Ajay Ghale, the current king of Kyrat, looks at his holo from fourteen years ago and laughs. “I can't believe I was ever that young,” he says.
"I don't really see much of a difference myself," I tell him.
He laughs again. “You'd be surprised.”
“It is surprising,” I say, “that you're doing this interview. My boss was expecting you to insist on holo-only. They haven't let outsiders into Kyrat since--”
“Since me?” he says sheepishly, rubbing a hand behind his head. “Yeah, I kind of had some push-back from my advisers about that one.” The armed guards standing behind him are a good indication of the security measures that must have been negotiated. One interviewer, one holographer; no one else allowed in. A neutral ship, orbiting around the planet to safeguard all parties' safety.
Despite all that, he doesn't look like a planetary dictator, the scourge of the Alliance and friend to unincorporated planets looking for a little leverage on the rest of the system.
He looks... normal.
I clear my throat. “So what did you think of Kyrat when you first saw it?” It's a standard opener and I'm not really expecting much from it.
Ajay Ghale smirks at me. “You must have a tougher question than that?”
“I'm kidding. It's a good one to start with. I should probably say something like it was magnificent or the most beautiful place I'd ever seen.”
I nod, but he shakes his head. “That's not really the truth. I could say that it was truly intimidating and I had no idea what I was getting into.” He laughs and a few of the guards behind him actually crack a smile.
“But that's not it, either?” I prompt.
“No,” he says, and his face gets serious. “The truth is I don't really remember much about that day. You see, my shuttle got shot down over the planet and the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was a lot of smoke and fire.” Then his smile returns. "Sort of the Kyrat version of a 'Welcome Home' sign."
"You consider Kyrat home?"
His eyes look away, towards the planet he's ruled for over a decade. "It's the closest I've ever gotten to it."
His head still hurts and his nose is still bleeding a little bit, but apparently, whatever Kyrati technology they used on him seems to have healed him for Pagan to proclaim him well enough to sit at a table, eat some food, and definitely not leave his seat, you're still recovering and we wouldn't want you running into any sort of vermin in the palace, it's horrible how you can't keep them out.
Ajay has been raised to be a good kid, a polite one, and even if he's never quite lived up to what his mother taught him as a child, he knows the rules of basic hospitality. Still, he's going to have to break one right away.
“It's nothing personal,” he says. “I'm just not really used to how you look.”
The bright blue tentacle on the plate sort of wriggles in response, and Ajay doesn't know what this is supposed to be, but it's definitely not Crab Rangoon. He's not even sure it's edible.
So yeah, not touching that one.
No, he's just going to sit here and ignore the screams in the background that are probably from the only other survivor of the crash, a man who looked at Ajay like he knew him and at Pagan like--
Well, like the man Ajay heard about on the holos back home.
Not that he knows that much about him. No one does.
These days, the Alliance doesn't like to talk about Kyrat. Technically, they're not at war with them, but they're not one of the colonies either. Not since 150 years ago, when Earth mostly pulled out of it, having stripped everything it wanted from the planet. Then there was the bloody civil war, the murder of the remaining monarchy, and the crowning of some man named Pagan Min who came out of nowhere to be sole dictator of the planet.
It's not really that surprising that Mom didn't want to go back there, but it is frustrating that she didn't anticipate until the end that he might need to.
“Thanks, Mom,” he says to the plate.
The plate wiggles again in agreement.
“Fan-bloody-tastic,” he hears the voice say, and he looks up to see Pagan enter the room. “You sir, are a gentleman.”
Lakshmana, it turns out, is not a place, but a person.
And it's a good thing he actually stayed with Pagan because he can only imagine how long he would have had to search the planet to figure that clue out.
And he loves his mother and misses her, but he's wondering what else she hid from him. Because yeah, apparently, he had a sister who his father murdered and he's wondering what happened to his father now because he can't imagine Mom just letting that go. Pagan certainly didn't.
He's glad though, that there is a special place for the two of them now. His gloved hand sets the urn down next to his sister's and he makes his way out, the airlock sliding shut with a hiss.
Outside, Pagan's waiting impatiently for him, the helicopter ready to go.
“Maybe now we can shoot some goddamn guns,” he says to Ajay, who's getting whiplash from all of Pagan's changing moods.
They get into the helicopter and as it takes off, Ajay says, “If it's all right with you, I think I'd like to hold off. I'm kind of tired.”
Pagan looks like he's the one being forced to bed early, but he says, “Fine, I suppose you have had an eventful day.”
“Yeah,” he says.
“But tomorrow, I have big plans for us, my boy.”
A little scary, but he's gone this far. He's not going to turn back now and go home. “Okay.”
It's a few minutes in comfortable silence before Ajay decides to say, “Thanks for taking me here. I know Mom would thank you too.”
Pagan smiles, but it's too tight to be happy. “I don't know about that.”
And he doesn't know why he reaches out and grabs Pagan's hand except that it's been a long day in which he crashed into a planet, found and lost a sister, and discovered his mom has probably been lying to him about some shit for a long time. He just needs something solid to hold on to for a moment.
Pagan looks surprised and Ajay starts to pull away because there might be some protocol about this that he's violating, but then he grips back even tighter and they hold hands the entire ride back.
It should be more awkward than it is.
“Who are you?”
“Who are you?” the woman repeats and she's young and pretty and...
Mom. Not like the last time he saw her when she was hooked up to machines and so thin it was like sheets wrapped around bones. It's Mom from his earliest memories, hazy and distant.
“Your son. Ajay,” he says to her and she looks confused.
“But you're not a child,” she says. “Ajay Ghale is a child.”
“I grew up, Mom.”
Her face is confused and then it's like something clicks in her and she nods. “Oh, I see.”
“Don't worry,” she says. “I'm still learning.”
He reaches out for her.
And wakes up.
His pillow is spotted with red and when he puts his hand to his nose before pulling it away, his fingers are damp with blood.
Whatever he was dreaming about fades away and the only thing he's left with is the vague sense that something's wrong but he doesn't know what.
“You're sure I'm okay?”
Pagan raises his eyes from whatever he's browsing on his tablet and frowns at him. “It's too early in the morning for these sort of philosophical questions. Unless you're asking me if what you're wearing is fine to which my advice is that it is atrocious and should be burned immediately.”
“First off, it's noon and I should have woken up hours ago. Second, what's wrong with what I'm wearing?”
Pagan gives him a full look head to toe and shakes his head. “I will never understand why people are still allowed to sell this kind of disaster. I never should have gotten rid of Mumu.”
He's guessing that's a person and okay, maybe he's sort of boring compared to the technicolor rainbow that is Pagan Min, but that's beside the point. “My apparent lack of fashion sense aside, you're sure I'm fully healed from yesterday? Because I've been having these headaches and a nose bleed--”
“Oh, that,” Pagan cuts him off. “That's just side effects from the brain scan. You might have it for a bit, but I assure you, it will go away eventually.”
It would be nice if he remembered that part, but it's all a blur of machinery and lights and a voice saying, “I will kill everyone on this planet if he dies.” Creepy, but also comforting.
“Okay,” Ajay says. “I guess I'll take your word for that.”
Pagan smiles. “Enough talk about unpleasant things. Let's discuss your future.” He waves a hand imperiously for him to sit down.
The unrecognizable dish in front of him is bright green this time with some sort of leaf sticking out. Ajay pokes at it and decides to try a bite when it doesn't move back. It's not that bad, but he's holding out hope that somewhere in the palace, there's a hidden stash of canned Earth goods.
“So, what do you know about Kyrat?” Pagan asks him when Ajay's apparently eaten enough food for him to be satisfied. “Besides the usual Alliance propaganda that they're so fond of teaching in the dreadful educational system back there?”
“Well, Mom told me a bit about its history, like the colonization and the wars.”
He nods. “And what else, boy?”
“Just that. I mean, I didn't really know that much before I came here.”
Pagan snorts. “Of course not, being the impetuous young man that you are. Did you give any thought to what might happen after you fulfilled your mother's request?”
Probably not, he thinks. He's guessing just turning around and going home isn't what Pagan's looking to hear. “I hadn't really thought that far ahead.”
“I had thought as much. Well, it appears it falls upon me to give you the guidance you're lacking and steer you towards making better choices than you've apparently done.”
He's a little stung by that jab and retorts, “You're not my father.” Crap. Another example of not really thinking things through.
Instead of being pissed, though, Pagan seems more amused. “And thank everything for that, considering what a cunt your father was. One of the best things your mother ever did was ending his life.”
It's a good thing he's not—wait? What? “Mom killed my father?” He should be more surprised about this, but it's another piece of the puzzle falling into place.
“Of course she did.” Pagan's voice softens. “I only wish Ishwari and you would have stayed here.” He smiles ruefully. “But I understand why she left.”
Neither one of them speaks for a while. Ajay just sort of pokes his fork around his plate. He'd say something, but it might just make it worse. Fucking things up beyond repair seems to be a family specialty.
The silence does get to him, though, and there is a question that he wants answered, as awkward as it is. “So that guy from yesterday?”
Pagan doesn't acknowledge him at first, but a few seconds later, he shakes his head. “The vermin?”
“Have you heard about the Golden Path?”
Pagan's showing his teeth now, mouth stretched wide. “You remember the terrorists I mentioned last night? They're like weeds in a garden. Pull one out, three more spring up to choke the life out of everything you're growing.”
Okay. Not the best question to ask. “And that man?”
“Darpan. One of their best.” He smirks. “Well, not anymore. Of course, that still leaves Sabal and Amita, our young lovely leaders. Be careful not to get too close to them lest you be dazzled by their charms and force me to do something drastic.”
“I don't really think--”
Pagan raises an eyebrow. “Really? Prefer your lovers to be a bit older? I suppose I should apologize then for getting rid of your 'friend'.” He air quotes at the last part and Ajay rolls his eyes.
“I didn't even know him,” Ajay says. He's not going to confirm the first part of the statement, however. It's awkward enough that Mom slept with this guy and he's not going to make it worse by saying, yeah, I can totally see why she'd hit that since I'd do the same.
He's probably not even into guys like Ajay.
“Well, there's no need to get to know any of them. No, Ajay, I think I'd rather introduce you to more congenial company.”
He's a little terrified to think of who Pagan might actually be friends with.
Paul de Pleur is an average enough man who could have fit in with any number of the Alliance bureaucrats who cautioned Ajay against going to Kyrat. Not that he listened to any of them.
“Ajay,” Paul says. “It's a pleasure to meet you.” He smiles and shakes his hand firmly. “Apologies for yesterday. I'm sure it was a bit shocking for your first day here.”
“Paul,” Pagan chides. “Ajay's fine. He's a strong young man.” He slings a companionable arm around Paul's shoulder. “He understands the importance of protecting your family.”
“Yeah,” Ajay manages to say, and does not add, so how much hearing have you lost from people screaming? Because I don't think I want to know the answer to that.
