2.20.2015

On Painting: Izzy's Logic of Color and Light- Part I "Contrasts"

a rough morning sketch
Long ago, in the before times.  I spent a number of years as a teacher of digital illustration and painting.

I worked for several institutions and regularly I would be shown the work of students that were struggling with different aspects of image making.

I don't teach anymore these days, but I regularly get requests to look at images.

It is truly amazing how much things have changed, but more so how much they remain the same.

 With the advent of Gumroad, Youtube tutorials, Patreon, and the overt consumption of how-tos and specialized techniques the sophistication of the artwork has increased significantly!

However, the same exact struggles seem to be taking place.

People are having difficulties with the fundamentals, and it's getting harder and harder for them to diagnose the problem with their work because the cancer in the skeleton is made invisible by the glitter all over the corpulent flesh.

There is more frosting than cake, and the struggle is very real.
-All of this is done with the assumption that if it looks like what is good, it is good.-
There is a lot of vitriol out there being spat at academic learning in concept art.  With the prices as they are, I certainly understand it.  Hell, when I went to college, I thought it was ridiculously overpriced, and it appears that art schools, especially those routed toward the entertainment field, have doubled down on their costs.  So, truly, I get it.

This isn't an argument for or against learning in a school, but rather a reminder that the format has always had profound benefits.  Particularly in the time-honored prerequisite approach to learning to make images.  In this buffet style rush to kit bash our own art educations, core staples of how to paint are being tossed aside.  All of this is done with the assumption that if it looks like what is good, it is good.

As everyone progresses with their work, they seem to be quickly coming to terms with the idea that this isn't necessarily so.  The increase of memes and self mockery among those in and on the cusp of joining this industry is pretty clear proof that we are in the middle of an incredible artistic paradigm shift.  Love it or hate it, the digital medium was always bound to instigate that for this community.

So.  What the hell is this bastard on about, you ask?

Well, I want to help you to learn or relearn the stacked fundamentals that will give you the ability to self diagnose your work.  We all need to be able to look past the corpulent glitter and analyze what is wrong with the skeleton foundations of our pieces.

This ability to analyze and understand what is working in great art, and how those kernels might apply to your own work, is the most vital skill of an autodidact.  If you'd like to sharpen this skill, read on!






"Self portrait on Toilet" was painted only with a round brush
on a Nintendo DS
I'm writing this series to help explain why we make some of the decisions we make in painting.  How light behaves and the best ways to manipulate your pixels and your viewers to communicate exactly what you intend to, in your work.  If I have the energy as we continue, I plan to also write on the more ethereal aspects of what we do, All the way from design methodology to storytelling.

Anyway, the key to control in your work, from fundamental painting, all the way to the extraordinary tips and tricks you find online now, is in that last paragraph.  You must understand, and compute, that painting (no matter the medium and techniques used) is a form of manipulation.

In essence, you decide what a viewer will focus on.  You decide the order that details will be viewed, you decide what's important, and what's not important.  You decide what will be included in your image, and what will be cut.

That is your responsibility, as the artist.  Never forget that every image you make is your own narrative.

If people are seeing things you didn't intend, or they aren't looking where you want them to, that is one hundred percent on you.

To our good fortune, these problems are incredibly easy to diagnose, and fix when you know what to look for.  So, why don't we take a look at your tools of manipulation!







Your number one tool in all things art is CONTRAST.

Seriously!  From music, to dance, to painting, to space design, et cetera.  All of your control, all of your personal style and voice, all of it comes down to how you manage contrast.

The primary thing that is keeping your painting from looking the way you intend is poor control of contrast in one or more elements.

This sounds simplified and easier than it should be, and in a way, that is a little bit true.  Contrast is a singular concept, but it applies to almost everything you are doing in your painting.   Remember that contrast is the play of not just differences but similarities in an element.

Think about it.

Contrast of: Value.  Edges.  Hue.  Saturation.  Design rhythm.  Brushwork.  Detail.  Lighting.  Even narrative.

These are pretty much all of the academic controls that you can adjust in your image to change how it looks.

Simple design rhythm change up creates a focal point.
This is a frequently used contrast in concept art.

Everyone's seen these saturation games.
When you are at the level you need to be
you will recognize exactly where you need your punch.

Don't desaturate, change the color mode to greyscale.
This is the only way to truly see value relationships in photoshop.
I set a hotkey to View/Proof/Custom- Working Grey Dot Gain 20%

In a very real sense, everything listed here is about edge control.
All other elements are really expressed in how you manage edges.

Brushwork, shape, value, edges, line work, rhythm, are all at work here.
Even in something stupid and simple like this, there's a lot to consider
in your head.  So when it comes time to work on a concept where a
figure or some realistically rendered object might be involved
this quickly becomes a nightmare.

So, yeah, those academic swatches are an instant snoozefest.  I know!  I hated them when I was in school.  It wasn't until later that I came to realize how wildly important these concepts are in painting.

My concern for lots of you artists out there is this; while kit bashing your education, you'll skip this stuff because it looks lame.  You will be shooting yourself in the foot, missing out on truly understanding the controls you have available to you in your work.

I will continue this train of thought in a moment, but first I must take us all on an aside.  When we talk about our contrasts, just to simplify, I'd like you to think of them as you'd do any binary scale.

For instance an edge can be either softer or harder.  Simply meaning the gradation between two different shapes can either be gentle with many descending or ascending steps between, or an abrupt difference from one to the other.  The number of steps equate directly to either being a soft edge (many steps) or hard edge (few or no steps).


Since we're talking about digital painting.  Let's think about it in Photoshop terms!

It's important to keep this mental palette in your head while you self diagnose.  It will aide you in figuring out problems as well as immediately give you the right direction to go to fix it!

So!  Here's the kicker, kids!

Like many palettes in Photoshop if you adjust one of these sliders all other sliders will be affected!  If you make an adjustment to detail for instance, you are automatically altering edges.  Same for color! If you desaturate a hue that is reddish, next to one that is equally greenish, the greenish will appear to change as well!  If you make erratic strokes in an area with lots of fiddly-bits your detail will go up, and your edge contrast will go up.

See what I'm getting at here?

Contrasts.  Every single element that has that binary possibility (not all are listed in my examples above btw) are members of a complex and completely interdependent and relative relationship.  This complex relationship can be called Simultaneous Contrast.

Simultaneous contrast is generally only applied to the concepts of hue, saturation, and value.  But I think you can see how I've expanded the term and how it rightly combines the greater concept of our elemental contrasts.

This is the basic toolkit we all have for our paintings!  You may not have been aware of it, or the relationships they all maintain.  The fact is, for better or worse, you've been using them all along!

In my case, when I finally figured out how these things depended on each other, I really felt I unlocked the core aspect of painting.  It was at that exact point when I began to feel like I could go back and look at my paintings with the same eyes my great teachers had!







I wish there were painting power pellets.  Oh yeah! Adderall!
In his amazing book "Alla Prima: Everything I know about painting", Richard Schmid talks about how to achieve realism in your painting (I highly recommend purchasing his book).

I'm going to butcher his brilliant writing, but at one point he essentially says; The key to realistic painting is mixing the right color and value for a shape you see, then drawing that exact shape.  Then mixing the correct color and value and painting the next exact shape right beside the first.

This sounds grossly simplified, but it's utterly true.  Unfortunately, it is also true that this basic notion is easily lost in concept art.  

The reason is obvious if we think about it.  

It's because Schmid is simplifying what he is seeing in front of him, and we are inventing everything from scratch!

There is endless talk online about the necessity for reference.  There's also an equal amount of bragging when it's avoided or skipped.  We've all been guilty of that, and I think we are all finally coming around to realize how sophomoric and pointless such affectation is.  

The best way to learn how to achieve realism in a made up image is to study similar things gathered from reality!  Period.

Now, hold on!  I'ma let you finish, but you gotta understand that I'm not baggin' on using photos in your painting! 

What I am saying is, you need to understand how the aforementioned toolkit functions in your painting before you turn to photos to achieve realism.  So many artists struggling to get into concept art are picking up advanced techniques and putting them into their toolboxes before understanding the basic purposes of their most primary tools.  

Throwing a photo into a painting without understanding our variety of contrasts is the same as adding a randomizer to that set of sliders in our simultaneous contrast Photoshop palette.  Control is completely lost, and getting it back on track takes a lot of work (and a fair amount of frustration).

This particular problem is truly chaotic when you consider that the palette I made up isn't for the painting as a whole, but really for all the elements that combine into your total painting.  

Well.  Shit just got complicated.

Don't worry!  Take my hand, and I'll walk you through it.  







Here is a recent painting I did.  I call it Ghostfood.  It's inspired by Asian mythology regarding the appetites of the dead.  Cool, huh?

Don't eat fire, kids.  You think molten pizza is bad?

Anyway, I chose this painting as an example because the whole thing is truly just me playing with contrasts.  In particular, it's an example of edge contrasts, but it also has some very simple hue contrast going on in the complimentary oranges and blues.

