In the new millennium, what secrets lay beyond the far reaches of the universe? What mysteries belie the truths we once held to be self-evident? The world of science fiction has long been a porthole into the realities of tomorrow, blurring the line between life and art. Now, in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection, the very best SF authors explore ideas of a new world. This venerable collection brings together award-winning authors and masters of the field.
Featuring short stories from acclaimed authors such as Indrapramit Das, Nancy Kress, Alastair Reynolds, Eleanor Arnason, James S.A. Corey & Lavie Tidhar, an extensive recommended reading guide and a summation of the year in science fiction, this annual compilation has become the definitive must-read anthology for all science fiction fans and readers interested in breaking into the genre.
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The Moon Is Not a Battlefield INDRAPRAMIT DAS
Indrapramit Das is a writer and artist from Kolkata, India. His short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov's Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, Redstone Science Fiction, The World SF Blog, Flash Fiction Online, and the anthology Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana. He is a grateful graduate of the 2012 Clarion West Writers Workshop and a recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Award. He completed his MFA at the University of British Columbia and currently lives in Vancouver, working as a freelance writer, artist, editor, game tester, tutor, would-be novelist, and aspirant to adulthood. Follow him on Twitter @IndrapramitDas.
In the story that follows, he paints an unsettling portrait of an injured soldier, hurt in combat on the Moon, who lives in poverty in a cardboard slum, his service seemingly forgotten by just about everybody ... including the force he served.
I was born in the sky, for war. This is what we were told.
I think when people hear this, they think of ancient Earth stories. Of angels and superheroes and gods, leaving destruction between the stars. But I'm no superhero, no Kalel of America- Bygone with the flag of his dead planet flying behind him. I'm no angel Gabreel striking down Satan in the void or blowing the trumpet to end worlds. I'm no devi Durga bristling with arms and weapons, chasing down demons through the cosmos and vanquishing them, no Kali with a string of heads hanging over her breasts black as deep space, making even the other gods shake with terror at her righteous rampage.
I was born in the sky, for war. What does it mean?
* * *
I was actually born on Earth, not far above sea level, in the Greater Kolkata Megapolis. My parents gave me away to the Government of India when I was still a small child, in exchange for enough money for them to live off frugally for a year — an unimaginable amount of wealth for two Dalit street-dwellers who scraped shit out of sewers for a living, and scavenged garbage for recycling — sewers sagging with centuries worth of shit, garbage heaps like mountains. There was another child I played with the most in our slum. The government took her as well. Of the few memories I have left of those early days on Earth, the ones of us playing are clearest, more than the ones of my parents, because they weren't around much. But she was always there. She'd bring me hot jalebis snatched from the hands of hapless pedestrians, her hands covered in syrup, and we'd share them. We used to climb and run along the huge sea-wall that holds back the rising Bay of Bengal, and spit in the churning sea. I haven't seen the sea since, except from space — that roiling mass of water feels like a dream. So do those days, with the child who would become the soldier most often by my side. The government told our parents that they would cleanse us of our names, our untouchability, give us a chance to lead noble lives as astral defenders of the Republic of India. Of course they gave us away. I don't blame them. Aditi never blamed hers, either. That was the name my friend was given by the Army. You've met her. We were told our new names before training even began. Single-names, always. Usually from the Mahabharata or Ramayana, we realized later. I don't remember the name my parents gave me. I never asked Aditi if she remembered hers.
That, then, is when the life of asura Gita began.
I was raised by the state to be a soldier, and borne into the sky in the hands of the Republic to be its protector, before I even hit puberty.
The notion that there could be war on the Moon, or anywhere beyond Earth, was once a ridiculous dream.
So are many things, until they come to pass.
