Inside the house there were oranges on the table, and clean water,
and sweetened tea, but no one invited Rajban in. She stole a
half-ripe orange off one of the trees. Its rind was swirled with
green and the flesh was grimly tart, but she ate it anyway, her back
to the house. She wondered at herself. She had never stolen fruit
before. In truth, she did not feel like the same person.
The orange peels went into her heap of magic soil.
Muthaye had laughed at the idea that it might be magic.
Rajban picked up a damp clump. It was soft and warm, and smelled of
fertility. If magic had a smell, this would be it; yet Muthaye had
laughed at the idea.
Rajban rocked back and forth, thinking about it, and about Muthaye's
mother and her dead baby girl. It was better the baby had died. A
girl without a father would only know hardship, and still it must
have been a terribly painful thing. For a moment, she held the baby
in her arms, acutely aware of its soft breath and warm skin, its
milky smell. When she thought about it dying, grief pushed behind her
Muthaye's mother had married again
and had another
daughter. Not a son, but the school she owned earned money, so
perhaps she could afford a daughter.
She was just like you, Rajban.
What did that mean? Rajban did not feel at all like the same person.
There was an anger inside her that had never been there before. It
felt like a seed planted under her heart, and it was swelling,
filling with all the possibilities she had seen or heard of in the
last two days.
Her fists clenched as the seed sprouted in a burst of growth, rooting
deep down in her gut and flowering in her brain, thriving on the
magic soil of new ideas.
· · · · ·
Cody was a point of awareness gliding over the alleys and lanes of
Four Villages. Linked to the GS census, the town became a terrain of
information. Addresses flashed past, accompanied by statistics on
each building and the families that owned themoccupation,
education, income, propensity for paying taxes. At the same time the
drone's guidance program spun a tiny camera lense, recording the
people in the streets, sending their images to the GS census, where a
search function matched them against information on file, spitting
back identifications in less than a second.
No way this search could be legal. There had to be privacy strictures
on the use of the GS census data.
What did privacy mean anymore?
It didn't matter. Not now. Cody only wanted to find the combination
of bits that would mean Rajban.
Rajban was a nonentity. She did not appear anywhere in the
censusand that was a clue in itself.
Some heads of households refused to answer the census questions,
forcing the field agent to guess at their names and family members.
Michael had used that fact in his search parameters. It was likely
such a house was in a fundamentalist neighborhood and that it had an
intensely cultivated private courtyard, where a young wife could be
hidden from an agent's prying eyes
but not from the eyes
of a drone aircraft.
The plane was powered by micropumps that adjusted its internal air
pressure, allowing it to sink and rise and glide through the heated
air. The pumps were powered by solar cells on the plane's dorsal
surface, backed up by tiny batteries built into its frame. It could
stay aloft for months, maybe for years. Its only drawback was that it
Cody's fingernails had dug crescent impressions in her data glove by
the time the drone cruised over the first household on Michael's
list. A woman was hanging laundry in the shade, but she was older
than Rajban, with two children playing near her feet. At the next
house the courtyard was empty, and the garden it contained was yellow
and sickly. Cody tapped her glove, sending the plane on.
Recorded names and faces slid past her, until finally, the camera
picked out a familiar face. "Gharia." The GS census confirmed
Cody ordered the drone lower. It hovered over the street as Gharia
stumbled along, head down, each sandaled foot ramming into the mud
like a crutch, while chickens scurried to get out of his way and
children ran indoors, or behind their mothers until he passed. Rage
and helplessness were twisted into his posture. Cody's heart rate
tripled, knowing something terrible had happened.
The drone's shadow was a cross in the mud. Gharia saw it and pulled
up short. He looked up, while Cody let the plane sink lower.
She had expected to hate him, but now, seeing the pain and confusion
in his eyes, she could feel only a desperate empathy. The old ways
were dissolving everywhere. Her own tangled expectations neatly
Then Gharia crouched. Still staring at the plane, he groped blindly,
clawing a fistful of mud from the street. Cody's eyes widened as he
jumped to his feet and flung the mud at the plane. Just a little
extra weight could upset the plane's delicate balance. She started to
order it up, but the guidance AI responded first, activating
micropumps that forced air out of the fuselage. The plane shot out of
reach, and Gharia became a little man.