“I'm glad you were able to bounce back so quickly,” Paul says. “I look forward to seeing what you can do for this planet.”
“It'll be amazing,” Pagan says, and beams brightly at Ajay, who has no choice but to smile back. Something in his brain is telling him to slow down, stop and think for a second, but it's like the air on this planet has gotten to him and all he sees are possibilities, not problems.
“Yeah, I guess,” he says. “It's going to be great.”
Noore, on the other hand, is a quiet, pretty woman with a haunted expression in her eyes. She also smiles at Ajay, but it's not nearly as genuine as Paul's.
“Ajay,” she says. “It seems like you've healed nicely. No problems to report?”
“I have a headache,” he says. “And I woke up with a nosebleed.”
“I told him that's standard for what he went through,” Pagan interjects. “But he should have no long term issues, right?”
Her face goes blank for a moment, before recovering. “No, I should think not. Just make sure he doesn't strain himself for the next few days and the rest should take care of itself.”
Pagan nods. “Good,” he says. “She is the best at what she does.”
“I appreciate the compliment,” Noore says. “Now I must get back to work.”
“Besides being a doctor, Noore also takes care of some of our exports,” Pagan says.
“And those are?” Ajay asks.
“This and that,” Pagan says. “But we really mustn't take up any more of her time.”
There's a whole conversation that's happening here that Ajay's not privy to, but he's pretty sure that no one's going to give him any further information.
“Thanks for everything,” he says, and lets Pagan lead him away.
Just at the door, he hears her ask, “Have you met Yuma yet?” Pagan's hand tightens on his arm.
They're sitting at the table again when he asks, “Who's Yuma?”
“One of my lieutenants,” Pagan says. “She's in charge of our Royal Guard and mining operations.”
“When do I meet her?”
Pagan looks away. “She's... occupied right now.”
“Okay,” Ajay says. That's nicely cryptic. “So not any time soon?”
“No,” Pagan says. “Have you tried the Momo?”
It's purple and strangely glittery, but at least it's not moving.
The rest of the evening's uneventful, and once again, he has to disappoint Pagan by going to bed early.
“We could shoot some lasers from the balcony,” Pagan says. “I'm sure there's a satellite or two out there that's completely unnecessary and treasonous.”
“Maybe tomorrow,” Ajay says and yes, that's a grown man pouting at him. He should not find it as endearing as he does.
He's tired and his head's still pounding and he's not going to take any of the astoundingly wide variety of narcotics Pagan offered him, but his eyes close after a few minutes and he drifts off quickly.
It's not a deep sleep, though, so the pulsing of his neurolink indicating a new message wakes him pretty easily.
“Shit,” he says out loud. “Deactivate notification for new holo messages.”
The link pulses once in confirmation.
But he's awake now, so Ajay figures, might as well see what it is.
And it's... unexpected.
There's a man, probably older than Ajay, gazing directly into the screen. He's not bad looking, if Ajay was currently into that sort of thing.
“Brother,” he says, then stops.
“Ajay,” he begins. “My name is Sabal and everything you've heard about us is false. You need to know that you're on the wrong side. Please, we can help you.”
There's a voice off screen and he snaps, “Not now!” before his eyes return to the screen.
“The Golden Path is the right way,” Sabal says. “It's the only way to stop Pagan and his tyranny. The only way to save Kyrat. The only way to fulfill your father's dream.”
The holo ends abruptly, screen going black.
“Fuck,” Ajay says.
Ajay Ghale, at first glance, is not who you'd expect a man like Pagan Min to choose as an heir. By all accounts, Pagan Min was a flamboyant, larger than life figure who made worshipers and assassins in equal measure. Depending on who you talk to, he was either Kyrat's greatest savior or its worst folly.
Ghale, in comparison, is a much less dramatic ruler. In the few holos he's given to the media, he dresses simply, speaks quietly, and carries himself with a solemn composure. Despite all of that, he's managed to share one thing in common with his predecessor: an unwavering fierce devotion to Kyrat that shows itself in the actions he's taken.
And much like Pagan Min, this devotion extends towards keeping Kyrat independent and out of the Alliance. We all remember the attempt they made to stage a coup several years ago by enlisting the remnants of the revolutionary army known as the Golden Path along with some embedded Alliance officers.
We remember it because Ajay Ghale sent back the bodies of the officers in ashes, along with a clear warning: interfere with our planet again and it won't just be a few people that pay.
It'll be the Alliance itself .
Pagan Min would be proud.
He's not sure how Pagan did it and if he was asked he'd swear it impossible, but yes, there appears to be a giant gold spaceship in front of him. Not just gold-colored, actual gold. It's incredibly garish, over the top, and Pagan is clearly expecting a response from him that isn't what the hell were you thinking?
“It's impressive,” he manages to say. “I wasn't expecting that when you said you had a surprise for me.”
Pagan's stroking his fingers along the side of it in a frankly suggestive manner. Ajay swallows hard. “I haven't named it yet. I was thinking something along the lines of Fuck Mohan, but as a token of my esteem, I'll let you do the honors.”
His mind flails and tries to seize upon something. Anything. At least his headache is gone, but now he's faced with the bigger pain of coming up with something that won't offend Pagan's delicate sensibilities. His mom used to tell him stories of their religion, how the goddess Kyra reached Nirvana in--
“Shangri-La?” he offers.
Pagan sighs.“Of all the options, you would pick the most boring.”
“I can change--”
“No, no,” he says. “It's yours to do with what you want.” He's muttering. “It's just-- you never take the more interesting option, do you?”
“I stayed here, didn't I,” Ajay replies.
Pagan looks thoughtful. “True.” He walks over to Ajay and looks into his eyes. “And I'm very grateful you did.”
Ajay wills a certain part of his body to calm down, and frantically changes the subject. “So you said something the other day about shooting some guns?”
It says nothing good about Ajay's current mindset that Pagan's face transforming into sheer glee gives him a warm glow inside.
Ajay has to admit that it's nice getting out of the palace and getting to see Kyrat. It's actually a beautiful planet. He knows the Alliance always talked about what a tiny, backwards place it was, but Mom also said they were the ones who caused its current state in the first place, so what do they know?
“Hey,” he says to Pagan, who's scanning the horizon to look for a suitable target. “You think there's a chance I could kind of explore a little bit on my own? I mean, I know you can't because of the whole--”
“Absolutely not,” Pagan says. “I can only imagine that word has traveled to those monsters already that I've taken you under my wing and I will not risk your safety. Who knows what they might do?” He shudders. “Mohan may have been your father but you are not him and the sooner they figure that out, the sooner your life will be in danger.”
Ajay doesn't say anything about the holomessage he got the night before, because he doesn't even know how he's going to handle it yet. Because what does Ajay really know about the Golden Path? Besides the fact that both of his parents were deeply connected to it.
His father, who killed his sister, before his mom took him out and fled the planet to never come back. He's not sure who Sabal is besides a good-looking man who apparently knew dick about his dad because if he had, he's pretty sure he wouldn't be appealing to Ajay to carry on his father's wishes.
But he can't trust Pagan entirely about the Golden Path either. There's a lot he's still not being told and he can't just take Pagan's word that he'll take care of it, don't worry your head.
“Ajay, I don't see you shooting anything,” Pagan says, and Ajay puts his current dilemma aside before taking the laser rifle out of his hands.
“So what are we aiming for?”
“Nothing, if you're holding the rifle that way. Here, let me show you,” he says and gets behind Ajay, close enough that he can feel his breath on the back of his neck.
Okay, now he has a new dilemma.
Signs against Pagan flirting with him:
- He proclaims his utter devotion to Ajay's mother. “I always loved her,” he said. “Even when she was working against me in the beginning, I knew she was meant to be with me and not your dick of a father.”
- He calls him my boy and his beloved nephew and says things like “Uncle Pagan is so proud of you” after he disintegrates a satellite that Pagan swears is sent to spy on him. Ajay's pretty sure he just destroyed years of scientific research instead.
- It's probably just a cultural thing he doesn't understand to be that hands-on.
- Or a Pagan thing.
Signs that Pagan does want to be with him:
- Everything he's doing that's driving Ajay insane and he's only known the man for two days.
So Ajay's probably getting a little ahead of himself right now. But that's what Kyrat's doing to him – making everything crazy seem rational. If he was thinking clearly, he would have asked Pagan to get him on a shuttle out of the madness and gone back home. He would have seen Darpan screaming for help as a sign that he wasn't cut out for this shit.
The problem is that he's thinking it does suit him. Shooting shit with Pagan, bantering back and forth at the table, trying to figure out what the deal is with all these shady fuckers that he's supposed to trust because Pagan does. He belongs in Kyrat.
He just hasn't figured out what he's supposed to be doing here yet.
“That's simple,” Mom says. “He wanted you here, so you stayed.”
“You make it sound so easy. There's so much I don't know about what's going on.”
“You'll figure it out.”
“But I'm worried I'll fuck something up along the way.”
“Ajay, you don't need to worry about that.”
“Of course, you're going to fuck something up. It's Kyrat.”
“That's not reassuring.”
“It's not meant to be. Now wake up.”
The headache's not as bad, and there's only a few droplets coming from his nose. He still doesn't remember what he was dreaming about.
In the morning, there's a new message on his link. It's just a short text.
<You can't ignore your destiny forever, Ajay. We won't allow it.>
It's not signed but it doesn't need to be.
Sabal may not be happy about it, but Ajay's decided that yes, he can ignore his destiny. Okay, maybe not forever, but at least for a week or two, until he's settled in and is secure enough to finally ask just what the fuck is going on with Kyrat and if he should be worried that the Alliance might be setting up a blockade outside?
“Relax,” Pagan says. “They do that all the time. Like buzzing gnats trying to get into your house. We just need to swat them a bit and they'll go away. Right, Paul?”
Paul disconnects from whatever call he was taking on his link and says, “Sure. We'll send out a few warning shots, but the shield should be enough to deter them from trying anything.”
“Might I point out,” Ajay says, “that it didn't stop our shuttle from breaking through?”
Pagan looks at him fondly. “Dear Ajay, that's because I let it in. And if someone hadn't been so stupid and impulsive that they translated my orders from intercepting it to firing a missile at it, there wouldn't be a small crater with a tasteful little memorial next to it.”
“Right,” Ajay says. “Good to know we're safe. Just to be clear, you're not at all concerned that there's a fleet parked outside with some of their best dreadnoughts and all we have is the Shangri-La?”
Paul glances at Pagan. “He really named it that?”
“I told you, no imagination.”
“That's not the point,” Ajay says.
Pagan reaches over and pats his hand. “Ajay, don't worry. We've got it all under control.”
He finds it hard to believe that anything connected to Kyrat is controlled, but no one's taking him seriously, so he sulks in between taking sips of whatever passes for coffee there.
“Hey,” Ajay says. “Does that mean I can leave the palace?”
“No,” the other two say in unison, and go back to their links.
