yogis mentioned Mother Earth, the real center of everything. Earth was shared sacred space between Hindustani and Chinese alike, and it would not do to remind the brilliant Empire of its humble human origins.
Delhi Prime was a ball of pure, pulsing city. Its orbit was cluttered with satellites, docking ports and yacht moorings. Streams of incoming ships floated out into space like prayer flags cut loose in low gravity. Zero-gee slums had sprung up around the ports and any abandoned vessels. Coming through the holographic image of His and Her Imperial Majesties’ smiling faces and namaste-ing hands, Ghada and Lucrezia could see only black glitter and metal from the cockpit window.
The chatter from several docking port workers streamed through their audio, along with rousing choral renditions of the Imperial anthem.
“Reading two passengers aboard ship registration key…”
“…requesting DNA certificates, transmission channel five-five-beta-Lakshmi…”
“Check, check. Accha, right.”
“Sa-are jahan se ach-cha!” Vinci started singing and pumping his fist into the air, eyes glazed over with remote control patriotism, “Hindusta-an hamara!“
Better than everywhere, our Hindustan!
“Oh Jesus, turn him off,” Ghada groaned.
“And make a bad figura?” Lucrezia said. She waved her hands towards the nearest docking port. “They see everything! Every-thing! Leave the little man to sing.”
She stuffed a pair of false DNA IDs into the communication link. A blip appeared on one of the monitors: the outline of Ganesh, and four small swastikas–the old symbol of profit and good luck–in each corner. The swastikas started spinning like windmills while the Ganesh faded from red to green as the information uploaded. Once the image was fully green, everything dissolved into, WELCOME TO DELHI, SHREE AND SHREEMATI CHANDRA! Super-saturated ads flooded all the monitors, targeted to the tastes of the the old, deceased Mister and Missus Chandra. Lu busily clicked OFF on each ad, while Ghada glided the Mace into the nearest docking port.
One ad burst through, filling the entire cockpit window with holographic rainbows. A little girl sat in a field, playing mournfully. Woe, she announced, I am so alone. If only I had some brothers and sisters! A stern-looking mother appeared and wagged her finger, I need a career first. A distracted father entered from the other side of the window frame: And we should wait until we’ve bought a home.
But, no! The ad’s voice over cried, tinny. Why wait? Children are (insert appropriate deity)’s gift, and a big family is a happy family. Remember, kids, tell your parents! A big family is a happy family! For the eternal glory of the Empire, Hindustan zindabad!
They were sitting in Tamarind’s Chutney House, owned by Tamarind, self-described God of Chutney. Freshly finished with their saag paneer curry and sweet coconut naans, Ghada and Lucrezia leaned back. Lucrezia nursed a red cider in a tall steel mug, while Ghada puffed pensively on a green tea beedi. Tamarind’s Chutney House was located right on the edge of the Parsee district, where it merged into the riotous blend of Old Pioneer Town. Arching into the foggy, orange-black sky was one of the earliest monuments to space pioneering history: the oversized replica of Earthly Delhi’s Jama Masjid. The mosque’s minarets reached up past the traffic, disappearing into smog.
Amid the roar and whine of air rickshaws and taxis, Ghada could hear someone tapping a microphone. Then, the call to prayer began–a roaring, vibrant adhan that rattled the steel platters and chairs of the Chutney House. It was so loud, Ghada could feel the decibels stressing her eardrums, the rattling bass in her teeth. She was reminded of something one of the Imperial officers had said about the stress of Dropping: “It’s like forced transcendence, Ghada. You can’t push people into the sublime before they’re ready.” The muezzin in his minaret continued, bellowing.
When it was finished, Lucrezia made a show of cleaning her ears and said, “I dated a taqwacore punk once. He was very funny, good with–cazzo, how do you say?–imitations.”
“You mean impressions.”
“Yes, yes. His name was Mustafa. Singer in a Sufi band, too, very sexy.”
“My last boyfriend on Earth loved Sufi stuff,” Ghada smiled, remembering.
“What was his name?”
“Oh yes! You have mentioned him.”
Ghada nodded. “Asad and I owned every Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan album every released.”
“Eh, Nusrat? He was so-so.”
“If Asad heard you say that, he would probably faint.”
“Cazzo, my music opinions are always unpopular.”
