Vajra Chandrasekera

Art by  Laurie Noel

The pills are tiny and electric blue, or at least the electric blue of lightning in the movies. I have to take one-and-a-third every day and the third is difficult to get right because all the knives in my kitchen are dull because you took the knife sharpener when you left. If I press too hard, the pill crumbles into electric powder and I feel guilty when I pinch it up between my fingers and lick them, and maybe I take a little more or less than I'm supposed to and then I spend the rest of the day worrying whether I've done it wrong and whether my mind is working right. Worrying makes the mind work worse. Sometimes I find myself thinking in circles and even though I know I'm thinking in circles I can't break out, and I start to visualize the circle—actually, it's never a nice clean circle, because that would be almost soothing, wouldn't it? It's always jagged, twisty, arbitrary shapes that have no textbook names so I have to give them names of my own. Most often it's a recurring shape with zig-zag tusks I call Merrick. I spend a lot of time in Merrick, watching my thoughts like globules tracing the shape leaving glowing blue ghost trails behind them that slowly fade out just before the thoughts come around again, and sometimes I think I can hear the hum they make—whumm! whumm!—getting faster as I get more agitated and closer to panic—whummwhummwhumm—like I'll never break out again. I should just buy a knife sharpener.

I order a deep grey market knife sharpener online. I want one with clamps and suction cups, a manual sharpener because I once read somewhere that electric sharpeners are bad—they transfer heat to the blade, the article said, which damages the temper of the steel. Relatable but repulsive, like like magnetic poles. I specified instant delivery, so after I get my confirmation mail I go out to my balcony with my rifle to wait for the drone and try not to fall into Merrick and look at the dirty pastel blocks and the toy cars and the red and bulging sun. It's twilight, when everything looks good despite itself.

The bats are leaving their roosts in the great dryadic trees at the carrefour, where the war widows and widowers go to mourn. The trees are enormous, reaching more than halfway up to my apartment. The bats are briefly a torrent that thins out as they gain height and scatter to go wherever urban bats go. They haven't learned to stay below the unending jetstream of drones. A river of drones in the sky is an intricate murmuration ever streaming—whumm! whumm!—never colliding (they mostly even manage to dodge the bats.) There are delivery drones carrying packages; surveillance drones with bulbous black catadioptrics; security drones with their long-barrelled needle guns occasionally dipping down (if they're nearby you can hear them make a noise like a polite cough and someone down below drops); antipiracy drones from competing IP domains (the TPP drones hate the RCEP drones, and vice versa) with their anti-drone claws, trying to catch illicit delivery drones before they get to their destinations.

This is why I brought the rifle out, because my knife sharpener is a Chennai knockoff of a Japanese design. I spot the antipiracy drone on its intercept vector even before I see the delivery drone heading toward me. I rest the rifle barrel on the railing and take deep breaths and try not to fall into Merrick. The scope is filled with bats and drones, and I panic a little at first because everything's moving so fast—whummwhummwhumm—in jagged evasive flight patterns that I can't track. There is a narrow goldilocks zone of panic and desperation in which an anxious bat is a better flier than a drone with state-of-the-art flight programming. But the drones never forget to breathe, so they win.

I breathe slowly and deeply until I think I start to recognize the dip and bob of the antipiracy drone's flight pattern, a tip of the tusk in the shape of a flight, and I try to aim for where I think it's going to be, and I squeeze the trigger, and I kill a bat.

The RCEP antipiracy drone snatches my delivery drone out of the sky, knife sharpener package and all, and flies away with it before I can even aim again. The bat falls straight down, unzipping the crowded sky as everything else in the air swerves to avoid its body. It's getting dark and I don't see it land.

I revisit my goals. It's a delicate situation. Can't buy knives online because of terrorism, but one can buy knife sharpeners; can't buy knife sharpeners on the street because they're an exotic foreign product, but one can buy a knife. One just has to go outside.

I don't blame you for taking the knife sharpener. You packed chaotically because we expected the police to knock on our door at any moment, and the traffickers were impatient people, and the container was leaving the port that very night. I said I wished there had been room for me and you said you didn't want me to risk it because I didn't have to. I joked (with unnecessary black humour, it seems to me now, though I was only trying to be cheerful) about air holes. The hunger with which you snatched at some of the objects in our apartment but not others seemed random to me, though in hindsight I think it was about objects as anchors of good feeling. The knife sharpener must have reminded you of having once been the kind of person who would own a knife sharpener, even if it was a cheap one of pirated design, and who would someday aspire to own a high-end knife sharpener—something with Choice or Pro in the name.

The police eventually came by a few days later, too early in the morning so they woke me up with their banging on the door, and I stood yawning and rheumy-eyed but too shy to make coffee while they went room by room to discover it was just me in the house and there was no evidence that anybody else had ever lived there. No roommate and definitely not a lover, and absolutely not a dissident, even if you were a reluctant and overly cynical dissident who could hardly believe that you, of all people, had felt obliged to do something out of your terrible, uncontrollable inability to leave things alone. I have always been good at leaving things alone. I left the cops alone while they tossed my things out of drawers and overturned my furniture. Most of them seemed very young to me and their eyes were apologetic, as if their hearts did not believe in the ungentleness of their hands.