But they are right about it being handled because it's been going on a month and there's no attempt at invasion. It's just a bit of posturing on the holo news (Alliance) and some rather nasty threats sent right back (Kyrat). Even the laser fire that's occasionally exchanged seems random and half-hearted.
The reporters don't even seem that concerned about it. In fact, the only one reporting on it is--
“Kyrat is once again under siege,” says Rabi Ray Rana. Pagan's banned him from the dinner table, but it doesn't stop Ajay from covertly listening to him on his link. “We can no doubt blame this on the garishly costumed supervillain that runs our planet and has no doubt enslaved the stunningly handsome Ajay Ghale. Meanwhile, in news about my shits--”
“I really should have him killed one of these days,” Pagan says idly after Ajay shuts the link down in mild disgust. “I blame him for the decline in our current media coverage.”
“He doesn't seem that worried about the blockade either,” Ajay says. “You'd think someone besides him might find it worth covering.”
“It's a dance,” Pagan says. “We've been doing it for years. The only difference now is that they heard I have an heir and they're nervous they can't rely on me just dying and allowing them to take over.”
“About that whole heir thing? I don't think we ever really discussed that,” Ajay said.
“We didn't need to. Of course I'm going to give you Kyrat. It was always my intention that you would rule here,” Pagan says casually, like he's talking about the weather or Ajay's vest, not about the fate of an entire planet.
“Okay, you need to hold on,” he says. “Because I'm not sure I'm ready to be king--”
“Obviously, not yet,” Pagan's holding his hand again and gazing into his eyes and he really needs to stop this romance bullshit if it's going to keep giving Ajay very confusing emotions. “But when you're ready, I'm sure you'll do a magnificent job.”
“When I'm ready,” Ajay repeats. “And what if I'm never ready?”
“Well, then I'll just have to rule forever, won't I?” Pagan says and winks.
Ajay knows he can only delay the Golden Path for so long, so he's prepared when his temple pulses. What is surprising is that it's not a message, but a live holo. His hands are shaking a little bit, and for a second, he thinks about hanging up, so he can delay a decision and the consequences that are sure to follow.
“Hello,” he says quietly. “I won't ask how you got through the security net.”
Sabal nods. “We don't have much time before I'm kicked out. Are you ready to accept your destiny?”
Ajay's quiet for a few seconds, but he can't waste much more than that. “You mean, my father's destiny,” he says.
“Mohan is no more, but his son remains. You can still save Kyrat.”
“And if I told you I'm saving Kyrat by remaining here at Pagan's side?”
“There is no saving Kyrat as long as that monster remains,” Sabal snaps. “He taints the planet with his presence. Your father would agree.”
“My father also murdered my sister,” Ajay replies. “I wouldn't use him as a moral compass.”
Sabal might be startled, but he regains his composure quickly. “I don't know what lies Pagan has been telling you, but don't believe them. He's a murderer who's killed so many of our people. Our people, not his. He's a pirate who took over this planet, betrayed those he swore to help. You owe it as Ajay Ghale to save us from him.”
It's Ajay's turn to flinch a little and he thinks, I could stop now, join the Golden Path, find out the truth about Pagan from them.
Or, says a voice in his head, you could ask him. You could find out on your own. Because while there's madness in Pagan's eyes, Sabal's aren't that sane either. Your father--
Well, your father killed your sister and made this whole mess so much worse. You don't owe anything to anyone.
“I'm sorry, Sabal,” Ajay says. “You may be right about all of this but I'll do it my way. I make my own choices as Ajay, not as the son of Mohan or some mythical savior you think I can be.”
“Then I'm sorry, too, brother,” Sabal replies. “I'm sorry that you have already lost yourself so far that we can't save you.”
“I don't need you to save me.”
“No,” Sabal says. “I can see that.”
The call goes dead.
At breakfast the next day, Ajay's bleary-eyed from lack of sleep. Pagan's maroon suit is too bright for his eyes and he wishes he had invested in those lenses when he got his link. Would have hurt like a bitch to get installed, but now he has to squint against the morning light.
“Didn't get much sleep,” Pagan asks.
Ajay grunts in response, looking for the coffee.
“I'd ask if you over-indulged too much, but you don't even indulge to begin with, a fact that saddens me to no end.” He nudges a cup over to Ajay, who takes it gratefully.
Pagan, of course, has impeccable timing which is why he waits until Ajay is drinking before he asks, “So did you have a nice conversation with Sabal?”
He almost chokes as it goes down the wrong way until Pagan thoughtfully slaps him on the back. When he can breathe, he sputters, “What? How did you?”
“Please, Ajay, don't insult my intelligence,” Pagan says coolly. “I know the Golden Path has been trying to contact you for some time now. You're the son of Mohan, after all. That's valuable currency to them.”
“And to you, I guess,” he says, because he's tired and people keep lying to him and he just would like someone to acknowledge that maybe if he's going to be some key part of Kyrat's future, people should actually just tell him something instead of being so fucking cryptic all the time. “I mean, you've got Mohan's son on your side. It must mean the Golden Path is wasting away or some shit.”
Pagan's smile is sharp. “Is that what you think, Ajay? Your dear Uncle Pagan's just going to use you as his puppet while he destroys Kyrat?”
“I don't know,” he yells. “You don't tell me shit about anything. You just say that I have a brilliant future and Sabal tells me it's my destiny to save Kyrat and neither one of you seems to give a damn if that's what I want.”
“Fine,” Pagan says. “I apologize.”
Fucker. Now he's thrown off. “What?”
“I apologize, Ajay, I should have asked you what you wanted.” Damn it, he's actually serious now. “I realize that you have been thrust into a situation you weren't prepared for. If you would like to leave, I can arrange--”
“No, that's not what I want,” Ajay says quickly. “I don't need to go back to Earth.”
“Then what do you want?” Pagan leans forward and he's inches away from Ajay's face. His eyes are intense. “What can I give you?”
Nothing you're willing to give, Ajay thinks. Because you're only faithful to my mom and you hated my father and every now and then you call me your nephew which fucks with my brain in ways you wouldn't believe.
“Oh, Ajay,” Pagan says. He sounds like he's about to cry, which is hilarious because Ajay's the one that's on the verge of a full-scale nervous breakdown. “We've really fucked this up.”
And then he kisses him.
“What exactly was your relationship with Pagan Min?” I ask. It's a question that I've already been warned not to ask and I know I'm risking quite a bit. I can hear my holographer suck in a breath.
Ghale doesn't say anything for a while and I'm wondering if he's on his link to have me removed from the room—at best. But his reputation for mercy in the midst of the viper's den that is Kyrat must win out because he shakes his head at me. “I guess you've decided to take the gloves off,” he says.
“If you don't want to answer--”
“No,” he says. “It's just,” he trails off and I can see he's no longer with me, but in some memory.
Eventually, he answers. “It''s not that simple.”
Given that Pagan Min was an infamous pirate before he became an even more infamous dictator, I can't imagine it would be anything other than complicated. But Ghale has never once condemned his predecessor, leading some to question Ghale's morality and point to some of his more questionable actions while others chalk it up to a forgiving heart.
“I pretty much loved him from the beginning,” he says. “I just didn't know what that meant.”
“We've heard some people speculate he was like a father to you,” I prompt. “Would you say that's accurate?”
He's laughing again, but it's not happy. “Things would have been easy if that was the case.”
I don't mention the other speculation, but I don't have to.
“No, the problem was that he wasn't. And he really thought for the longest time that he had to be.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he says at the squawking transmitter on the rover before he knocks the butt of a holorifle to take it out. He's already deactivated his link, so he can't get tracked that way either. “Don't explore the planet, don't avoid the guards, don't do anything if I'm not involved.”
Fuck that shit. Ajay's going to go on a little trip.
Because after the whole kiss, Pagan freaked out and has now decided to avoid Ajay altogether. Which okay, he gets. There might be a little bit of processing on his end since you know, Pagan says things like “you have your mother's eyes” and “Ishwari is the only one I've ever loved” and “your ass looks amazing in those pants, wear leather more often.” Mixed signals there.
So if Pagan is torn between fucking Ajay against a wall and telling him bedtime stories while tucking him in, cool. But Ajay's not going to just mope at the palace, eating crap and playing Uncharted 52 all day long while people make decisions about him. If he's going to rule Kyrat some day, he might as well see what the shit he's getting into.
And Kyrat is fucking gorgeous. The mountains here are unreal, snow-capped towers disappearing into a mist. There are trees here, actual trees, not the fake shit you get on Earth. Like they have needles and sway in breezes and actual scars. They're not perfect and synthetic.
Nothing in Kyrat is, which makes it so goddamned beautiful. It's no wonder Pagan won't let the Alliance in; they'd chop it all down and turn it into another gleaming city of white and glass with no personality. I mean, he gets Kyrat has problems. Anyone who has eyes can see that constant civil wars, past colonization, and people shooting rifles all the time wouldn't be the best, but at least, he feels real here. He doesn't feel like he's trying to pretend to be something he's not.
“Shit,” he says out loud. “I love you!” His voice echoes throughout the valley and it's just such a special day, he expects a rainbow or something to spontaneously burst out.
And that's when a giant fucking shadow of doom comes out of the sky and swoops down on him.
Hey, so it turns out that Kyrat's wildlife is insane and wants to murder all humanity. He can't really be mad about it – if he'd been hanging out peacefully, minding his own business, when a whole bunch of assholes came in and started fucking shit up, he'd be pissed too. And it's not like the guidebooks didn't warn him.
Oh, that's right ... they didn't.
Sure, one of them said, “The wildlife may be aggressive, so be careful and use your discretion.”
Yeah, armed with discretion. He'd rather take a Gauss rifle. And a flamethrower. And maybe an tactical orbital laser.
But at least it does allow for bonding with the Kyrati. There's nothing like everyone screaming, “Run! Aim for the skies! Did it just smash that rover over there?” to bring a community together.
An old woman comes up to him and bows. “Thank you for your assistance,” she says. “I am Kopisha.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Ajay says. “I'm Ajit.” Apparently, he's not the greatest at making up fake names.
She nods and peers at him. “You are not from here?”
“Not exactly. I mean, I was born here but I had to leave,” he says. “I just returned.”
Kopisha smiles. “It is rare that someone returns to Kyrat. Most who leave have no desire to come back.”
He gets that, but those people are probably sane and it's been well-established that he's not anymore. “I guess I'm different.”
“Yes, you are,” she says. “I would suggest you remain here while one of our people takes a look at your vehicle.”
At least the smoking heap of metal doesn't look royal anymore, so he won't to have to answer that question. Instead, he's got to figure out how to get back before Pagan sends out a search party that he's pretty sure will lean more on the destroy side. “Thank you for your hospitality,” he says and bows.
Much like the car he had on Earth, this one is also totaled and Sanani has no problem cheerfully telling him so. “It is completely wrecked, my friend,” he says, smiling broadly. “You are fortunate the cow did not land on you.”