They laughed at a shared memory–pre-Big Drop training school, silly parties, arguments over bad hair bands.
“Arrey! What’s this?” A man’s voice.
From the crowds of Old Pioneer Town’s main road, a large man emerged. He was bearded and wearing the Sikh dastaar turban, but he looked too light to be pure Hindustani. And his sword was samurai style.
“Is that a green tea beedi, my friend?” the man asked, addressing Ghada.
“Ji, it is,” she said. “Want one?”
“Oh, no, please, my body is a gurdwara. I was just surprised to find such a familiar smell in a Parsee neighborhood. Sat Sri Akal, my name is Toshiro Singh.” He put his palms together and bowed.
“Sat Sri Akal,” Ghada and Lu returned the greeting.
“So where are you two from? And what brings you to this little hill station of the universe?”
“Well, she’s from Italy,” Ghada said. “And I’m from London, by way of Kampala.”
“Italy… London…” Toshiro Singh murmured. “Surely you don’t mean the Earthly ones?”
“Sure do, bhai, Earth-born one hundred percent.”
“Well! Well, well!” Toshiro Singh boomed. “That’s very impressive! And I thought I was impressive–mother was second-generation Kyoto, father third-generation Amritsar. Eh, a little impressive, na? Accha, maybe not. Come, let me buy you some real green tea and we can reminisce over the motherland. I’ve never met real Earth people before!”
They let themselves be cajoled–it was something to do, anyway–by this strange, friendly Japanese-Sikh man. He took them to the Green Tea Bonanza stall (green tea ice cream, green tea tofu, green tea toothpaste) down the road and ordered the fanciest tea for all three, the tea that came with a sparkler in it and twirled the Hindustani anthem. Toshiro had a quirky Punjabi accent, interspersed with the odd Japanese word, and he was bulky in an appealing way, making Ghada think of the green tea condoms hanging above the register.
Over the tea, Ghada and Lucrezia relaxed in his company and chatted easily, exploring each other’s histories as the hours went on. They lied about the Big Drop to him, and painted themselves as fresh-faced Imperial minions currently employed in the shipping division of Food Corps, New Faridabad. Toshiro admitted that they didn’t look very colonist-ish–Not like the yokels out there, eh? he said, waving his hand towards the sky–and this pleased Ghada.
At one point, Toshiro leaned forward and asked, “So tell me, Lucrezia-chan, you sometimes make civilian deliveries on your food travels, eh?”
“We’re not running a postal service,” Lu said. She had a jasmine chai mustache. “But if we like you, we can deliver some stuff, sure.”
“Ah. Because, you see, I have a small business on the side…skyrock, jump, you know what I mean? Only top quality,” Toshiro continued. “All my stock guarantees an ad-free trip, seven hours minimum.”
“Well, I’m not interested,” Lu said. “My body is a gurdwara too, bhaiyya. But maybe Ghada?”
“No way,” Ghada said. “Beedis are it for me.” They had probably given themselves away as post-Big Drop right there. Drop vets hated hallucinogenic drugs, the lag memories were enough.
“No, I don’t mean to sell, I need only some mules,” Toshiro whispered. “My business is small down on New Faridabad, I don’t make enough trips to keep up with demand. You wouldn’t have to sell it. I have a contact there to handle sales.”
“Wait, you want us to run drugs for you?” Ghada asked.
Toshiro just smiled.
Well, it was money. Well, it was a sexy employer. Well, it was sticking it to the Empire.
“Well…” Lu said.
“Well…” Ghada said.
What was funny about Drops is that they killed religion. Not all religion, just the old ones that preached free will. Because Droplag showed pretty definitely that free will was an illusion, and once you were on a course, you would probably end up finishing it. The rule of karma prevailed, suddenly cause and effect were taken much more seriously–it was an iron-clad rule, not a bendy philosophy. (It was a good time to be a Buddhist.)
To everything there was a cause, and to every cause, an effect. Choices you had made years ago fermented over time and came to fruition, exploding like over-ripe mangoes. One minute, you were having a green tea beedi at Tamarind’s Chutney House, the next, you were falling down an unexpected Drop in a single-person escape pod. In hindsight, it all made perfect sense and the chain of reactions seemed clear. But living it, who knew! Ghada would never have predicted that she would end up smuggling skyrock for a Japanese-Sikh man named Toshiro Singh. For his part, Toshiro was probably just as surprised. But that was because neither of them had ever stopped to consider the eternally long chain of events that had led to this point. Neither of them realized that they had written their own destinies a very long time ago.