Does it feel a little brighter in this shot?  It isn't.
The thing to understand about simultaneous contrasts is that they are entirely relative.  If you crop an image, like I did to the left, the relative values, colors, edges, all change.

For example; when you look at the larger full image above.  Unless you are scrutinizing, the stripes in the pajama shirt are a tertiary or quarternary detail.  The values of the stripes seem to clump into a greater whole when they appear relatively smaller with the rest of the available values presented in the background.

Hell!  The cropped image even appears brighter, even though the colors and values are exactly the same!

The amount of a contrasting elements changes the relative contrasts themselves.  Crazy, huh?

So much of this kind of thinking is built around understanding the perception of your viewer.  This is the subtle manipulation of painting that I mentioned earlier.

Want to see some more fake painting magic?  Let's check out how saturation and relative value structures can play into the light of your paintings.  We can agree that the light on the ghost girl above is warm and certainly of a reasonable brightness!

Nope.

This is so much less inviting and warm without color.  I half expect her to crawl through my scree.... graaahaaa!!!!!

Taking the color out of the image by changing the mode to grayscale shows us the truly dark key* of the image over all.  The brightest brights are the candle flames themselves.  Nothing else comes close.  And if we break it down to rough percentages the bright elements can't constitute more than maybe .2% of the whole image.  We will talk more about value and color keys in coming articles, but for now I want you to focus on how contrast is working here.  It is the combined efforts of all of the contrast elements I wrote about that gives the painting the appearance it had.

When you are making your paintings you have to remember all of these relationships and not over correct any one of them.  As I've said a few times now, you can't alter one without affecting all of the rest!

Let's look at the concept of edge contrasts in a microcosm now.

Enhance 224 to 176.  Enhance.  Stop.  Move in.  Stop.

As I've said, look at how contrasts appear to change when we look through the lens of relativity.  Here things are looking violently crisp in respect to the edge relationships.  Try to remember, the contrast between the blue light on this elbow and the dark field behind it is exactly the same as it is in the full sized image.

When you add in all the other value relationships and contrasts, this contrast seems almost soft in comparison.

And that's what I'm looking to explain here.

The bottom line is.  Every edge in your painting, every clump of value, every play of saturation and hue is necessary to create the whole.  If one thing isn't working, the incorrectness can cascade all the way down the line and ruin your painting.

Sounds like a portent of doom, doesn't it?

No worries, you zarkin' frood!  Stick with me.






The best weapon you have against inconsistent contrasts are already right there, in your face.

When you learn academically to paint from observation it is positively beaten into your brain to squint at your subjects.  Sure, people mention it, once in a blue moon when talking about painting in tutorials online.

It isn't violently hammered into your skull, though.

I'm serious.  You'd be fucking sick of hearing about squinting after a couple years in school.


Shit. Shit. Shit. Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit!


Now, under instruction, we are taught that the reason we squint is to boil down our values and shapes into clean graphic forms.  No pun intended, but this is a gross oversimplification of what your squinting really does.  In every possible way, squinting lets you visually alter contrast.  Edges are softened, values combined, hues muddied, complex lighting gets lumped into simple shapes.

Do you see how this verbiage leads perfectly into Richard Schimd's breakdown of painting?


How does this help when, as I've already established, you are painting something directly out of your head?

Well.  We simply reverse engineer the process.  When you are painting, regularly squint at it and see how those contrast relationships are working with each other.  Edges that are too sharp for their location will emerge, values that don't belong will pop, colors that aren't being friendly are suddenly apparent.

Squint.  Frequently.

Don't just stop there.  Squint at your references, figure out where and why soft edges are happening.  Photo reference has so much more value than just mimicking detail!  I'll get into more detail on reference and how I use it in a later article.

Sometimes, you can see edges and details pop when you aren't even squinting.

This is almost always the case when photos are being used as textures.  Again, this is a mistake when not used with full intent toward the final image.

Photographs are packed with details and visual noise which can be super distracting in the overall image.  Especially if the photo is singularly located.  You see it all the time with details on character's armor or on the trees in backgrounds.

Always ask yourself these questions when you are using photos.  Is this where I want my focal point?  Is this detail more important than my focal point?  Is this overlay creating distracting artifacts?  Is the photo introducing colors or values that are not working with my overall painting?

Kratos has strong feelings about photos that break the contrasts in your paintings!


Often, the answer will prove the photo is not beneficial as it is.  No problem.  There are ways to implement the photo while keeping it within the realm of your painting, and that's where the paths of the pros and the amateurs always diverge.

Here's some -if this, then that- scenarios regarding contrasts for you:

-If you have too much detail or two many artifacts in your photo reference, then Filter/ Blur/ Smart Blur.

-If the photo is introducing colors you don't want, then desaturate or alter the saturation and hue of the layer.

-If the photo is creating an unwanted focal point, render your real focal point so that it is more interesting.  Introduce greater contrasts of color, value, detail, etc.

-If the photo is flattening out a three dimensional object like a character or object, then Edit/ Transform or Puppet Transform to make it fit the contours of the object in perspective.

-If the detail of the photo is necessary, but still drawing the eye too much, try the blurs combined with lowering the contrast of the photo layer itself.

-Always try different layer blending modes to see what works best.

-Be wary of trendy techniques like photo offsets and chromatic aberration.  While these do make cool contrasts they may be making focal points you aren't intending, or making your image look blurry and difficult to look at.  These effects are the absolute best if used sparingly and wisely!

-In direct opposition to my statement above.  If your photos fit the values, colors, details, and perspective of the parts of your painting but still are popping, then New Layer, White Fill, Filter/Add Noise and set layer to low opacity and play with the blending mode.  If noise is everywhere, the photo becomes less obvious!

See, I told you I'd help you out!






As you can see, Contrast and the control of contrast through Simultaneous Contrast are insanely useful tools in the digital artist's repertoire.  Developing a sense of how your contrasts will behave in your painting better puts you in charge of how close your final image will look to what you intended.  It will also allow you to cut huge amounts of time going back and forth trying to 'find' your painting in the madness of incorrect contrasts.

I hope I have enlightened you a bit on the purposeful use of simultaneous contrast so that you can make your artwork stronger through understanding the fundamentals of painting and the logic of color and light.

I hope you have found this essay useful!
I welcome questions and comments and theories of painting below or on my FB page (linked below)!

If you have ideas for future topics please feel free to post them!

I plan to also do follow up blogs to each article where I invite readers to send a piece they are struggling with that fits the theme, and I will show techniques on how to fix it!

*Up next on On Painting: Izzy's Logic of Color and Light-  "Value Keys"

Here's an article I wrote a while back on the Advanced Principles of Creature Design

-You can follow me on Facebook Twitter Instagram





1.27.2015

Old soul

"Old Soul" 3 hr portrait of a recently recognized reincarnated Buddhist Monk.




1.23.2015

9.05.2014

MAGGOT: a short story

मन की मौज
Maggot

By Izzy

    Mumbai, India 2098-

        The boy nestled the hand grenade close to his chest. The deadly explosive felt icy cold even though the afternoon city was feverish with the summer humidity. He feared jostling it, so he walked quickly but with extreme care.
    Shesh's bare feet padded as he navigated the rusting tin panels that lined the floor of this particular narrow slum alleyway. He could tell by the denseness of the air -and the smell- that he was very near the bottom levels of the many storied Sun City.

