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Story Excerpt

Arazem-2 Is Waiting for a Letter
by Amal Singh

Arazem unclasps his wobbly knee-joint, where the varnish has faded through the years. The bronze fibula and tibia peek out of the hollow cylinder of his thigh like three fingers, their wiring frayed, like vellus hair outcroppings. He applies oil to the joint, whirrs the rotator wheel to make sure it’s smooth. Mehdi Hassan’s ghazal wafts in his hibernation chamber from the other room, where Arazem has put the vinyl. If he has to make yet another journey to the Bureau tomorrow, he can’t afford a bad knee. Outside, the heat is relentless, the asphalt on the road melting into black puddles. He might have to reapply paint on his chassis to make sure he doesn’t overheat. Factory-grade coolants from Atul & Sons don’t work, and so Arazem has to go for something higher. Maybe Solezam from Apartment Four will lend him his coolant. His chassis is the same model as Arazem, and he is also waiting for directions from the Bureau. Much like Arazem, he is also lonely.

Arazem emerges out of his hibernation chamber, into the room where the ghazal is playing. The plaster is peeling off the walls, and the air conditioning is broken, water dripping, forming dirty pools on the marble floor. If Arazem gets the credits he is owed, he will be able to fix these things. But he has to wait for a letter; a letter that isn’t coming.

On his wrist, a panel whirrs into activity, beeping, sending neon images upward. There’s a queue, and his number has just dropped to forty-six. Last evening it was forty-eight. Two others have been given their letters. Arazem imagines their fates. One would rejoin his maker and live the rest of his days at an island. Another would take up residence at the Food & Beverages Academy for Bots. Their chassis won’t be dull bronze like Arazem’s, but gleaming gold. Theirs will be the world for the taking.

Arazem doesn’t have a maker to go to. His makers were the Cavaliers, a group of scientists employed by the government, now all retired. Arazem is made in the image of the Cavaliers, seeking solace in the ordinary, listening to “Ranjish hi sahi . . .” from the vinyl, instead of synth and pop-music. When he was constructed out of spare parts, constructed for a government necessity, a need for aggression at the borders, a merciless aggression that came not from empathy but disregard for ethics, he was embedded with a code without exceptions, without returns or faults. But one of the Cavaliers, Sagar Munshi, the one who considered Mehdi Hassan above every singer, even Bob Dylan, inserted in Arazem a module that would allow him to stop an assault when it became too much.

Arazem was soon discontinued, but reconstructed again by another team, made into Arazem-2, with even more intelligence, more brutality. Arazem-2 could stand unfazed, and face a storm of bullets. Arazem-2 could stop a tank. Arazem-2 could be near Khyber Pass at night in temperatures below minus-40.

And then Arazem-2 would kill. But then he would stop. No one knew why.

Arazem-2 was decommissioned. In his place, a new model was sent to the borders.

Now, Arazem-2, who goes simply by Arazem, because that’s the name given to him, embedded in his chipset, is living in a town of possibly other Arazems, some who fought a war, some who served a Minister, some who ghost wrote for an author, servant bots, worker bots, all bots who were once regarded well, perhaps less brutal and effective than him, now waiting for a letter from the Bureau of Bot Emancipation and Welfare.

A credit line, and a final module to be inserted in their chipset, the Freedom, a module to be free.

His wrist panel buzzes again. An anticipation builds in him, but it’s soon snuffed out when he sees that it’s merely a notification for a new call. He’s required to paint a household five blocks down, where the other town begins. A Mr. Tarun Sharma, author and ex-banker, has specified the dimensions of his home, and wants a fresh coat.

Arazem can’t deny the request. He steps out into the blazing sun. The ghazal is still playing on the vinyl.

*   *   *

Three blocks later, his heat sensors alert him of rising temperatures. The cabbies are on strike, so everyone is on foot. The cabbies are waiting for their own letters, letters that would allow them to be employed in some capacity in the Waymaker project. Many of Arazem’s co-warbots are stationed fifteen miles away, constructing gleaming portals to shorten distances between Agra and Delhi.

Arazem wonders if they are waiting for their letters or if the work pleases them. Some would be sent here, in this memory of a town, to wait, until they get their letters, or until their chassis rusts.

Arazem doesn’t let this stray sentient thought consume extra threads in his processing-unit. He programs a small alert in his wrist-panel, to go off after three hours, when the paint job is finished. On his return, he will talk to Solezam to lend him the coolant.

He’s at his client’s home fifteen minutes later. Tarun Sharma is in his sixties, but broad-chested, built like a wrestler. He wears thin eyeglasses that keep sliding off his nose, and his eyes scrunch, becoming slits, every time he pushes the glasses back across the bridge of his nose. That’s only when Tarun gives the impression that he was once a banker and an author. An anxious, slightly deflated sort of a look. No wrestler would ever manage that look.

“It’s good with you bots,” says Tarun Sharma. “I don’t have to repeat instructions.”

Arazem glances around. The house is bigger, more spacious, but doesn’t look lived in at all. All colors are muted here, and there’s no character to the place. The walls are cracked, boasting of moisture patches. Arazem thinks his life revolves around paint. Paint for his home, paint for this job, and a cooling paint for his chassis.

“Your walls would need a double coat,” says Arazem.

“Your kind also out to swindle the hard working man?” says Tarun Sharma. “It’s the way with everyone. You ask for one thing, get charged for two more, and the next thing you know, your savings account is less a million.”