But back to the Droplag. As soon you set your coordinates for a Drop–whether it was a week or a year before taking it–the Droplag started. The strange thing about Droplag was that it only worked in reverse, as you came up to a Drop, never as you left it. Droplag could best be described as flashbacks and flashforwards, memories of time. It was like seeing a film trailer of your own life, smudged, saturated and incomplete. Going insane with Droplag was not uncommon. Some people tried to avoid the nasty things they had seen and turned into modern-day Oedipa (without the incest, usually). Many people claimed that what they had seen never came true, that the Droplag lied, but who could believe them? Everyone was living in their own private paradox. And everyone experienced the same reality: Droplag never lies.
Ghada, for her part, had taken the Big Drop, renowned as having the worst lag. Strange things happened in the Big one. Going through it meant having everything scrambled, every strand snapped loose. It even had its own psychiatric disorder: the Big Drop shakes. And all for the eternal glory of the Empire (Hindustan zindabad!), all for the eternal search for new sites, new resources, new colonies.
Smart people knew how to play Droplag. If they started feeling the tentacles of time crawling towards them, they welcomed them, studied them. Pre-Drop anxiety was a related issue. There were pre-Drop meditation sessions, pre-Drop drinking sessions. There were tarot card readers who claimed to interpret Droplag. There were sacred cows and holy parrots who could decipher the mystical images for you. I saw myself with a girl, but I like men.
Oh-oh, the parrot would squawk. Great change coming. Time to adapt. Invest in the creative!
Buddhism wasn’t the only religion to benefit from Droplag, suddenly all the dharmic religions flourished – Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism. Because Droplag signified cosmic predetermination which signified humanity’s helplessness, and all this signified dharma. And dharma meant duty, it meant purpose, it meant roles. Dharma meant castes, hence the village empire of Bumpkinia.
Ghada was no parrot, but she knew enough to recognize Droplag when she saw it.
Lucrezia looked up from where she was organizing their shipment of skyrock. The rainbow crystals glowed dimly in their boxes. The interiors of the Mace were dark. They were waiting for Toshiro-san to come deliver their pay. He had said to wait near the edge of the New Faridabad system, far from the system’s lonely colony, drifting in the nothing-zone. He had said to wait with the lights off.
“Eh? What?” Lucrezia’s palms were glittering from skyrock residue, like she had the galaxy in her hand.
“Lu, I think I just had Droplag.”
“What? Eh? Impossible. We’re not moving from here for months, and we’re taking the slow lane.”
“It was definitely lag. I saw… pink.”
Lucrezia sniffed her hands. “Probably this stuff, eh? Sometimes I see blue.”
But Ghada was right, her destiny had suddenly been altered and the Droplag was trying to give her advance warning.
Six hours later, Toshiro Singh’s cruiser had crashed into the Hanuman’s Mace. His hologram flickered on the screen, and they could see that his Hokusai-embroidered robes were drenched in blood. Imperial police were coming up fast on the radar. The emergency alarms were screaming, Vinci the butler was reported as having been sucked out into the vacuum of space. Without speaking, Ghada and Lucrezia ran to the escape pods, climbed in and launched.
The universe was full of unmarked, illegal Drops. Dangerous stuff. When Ghada felt her face begin to stretch, she suddenly understood why Toshiro-san had told them to wait in that particular spot. A perfect getaway. In retrospect, it all made sense.
There had been times when Ghada found herself on the bottom bunk of a three-bunk bed, stuffed into the engine room of an overcrowded ship, times when she would walk into a bathroom Lucrezia had quickly evacuated, warning, Don’t go in there, times when she was jostled by idiot colonists while waiting in line for something. Those were the times that Ghada dreamed of being alone. She wanted her Me time, her cave against reality. Those were the times she would have given anything to be floating in the middle of nothing, with no people, no talk, no interruptions or stupid ideas.
Now that Ghada found herself in that idyll of loneliness–the escape pod–she despaired.
