TMC – About the World

The World of Mandolin

I don’t know when or where this world is. I leave it to you. It could be on Earth, it might not. But the people populating the world are most definitely men like you and me. If you feel this could be an alternate universe, it is fine by me. If you fancy it as a dystopian (or utopian) future, so be it. Whatever our assumptions are, I wish to convey one thing – this world is in many ways just like ours, and in just as many ways very different. Some of the things which you would see happening can easily happen, and even might have happened, in our lifetime in the real world. For some others you would have to forgive my stretching your imagination. But that’s the point of fantasy anyway, no?

The World

The world is in tatters. Centuries of pollution and one catastrophic event have pushed the world on the brink of annihilation. A thick, murky black cloud dominates the skies perennially. Sunlight cannot reach the surface directly, or indirectly. Temperatures are extremely low. The weather varies between winter and a sleety monsoon, with no set periods. The black rain comes down without preamble. Most forms of life find it extremely difficult to survive. Disease causing microbes and other organisms which thrive in the cold, sickly climate abound. The whole world is a picture-perfect rendering of desolation.

There are no countries or large civilizations – humans are just not numerous enough. Small, independent city-states occupy the hospitable regions. A few cities are large and powerful. Others live off these larger cities. One of the biggest cities is P2P- Power to the People.

P2P

Like a beacon on the dark sea, P2P shines in the perennial night of the world. Not because of the city lights, but because of the enormous Sun-mirror system that hovers above the clouds over the city proper, the Nucleus. The Sun-mirrors collect sunlight and direct it through a complex system of mirrors to the city below the cloud. The air gets warm and sizzles, giving the whole city a glowing aura. The Sun-mirror system is complex and only so big, so the city instead of outwards has grown vertically, with enormous skyscrapers crowding in a small space, the tallest almost a kilometer high.

With such a large number of people crowding into such a small space, the concept of ‘personal space’ takes a whole new meaning. After numerous attempts to keep the incessant fighting in check, a new system of administration was put into place – By The Book.

By the Book

The leaders of P2P realized that the biggest problem haunting them was of corruption. The world was merciless, life was tough. Large number of people shared meager resources. Nothing was ever ‘enough’ for anyone. Corruption was inevitable. But what made the corruption possible? The gullible, weak human mind. When a man in a difficult situation gets some power, it corrupts him. And from him the corruption spreads outward. The solution? Take the power out of man’s hand.

The whole administration of P2P is done by a network of connected computers. A huge, powerful central Mother Machine controls and monitors the network. All economic transactions happen through computers. Every citizen of P2P has a unique identification tag, or IDT. This IDT is the individual’s ‘face’ in the network. The network of computers controls everything – the city’s economic transactions and commerce. There is no physical currency in P2P. People are paid using ‘credits’. Money is exchanged through swiping of cards. All corporations, business establishments, schools, housing complexes – in short wherever money is exchanged – all such places are controlled by the network of computers. This forms the machine side of By The Book.

A small team of humans are elected as Facilitators. The city is divided into many different areas or precincts. Each precinct has a Facilitator. The Facilitator’s job is to hear out any problems the citizens might have and solve them on their level or escalate them to the Pointman – the human counterpart of the Mother Machine. The Facilitators are allotted a small amount of credits to spend for the precinct. And as can be guessed, each and every credit spent is accounted for by the computer network.

This parallel administrating organisation of humans and machines is called, simply, the System. The rules and regulations to be followed by the Facilitators and the Pointman,  and the hardwired lines of code of the Mother Machine are defined and governed by the hypothetical book known as the Code. Hence the name, By the Book. Only the Pointman has the authority to make any changes in the Code, but only on the lowest levels. The rest of the System is hardwired and closed to modifications. No change is expected, and no change is wanted. With such a hard coded system in place, corruption is almost non-existent.

Almost. The Facilitators are the weakest link. To trump this problem, the Code has one stellar provision – The Lottery.