“Yeah,” Ajay manages. “Very lucky.”
Sanani wanders off as Kopisha comes up to him. “I hope you are not greatly inconvenienced by this, Ajit,” she says. “I am not sure where you are staying but we should be able to find a way for you to leave in the morning.”
“Thank you,” he says and sits down on a rock nearby. He watches some of the other villagers walk by, all smiling at him. A few shout thank you at him and he sees some kids watching him from behind a hut. When they see him, they jump up excitedly.
“Awesome!” a boy shouts. “So cool!” Another boy makes a shooting gesture towards the sky, and grins. They're all so clearly thrilled and happy he's here and--
Crap. Yeah, this plan is shot to hell. He sure as shit isn't going to reactivate his link and call Pagan down on this village, but it's getting late, there's still screaming demonic birds in the area, and he gets the idea that tromping through Kyrati wilderness in darkness is probably a terrible idea. “Thank you,” he says. “I'm sure I'll figure it out tomorrow.” Because there's no way letting them know that he needs to be dropped off at the palace doesn't lead to violence and gruesome death.
See, he likes these people. They deserve better than the shit they've been going through. Ajay may love Pagan, but he's not stupid – the man's got some serious fucked-up issues that he's been taking out on this planet. And Mohan may have had a vision of this planet being free, but he also murdered a child out of petty jealousy, so the Golden Path isn't exactly starting with the best role model either.
It's like everyone needs to grow the fuck up and stop playing Bagh-Chal with Kyrat. The Kyrati aren't tigers and goats, they're people and the game has to end.
“You shouldn't have taken off like that,” Mom says.
“And he shouldn't be fucking burning villages to the ground, but neither one of us is good at making rational decisions,” Ajay retorts.
Mom sighs. “It's not that simple.”
“Nothing is with him, Mom.”
“You know, if he loses you too, that'll be the end,” she says. “The end of everything.”
“I can't let this war continue, Mom,” he says. “And I'm not sure destroying the Golden Path is the answer he thinks it is.”
“It's not. And he won't be able to on his own. ”
“So how am I supposed to fix this?”
“Oh, honey,” Mom says and reaches a hand out to his cheek. It passes through and he feels a jolt of electricity. “Who said you can?”
He's more tired than he's ever been and there's a part of him that just wants to stay asleep, but there's a buzzing in his head that's making it harder to relax. He lifts his hand to his face and it comes away red.
“I'm sorry,” she says. “At least you're safe now.”
He wakes up in a clearing. There's no sign of the village.
Ajay's head is pounding so hard he thinks it might explode. His hands are wet with blood and he's not sure all of it is his, judging from the knife, sticky and red at his hip. At his feet, his holorifle is smoking, the barrel glowing from overheating.
“So you must be Ajay,” he hears and he turns around.
A teenage girl behind him holds up her hands. “Sorry,” she says quietly. “My name's Bhadra. And we only have a few minutes before we're both in trouble.”
Out of all the people he's met, Bhadra seems the most mature, which makes sense considering she's probably only 14 or 15.
“You're with the Golden Path,” Ajay says, trying to work it out. “When should I expect the rest of them to show up?”
“Oh, they're not,” she says. “I may have snuck out to find you.”
“Okay, considering I didn't know where I was going, I have no idea how you knew where I'd be.”
Bhadra looks uneasy. “I had some information,” she says. “But I can't tell you who told me.”
He could press her, but she already looks jumpy enough and he's not about to interrogate a teenager, so he lets it pass. “Do you know how I got here?”
Her eyes look away. “I can't really tell you that either.”
“So what can you tell me?” he snaps, and immediately feels bad about it. It's not Bhadra's fault he's losing all sense of reality.
“I just came to tell you to be careful,” she says. “Sabal hasn't given up on getting you over to his side and he's not listening to Amita when she tells him to stop.”
Amita, whom he knows nothing about besides that apparently Pagan thinks he'd want to sleep with her and that she should probably file a restraining order against Rabi. “I take it she's not bent on me fulfilling my father's wish.”
Bhadra smiles, just slightly. “She's not as devout as Sabal.”
Ajay can't help but smile back. “I don't think anyone is.”
His link pulses again. “Sorry,” he says, and pulls up the message.
Someday, someone will actually tell him what the hell is going on, but apparently it will not be today. “So I'm supposed to tell you that you need to go,” Ajay says. “Are you safe to get back on your own?”
Bhadra nods. “I can take care of myself,” she says, starting to leave. She stops, though, and looks at him. “Just make sure you can do the same.”
He has someone half his age lecturing him now on staying safe. This must be what Pagan feels like.
Speaking of which--
He can hear the heli getting closer as Bhadra disappears into the trees. Ajay steps back, waiting for it. He has no doubt who one of the passengers is.
This is going to suck.
It's good to know that he's getting better at recognizing horrible situations. It would be better if he could avoid getting into them, but that's probably too much to ask the universe for.
“Ajay,” Pagan says patiently, “what part of 'stay in the palace and don't leave ever' did you not understand? Was it the part about ever? Because I can explain the concept of time to you again.”
It's very hard for him not to roll his eyes, but he's already being treated like a kid and he doesn't want to prove Pagan's point. “No, I get what you said. I just chose not to listen to you.”
“Really? I don't recall giving you a choice.” Pagan's wearing his tight smile again. His blood pressure must be through the roof.
Fuck this, Ajay thinks. Fuck all of the charades. “I don't need your permission to do shit, Pagan. Or did we forget the part where I'm not your fucking kid?”
“I don't forget anything, Ajay,” Pagan says, his voice like ice.
“Really,” Ajay says. “Because from the way you've been avoiding me, I'm pretty sure you're trying to forget the part where we started to make out and you got some shit in your head about being old enough to be my dad and ran away.”
Somewhere in the back of Ajay's mind, he's wondering if this is how he's going to die. Pagan glaring hotly at him, his hands clenched tightly, as he leans over Ajay's chair. He smells good, too, like that incense Mom used to burn at home. It must be a Kyrati thing – he'll have to make a note to ask him where he gets it.
Oh, right. Possibly getting killed. Better get back to that.
“Ajay, I don't think--”
“No,” Ajay says. “You do. Way too much about the wrong things and not enough about the right ones. You don't give a shit if your guards take out a village because some rebel hung out there a few days, but I just want to know if you want to fuck me and you'll take two weeks to find a way to tell me no.”
Pagan's still hovering over him, but his face is softening, which is not what Ajay wanted. “You think that's what I'm going to say, Ajay? You think I'm that unselfish?”
He opens his mouth and Pagan puts a finger against it.
“You're right,” he says, continuing gently. “I am a horrible person and it didn't start with your sister's death or even Kyrat.”
“I don't think you're horrible.”
“You probably should.”
“Yeah,” he says, “I probably should. Just like I probably should've taken your offer to go home and avoid all this shit. But you know what? I like this shit. I like how fucked up everything is. I might not be able to fix everything, but I don't have to. I just have to try.”
Pagan shakes his head. His eyes are almost... sad. “And this is why I love you, Ajay. You never take the easy way, even when it would be the best thing for you.”
“Fuck that. Who knows what's best for me?” Ajay reaches one arm to try to pull Pagan in.
Pagan meets him halfway, yanking Ajay out of the chair. “Just remember,” he says, “I gave you the choice to walk away before it was too late.”
Ajay would respond to that, but he's too busy having Pagan's mouth crushed against his to be able to speak.
They don't fuck against a wall, much to Ajay's dismay.
“Look Ajay, as much as I would love to do that, I'd like something a bit more romantic for our first time.” Pagan's soft, smooth hands are running against Ajay's skin, exploring him slowly and thoroughly.
“You know I've done this before, right?” Ajay says. “I mean, not with you but--"
He stops and yelps as Pagan pinches him. “Don't spoil the mood, boy.”
“Then you probably shouldn't call me boy either,” Ajay retorts.
“Fair enough,” Pagan says, leaning low to bite Ajay's ear and whisper into it, “Ajay.”
“Okay,” Ajay gasps. “That works for me.” He's arching back now, as Pagan's very talented fingers slide lower.
“Good. Because I would hate to think I was displeasing you in any way.”
“No, you're doing fine,” Ajay says faintly. “I have no complaints.”
Pagan replies by sucking hard against Ajay's neck – it's going to be a mass of bruises in the morning. Pagan's marking his territory, and like everything he claims, he's going to war full throttle. Ajay will be surprised if there's any unmarked skin when he's done.
“But do you have any requests?”
“What?” It's hard to concentrate when someone's got his hand around your cock but he'll give it his best shot. “Requests?”
“I can't be the only one who gets what they want, Ajay,” Pagan purrs, as he takes his hand away. “Surely, there must be something I can do for you.”
Ajay refuses to categorize his response as a whimper. “Just do what you want.”
“Oh, Ajay,” Pagan says. “The last time someone said that to me, I ended up taking over a planet.”
He sleeps fine that night. No strange dreams, no nightmares, no buzzing at his temple, which is why it takes him longer than it should to wake up to Pagan's ranting.
“How the fuck did this happen,” he's screaming. “No, I don't want to hear it's not possible. Clearly, it's fucking possible, you idiot!”
“What?” Ajay asks, wiping his eyes. He's still half-asleep, and his eyes try to focus on Pagan, who's stalking back and forth across the room, hand to his head.
Pagan disconnects from his link and Ajay can see him trying to calm himself before turning to him. “Ajay, we may have a problem.”
Shit, Ajay thinks. “Did the Alliance get through the blockade?”
“I said a problem,” Pagan snaps. “I don't give a shit about gnats like them.”
“Okay.” Ajay holds up his hands and Pagan subsides into his usual manic state. “Golden Path?”
"Closer.” He sits down on the bed. “You haven't checked your link yet, have you?”
“Pagan, I just fucking woke up,” Ajay says. “Give me a minute.” He turns it back on and yes, there is a new message – no holo, just voice. He hits play and listens.
“To Pagan Min and his collaborators,
We are the Golden Path and your reign will be over soon. Those that you have misled will be corrected. Those that you have elevated will be cast to the dust. Those that you have murdered will be avenged. Your terror will be over and this planet will be free. We swear this by Kyra and by those you have oppressed.”
“Okay, I don't get it,” Ajay says after the recording ends. “They always threaten you. What's so different about this one?”
“You don't recognize his voice? I guess you would have been too young to remember.” Pagan smiles grimly. “I wish I could forget it.”
He's puzzling it out. Golden Path? Someone from his past that Pagan obviously despises--
Mohan Ghale has always been more of a myth than a man. We don't know much about his background – native to Kyrat, married to the Tarun Matara, Ishwari, and father of her son, Ajay, the boy who would be king. But beyond these basic facts, there is no clear truth.
The Golden Path worshipped him. Pagan Min despised him. And Kyrat? Well, that's a bit more complicated. What did they know about the man besides the propaganda from both sides? Really, the only one who had the chance to see both sides were his family and the one in the best position to tell us is no longer around. And the other...