Or she would have despaired, if the pod juices let her feel anything other than detached, intellectual contentment.
Pods were built to last, and to keep whatever was inside happy and alive. For that reasons, much like a womb, they held lone passengers in their gooey pod placenta, stuffing the person with nutrients and mood stabilizers. It was said a healthy human being could live out their entire natural lifespan in a well-functioning escape pod.
The last time Ghada had checked, this was a well-functioning escape pod.
So here she was, facing the possibility of another fifty, sixty years of contented, lonely nothingness. A fetus that would never be born. When she had fallen down the unmarked Drop, she had left the maps forever and entered into uncharted regions of space. The chance of her ever being rescued had now dwindled from Unlikely to Never Ever. The probabilities were so spectacular, they scraped the limits of a Hindi film’s suspension of disbelief.
Ah, but life was a Hindi film sometimes. Except in a good masala potboiler, Ghada would probably go crashing into Earth to be rescued by her mother. Who knew? She was probably in the home star system right now.
Actually, if we were talking real, pure Puranic masala filmi goodness, Ghada’s mother would have been rendered blind from the grief of losing her daughter, and there would follow three hours of impossible irony and extravagant naach-gaana music before the blindness revealed itself to be temporary and all were reunited, happy and healthy and well-informed.
Come on, laugh, Ghada’s intellect insisted. That was a good one! Remember how you loved those things? Remember how you watched them huddled under your blankets, embarrassed to be caught with them? Come on, feel something!
But Ghada’s gut sent no signal. The mood stabilizers were working.
Oh, dammit, Ghada subvocalized.
The pod’s monitor picked up the movement in her throat and repeated, OH DAMMIT
You’re going to die here, away from everyone, alone, abandoned. Lucrezia is probably dead. Toshiro-san is almost definitely dead. Mom and Dad are dead. A genocide of loved ones. All gone! Come on. Come on! Fee-eel!
Her non-emoting emotions replied pragmatically: ITS NOT SO BAD OTHER PEOPLE EXIST
MAKE NEW FRIENDS
Damn synthetic serotonin!
You know, this didn’t make sense on a purely evolutionary level, Ghada’s intellect reasoned. If pod passengers didn’t despair at their condition, how would they ever make any effort to get out of it? What if the entire human race took separate escape pods? How would they survive?
PODS WIRED TO TRAVEL TO NEAREST KNOWN DESTINATION SAFE SPOT
NO NEED FOR DRAMA QUEENS AT CONTROLS
JUST TAKE IT EASY YOU
Ghada’s intellect railed at Ghada’s gut. It thrashed, it gnawed, it tried to get a response: Those arguments only worked if you took a pod in a known system. What if you lost the Drop network altogether?
PEOPLE THAT STUPID NO GOOD FOR HUMAN RACE ANYWAY
Okay, now she was insulting herself. And she was having two-sided arguments with her vocal chords, which was a diagnostic criterion for Crazy.
A new tactic: the mundane, the moral, the epicurean. Wasn’t it sad that she would be doomed to a lifetime of pills and pink goo instead of a nice tamarind-papaya curry once in a while? Surely that was not only tragic, it was unnatural.
UNNATURAL RELATIVE TERM
TIMES THEY ARE ACHANGIN
ALL THE TIME
Ghada cursed her intellect, cursed all those times she had ever mused on something philosophical or listened to folk music.
But the pod just chugged along its merry way, loading her down with pleasant feelings and keeping her healthy and clean, even when every part of her intellect screamed that this could not be so. She deserved to feel at least a little horrible about what had happened.
The pod said it was time to sleep, so Ghada slept.
She was awoken by a rush of ALARM hormones, almost a headache of them. When she opened her eyes, she saw a pink light above one of the monitors. Her health read-outs were a Himalayan range of emotional turmoil. Something must have gone wrong, very wrong. Had she had nightmares? Why was the pink light blinking?
She sub-vocalized, REPORT LAST TWELVE HOURS
The natural up-down cycle of hormones, synaptic charges, breathing patterns and heartbeats unfolded in an undulating curve on the main screen. At hour nine, all of Ghada’s physiological reactions had spiked into an Everest of anxiety, and then the serotonin transporters had been stuffed with happy chemicals. Now all was calm again, excepting that pink light.