The Lottery

Each morning, the Mother Machine draws a random IDT from the city’s database. For that day, the chosen woman or man has the right to kill any person they feel has gone against the conduct prescribed by the Code. Normally, killing or murder is punishable by life imprisonment without trial. But if an individual kills on a Lottery, he has the right to defend himself. And if his arguments and evidence are found satisfactory, he or she is allowed to go free. This practice has served two purposes:

  1. Though it would seem that every person would jump at a chance to kill by sanction, the actual number of people who opt for it is very low. This is because the trial is very complex – and involves the Pointman as well as Mother Machine. Personal issues cannot be and are not entertained as valid reasons to kill. The individual has to convince the System that he killed for a greater purpose and that P2P has benefited by the death of the dead individual.  Most citizens fear that their reasons to kill might not stand up to the extremely critical reasoning of the Mother Machine and the Pointman, and thus do not take the extreme step. But, just the knowledge that they have the power to make a difference helps to maintain peace among the citizens.
  2. For the citizens and specially the Facilitators, the presence of this practice serves the intended aim perfectly – everybody thinks more than twice before crossing a line. And more often than not, the fear of sanctioned retaliation keeps anybody in power from misusing it.

With a rigid, hardwired rule system, P2P is a City where changes are minimal.

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Good Luck, Random Citizen

The invisible sun has risen somewhere.

The blare of the alarm wakes him up. Groaning, he braces himself for another meaningless day.

He clears a circle on the fogged window of his 253rd-floor flat. The air outside looks pregnant with frozen mist. There are no vistas stretching before him even at this height. Only buildings in the City’s nucleus. Yellow sulfur lamps illuminate halos in the blackness. Everything seems still.

Head heavy, eyelids heavier…he gets to the basin, opens the spout and the water gushes. He wishes some things could change, on their own, just to keep it exciting. Maybe the transparent candy-red toothbrush. The curvy-edged mirror. The buzzer of the lift.

The long hand tells him he should have been up 20 minutes ago. “I was”, he tells it, “but didn’t want to get out.”

Am I the lucky one today?” He thinks to himself. But rejects the thought immediately. “How many people in the City? 5 million?” He doesn’t know. He was never good at guessing. “But should be around that number. So probability? 1:5,000,000. Not likely.”

He stares at the mirror, bares his teeth at it. “How are you, stupid? You’ve got yellow teeth, stupid!,” he sing-songs.

The box of cereal is metallic, airtight. Without the direct sun, small organisms copulate with abandon. He pours the cereal in a bowl. Then milk. Sugar. He stirs, stares, stirs. Tastes. Sugar. Stir. Stare. Stir.

No harm in checking,” his thoughts go. Despite the slim chances, he has hope. “Hope is just so powerful,” he thinks. “What if I really am the lucky one today?” The unfinished mail from last night is still open. After a pause, he discards it. Then taps refresh on the smart phone mail app. Waits. The 2G connection is slow, but he waits. Stares at the screen between mouthfuls of slushy cereal. The mail’s there, like everyday. The preamble to all mails from the System appears on the screen. Almost accepting the coming disappointment, his mind readies the muscles that would toss the phone. Day after day, someone else gets the chance. And that someone does nothing. “The System is rigged”, he feels. “Only the spineless get the chance.”

The long mail has almost loaded. The name-key would be at the bottom. The day’s Opportunist or Defeatist. Depending on what he or she chooses. Still loading. Another spoonful of cereal. A trickle of milk runs down the corner of his lips.

The name-key finally appears. It is him.

He sits stunned for a moment, mid bite. The air is still. Only the dribble of milk continues its course down his chin.

Fuckin finally.”

#

The bus moves smoothly. No rubber wheels, but rollers stretching below it. There are butterflies in his belly. Nerves. He leans out the window. The scarlet grease on the tracks looks like blood. The immensity of the morning’s elation has passed. A newfangled outlook on the state of affairs of the City takes its place. Born out of forced reason. Attempting to give justification to his planned actions.

The bus takes him away from the nucleus, into the putrid desertion that surrounds it. The sky is dark with a perennial, burgeoning black cloud. Curdled out of centuries of pollution. Breeding a persistent gloomy shadow over everything. The System, a nexus between Computers and human Facilitators that administers the City, has no control here..

The buildings around him are falling, sunken shells. Centuries old, rotten by age. The new buildings in the nucleus are born rotten and worm-ridden, the bricks-and-mortar in them purulent with swindled money. His money, and of others like him.

She is the worm. Eating, drilling, shitting, puking her way through the City, corrupting the men and women and buildings she touches.” he thinks.

He closes his eyes. If he goes through with his plan, the Code promises a hearing. If his point is accepted, he will go free. If not, it would be many, many years in the Under-prison. The tight ball of anger inside him loosens a little at the thought.

He again goes through the drill he has come up with to keep the motivation going: The whole System is bound by the Code – nobody is above it. Why did she, just another Facilitator, think she could do what she pleased and get away with it?

