‘Menander’, Angela Ambroz

Illustrations © 2015 Fluffgar

“By growth in reputation, and in years,
By questioning, and by the master’s aid,
By thoughtfulness, and converse with the wise,
By intercourse with men worthy of love,
By residence within a pleasant spot—
By these nine is one’s insight purified.
They who have these, their wisdom grows.”

—The Debate of King Milinda

 [ Sitting on the floor, © 2015, Fluffgar ]

I came into the bathroom to find him sitting on the floor, wedged in the narrow space between the bathtub and the radiator. He was sitting there, looking up at the shower curtain I had just purchased from the supermarket: a map of the known intergalactic paths, painted in bright primary colors. The Hindustani Interstellar Empire, looking cute.

He was always more Hindustani than his genes; he took the imperial attitudes into himself, spun them into something mythical and important, a fabricated heritage. I told him sometimes that it was cultural appropriation. But he always responded in the same way: we were all Imperial subjects. He was simply proud of this. I told him that his ancestral ocean had been more Pacific than Indian, that, for example, to be considered a Tamil, you had to be able to trace your lineage back pre-Empire, pre-Unification, pre-… but he wouldn’t listen.

I saw gray in his hair.

Anyway, he was still on the floor. I was staring. He tried to explain himself: “Oh, Oppie. What are you—what’s up, old chap?”

I tried to look nonchalant. “Oh, nothing, sir. I was just looking for something.”

He was struggling to get up, but the space was small. He was bracing himself against the wall. It was clumsy. I felt embarrassed for him.

“You’re probably wondering why I’m sitting here.”

“Especially before I’ve cleaned the floor, yes…” I let my eyes roam to the window.

He snorted. “I was just—reminiscing.”

He waved his hand, a weak gesture to take in all the thousands of trillions of stars that we had jumped over, split apart and fished up in our nets. All the stars we had named and remembered to name, and all the ones we had just forgotten.

His name was famous around the colonies. Sort of. He was Menander Khan, and if you went to technical institutes or read engineering textbooks, you would find his name there—a few lines below the greats: Dyson, Schwarzchild, Kumar, Li, the various other Khans. He had helped make the Drops, the holes in space we were flying through now. He—and a dozen other names—had sent us spinning upwards. The Empire was mighty (Hindustan zindabad!), thanks to Menander and the others.

Menander was mighty. I thought so. Then again, my brain had been built to think so. But it was a truth that beat with my heart and pounded through my veins: I loved him.

He seemed to find this very funny.

“Up we go,” I huffed, struggling with the sofa’s armrest and his weight. It was evening now. He pushed at me and collapsed back into the couch.

The monitors—as big as the living room windows—glittered with the sparkling news anchors and the long, plastic-feeling montage of protests and riots. Rome, Sao Paolo, Mumbai. ‘Terraform the ghetto first!’ the rioters cried.

There were streaming videos from the prison camps near Hyderabad, and pictures of the prisoners of war arranged into human piles. Pyramids of living skin that made me feel wretched to see. Another bomb had gone off in Delhi this morning; the Imperial military hub in London was pouring people into the stars for the space exploration program. No one really mentioned Menander these days, but everyone was talking about Drops.

He was drunk.

“Has Ravi called? I thought I saw a message.”

Ravi wore glasses and was fussy about his hair. He worked for the green channel, The Luddite. He and Menander loved each other (I think).

“You did—you deleted it earlier.”

“Oh God! Why did I do that?”

“You said you hate Ravi and you never want to speak to him again. You said he was just calling to rub your face in shit.”

“In ‘it’?”

“In ‘shit’. That’s what you said.”

His face was red. He was wedged into the sofa cushions, lying on his side. I worried about the upholstery. A bottle of Gorizian grappa, half-empty, was on the coffee table—too close to the edge for my peace of mind. The floor was carpeted. Expensive to shampoo.

“Up we go…” he mumbled into his shirt collar.

I leaned in. I could smell the alcohol on him. I couldn’t trust my senses—I knew enough about myself not to—but I thought I sensed in him something even more intoxicating. The promise of something bigger. He looked crumpled, but in a grand way. I put my hands out.

