Diwali, the Festival of Lights is a magical time of the year, even on the Indian Battle Station. A hundred tiny oil-lamps decorated our apartment, glimmering along window ledges, glowing at the corners of the rangoli floor pattern, shining in the little niche with the image of Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity.
“Savitri!” My sister Ritika called me, a glittering sparkler illuminating her excited face as she held out the firework. “Here! Light yours for the spinners!”
My sparkler spluttered into flowers of light as I touched it to hers. Mom and Ritika quickly moved out of the way and I ignited three ground spinners. The gunpowder-scented coils flung a scarf of fiery sparks across the balcony. We were the lucky ones. I breathed in the scents of Diwali, smoke from the fireworks, incense from the Lakshmi niche, the warm coconut smell of Diwali sweets sitting on an ornate silver tray. Our cousins down in Delhi celebrated with strings of LED lights and chocolate and factory-made fireworks from China. It wasn’t the same.
We were lucky because Mom vividly remembered her childhood Diwalis, and because she had the Strength to make it real. That Strength was also why we were far from Earth on the Indian Battle Station, currently at war with the JAYAZ Network.
“Can I light a rocket?” Ritika asked. “Mom, please?”
Me, I’d have said no. Bottle-rockets in the hands of daring, impulsive teenagers like Ritika are just asking for trouble. But Mom gave in as usual. “Just be careful, sweetie.”
Ritika lit it, pointing it at the balcony ceiling instead of out toward the sky.
I grabbed the kid away as the thing ricocheted against the ceiling, fizzed, and exploded. “Ritika! That’s so stupid!”
But before I could scold her properly, the sound of divine footsteps echoed in the hall and inside our heads. We froze.
Was Lakshmi coming to visit on her festival day? Did Mom have the Strength to bring her? We all held our breath.
The door opened. Instead of the radiant Goddess and her owl, there was a fierce blue-faced God with flaming hair. Two four-eyed dogs followed him. We dropped to the floor in obeisance. It’s never a good idea to disrespect Yama, Lord Death.
Mom recovered first. He was her illusion, after all—or was he? Following her cue, we got to our feet, looking carefully deferential.
“Honored Lord Yama,” she said. “You have come on Sri Lakshmi’s day.”
“Lord Yama takes no holidays,” he replied, an inward look in his fiery red eyes. “I’m always visiting. Most times, you cannot see me.”
“How is it that we do now?” I asked, a little surprised at my own boldness. At least I managed not to ask, and who have you come for?
He nodded toward Mom. “Your mother has the Strength,” he said. “She holds the world open.” Behind him, instead of the Battle Station’s bland corridor, a path disappeared into a woodland barely illuminated by stars. No moonlight, of course. Diwali is celebrated at the dark of the moon.
All the little lights in our apartment flickered, as though a strong wind was blowing through. The room’s broad window-ledges disappeared along with the oil-lamps and fireworks and rangoli—and Lord Yama.
“Damn,” said Mom. “I’d hoped they’d hold off until tomorrow. I’m so sorry, kids. Tonight’s battle could be crucial. The War is at a turning point right now.”
Mom’s turquoise-blue saree morphed into her silver Battle Station uniform. She pulled us in for a long hug before rushing out the door. She’d be needed in the Situation Room with all the other Telepaths.
“Wow, scary illusion, that Lord Yama,” I said, trying to hide my fear for Ritika’s sake. “Hey, try this coconut burfi, it’s good.” I gestured at the Diwali sweets, still on the table. They were real, made with ingredients the synth had formulas for. I handed her one. “Pity Mom had to leave and Diwali’s over.”
“Watch this,” Ritika said, waving the coconut burfi at the viewport. The balcony reappeared, and a line of oil-lamps twinkled along the parapet and window ledges. The rangoli pattern Mom made again decorated the floor, and I wore a silk tunic instead of jeans and t-shirt.
“What?” I asked, astonished. “You have the Strength? When did that happen?”
“These last two years,” she said. “Mom wouldn’t let me tell anyone, not even you.”
A year ago, I’d have been jealous of her. I was bitterly disappointed when I reached my teens with no hint of Strength… and upset that Mom was relieved instead of sympathetic. I’d thought she was mean, not wanting me to grow up Strong.
Now, instead of jealousy, it was fear. Fear for Ritika.
When I turned eighteen six months ago, Mom took me to the observation deck to see the Situation Room. Since she was off-duty, she couldn’t have known it would suddenly become one of the worst skirmishes of the war. In minutes after we got there, four Telepaths fell. By the time Mom hustled me away, a fifth went down. Uncle Joshi from down the hall. He was the one who didn’t recover. His family left the station, including my best friend Meera.
After that day I’d understood. After that day, I’d waited up whenever Mom got called to the Situation Room.
“She’s afraid you’ll be drafted,” I said to Ritika.
“Won’t be drafted,” Ritika said, her mouth full of coconut candy. “I’ll volunteer.”
“Don’t be silly,” I said. “The war’ll be over by the time you’re of age. Next year we’ll be in Delhi. Or DC.” In civilian life, Mom was a diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service.