I've lived for thirty-six years as an infantry soldier stationed off-world. I was deployed and considered in active duty from eighteen in the Chandnipur Lunar Cantonment Area. I first arrived in Chandnipur at six, right after they took us off the streets. I grew up there. The Army raised us. Gave us a better education than we'd have ever gotten back on Earth. Right from childhood, me and my fellow asuras — Earthbound Indian infantry soldiers were jawans, but we were always, always asuras, a mark of pride — we were told that we were stationed in Chandnipur to protect the intrasolar gateway of the Moon for the greatest country on that great blue planet in our black sky — India. India, which we could see below the clouds if we squinted during Earthrise on a surface patrol (if we were lucky, we could spot the white wrinkle of the Himalayas through telescopes). We learned the history of our home: after the United States of America and Russia, India was the third Earth nation to set foot on the Moon, and the first to settle a permanent base there. Chandnipur was open to scientists, astronauts, tourists and corporations of all countries, to do research, develop space travel, take expensive holidays and launch inter-system mining drones to asteroids. The generosity and benevolence of Bharat Mata, no? But we were to protect Chandnipur's sovereignty as Indian territory at all costs, because other countries were beginning to develop their own lunar expeditions to start bases. Chandnipur, we were told, was a part of India. The only part of India not on Earth. We were to make sure it remained that way. This was our mission. Even though, we were told, the rest of the world didn't officially recognize any land on the moon to belong to any country, back then. Especially because of that.
Do you remember Chandnipur well?
It was where I met you, asura Gita. Hard to forget that, even if it hadn't been my first trip to the Moon. I was very nervous. The ride up the elevator was peaceful. Like ... being up in the mountains, in the Himalayas, you know? Oh — I'm so sorry. Of course not. Just, the feeling of being high up — the silence of it, in a way, despite all the people in the elevator cabins. But then you start floating under the seat belts, and there are the safety instructions on how to move around the platform once you get to the top, and all you feel like doing is pissing. That's when you feel untethered. The shuttle to the Moon from the top of the elevator wasn't so peaceful. Every blast of the craft felt so powerful out there. The g's just raining down on you as you're strapped in. I felt like a feather.
Like a feather. Yes. I imagine so. There are no birds in Chandnipur, but us asuras always feel like feathers. Felt. Now I feel heavy all the time, like a stone, like a — hah — a moon, crashing into its world, so possessed by gravity, though I'm only skin and bones. A feather on a moon, a stone on a planet.
You know, when our Havaldar, Chamling his name was, told me that asura Aditi and I were to greet and guide a reporter visiting the Cantonment Area, I can't tell you how shocked we were. We were so excited. We would be on the feeds! We never got reporters up there. Well, to be honest, I wanted to show off our bravery, tell you horror stories of what happens if you wear your suit wrong outside the Cantonment Area on a walk, or get caught in warning shots from Chinese artillery kilos away, or what happens if the micro-atmosphere over Chandnipur malfunctions and becomes too thin while you're out and about there (you burn or freeze or asphyxiate). Civilians like horror stories from soldiers. You see so many of them in the media feeds in the pods, all these war stories. I used to like seeing how different it is for soldiers on Earth, in the old wars, the recent ones. Sometimes it would get hard to watch, of course.
Anyway, asura Aditi said to me, "Gita, they aren't coming here to be excited by a war movie. We aren't even at war. We're in territorial conflict. You use the word war and it'll look like we're boasting. We need to make them feel at home, not scare the shit out of them. We need to show them the hospitality of asuras on our own turf."
Couldn't disagree with that. We wanted people on Earth to see how well we do our jobs, so that we'd be welcomed with open arms when it was time for the big trip back — the promised pension, retirement, and that big old heaven in the sky where we all came from, Earth. We wanted every Indian up there to know we were protecting their piece of the Moon. Your piece of the Moon.
I thought soldiers would be frustrated having to babysit a journalist following them around. But you and asura Aditi made me feel welcome.
I felt bad for you. We met civilians in Chandnipur proper, when we got time off, in the Underground Markets, the bars. But you were my first fresh one, Earth-fresh. Like the imported fish in the Markets. Earth-creatures, you know, always delicate, expensive, mouth open gawping, big eyes. Out of water, they say.
Did I look "expensive"? I was just wearing the standard issue jumpsuits they give visitors.
Arre, you know what I mean. In the Markets we soldiers couldn't buy Earth-fish or Earth-lamb or any Earth-meat, when they showed up every six months. We only ever tasted the printed stuff. Little packets, in the stalls they heat up the synthi for you in the machine. Nothing but salt and heat and protein. Imported Earth-meat was too expensive. Same for Earth-people, expensive. Fish out of water. Earth meant paradise. You came from heaven. No offense.
