Dravid expected Kali border security to be much tighter than it was. All he got was a body search that was routinely thorough, and a few old-fashioned tests and checks. It reminded him of a visit he had made as a young rightwing Hindu activist to an Indian nuclear weapon testing facility back in 1998, after the Pokhran atomic tests. His briefings had been correct in this respect: Kali did not seem to have much use for 21st century safe-care.
The Border guards finished with him in a few minutes then led him down into the basement of the Border Post and on through a concrete corridor that was at least a kilometre long in his estimation. Although there were far too many turns to be certain: It could be twice as long, or half. He was surprised at the absence of defences. After all the build-up, it was an anti-climactic letdown. Could the disputed area truly be this easy to infiltrate? A single platoon of Black Cat commandoes armed with nominal safe-care weaponry could take this border post and entrance in a few minutes, he estimated. The dozen-odd border guards he had seen above ground had borne no visible weapons.
Then he remembered the first and longest of his briefings.
Shalinitai, the renegade Kaliite-turned-consultant to the Disputed Territories Task Force (DTTF) had commented on this very fact during her lecture on Kali's political history: "Do not be fooled by Kali's apparent lack of defences. Like the Goddess after whom it is named, the disputed region that aspires to nation status under the name of Kali is armed with something far more dangerous than physical weaponry. She is armed with the power of the spirit. The power of faith."
Dravid had resisted the urge to yawn. He had heard this kind of "empty-hand-spirit-power" mania too many times to even give it credence by mocking it. He had also seen any number of similarly deluded cults and spiritual blindfaithers walk like fools into the trajectory of safe-care weapons, only to have their very real physical bodies torn to shreds by unspiritual projectiles and explosives that needed no faith in invisible deities to perform their lethal function. Faith might move mountains; but lasers cut flesh. And without flesh to sustain it, there was nothing left to harbour faith.
Sensing his bored scepticism, the renegade had paused and sighed softly. Almost resigned to his indifference, she had added, "Kali exists only because the people support its existence and because India is still a democracy. That is a far more formidable defence than any safe-care arsenal."
This he found more acceptable. It was a political argument, one of the classic cornerstones of every nationwide cult that was allowed to fester in the armpit of a republic under the guise of freedom of faith and right to political dissension. There had been an adversarial gleam in her dark eyes as if challenging him to challenge this statement. But Dravid was too much of a cynic to waste time on political arguments either. As far as he was concerned, they could dispense with the briefings and motivational lectures. He didn't need the comfort of political conviction to help him do his job.
Assassination was murder no matter what the justification. The only motivation he needed was the paycheck. As if sensing this from his lack of risibility, Shalinitai had paused in her briefing. Deviating unexpectedly from her subject, she had poured herself a glass of plain water and said.
"You will find no resistance when you go to assassinate Durga Maa. It will be the easiest assassination you have ever committed."
Dravid had waited for the punch line he knew was coming. Moral lectures always had a punch line.
"It's living with the knowledge of your act that will make the rest of your life unbearable," she said.
He hadn't smiled. He hadn't needed to. She knew the smile was there, behind his inscrutable face. He read the awareness in her eyes and sought the inevitable frustration she must feel after having made her strongest argument and failed. There was none. Only a faint glimmer of sympathy.
"I pity your task, assassin," she had said. He hadn't smiled at that either. He had been pitied before too. It was one of the most predictable responses, apart from self-righteous rage.
The corridor curved one final time and ended abruptly in the entrance to a very narrow stairwell. Dravid drew his large frame in to accommodate the inconveniently low ceilings and close walls. As they climbed, their footfalls echoed jarringly in the confined space. The short lithe, smaller-built female guards moved easily upwards, setting a hard pace for him to match. He had visited enough ancient Indian fortresses to understand the principle: Invaders would be forced to attack in single file, crouched awkwardly low. A single guard could defend the stairwell, and the piled bodies of the wounded and dead would make progress even more tortuous.