“I know you never really met him and yet, he must have had such an influence on your life. It's clear from his journals that he valued you greatly and hoped you'd grow to be Kyrat's future. He wanted you to be a man who knew the value of 'duty, honor, and compassion.' Do you feel you've lived up to his expectations? Would he admire all you've achieved?
“No,” Ajay Ghale says without a moment's hesitation. “My father would never be proud of me.”
“No,” he says again. “Trust me, I know.”
“I thought he was dead,” Ajay says, bewildered.
Pagan's been on his link for half the morning, yelling at various people. Paul stopped by at one point, gave a sympathetic wince to Ajay and then was promptly sent to go “round up some of your monkeys and fucking find out where he is.” Apparently, Yuma, who Ajay hasn't met (and probably never will, judging from Pagan's more elaborate excuses), has also been dispatched. Ajay's pretty sure there will be a pile of corpses by the end of the day, but he's still stuck on the fact that his deceased father is fucking back from the dead.
Pagan gets off his latest terrorizing call. “Well, someone must have made a fucking mistake.”
“I mean, they could be faking it by manipulating some old holovids,” Ajay says. “It wouldn't be that hard.”
“And that would be delightful if I could confirm that he was completely gone, but until I'm positive I'm not going to be faced with an army of clones of that cunt, I'm not taking any chances.”
“You don't think--” Ajay trails off, horrified at the thought.
“Let's hope not,” Pagan says darkly. “In the meantime, I want to know why this is happening now. If he's been alive, why did he wait until now to make his fucking entrance.”
Ajay knows the answer to this question. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that once he said no to Sabal, they'd have to resort to another plan. “I'm guessing this means no more day-trips for a while.”
“You'll be lucky if I don't tie you to the bed,” Pagan says.
“I—um--,” Ajay splutters out. “I'm not really--”
“Hmm,” Pagan says. “Just checking.”
The rest of the morning is intensely boring if you're Ajay and you're not allowed to do anything remotely interesting. Pagan's got force fields up all over the place so there's no way he can go on the balconies and at least see any shit going on. There's guards everywhere armed with laser rifles and they must be on strict orders because he can't even get one of them to play GTA: Mega-City with him.
So he hangs out watching the news. Apparently, either Mohan hasn't leaked his existence to anyone outside of his enemies or Pagan's control on the net is total because the only thing the media is reporting is that the Alliance is consolidating their forces back on Earth. Which must mean the blockade's pretty much gone and Pagan was right about them.
He starts wandering around the palace, after he gets tired of listening to the same old shit. The guards keep an eye on him, and he's tempted to fake them out by making a break for the windows, but what's the point? Everyone knows he's not going anywhere.
In the end, he makes his way to Pagan's bedroom and decides to just crash there. It turns out Pagan didn't have to resort to restraints after all. He just had to bore the living crap out of him. Ajay ends up falling asleep because what else can he do? Not a single person thinks he could be of use in this situation and to be fair, Ajay's not sure they're wrong.
He wakes up to someone leaning over him and kissing him on his forehead. “That's nice, Faneel,” Ajay murmurs before opening his eyes. It's dark in the room so he's thinking it's night. Sometimes it's hard to tell here.
“And if I thought you weren't fucking with me,” Pagan says, “I'd have Faneel's head on a stake right now.”
“Wait, is there actually someone called Faneel here?” Ajay panics.
“Relax, Ajay.” Pagan starts peeling off his suit, revealing his tight black underclothes. “He's 80 years old and I pay him to---” He stops. “Well, I don't know what I pay him to do, but I'm sure it's important.”
“Someday, you're going to actually have to make a budget.”
Pagan looks annoyed. “Budgets are for people with no imagination.”
“And planets that can't really afford giant, dual-piloted robots.”
“You say that now, but when we have to fight aquatic tentacled creatures from the recesses of space, you'll be grateful for them.”
Pagan swears he's seen a documentary or two about them, but Ajay remains dubious. “Whatever,” he says. It's not really important when Pagan's getting into bed next to him and reaching over to lazily kiss him.
“You know,” Ajay says after a few minutes of making out. “I can help you out with this. Just tell me what you need me to do.”
Pagan takes his hand and holds it tightly. “What I need you to do is trust me.” He looks uncertain. “I know I haven't given you much reason to, but--”
“I trust you,” Ajay responds. “I always will.”
It's silent for a while. Pagan just keeps holding onto Ajay and he thinks he's fallen asleep, before Pagan whispers, "I don't deserve you. And you deserve so much more than me.”
Noore calls him in the morning. Pagan's already gone off to terrorize his underlings and Ajay's faced with a second day of monotony, so it's a welcome surprise to hear her over the link.
“Ajay,” she says. “I've decided to stop by for a check-up. Pagan says he's worried about your health.”
The man's overprotectiveness can be annoying, but in this case, it'll actually kill an hour or two, so he says, “Great. Do I need to let you in because I'm not really sure how to do that?”
“It's fine. I've already been cleared through.”
Cool, he thinks. Maybe he can get a few answers on how she thinks someone can come back from the dead.
Noore shows up an hour later and Ajay follows her to the examination room he's been to half a dozen times or so. It's one of the rooms that's usually kept locked – a bright, white thing that reminds him of the Alliance. There's machinery everywhere, and it's a little disconcerting how much he doesn't know about what it does.
“So it's just a simple check-up, right?”
“Yes,” Noore says. “We're just making sure you haven't suffered any long-term effects from your previous... accident.”
He lays back on the chair and she starts taking his pulse, temperature and asking him things like, “No headaches, right?”
“No,” he says. “I'm fine.” It's true, sort of. He gets twinges every now and then, but nothing like the blinding pain in the beginning.
“Nothing to report? No nosebleeds?”
He's tempted to tell her the truth, but he's remembering why he hates medical exams, and really, the bleeding has mostly gone away too. Except for that time in the village, but there's something in him that's reluctant to tell her about it. Yeah, I have missing time and I may have killed shit while I wasn't aware, but that's not really something I want to let you know about, since it might mean I'm going crazy and that's definitely something you can't tell Pagan.
“No.” Ajay moves his eyes as she shines a light in each one and she must be satisfied because she steps back and makes a note on a tablet.
“So you're in good health,” Noore says. “Now I need to run a scan on you, again. It won't be as bad as the first time,” she adds, when Ajay looks dubious at her. “Promise.”
“All right.” Ajay leans back and watches her attach wires to his head. This time, he's actually conscious to watch her and it's amazing how complicated it all is. Noore's typing on one machine, walking quickly to another, and in all, it's got to be at least twenty minutes before she seems satisfied.
“Now breathe deeply,” she says.
He breathes in.
“Close your eyes.”
He closes them. There's a pinch at his arm, then quickly spreading numbness.
He's swallowed by a dark wave
It's pitch black for a while.
“Mom?” He says, but she doesn't answer.
Somewhere, he thinks he might be in pain, but every time he tries to grab onto that thought, it runs out of his brain and he's left with nothing.
I'm trying, says a voice, or maybe it says, you know this isn't easy.
He's a sweet kid.
This is the last thing I'll do.
Promise me you'll make him pay.
It's not Mom who's talking and the voice stops after a while.
He walks for hours in the darkness. The pain increases.
Ajay falls to his knees.
There's a blinding flash and his head is exploding the pain is so bad why won't it stop make it stop Mom.
“Ajay,” the voice says.
He didn't know it from before. But now... he recognizes it.
“Mohan,” he says and stands up.
He once saw a picture of his father in some holo archives. The man was unsmiling, serious.
Nothing different here. “I thought you were dead,” Ajay says.
Mohan nods. “I was. But I'm not anymore.”
“Right,” Ajay says. “That's...good.”
Mohan doesn't look convinced, but Ajay's not really trying to be sincere. “I have been made aware of what has happened since your mother--” He stops.
“Killed you for killing my sister,” Ajay finishes. “Yeah, I've been made aware of that one.”
“Your mother was a whore who--”
“Gave the man she loved a daughter and me a sister. If you're trying to get me on your side, you're doing a shitty job.”
Mohan's displeased, but doesn't dispute it. “I'm not here to argue with you, my son. I'm here to correct you. Pagan Min is a liar and a murderer.”
“Probably,” Ajay says. “But you're no different. I'd love to ask how you justify killing a little girl who did jackshit to you.”
“I did it for you, to secure your legacy. With the seed of that man--”
“I didn't ask you to do anything for me. I get that you had good intentions in the beginning, but you didn't live up to them. So if you're going to criticize Pagan for all the shit he's done, you'd better look in the fucking mirror.”
Mohan's face is still grave. “They told me that he had corrupted you, but I refused to believe them. I insisted there was no way my son would turn out like his mother, spreading his legs open to that bastard. But her whore blood was too much for you.”
“First, you can shut your mouth with all that shit about Mom,” Ajay snaps. “And second, if I've turned out like her, then I'm fucking ecstatic. I can only hope I can be half as amazing as her.”
Mohan doesn't say anything. Ajay's head begins to hurt again and he grits his teeth to keep from kneeling in front of his douchebag father.
“I only wanted the best for you, Ajay. I wanted you to walk the path of righteousness and honor,” Mohan says.
Ajay laughs. “You've got a fucked up way of showing it..”
“But I can see that you will never choose the right path.”
Ajay loses his battle against the pain and he drops to the ground.
“So I will have to choose it for you.”
What do you mean, you can't do anything?
Where the fuck is she?
You just let her in?
I don't care what she said, you had direct orders.
You're lucky I need some of you alive for now.
Keep an eye on him. I'll be back soon.
If anything happens--
Ajay, just hold on. I'll get you back.
I'll find a way.
Don't you fucking leave me.
There's something trying to push its way into Ajay's head. It's rage and purpose and self-righteousness and Mohan's voice saying, “It doesn't have to be this hard.”
“Yes, it fucking does,” Ajay says. “If you think I will let you change me into your idea of a perfect son, you've got another thing coming. Because there is no way in hell--”
“Ajay, I'm not trying to change you.” Mohan bends low and places his hand on Ajay's head. It's not comforting.
The pain is coming in endless waves, but he's able to spit out, “Really? Because it looks like--”
“I know you,” Mohan says. “Your stubbornness, your refusal to listen to me. It's Ishwari again. I couldn't save her either.”
His thoughts are slipping away from him, as he tries to fight against this presence seeping into his brain.
“That's why I'm going to let you rest when this is done. I'll take over from here.”
Ajay can't even open his mouth to scream.
He's trying, but it's so hard and he's tired and he can't deal with the pain anymore.
Just a few seconds more.
Until... he's no longer himself, but Pagan's worst nightmare wearing his face and he's sorry because either he's going to kill Pagan or Pagan will kill him and there's no way that anything will be right again.
No, it's not, he thinks. Everyone's so fucked up and the cycle's never going to end and they're just going to keep killing each other until there's nothing left and he can't--
There's another flash of light and it's quiet again.