LIGHT DEFINE YOURSELF
A woman’s voice filled the placenta. Ghada noted with alarm that it matched, tone for tone, her mother’s voice. Speaking her mother’s Swahili-English, it sang, “Ghada mwanangu, life detected. Escape pod preparing to dock.”
“Holy shit!” Ghada said, out loud. “Life, here?”
“Language, my child.”
“Holy shit! Holy shit! Holy shit! All walls: fall away! Space view, now!”
The escape pod obliged and all its walls disappeared so that Ghada had a three-hundred-sixty view of space surrounding her. It was like swimming in a black sea. For one awful moment, vertigo overwhelmed her and she nearly panicked. But the pod quickly loaded her down with its artificial Zen, and Ghada was able to muse, detachedly, on the looming barge above her. It didn’t look like some exotic alien spaceship (her initial reaction). It looked drab and old and anticlimactic, like every other whale Ghada had ever boarded.
FRIEND OR FOE
“Not known, angel,” the fake Mum voice purred. “Hindustani signature, but wrong time zone.”
That was to be expected: the Drops screwed everything up, especially time.
“Detecting human life… and counting, sweets.”
Ghada watched the numbers tally ever higher – breaching five hundred, seven hundred, one thousand – but then the pod was already bumping up against the barge’s side and a docking bay was coming into view. All systems started switching off, leaving the total number of barge passengers mysterious, and the gel began to warm, preparing Ghada for her reentry in the low-pressure atmosphere of a bay.
“Goodbye, and I hope you enjoyed the journey, my child. Much love from Mum.”
I. GHADA AND ASAD
When he said who he was, she didn’t believe him.
He kept it up for an hour, and finally the realization that maybe he really was who he said he was began to creep into Ghada’s reality. Things swam away from her, panic flared alive, and she puked pod juice onto the Med Ward bed.
My name is Captain Asadullah Khan. We knew each other in London, Ghada.
More like, we loved each other in London.
Ghada tried to recognize him, but failed. Had his nose gotten larger? They said those things never stopped growing: nose, ears, hair. They said fingernails kept growing after death, even.
Asadullah’s fingernails were bitten down to the cuticle, a lifetime of nervous chewing. Check. He had a scar on his shoulder from where his sister had stabbed him with a stray wire when they were five and seven. Check. He knew the names of Ghada’s brothers, and he told her about the first time he had met her parents, in Lemington Spa. Check, check.
My name is Asadullah. Really, really. You used to call me Asad.
It was like speaking to a memory. For a long time, Ghada thought she had really snapped in the escape pod, that she had really lost her grip on reality. All those inner dialogs about Hindi film coincidences, and now she was living one.
“Arrey,” Asadullah dragged out each syllable, the slow Asadullahy way of talking. “It’s not so improbable. Space is not so large yet, dear. There are not many ways to get lost out here.”
So they had been made for each other after all. Only soul mates could be the first two people in the history of humanity to accidentally fall out of the official Drop network. Soul mates in idiocy.
“But please to worry not, eh,” Asad said. “Our Chinese guests know the way back to Eden, and off we go. Only one short Drop away.”
“Explain to me again why you have prisoners of war on your ship.”
“Did I say that? I said they’re our guests. After so many Drops, there are no wars. How can we be at war when we don’t even know where or when we are? For all we know, the war probably ended a thousand light-years ago.”
So Asadullah had become a real pacifist too.
Several months later, and Ghada was thinking: Maybe this new Asad wasn’t so bad. The music was throbbing through the big room’s audio system. People had gathered for boozy socializing; it was an edgy, pre-Drop party aboard the Rahu Ketu. Asadullah Khan, her gentle, elderly ex-boyfriend, was drunk and singing along to the female vocals, dancing with Rani, the Navigator, and Nurse Patel from Med Ward, making them laugh with his antics. Ghada smiled. In three weeks, they would be Dropping. Ghada was having the usual lags: these days, she saw green.
Asadullah had let his fear show one morning. He had asked her if she saw him anywhere in her lags.
“I can’t see anything anymore,” he mumbled, touching a bottle of Chinese liquor. “Not after all this.”