It was a virtually impregnable defence — a thousand years ago. He glimpsed tiny slits in the wall and ceilings, and recalled similar apertures all along the corridor. He had taken them for air vents at first but now understood that they were in fact guard posts. The corridor was lit from above, illuminating him and the guards as they climbed endlessly, but effectively concealing the watching guards stationed behind the walls.
Dravid wasn't impressed. Medieval subterfuge and manual defences were no match for modern safe-care. A single safe-care biogas capsule, delivered by any number of methods into the corridor, could wipe out the entire garrison of unseen defenders. The self-consuming biogases would take barely three seconds to render the air safe again and that would be the end of Kali's stupidly outdated defence system. He had climbed more than a thousand steps and was suffering from the bent posture and elbow-and-shoulder-bruising closeness of the concrete walls when the stairwell finally widened and rose high enough for him to straighten up. The alcove resembled a small circular chamber in a stone tower, again of obviously medieval design.
It was ironic in a way, he thought as the guards led him through a series of corridors and transitional chambers. Whatever little he had seen of Kali so far was clearly modelled on the architecture of medieval India. Yet Kali itself went to great pains to insist it was not part of India. Not according to the 700,000-odd renegades who had taken refuge in this tiny pocket of disputed territory, defying Indian national laws and international sanctions to declare its independence as a sovereign nation in its own right.
To these cultist fanatics, this little area of Central India bordering the legitimate Indian states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa was the nation of Kali, a concept as fiercely independent as the concept of Israel had become after the Nazi pogroms of World War II, almost three quarters of a century earlier. The world's only all-woman nation. To the Indian Government, though, this was simply Disputed Territory, just as areas of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir had once been designated before the ReMerger with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal ten years ago. United India could not afford to sanction a Kali, let alone acknowledge its legitimacy. That was why he was here now. To end the problem by rooting out the source.
Destroy the brood-mother and the species dies out.
The guards fell back, surprising him. He could not conceive of a reason why he should be allowed to proceed unescorted. Yet when he turned to look at them questioningly, the one who had led the detail, a short, dark skinned muscular woman with scar tissue obscuring her left cheek and neck, pointed unmistakeably down the corridor. He was to proceed alone.
Dravid shrugged, amused at yet another ludicrously amateurish security lapse, and walked on. He had gone several hundred paces before he realized what was odd about this particular corridor. His footfalls made no echoes. The reason for this became clear when he reached the end of the corridor, another circular chamber.
A slit in the wall revealed not the darkness of the subterranean passage or the diffused top lighting. Instead it exposed a slice of brilliant blue sky. He was undoubtedly in a tower. He realized with a start that this was the very same edifice that he had seen on various sat-images during his briefings. One of several hundred such towers positioned at regular intervals along the border of the besieged territory, ringing the entire disputed territory like giant stone sentinels. They were believed to be guardian outposts constructed to watch over the Line of Control that demarcated Kali's disputed landscape from the surrounding Indian territory.
"Envoy Dravid," said the woman who was waiting in the sunlit tower chamber. "Please be seated." She indicated a thin woven mat on the ground, identical to the one on which she was seated cross-legged in the yogic lotus posture. Dravid scanned the room and surrounding area and couldn't believe his luck. No guards, no weapons, no defences. In short, no Safe Care at all. Dravid was unable to believe that his mission could be this easy to accomplish. He looked at the woman who was watching him calmly.
"I am Durga Maa," she said. "The one you seek to assassinate. Tell me, Envoy, would you like to kill me at once, or would you like to maintain the pretence of a diplomatic debate for awhile?"
Dravid blinked rapidly.
She smiled. "I suggest that we get the assassination over with first. That way, your mind will be free to discuss the larger issues at stake here, without distraction."
And she opened her arms in the universal Hindu gesture of greeting. "Sva-swagatam, Mrityudaata." Welcome, Angel of Death.
Even if was a trap, as every meg of data in his mental archives said it must be, Dravid could not let the opportunity pass. His not to question why. His but to kill and fly. He hesitated only long enough to run one final scan-check. The result was the same as the previous three times. It was an ID-OK, confirmed through half a dozen crosschecks including a perfect DNA match. This woman seated before him was Durga Maa, the founder and leader of Kali. She was his target.