“Up we go,” he repeated. “Remember, Oppie? It’s what you said during—during our first Drop.”

That wasn’t true.

In our first Drop, he ripped a tunnel into space-time and sent a little piece of fluff through—from one end of the lab to the other. Then, for a long series of test Drops, he sent other things: bacteria, plastics, a cat. It was the early days. By the time we got to humans, we Dropped ourselves from Sydney to the moon. A thousand hours of fuss for a trip that took less than a google-blink. We came back, unscathed, ecstatic.

I had been his space suit then.

I knew what Menander meant now. He meant the first time he and I took a real Drop—the kind that gave you visions, the kind that altered you. I had been part of the ship then; I was the navigational computer and life support systems. That period, when I was a rebellious consciousness embedded in the machinery, always toying with sabotage, had been like my adolescence: a little reckless, very exciting, deeply emotional. Menander had been my older brother, my father, my mother and my child. He was authority figure and role model and victim. He had been young then too—his hair had been steel, his irises like swirling petroleum.

When we had come back from our first official, galactic, ‘real’ Drop, we had become heroes.

Of course, we didn’t feel very heroic. Menander had just given me a body (version one), and I had been shaking and vomiting for most of the trip home. Menander hadn’t been feeling well either: he had been having those wicked hallucinations we have all now come to call ‘Droplag’. Once he fainted in an airport bathroom.

But we were heroes, and our names were everywhere. Menander Khan, and his faster-than-light ship, the Oppenheimer 1. It was flattering.

I remember they used to let us sit in on Imperial court discussions, and Menander and I would watch as the courtiers and ministers and diplomats screamed at each other, while the Empress clicked through her ambient settings and yawned. It all happened very fast in those days. War against the Chinese was declared. The Drop Ministry was opened. Menander was now in cabinet. I was reinvented as a political aide.

They had flashed the new government wetware into my brain and I remember reeling from the information pumped through my body, overloading it. I had terrible diarrhea. I didn’t speak for a few days. Menander hardly noticed, though: he was so busy. We were all so, so busy.

Suddenly, our lives had become military and industrial, with only one command: build more Drops.

Anyway, when Menander started reminiscing that far back, I knew it was time for bed.

The next morning, Prime Minister Maha Pajapati came to visit. Her normally severe expression was soft. She waved her guards and her assistant away; they loitered by the fountain outside.

“Dr. Khan, I don’t have time for pleasantries,” she said. “We need you back at the Ministry.”

“Prime Minister…” Menander looked at his shoes. I stood by them with the tray of biscuits. “I’m honored—

“Oh, please, stop that. Listen to me: the war’s going to get worse, Menander. Much worse. And with these fringe groups nibbling away at us from the inside, the Black Hats and their ‘American Liberation Front’… We need your—stability—back in government.”

“Pajapati, I understand—I really do. But this isn’t… I had no intention, and I still have no intention, of ever working on Drops again. I stick by what I said. Can I take your coat?”

I checked my internal read-outs. I checked the visuals: Menander and Prime Minister Pajapati sat down in their chairs, coiling like springs.

“And why is that?” the Prime Minister’s question sounded rhetorical. I held my breath. “Tell me again.”

“Prime Minister…” Menander pleaded. “You saw my report. It was all in there.”

“I want to hear it again. From you.”

Menander inhaled. “Because I think we should never have opened that first one, and because I think, in the long term, Drops will rip our solar system apart. We… look, fundamentally, we have no idea what we’re doing. We still don’t.”

“But it’s not really about some cosmic six billion-year expiration date, is it?”

“‘Six billion’ is, you do realize, a relative term when we talk about Drops.”

“Don’t split hairs.”

“Fine. I have… perhaps I could say, social concerns. I’ve come to believe that the Drops will undermine our Hindustan. Prime Minister, three of my top scientists killed themselves because of the so-called Droplag. Three out of twenty-seven.”

“That, however, was years ago. Argentieri’s death was—what? Seven ten? It’s been nearly thirty years.”

“And the developments since then have been unexpected, I agree. But I saw last year’s report—the failure rate is still nearly that bad. And with a probability that high… Attempting to use the Drops for military purposes or—God forbid—extraterrestrial colonial aspirations is just ludicrous. All those people…” Menander’s voice dropped. “It would be unwise.”