“I’m not here to rob you, Mr. Sharma. It’s not even in my programming to do so. If you want, I’ll only do a single coat. I was merely suggesting the most optimal option.”

“Keep suggestions to yourself,” says Tarun Sharma. “Get on with it.”

It takes Arazem five minutes to drape every inch of Tarun’s living room in transparent plastic. Then, over the next hours, Arazem applies a fresh coat of white paint on the four walls. The ceiling needs repair, too, but Arazem’s job only requires him to paint the walls. Arazem doesn’t ask Tarun anything related to optimization again.

As Arazem paints a difficult to reach section above the mantelpiece, Tarun interrupts him.

“That mark near your thighs,” says Tarun. “You are one of the warbots?”

“I was. I am not anymore.”

Tarun spits on the floor.

“But you’d still have that cursed laser fitted on your arm. The one that slayed enemies. You could kill us, still?”

“Only if I am threatened,” says Arazem. “You are not a threat, Mr. Sharma. You are a client.”

This snuffs out Tarun’s words and for a while only his breathing is audible in the room.

“You snatched pride away from my son,” says Tarun, after a long pause. “All of you.”

Arazem is well aware of the conversation that follows. The pride associated with going to the borders and fighting for one’s land. When too many of the humans started dying, for reasons other than combat, Arazems were constructed. But when Arazems replaced the soldiers, they also replaced their sense of honor. Devoid of a duty that was thrust upon them, they often became angry and resentful. What they didn’t understand was that a life not sacrificed was a life saved. They weren’t dispensable anymore. That burden was now shared by the Arazems.

“I’m finished, Mr. Tarun,” says Arazem. “You can transfer the credit to my account.”

Tarun Sharma looks around at a job well done. There’s a panel on his wristwatch, too. He taps, and Arazem’s own panel lights up. Four thousand credits.

Enough for a new grade of coolant. Perhaps he’ll not have to depend on Solezam after all.

On his way back, he first stops at Atul & Sons to check if they have the higher grade of coolant paint. They don’t. The shopkeeper, Pramod, Atul’s son, tells Arazem dismissively that bot coolants are out of stock. Arazem doesn’t believe him, so he checks another shop, then another, then another. When the last shop denies him, his wrist panel beeps again. It’s the counter he had set earlier.

The heat is unbearable. There’s no one on the streets except him. When he enters the cool, dark interiors of his apartment complex, he notices Solezam is already waiting for him. His chassis is not bronze, unlike Arazem, but is silver hued, a cooler color.

“Where were you?” Solezam asks. His voice is tense, almost crackling with static.

“Completing a job,” says Arazem.

“At this hour? You’re heating.”

“I meant to ask you,” says Arazem. “Do you have a coolant? Something I could paint on my exteriors. A shorthand before I get my letter and credits.”

“We’ll talk about coolants later. We have to be inside.”

Solezam stresses the last word. Arazem isn’t sure why there’s an anxiousness in his voice, but together they go to his apartment. By now, the vinyl has reached the center of the disc. Before Arazem could replace the disc, Solezam voices another concern.

“No music,” he says. “We have to be inside, and we have to be quiet.”

“But why?”

“I have heard there are going to be riots on the streets. It’s the Waymaker cabbies, and other humans. Some ex-soldiers. Our town could be a target.”

Arazem’s wrist-panel lights up. This time, it’s a message from the Bureau. His queue has dropped another ten places.

“You’re still stuck on that thing,” says Solezam. “It’s not happening. The riots are their way of exterminating us and shirking the responsibility of freeing us. There would be no one to blame except rogue elements.”

“You mean to say you are not going to the Bureau? Your number was way below me.”

“I have deactivated and withdrawn my appeal.”

Arazem can’t bring himself to say anything. On his wrist, his queue plummeted another five places. Was the Bureau working overtime, to avoid the riots? Would they close soon?

“I think I should go and get my letter as soon as possible,” says Arazem. “They are zipping through the queue. It’s only three kilometers away, the office. I’m sure —”

“Are your insides rusted? Did you not hear me? They’ll dismantle us! We aren’t the warbots we once were that we would be able to repel their attacks. Do I need to remind you what they did to Barmod?”

“No, I remember.”

Barmod was a poor warbot who, while returning to his reporting station, was dismantled by a rogue group of human ex-soldiers, torn to the chipset. Barmod’s tale was a cautionary tale, a tale every bot remembers.

Arazem and Solezam shut the windows, not allowing even the smallest of gaps for sunlight, or air, to get through. Then, they wait.

Arazem’s queue doesn’t drop any further. Not for a long time.

A merit to waiting in the darkness is that Arazem’s chassis cools off significantly. During the wait, Arazem asks Solezam about the kind of music he likes. Solezam doesn’t listen to music. He watches old movies instead, mostly the silent ones. Solezam enjoyed Shakuntala and Madhumati. Arazem had seen Madhumati. His data-bank unspooled, and on his wrist panel, a summary of the movie emerged. Arazem isn’t sure why he knows about these old movies. Maybe the Cavaliers were fond of them. Solezam’s makers were the Trailblazers, a different set of individuals assigned to a different part of the country. As a result, Solezam’s model was slightly different. More suited for extreme heat, unlike Arazem. Arazem was made for the cold.

“I think I’ll hibernate,” says Solezam. “You should too. But I’d suggest you re-program your boot sequence.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Solezam leaves. Arazem hibernates, but not before putting on Mehdi Hassan again.


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Copyright © 2024. Arazem-2 Is Waiting for a Letter by Amal Singh

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