Honestly, Ghada hadn’t seen Asadullah in her saturated glimpses of the future. But no one deserved to live in fear, especially one of her former loved ones, so she shrugged and said, “Sure, I see green and I see my idiot ex, Asadullah Khan.”
Asadullah had exhaled shakily, “Masha’Allah.” And he had kissed her on the cheek.
The absence of Asadullah in Ghada’s Droplags, however, started to weigh. One night she twitched in the bed sheets and came awake, screaming, “Lu!” And then she thought of Asad’s tired good-humor and easy laughter and she breathed panic and grief. Come on, Droplag! Show me what I want to see! Help me help him! But when the lag came, it was all hasty blurs of London’s National Gallery and the Horsehead Nebula and then green, forever green. She started wishing they had a parrot or horoscope cow on this overcrowded ship.
When Asadullah appeared at her door, the morning after the pre-Drop party, he stumbled and slurred. He knocked incessantly, bellowing, “Ghada! Ghada! Hello? Ghada!”
Ghada was in her room, shaking off a nightmare. She saw him on the monitor and called through the wall, “What the fuck? Go away, you!”
“Oh, there you are, Ghada!” Asadullah sang. “Oh, Ghada, Ghada, Ghada.”
“If you say my name one more time,” she shouted, “I swear to Jesus, I will kill you.”
But instead she opened the door and he came tumbling in. He reeked of baijiu liquor and seemed intent on giving Ghada a hug. She disentangled herself and forced him to sit at the desk, away from her.
She wanted to say: Look, don’t think just because back in the day, we used to, you know…
She wanted to say: We can talk but we are definitely not going to “share.” Emotional space needed to be maintained, reviving the past was impossible in an age of Drops.
She didn’t want to say: Please don’t die or disappear or go crazy in the Drop. I love you, you’re great. You’ve always been great.
What was the point of finding him again if it was all going to end a second time? Ghada pretended not to care, and she scowled at him. But then Asadullah joined her, sitting beside her on the bed, leaning against the wall and definitely entering her bubble of personal space. It was a clash of present and past: the familiar presence beside her, the unfamiliar face with unfamiliar habits. Ghada was sure that her self-help manuals didn’t allow this sort of behavior. Not that they covered this exact situation, either.
Asadullah sighed, a long, theatrical exhalation. “Ghada, my jaan, you are perfect. It’s true what they say about the Big Drop. You are preserved, young and healthy. I am so… envious of your good health.”
“Asad,” she interrupted him.
He looked at her, waiting. He had always been a good listener, he had always known her moods.
“I–just–look, speaking of health,” she stammered, “how are you? How’s the old heart and liver and…things?”
He understood immediately. “I’m not in your lags, am I?”
Ghada tried to sound nonchalant. “It’s just green. All green, all the time. Nothing else. I mean, I’m not there either.”
“Not much green in space. Or on board.” Asad chewed his lip. “That’s a good sign. Green sounds,” he wiggled his fingers, “Earthy.”
“How long have you been trying to get back?”
Another elaborate sigh. “Oh, years and years. Ten years. More!”
Ghada said nothing. For her, it had been five years since her first day in Big Drop training. Five years ago, she had been living with the Asad of the past in London, and their life together had been planned and perfect. Five years ago, present Asad had been on this same ship, worrying about the same things, drinking the same baijiu liquor. The paradox made her head hurt.
The frustration turned to anger. “What the fuck is the point? What is the point of us meeting again, if you’re just going to–“
“Arrey!” Asad exclaimed, shrill. “Don’t say it!”
“And why aren’t you in my lag?” She felt like crying. “Why don’t you have any?”
“Oh-ho, please to worry not, my little bird.” Asad retrieved a hip flask from his jacket and unscrewed. “Breathe in, breathe out. It will all be as Allah wishes.”
“How can you say that?” Ghada asked. He had never been so flamboyantly contradictory.
But Asad just passed her the flask. Reluctantly, she drank. It tasted metallic, old. Time passed, no Droplag materialized, there were noises in the corridor as the rest of the ship started waking up.
They had finished the flask when Ghada spoke again. “I’m sorry. Are you scared?”
“Of course I am,” Asad said. He sounded desperate, and tired. Without thinking, Ghada reached over and ruffled his hair. A familiar motion, a physical memory. She caught herself and then quickly crossed her arms.
