A streetrat turned revolutionary and the disillusioned hacker son of a politician try to take down a ruthlessly technocratic government that sacrifices its poorest citizens to build its utopia…
We’re excited to share an excerpt from Olivia Chadha’s Rise of the Red Hand, the first book in The Mechanists series—available January 19th from Erewhon.
The South Asian Province is split in two. Uplanders lead luxurious lives inside a climate-controlled biodome, dependent on technology and gene therapy to keep them healthy and youthful forever. Outside, the poor and forgotten scrape by with discarded black-market robotics, a society of poverty-stricken cyborgs struggling to survive in slums threatened by rising sea levels, unbreathable air, and deadly superbugs.
Ashiva works for the Red Hand, an underground network of revolutionaries fighting the government, which is run by a merciless computer algorithm that dictates every citizen’s fate. She’s a smuggler with the best robotic arm and cybernetic enhancements the slums can offer, and her cargo includes the most vulnerable of the city’s abandoned children.
When Ashiva crosses paths with the brilliant hacker Riz-Ali, a privileged Uplander who finds himself embroiled in the Red Hand’s dangerous activities, they uncover a horrifying conspiracy that the government will do anything to bury. From armed guardians kidnapping children to massive robots flattening the slums, to a pandemic that threatens to sweep through the city like wildfire, Ashiva and Riz-Ali will have to put aside their differences in order to fight the system and save the communities they love from destruction.
South Asian Province, Central District
I know three things: (1) I am a prisoner of Solace Corp.; (2) I’ll be sent to containment without trial; (3) According to my Info-Run, the rate of survival in containment is 0.0001%.
The green number flashes in the corner of my vision. My wrists are bound with metal cuffs. Ignoring the ache, I lift my hands in forced prayer to my forehead, and hit the I-Scan to turn off my monitor. Some data even I don’t want to know.
The Maglev transport rickshaw barrels up, up and up through Central City. I’ve dreamt of coming here to the high Stratas of the neocity, Central, my entire life, but not like this. A girl from the Narrows in the Unsanctioned Territory has no business in Central, unless she set off an explosive device in the city and, say, that girl already has infractions for smuggling…
My new pals, the other criminals picked up by the gray-collar guardians, look about as happy as me. Grays are terrorist hunters; they can do what they please with us. The white-collar guardians are ticket-writers that police the SA, but the grays mean blood. The tall boy must be from the Northern cities because of how perfectly he wraps his turban. The tearstained Uplander woman to my right is pregnant; the pitch of her sari curves around her belly like a sand dune. She was probably taken because of the child growing inside her. An unsanctioned birth, I bet. Or worse, she falsified records to get her and her child into Central even though they were both declared unfit by Solace to live in Central.
And then there’s the boy with the long black hair in his face. It fell across his eyes when they put the restraints on him. He’s clean, looks like he just walked out of a holo-advert for an Uplander fetish product, and definitely doesn’t belong in a criminal transport. Through his hair, it’s clear his jaw has a replacement, chrome. He nods in my direction. Too cocky. But this was his idea.
“Hey, girl, where’d you get your replacement?” The turbaned Northerner yells above the transport engines. He winks and nods to my right arm, which had been disguised by my stolen white-collar guardian’s jacket and gloves. But the recent explosion blew apart my jacket and my chrome peeks through the silicone skin like an exposed secret.
“Why? You want a referral?” I don’t look up, but flex my robotic fingers.
His laugh is as deep as the Arabian Sea. “Sharp tongue in your mouth must hurt.”
“There’s only one person I know who can still do work like that,” he says.
“Yeah. She’s gone.”
“Wahe guru,” the Northerner chants a small prayer. “What happened?”
I look at my black combat boots, then at the Northern boy, making sure the guardians are busy. “That’s what I’m going to find out.”
The Northerner nods with conviction. I only met him an hour ago, but I already trust him.
The transport speeds toward the upper Stratas of Central, the towering city that twists higher and higher in the center of the Ring that cleans the air for the Uplander’s to breathe. And the coastline that edges right up against the girders that keeps everything from sinking into the sea. Metal bridges connect the crumbling old structures with the new, like silver webs. Animated holo-adverts project, on every surface, all the things the Uplanders should desire. What they desire most is power and perfection.
AllianceCon is a time for the remaining eight provinces of the world to show off their planet-saving tech to the Planetary Alliance Commission. The PAC holds the keys to the world bank, and they use AllianceCon to decide which province deserves continued funding. The province that shows the best tech that will allow humans to survive on this, our dying planet, wins the funding to survive another year.
