Vikram Bannerji sat at table number twelve in The Turf Tavern, one of his favorite hangouts in Oxford, England, nursing a glass of whisky. He had been considering a decision he needed to make for close to forty-eight hours, and he wasn’t any closer to making it now than he had been when he started.
He knew what he wanted to do. No, actually, make that he knew what he needed to do. He knew what the right thing was for his family in Mumbai, for India, for his friends here in Oxford, for England, for the world. He knew what his role in it should be. But it meant turning his life into channels he had never considered for his future. More importantly, it meant turning his life into channels his father had never considered for his future, which was another packet of chips altogether.
The tabletop thunked as a glass landed on it. Vikram felt the vibration as someone else plopped in a chair across the table from him.
"What's up, Vik? You look like your favorite polo pony died."
That was Neil McLeod, a brash young red-haired Scotsman, studying English language and literature at Merton College. His Highland brogue, although tempered by years in British public schools, was still there, and had more than once tripped Vikram up in conversations, especially when the two of them had lifted more than a few mugs of ale, beer, or Neil's favorite potable, Guinness.
Of course, Neil would make the same complaint about Vikram's accent. Truth to tell, there was still a hint of the melodious Indian lilt to Vikram's tenor, although his diction and pronunciation was pure upper-class English. He sounded more Oxonian than most of his classmates, especially the American Rhodes Scholars.
"Not funny," Vikram muttered. "Rhakshasi is fine. Better than I am, actually."
"I was kidding, mate," Neil said. "You take better care of that horse than you do your girlfriend." He took a pull at his glass, and licked a bit of foam from his upper lip. "How long have you been here?"
"What time is it now?" Vikram looked at his watch. "Three hours."
"Well, then, I have a stern chase ahead of me. How many have you had?"
Vikram laid a finger on the rim of his glass. "Third."
"And you're still coherent? A miracle, that." Neil picked up Vikram's glass and sniffed of it. "Whoa. The good stuff. Glenlivet?
"Glenfiddich. Fifty year."
Neil whistled. "What's the occasion?"
That drew a snort in reply, and the Scot took a long pull at his pint.
Vikram reclaimed his glass and finished the last finger of liquid in it. He waved at a waiter who was floating by.
The Turf was known for its traditions about the ambience of the establishment, which dated back for hundreds of years. One of the traditions was live staff, despite the modern technology available elsewhere. And the staff members were proud of being chosen to work there. Competition for positions when they opened up was quite stiff.
The waiter took up Vikram's glass with some care. "Same again?"
The waiter disappeared around the corner to the bar. He reappeared a minute or so later with another tulip-shaped whisky glass loaded with exactly the right amount of Scotch and water. "Cathy says this is the last of the fifty-year bottle. The distributor's been slow in his deliveries lately, so you'll have to settle for fifteen-year for the rest of the night."
"I'll cope," Vikram assured the waiter.
"Anything to eat, mate?"
"If you don't eat something soon, Cathy's going to shut off your booze," the waiter warned. "Too much drink, even this stuff, on an empty stomach is not a good thing, she says." Cathy was the bar manager and was quite capable of following through on that threat.
Vikram quirked his mouth. "Bring me the fish and chips in about a half hour, then. Without—"
"—the mushy peas," the waiter said with a grin. "I remember."
The waiter nodded and strode off.
Vikram lifted the glass and though he'd already had three servings of the Scotch, he still held it under his nose and breathed in the vapors. Even in his current state, he still appreciated the aroma of one of the world's finest whiskies. Lowering the glass a bit, he took a small sip and rolled it around his mouth, savoring it once again—fine whisky, with just the right slight amount of water to smooth the taste and bring it to its peak of flavor.
"So what?" Neil asked, with a certain amount of impatience in his voice.
"Exactly—what are you thinking about?"
"Ah," Vikram said. "I need to make a decision."
"Bollocks," Neil said matter-of-factly.
"You heard me," the Scot said, "I said bollocks. My pronunciation was clear and distinct, I believe. You've never taken more than fifteen minutes to make a decision on something in all the time I've known you."
Vikram shrugged. "This is complicated."
Vikram shrugged again. "I'll be leaving school in a few days."
