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by Marc Singer
[Note: this story takes place between Covenant #17 and #18.]

Allen Covenant hated book signings, mostly but not exclusively because the arm he would normally sign books with was missing. He'd gotten pretty good at writing with his left hand, though, and his signature no longer looked like chicken-scratch... no more than before, anyway.

Allen signed another copy of his book about the "Rig Veda" mess, When Shiva Dances, as the next customer in line stepped forward. "To whom should I sign this one?" Allen asked, without looking up.

"How about Kali?" said a young woman's voice, not without menace.

Allen quickly looked up. To his relief, he wasn't looking at a giant four-armed robot (and really, you wouldn't think they'd let one of those in a Thoreaubooks anyway), but a young Indian woman in a sweatshirt and jeans. A very attractive young Indian woman, in fact, although her features were currently marked by a creased brow and an angry glare. "Thought that would get your attention," she said. "You might as well sign it Kali, or Rama's wife Sita. Or what the hell, Princess Jasmine."

Allen sighed. This was definitely the worst part of his tour. She wasn't the first person to be a little offended by his book, even if Allen figured it really wasn't his fault. "Ma'am," he said, "the book completely explains why Shiva and Kali were named what they were —"

"I've read the book," the woman said. "It still doesn't explain this 'Shiva.' I need to talk to you about him."

"I'm sorry, miss," said the Thoreaubooks manager, who was suddenly standing by the desk, "but I'll have to ask you to step aside, we've got a very long line." In fact, the other customers were getting restless.

Allen said, "Why don't you write me through the publishers? They'll pass it on to me." The manager tried grabbing the woman's arm and leading her out of line, and a look of fury flashed across the young woman's face. Something in Allen's bag started beeping, and the sorcerer/author stood up, waving his one hand furiously. "It's okay!" said Allen. "Let her go! I just realized it's my break time."

"You don't get a break for another hour," said the manager.

Allen kept waving his hand, only more slowly and in a more ornate pattern. "Sure I get a break now," Allen said, "just like we agreed on... an hour ago... when you said it wasn't time for my break... which it is now." The manager nodded his slack-jawed head in agreement, as did the first couple of people in line. Allen grabbed his bags, looked at the unaffected Indian woman, and said, "Let's talk."

They found a burger place not far from the bookstore. After they got their food—the young woman surprised Allen by getting a double cheeseburger—Allen said, "So what did you want to ask me, Ms...?"

"Natarajan. Lakshmi Natarajan. I'm sorry I was so rude back there, Mr. Covenant, but sometimes I just get so mad—especially at all this 'Rig Veda' nonsense."

"You're not the first," Allen said. "Many Indian people have told me they were a little ticked by the labels the press gave to that mess. I mean, 'Rig Veda' itself is a hell of a misnomer. But a lot of those names came from the... forces involved themselves."

"Did they really, Mr. Covenant?" said Lakshmi. "And would it really excuse anything if they did? All I know is that some goofy robots calling themselves 'Shiva' and 'Kali' showed up on TV, said they'd end the world... and nothing happened."

"We thought Tempest was dead a while," Allen said.

"And he came back. I'm glad he did, but how does that make my religion look? Two people claiming to be deities got their asses kicked. That stupid Tempest cult had more credibility for a while."

"Credibility?" Allen exclaimed, leaning forward across the table. "Those two nearly killed Tempest, nearly killed a lot of other people, and you're worried about credibility?" Allen leaned back, ran his hand through his hair, and tried to calm down. "Look, I can see why you'd be worried about the press's treatment of the whole thing, but that's why I wrote my book. To clear everything up."

"I'm sure your intentions were noble, but you just made matters worse." Lakshmi reached in her bag and pulled out a well-worn copy of When Shiva Dances, with dozens of bookmarks sticking out of the pages. Allen trembled, because he knew this drill, from the dozens of times when some advanced student had tried to ream him over a reading—and usually succeeded.

"You wrote that 'Rig Veda' was started by a man named Eldin Vincent," Lakshmi said, hefting the book like some damning piece of evidence. "So now the appropriation of my religion's names wasn't even sparked by the press, but by some crazy white man with a few screws loose and a poor grasp of Hinduism. Why did he pick on us, Mr. Covenant? Why name himself Shiva? Because his robot had more than two arms? Because it was different? Because it was evil?"

"No," Covenant whispered, lowering his eyes.

"Then why? And why did you have to perpetuate it? Now Shiva isn't even a god anymore—he's some sick man playing god, and failing."

"Look, why do you care?" Allen said, desperately trying to change the line of conversation. "Are you that religious? I mean, you got a burger, for heaven's sake!"

"I'm not much interested in Heaven's sake," Lakshmi said, and then she deliberately took a huge bite out of her burger. When she was done chewing, she said, "And I'm not particularly religious. But this is my whole culture we're talking about. Or one of them, anyway..." She dropped the burger on her plate. "Hey, Mr. Covenant, would you say you're religious?"

"Me?" Allen almost mentioned the time he tried to con Tempest into fighting God. He just snorted instead.

"Okay," said Lakshmi, "suppose some maniac shows up, a robot with a human brain or a superintelligent ape or something. He claims to be the Almighty Yahweh who's going to destroy humanity. Then some Omega kicks his butt and sends him packing. How would you feel?"

Allen figured he'd get a kick out of it, but he wisely kept his own counsel on that one.

Still, Lakshmi could sense his reaction. "No big deal, I guess. But what if it happened while you were living in India? What if it was some big Indian Omega—not that there are any—who saved the day, and what if the Almighty Yahweh was just revealed to be some crazy Indian guy? And your god, whether you believed in him or not, was just some prop for their stupid fight?