Yeah, the South Asian Province has failed to secure additional funding the past three years in a row, and this is their last chance. The SA is coasting on fumes and loans. They’ve promised their newest tech will win this year. They haven’t said what the tech is. The massive holo-screen reads: “Happy Alliance Day! This is the year!” And I want to tear it down.
We pass a twenty-story crumbling Buddhist temple with a holo-advert promoting Solace Corps’ new divination program, Sign. The skyscraper beside it dances with gaudy neon lights of animated, pampered girls wrapped in immaculate fabrics, drinking the newest youth genetic edit. Garbage, all of it. Uplanders have everything but souls. The whole neocity was built on the backs and blood of my people who aren’t even allowed to live here.
The holo-screen at the next intersection flashes with a series of faces. The transport moves fast, but I know that face. How could I not?
The pregnant woman stops crying and looks at me. “Are you… ?”
“Hush, Auntie.” The boy with the long hair in his face whispers. I don’t need his protection. Even he knows I’m the fighter, he’s the brains.
“I’m no one,” I say, and something in the woman changes. She smiles and subtly presses her hand to her chest and nods. The secret sign of the Red Hand only for my eyes.
“Quiet,” the guardian yells to us all. “Or we’ll muzzle all of you animals.”
The woman presses her hands together and prays silently. The city rushes past the windows. Millions of scenarios pour through my mind, wave after wave. We went over the maps. We know the steps back and front. Stick to the plan, I repeat over and over until the words are tattooed on my brain.
We’ll reach the entryway into the general prison containment in a few minutes, but not before crossing the tallest bridge in Central that connects the upper Stratas to the lower. I’ve heard the Uplanders on the other side of the barrier glow from the inside out. If I didn’t hate them so much, I’d envy them a little. A crowd gathers below. It pulses like a swarm of ants consuming fallen fruit. They are cleaning up for AllianceCon. Central must be taking down another memorial for the fallen from the Last Vidroh, the uprising here in Central at the end of WWIII. The memorials were their way of quelling the population’s need for retribution after so much bloodshed. They’d hate for the important visitors arriving during AllianceCon to see the SA as anything but perfectly content in our completely divided world. My teeth slip from clenching too hard and I bite my lip; my blood tastes like metal.
A guardian comes through the transport to test us for various viral agents.
“Arm, Downlander scum,” he says to me.
I stick out my replacement arm and smile. “Nice gray collar. Never seen one up close,” I smirk.
He bristles. “Not that one, girl. The human arm, unless you’d like both arms to be replacements,” the guardian says.
The test hurts every time. And every time I’m cleared from the Fever. I wonder if it even exists or if it’s just a government plot to keep us in line and afraid. They’re looking for symptoms of fever, blue rash, the beginning marks of paralysis, but mostly for a way to humiliate us. It’s been a problem for a decade. They get it figured out, but then it returns. The guardian hits up the boy with long black hair and then the Northern boy. Clear. And then he approaches the woman. She sits before him with her face turned away. What’s she looking at through the thin glass of the transport? Her reflection, or something in the city?
The view from the bridge we cross is terrifying. We are at least twenty stories in the sky. I see the deep brown electricity clouds flash in the distance beyond the dome like bellowing sky beasts. Hundreds of miles across, the Barrens wasteland is a scorched dark brown and red desert surrounding Central. And though no life is said to be able to thrive there aside from cockroaches, its volatility is as striking and hypnotizing as a tornado.
“It’s beautiful,” she says to no one in particular.
The guardian bends down to take her test. “Arm,” he says.
She doesn’t respond. Her long braid hangs down her back like a mystical tail. She stands and faces him. Her body is thin, frail, aside from her belly, like most of us from the Narrows. He raises his pulse baton. I hate those things. The weapon is allowed under the New Treaty laws because it’s not considered lethal, but the guardians turn up the voltage high enough and know where to strike to cause heart attacks. I’ve seen it.
“Watch yourself woman. There’s nowhere to go from here,” he says.
The woman’s eyes pass through the guardian. “You would have been perfect.” Her hands rest on her belly. I notice a bluish bruise on her hand the shape of a cloud. The Fever. She recites a prayer in Gurmukhi, Masiji’s language.
“Sit down, now!” the guardian commands.
The woman takes another few steps toward the guardian and then backs up as far as she can in the transport.
“For the Rani, the Lal Hath,” she yells.
The Red Hand.
I try to stop her. “No!”
She runs and throws herself against the glass of the transport. It shatters into shards that flash across our faces like razor rain. She doesn’t scream, but I do. Her body falls down and down and down, and there’s no sound when she lands, not from here at least.