 I thought that you (who are now dead to me because I certainly don't recognize your name or picture—never in my life, I said, still yawning, and in that moment your soft cheekbones and your fierce brows became a stranger to me) would have said something despairingly ironic about the unconstitutionality of search and seizure and that would have prompted a genial rebuff from the friendly plainclothes constable in charge, who would have pointed out that he was not the legislation-drafting head but merely the bootheel of the oppressor, so cut him some slack, eh, eh? The bootheel went so far as to shake my hand good morning while I tried to move as slowly as possible so that the boy behind him with the assault rifle wouldn't panic. Do cops have interns? The weapon was a Norinco T-56, the old kind with a wooden stock, which was deeply weathered and certainly many times older than the boy holding it. When someone points a weapon at you you expect to stare down the barrel but I found myself staring at the stock, my eyes jittering and tracing the pattern of the grain around and around—whummwhummwhumm—which formed a shape like a stone thrown into running water, a theoretically perfect circle instantly distorted out of shape by an unstill medium. Eventually the police left. It took me a few weeks to clean up again. Not because it was such a huge mess, not really. It felt nicer to live in the mess for a while. It felt like I had moved to a new place to live alone. I've always loved living out of boxes, which you hated. When we originally moved here you had us all unpacked on the very first day and we had a fight.

I wish I hadn't made the joke about air holes.

I'm sure it's fine. There could be plenty of reasons why you haven't got in touch. We both have to let go, and we knew that.

I go outside. I lock my door once, carefully not unlocking and relocking it twice because it wasn't easy to break that habit and I don't want to slip back into it. Rituals can be comforting, but I also start to feel trapped between them, so when I can I try to break habits before they escalate. I'm not agoraphobic, but I don't like to leave the apartment except when I have to for work. I dislike the chill of being surrounded by other lives, so many narrative singularities, so many centres of gravity leaching heat from my own. It makes me forget who I am.

So I take small steps. I focus on my breathing. I tell myself that I haven't forgotten how to walk normally, though I do suddenly feel like I don't know how to balance the swing of my arms with the distribution of my weight on my feet. When you look too much at easy things, they become complicated. This is why I try to leave things alone. When you look away and leave things alone, they begin to seem normal.

Whether they should is a completely different question.

I have to walk through the carrefour with the memorial trees to get to First Cross, so I do. The trees seem even bigger from the ground. Trees like mushroom clouds rising into the night, grey and green and thunderous. The street lamps are lit now, and the war widows and widowers shuffle in the yellow light. Some sit and pray. They come and go at all hours—walking among them I realize that, in a way, I'm one of them, and for a moment I feel hot, as if I'd briefly sucked in all the heat of their stories into mine. I'm sweating. Then it's gone, because I'm not really one of them. If I told them my story I don't think they would recognize me. The chill comes back, but this time it's welcome. 

The shops on First Cross specialize in miscellany. They're bric-à-brac shops, everything shops, nothing shops. It used to be you could buy anything here. You and I used to come here for toothpaste, films, ice cream, random-access memory modules, my electric blue pills, bubble wrap, arphid blockers, fire-resistant ponchos, ergonomic pillows, the rifle currently leaning on my balcony. Soon after we moved in, one of the shopkeepers was so chagrined not to have a tape measure in stock when we needed it that he sold us his own. Most of those things are banned or regulated now. Even tape measures proved to have an exactitude that distressed the powers that worry.

It turns out so do knives.

The gazette notification went out two months ago, a shopkeeper tells me. No knives, no scissors; no saws, axes, pliers, or razor blades, except by authorized retailers and certainly not for cash, anyway, and I don't have digital money. Nobody comes to First Cross if they have digital money. Even the drones that come to this neighbourhood take cash on delivery. The government keeps extending the window for exchanging our cash for digital money, and one of these days they'll gazette First Cross out of existence, but I can't make myself do anything about it because you hated the idea so much. I suppose since I'm the one who stayed behind, it's incumbent on me to adapt.

Have you tried a coffee mug, the shopkeeper asks.

I thought I'd have to go look for a flat rock next, I say. I have a vague memory of my father sharpening a knife on a smooth flat rock he'd picked up from a dry riverbed out northwest somewhere. All my memories of my father are of drought. Cracked earth and dust in the throat and power cuts because the hydropower failed.

Where are you going to find a flat rock in the city, she says. Use the bottom of a coffee mug.

I buy an ice cream just to say thanks. I feel lightened, if not enlightened. This is what Merrick is like. I know it's a pattern. Knowing it's a pattern doesn't always help. I get trapped into thinking about things one way, and I circle deeper and deeper until something or someone interrupts to send me off at a blessed tangent, and for a little while I feel less like myself and more like you.

And you still haven't got in touch, and nothing important has changed. I need to remind myself of that, because otherwise the smallest victories flood my whole body with endorphins and then I feel worse still when I come back down.

On my way back I stop under the trees to eat the ice cream, and to just sit for a while. I still don't feel welcome bringing my mourning among the war widows and widowers, but while I'm borrowing your spirit, I can sit here and keep my mouth shut. I can look at the trees and breathe out and think of a better world. I can stare at the river of drones above and not flinch every time one dips lower. When the fear comes back, I'll know it's time to go home.

VAJRA CHANDRASEKERA lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka. His short fiction has appeared in ClarkesworldStrange Horizons, and The Apex Book of World SF, among others. For more, see his website or follow @_vajra on Twitter.

Back to Issue 3 - Spring / Summer 2017