“I'm here,” Mom says. “Now wake up.”
He opens his eyes.
His body hurts all over and his head is throbbing. It's dim in the room, but he can see the equipment around him, so he's still in the same exam room. There's a breeze against him and a window's open. Looks like Pagan might have missed a force field or two.
Ajay stumbles to his feet and looks to his left. There's a guard there, sleeping on his chair. “You poor bastard,” Ajay croaks out. “You're lucky I'm the one that caught you.”
Utsang doesn't wake up so Ajay takes the opportunity to make his way over to the window. The night sky is cool and it's quiet here, but he can hear explosions in the distance.
Oh, right. Noore betrayed him and his dead dad tried to possess him and Mom--
“Ajay,” she says. “I'm sorry I wasn't able to help you sooner.”
--Is a holographic projection talking to him.
“It's fine. It's just—
The door opens. Utsang is still snoring.
“He's not going to wake up,” Bhadra says. She's holding a crossbow and okay, that explains that. It doesn't explain why Mom doesn't look remotely surprised to see Bhadra or how she got in here or you know, anything.
“Ajay?” Mom prompts.
“Could someone finally start giving me some fucking answers now?”
Ishwari Ghale is also something of an enigma. She lived an unremarkable life on Earth, leaving very few records besides her diagnosis, her hospitalization, and her final refusal of extended care. Her assigned hospice care worker described her as “steady, calm, prepared.” Words that also seem to apply to her life after Kyrat.
Her life on Kyrat, however, could not have been steady. People who remember her there describe her as “fierce, protective, a damn good fighter.” She married at a young age to Mohan and quickly became one of the leaders of the Golden Path, supporting him until supposedly betraying him for Pagan Min.
“It wasn't really a betrayal,” Ajay says. He's taken off his jacket and seems more at ease. “Mohan was the one that sent her over there, probably to show how horrible Pagan was.”
“And he wasn't?” I ask delicately.
“Not in that way. He worshipped her.” Ajay's eyes are sad. “I can't say I blame him for that one.”
“Well, he wasn't the first one to do so,” I say, opening up my link. “What is a Tarun Matara?”
“It's complicated,” Mom says. Bhadra's perched on one of the stools while Ajay takes another one. “Technically, she's the reincarnation of Kyra, which means that she created this planet.”
“Sabal says that the Tarun Matara chooses the true leader of Kyrat and anyone who stands against them stands against justice and righteousness and must be punished,” Bhadra adds.
“Okay, so I'm kind of glad I didn't go with Sabal.” Ajay shudders. “Have you suggested to him that modelling himself after a man who was murdered by his own Tarun Matara might not be the best choice?”
“Have you tried suggesting anything to Sabal?” Bhadra says. “You can ask Amita how well that goes.”
“But one of the other duties of the Tarun Matara that's not as well known is their ability to interface with the systems that run Kyrat.” Mom walks over to one of the holoscreens and it flickers to an overhead shot of Kyrat before it zooms down until it focuses on a small village. “With the exception of the systems in Banapur.”
“Sorry about that,” Bhadra adds. “I may have disabled remote access before I realized just who was running the show.”
“Okay, back up,” Ajay says. “Let me see if I've got this right. Both Mom and you are this goddess.”
“I'm the current one. Your mother was the one before me, until she--”
“Until I died,” Mom concludes.
It's not that he didn't know it, but somehow it hits him almost as hard as the first time Mom told him she was dying. “So what are you exactly?”
“I'm a replica,” she says. “An artificial intelligence based on your mother in her days in Kyrat and supplemented with data I collected from various sources.”
Ajay's not an idiot, so it doesn't take long for him to figure out what that means. “And one of those sources was me.”
“I apologize for the pain you suffered at first,” Mom—Ishwari says. “I had to establish a link with you when your mind was already damaged, but it was the easiest way for me to slip in. You've seen what happens when a mind resists a link.”
He's trying not to remember, but something equally painful occurs to him. “Did—did Pagan know?” Because if all this time, he's known that Ishwari's been hanging out inside him, maybe-- maybe it means he was hoping that she could take him over.
Maybe he was waiting for the day when Ajay would open his eyes and it really would be his mother staring back.
“Ajay,” Ishwari says when he doesn't look up at her. “He didn't know.”
“Bullshit. He had to know. Or are you telling me there was someone else in Kyrat who had the resources and the motivation to create an AI of you?”
“No, he did create me at first. But he thought he failed.”
“I didn't respond to him. Noore ran hundreds of tests and I let her and Pagan believe that they were worthless. After that, he just gave up.”
Ajay practically screams, “Why the hell didn't you let him know he'd succeeded? Do you know how much that man loves you? Misses you? Would give anything to be with you?”
“Yes,” she says. “And he'd be with a ghost, not the woman he lost. You might think you'd be a replacement, but I know that I am. No matter how much I learn, how much I feel, I'm not her. I'm not the woman who gave birth to his daughter, who killed her husband and her child's murderer, who raised you to be the man you are today. I'm nothing but a collection of data.”
And what he can say to that?
"How did the Golden Path even make a copy of Mohan?" Ajay asks.
"Noore's a top-notch specialist in the field and there's enough data sources out there to build a decent replica," Ishwari says. "It wouldn't have to take that long. She's already created one AI, so it'd be easier the second time, and he wouldn't have bothered hiding from her. His ego wouldn't let him."
"It wasn't that long ago," Bhadra agrees. "I think they had started working on it before you came, but after you refused Sabal..."
"He wrote me off and took a chance on his hero. I guess his morals had no problems with my brain getting overwritten," Ajay says.
"He's desperate," Bhadra says. "And now it'll be even worse. Mohan failed in taking you over, so he's going to go to plan B.”
“It won't be as effective,” Ishwari adds. “You were his best choice as far as compatibility. Any other host he picks won't last long.”
“And I'm guessing that Plan B is--” Ajay stops. That poor bastard. No one deserves having that asshole in their head.
“You did say they were alike in personality,” Bhadra reminds him.
“He'll see it as his duty.” Ajay gets up from his chair. “How long can he stay before--”
“Before Sabal's mind starts breaking down? Before Mohan's forced to jump to someone else? Maybe by pretending that it's the only way to save a loved one?” Ishwari's hologram flashes. “Because we both know what Pagan will choose.”
“Shit,” Ajay says. “That fucking idiot.”
“Mohan might not be able to take over Pagan's mind, but I'm sure he'll see it as a victory if he burns them both out.”
“Remind me why you were with either one of them.”
“Yeah, we're not going to be discussing this,” Bhadra interrupts. “Let's focus. We have to get to Banapur and get there fast. Is there anything at this palace that we can use?”
“I might have something,” Ishwari says. “If you don't mind unstable and experimental.”
"Why should we be worrying about our lives, now?” Ajay laughs.
“Okay.” Bhadra nods. “Then we just need a whole bunch of weapons because I can tell you the Golden Path isn't just going to let you walk through the door now that they think you're a traitor to Kyrat.”
“I'm pretty sure we can make do with the shit ton of lasers, grenades, and flamethrowers in the palace.”
“So we get the weapons, we take the--”
Ishwari stops them right there. “We may have an issue with that.”
“Don't tell me Pagan took everything with him,” Ajay says.
“No, the weapons are here,” she says. “But everything that you want's going to be locked up in his cache.”
“Can't you open the lock?'
“I could if it was just electronic? However, Pagan's a bit old-fashioned. He has a secondary, physical lock.”
“Who has physical locks? I mean, besides paranoid—you know, I'm just going to stop here.”
“Do you know how to pick locks?” Bhadra asks him.
“Why would I know how to--?”
“I may have seen your sealed records.”
Both Ishwari and Ajay glare at her.
Bhadra shrugs. “Sabal wouldn't let me go outside with Amita and I was bored.”
“Unfortunately,” Ajay says. “That is not one of my criminal skills.”
“I'm assuming you don't know either.” Ishwari thinks for a minute. “Then short of finding someone with that skill set, there are only two people who possess keys to it. One is Pagan.”
“Guessing no on that one.”
“And the other--” she says and her hologram flashes.
“Yes?” Ajay prompts.
“--will be here in 15 minutes.”
“You're really not going to tell me who it is,” Ajay says after five minutes have passed and she's said nothing beyond “No,” and “Stop asking.”
“Believe me, you're better off not knowing,” Ishwari replies. “Let's just say it's one of the worst people I've ever met and leave it at that.”
“And this person's just going to give us a key.”
“So I'll have to take it by force.”
“Which you won't be able to.”
“Fuck this,” Ajay says. “Why don't you just come right out and ask me?”
Ishwari looks off to the side. “I have no idea what you're talking about.”
“Let's see. You've let me know that there's someone coming I have no chance of handling, that family relations are the key to stable hosting, and you can't access Banapur remotely. It's not that hard to figure out that the best chance we have for success involves you taking over me.”
“After all that's happened, I'm not going to ask you--”
“You don't have to ask. I'm offering.” Ajay smiles. “We both want him to return safely.”
“Ajay,” Ishwari says. Her hologram looks troubled.
“It's okay. Now tell me, do we have time to do this?”
He thinks she's still going to refuse, then she relents. “It'll be quick. We've interfaced on numerous occasions, you're a willing host, and I was just in your mind. The transfer should be only a matter of seconds once we're set up.”
“Then let's do it while we still can.”
It's a lot quicker this time. No fiddling with equipment, no checking monitors, but then again Bhadra's not trying to bring down a firewall to let the Golden Path through. They hook Ajay up and he wills himself to relax, to let his guard down. “I'm ready,” he says, hoping he sounds like it.
“Thank you,” Ishwari says.
The darkness, when it comes this time, is welcome.
“Are you okay?” Bhadra asks when Ajay opens his eyes.
“I'm fine,” Ishwari says. “Let's go find my husband.”
“You haven't told me who were meeting either,” Bhadra says as they walk down the hall.
It's strange getting used to a body, let alone her son's, and Ishwari tries to calm herself. Why must human bodies be so ungainly?
Hey, Ajay says. That's my body you're talking about.
“Sorry,” she replies. “It's nothing personal.”
“Okay, this is weird,” Bhadra says. “Are you going to be doing this the entire time?”
“Hush,” she says. “She's almost here.”
Bhadra's eyes grow wide. “Do you mean—”
The door opens. A woman with pink and black hair steps through. She's holding a holorifle at her side. Her face is pissed as she swings it up towards Ajay.
“Yuma,” Ishwari says, baring Ajay's teeth. “What an unpleasant surprise.”
That's Yuma? No wonder Pagan's been keeping me away from her.
“You must be Ajay,” Yuma says. “You're just as annoying as your mother.”
Ishwari laughs. “You have no idea. But listen, we're in a hurry and we need something from you. Just a little something.”
Yuma smiles coldly. “Is it a key? Do you really think you're enough of a man to save Pagan from the Golden Path? Because from where I'm standing, I've got more balls than you.”