The guardians signal an alert and ready their weapons, but there’s nothing to do about the woman. The transport stops, and they yell and push us back against the unbroken side of the vehicle.
My stomach is a nest of vipers.
“Wahe guru,” the Northerner prays. “She’s better off. God knows what they’d do with the child of a criminal.”
Bitter tears cover my face and sting my new wounds from the shattered glass.
I nod at the boy with the long black hair.
We cannot fail.
Five Days Earlier
Look casual. Like you really belong here. Waiting. Alone. At night. No big deal.
The center of Strata One of Central is always dark as smoke. The light has trouble getting in through the towering buildings that sit inside the Ring. But I’m only awake at night anyway, when the heat breaks and it isn’t dangerous to be outside without protective gear. The air smells sweeter in the Stratas, under the protection of the Ring’s clime-controls and filtration system, than the air back home in the Narrows, in the Unsanctioned Territory, but still: Permanent midnight is all I know.
This place is wet and wired. Two things, saltwater and electricity, usually make a mighty conductor, but for the most part the old wires don’t work. Otherwise we’d all be fried.
I stand outside the mediport. Its aluminum wall is cold, damp and slick, but I lean on it anyway. A hospital for the poor, the mediport is a pathetic excuse for medical assistance: always filthy, lacking resources, doctors. It’s a place to die, or hide, or both.
As the thick clouds and smog part high above me, I see the Alliance Space Colony floating in the moon’s orbit around the Earth. Only on a full moon can you truly appreciate its size, the extraordinary ring that spins around the banded cylinder. They say it’s built for two million people to explore the universe for Goldilocks planets and mine for the rare earths that our governments fight about on Earth. There are many living up there already, building, fixing. Who will be chosen to live up there and how is anyone’s guess.
They think we are stupid. It’s for the rich. We know it. Though the Space Colony was designed before WWIII, the construction went into hyper drive shortly after the New Treaty was established. We don’t believe in coincidences.
I try to stretch my new right arm, but it only shrugs. Ugh, my lazy plexus isn’t connecting with my replacement arm again. It will be the end of me. Masiji says I need a new one. You can’t have a replacement if it doesn’t properly connect to your brain through the plexus implant. Yeah, let me get right on buying that very expensive biomimetic part.
My shoulder and thoracic back ache every day. The thanks I give to The Mechanic for making my broken body whole is so loud sometimes that my pain becomes only a ghost, only a whisper in my mind. The nerve roots where the replacement begins in my shoulder joint are redirected into the replacement, but their phantom memories remain. The agony takes its turn on days when it’s quiet, when I’m still. Silence and stagnancy are just for decay; they invite death. It’s only when I’m still that I look at the arm she gave me, the metal bones and joints, the cables and ports, wires and circuits… and feel its weight pull on my body, unequal to the rest of me. It’s heavy. It’s me, but not me. But when I’m running, there’s no time to think or feel. In motion, doubt becomes a whisper again. Then, I am unbroken, with purpose.
I hate waiting. And people who make me wait I hate even more.
Across the alley is a small bhelwalla stand, Mr. Belochi’s. The last human stand, all others have been sold and converted to bot machines. I can smell the warm spices and my dry mouth salivates. Well, might as well eat if my meet’s going to be late, again. Gotta keep moving.
I press my hands together and nod at the old man. “How’s business, Uncle? You still have a snack for your favorite customer?”
He is short, as though time and work has forced gravity to pull harder against his body. “Achcha, Ashiva. If it weren’t for the AllianceCon spectators pouring into town.”
I take in the area for UAVs and instead see the new holo-screen projecting above his stand on the building wall behind him: the PAC’s emblem of fists hammering down and crushing the broken body of a massive war mecha. This is how they see themselves. The heroes who ended WWIII. The ones who united the world and stopped a complete nuclear holocaust. When the American Province unleashed their war mecha in the Middle East to claim their rare earth’s mine, the world shook. Then Asia launched its war mecha to counter the American mecha. Soon American nuclear missiles fell in Central Asia and the Middle East. Asian mecha retaliated with their bombs on the American Province. Damage was extensive. While the planet survived for the most part, it was changed. Millions burned to ash that day. Their ghosts rightfully haunt us. The Provinces almost ended it all.
“But isn’t AllianceCon good for business?”
His glare is sharp, like the tip of a sword. “They’ve lost the taste for our kind of food. The kind made by hand.” He shakes his head.