It was the day of the Drop. Most of the other people on board had that self-involved glaze of intense Droplag; some looked disgusted. There was nothing a person could do to make Dropping comfortable. No emergency sitting position, no belts. Some people were hanging around in the corridors by the windows. The sight of a Drop–whirling, sucking space, distant stars melting like wet ink–was a terrible beauty. Most people were hiding from the view, though. The cafeteria was full. The bars, baijiuwallah stand, temples and mosque were full.
Ghada went up to the command deck where Asadullah and his other officers were waiting.
Five years ago, Ghada would have taken his hand and squeezed it. Today she just nudged him with her shoulder and forced a smile.
“Drop approaching,” Rani the Navigator was announcing, “Countdown to Drop at ten seconds.”
Asadullah was unscrewing his hip flask.
“Arrey, don’t do that, Captain sahib, you’ll get it everywhere in the Drop,” Uday, the second in command, chided. His voice sounded strange: trembling, thin.
Ghada could hear the people in the corridor: talking, mumbling, worrying aloud. Someone was chanting a prayer: “Om shanti, shanti, shanti…”
The Drop could be seen now with the naked eye. From the command deck’s windows, it yawned like an open mouth, impossibly large. Stars streamed into it. The sensation of cold and compression along the spine–they were already stretching towards it. Ghada stared, thought of Nietzsche’s warning against looking into abysses, and closed her eyes. She saw green.
“You know,” Asad muttered, “after this Drop, we’ll be in the home star system. We’ll be there.”
Ghada squeezed her eyes tightly. Marine green–tree green.
The feeling of compression spread everywhere: intestines, lungs, bladder. Ghada heard someone behind her inhale sharply with pain. Dropping hurt. She had to pee.
She thought she heard Asad swallow. The Droplag was intense now. Green of the jungle–green of the fungus–and then a flash of familiar faces: Lucrezia in police custody, Toshiro-san with a cup of tea, Asadullah spilling liquor all over the command deck controls. A green and vibrant future, something wild and entangled. What did the Droplag mean? She wasn’t sure, but she knew that she had seen his face and that was enough. She inhaled–did she have time to say it?
“Asad, wait, I think I just saw–“
“I totally saw that coming.”
Asadullah Khan scuffs his shoes against the pavement, staring downwards, hands in pockets. Ghada Nabulaale throws her arm around his shoulders. They still carry the pubby smells on their clothes and in their hair: fried food, cigarettes, yeast. Ghada’s ears ring; those are the ear cells dying.
“And that’s what you get for playing against me.” She smiles. Her voice sounds muted. Asadullah shimmers in the night.
“I don’t know why you are so delighted to win at these things.”
“Because it proves I’m better than you.”
Asad snorts. He pulls Ghada around to face him, kisses her once. “You hardly need proof for that.”
“Oh, you.” She kisses him back, someone bumps into them on the busy sidewalk.
She thinks: I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you so, so much. I love you. I’ll never stop saying it. I’ll say it forever, for a million years, everywhere in the universe. I love you.
A thrill passes through her, she jerks with an involuntary shiver. Laughing, she pulls at his jacket lapels. “Getting old, getting slow!”
“Hey. Age is a relative term. And anyway, aren’t you two months older than me?”
“I can’t remember. Maybe you’re right. A pair of geezers! Oh God, can you imagine us at sixty?”
“Well, I’ll probably resemble a dashing Shashi Kapoor…”
“So you’ll get a nose job? And didn’t he gain all that weight?”
“…And you will, no doubt, look identical, thanks to Botox.”
“And then the universe will contract, and time will reverse, and we’ll just be back here again, youthful and brilliant.”
“Repeating my victory over you? Sounds good.”
“Not a bad cycle to be in,” Asad agrees. He smiles–and there’s a flash, when Ghada sees him old, dilapidated, white ear hair and fragile teeth. The Buddha’s last words were, All is subject to decay. “Even if I do lose.”
Copyright 2011 Angela Ambroz
About the Author
Angela Ambroz has lived in Italy, Fiji, India, the UK and, most recently, Boston. Other stories in the Dropverse series can be found in Strange Horizons, Expanded Horizons and Reflection’s Edge. When not writing, she works on international development and reviews movies at The Post-Punk Cinema Club.