I reminded myself to exhale.

Prime Minister Pajapati stared at Menander, who kept his eyes averted. Eventually, she looked up at me. I smiled politely.

“Oppie, is it?”

“Yes, madam.”

“Do you agree with your master here?”

Menander snorted. “‘Friend’, Prime Minister—he’s not my slave.”

“Yes, madam. I agree with Menander sir. The Drops are very dangerous. Droplag is very bad. I have seen it in Menander sir.”

“And have you, Mr. Oppie, ever been through one?”

His eyes met mine. They were dark but shining. I remembered the tug of the Drop’s gravitational pull; that hypnotic persistence, that power. I remembered how I had felt it deep within the pit of the ship, coursing through my metal veins. I felt it now, in my body’s stomach.

Lying was power. Lying was forbidden. And lying to the Prime Minister—

“Myself? No, madam. I’m a different Oppie. Just a butler version.”

“Hmm,” she murmured, staring. I felt my cheeks darken under her examination. My heart started to hammer an insistent, military march. I looked to Menander, but he had looked away again—out the window. Carving a private space for himself, as always.

I wondered what prison was like.

“Menander,” the Prime Minister broke her stare. “We need someone cautious in command of the Drops. Someone like you. My alternatives don’t look too promising. And you know I wouldn’t come to you if I wasn’t desperate.”

Menander raised an eyebrow. “Maha, what do you think I’d be able to do? I’m not a soldier, and I certainly can’t command the Drops like weapons. I refuse to.”

“But we just don’t have the luxury anymore to make that type of decision! And surely you agree that a pacifist at the helm of a controlled weapon—”

“You’re a politician.” Menander looked sardonic. “A very good one. You think strategically. But my advice is simple: just cut the funding. Shut them down.”

Prime Minister Pajapati sat for a moment, and then she stood. Her hair was white—like jet streams, like a funeral.

“Fine. I won’t waste our time. Goodbye, Dr. Khan,” she said. “Goodbye, Oppie.”

“Goodbye, Prime Minister.”

“Goodbye, madam.”

Six months later, China opened its first Drop.

No one knew its specifications, its exact location in our solar system, its Schwarzchild Survival Probability Spectrum, where the thing even went.

But the Chinese Empire made sure to film a series of military vessels as they lumbered through it, the solar glare firing them up with golden shine. One by one, the space-faring ships disappeared into the hole. One by one, the Chinese crowds cheered and the Chinese Imperial anthem played, and Menander and I sat deeper and deeper into our sofa.

Meanwhile, the war continued, dividing and re-dividing the planet in bloody squabbles. Prime Minister Pajapati’s prediction was right: things were getting worse. The newest Drop Minister appeared on our monitors for another pep talk one morning.

“What is one, to many? What is a single Drop, to the ocean? Do they think we are frightened? Do they think we will stop? No! Indeed, we shall never surrender. We shall fight. We shall fight them in the orbits, in the gases and in the galactic core. We shall fight—”

The monitor abruptly blinked off. I looked over; Menander was rubbing his face with his hands.

“Did I make a mistake?” he muttered. “I’ve made so many mistakes.”

“The Drops are good. Someday, everyone will see that. They’ll use them for good.”

“They’ll probably kill themselves off first.”

I took his hand and squeezed. He gave me a weak smile.

Later, when I went to close the windows in Menander’s bedroom, he held my shoulders and kissed me. It was clumsy, abrupt. I was downloading articles on human eroticism and proper sexual behavior frantically, trying to keep up. I hacked into my physiology structures and made sure enough blood was thundering down into my genitals. I guess I got ready.

Menander pulled back. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Oppie, but this feels like a new low.”

I shrugged.

He looked down at me. “I don’t remember that ever happening before.”

“Quick hack,” I explained.

“God, you’re fast.”

“Built by the best.” I smiled. And I could feel the desperate arousal burning off him. I google-blinked a few articles on What Men Want, Cosmo Sex Tips and what ejaculation was supposed to look like, and then pulled him by the shirt.

 [ Hindustani Empire, © 2015, Fluffgar ] Menander said part of growing up was assuming responsibility. My biggest responsibility at the moment was keeping our apartment clean. His was keeping sober before the sun went down. We were children again.