I take in the posters on the surrounding walls celebrating the 25th Alliance Day, and what the PAC calls the reunification of the world after nuclear catastrophe. The New Treaty that ended WWIII makes sure the Provinces of the world play nice: no genocide, no weapons of mass destruction, PAC holds the marks. The posters are covered in graffiti calling for reparations for those lost in the Great Migration. Someone crossed out “celebration” and spray painted “murderers.” We all celebrate the end of the war because we are still alive. But we also remember why we were fighting over resources, and how the sky turned orange from pollution then, and the seas swallowed thousands of miles of coastal cities. End of a war, beginning of the New Era.
But being alive is not always living.
“Never mind, beti, I have something special for you today.” He claps his calloused hands and searches behind the stand, humming a strange song as he moves. When he rises again, he’s giddy. “Here, I traded for this on the undermarket. Thought you’d enjoy it.”
The fist-sized yellow fruit tumbles into my human hand. I breathe in its sugary sweet smell. “No, it can’t be. A mango?” I turn it round and round, marveling at its ugly, wrinkled skin. It’s soft and rough and a bit squishy and smells like burnt candy.
“You said you’d never tasted it. I want you to try my favorite fruit. Came from the Eastern District.” Mr. Belochi hums as he turns the hot potatoes around on his small flat top, and sprinkles spices and chopped onions into the mix.
“It’s unsightly. I adore it. Thank you.”
He laughs. “Yes, and it tastes like it’s from the gods.”
“I’ll share it with my family.”
When he is done cooking, he pours the snack into a metal cone and hands it to me. And I lift my veil and swallow it in a few slow bites.
I slide him a few marks. More than I can spare, but I need to believe that a human can compete against the bots all over Central.
“Thank you, Uncle.”
He smiles and continues to hum.
I can smell them before I see them: A giggling group of uppy girls with rose-scented hair and perfumes, and long flowing saris they let drag on the wet, dirty streets because they have more. One guard in front and one guard in the back, both Northerners with turbans, who look like they have very rough senses of humor. Probably on their way to a virtu-club. Girls like them come down to Strata One to party, take designer drugs, eat exotic food, and rebel against their strict upbringing without damaging their honor in their homes in the upper Stratas of Central.
Their shiny neural-synchs glitter with chrome and jewels, proof they passed the Solace test, live in Central, and now are permanently optimized through the Solace Corporation, a connection I don’t envy. The tall girl has a gold butterfly at her temple, the other’s is a crescent moon. Each piece goes for a quarter-million marks. Enough to feed the entire Narrows for a year. I know they don’t remember the floods, the Great Migration, the Crimson Riots. They don’t remember that twenty-five years ago their people locked the gates to Central and let climate migrants drown and die in the heat at the end of WWIII. They don’t remember, but I do. I wasn’t there, but it’s in my DNA. My people never forget the choices the SA made when they responded to the guidelines of the New Treaty.
I lean against the wall with an AllianceCon poster. The one with President Ravindra standing tall and smiling in her blood-red suit. Always red. Always smiling. I hate that woman. I press a di-cut metal sticker onto her face with a red stenciled hand and the words “Red Hand Asleep Not Dead.” General Shankar’s profile is in the background of the sticker with a wild grimace as he wields a cannon over his shoulder during the Last Vidroh against Central. That could cost me one transgression, a ticket, and a slap on the wrist.
When the girls see me, they point and cover their mouths with the edges of their sleeves and distance themselves. It’s my respirator mask dangling unclipped at my chest and the veil that covers half my face that makes them think of disease. They think anyone not perfect is contagious. My mask shows I live down here or in the Narrows. Like poverty is infectious. I kick the wall and choke down my pride.
Finally, a man exits the mediport carrying a large bag. He follows me into the alleyway. He’s so nervous I’m sure he’ll give us both away. When we reach the wall, I put my cyborg hand over his mouth and speak to his panicked eyes.
“You’re late. And obvious. What’d I tell you last time?” I let my hand go.
“Sorry, Ashiva. Z Fever is moving through the city. I’ve been triaging for days.”
“You’re telling me it’s here then? The Fever?”
Dr. Qasim nods. “The GHO is calling it Zephyrus Fever. Z Fever. It’s viral and ugly. We don’t know how it’s spreading, but it is in the SA. The GHO is about to approve initial quarantine protocols here—same ones as in the Americas. Central wants to keep it quiet for now, but they want it dealt with quickly before AllianceCon and their 25th anniversary party. They know we all hear ‘pandemic’ and think about Ebola 4.”
“Oh,” I step back. “That bad?” Ebola 4 killed tens of millions of people globally, two decades ago. The PAC and GHO’s responses were overreactive, but they missed the mark. They didn’t realize it was spreading through contaminated food, so quarantines only kept the disease from spreading locally—but still it carried on the winds of trade across the globe anyway.