None taken. You and asura Aditi were very good to me. That's what I remember.
After Aditi reminded me that you were going to show every Indian on their feeds our lives, we were afraid of looking bad. You looked scared, at first. Did we scare you?
I wouldn't say scared. Intimidated. You know, everything you were saying earlier, about gods and superheroes from the old Earth stories. The stuff they let you watch and read in the pods. That's what I saw, when you welcomed us in full regalia, out on the surface, in your combat suits, at the parade. You gleamed like gods. Like devis, asuras, like your namesakes. Those weapon limbs, when they came out of the backs of your suit during the demonstration, they looked like the arms of the goddesses in the epics, or the wings of angels, reflecting the sunlight coming over the horizon — the light was so white, after Earth, not shifted yellow by atmosphere. It was blinding, looking at you all. I couldn't imagine having to face that, as a soldier, as your enemy. Having to face you. I couldn't imagine having to patrol for hours, and fight, in those suits — just my civilian surface suit was so hot inside, so claustrophobic. I was shaking in there, watching you all.
Do you remember, the Governor of Chandnipur Lunar Area came out to greet you, and shake the hands of all the COs. A surface parade like that, on airless ground, that never happened — it was all for you and the rest of the reporters, for the show back on Earth. We had never before even seen the Governor in real life, let alone in a surface suit. The rumours came back that he was trembling and sweating when he shook their hands — that he couldn't even pronounce the words to thank them for their service. So you weren't alone, at least.
Then when we went inside the Cantonment Area, and we were allowed to take off our helmets right out in the open — I waited for you and Aditi to do it first. I didn't believe I wouldn't die, that my face wouldn't freeze. We were on that rover, such a bumpy ride, but open air like those vehicles in the earliest pictures of people on the Moon — just bigger. We went through the Cantonment airlock gate, past the big yellow sign that reads "Chandnipur, Gateway to the Stars," and when we emerged from the other side Aditi told me to look up and see for myself, the different sky. From deep black to that deep, dusky blue, it was amazing, like crossing over into another world. The sunlight still felt different, blue-white instead of yellow, filtered by the nanobot haze, shimmering in that lunar dawn coming in over the hilly rim of Daedalus crater. The sun felt tingly, raw, like it burned even though the temperature was cool. The Earth was half in shadow — it looked fake, a rendered backdrop in a veeyar sim. And sometimes the micro-atmosphere would move just right and the bots would be visible for a few seconds in a wave across that low sky, the famous flocks of "lunar fireflies." The rover went down the suddenly smooth lunarcrete road, down the main road of the Cantonment —
New Delhi Avenue.
Yes, New Delhi Avenue, with the rows of wireframed flags extended high, all the state colours of India, the lines and lines of white barracks with those tiny windows on both sides. I wanted to stay in those, but they put us civilians underground, in a hotel. They didn't want us complaining about conditions. As we went down New DelhiAvenue and turned into the barracks for the tour, you and Aditi took off your helmets and breathed deep. Your faces were covered in black warpaint. Greasepaint. Full regalia, yes? You both looked like Kali, with or without the necklace of heads. Aditi helped me with the helmet, and I felt lunar air for the first time. The dry, cool air of Chandnipur. And you said "Welcome to chota duniya. You can take off the helmet." Chota duniya, the little world. Those Kali faces, running with sweat, the tattoos of your wetware. You wore a small beard, back then, and a crew-cut. Asura Aditi had a ponytail, I was surprised that was allowed.
You looked like warriors, in those blinding suits of armour.
Warriors. I don't anymore, do I. What do I look like now?
I see you have longer hair. You shaved off your beard.