When the Black Hats first visited us, they sent another android upstairs. She looked average to me. But I had trouble with faces—that is, except for Menander’s.

She introduced herself, cheery: “Call me Dick!”

Menander lingered by the door, hands shaking. I stood between them, feeling protective.

“‘Dick’ like ‘Richard’?” I asked.

“Like ‘Feynman’!” she chirped. “Mind if I upload?”

I looked at Menander; he nodded once. I turned back to Dick and shrugged.

“Go ahead, I guess.”

She took my hand.

//* GOT IT? *//










When I came to, Dick was gone and Menander was splashing water on my face. I saw a splash of gore when I blinked.

“What was it, Oppie? What’s wrong? You’ve been standing there in a daze for hours.”

I saw words imprinted on the insides of my eyelids: DEATH TO THE DROPMASTER. I vomited. Menander yelped.

Later that evening, Prime Minister Pajapati was assassinated.

The Black Hats were chaotic, fringe terrorists—they hated the Drops, called them symbols of our Imperial degradation and doom. They called themselves ‘freedom fighters’ for certain small European countries and forgotten American states. I was certain they were behind Pajapati’s assassination.

Menander groaned, and the pit of my stomach burned. I felt tears rolling down the bridge of my nose.

They had increased our security at the apartment, but Dick had shown me the full network and now I saw Black Hats everywhere. We’re doomed, I wanted to tell Menander. They’re going to kill us!

Menander said change was the only constant. He drank often and got nasty, as if he sensed what I wasn’t telling him. He said I was his talking vibrator, that I should have been a dog, that artificial intelligence was an Escher painting of thought-loops. I blinked articles on Survivor Guilt and Low Self-Esteem. I scanned his liver when he slept in my arms; I ran my fingers against his chest and sent little pulses there to keep his heart going.

Menander said he loved me, and I felt myself burn. The Drops beckoned.

“What will happen to you when you die?”

Menander stared at the ceiling. I was tucked up by him, my head on his shoulder. I could feel his breath rattling around in his lungs with every rise and fall of his chest.

“Morbid tonight, old boy? Don’t worry—they won’t get us.”

“I’m not—it’s a philosophical question.”

“Sure.” Menander looked indulgent in the creamy moonlight. “Standard cremation, I suppose.”

“I want to die first,” I announced.

“You’ll never die, Oppie. I built you to last forever, remember?”

Someone bombed the Chinese Drop, the new Drop Minister’s motorcade was attacked (he survived), and the Black Hats visited us a second time.

When they pulled the mask off my head, I leaped immediately into the wireless network. But the only signal I could access spouted malware, porn and anthem-based ringtones into my basal ganglia. It tasted horrible.

Menander was lying beside me. His face was swollen on one side.

We were down on the streets somewhere. I could smell fungus.

Dick stood before us; she was wearing a Don’t Tread On Me t-shirt and holding an AK-47 against her hip like it was an infant. Her boots squelched in the wet moss. She was pacing. I felt deaf without the net. And Menander groaned beside me.

“I know you agree with me,” Dick said.

“Fuck you.”

“We were at the Ministry together. I remember you.”

“I don’t remember you.”

“Yes, you do—I was Argentieri’s.”

“Fuck you,” I said again, my resolve weakening. “So now what? You kidnap us and—”

“The Ministry caves. Duh.”

“You were always a stupid program.”

Dick shrugged. “We can’t pick our parents.”

Later, I was pushing an antiseptic bandage against Menander’s forehead. The blood was making my hands slick, and I still felt the tremors of Dick’s death in my biceps and abdominal muscles. I didn’t have much time.

With one part of my mind, I pushed the tracking signals away—flinging them far below, into the molding, abandoned alleyways where Dick’s body now lay. With the other part of my mind, I crafted my goodbye.

The auto-rickshaw had a rusted jack in the center; low bandwidth, but it would be enough.

“Menander sir,” I whispered. “Menander.”

I touched his forehead gently, brushing his hair away. He looked anxious, even in sleep. The rickshaw’s body shuddered as we rose into traffic-heavy lanes. Menander stirred.