    He knew they called it that because you could never see the sun this deep into the lower floors of the slums. It wasn't very clever. He figured that they just didn’t want to call it Slum City.
    Cramped old apartment buildings, and scavenged bits of metal and plastic formed a rat warren of tiny overfilled dwellings and markets dozens of floors deep. Every twenty meters or so throughout Sun City, corroded water pipes and hulking bundles of cables crawled through the labyrinth like the roots of banyan trees.
    Shesh slipped through a broken grating and after a moment found himself immersed in the harsh LED light that filled the bottom level markets.
    Here the clangor of quasi-legal commerce roared. He could pick out shouted words in a potpourri of languages. He heard the street Hindi called Bambaiya, some Urdu, Marathi, and English. There were several others he could understand but not speak very well. His nose was hammered with the conflicting scents of chemicals from the laundry vats and the smell of hundreds of vendors hawking tantalizing food. All around people shouted about the great quality of their wares; curries, clothing, and technology.
    Shesh clutched the grenade under his stained white shirt and walked briskly past the local laundry. Women knelt at the edges of sickly looking pools worrying at bits of cloth. The women sang and chattered while they beat and squeezed the filth from colorful thin sarongs and other clothing.
    Their voices mixed with the ignored din from several cheap flat screens that had been mounted on the walls. The dust-stained monitors featured a commercial for sweet water where Bollywood dancers flashed and twirled.
    The smell of detergents and the bittersweet song the women sang pinched in the part of Shesh's heart where he kept snapshots of his mother. He shook his head imperceptibly and blinked his large almond shaped eyes. The boy marched on into the loud and crowded food market.
    Shesh was just tall enough to see the wares being sold in the shack-like stalls. His dark orangish eyes darted over the colorful offerings. He could not help running his tongue over his dark lips. He stood on his toes and popped his chin over a few of the tables. Fluorescent green and white packages of genetically modified Plentils were being sold alongside rat kebabs, and cricket masalas.
    Shesh licked his lips again as he watched the old woman tending the cricket masala stir the thick fragrant sauce. Crickets, coconut, tomato, coriander, garlic wafted into his little oval face. The woman scowled, chittered an admonishment in Hindi, and flapped her hands at him. Her purple sari was wrapped tight and her old flesh draped through the openings under her arms. It wobbled with her movement. Shesh flashed a brilliant smile that contrasted wildly with his dark skin. He flicked the tip of his thumb off his teeth at her in a rude gesture. She spat and commenced stirring. Shesh shivered with hunger and moved on.
    At the next booth they were selling brightly colored bhel puri, a flavorful rice cake topped with onion, potato and tart chutney. Shesh stomach lurched and he decided to scurry quickly past the remaining food vendors. There would be time and rupees for food -after the job.
    Shesh fanned his sweat varnished face with his free hand to clear the aromas that tantalized his nostrils. He gritted his teeth and hugged the hidden explosive against his skinny ribs.
    Shesh spotted the large center pathway that split the Sun City market and pushed past several people trying to join with the stream of movement.
    At the corner of the main road there was a filthy beggar balancing on a ratty cushion on top of an ancient CRT television. The screen blurred and fuzzy lines rolled over its surface but it was clear enough to see people on it. It was a news program from the Mumbai Arcology called “Mumbai-Pop!”. The brilliant white smile and perfect mahogany skin of a gorgeous Mumbaikar woman were on the screen. She was reporting about some rich famous person that lived in the glass-walled city. Below her was a news ticker. The letters on the screen scrolled: ...GLOBAL ECONOMIC CRASH OF 2075 EFFECT ON STOCK…
    Shesh looked back up at the familiar beggar. His long matted hair and thick mustache all but hid his face. Only a formidable nose jutted through the mass of salt and pepper, and from the center of his forehead the dim glow of a luminescent tilaka mark. The glow-paint formed a red vertical line from his hairline to the bridge of his nose. The man had no arms. Only tiny buds of proto-fingers poked out where his clavicles should have ended. He wore empty short pants that folded in an odd way, underscoring his lack of any limbs whatsoever.
    The deformed man on his decaying pillow was surrounded by a troupe of cats and kittens. He begged for money, Shesh knew, and used most of it to feed the cats. Shesh nodded at the man who returned the gesture. The little boy adjusted the explosive under his shirt so he could kneel and caress the mewing kittens that snuggled on the cushion. They pressed their tiny heads against his fingers and Shesh smiled and stood up.
    The boy and his deadly cargo slipped into the mass of people slowly milling through the main thoroughfare of Sun City.
    Standing like a canopy of trees, the adults talked, bartered, and swatted at flies. The men were often topless as the heat and humidity in the belly of the slums was ridiculous. Many wore simple colored dhoti wraps around their hips. The women wore saris in prisms of colors that glimmered despite the cheapness of the cloth.
    Here and there people were savagely bartering and gesturing at their glowing knock-off datapads. Shesh strode on. He pushed through the masses using his palm to put pressure on peoples hips. They mindlessly made a little room for him to squeeze through.
    He knew he looked like any other hollow eyed child and he would not draw anyone's attention around here. All about, there were other children hustling and working. They were begging and pick-pocketing, or trying to sell trinkets. All of the children had thin brown bodies that supported heads that seemed too big for their necks. They all scurried like gangs of monkeys around the legs of the grown ups. They were engaged in their own “market” of thieving, trading, and bullying.
    Shesh unconsciously checked his pockets with his free hand, even though he had nothing else for the other kids to steal. His precious payload was making him overly nervous. He sped up his steps and made it out of the market in a matter of moments.
    After more winding metallic tunnels of slum shacks, a rusted ladder, and a quick tromp through a stream that was mostly garbage and sewage, he arrived at his destination.
    He stood in an empty lot that was hemmed on all sides by high duracrete walls. It was filled with refuse. The lot acted as one of many dumps for the citizens of Sun City and those that lived in the slums several stories above.
    Before him was a solid wall that had been pasted with a giant poster. The image featured a heavily graffitied visage of Shiva. Blue night-time was depicted with rolling purple mountains, and in the foreground sat the azure deity.
    He held his pink palm toward the viewer in a passive gesture. Coiled around his neck was a golden King cobra gazing into the distance. On the God's head nestled in a crown of matted hair was a tiny golden crescent. That shape, Shesh's mother once told him, represented the moon. It symbolized the cycle of creation or some such nonsense.
    Most of the image was difficult to read thanks to simple decay, as well as the phosphorescent tags and terribly lewd drawings. Shesh himself had scaled the wall and painted the cartoonish vulva that replaced the third eye on the smooth and peaceful blue forehead.
The abandoned painting of the god sat in a small lot that may have once been a restaurant parking area fifty or sixty years ago, but was now a foul smelling dump. Sharp wreckage and picked through electronics hid the tarmac a few meters below.
    Shesh climbed toward the wall that bore the god. There was a large stack of grey looking garbage. It seemed to rest like a tiny mountain against the wall. He disturbed a couple of skinny ill tempered dogs. They snarled and dashed down the pile and into another dark alley.
    Shesh pulled himself up next to the peak of the pile of trash. He slid a piece of particle board from it. The door revealed a small entryway into a tunnel downward. The sheet of wood had cleverly been tied with netting so that junk hung and stuck to it very naturally. He moved the grenade from his dirty white shirt to a pocket in his decaying shorts and climbed down into the opening. His small hands reached out of the hole and pulled the trash laden cover back into place.
    The vandalized god Shiva held court over the silent junk-heap once again.

----

    Shesh squeezed along the inside of the wall that featured the tattered Shiva. He made sure to tuck his belly and arch his back to dodge the nails and spikes driven into the stonework. After a few years of practice and a couple jagged scars he had become very adept at maneuvering quickly in narrow spaces. The children had strung up very dim lights inside the wall and it made the going a little easier.
    He finally reached the end of the hollow wall. Shesh had arrived at the entrance of the Mahi Durg. It was a half meter wide hole near the floor where the crawlspace in the wall ended. Maybe it was a vent for the wall from many years before? He wasn’t sure.
    Pratik had named their hide-out the Mahi Durg. He was the “big brain” in their group and he said it was named for a kind of fortress.
    Shesh thought it a pretty pitiful fortress, but, it was an exceptional hiding spot. It was impossible for anyone larger than maybe a fourteen year old to shimmy along the inner wall to get here, besides the entrance in the trash pile was really well concealed. Shesh smiled, that was his doing. He did not know as much as Pratik, but he had his own talents.
    He leaned close to a heavy tamarind colored plastic tarp that lay across the hole.
    “Let me in,” he whispered.
    He heard the quiet voices that were bubbling in the quick round tones of Bambaiya Hindi cease. There was a small click sound and a hiss. Shesh slid the tarp to the side and eased down into the small room. When the other children recognized him, the voices and giggles immediately continued.
    He reactivated the “doorbell” as the gang liked to call it. It was a simple trap. A thin wire was woven through the bottom of the heavy brown tarp. The line attached to a small switch with a carabiner. That switch operated an air compressor nestled against the wall. The machine's output was fitted with a long tube filled with metal shavings and motor oil. Not deadly, just really unpleasant.
    The taped up remains of a cricket bat leaning against the trap was for the coup de grâce.
    Sana the lone girl in their motley organization had a gift with machines, and the doorbell was one of hers. She was standing at the opposite wall digging around in one of the several dirty plastic bags looped to a pipe. The bags contained scraps of clothing and a few tins of vegetables or seasoned crickets in oil.
    Three other children were laying in a dog pile that filled most of the floor in the broom closet sized room.
    Azizul, Pratik, and Basir were wrestling. Pratik clad in a dingy white sleeveless top and earthy looking trunks was laughing and tugging on Basir's ears. Basir was struggling to get free but Pratik was wiry and strong. Pratik had locked his legs around the larger but slower boy. He held on to Basir's ratty polo shirt to keep him from reaching back and sinking a big slow fist into him.
    Azizul, "The Map" had his narrow back pressed against one of the pebbled walls and pushed into the wrestling boys with his slender legs. He kicked both of them playfully. In the dim digital black light his eyes and teeth were ultra bright. The random patches of super pale skin that were spread over most of Azizul's body glowed brilliant blue. They looked like erratic lakes surrounded by dark chocolate land.
    "Such big ears," Pratik teased as he pulled Basir's, admittedly, rather large ears. "Are you a dog-boy? Can you hear the flies buzz in the Arcology? Maybe Basir-Big-Ears has fleas!?” Pratik said into the cup of Basir's ear. Basir just grunted and twisted his head trying to free himself. He didn't speak much and tended to get even quieter when he was teased.
    "Stop it, you swollen ass," said Shesh. He put his foot on Pratik's shoulder and pushed the other boy from his victim. "Look what I have, here." Pratik rolled to his knees and shot Shesh a dirty look.
    Sana turned quickly from the plastic bags. She had squirmed into a holey yellow tee shirt with faded pictures of unicorns mounting each other. She was young, too. Just like all the others in the room she had the round innocent face of the prepubescent. Unlike the rest she had a milky eye that had been lost to an infection a few years before. "You got it?!" She asked.
    Shesh shooed the other children and dragged a small crate to the center of the room. They all sat in a circle as Shesh gingerly placed the grenade on the box.
    They all sat in awe of the deadly device. They looked close at it, their small noses were mere inches from the explosive. In the black LED light, the cricket ball sized grenade looked like a black hole that absorbed all light. Basir pulled out a little key chain that looked like a cartoon mouse. When it was squeezed a little diode sputtered an orangish light that cast over the object on the table.
    It was maybe twenty five centimeters tall and perhaps eighteen at it's widest. It was oblong like an American football with blunted points, and it was pebbled with a deeply engraved hexagonal pattern. The grenade had a small rectangular shape at the top that sprouted a long dangerous looking crescent of metal that hugged the curve of the center mass. Shesh thought of the moon.
    Basir touched the metal ring that was attached to a pin at the top of the crescent. "That's the part you pull," he said solemnly. "Then," he made a flowering gesture with his hands and mimicked the sound of an explosion.
    "Everyone knows that, idiot," Pratik said. In the light of the cartoon mouse, his rat like features were made comical by his walleyes. Each of Pratik's eyes looked as though they were trying to escape looking at the other one.
    Sana flicked Pratik's ear making him jump. "This is a chaff-bang grenade," her English was sharp and crisp like folded foil. "It explodes like a normal grenade but also throws up bits of aluminium and other stuff to mess with a drone's radar."
    Azizul nodded. His brows creased, pinching the small white patches around his forehead. In Hindi he said, "You remember Tanvi and her gang? They got caught by the Rust Dogs. She said they had a chaff-bang and the Dogs got blown to pieces. She said they made hundreds of rupees on the wreckage. Along with the rupees they got from the scavenge run."
    The children all looked at each other excited. Shesh beamed a smile and his head rocked slightly from shoulder to shoulder with the pleasure of having acquired such a valuable item.
    "With this the Dogs can't stop us!" exclaimed Pratik.
    Basir had a huge grin that spread from oversized ear to oversized ear. He slapped Pratik on the back and they all laughed. After a meager meal they readied gear for the evenings promising scavenging run.