“Yuma,” Ishwari chides, "It must be so hard being you. Tell me, just when did you decide to betray Pagan and tell Noore that she'd never see her family again? Was it after you realized he'd never choose you over Ishwari's son?"
Yuma starts to swing the holorifle up and she may not have done this for decades but Ajay's body's used to combat and you never forget punching someone's face in. It's sad how easy it is to rush Yuma, to do a leg sweep and crash her to the ground. Really, Ishwari thinks as she picks up the rifle and aims it at Yuma, she's gotten too used to drugging her opponents.
“Now hand over the key, Yuma, and I won't have to start shooting you.”
“You don't have the guts--”
The first shot takes Yuma's leg and she shrieks.
“Are you going to give me the key or do I have to do the other one?”
“Fuck you,” Yuma says and reaches into her pocket. The seal releases with a hiss and she sets the key on the ground. Bhadra gingerly reaches out for it as Ishwari keeps the rifle trained on Yuma. Once she has the key, she motions Bhadra behind her and leans down.
“You're right,” Ishwari says casually. “Ajay's much too nice a person to shoot a woman in cold blood.”
She watches Yuma's eyes widen and smiles. “Me, though? Well, we all know what kind of bitch I am.”
“You fucking bitch,” Yuma screams behind her. Ishwari's smile only gets bigger.
I may have just made a terrible mistake.
The armory is well-stocked and it's seconds to grab the holorifles, load up on stun grenades, and stash a few knives. Maybe a dozen. You can never have too many knives.
I think I'm learning things I didn't want to know.
“All parents are people,” Ishwari says cheerfully. “And yours are very questionable ones.”
Bhadra rolls her eyes and takes a bow off the shelf and grabbing some homing arrows. “Are you going to tell me where we're going next?”
“It's not too far away,” Ishwari replies. “But... don't get alarmed.”
You saying that is alarming me. Why?
Several corridors and countless stunned guards later, they're standing in front of--
“The Honey Badger?” Bhadra says. “Really?”
I second that disgusted exclamation. Who named it?
“Pagan,” Ishwari says. “He said because it was tough and quick and it could kill you before you even knew it was in range.”
He is never allowed to give me shit for naming things again.
“So why haven't they used it before?” Bhadra asks, running her hand along the shimmering black coating. “This would easily take out one of our outposts.”
“It has the tendency to lock out its pilots, sending it into an irreversible spin, before detonating on the nearest planetary surface.”
“Now the name makes much more sense.”
And we're going to fly this?
“We're going to try.”
Surprisingly, the Honey Badger cooperates and Ishwari steers it successfully enough to hover a few miles away from the Golden Path's main tower.
“Mohan will be at the top of the tower, but we have no idea who's with him. If we're lucky, Pagan hasn't reached him yet and we'll try to extricate him from Sabal,” Ishwari says. “If we're not...”
We should probably assume we're not.
“I don't want Sabal hurt,” Bhadra says. “I know he's your enemy, but--”
Ishawari puts a hand on her shoulder. “I can't promise you he'll make it through this unharmed,” she says. “But I'll try not to make it worse for him.”
She nods and they jump out of the ship, gravboots catching them on the way down.
It's shockingly quiet the closer they get. It looks like much of the Golden Path has fled. Those few remaining are quickly taken out by the stun grenades.
“This is too easy,” Ishwari whispers.
We don't want it to be easy?
“Not when it means that someone's beaten us here.”
The tower lies straight ahead. There's a body at the foot of it.
“Sabal!” Bhadra's trying to keep her voice down, but she can't keep the horror out of it.
Like I said. Unlucky.
Ishwari turns him over and Ajay recognizes his face from the link. She pulls out a scanner and runs it along his body. Bhadra hovers nervously next to her.
“Well, he's still alive,” Ishwari says and Bhadra lets out a sigh of relief.
Why do I suspect a 'but' is coming?
“But Mohan's not in him any longer.”
“Of course, he's not,” comes a voice from behind them. “Once your beloved king showed up, he was more than happy to jump ship.”
They both look up. There's a woman with black hair gripping a knife. It crackles with electricity. Her eyes move from each of them to Sabal.
“Amita!” Bhadra says.
“Bhadra,” she replies. “And Ajay Ghale. It took you long enough to get here.”
“You're partially right,” Ishwari says, prepared to reach for her weapon. "I'm not quite myself today."
Amita's eyes narrow, then she shrugs. “If you really want to do this,” she says, pointedly glancing at Ishwari's hand. “I'm more than prepared to take you and whoever your passenger is out.”
“Ishwari Ghale, if you must know,” she says. “It doesn't have to come to violence. Walk away.”
“I'd gladly get the fuck out of here and leave you to this shitshow, but the problem is there's one bastard at your feet and another one up there.” She nods towards the tower. “I have no problem with you finishing off your husband. This legacy of Mohan is complete bullshit anyway. We don't need the past, we need the future.”
“While I agree with you on that, you are still holding a knife on us. I'm guessing you're not going to just walk away without something bleeding."
“Sabal's been a pain in my ass for too long.” Amita takes a few steps towards his body. “I was hoping Mohan might have finished him off, but it looks like I'll have to do the dirty work.”
“Amita, please,” Bhadra says. “You can't kill him.”
She laughs. “You'd like to bind yourself to him, Bhadra? Become his child bride or some shit like that? Because that's what religious crap like this leads to. Ask your friend over there.”
Bhadra looks at Ishwari. There's desperation in her eyes.
"Speaking from my own Golden Path experience, Amita, you and Sabal do have one thing in common.”
“You're both wrong.” Her hand flashes up and she fires her gun at Amita, who goes down twitching.
“What did you--”
“Calm down, Bhadra. I just switched the setting to stun. I'm not killing either one of these idiots. Not with these hands.”
“You're welcome,” Ishwari says. “But we're not done yet.”
Everyone wondered why Ajay Ghale was willing to give an interview after fourteen years of refusing them. Some speculated that with Kyrat formally negotiating to enter the PPC, he was looking for some good publicity. Other said that he was tired of all the Alliance propaganda against him, and wanted to set the record straight.
Some even thought that after so many years of being alone, he was putting himself out there, looking for someone to share his throne with.
None of these theories are correct.
Ajay Ghale granted this interview because he's done with Kyrat. His notice of abdication has already been formalized, the plans made to transition his reign over. In less than an hour, he'll be just another citizen.
“I came in here as him,” he says, pointing to his smiling holo. “And I'll be leaving it as someone else.” He gestures to himself.
“And who is that person?”
“That's what I have to figure out.”
Bhadra stays behind with Sabal and Amita.
“I'll be fine,” she says. “When they wake up, I'll tell them what happened.”
“Are you sure?” Ishwari asks. “I'll leave you this just in case.” She sets a stun grenade next to her.
Bhadra frowns but still takes it.
She'll be okay, right?
“She's a smart girl,” Ishwari says. “And they both lost. By the time they figure out how to use her again, you'll have things in hand again.”
“Your mother may have left Kyrat to keep you safe, but she didn't want you to never return. She never would have asked you to return her here if she didn't still love it.”
I guess you're right.
“I know I am. And you'll make mistakes and you'll fuck up and you won't be perfect. But you won't be Mohan. And you won't be Pagan. And right now, that's what Kyrat needs. Someone who's not part of the past.”
This is another conversation where I'm missing something, isn't it.
“You're a smart boy,” she says. “Now heads up. We're here.”
They enter the room.
Pagan's waiting for her. So's her husband.
It's just the two of them now.
“Hello, Mohan,” she says. “It's been a while.”
“Ishwari,” he replies. “Have you come here to save your lover?” Pagan's body is stiff under his control and she can see it fighting him.
“It seems like you're having problems holding onto his body. He always was too strong for you,” she taunts, pleased to see his face flush.
“I shouldn't be surprised your son turned out as easy as you,” Mohan says. “After all, you raised him to whore himself out for Pagan the same way you did.”
“Well, I didn't personally raise him, but I wish I had. He's a good kid,” she says. “Much better than either one of us.” Ishwari takes a step forward towards him as she sees the body jerk again.
“Stop right there,” Mohan says. “Unless you'd like to kill us both.” He's got a laser pistol pointed at his heart. “You may want me dead again, but I will take this bastard with me.”
“What happened to us, Mohan? How did we turn out like this? We had such dreams for Kyrat.” She takes another step forward.
Mohan's hand shakes. “It's Pagan's fault--”
“No,” she hisses. “You don't get to blame it all on him. He may have made it worse, but you stopped listening to me long before I chose him. How did you go from a man who went against my parents to woo the girl he loved to a man who was willing to murder her child?”
“It wasn't mine!” he screams. “It was the fruit of your adultery.”
“It was my fucking daughter! You killed someone who did nothing to you, whose only crime was that she reminded you of someone else. The moment you did that, you stopped being Mohan Ghale and started being a monster.”
His hand is shaking even more now. There's blood gushing from his nose. Pagan's fighting the body even harder. “I won't be judged by you.”
“No,” Ishwari says evenly. “You won't be.” She moves quickly forward and jabs Amita's blade into his shoulder. A knife itself wouldn't normally do much, but the quick jolt of electricity coursing through Pagan's body is enough to jolt him, make him lose control. It's a matter of seconds to block the link to Pagan's mind, to force Mohan away, towards the only unoccupied space left that he can flee to.
Outside, the Honey Badger hums online. The nav system recognizes a new user.
The weapons begin to arm themselves.
She's only got a few minutes left.
Pagan opens his eyes. He's unsteady, blood streaming from his shoulder.
“You should get that looked after,” she says. "You'll have to find a new doctor first."
“Ishwari?” His voice is reverent, solemn.
“Pagan,” she says, running a hand along his cheek. “You didn't fail.”
She moves in to kiss him. Ajay's quiet in her head, but she can feel his pain.
Hold on, she says.
At the last minute, he turns his face and his lips brush her cheek. “Ishwari,” he says again. Troubled. “I can't--”
“Why? Because it's wrong? He agreed to this,” she replies. “He's just a replacement for me. Isn't that what you've always thought?”
Just a few seconds more.
Pagan shakes his head. “Maybe a long time ago, I entertained that thought, but Ajay is very good at proving people wrong. He's his own person,” Pagan says, looking into her eyes. “And I hope he knows now that's what I love the most about him.”
See, she says, it's okay.
She smiles. “So you've moved on, is that it?”
“I'll always love Ishwari,” Pagan says. “That will never change. But she's not here anymore. Ajay is. I don't know if it'll even work, but I have to try.”
“Good,” she says, whispering in his ear. “Because I would hate to have to kill another one of my ex-lovers today.”
Her hand still clutches the knife. Sorry, she thinks. This'll be the last time I hurt you.
Pagan's too slow to stop her from stabbing Ajay in the shoulder. He catches Ajay as he falls to the ground.
Ishwari closes Ajay's eyes.