"What? In the middle of the term? Why, in God's name? You're going to have a D.Phil. in economics in . . . " He stopped to count, “ . . . nine weeks, with honors, yet, and you're going to walk away from it all? Now? Have you lost your bloody mind?"
"No," Vikram replied as he swirled the Scotch around in his glass and took another smell of it. "Sadly, I have not. Although I'm certain my family will think so."
"Forget your family," Neil said with intensity, "I think you're bloody insane. All your friends and all your professors will think you're bloody insane. Your family can get in line behind us. And we'll all be bloody right, because if you do this, you are bloody insane."
Neil's com pad pinged at him, and he snatched it up, swearing after he read a displayed message. "Bloody hell!"
"What?" Vikram asked.
"Old McGillicuddy says he's found a flaw in my thesis draft, and he wants to talk to me about it right now. Something about Tolkien's concepts of the Ents not being derived from his liking of trees after all."
"Oh." Professor Ian McGillicuddy, B.A., M.A., M.Phil., M.A. (Sorbonne), D.Phil., F.R.S.L., O.B.E., was Merton College's resident expert on the life and works of one J. R. R. Tolkien, Merton's most favorite son, and was therefore Neil's faculty advisor on his thesis about the origin of the Ents. For all that the Irish professor's one-time blazing bush of red hair was now mostly silvered, his quickness of wit was legendary, and his passion for defending the work and legacy of his distinguished predecessor knew few bounds. "Told you—you should have written on Sir Walter Scott."
"Sharrup," Neil said as he stood and gathered his com pad and bag. "We're not done with this. You haven't half explained what's going on in that narrow little head of yours. You just stay here and keep drinking the good stuff until I get back."
With that, the Scot wheeled and strode forcefully toward the exit, saying something to his com pad as he did so.
Vikram stared into the depths of his glass, running his finger around the rim. His mind drifted back fifteen years.
He barely remembered the world before the coming of the Jao two decades before. At twenty-four, his solid memories of age four had little content about the affairs of the world. He'd been a lot more focused on games and food at that age. So objectively, while he knew there was a time where his country, his world, had not been subject to the overlordship of the Jao conquerors, subjectively they had always been a part of the matrix of his world.
From what he could tell, though, from contemporary accounts and from his father and grandfather, by the time the initial shock of the invasion had dissipated and the world really came to grips with what was happening, most of it had already been overrun. India had put up a more spirited resistance than most, but for all their population and their economic base, their military had not been powerful enough to do more than gather a token resistance strong enough to attract the attention of a senior commander of the fur-clad invaders. A week and two days later, every aircraft in the Indian Air Force was destroyed, every ship in the Navy was sunk, every nuclear weapon in their arsenal had either been used to no avail or had been captured by the invaders, and there were no ground-combat-capable formations left. At that point, the government fell, and the rump of it surrendered before new elections could be held.
Of all the countries of the world, only three had been able to mount any kind of serious resistance to the invaders: Russia, China, and the United States. No one else had both the depth of territory and the depth of resources necessary to even temporarily put a halt to the advance of the aliens. And even they had lost—after some particularly fierce battles. By the first anniversary of the invasion, there was still unrest in pockets of the world, especially North America, but the Jao were in undisputed control world-wide, and weren't shy about demonstrating that control if challenged.
So by the time Vikram was old enough to really start tracking the world around him, the Jao were already in place. India, like most of the world, wasn't especially happy about the state of things, but they also had long experience in dealing with autocratic rulers, and actually recovered from the effects of the invasion fairly quickly. Their internal markets were robust enough that they were able to keep a semblance of an economy up and running even in the worst years. More so than most of the other countries, actually.
But the Jao almost destroyed that when Vikram was nine. Earth's people still hadn't totally accepted that when the Jao said “no,” they were deadly serious—emphasis on "deadly." A climbing team decided to ignore a direct order from Governor Oppuk, the Jao who had been left to manage Earth after the conquest, and make an ascent on Mount Everest. The governor had waited until they were making their final assault on the final leg of the north slope climb before ordering a bolide launch.