“I don’t know, yet. But crowd mentality, you know. I wouldn’t blame people for—”
“Taking to the streets, rioting, joining the Red Hand to resurrect them from the ashes?”
“Achcha . . . we’re working on an inoculation and treatments. But the GHO is reporting new cases in the Americans and Asian Provinces. It’s spreading fast.” He presses the bag to my chest. “Here. Spared from the Arabian Sea,” he says and tucks a scrap of paper in my hand. “Don’t ask for the details and be careful with this one. It’s not—”
“Okay, okay.” I open the top of the bag and shuffle through the valuable vegetables and fruit. Good cover.
“Gentle, please.” He turns to head back to the mediport. “This is the last time. The gray-collars are monitoring my flat, my family. They said they’d take my daughter and wife if I step out of line.”
“Dr. Qasim, remember where you came from.” But even I know. The gray-collar guardians are the ones you have to watch out for. They have a free pass to do anything they want to get what they want.
He puts up his hand, metal fingers glimmer in the dark. “I need no reminder. I am thankful for The Mechanic’s mercy every day. I’ll contact you. But it won’t be for a while. And sorry about this. They said they’d take me to containment for questioning if I didn’t prove useful.”
I roll my eyes as the white-collar starts closing in. “Sorry about what?”
He signals to the guardians on the corner and they storm me.
And he scurries off like a scared mouse. The Internal faction of the Red Hand won’t be able to rely on him much longer. I’ll have to find another doctor on the inside, and it can take months for a smuggler to make a new contact. At least I have this package—every delivery is as important as the last. I take two steps forward and freeze.
“Oye, pickpocket! Identification.” The guardian marches towards me with the confidence that his weaponry instills. A baton, electro-pulse gun and other intimidation devices bounce on the belt that cinches his long, white tunic.
Flit you, Doc. Here we go. I place the bag swiftly in the shadows and make a mental note to add his name to my throttle-list, right under Jai and Khan Zadabhai and the rest of the Lords of Shadow.
“Dhat,” I whisper under my breath. I am no thief. Any jackal can steal a few marks from an Uplander because they always have their head in the clouds. If the Red Hand has a tricky transport, they tell me. What I do takes talent. And real talent gets you to tomorrow.
I bite my tongue and turn my wrist to his scanner to display my books. Essential for everyone in the Red Hand. They’re good. The best. But if he checks them in Central in Solace’s main, he’ll see creases in the tampered data, and I’ll be charged with curfew violation—one transgression that’ll give me a one-way ticket to waste my time in questioning.
I straighten my tunic and feign Uplander boredom. This murkh halfwit is going to make me late.
“You are a long way from home in Strata 12. Let’s see your face, girl.”
“Sure, sahib. Just taking a walk.” I hide my surprise in hearing my Strata. In my next life, maybe. Zami must’ve added that as a hidden message in my fake ID books, my lucky number. I unclip my veil from above my ears and grin. Fake books: two transgressions, one night in basic containment.
He flinches. “Accident?”
“A hungry, wild dog. Er, during a vacation in the East.” I’m not sure what beast caused the scar on my cheek.
“Left you a permanent reminder.” A note of disgust glimmers on in his face. “You’re going to have that edited soon, I suppose.”
“Right away, sahib.” I’ll never have a genetic edit. My scar isn’t terrible, but it makes Uplanders squirm. When I go to clip my veil again, my shoulder whizzes and whines under my black jacket. Stupid moody arm has impeccable timing.
The guardian cocks his head sideways. “Is your replacement registered?”
“Yes, of course, sahib,” I say. My forced smile hurts my dry lips.
I don’t know if he believes me, but he’s just a white-collar, not here to take people in, just a scout, a writer of fines. A pain in my ass.
“Did the doctor give you something?”
My empty hands are clear. “A slim diagnosis, and smashed hope.”
“Why don’t you move along? President Ravindra’s curfew is still in effect.” He looks me up and down. Even with the books it’s obvious I’m not a member of the elite class.
“I’m waiting for a friend. Last I checked that is still a right of the citizens, even in Strata One.”
“If I see you outside in a half-hour, I’ll have to take you to Central main,” he says and moves on to hassle others.
“Okay, sahib. I’ll be only a moment.”
And I slip into the shadow’s shadow. When he’s gone, I lift the bag across my shoulder.
It twitches against my body.
Excerpted from Rise of the Red Hand, copyright © 2021 by Olivia Chadha