I spoke with fingers crossed. If the war went wrong we might still be on the Station in three years’ time. More and more casualties. Ritika joining Mom at the Telepath’s table—or worse, replacing her. Me still working in Station Support and worrying about them both.
“I want to see Mom at work,” Ritika said.
“You have to be eighteen,” I said. “Anyway, there’s nothing to see. The Telepaths sit around a table and throw mind-blasts at the enemy. It’s like a conference where you can’t hear anyone talk.”
I didn’t tell her that suddenly there’d be a scream, and a Telepath would fall unconscious across the table. Assistants would remove them on gurneys to the Recovery Room. Sometimes, the Telepaths recovered and went back into battle. Sometimes, they were left as a shell or a corpse. Like Uncle Joshi.
The image of Lord Yama drifted into my mind but I willed it away. Mom was experienced. She’d come back. Exhausted as always after a battle, but exhilarated.
Mom still wasn’t home by bedtime. I tried to stay up, but kept dozing off into bad dreams dominated by the beckoning figure of Lord Yama.
The sound of the front door roused me. Mom! Was Mom home?
No… and neither was Ritika.
The silly kid said she wanted to watch Mom at work, so that’s where she must have gone. I went looking for her. But the Observation Deck was empty.
I stared down into the Situation Room.
There was Ritika, sitting at the table near Mom, wearing the headset of the fighting telepaths. Her face shone with excitement. Unlike the inscrutable warriors at the table, her expressions showed every blast thrown and received. What were they thinking, letting a kid into the Situation Room?
As I watched, mesmerized, she jerked sideways as though she’d been slapped. She recovered, concentrated. Head thrust forward with a determined expression, she mashed her fist onto the table, then threw up her arms in victory. She’d made a strike! Then she got her head down and blasted out another mind-wave.
She was having the time of her life. I hoped she’d never know about the shells and burnouts, on our side or theirs. My hands clenched until the nails bit into the skin. I must have been there for hours. Some telepaths got up in response to orders to retire, removing their headsets and rubbing their foreheads.
Mom went over to Ritika, tapped her shoulder. Ritika shook her head. Mom frowned. Ritika looked mutinous and refused to rise. She was clearly in a duel, and wasn’t going to stop despite orders. Mom backed away. It was dangerous to disturb a telepath in battle. Dammit, Ritika was going to hear about this later.
Ritika jerked out a couple of blasts, half-rising from her seat with effort. And then, with a scream that pierced my head and stopped my heart, she crumpled cross the table. The attendants rushed in and carried her away, with Mom right behind them.
I dashed out of the Obs Deck and headed straight for the Recovery Room. They wouldn’t let me in. I waited outside. The Commandant showed up, making an apologetic face in my direction.
“She’s not even fifteen,” I said, furious. “A child. How did she get into the Situation Room?”
“Her country needed her Strength,” the Commandant said stiffly. “She was legally seated with her mother’s permission.” I didn’t reply, because at that moment they brought the gurney out and turned down the hallway to our apartment. Mom and I hurried alongside. Ritika didn’t move.
“Your sister won it for us,” the Commandant called as we left. “JAYAZ has surrendered. We’ll start demobilizing next week.”
In our living room, Ritika lay on the gurney, her breathing so shallow I could hardly see it. I desperately prayed she would make it back whole and not a shell. Mom sat holding her still hand and looking bleakly at the door.
The air shimmered, and the dark forest pathway opened up.
“Mom!” I said. “What are you doing?”
I heard the divine footsteps approach.
“It’s not me,” Mom said. She indicated Ritika, lying comatose. “She’s very powerful. I think it’s her subconscious.”
“It is,” said a sonorous voice that echoed in our heads as much as in the room, and with dread I knew Lord Yama had arrived. His dogs stood rigid as pointers on either side of the gurney. He scooped a small brightness from Ritika’s body.
“No!” cried Mom, throwing herself on Ritika.
“It’s a long journey back to Yama-lok,” he remarked as he left for his realm. The four-eyed dogs followed.
“Ritika!” I called urgently, but of course she just lay there, still and silent. “Ritika! No!”
Lord Yama was vanishing down a disappearing path. Without Ritika’s Strength, everything was reverting to normal. Normal but for my little sister being gone.
“No!” I said again, my mind a whirl of thoughts and denial.
And then… the beginning of an idea. “Mom, can you open the path between worlds and hold it stable?”
“I can hold the illusion,” Mom said tearfully. “But she… she can’t return.”
“I’m going in to bring her back.”
“Darling Savi, it can’t be done.”
“Then why did you name me Savitri?”
Mom looked puzzled. “After my great-aunt. She was a wonderful person.”
“What about the legend of Savitri?” Mom shook her head. Honestly, wasn’t it mothers who were supposed to pass on the stories? In my house, I had to read them for myself. At least she’d got us all the mythology comics online.
“The Princess Savitri followed Lord Yama and got her husband’s soul back. If she could do it for him, I can do it for my little sister.”
“Savitri, I can’t lose you both. What if you get trapped in Yama-lok or inside a collapsing illusion?”