He threw his head back. He opened his mouth in a scream she could not
hear. His shoulders heaved as he looked around for some object upon
which to vent his rage. He found it in the white cart of a water
station being set up at the end of the street. The startled
technician stumbled back several steps as Gharia attacked the cart,
rocking it, kicking at it, but it was too heavy to turn over. Even
the plastic frame would be very hard to dent.
After a minute of frantic effort, Gharia gave up. Chin held high, he
walked away through a crowd of bemused spectators, as if nothing had
Cody touched her belly, wondering if there was life growing in there,
and if it was a boy or a girlif it would die, or live.
What difference is there, between me and this unhappy man?
Both of them had let antique expectations twist the balance of their lives.
· · · · ·
A winged shadow passed over the courtyard. Rajban looked up from
where she crouched in the shade of the mandarin tree. Her hands left
off their work of pulling tiny weed seedlings from the mossy soil.
Squinting against the glare, she searched the sky. There. It was the
little airplane that had flown over Michael's house, blue like the
sky and very hard to see. More like a thought than any solid thing.
She reached to touch the necklace her mother had given her, before
remembering it was gone. The life she'd lived before was fading, and
she was not the same person anymore.
When she first came to her husband's house this thriving mandarin
tree had been ill. The soil in which it was rooted had been unclean,
until she tended it, until she prayed the magic into existence. A
worm had hatched from the barren dirt, and the mandarin tree had been
reborn, no longer the same tree as before.
Rajban felt that way: as if she had been fed some potent magic that
opened her eyes to undreamed possibilities. Perhaps Muthaye's mother
had felt this way too?
Rajban rose unsteadily to her feet. The heat of her fever was like a
slow funeral fire, made worse because she had been allowed no water.
Her mouth felt like ashes. No matter. Like Muthaye's mother, she was
ready to step away from this empty round of life.
· · · · ·
Michael waited with Muthaye in the cramped passenger seat of an
air-conditioned zip. The driver had parked his vehicle between two
market stalls set up under a spreading banyan tree. Young men lounged
in the shade, eating flavored ice. Michael idly watched three tiny
screens playing at once in his shades. Two were the feeds from the
searching drones. The third was the bioremediation demonstration out
at Kanwal's farm.
There was Kanwal, hungrily watching Pallava explain the activity of
the technicians gathered around the well. Kanwal's ambitions were an
energy, waiting to be shaped.
Cody's tense voice startled him. His gaze swept the other two
screens, and he caught sight of Rajban, gazing upward, her golden
face washed in the harsh light of the noon sun.
"Michael, we've found her."
He whooped in triumph. "She looks all right!"
Muthaye squeezed his arm. "Why is she outside at noon? It's so
terribly hot. Look at her cheeks. Look how flushed they are. We must
hurry." She leaned forward, to tell the address to the driver of the
The driver's eyes widened. Then he laughed in good humor. "I no go
there. Too many of the politics there. Don't like any new way. Throw
mud my zip."
Muthaye sighed. "He's right. It's a bad neighborhood.
Michael, you won't be welcome there."
"If it's that kind of neighborhood, you won't be welcome either.
You'll be as foreign as me."
A ghost of a smile turned her lips. "Maybe not quite so, but"
"I can't send a security team in, you understand? This isn't company
business, and I've already stretched my authority by using the
census. But I can go after her myself."
"We can both go after her,"
Muthaye said. She used a cash card to pay the driver. "I only hope
she is willing to leave."
· · · · ·
The silent drone floated above the courtyard. From this post, Cody
looked down and saw that something had changed. Rajban had moved out
of the shade of the little potted tree. She stood in the sunshine
now, her back straight, no sign of timidity in her posture. Her gaze
was fixed on the house. She seemed in possession of herself and it
made her a different person. The timorous girl from Michael's garden
Cody swallowed against a dry throat. Clearly, Rajban intended
something. Cody feared what it might be. A woman who has been
cornered and condemned all her life should not protest, but Rajban's
obedience had been corruptedby the whisperings of Muthaye, by
her glimpse of a different life.
Cody felt as if she watched herself, ready to burst in the close
confines of Victoria Glen. She wanted to cry out to Rajban, tell her
to wait, not to take any risks
but the plane had no audio.
Rajban stepped toward the house with a clean, determined stride.
Cody ordered the drone to follow. The micropumps labored and the
plane sank, but with excruciating slowness. It was only halfway down
when Rajban disappeared inside.
· · · · ·
Muthaye hid her face with her sari. She walked a step behind Michael
but no one was fooled. Change had risen in a slow flood over Four
Villages, dissolving so many of the old ways, but here was an island.
