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Mainak Dhar

Vimana

As always,

For Puja & Aadi

PROLOGUE

Western India, 13000 BC

The old hunter cursed his son for the tenth time that day. He needed help to carry back the deer he had killed, and he wanted to get back to the relative safety of their group well before the sun retired for the night.

He smiled as he skinned the deer. He had brought this one down with a single arrow. He may be an old man now, but his eyes were still sharp. It was a pity that his arms did not have the same strength they did forty summers ago, otherwise he would not have had to depend on his lazy son to help him carry the deer back.

He soon saw the boy cresting the top of the hill and coming towards him. The child seemed to be excited.

'Father, do you know what I saw?'

'I know that you certainly didn't see any other animals to hunt. So, my observant son, what did you see?'

The boy sat down on his haunches next to his father, barely able to conceal his excitement.

'Father, today I saw three vimanas fly over the coast. You know what Kalindi has been saying, right? About the Gods fighting amongst themselves, about their war across the oceans?'

The man shook his head in disapproval at his son believing the words of that accursed wandering storyteller. He knew what it was to be young and to be excited by such fantastic tales, but he also knew he needed to focus on providing for his family, and not worry about what the Gods were doing.

'My son, the Gods have been around since before my forefathers were born. They have their own ways, their own lives, and we have ours. Now, help me gather the deer and carry it back. Or do you want to repeat what happened three moons ago?'

That brought a sudden flush of fear to the boy's face. He remembered only too well how another clan had attacked them and taken all their skins and meat. They had been lucky to escape alive. The boy was just twelve summers old, but he knew well that he lived in a world where life could be brutal, and short. He started to help his father pick up the deer when they heard loud crackling noises, like that of thunder. They both looked up. There was not a cloud in the sky and no signs that the Rain God was going to vent his fury on them. The father watched the sky for some time and then started to pick up his bow when they heard three more thunderous cracks.

This time, they saw what was causing the sound. High above them in the sky, where only the birds and Gods flew, they saw three vimanas streak by. Even at this distance, the father recognized the round shapes of the vimanas that Kalindi claimed were flown by the Dark Ones. One separated from the others and dived towards the ground, like a bird of prey diving for the kill. The hunter ran to the edge of the cliff, followed by his son.

They watched as a small object separated from the vimana and sped towards the ground, with smoke and fire trailing it. The hunter had heard of the Gods firing their divine flaming bolts, but this was the first time he had witnessed the awesome power of the Gods. He watched the object fly towards the ground, almost beyond the horizon, and then there was a mighty roar that was louder than anything the hunter had ever heard. He felt his son's hand clutch his in fear, but he had no reassurance to offer. He watched in mute horror as a giant fireball covered the horizon. He stared at the light that seemed brighter than the sun on the hottest day, and then looked away as the fireball seemed to expand. His son was screaming.

'Father, I am blind!'

The hunter felt strong gusts pummeling him and his son a few moments later and they were thrown to the ground. There seemed to be ash everywhere around them, and his skin was burning. When the hunter gathered courage to look up, he saw a gigantic pillar of smoke rising above him.

The Gods had indeed gone to war, and it seemed they were going to set the world on fire.

ONE

New Delhi, India, the present day

Aaditya Ghosh watched as the enemy surface-to-air missile tracked in on him. He estimated he was no more than a few seconds away from a fiery death.

As the smoke trail got closer and closer, he was tempted to turn his jet away, but he knew that keeping a cool head was the best way to evade the missile that was racing towards him. When the missile was just a few hundred metres away, he released some flares to distract it and then put his fighter through a punishing turn. For a second, he could see very little as the world spun around him. When he was level again, he breathed a sigh of relief. There was no sign of the missile. But the battle was far from over. He was cruising at thirty thousand feet when he picked up the first enemy jet on his radar. Fifty kilometres out and ten thousand feet below him. A quick glance at the top right hand corner of his display told him that the intruders were two F-16s. He messaged his wingmen to cover him and then swooped down to intercept the enemy planes. Having chosen a Su-35 for his mission, he knew that he would likely have an edge when it came to locking on and firing his long range missiles, but with two attackers and wingmen he was not sure he could count on to cover his back, it would be tight.

He slowed down to Mach 0.8 and armed his radar homing missiles as he watched the F-16s come closer on his radar scope. The two red dots were now barely thirty kilometres away, and Aaditya noted with some dismay that his wingmen, indicated by blue dots on his display, were not quite doing much to cover him. In theory, they were to operate as a team, but in reality, he knew that he was very much on his own.

At twenty-seven kilometres, Aaditya's radar emitted a whistling tone that indicated that he had locked in on the first F-16. He waited for the triangle to appear over the enemy jet on his Heads Up Display that indicated he had a solid lock before he fired a missile. A second later, he fired another. It was a bit of an overkill, but he was carrying a huge load of missiles, and he had long learnt that rankings and honours were conferred based on the number of kills, not on efficiency. He watched both missiles streak across the sky towards their quarry as he switched focus to the next enemy. The range was now less than twenty kilometres and he watched as the enemy jet fired a missile at him. The red arrow shape rapidly approached on his radar display, and Aaditya reacted with no trace of panic or alarm, his reactions honed by countless hours of practice. He deployed some chaff strips to confuse the enemy radar guided missiles and put his jet through a series of punishing 9G turns. When he had stabilized, the enemy missiles were nowhere to be seen, and the first enemy jet had disappeared off his scope, having been obliterated by one of his missiles.

Without waiting to celebrate his kill, Aaditya selected his short-ranged heat-seeking missiles and turned towards the second F-16. He accelerated to over Mach 1 and at a range of less than ten kilometres, he fired two missiles at the F-16.

That was when his mission was ended abruptly by a tap on the shoulder.

'Dude, Donkey's coming this way.'

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