----


    “I still think I should carry it,” said Pratik. He walked at the front of the group strutting backwards down the center of the dark road. Each of his eyes seemed to take in both sides of the muddy path. There were multi-storey shacks that lined the walls of the road in the outer ring of Sun City’s residential warrens. Each barren window wafted the sounds of televisions and the aromas of frying garlic and onion. It appeared to be dinner time for those that could afford it.
    The group of scavenger orphans had ventured through almost two kilometers of slums and still hadn’t broken free of the densely packed lean-tos and tenement housing.  No one paid them any attention. They were not the only unattended children running around out here, and everyone had their own problems.
    “Let it go,” Azizul the Map said with a big sigh. There was a short silence where all they heard was the squelching of their bare feet in the stinking mud.
    “Come on. I’m the general of our little army, I should carry the grenade,” Pratik said, finally. He smiled and tugged at the straps of his sleeveless greying undershirt as though they were suspenders.
    “Not so loud, idiot,” Sana growled at him. They passed a tiny jutting house where there was an intense argument taking place in Urdu, a woman with a scarf over her head threw out dirty water in the path of the children, glanced at them, then turned and commenced yelling at the man inside.
“We already agreed to let Sana carry it, Pratik. She’s the one that knows machines best. Let it go,” Shesh said. After thirty minutes of this idiotic debate he was reaching his limit of irritation.

    Basir nodded, his big ears seemed to flop with the movement.
    “You’ll be sorry if the Dogs catch us up,” Pratik shrugged. He turned in a snit and shoved his hands into the pockets of his brown trunks.
    “Just shut up and walk,” said Sana. She tightened the rope she wore as a belt around her yellow shirt with the humping unicorns. From it hung another shirt that had been fashioned into a bag. The heavy looking lump inside it was the the chaff-bang grenade. Shesh didn’t like how it kept slapping against Sana’s thigh, but she knew what she was doing.
    They all wore thin ropes or extension cords for belts. They each had a couple of plastic bags with simple tools. Each of them had wire cutters that they’d nicked from a market or picked up with extra money in the prior months. Azizul even had a multitool that he’d gotten from his brother before he had disappeared two years ago. Shesh never met Azizul’s brother, but he knew no one else in the Map’s family had shared his condition.
    The children also carried scraps of cloth or canvas that had been repurposed into slings for carrying salvage. It was extremely dangerous to hunt for the derelict bits of technology in the old industrial outskirts of the city. If you didn’t have enough bags to bring the loot back, the risk was never worth it.
    Shesh was pulled from his thoughts when Basir tugged at his stained tee shirt. He turned and Basir pointed. Basir was the largest of them, and the oldest at maybe eleven or twelve years old. His silence and observant eyes made him an excellent look out. Shesh followed Basir’s finger. He could see the curving bases of massive smoke towers. The children could only see the bottoms of the cement cylinders because they were on the ground floor of the slum city. Shesh knew, the towers were the second highest feature visible in the Mumbai’s skyline.
    The two smoke stacks marked that they were nearing the edge of the Powai Lake industrial center. Shesh knew, a little farther north, just past the stinking water refinery and desalination plant, the dense slum city broke. Once free of the slums, they could finally breath a little fresh air.

----


    Shesh, Sana, Pratik, Azizul, and Basir sat on the edge of a dam. All around the humid duracrete facility thick foliage grew. Shesh could pick up earthy sandalwood and the dank ivy scent of peepal trees in the air.
    The children’s slender brown legs hung over the precipice. They rested their chins on their arms between the horizontal guardrails. The dam blocked a small river that fed into the big lakes northeast of Mumbai. The roar of the rushing brown water below them was deafening when they were down in the garbage strewn ravine, but up here it sounded like the pink noise of a flat screen disconnected from the free network feed.
    The five children sat looking at the orange light pollution. It filled the smog over the city with a warm glow. Jutting up above the slum skyline like a rude finger gesture, sat the smoke towers. Though the smog spewing cylinders were massive, and truly the largest buildings of their kind. They seemed to melt away in the glamour of Mumbai’s other great architectural feature.
    It was centered in the heart of the shanty town squalor which grew around it like a tumor. It transcended over the slums’ mass of multi-storey shacks and corrugated aluminum palaces. The building loomed over the highest skyscrapers from the entirety of Indian history. It was where all roads in Southern Asia seemed to converge. The Arcology stood without any contender as the largest building on this hemisphere.
The Mumbai Arcology glittered like a pyramid made of glowing diamonds, and wore a crown of clouds well below it’s peak. The gigantic building was literally a self-contained city sealed in duracrete and carbon-glass.
    Hundreds of thousands of Asia’s richest families called the designer metropolis home. To the wealthy of the modern world, the contents of the Arcology were Mumbai. Everything else around it was merely living human shit.
    Shesh wrinkled his nose at the gargantuan architectural marvel. To him it just looked like a huge glowing dick.
    He remembered an info-screen at a decaying learning kiosk outside the building when he was younger. It had said that the Arcology was over two kilometers tall. It’s peak was higher than all of the nearby mountains. It’s base was nearly a kilometer wide. They had gutted most of the old city to build it.
    Shesh had even been told that there was once a retainer wall to keep out the filth, but the slums just poured back in. They crashed at its impenetrable glass and steel foot like an ocean wave, but were unable to seep in.
    “I heard they have special elevator cars that run up and down and sideways,” Sana said, interrupting Shesh’s thoughts.
    “I heard they have green food that grows in all of the walls,” Basir said. He popped the collar of his ratty black polo shirt. They had begun their favorite game. Shesh smiled.
    “I heard…” Azizul the Map thought a moment. He scratched his chin where brown islands floated in a pale ocean. “I heard that they grow their children in hydroponic vats!”
    “Good one,” Sana said with a laugh.
    Not to be outdone, Pratik cleared his throat dramatically. “I heard that the Rust Dogs grab scavengers to be ground up and fed to the Mumbaikars with straws!” Everyone laughed. Pratik adjusted a nonexistent tie knot and grinned, his walleyes bulged.
    Everyone looked at Shesh, though he was still musing at the accursed Arcology. Sana elbowed him and he came to himself. He glanced at her and she nodded expectantly. One of her eyes was bright with a rich brown iris, the other was clouded and lifeless.
    “I,” said Shesh. “I heard that the Arcology is actually just a gigantic super computer. That all the people in the world have died and we are just a program it plays so it doesn’t feel lonely.” Shesh finished with a spooky voice.
    “Whoah,” Basir said. His eyes were wide.
    “Shesh wins,” said Sana. Pratik rolled his wide cast eyes and nudged Azizul, who rocked his head and made a funny face.
    Shesh’s white smile glowed in the darkness.
    “Let’s get going, you lot,” chastised Pratik. They all rose and dusted off their fraying and decaying clothes and checked their gear.