He used his thumbnail to circumscribe a tiny crescent-shaped incision in his left wrist and withdrew the reinforced silicon needle from his forearm. It was barely ten millimetres in diameter and he had to grip firmly. He drew it across his palm, wiping it clean of the tiny flecks of blood and gristle that coated it. Tinted to resemble a prominent vein, it was a translucent green that caught the sunlight as he moved across the chamber. He was at full alert now, his keenly honed senses prepared for any resistance or ambush. There was none. She smiled as he inserted the lethal tip of the needle between her ribs. Her breast was yielding and warm against his hand.
He pressed hard, brutally, and the entire 9-inch length entered her chest, sliding in easily. He pictured it puncturing her left lower chamber, spilling precious life-fluid. In her eyes, he watched the look of serenity flicker and fade. "Kali be with you," she said. And then she was gone, her body slumped sideways, legs still locked in the yogic position. He kicked at her thighs, releasing their grip, and she sprawled out more naturally. Darkness pooled beneath her body.
He stood and looked around, unable to believe it had been this easy. He felt a qualm of unease. Her attitude, the knowledge that he was to assassinate her, her serene acceptance of her death, these were not things he was equipped to deal with. Even with the most fanatical of cult leaders, there was always the final struggle for survival, the organism's instinct for self-preservation. But she had been truly ready. He pushed these thoughts from his head. The most difficult part still lay ahead. Escape. He had analyzed the possible options and they were all negative-rated. The least likely to fail (12.67%) was by blasting a hole in the wall of this tower and speed climbing down the outside.
But that was assuming the guards were armed and prepared for violent retaliation, which they didn't seem to be. A circular stairway ran around the perimeter of the chamber. Dravid went down the stone stairs quickly and silently, alert for the first sign of armed response. He descended to the next level, and found himself in an almost identical chamber. It was as sparsely furnished, with the same chick mats on the floor.
And a woman.
He stopped short at the sight of the woman. She was younger than Durga Maa, but premature greyness made her seem older at first glance. She was dressed similarly but not precisely the same way. He found no match for her in his records. She was also very beautiful.
She looked up as if she had been expecting him and indicated a bowl of steaming tea and two earthen cups. "Greetings, Envoy Dravid. With the demise of our beloved sister, I am now Durga Maa. Would you like to kill me at once, or will you partake of some refreshment first?"
And she opened her arms in that same gesture of acceptance.
Dravid thought it was a ploy at first. A delaying tactic intended to stall him until the guards arrived. But his internal systems showed nobody else approaching within a hundred-metre radius. No safe-care weaponry in the chamber. Nothing capable of doing him any physical harm. His system announced an ID match for the woman seated before him. With a rising sense of unease, Dravid checked and rechecked the scan results until he could no longer doubt them.
Somehow, in the space of a few seconds, she had changed her DNA structure internally, although her physical appearance remained the same. To all intents and purposes, she had become exactly what she claimed she was: Durga Maa, leader of Kali, down to the smallest twisted strand of genetic composition.
She poured tea for him. "You cannot comprehend how two women could possess the same identity. It is a scientific impossibility, you think." She held the clay cup out to him. He made no move to take it. He was still running checks and rechecks to examine every variant possible, tapping into the orbital systems to access greater processing power and other archives. She set the cup down before the mat intended for him. "You are right," she said. "Science cannot explain it. But faith can. There is only one Durga Maa — at a given point in time. But on her demise, her entire personality and being, what we like to call her aatma, passes to a successor. That is I."
"Aatma," he repeated scornfully. "You mean, soul?"
She poured tea for herself. Her movements were delicate, assured, and very pleasing to watch. She had a fine bone structure that would have been considered beautiful among North Indians, but far too Aryan and brahminical to South Indian eyes. "It does exist," she said. "No matter that science cannot prove it does. I now possess Durga Maa's soul, which makes me Durga Maa." She gestured at herself.
"This physical shell is immaterial. It is the person within that matters. I am the avatar of Kali, just as Durga Maa herself was while she lived."