The Jao could have made their point with a military assault craft and picked the climbers off with weapons fire. Or they could have dropped a small bolide that would have basically taken the top few meters off the mountain and produced a seismic wave that would have knocked the climbers off the slopes to their doom. But instead, Governor Oppuk, in the first evidences of the excesses for which he would subsequently become infamous, had apparently ordered a massive bolide drop. As best as humans were later able to determine, the bolide involved had been a stony asteroid almost three hundred meters in diameter.
The resulting event had made the Siberian Tunguska event look like a fizzled firecracker. Over eight hundred meters of Everest's peak were vaporized, moving the mountain down to sixteenth on the list of the world's tallest mountains. The impact had created both an atmospheric shock wave and a massive seismic wave as well that registered strongly on seismographs all over the world.
Needless to say, the climbers were vaporized right along with millions of cubic meters of rock. It had occurred in November, and the prevailing wind was blowing from northeast to southwest. The dust cloud and debris tracked across much of northern India before it encountered the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. Traces of the dust were measured in southern Africa, and even scientific stations in Antarctica and southern Argentina measured bits of it.
Vikram had remembered his father Murali arguing with his grandfather Anil about it. Bannerji was an old Brahmin caste name, and even though the caste system was mostly defunct by this generation, there was still a certain repute and respect in the name. And while Vikram and his brothers and sisters were all modern Indians who paid lip service to the Hindu faith, their father and even more their grandfather had been believers.
"The dust cloud and the debris will undoubtedly cause a few deaths in the north," Murali had said from the comfort of their home in Mumbai. Vikram had been lurking outside a barely opened door, eavesdropping. "It may raise some toxicity levels in some of the water supplies, which will probably kill a few more people and some livestock. But in the grand scheme of things, we will have gotten off lightly. Not like poor Nepal. Half their country is in ruins from the seismic shocks."
"Are you willfully blind or do you truly not see?" Anil had snapped. "The blood of the climbers was part of that cloud. It has polluted everything it touched, including all the temples in its path. We will be decades cleansing the land—maybe generations."
Murali had grunted in reply. Vikram had heard nothing else of the conversation, as the two men had left the house shortly after that. But it had an impact, for in addition to making quiet donations to the various temples in the dust cloud path, the entire family had taken Governor Oppuk in severe dislike after that point in time. And in that, they were no different from the rest of India or the eastern Muslim states like Pakistan and Afghanistan, all of which had been touched by the dust cloud.
Vikram's personal antipathy for the Jao had certainly dated from that day. He never had a good word to say about the Jao, and particularly Governor Oppuk, after that. His father and grandfather had been of similar mind, for the family and their business conglomeration had quietly worked around many of the Jao directives, and their assembly lines had produced a number of items that were stealthily shipped world-wide under the very noses of the Jao—items that would undoubtedly have earned them a bolide of their own on the family home if the invaders ever caught on.
To put it mildly, Vikram despised the Jao. He carried that hatred through his school years, on into undergraduate work at University of Delhi, followed by graduate studies at Indian Institute of Technology, and now Oxford. Nothing had been presented to him to cause him to change his opinion of the overlords.
Until about a month ago, that is, when the Ekhat that everyone had assumed were either mythical or overblown Jao bogie men showed up and broke through the ranks of the defending ships to drop a ball of solar plasma on southern China. And now, all Vikram's assumptions were turned upside down.
The table thumped again, and Vikram looked up to see his sister Sati sitting in Neil's chair.
"What's this about you leaving school?" she demanded. "Are you insane?"
"Neil shopped me, I take it," Vikram said with a sardonic half-smile.
"Of course he did! And it's a good thing he did if you're really thinking about this. Do you know what Father will do to you if you do that? If he even thinks you'll do it?"
Vikram laughed. "Why do you think I'm still sitting here considering it? I'm working up the courage to face him." He lifted his glass in a mock salute, and took a sip.
"So what are you going to do?" Sati's brow furrowed, and her dark eyes bored into Vikram's. She had always been his favorite sister, not least because they had thought so much alike. They weren't twins, but were close in age, and had been natural allies against their younger siblings.
"I'm going to align with the Jao."
"What?" Her startled reaction attracted attention from passers-by, and she leaned forward and lowered her voice. "Now I know you're crazy. Just what in hell are you going to do . . . go join the jinau or something?"
Vikram avoided that question and pulled his com pad out.