----


    “I totally swear!” said Azizul the Map. He crossed the piebald patches on his bare chest with a brown and white finger.
    The children slunk along in single file. The evening air was warm and still. They passed under a tall bitter scented teak tree. The jungle was lush here. It had overtaken much of the corporate campus buildings from India’s economic boom. The even chirps of night time crickets echoed in the darkness. Far away, birds trilled at each other from the high branches of eucalyptuses.
    “Hush,” said Shesh. “There are still functioning turrets, and the bloody security drones, idiot!”
    Sana smiled in the darkness, “Maybe they will blow off his hands so we don’t have to hear any more tales of his pick-pocketing skills.”
    “If you all don’t quiet down, we will lose more than our hands tonight,” hissed Pratik.
    His eyes were wide, taking in all the light they could in the jungle’s darkness. He was right. Everything beyond the dam they left an hour ago was in the Red Zone. This was the sort of trespassing that merited serious punishment. Tonight they were much deeper into the Zone than they had ever gone before.
    Shesh knew there were drone patrols all over the place. The mercenary robots made distinct thrumming noises though, and he hadn’t heard anything of the sort, so far. In the past he had seen air drones that swept through the high canopy of the trees scanning for intruders. There were also the Rust Dogs.
    They stalked in packs on the forest floor, and in the deserted facilities. The machines were programmed to defend the long abandoned labs and offices. He was also aware that some of the wealthier corporations left other automated security behind as well. Salvage was dangerous and sometimes deadly work.
    The children stopped and crouched up against a short designer concrete shelf that was being consumed by ferns and other large leafy brush.
    Sana cursed quietly and threw a fat spiny millipede away from the group.
    “What do you see, Basir?” asked Pratik.
    “This looks like an old parking lot. It goes underground over there. The campus is two buildings, maybe three.” Basir whispered. He craned his head around the large once fancy corporate planter. Trees, bamboo and tall shrubs blocked much of the view. There had been a huge typhoon many years ago. Silt and mud from the floods brought seeds and soil into all of these campuses. No one seemed to care to come back and tend to the overgrown structures in the Red Zone.
    “It looks like the closest building has an opening. The glass has been shattered on one corner. May have been looters. I don’t know,” said Basir.
    “Or Rust Dogs,” said Azizul the Map.
    “It looks empty,” said Basir.
    “Does it sound empty, big ears?” asked Pratik with a devious grin.
    “Yes,” Basir said.
    They all looked at each other and quietly nodded.
    The five children padded toward the building trying to stay below the shrub line. Being cautious was always wise.
    Shesh knew that kids were the most common scavengers, their heat and radar signatures were much smaller than adults. The walking drones and wall turrets were designed to ignore the common animals that prowled the jungle. Conservation subroutines or something like that. They all consciously stayed low anyway.
    The moon cast the wide green leaves around them in blueish light. Shesh could finally see what Basir had spotted. The dark glass of a two or three story building reflected the forest so perfectly in the dim light, that it was almost invisible.
    As they drew near they could see their own reflections on the slightly iridescent surface. Five skinny Mumbaikar slummers. A boy in a holey black polo. He was taller than the rest with a slow looking face,. A girl with one dead eye, wearing a dingy yellow t-shirt. A walleyed boy with clever rat like features. A bare chested boy with patterns of vitiligo spattering his body. Shesh was wearing his rag of a tee shirt. His eyes were large and glinting in the darkness. They nestled under thick eyebrows of near black color. His small dark lips looked almost purple in the moonlight.
    The group moved slowly along the shrub line until they were in front of the hole in the windows. It was a whole floor to ceiling pane that had been shattered. It looked like mud was the culprit. Flash flooding during a typhoon must have brought a big stone, or chunk of a tree crashing into the corner of the building.
    Pratik took the lead and snuck into the office. They each followed, one at a time. Shesh took up the rear. As he stepped through the hole he had one last glance around outside. All was clear.

----


    “Rock... Tiger... Technologies is a... diversified company that... provides a broad range of high tech… products and services... to the global... aerospace and… blah, blah, blah,” read Pratik. He had sounded out the words he didn’t know. He was holding a binder filled with papers under the weak light of his own cartoon mouse keychain. He slapped the book shut and tossed it into the small pile of discarded objects. The mildewing carpet wafted a sour odor of decay.
    “Airspace?” Sana asked. Pratik looked at Basir, Basir looked at Azizul. They shrugged.
    The gang were now on the second floor of the building. They were in a small metropolis of grey cubicles. Dark wood lined the walls and on them hung prints of jungle scenes at skewed angles. The five of them had dug through all the files and drawers that the owners had deemed unimportant enough to leave behind.
    The skirmishes and corporate funded battles that had happened after the collapse must have hit very quickly. These buildings always looked like there had been a nuclear meltdown. There seemed to be no end to scattered printouts and overturned chairs. Shesh wondered what happened back then. Some buildings they had looked through in the past even looked bombed out. He shrugged. He had no way of knowing what had happened back then. Not the truth anyway.
    The five had managed to gather a few hard drives and salvageable metals from dusty and rusted computers. It was an acceptable run. They had enough loot to get by for a while, but after a couple of hours in the building they had hoped to turn up more.
    Shesh walked into what must have been some manner of meeting room. His feet squelched in the moist rotting carpet. One side of the room had a curving glass wall that looked out over the foyer of the lower floor. The center was occupied by an impossibly heavy looking wooden table. It looked as though some animals had seen fit to climb up on the table and leave a shit. Shesh hoped it was animals, anyway.
    There was a large heavy looking monitor mounted on the wall. It had several impact cracks in it.
    “Come see what I’ve found,” he called to the others.
    They gathered in a semi circle around the one hundred and fifty inch display.
    “This is a great find,” Pratik said.
    “We can dig out the copper and aluminium!” said Azizul. A wide smile split the map on his face.
    “Of course,” said Sana. “But don’t forget! A monitor like this is bound to have lots of gold in it, too!”
    The five of them looked at each other with great excitement. This was going to be a magnificent haul!
    Without warning, they were all blinded by brilliant white light.
    The meeting room they stood in was engulfed in dazzling luminescence. All five children used their hands to block their squinting eyes from the invading light. Their tiny silhouettes cast tall shadows on the monitor and walls behind them. The security lights were coming from below, down at ground level. The eye watering cores of the lights were outside of the office building. They were looking up through the front windows directly through the curving pane that ran the front length of the meeting room.
    “Do not try to run,” a recorded voice said in Urdu, Hindi, Marathi, Chinese, and finally English.
    “If you attempt to flee; you are, through your action, agreeing to the suspect/ perpetrator agreement as outlined in the DevaGuardians Security Company Suspect/ Perpetrator Liability and Admission of Guilt Form, version number five a point three two six. A text readable copy of this contract can be downloaded from DVGSC Security’s website at DVGSC MumbaiSec dot com slash document slash c slash suspect dash perpetrator dash form five a three two six.”
    The voice had mechanically spelled out the entire web address in each of the languages.
    “Please present your hands in the air, and get on your knees for retinal processing.”
    The children were already tearing through the jungle on the other side of the building.

