|Art by M Sereno|
"The Vishakanya's Choice" by Roshani Chokshi (4162 words)
As the title implies, this story is about choice and about the lack of choice. Sudha is a young woman whose future held an early widowhood, which is to say no real future at all. Instead, she was taken and made into a weapon, into a Vishakanya, a woman who eats poison to become poisonous. She is prepared to kill the enemies of her kingdom, her body deadly, incapable of touching anything but her fellow weapons without killing. The story follows her first assignment, what is to be her first kill. It's not quite accurate, though, because she's already killed. Not for her kingdom but because she thought one day, when she was still quite young, to show a bit of tenderness to an animal. I loved the isolation of the story, the way that Sudha yearns so much for something other than her lot, because she never got to choose it, never got to decide to be a weapon to avoid her other fate. It was just assumed that she would rather avoid being outcast because she had been widowed. But that lack of choice eats at her.
The assignment is an interesting one, to kill Alexander the Great, and it is complicated by the fact that when Sudha arrives he is already dying. But again, the story layers on the lack of choice, the way she is compelled to fulfill her mission even as she doesn't want to, even as she would rather linger as something of a ghost if only to have the feel of people, of freedom. But she is compelled, and she gets her chance to use herself as the weapon others have made her into. Of course, she doesn't do it blindly, or foolishly, but instead sees an opportunity in her mission to take hold of something long forbidden to her. Choice. Choice that Alexander has in multitudes and, while none of it can save him, it does offer something for Sudha. I liked the way that for Alexander the choices he had didn't seem to matter, didn't free him enough, that despite everything he chose to be a slave to history, to legend, instead of following the path that might have made him happy. It's a nice way of showing how people end up in chains, and that those chains are not created equal. [SPOILERS] There is no real pity for Alexander. He had his choice and didn't take it. Sudha never had a choice, not until she bargains when she was supposed to simply obey, and in doing so breaks her bonds.
And in the end the story is about the way choices can transform, and how despite it seeming hopeless at times that it's never too late to start something new. Sudha might have been made into a weapon, but that transformation can be unmade. There are worlds of difference between having no choice to act and choosing not to act, and Sudha shows her character by refusing to be defined by others any more. It's a fine story, and I loved Sudha's voice, her bitterness, her cleverness. The setting is interesting and while in some ways this doesn't have as strong a First Contact vibe as some of the others from the year, it does fit nicely within that theme, Sudha's contact being not with Alexander but with choice. A very nice story.