A soldier returns home from war, hoping to reunite with his family only for disaster to strike.
“WE LOOKED TO OUR NEIGHBORS in times of war to be our enemies. It was the wrong place to look. We should have turned our gaze upward, to the sky—to space. In our preoccupation with ourselves, we missed them—the others. Picture this, if you will. One moment, I was checking out of three years of reserve duty in the Indian Army, putting down my rifle and walking up the old beaten path to the house. My little one shrieked and bounded towards me. The wife, eight months pregnant, looked on fondly. ”R.R. Virdi; Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. Messenger (Kindle Locations 11-15).
The asteroid Oumuamua (aka ‘Messenger’) was simply a first scout that heralded the arrival of an invasion. A second, similar but smaller asteroid arrives a year after the mysterious messenger and crashes into the moon. Then something drops from the moon and crashes violently into Bangalore. The impact destroys houses and kills many, including the soldier’s wife and family.
“THE ORDERS CAME THE next day as I lay empty-eyed at my friend Bhanu’s place, thinking of her. Thinking of my Divya and my Anisha. And the unborn child. In the background, the TV blared. An overly made-up news anchor blabbed on and on and on about lights in the sky. Bhanu came shaking his phone at me. “Arjun-ji! Arjun-ji! There’s more coming! They’re calling us up! They’re fighting!” My fists clenched. My knuckles cracked. “Let’s go,” I growled. “Let’s show them what all seven hells look like.”R.R. Virdi; Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. Messenger (Kindle Locations 44-49).
And so we launch into a story of giant mechanoid soldiers fighting giant alien monsters. Arjun volunteers for the Shikari programme and becomes a hundred metre tall cyborg/mecha called “Vishnu’s Vengeance” designed to hunt the creatures landing from space. Armed with a huge gun and capable of crushing buildings with his mechanical hands, Arjun is bent on revenge against the alien monsters.
“It was not easy, becoming what I am. They only took those of us with nothing to lose. Not all of us who went in made it out. Those who didn’t die went crazy. But I held on. My anger grew with time. I screamed their names in the darkness—Divya and Anisha, Divya, Anisha—until the words turned into a mantra and became my will. And by the time the neuro-doctors strapped me in for processing and gave me the final contest forms, my hands shook so badly with anger that I snapped the pen and stabbed the paper. Maybe I was already insane. “R.R. Virdi; Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. Messenger (Kindle Locations 59-63).
After the set-up for a Pacific Rim style giant robot versus alien kaiju conflict, the story takes a different course. The Shikari are regarded with reverence by their support staff and the human minds inhabiting the massive mechanoid soldiers also begin to take on divine delusions.
“Babaji , the Enemy is a Spider-class,” says Bhanu in my ear. I can vaguely hear the roar of helicopter blades underneath the crackling audio. “Five legs, low center of gravity. I think we see a tail.” Babaji. My crew call me Father. I am their Head, their Commander…their god.
R.R. Virdi; Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. Messenger (Kindle Locations 66-68).
This feeling of god-like status is not helped by their names. Arjun may be technically called ‘Vishnu’s Vengeance’ but he is either addressed as ‘Babaji’ (i.e. father) or simply as Vishnu. To add to the issue with his mental state he is beginning to suffer from doubts as to who and what he is.
Matters come to a head when Arjun has to intervene with another Shikari. Named after the goddess Kali, the four-armed giant has “de-synced” and is convinced that they are the god they are named after. Brutally killing her support staff/devotees, Arjun is forced to intervene and stop her. Yet he himself is beginning to feel drawn down the same path as her.
What starts with a well worn premise follows its own course and becomes a distinctive take on giant battling robots/mecha. Rather than the human/alien struggle, the story shifts to the internal struggle for the central character’s own humanity and sense of purpose. This is coupled with a arresting images (giant mechanoids fashioned after Hindu gods in conflict).
In my round-up of the Nebula Short Story finalists I talked about exceptional stories. Whenever we consider awards we are necessarily singling out particular stories from others. Tastes vary, and even award worthy stories can have flaws but it stands to reason that to single out a story for particular mention is to say that this particular story is exceptional compared with others. In that regard Messenger is exceptional — it does stand out from other stories in the anthology it is in. There is more to it than an angst filled soldier killing alien monsters in a big robot.
It is weakest at the start, where the death of Arjun’s family and the arrival of the aliens is explained but the story gathers in confidence as it progresses and rapidly finds its own voice.