----


    Shesh didn’t know how big the Red Zone really was. But, he imagined five small shapes darting through an unending dark humid forest. He imagined the children and the horrors that were in hot pursuit. The hunters and the hunted.
    Pratik, Azizul, Basir, Sana, and Shesh shot through the fat fronds of meter high ferns. They punched through vines and ricocheted off of Neem trees and Banyans. They barely kept their group together as they trampled past more rotting fences and haphazardly jumped over razor wire. Shesh’s ears rushed with blood and the sound of the five runners powering through the brush. He registered cuts and scratches, but didn’t feel any pain.
    Their bare feet padded through the desolate ivy covered ruin of what seemed like a factory as the Dogs made chase. The gang had passed a number of buildings. Some were like the first tonight. They were corporate marketing, call centers, or electronics manufacturing. Some were like this one. This place must have been a huge industrial or military factory.
    Shesh slowed a little to look back into the darkness behind them. The forest obscured much, but he could hear them.
    The Rust Dogs' servos whirred. Their carbon fiber and plastic limbs skittered in uneven time behind them through the darkened rubble. Few had seen the Dogs up close. No one seemed to be able to describe them accurately. Shesh knew the basic chassis of the robots were based on military units old armies from the west had designed. The machines were quadrupedal, heavy, and very fast. Shesh had no interest in learning anything more about their monstrous pursuers.
    Shesh could see the mechanical hunters move decisively over the crumbled concrete and folded steel. They waded through the exposed abandoned and bombed out machines. The four legged drones crashed through the trees and bushes. Their scanners flickered in the warm night air with light in spectrums far too alien for humble human vision. Shesh turned to follow his friends. The were suddenly out of sight.
    Shesh’s pulse thudded behind his ears with terror. He knew the Dogs had many tricks and techniques for capturing prisoners. They were not supposed to kill, but they shot marker barbs. The barbs were a volley of sharp needles with tracking devices on the ends. Shesh had seen people with those buried in their flesh. He also knew those that were marked would sometimes disappear. Shesh had known of many people from the slums in Sun City that had just gone in the night.
    He darted past a thicket of high growing ferns and jumped behind a massive hollow industrial chem tank. He slammed his back against it and listened for the sounds of the others. His small chest burned and heaved, trying to find the air to replace the fear that now filled his lungs.
    He could not help but think of Pratik’s contribution to the game. How the victims of the Rust Dogs would be dissolved to make a protein paste to feed the bastards in the Arcology.
    In truth, he had heard all sorts of insane rumors about what the DevaGuardian Security Company did to their captives. The stories wafted through the handmade houses in Sun City like the scent of Plentils and shrimp shell curry.
    He’d heard whispers of bodily dissolution to make up the stem-cell slurry used in the cloning printers. He even heard that the Rust Dog artificial intelligences were actually repurposed prisoners.
    The most likely punishment was indentured slave labor. There were work farms and mines where they would send criminals and their whole family to work off their debt to society. Shesh tried not to imagine living the rest of his life in the confines of an undersea mining operation.
----


     Shesh spotted Pratik charging through the brush at an angle away from him. He hissed as loud as he could trying to get Pratik’s attention. The rat faced boy glanced in Shesh’s direction right as he was hit by a lumbering form in the darkness.
    Pratik's scream cut through the buzz of insects over Shesh's head, and suddenly stopped. From behind cover, Shesh dropped to his haunches and covered his own scream with his hands. Tears welled in his eyes. He dared to peek around the yellow and black industrial chemical tank. His thick black hair picked up glints of moonlight. His almond shaped eyes were wide. His pupils consumed his irises trying to pick up any hint of movement in the dark ruins of the building behind him. He couldn’t see where Pratik fell. He began to move from his hiding spot, to run toward Pratik when another scream made his body jump. He clenched his dirty hand over his quivering lips to keep his cries from giving away his position. Shesh prayed to his grandmother’s colorful gods, though he didn’t know most of their names.
    That scream. Was it Azizul the Map? Basir with his big ears? No. No. No!
    Shesh allowed himself another brief look back to make sure there were no Dogs nearby, and took foot again. Away from where Pratik was hit.
    His spindly legs scrambled along the cracked surfaces of concrete risers. He wove through the steel skeleton of the decaying buildings. His breath tore from him in ragged gasps.
    “Shesh!” Azizul yelled. He ran up beside Shesh, and the two of them hunkered beside the remains of a large assembly robot. The stenciled logo on it’s sprawling counterweight read: ChiraliTech R&D.
    “Where is Sana? Basir?” Shesh gasped between heavy breaths.
    “Basir… fell,” said Azizul. “Those fuckers killed him. Killed him, Shesh!”
    “But they aren’t supposed to…” Shesh began.
    “I saw them kill him,” the Map said. He began to weep.
    “They killed Pratik. Oh god, they’re dead,” Shesh said. His own tears streamed hot on his face. “We have to find Sana. Something has changed in their protocol. It must be this place!” He looked again at the logo, but he had never heard of such a company.
    At that moment Sana ran by at full speed. Her dark hair was plastered to her face with tears and sweat. Her yellow shirt with mounting unicorns was torn and stained with blood. The blood looked black in the moonlight. She held the grenade in front of her like a boiled elephant yam that was burning her hands. She was wildly tugging at the pin and cursing.
    “Sana!” the boys screamed, and they ran after her.
    The three remaining children pelted along a steel walkway that had become exposed during either a storm or a battle. It crossed through empty space. Below them rows of assembling machines sat rusting in thick mud and river plants.
    There was light combing the forested ruins behind them. The Rust Dogs had lost the scent.
    After they had crossed the catwalk, the three squatted in a thick copse of bushes.
    “Let me see that,” Azizul said.
    Sana handed him the grenade. Her chest wracked with sobs after they told her about Pratik and Basir. Her tears seemed to only squeeze from her one good eye.
    “The pin is bent to keep it safe,” Azizul the Map muffled over the cartoon mouse LED in his mouth. His patterned fingers ran over the crescent moon shaped safety lever. “You have to squeeze the lever into the body, pull the pin, and then throw.”
    “Uh...uhh… Oh,” Sana stuttered between sobs. “Thanks,” she said, as Azizul handed back the hexagon engraved device.
    “Shhhh,” Shesh hissed. Overhead there was a high pitched buzzing sound. An air drone was helping in the search for them. The sound of its tiny propellers tearing the air faded and was gone.
    “We have to get out…” Shesh began.
    They were suddenly bathed in white light. In five languages a mechanical voice shouted, “Halt!”
    “Run,” screamed Sana. She yanked on the pin curled in her index finger and the silver slice of moon popped off the grenade and twirled into the air in what seemed like slow motion.
    Azizul sprang into action. He grabbed Shesh’s arm and dragged him to his feet.
    “Eat it, you murdering son of a whore!” bellowed Sana, and she threw the chaff-bang into the heart of the bright light.
    “Run, Sana!” shouted Shesh.
    Shesh and Azizul bounded over a tangle of banyan tree roots. Shesh tripped as he looked back and fell flat on his face. Azizul slowed to see what happened.
    Sana turned her back to the piercing lights and dashed several steps behind the others before the chaff-grenade went off. Her throw had found it’s mark. The combination frag and chaff grenade exploded under the belly of the great metal and plastic monster. The Dog seemed to evaporate into darkness as the bright white lights mounted on it’s chassis imploded from the blast.
    Sana staggered a few more steps in the afterglow of the drone’s demise. Shesh scrambled to his feet in time to see Sana drop to her knees. All around her billions of silvery filaments of chaff glittered as they slowly fell in the moonlight. Her good eye and her dead eye looked pained for a moment, then relaxed. She slumped forward and Shesh and the Map could see the shrapnel from the exploded Dog buried in her back.
    Azizul grunted a sob, then sprinted into the trees. The light and dark geography on his back faded into the dim light of the jungle. Shesh didn’t even notice.
    “Sana!” Shesh sobbed.
    Shesh collapsed at the foot of the banyan tree. He cried for a moment in the moon shadow it cast. Then he heard the whine of the air drone’s blades returning to the scene.  He knew the chaff would not last long. He looked back at the smoking remains of the Dog that had killed Sana. He looked at her tiny yellow shoulders sitting still in the darkness. He ran.