The people of Rao's neighborhood had resisted the waters, throwing up
walls of hoary tradition to turn the flood away. It was as if history
had run backward here. Girls received less schooling every year, they
were married at younger and younger ages, they bore more
or at least they bore more sons.
The sex selection implant was an aspect of modernity that had worked
its way inside the fundamentalist quarter. It was a breach in the
walls that must ultimately bring them tumbling down
not on this day.
Michael walked at a fast, deliberate pace, following the directions
whispered to him by Jaya as she watched from the second drone
aircraft. He felt the stares of unemployed men, and of hordes of boys
munching on sweets and flavored ice. Tension curled around him like a
A link came in from his chief of security. "Mr. Fielding, I don't
like this at all. Let me send some people in."
"No," Michael muttered, keeping his voice low, trying not to move his
lips. "Sankar, you send your people in here, you're going to touch
off a riot. You know it."
The brand of fundamentalism didn't matter, and it didn't even need a
religious affiliation. Michael had encountered the same irrational
situation as a boy when he'd gotten off the bus at the wrong stop,
finding himself in a housing project where the presence of a
prosperous mixed-race kid was felt like a slap against the hip-hop
Fundamentalism was so frightening because it taught the mind to
not think. Such belief systems cramped people's horizons,
sabotaging rational thought while virulently opposing all competitive
Michael heard Muthaye gasp. He turned, just as a clump of mud hit him
in the cheek. A pack of boys hanging out at the entrance of a TV
theater erupted in wild laughter. "Keep walking," Muthaye muttered
through gritted teeth. Mud had splashed across her face. Her sari was
dirtied. More clumps came flying after them. Michael wanted to take
her arm, but that would only make things worse. Boys jeered. They
made kissy noises at Muthaye. A few massaged their crotches as she
Jaya was watching over them from the drone. "Turn here," she said,
her voice tight. "There is hardly anyone in the alley to your left.
All right, now go rightwalk faster, some of the boys are
following youkeep going, keep going. Turn again! Left. There.
Now you're out of their sight."
"How much farther?" Muthaye whispered into the open line. Michael
glanced back over his shoulder, but the boys were not in sight.
· · · · ·
Mother-in-Law looked up as Rajban stepped across the threshold.
Surprise and anger mingled in herwrinkled face as she scurried to
guard the water cube. Rao pretended not to notice. Women's
Rajban drew a deep breath. The little airplane had been a sign, pure
as the searing sky, that the time had come to follow Muthaye's mother
into another life. So, without looking at Mother-in-Law again, she
walked past her. She kept her face calm, but inside her soul was
trembling. Rajban passed the table. She approached the door. Only
then did Rao admit her existence. "Stop." His voice ever stern. "Get
back to your work."
Her insides felt soft and hot as she told herself she did not hear
him. She took another step, then another, the concrete floor warm and
hard against her toes.
"I said stop."
The doorway was only five steps away now, a blazing rectangle, like a
portal to another existence. Rajban walked toward it, her steps made
light by the tumbling rhythm of her heart.
Rao stepped in front of her, and the light from the doorway went out.
Rajban made no effort to slip around him. Instead she reached for her
sari and pulled it farther over her head, so that it partly concealed
her face. Then she stood motionless, in silent protest.
· · · · ·
The drone dropped to the level of the doorway. Through the cameras,
Cody gazed into the houseand could not believe what she was
Rajban was walking out. She was heading straight for the door. Cody
watched her pass the flustered old woman, and the table where Rao
sat. It seemed certain she would reach the door, when abruptly, Rao
rose to his feet. In two steps he stood in front of Rajban, blocking
her exodus. Rajban stopped.
For several seconds nothing more happened. Rajban stood in calm
serenity, refusing to yield or to struggle. It had the flavor of a
Gandhian protest, an appeal to the soul of the oppressor. Rao did not
seem to like the taste of guilt. Outrage convulsed across his face.
Then Cody saw a decision congeal.
Warmth fled her gut. What could she do? She was half a world away.
"Michael," she whispered. "It would be good if you were here now."
"Two or three more minutes," Jaya said. "That's all."
It was too much.
Cody ordered the drone forward. The autopilot guided it through the
door, its wingtips whispering scant millimeters from the frame.
She could not defend Rajban, but she could let Rao know that Rajban
was no longer alone.