"Mr. Covenant, you're a scholar of the occult. You must know about all the omens there have been recently. A solar eclipse happens over a village in India, supposedly purifying everything it darkens. Statues of Ganesh around the world are drinking bowls of milk set before them. And every two-bit anchorman in America is snickering, because the omens are all coming a year after the main event, when nothing happened. When my gods were shown to be garbage."

The table was silent for a moment.

"Y'know," Allen said, "I have this friend, John Meiler..."

"If you tell me he's a priest, I'm going to strangle you."

"No, he writes comic books." That caught Lakshmi off-guard. "He told me that he once had an offer from Amazing Comics to write one of their characters. A fairly minor character, but one who'd been around a while. It was a guy called The Rampaging Rama."

"Oh, no," Lakshmi moaned, burying her head in her arms. "I've heard of him. He's the one who's supposed to be Parashurama, right?"

"That's right. Rama-with-the-Axe, one of the most violent avatars of Vishnu; nobody at Amazing Comics cared that 'Rama' was actually a different avatar entirely. Of course, cultural sensitivity wasn't their strong point: this clown was some blond-haired, blue-eyed white doctor, who promptly became a black-haired, blue-eyed white superhero with a magic axe that returned to his hand when he threw it. Well, John turned down the job."

"He thought the character was degrading?" Lakshmi asked.

"Well, yeah, but he really just wanted more money." Allen scratched his head. "What was the point of this story? Oh yeah—I never thought I was making another Rampaging Rama. Maybe I did inadvertently, and I'm sorry, but I was just reporting the facts, exactly... as they happened..." Allen's voice trailed off.

"I guess you couldn't change them," Lakshmi said, oblivious to Allen's paling countenance. "It's just—I wish you said why Vincent had to call himself Shiva. Why my religion had to be a prop. Why..." Lakshmi looked at Allen, who was trying very hard not to look at her. "Why, you changed the facts!" she shouted, flicking fries at him. "You lied, didn't you?"

"Keep it down, will you?" Allen hissed, doing his one-armed best to deflect the fries. "I don't want everybody knowing it. I can't have everybody knowing it."

"Why?" Lakshmi said bitterly. "You wouldn't want them thinking highly of Hinduism?"

Allen looked her straight in the eye. "It would probably be better than everyone knowing Shiva was real."

Lakshmi stopped shouting and flicking, and said nothing. "That's right," Allen continued. "Shiva is real. I spoke to the god you don't really believe in. Would you rather I published that?"

"Shiva... Shiva is a robot?"

"No, the robot was a Wrexakt construct with Vincent's brain... that's all in the book. And I have this theory that gods themselves are just pools of psychic energy... But it really was Shiva running the show. And you have no idea how close he came to winning. We could only stop him with another deity, and a bargain that really screwed over Tempest later. Shiva came this close to wiping out seven-eighths of the world's population. For no reason other than he felt like it."

"That's Shiva for you," Lakshmi said weakly.

"That's religion for you. And as sorry as I am that your deities look bad, at least we can blame that on Vincent—the alternative is to tell everyone just how fragile and contingent their lives really are. The panic would be unmanageable. All the other religions would only see that a Hindu god was out to get them. The jihads would never end."

Lakshmi took it all in, much better than Covenant figured most people would. She simply looked at Allen and said, "Thank you."

There was one more thing, though. "If the Rig Veda really was a divine attack," Lakshmi asked, "then what do all these new omens mean?"

"Let's see," Allen said, "Ganesh's drinking... means that Vishnu is supposed to return, right? And his only remaining avatar is Kalki, the pale rider who purges the earth of the Kali-Yuga."

Lakshmi nodded. "You'd think that 'Rig Veda' would have been the ideal time for such a return. So why the omens now?"

Allen heaved a heavy, heavy sigh. "Maybe what's coming next is even worse."

Lakshmi walked back to the bookstore with Allen. "Thanks for being so honest with me," she said. "I know I really didn't deserve it."

"Nonsense. Of course you deserved it. Although..." Allen winced. Him and his big mouth. But she really had to know.

"Although what?"

"Although... I had ulterior motives. That thing that beeped in the store, it wasn't a timer or a watch. It was a COED." Allen patted the small, boxy lump in his bag. "An Omega detector."

"What—what do you mean?"

"Let's just say I wouldn't apply for any government jobs if I were you. And Dynamax is right out." Allen slung his bag up on his shoulder, so he could use his hand to grab Lakshmi by her shoulder. "Don't worry about it. I know some good people you can talk to, and they'll be completely confidential. Their number." He pulled a small business card out of her ear.

"Well, the bookstore's right here, and my agent will kill me if I don't finish the signing. You take care of yourself, okay, Lakshmi?"

"What a day," she said. "To think I could've stayed at home and watched Ricki."

"Her evil can wait another day. And hey, maybe if everything works out, one day I'll be hearing about that big Indian Omega."

Lakshmi watched him disappear inside the store. She still could hardly believe what she'd learned. Her religion's nihilist god of destruction was real, and she had the same genetic factor as the people who'd beaten him.

Perhaps, if she had the right powers and if she kept quiet about them long enough, she could be that Indian Omega. With a name like Lakshmi, wife of Vishnu, perhaps she'd been suited to the role of hero all along. Avatars had been added to the roster before; perhaps she could carve her own niche. Call herself Sita-with-the-Axe...

Or she could play it her own way.

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