----


    Shesh bolted deeper into the compound. His thin limbs were numb from shock and cold. He couldn’t feel anything though. All of his friends were dead. He didn’t process the signage he passed during his run, or the strange acrid smell.
    Bold red letters warned: WARNING: CHIRALITECH R&D RESTRICTED AREA. PROPER IDENTIFICATION REQUIRED
    Shesh could hear the servos and the thrumming sound of his pursuers. The chaff-bang had only thrown them off the scent for a little while. Why the hell did they base their tactics on the story of some slum girl and her gang’s exploits? Why had they believed themselves invincible because of a single stupid little grenade?
    The Rust Dog’s thrum grew louder, there were at least two of them behind him. They seemed to slow. Must be enjoying the hunt, he thought.
    Shesh charged through the metal frame of a partially collapsed building. He stomped over a metal sign that said R&D in purple letters. The slender boy darted through a reception room and a security gate back out into open air.
    There was a mound of fallen concrete walls and what appeared to be several crushed server stacks. He ran for the pile of concrete. It had lots of openings, it would make it hard to dig him out. They would have difficulty registering his heat signature. He altered course, his heart slammed against his ribs.
    Suddenly, there was a scraping crash within the walls of the ruin. Shesh caught a glimpse of the third Rust Dog that had been stalking him. There were so many eyes. The red glowing ellipses flashed in the darkness. The four legged machine was so close. So big.
    It had lost its footing on scattered glass that had confused its sensor block.
    Before Shesh could convince his legs to change direction, the Dog bounced back to its carbon fiber feet. The creature appeared to be all torso and legs. There was no discernible head, only a cluster of eyes buried between what seemed to act as shoulders. A grey and yellow plastic faring covered the elaborate mechanics and sensor equipment close to it’s body. It had a clumsy looking roll cage that surrounded the main chassis. Sharp looking fin antennas jutted from it at mad angles.
    A panel near the robot’s eyes slid open and the Rust dog fired a cloud of flechette darts directly into Shesh.
    The marker barbs were meant for tracking, but at this range they had acted more like a violent shotgun blast. The pain seemed to shut down his senses. Shesh wheeled. He was thrown into a spin from the impact. At some point before he hit the ground he recognized part of his ragged right arm falling from him in a different trajectory from his body.
    He rolled for a moment on the muddied carpet. He could feel his own blood soaking into the remnants of his dingy white tee shirt and brown short pants. He could see frayed flesh all over his chest. There were deep craters that had exposed raw bone in places. Everywhere savage quills jutted from his body. Each one flashed a dull red. Jerkily with his remaining hand he felt his face. He screamed when he discovered a clutch of darts in the mass of meat where his eye had once been.
    He heard the whirring of the Rust Dog coming behind him. He remembered Pratik’s walleyes looking toward him. He could hear Basir’s lonely scream. Sana, with a smoking shard of metal in her back. Azizul running toward his certain death. His mind bucked. It refused to accept capture.
    Shesh painfully rolled onto his belly and slid his remaining arm, caked in blood and dirt, in front of him. He pulled himself slowly. Ahead of him he saw what looked like a black rectangle in the wall. It was a hole. It seemed a thousand kilometers away in his narrowing vision. Shesh pulled. He managed to curl his whitened fingertips around the sodden edge of the hole. He dragged with every drop of his strength and slid his skinny body into the open doors of an elevator car. There were a pair of heavy clicks. To his right and left he saw the synthetic legs of the robot standing over him. Its weight caused the carbon fiber rods to arch.
    Shesh turned back to look at the Dog looming over him in the elevator. It consumed nearly all of the space in the large box. It held his disembodied right arm in crab-like mandibles and was rotating it slowly. Up close, the Rust Dog looked even more like a monster.
    The scree sound of straining metal stopped the deadly drone in it’s tracks. The dog’s sensor block and eyes rotated and scanned the ground. The creature standing over Shesh made a chittering sound as thousands of calculations were being addressed. Then the weather weakened floor of the elevator in the ChiraliTech R&D laboratory disintegrated in a thunderous crash. Both boy and machine disappeared from the light of the moon as though they had never existed at all.

----


    Shesh slammed into deep cold water. It was enough to break his fall, but not enough to prevent breaking some bones. He shrieked at it’s surface in blind agony.
    After that, he could only remember flashes.
    He was stumbling in a void.
    He had pushed through a thick metallic door painted red and black.
    There was a green glow. He smelled bright copper.
    A light came from deep in the darkened tunnel.
    He was limping toward the greenish light.
    He saw large intricate machines. Some looked like arms with geometric hands.
    He was numb.
    He remembered seeing glass things. Tubes with strange objects inside. There were vibrating sounds, like he was in the belly of one of the limbless beggar’s purring street cats.
    He had vomited. There were papers all over the floor, they looked like they were in English. He couldn't read, his eyes seemed blurry. He saw blood dripping on the pages. His blood.
    He had passed a number of flat screen monitors. Some of them flickered, like an error page on the free network feed.
    The floor was freezing under his bare feet. Over time he had noticed it change from concrete to grating and back to concrete.
    At some point, as he stumbled along, the old bunker's green had faded to black.

----



    “ChiraliTech R&D Protocol 4. Established main...hzzzt... biological status... hzzt. Interrupt...” sputtered a mechanical voice, in English. “This is the one… hzzzt… after so long, I will… hzt… ice cream sandwiches,” it whispered.
    Shesh woke bathed in warm greenish light. His mouth tasted of vomit and his nostrils were clogged shut with plasma. There was so much blood.
    “Nanopod compound... hzzzzzt... hzzt. I saw the bison. Bad bison! …hzzt. Systems active... hzzt. Awaiting sample...” the thin mechanical voice echoed in what felt like a large chamber.
    Shesh blinked. He was laying on the ground. His left hand sought his right. It came back sticky with gore but otherwise empty. He had tied off his stump somehow. The shoelace he had used as a belt, maybe? He grimaced in pain.
    “Awaiting... hzzt...ample… Hzzt… shattered plastic… broken toy.”
    Shesh slowly rose. His body lanced with pain. It felt like he had jumped into a bin of broken glass. His torso bristled with some of the marker barbs the Dog had shot him with.
    Before him was a tall transparent plexiglass tank filled with greenish liquid. All around the room were panels and instruments. Their lights and screens blinked under layers of dust. There was no one in the room with Shesh. There was something majestic about this room. Perhaps it was the quiet echo of water dripping, or the blue green glow. To Shesh’s pain-addled mind it felt like an ancient temple. The room seemed to breathe. His undamaged skin pricked with cold, or was it shock?
    The tall green cylinder in the center of the room was crowned by large multi-jointed mechanical arms. It looked like a robotic Shiva. Shesh felt faint. His body seemed to lurch over his feet.
    “Sample acquisition... hzzt... preparing nanite solution. Hzzt… is it lonely?” the automated voice asked.
    A loud rushing sound like monsoon rain on a corrugated aluminium roof emanated from the tank. Shesh flinched at the brief roar. The liquid inside the gigantic glass tube sparkled and bubbled. It shimmered with the bright blues and vivid greens from old image files of sunlight in the ocean. It was beautiful. Strange metallic cubes rhythmically plunked into the tank and slowly drifted to the floor. Shesh took small heavy steps toward the tank.
    It sat on a mass of tubes and wires that met in what looked like an altar or a surgeon’s table.
    He rested his mangled face against the glass. It was cold. The emerald and cobalt sparkles encompassed all of his vision. He thought of his gang. His friends. What a foolish dream they had all kept. How many orphan gangs thought they could find a way to be free of the slums? How many risked life and limb, just for a chance? How many ever made it anywhere?
    “Nanites... prep...hzzt. Hzzzt. Wake up… hzt… marmalade.”
    Shesh slowly closed his remaining eye. Death was coming for him. What he would have given to hear his mother’s voice, not the digital ravings of this malfunked AI. His mother’s warm smile and the scent of the spices she crumbled with her careworn fingertips overtook Shesh’s senses.
    The plague took her years ago, he reminded himself. Crying like a pathetic baby for his dead mother was a waste of time. He sobbed weakly against the cool tank, anyway. And bled.
    Shesh registered a weak shock as he felt the cold grip of old rubber and steel. The robotic arms of Shiva were tenderly raising him high to the top of the canister. He suddenly felt weightless as he was lifted. His breath was growing shallow. At that moment he violently shivered as his legs and then body slid into the icy sea colored substance. And once again, green faded to black.