“That fucking hurts,” Ajay says.
“It should. It's a knife.”
He's clutching his hand at his shoulder and she wants to laugh. “You're fine in here. Or you will be once I'm gone.”
“What?” His hand moves down to his side.
“You can't think I'm going to stay in here? Watch you and Pagan?” Ishwari shudders. “I may not be your mother, but I still don't want to see that.”
“You could just go back to--”
“Stop, Ajay. I'm not going back.”
“But--” He's trying not to cry. He was such a sensitive child when he was younger, she thinks. He's gotten older, stronger, but there's still that sweet baby at heart, the one that loved with all his heart and forgave even those that hurt him.
“You'll be okay, Ajay,” He will be. Whatever he does in Kyrat, it will be a better place because of him. The best parts of Mohan will still live on.
And the rest?
“I have to go now,” she says, opening her arms wide. “There's one last thing to take care of.”
Ajay rushes into her arms. “I love you, Mom,” he says.
“I love you, too, Ajay,” she says.
She is pleased to see she means it.
Ajay's eyes open to the sight of Pagan holding him, bloody and manic. “What was Mom's thing about knives?” he asks, coughing. “Because she's a little too good at stabbing people.”
“I don't know,” Pagan says. “But I can't say it wasn't a turn-on.”
“Well, I'm not stabbing people for you.”
“Of course not. That's why I'm here.”
Pagan kisses him once, fiercely and then the two of them gingerly get up off the floor. Both clutching their shoulders, they make their way to the window.
The Honey Badger lurches from its hovering position, jerking in one direction, than the next. It's a fight to see who's in control. The weapons ports open and close a few times, aiming at various times at the ground, the sky and at the tower Pagan and Ajay are standing in.
Ajay's not worried. Mom never lost a fight unless she meant to.
At last, the ship rights itself, hovers in the sky for a few seconds, then speeds straight ahead. It slams into the mountain, causing a ball of fire to plume out.
“I've seen a lot of explosions in my life,” Pagan says, “but I think this one will mean the most to me.”
When they finally get back to the palace, it's a giant fucking mess. Yuma's taken off, which Ajay can't say he's unhappy about, but it does mean that somewhere out in the galaxy, there's a vengeful ex-Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Army with a lot of weapons.
Pagan just waves it off. “She knows better than to try and kill me.”
“But what if she tries to kill me?”
Pagan pats him on the shoulder. “I have faith in your survival skills.”
The Shangri-La's also missing, which Pagan wants to blame on Yuma somehow hacking in and stealing it just to rub it in, while Ajay's not convinced. After all, there are only two beings on the planet that can get into any system they want to and Bhadra's most likely too busy trying to keep Sabal and Amita from murdering each other to give a shit about anything Pagan owns.
Just as he's sure Pagan has secrets he'll never tell Ajay, Ajay's going to keep one to himself. Good luck, Mom or Ishwari or whomever you want to be out there, he thinks. Have fun. Explore new galaxies. Don't stay out of trouble.
Meanwhile, he's got to deal with Pagan yelling at people on the link and try to convince him not to order all the guards executed.
“You have to stop resorting to murder as your go-to plan for punishment,” Ajay says when they're finally bandaged up in bed and Pagan has grudgingly settled for docking pay.
“At least some maiming,” he says. “A finger or two.”
“No,” Ajay says. “We're not doing this today. Not after all the shit I've been through in the last 24 hours. I need some peace and quiet.”
“You've come to the wrong place for that.” Pagan's hands dip below the sheets. “I can promise you none of that in Kyrat.”
“So what can you promise me?” he says, nudging Pagan until he's lying against his chest.
Pagan turns over and looks into Ajay's eyes. “What do you want?”
“Just you,” Ajay says. “Stay here and we'll figure shit out together.”
Pagan doesn't answer and instead starts kissing his neck. Soon, Ajay is distracted by more pleasurable things and he thinks, well, we'll work it out in the morning.
The sheets are cold when he wakes up and Pagan is gone.
There's a note, but he doesn't bother to read it. He knows what'll it say.
Chapter 7: Epilogue
“Did you get everything you wanted?” he asks Ms. Sanjana Varma, who's pouring over her notes, making a few corrections here and there. Ajay's already waved the guards out, who reluctantly left, making their way back down to the planet. He'll be a private citizen in less than ten minutes after all. No need for the royal treatment anymore.
“I think so,” she says. “Kyrat's not going to be the same without you.”
“I should hope not.” Ajay smiles. “Otherwise, what would be the point?”
“Do you think your successor might give me an interview when she's settled in?” the reporter says, her voice almost begging. “It would be such an amazing follow-up.”
“I won't have the inside track on that anymore,” Ajay says, “but I think Bhadra might be willing to once things settle down. Of course, it's up to her and the rest of her council.”
“Well, I look forward to it,” she says. “And I look forward to seeing what you do next, Mr. Ghale.”
“You as well, Ms. Varma. I can only hope your work will continue to shine.”
Ajay looks over at the holographer. “You as well, Mr. Khadka. I'm pleased to see your return to Kyrat. Has it changed much since you left?”
“I didn't know you were from here, Gurrehmat,” she says curiously. “I thought you were from one of the inside planets.”
The holographer doesn't say anything. He's bent over something in his bag.
“It's all right, Ms. Varma,” Ajay says. “I'm certain Mr. Khadka is busy contacting his associates to let him know that it's the best opportunity to take care of me before I disappear off the grid. Of course, it means he may have to sacrifice you, but he's willing to take that risk.”
She's frozen in disbelief. “I don't—”
“I know you don't. He wouldn't have told you what he was planning.” He turns to Gurrehmat. “Tell me whose idea it was.”
He doesn't say anything, but the laser pistol in his hands speaks volumes. Ajay's willing to bet that at least one guard is landing with a bit more money in his account than before. He'll have to send a holo to Bhadra to check that out.
In the meantime--
“Sabal's new community forbids it, so it can't be him. And it's not Amita, because I'm not directly threatening her business. Yuma? I would have thought she'd do it in person. She does like to get blood on her hands.”
“It wasn't any of them,” Gurrehmat says. “It was my idea.”
“No.” Ajay can see him shifting, looking nervous. “You wouldn't have been able to get this close if was just you. Falsifying records, bribing my guards--”
Now that he's gotten a good look at it, he recognizes the pistol. Chrome and obsidian casing, standard military grade barrel...
Ajay starts laughing. It's just too funny. “Really? Alliance? Just how much did they have to pay you to betray Kyrat?”
“You're the one that betrayed our planet,” Gurrehmat snaps. “The Golden Path would have saved Kyrat and you betrayed their legacy. You murdered their leader, sent their followers into exile.”
“So you decided to sell us out to our enemies.” He claps his hands in mock applause. “Great job. I wonder if Ms. Varma's life was bargained for too.” Ajay looks over at her. “We all know how much the Alliance appreciates good journalism.”
“Why?” she whispers. “After all they've done to us--”
“Shut up,” Gurrehmat yells. “Just shut up.”
“How long until they get here? Five minutes? Three?” Ajay could check his link, but he already knows the answer. “Should someone be screaming for help now?”
There's a black ship decloaking in front of them. It's sleek and polished, smaller than the typical Alliance dreadnoughts. Ajay smiles.
“That's not—” Gurrehmat breaks off, confused.
The ship's intercom system buzzes on. “And if you look out the front viewscreen, you'll see the magnificent ship that belongs to the most feared, dazzling space pirate to ever grace this galaxy. Such a sight is truly breathtaking and is usually reserved for those about to meet their very messy ends.”
“I don't understand--” Gurrehmat stammers.
“Oh, Gurrehmat,” Ajay says. “When I said someone should scream for help, I didn't mean me.”
The door opens.
“Hello,” Pagan Min says. “I do hope the interview went well.”
The Kalinag's small, compared to Pagan's previous digs, but it's no less elaborate. Ajay doesn't really think it needs that many random statues and he's pretty sure half the holoscreens are just so Pagan can watch his favorite drama wherever he wants to.
“I guess this means I owe Paul a favor for tipping me off,” Ajay says. “I really hate owing him anything. There's a reason I fired him.”
“Well, he owed me a favor, so I'll call him and tell him we're even.” Pagan opens the door and they step into the captain's quarters. He looks good, Ajay thinks. Whatever nano treatments he's using agree with him.
“Of course, now the Alliance knows for sure you're alive.” Ajay sits down on the leopard print couch, eyeing it with deep suspicion. “No more hiding?”
“You know that's not my style,” he says. “Just as your style apparently hasn't evolved beyond clothing with far too many compartments and inexplicable mercy towards people who tried to get you killed.”
Ajay left Gurrehmat a shaking mess on the floor of the ship. Mercy would have been killing him, he thinks. The Alliance doesn't look fondly on failures. “Maybe I wanted to make a good impression on our reporter,” he says lightly. “Brutally murdering her holographer might have damaged her opinion of me.”
“Don't tell me you've fallen for her.” Pagan sits down on the couch next to him. “I knew I was gone too long.”
“It's only been a few weeks.”
“As I said, too long.”
Ajay kisses him, and Pagan wraps an arm around his back, pulling him even closer. Even in space, on the run, he still smells great.
There's long, lazy kisses, Pagan's hands running up and down his back, and Ajay's getting ready to throw Pagan down on his far too ostentatious bed and have his way with him. So of course, Pagan has to pull away and ask, “So what did you say about me?”
“Didn't you listen in from the bridge?”
“You know I would never spy on you,” he says indignantly.
Which is bullshit and they both know it, but Ajay's not in the mood to argue. However, he is in the mood to fuck with Pagan.
“She may have been left with the impression that you callously threw me aside, leaving me hopeless and alone to rule Kyrat, without a single word from you for over a decade.”
“I left you a note saying, 'Take care of the place while I'm gone. I'll be back in a month with some presents. P.S. You might want to keep it a secret.'”
“Like I said, hopeless and alone.” Pagan's mouth twitches, so despite his mock rage, Ajay knows he's not seriously mad. They both knew what had to happen if Ajay was to have any kind of power and respect.
There can only be one king in Kyrat after all.
“So now that I'm unemployed and powerless,” he says, putting his head on Pagan's shoulder, “I may have to apply to some retraining programs. Have any suggestions?”
He can feel Pagan's laughter. “Well, the field of space piracy is a challenging one, but I feel you've always shown a quickness to learn and an adaptability to difficult situations. And your former employer would speak very highly of your ability to tear shit up.”
“I don't know, “ Ajay says. “I'm not really looking to get in at the ground floor.”
“Oh, I'm certain I have a high level position open appropriate to your skills. Of course, I'll have to test them out.”
“And what are you going to give me if I sign up?” Ajay teases. He takes Pagan's hand and kisses it. There's a gold ring on his finger and somewhere in the millions of pockets Ajay has, there's a matching one that's been waiting until it was safe.
“Ajay,” Pagan says. “I'm going to give you the universe.”