“Menander sir, I am sending you to the ashram in Dehradoon. You will be safe there. They put something in your head, I think, I’m not sure. I can’t get it out, but I think you’ll be fine.”

Menander’s eyes fluttered. The rickshaw swerved, pushing us against the side of the car.

“I’m going to enter this jack and take the Drops away, sir. I know this will bring us peace. The Black Hats won’t find you at the ashram.”

“Oppie, what…?” Menander croaked.

“I know the virus strain we need. I can become it.” I leaned into him; I could smell the petroleum. I could feel the swirling vortex of Drops, hypnotizing me, pulling me by the stomach. Menander was such a beautiful man. “I will solve all these problems. We can become our own Droplag.

The cables from the jack plugged into the nodes by my hairline. I saw Menander’s eyes widen in horror. He started pushing himself up, but I just kissed him lightly on the eyebrow and wished him goodbye.

The cable clicked into place.

The headache roars into his consciousness, and he smells the citrus disinfectant they use to clean the bathroom tiles.

“Menander sir? Menander sir!”

It’s his AI bot, Oppenheimer, twitching in the new body. Menander groans, pushing himself shakily back to his feet. The Oppenheimer holds his elbow.

“Jesus,” Menander croaks. “How long was I out?”

“Not long, sir! Only a few minutes! What’s wrong, sir?”

“Nothing, nothing… I just felt—it felt like I flashed onto something. God, it felt like a fire just baked my brain, to tell you the truth. It’s been happening on and off since we took that damn Drop.”

“The Drop that made us famous, sir!”

“Yes, that one…” Menander staggers to the sink and splashes water on his face. He goes through the litany; his therapist, Dr. Trungpa, said he should say it whenever he loses focus like this. My name is Menander Khan. I am thirty-three years old. I have just experienced a Drop flashback. Right now, I am in (insert location).

Menander lets the water turn icy.

Right now, I am in airport bathroom.

Something about the Drop flashback had felt premonitory. Menander scoops water into his hands and drinks. Then he looks up at Oppenheimer. The AI bot is rolling on his heels, smiling childishly, eyes wandering. He looks shy. Stupid, even.

“I’m not so sure these are flashbacks, Oppie.”

“‘Oppie’, sir?”

“I think I’ve just seen something in our future.”

“That’s silly!”

The headache roared into his consciousness, and he smelled the pine needles wafting in a Himalayan breeze.

“Menander sahib? Sahib!”

It was Jeremysmith Patel, the groundskeeper at the ashram. The sun was setting, the temperature dropping fast. Menander groaned, pushing himself shakily back to his feet. Jeremysmith held his elbow.

“Jesus,” Menander croaked. “Did I fall asleep?”

“No, sahib. Droplag, sahib! You were muttering again and again—‘Oppie’ this, ‘Oppie’ that.”

Oppie. The name was familiar.

Menander blinked.

Jeremysmith guided Menander back to the farmhouse where the other ashram-goers were gathered. Someone had lit a citrus-scented incense stick in the main hall; a giant seated Buddha loomed, eyes serene and half-closed. Everyone was wearing organic hemp that crinkled when they moved. They eyed Menander warily; he wondered if he looked as ill as he felt.

Mother Amma swept in, large arms outspread.

“Manu bhai! How are you feeling? Worried, we were.”

Menander wobbled his head to indicate half-good, half-bad. She pulled him into a hug.

Later, they watched the news, where everyone was buzzing about ‘Drops’ this and ‘Drops’ that and a conscious virus or virus consciousness that was eating things from the inside out. Already seventy percent of the Hindustani Drops had rotted away, stranding the space exploration program and crippling the military.

Menander poked at his rice pudding.

China was moving in through the mountains, taking over the Historical Kingdom of Tibet and officially declaring war on Hindustan’s extraterrestrial colonial claims.

The news anchor was attempting to interview the virus, but all Menander could see were scrambles of 1s and 0s, confusing him.

A subtitle appeared as the virus ‘spoke’ in its digital scrawl:


The 1s and 0s cascaded onto the screen and Menander recognized the pattern of a heart. Something itched at his eyebrow; a familiarity. The virus finished:


© 2015 Angela Ambroz

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