"Sati, I think we have a fundamental misunderstanding of the Jao." He tapped on his com pad. "Oppuk is—was—evil, yes. And it was our misfortune that he was left over Earth for so long. But it seems like the Jao have finally realized that. That image of his execution by the jinau soldier wasn't faked, anyway. And this new leader, this Aille—he seems different."
"You trust them? You trust that they're going to change?" Sati looked like she wanted to spit.
"After that fireball landed on China, I think we have to reevaluate everything we thought about the Jao," Vikram said. "If they were right about the Ekhat, if they fought to prevent that and to defend us—the Earth—then they're not the absolute monsters we thought they were."
Sati looked at Vikram, and after a moment gave a slow nod. "I wouldn't say that to Father—at least, not yet—but I won't say you're wrong, either. But that doesn't make them gandharvas."
Vikram snorted. "No, they're not angels. Not by any stretch of anyone's imagination. But everything I've been able to find out about the Ekhat tells me that if there are rakshasas in the universe, if there are devils at all anywhere, they are Ekhat. Therefore, if the Jao stand against them, we must stand with them. Imagine what would have happened had the Jao not been here when they came."
"But what does that have to do with your leaving school?" Sati demanded.
Vikram began running his finger slowly around the rim of his whisky glass again.
"Have you read the Bhagavad Gita, Sati?"
"You know I have. We read it together when we were kids."
"Have you read it lately?"
Sati sat back and crossed her arms. "What does that have to do with anything?" Vikram said nothing, just kept moving his fingertip in circles. "All right, yes, I read it again a couple of years ago. I was going through a cultural identification crisis, or something, and was binge reading the entire Mahabharata and some of the Rig Veda."
"Do you remember how Lord Krishna counseled Prince Arjuna that as a prince, it was his duty to take to the field of war for the sake of his people?" She nodded. "Even the Jews and the Christians know this," Vikram said after a moment, "those that know their own scriptures anyway. 'It was the time of year when kings went out to war,' " he quoted.
"What are you saying?" Sati asked, leaning forward again so her eyes could bore into Vikram's. "Are you . . . you are, aren't you? You're going to join the jinau! Why? Because of some three-thousand-year-old book of epic poetry that glorifies death and destruction?"
"No," Vikram said. "What did Great-Grandmother Laksha call Shiva?"
"Lots of things," Sati said.
"I remember them very clearly," Vikram said. "She never used the good names, only the dark ones, and she would invoke them every time I broke something.
"Vajrahasta . . . "
"The holder of the thunderbolt," Sati said.
"Tripurari . . . "
"The destroyer of the Tripur."
"Which are?" Vikram pressed.
"The three planets created by the Asuras," Sati responded slowly.
"And Sarveshwara . . . "
"The scorcher of All." Sati's face was adopting a grim cast. She obviously suspected where Vikram was heading with that.
"Do not the Ekhat match that?" Vikram didn't press his claims. Sati could see the parallels with the recent solar plasma attack as well as he could.
"I won't argue that," Sati said. "But what does that have to do with leaving school and joining the jinau?"
Vikram spun his com pad around and pushed it toward Sati, tapping a node as he did so. Small holograms sprang into being projected above the surface of the pad. One was a representation of a statue of Shiva, with two legs and six arms, two of which were wielding swords and the others of which were holding flames. The other was an image that had been retrieved from a recent news release about the Ekhat, showing an adult in a leap, with six legs spread wide and two things that looked for all the world like sabers leading the way. The physical differences between the two images were many, but there was a certain resonance between them. It had shaken Vikram when he first compared them. He could tell that it shook Sati now.
After a moment, she tapped the node on the pad, and the holograms winked out. She pushed it back to Vikram.
"Why . . . " she said, her voice filled with emotion. She paused to clear her throat, then looked back at her brother. "Why you?"
"The counsel to the prince."
"But you're not a prince!" Sati hissed, reaching across the table to grab his hand so hard that Vikram could feel her fingernails gouging into his skin.
"Am I not?" Vikram said softly. "Our family outright owns one of the three largest business conglomerates in India. We are the second largest landholders in the country. We employ the third largest number of employees. Our security staff is larger than some countries' armies. There are more Ph.Ds and D.Phils on our payroll than most universities' staffs contain, than many countries contain. Our R and D budgets are larger than a good many countries' GNP. We are one of the largest and wealthiest operations in the world. And I am the eldest son of the family. Am I not a prince, Sati?"