I took her hands in mine. “Mom. You practically live in the Situation Room. You had me sign guardianship papers for Ritika when I turned eighteen, just in case. We take risks, we have to.” I hugged her, remembering all the nights I waited up.
“Please hurry, Mom. Lord Yama has gone ahead. We don’t know how much time we have.”
The path reappeared. Mom smiled weakly. “There’s still Strength in Ritika. I’m weaving it into mine.”
I gave her a hurried kiss, and ran down the darkened forest path.
Forest paths are so romantic in the daytime. At night, they’re full of twigs and thorns and nightmares. I’d run out barefoot, not recommended for dark forest paths. But I set my mind to ignoring the ouches and looked ahead for Lord Death’s flaming hair.
Bushes snagged me like someone had planted the whole forest with thorny blackberry. The path turned along a cliff edge with sharp rocks and loose stones, and in the dark I had to hug the mountain to avoid the abyss below. Ignoring the agony got harder.
And finally, there he was. Lord Yama went from being a distant reddish glow to being right in front of me. I dropped to the ground respectfully. The dogs sniffed at my head and bloodied heels.
“Get up, Savitri.” He sounded angry. “You’re not supposed to be here. That path was long and painful for a reason.”
I rose with head bowed. One dog rolled over for tummy scratches. I tickled it with my toe to avoid looking up. Its companion growled, showing fangs. I quickly stepped back, then took a deep breath and raised my chin. “Lord Yama,” I said, my stomach clenched in fear. “I’ve… I’ve come for my sister.”
Lord Yama towered above me, hair aflame, sharp teeth white against the darkness.
“Oh?” His red eyes gleamed with sudden interest. That was an improvement on anger, anyway.
“A thousand years ago another Savitri followed me,” he said. “She came for her husband. Sweet couple. In the end I took them together, some years later.”
Who knew Lord Yama was sentimental about human love? He was King of Death, King of Righteousness. Maybe he just liked the idea of lifelong righteous love. Maybe he’d understand sibling devotion too.
“I love my sister.”
“Yes,” he sighed. “If love was all it took, many who die would live, and many now alive would be dead. Yama-lok would be full of only hated people.”
“You gave Princess Savitri back her prince.”
He looked at me curiously. “She won him back with her understanding of philosophy. She was deeply learned, very persuasive. Can you do the same?”
Me? Yeah, right. “No, no philosophy. I don’t suppose you want to play word games or puzzles?”
He snorted. “Riddles? In fairy-tales, the hero wins by asking or answering riddles.” He shook his head, his flaming hair waving. “No. I’m not a story and I don’t like riddles. You’ll have to find a better way to convince me.”
Lord Yama was handsome in a ferociously scary way. I gulped.
“Lord Yama, what is seven decades to you? That’s a question,” I added quickly, “not a riddle.”
He looked intrigued and thoughtful. “Time is unimportant. It could be a breath, or seventy breaths could fit inside a second. Seven decades or seventy, it’s just Time.”
“Lord Yama. In the end you took Savitri’s husband.”
“I did. I take all humans, except perhaps a few immortals.”
“Ritika isn’t immortal. She’ll die like everyone else. But you are eternal.”
“Does it matter so much if you take her now, or seven decades from now?” I took a deep breath, held it while I counted seventy seconds. Then I said, “Lord Yama, I ask seventy decades for my sister.”
As soon as I said it, I thought, Oops. I’d meant seventy years, of course, not decades. But what was said was said. I couldn’t change that, it would break the rules. I held my breath.
Lord Yama laughed. “For someone who claims no philosophy, you do well,” he said with amusement. “Do you seek seventy decades for your mother, too?”
Umm no. What I’d asked for Ritika was bad enough. “Please give her a normal long life, but a good one. I don’t want to know how long.”
“What’ll you give up?” asked Lord Yama.
“My time,” I said instantly, “time that means everything to us and nothing to you. I’m willing to die for my sister.” Would it work? I waited.
Lord Yama chuckled. “Your time?”
He thought for a moment, then laughed again. “Take your seventy decades for Ritika. And for you, too. I’ll come for you both on the same day, and you’ll come willingly.”
He handed me a glowing ball, Ritika’s spirit. “Here. Place it on your sister’s forehead.”
It felt cool to my touch, as though fire was contained in a mist.
“I’ll see you later,” said Lord Yama, or the illusion of Lord Yama. Thanks to my oops, that might mean seven hundred years later. The two dogs, or the two illusions of dogs, stopped snuffling around the forest and followed him. He disappeared down the path, his flaming hair visible through the trees.
The return path was smooth, lit with oil-lamps. In minutes I was home, placing the glowing ball on Ritika’s forehead. It vanished.
“Savitri! I was so scared!” Mom grabbed me into a hug. We clung to each other and watched.
Ritika sat up. “Mom! That was so awesome. Savitri, wow!”
Was she referring to the Situation Room or did she remember the forest? I had no idea. But there’d be time to find out, time to explain about seventy decades, time to unravel all the illusions. Ritika was back and the War was over.