Avoiding the question, clever. Did you know that jawan means "young man"? But we were asuras. We were proud of our hair, not because we were young men. We, the women and the hijras, the not-men, told the asuras who were men, why do you get to keep beards and moustaches and we don't? Some of them had those twirly moustaches like the asuras in the myths. So the boys said to us: we won't stop you. Show us your beards! From then it was a competition. Aditi could hardly grow a beard on her pretty face, so she gave up when it was just fuzz. I didn't. I was so proud when I first sprouted that hair on my chin, when I was a teenager. After I grew it out, Aditi called it a rat-tail. I never could grow the twirly moustaches. But I'm a decommissioned asura now, so I've shaved off the beard.
What do you think you look like now?
Like a beggar living in a slum stuck to the side of the space elevator that took me up to the sky so long ago, and brought me down again not so long ago.
Some of my neighbours don't see asuras as women or men. I'm fine with that. They ask me: do you still bleed? Did you menstruate on the Moon? They say, menstruation is tied to the Moon, so asuras must bleed all the time up there, or never at all down here. They think we used all that blood to paint ourselves red because we are warriors. To scare our enemies. I like that idea. Some of them don't believe it when I say that I bleed the same as any Earthling with a cunt. The young ones believe me, because they help me out, bring me rags, pads when they can find them, from down there in the city — can't afford the meds to stop bleeding altogether. Those young ones are a blessing. I can't exactly hitch a ride on top of the elevator up and down every day in my condition.
People in the slum all know you're an asura?
I ask again: what do I look like now?
A veteran. You have the scars. From the wetware that plugged you into the suits. The lines used to be black, raised — on your face, neck. Now they're pale, flat.
The mark of the decommissioned asura — everyone knows who you are. The government plucks out your wires. Like you're a broken machine. They don't want you selling the wetware on the black market. They're a part of the suits we wore, just a part we wore all the time inside us — and the suits are property of the Indian Army, Lunar Command.
I told you why the suits are so shiny, didn't I, all those years ago? Hyper-reflective surfaces so we didn't fry up in them like the printed meat in their heating packets when the sun comes up. The suits made us easy to spot on a lunar battlefield. It's why we always tried to stay in shadow, use infrared to spot enemies. When we went on recon, surveillance missions, we'd use lighter stealth suits, nonmetal, non-reflective, dark grey like the surface. We could only do that if we coordinated our movements to land during nighttime.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Year's Best Science Fiction"
Copyright © 2018 Gardner Dozois.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Summation: 2017 xiii
The Moon is not a Battlefield Indrapramit Das 1
My English Name R. S. Benedict 15
An evening with Severyn Grimes Rich Larson 35
Vanguard 2.0 Carter Scholz 50
Starlight Express Michael Swanwick 63
The Martian Obelisk Linda Nagata 71
We Who live in the Heart Kelly Robson 84
Winter Timeshare Ray Nayler 114
Dear Sarah Nancy Kress 127
Night Passage Alastair Reynolds 136
The Dragon that flew out of the sun Aliette de Bodard 163
Waiting out the end of the World in Patty's Place cafe Naomi Kritzer 171
The Hunger after you're fed James S. A. Corey 180
Assassins Jack Skillingstead Burt Courtier 188
The Martian Job Jaine Fenn 194
The Road to the Sea Lavie Tidhar 252
Uncanny Valley Greg Egan 258
The Wordless Indrapramit Das 283
Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pracmatics Jessica Barber Sara Saab 293
Zigeuner Harry Turtledove 317
The Proving Ground Alec Nevala-Lee 328
Zen and the art of Starship Maintenance Tobias S. Buckell 358
The Influence Machine Sean McMullen 371
Canoe Nancv Kress 390
The history of the Invasion told in five Dogs Kelly ]ennings 403
Prime Meridian Silvia Moreno-Garcia 408
Triceratops Ian McHugh 456
Mines Eleanor Arnason 465
There used to be Olive Trees Rich Larson 478
Whending my way back Home Bill Johnson 494
Death on Mars Madeline Ashby 525
Elephant on Table Bruce Sterling
Number thirty-nine skink Suzanne Palmer 557
A series of steaks Vina Jie-Min Prasad 567
The last Boat-BUILDER in Ballyvoloon Finbarr O'Reilly 583
The Residue of Fire Robert Reed 596
Sidewalks Maureen F. McHugh 611
Nexus Michael F. Flynn 622
Honorable Mentions: 2017 671