----



    Shesh woke surrounded by a cold his body had never encountered. He felt encased in ice.
    His brown eyes popped open with shock. His skin crawled with what felt like biting ants. Tickling pain seemed to pass in waves. It slid over him and pulsed inside of him, like a foreign heartbeat.
    He realized he was suspended in the liquid. He flailed desperately to emerge from the cold tank, to draw breath, but he was shut under some kind of lid. He convulsed, choked, and gagged as his pulling lungs drew in blue-green ooze.
    “Relax, little… hzzzt… cuttlefish.”
    Shesh heard it clearly within the tank. “You’ve… hzt… breathing solution… hzzt… hour.”
    After a moment he relaxed. Breathing was incredibly strange and a little straining. The cold liquid rushed in and out over his tongue as he breathed. He tried to speak but he only pushed icy fluid with his lungs. He could make no sound.
    Shesh pushed against the glass with his hands. He had to escape this weird new hell. He pounded both of his fists against the glass.
    He thickly gasped the liquid through his teeth.
    Once again he had his right arm. It was there, just as solid as the other. But, something was different. Alarmed, Shesh studied the replaced limb. It was nothing like his real arm. There was something inorganic about it. It seemed to be crystalline in structure. Was that… plastic? The new arm had strange projections and shapes. It was made of something other.
    The gaping craters in his chest and neck were covered in patches of the strange new material. The marker barbs were all gone. With his good hand he tenderly explored the new contours of the right side of his face. Faceted surfaces replaced his cheek and the yawning socket of his lost eye, but he could see his own hands clearly.
    He heard the tinny broken voice through the thickness of the green gel, “Nanopod Compound fusion… hzzzt… hzzt… uction complete.”
    Shesh was startled when the many arms of the techno Shiva suddenly dipped into the fluid. He wrestled against their grip but to no avail. They smoothly removed him from the tank and delivered him onto the ground.
    The liquid saturated his body. He fell to his knees and tried to cough. The green ooze came out of him in a smooth tube as he vomited. By the time it hit the ground between his hands it had hardened and shattered like glass. The drops that fell from his body exploded like lotus petals into fibrous dust when they hit the floor.
    Inside him he felt as though he was filled with maggots. He coughed and bits of the substance that made up his new arm and face launched from his lungs like greyish snot. The little clumps hugged pieces of the shattered green crystal. To his amazement they seemed to consume the peacock colored shards.
    The little synthetic worms grew larger as they ate, when their little crystals had been absorbed, they moved to another piece, and another. They fed, until all of the glass was gone.
“Hzzt… gonna love this part… hzzzt,” this time Shesh heard the malfunked AI as though it whispered directly onto his eardrum.
    Shesh watched in horror as the sated worms quickly slithered toward his new arm. He vomited again as he watched them fuse into the stuff making up the synthetic limb.
    Shesh’s feet found the ground and he rose from the grated floor in disgust. He stared at his new arm.
    The dull looking plastic seemed to move where the worms had joined with it. It crawled and swelled like grey and green magma. When he poked the substance with his flesh fingertips there was no give. It was as hard as steel, but as light as styrofoam. The new hand was intricate. Spines and savage edges slipped from contour to contour in a subtle but clear mechanical construct. He watched in stunned amazement as the grey green mass slowly changed color. It darkened into a black and red iridescence like the cockroaches he and his friends were constantly killing in the Mahi Durg.
    When he looked around the room, Shesh saw faint glowing green circles mark all of the objects. The circles moved and adjusted as his eyes did. When he focused on a large monitor beside him the circle transformed and expanded. Lines of text and code began to arrange around it. He couldn’t read all of the words, but like all the kids on the street he had learned to speak English.
    “What is this? What has happened?” Shesh asked. His voice quavered with a cocktail of awe and terror. His accent was thick with Hindi.
    “ChiraliTech R&D Protocol 4 installation ninety-three percent complete. Nanite recombination... nano-structure... hzzt... hzt... reheat this burrito... Hzzt... complete.” crackled the voice somewhere in Shesh's head.
    “Burrito?” Shesh said.
    “Prepare… hzzt… hzt… buckle up, tiger,” the voice said. “...hzzt… ticket out…”
    “What has happened to me. What are you?” Shesh insisted.
    “Terminal function countdown set: Event minus, twenty three days, hzzzt… six hours, eleven minutes, forty eight seconds. N-HiveMind AI version: one point zero seven point zero one. Patent pending. WARNING: N-Hivemind AI malfuction… hzzt… I wear a size zero obviously… hzzt.” the voice finished with a giggle.
    “Countdown!? To what?” Shesh demanded.
    In reply Shesh heard a buzzing thrum. Servos whirred and a skittering echoed in the chamber around him. He whipped his head around eyes wide, trying to track where the sound had emanated. The green text in his vision started computing the sound, strange diagrams were popping up. Then suddenly flashing began in the right of his vision. He jerked his head in that direction.
    Through the green tank where his arm had been replaced he could see the many glowing red eyes of the Rust Dog. Shesh felt terror course through him like an electric shock. In his vision the scarab colored circles targeted the Dog and the heads up display behind his eyes flashed from green to bright crimson.
    “Tango. Contact,” stated the voice in his head. Then in a low hiss, “Hzzt… kill iiiiit.”
    “I… I…” Shesh stammered.
    The Rust Dog hunkered and blasted a hole through the green glass belly of Shesh’s techno Shiva. The monstrous machine rocketed through the opening before all of the emerald liquid had emptied. The green fluid flew everywhere. Where it landed it shattered in solid crystalline pops.
    Before Shesh could draw a breath, the Rust Dog was on him again. The robotic beast pinned him to the ground and the menacing sets of crab mandibles scrabbled for his face.
    Shesh’s tear-filled eyes darted and the red circles in his vision marked points all over the machined hide of the monster that was crushing him. He tried to scramble away but one of the carbon fiber and plastic legs slammed into his chest. Pinned down, Shesh gasped for air. He cried out as he felt ribs shatter under the weight of the attacking drone.
    Shesh in his horror thought again of brave Sana, Pratik, Basir Big Ears, and Azizul the Map. He thought of his mother. He gritted his teeth in terror. This was how he was going to die.
    Then he felt something inside. A rush of chilly electricity seemed to dart through his body. It was like drinking cool coconut water on a hot day. Like that feeling of the chilled milk sliding down his throat.
    Suddenly there was something layered over his fear. Something greater than rage. It was greater than hate. He did not recognize it, but he sipped from it’s power.
    Shesh screamed and punched and clawed at the machine. He struck again and again at the red circles his vision had plotted on the surface of the Rust Dog. His left hand merely smashed into metal and plastic. He felt sizzling jolts of pain shoot to his elbow as protruding parts of the robot found the meat between his knuckles.
    But his other hand.
    His new hand.
    It had changed shape. The hand had become a vicious looking claw. With it Shesh slammed gaping holes into the undercarriage of the Dog. He changed direction with the taloned fist and slashed at the exposed components of the robot. The hunter drone squealed and scrambled to escape the boy’s assault.
    Once again, Shesh slowly rose. This time he wore a grimace of mad hatred. His eyes were wide and he shot his tongue from between his teeth like the goddess Kali incarnate. He screeched his rage at the retreating Dog.
    Shesh took a step and realized that a hunk of the Rust Dogs remained in his new robotic hand. The green and grey worms that had gathered into his arm now crawled forward to consume the metal, plastic, and shredded wires. They imbibed its mass and Shesh’s arm grew new spines and ports. Sharp armored shapes formed around the skinny nano-structured limb. He felt his broken ribs crack and adjust as the nanites inside him reshaped and reinforced the bone. The sudden rush of nano fueled synthetically augmented adrenaline coursed through him. Shesh vibrated with potential energy. He felt the hair on his body stand on end.
    The Rust Dog crouched in a defensive position. The hateful AI glared at the boy-nanostructure that now stood before it. It sprayed sparks from it’s open wounds as small repair bots inside it’s casing rushed to fix the damage Shesh had caused.
    “Hzzt… Destroy?” hissed the voice purring in Shesh’s head.
    “Destroy,” commanded Shesh.
    “Hzztmmmn. Taste its bones… hzzzzt.”
    Shesh glanced down when he felt a tug on his new arm. A large portion of the synthetic arm had come apart like a bundle of fiber optic cables. It disconnected just above his bicep and the writhing mass fell to the floor. It recombined itself into something that loosely resembled a three kilogram deadly sea cucumber. It reared and looked up at Shesh. It jostled evil looking quills that rose from its back. It had six bright emerald slits that seemed to act as eyes. They appeared to blink at him.
    “Kill it!” Shesh said. His voice quivered with enhanced rage. His eyes sparked with seething hate as he watched.
    The nanite composed worm charged the quailing Rust Dog with unnerving speed. There was a horrible goat-like shriek as the Dog was hit by the heavy unnatural flatworm. Sparks and plastic flew into the air as the Rust Dog was torn to shreds by the nanostructure.
    Shesh watched fascinated as the iridescent grub-thing grew larger. It consumed and redistributed the Rust Dog into its own body as new nanites were formed.
    After the sickening clamor the fat worm inched contentedly back to Shesh’s feet. The boy stooped and picked up the monstrosity that had saved his life. The organism split itself and became two flatworms of smaller size. One rejoined Shesh’s new arm. The limb bolstered with added mass and structure. The other worm curled lovingly around his shoulders like a horror-show fox fur. Or a thick corrupted cobra.
    Shesh walked out of the echoing chamber that hid his altar to Shiva the Destroyer. He stopped and looked back at the great glowing machine that had rebirthed him. It was utterly smashed. The many robotic arms hung loose and dead. The tank seemed forlorn in its emptiness.
    Shesh climbed out of the ruin of ChiraliTech’s top secret R&D facility.

----



    The boy looked out over Sun City. He stood at the precipice of the great dam that overlooked the lake and the glittering Mumbai Arcology beyond. The slums seemed to claw at the knees of the glowing tower. Even the buildings begged at the feet of the wealthy.
    Shesh’s shirt had been reduced to rags tucked into his shorts. His body had been torn by machines and fixed by them. Where there had been one synthetic arm at the laboratory, there were now three. They seemed to sprout from his collarbone on a reinforced shoulder. The roar of the sickly water below sounded like pink noise. He could see the sky was lightening. 
    His trek back through the Red Zone had been eventful. More Dogs had arrived. They had fallen as quickly as the first. They each added to his power. Billions of new nanites were formed in the ashes of their wreckage. The air drones had followed him for several kilometers but suddenly disappeared. The rest of his journey back was quiet.
    He stood there. Gazing at the mega-city and the slums. He missed his friends. He had cried all of his remaining tears as he walked. Though he had been patched by the nanomachines, he had a gaping hole that this dodgy technology could never heal. Shesh pushed the pain down into his stomach.
    I have been given a wondrous gift, he thought. The green text on the side of his vision flickered and a row of numbers appeared.
    There were still twenty three days, seventeen minutes, and thirty-one seconds to change everything.
    Shesh grinned.
    “Lord Shiva destroys the world so that it may be reborn,” he said. He curled his fingers, flesh and synthetic, around the guard rail where the children had tucked their chins -was it only hours ago?
    “Hzzzt... Destrooooy,” purred the synthetic worm curled over Shesh’s shoulders. It closed it's six scarab-colored eyes and rested.
    Shesh headed back toward the city.



End


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