Sati looked down and released his hand, shaking her head. She wasn't denying his claim, Vikram knew. She was rejecting what he wanted to do. He paused, then said, "Remember what Krishna told Prince Arjuna toward the end, the line that the American scientist quoted about the testing of the first nuclear weapons?"
"I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds," she whispered, looking back up at him with a stark expression on her face.
"To fight world scorchers, we must become world destroyers, I fear. I have spent weeks digging out as much information as I can about the Ekhat, and we will have no choice. It is destroy or be destroyed. I can do this. I can bring this to the jinau. I can bring this to the alliance. For our people. For India. For Earth."
For all that he was Brahmin in heritage, at that moment Vikram felt he had the soul of a kshatriya, a warrior in the model of the historic Rana Sanga. After a moment, his mouth quirked. If some of the family legends about Great-Grandmother Laksha's mother were true, there probably was some kshatriya in his bloodline.
Sati said nothing, but Vikram could tell by the desolate expression on her face that she had accepted what he was saying. He gave her a lopsided smile.
"You'll have to take my place, you know."
"Me?" The desolation was replaced by surprise. "What do you mean?"
"As heir apparent to the kingdom, I mean. You'll have to switch to an econ track and train to take over the leadership of the business."
"I was supposed to be the technical lead," Sati protested.
"Pffft," Vikram said with a wave of a hand. "Let Sovann take that." His reference to one of their brothers brought a bit of a smile to her face. "He's pure technocrat. You, on the other hand, despite your technical leaning, will be a better business leader than I would have been."
"Father will have a coronary," Sati said after a moment.
"Perhaps," Vikram replied with a grin. He waved a hand again. "Which is why I will not tell him until after I have joined the jinau."
"Pragmatist," Vikram corrected.
"He will erupt," Sati predicted.
"Undoubtedly," Vikram agreed. "Which is why you, my brilliant sister, will remain here in England until the ground stops trembling and the lava ceases to flow."
"He will accuse me of complicity."
Vikram shrugged. "Tell him the truth . . . that you didn't find out until right before I did it, and you couldn't change my mind. Blame me. He'll get over it."
Sati reached out and took his hand again; gently, this time. "Do you have to do this?"
Vikram just looked at her, his head tilted a bit.
"All right," she surrendered.
He turned his hand to hold hers for a moment. "I'll call when I know where I'm going to be. Close up my apartment for me, please." He pulled a key out of his pocket with his other hand and laid it on the table.
"You're going now?"
Vikram shrugged, and gave her that quirky smile again. "Decision made—time to act."
He stood and pulled Sati to her feet to give her a hug.
"You'd better call me," she said, her voice muffled against his chest.
"I will," he said.
Vikram released his sister, held her hand for a moment longer, then scooped his com pad up off the table and headed for an outer door.
Sati dropped back down into her seat. After a moment she picked up Vikram's glass and downed the last of the whisky, shuddering a bit at the heat of it. She was running her finger around the rim of the empty glass when a waiter appeared with a food plate.
"Umm . . . "
"Vikram had to leave. Just leave it here. I'll take care of his tab," Sati said. "And I'll have another of whatever he was drinking." A few moments later, another whisky glass appeared at her elbow as she nibbled desultorily on the fish and chips.
Sati spent a while thinking about what her brother had said, and considering, despite Vikram's assurances, what her father was likely to say. The level of whisky in the glass dropped. Sati wasn't ordinarily a Scotch drinker, but this was starting to grow on her.
Neil McLeod bustled back into the room from the other direction and dropped onto the chair next to hers, reaching out to snag a few chips from the plate.
"Hi, Sati. Where's Vikram?"
"Gone for a soldier."
Copyright © 2016 David Carrico
David Carrico's writing career began with short stories laid in the 1632 universe published in Grantville Gazette. He is the author with Eric Flint of 1636: The Devil's Opera. Eric Flint and David Carrico are also continuing the Jao Empire series which Flint began with the late K.D. Wentworth. The latest entry in the series is The Span of Empire out in September. Carrico lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.