He thinks of the unsent mail to his girlfriend, of his numerous tries at wording it right. He had saved up to move into a new apartment with her. His ticket to a happy life. Long-term plans. The worm laid them waste. He smothers doubt with anger. The ball gets tighter.

There will be others like me. Someone will see my reason.”

He gets down at the designated stop. Goes inside the gray, gray, black building. A glass door has a keypad next to it. He puts on the gloves. The mail had stressed on it. He punches the code that came with the mail. A timorous hand causes a mistype. “Be calm. Again.”

The door slides open. A computerized voice guides him through the building. The computers in the building are part of the System. He enters the key-code five more times, at five doors. The System check his voice modulation, his retina, his palm print. It seems satisfied. Not another soul in the whole building. Only the computers will know who he is. A last door opens with just a push. In the room is one table; a large black bag sits on it. The wall behind the table is a screen with a projected image.

The image is of the City’s coat of arms: POWER TO THE PEOPLE. The name is done in big bold letters that take up most of the wall. ‘Treat the Power You now have with Responsibility and a Sense of Justice’ brings up the bottom.

As he picks up the bag, the whole image changes to ‘Good Luck, Random Citizen’.

#

The building is the tallest ruin around.

In the distance, the air of the City proper glows a diffused, warm yellow. The gentle hum from motors powering the mirrors and reflectors, high above the cloud, fills the air. Grinding mechanisms, tracking the sun, directing its light under the cloud. Slowly warming the air.

Around him, it is icy cold. Heating mechanisms don’t work in the desolation. The murk does not bother him much. It would have bothered those who had felt real sunlight even once. Those men and their children are long dead. People are now born in eternal twilight. Direct sunlight would give them cancer.

The roof parapet is broken in places. He finds a gap he can use. Prostrates himself. The black bag has all he needs. He opts to record the whole thing. For keeps.

He zooms in to the point of interest. At a square near the the edge of the City, a large crowd of people has gathered. A podium-truck is in position, the platform at its back raised on hydraulic pistons. A table and a few chairs are arranged on the platform. Once-exotic flowers, now made abundant by genetic fiddling, cover most of the table and the platform – a display of victory over Rarity and Exclusivity. A large screen makes the backdrop for the podium. It announces the new scheme she has introduced – Adept for the Inept – a chunk of all workmen’ s savings redirected to the City’s coffers towards ‘uplifting of the Inept’. A large sum seems to be going to her own coffers. The cause for his misery.

He loses himself in the vision the viewfinder affords him. He sees the people talking, chatting, laughing, shouting. He knows they are doing all this, but cannot hear them. Distance brings Absolute Peace.

Then she arrives. The activity in the viewfinder ceases. His eye follows her as she ascends the podium and makes her way to the mic. She pauses, and looks at the tall covered statue standing next to the truck. She says something in the mic, and the crowd laughs and applauds. “Icebreaker, eh?” On her face, he sees smugness. A smugness that has come after being elected for her second term as Facilitator.

A couple of beggar kids stand at the intersection, across the road from the congregation. The road demarcates two classes. Two People. The Powerful and the Powerless – the people whose votes really matter for the election of a Facilitator. The Third People are peering out through windows and balconies of surrounding buildings – The Indifferent – they seldom vote. He knows he has been one of the Third.

The beggar kids make a move to cross the road, but one of her men shoos them away. He sees the irony. The irony is his reason. Distance brings Clarity.

She then reveals the statue. Her own image, in ten-foot glory. He sees her lips moving, forming silent words. His mind’s ear gives them sound.

This statue stands here as a symbol. For the Indifferent. I took their money, and used it as I pleased. This statue makes me happy. Some of the money might find its way into the homes of those beggar children too. They would be happy. The unhappy are those whose money I took. But no matter, they are the Indifferent!”

Closing his eyes, he mentally goes through the checklist the System asks everyone to make as they prepare for the moment:

1. A good reason? Check.

2. No unreasonable anger? Check.

3. More than a personal grudge? Check

4. Community’s Best Interests? Check.

5. Sense of Responsibility? Check.

6. Justice? Check

7. Power to the People? Check.

8. Safety Catch Released? Check.”

He opens his eyes. She is still in the viewfinder.

Indifferent? Enough of that.”

He squeezes the trigger. The bullet travels through the murk at supersonic speed. It is stamped with the City’s acronym: P2P. He watches as the bullet hits its mark, then quickly closes his eyes, rolls on his back. Imagines her head exploding red like a pressurized balloon, spray-painting the white sheets, the genetic freaks of flowers, her men, her goons, her statue.

Was it worth it?” He doesn’t know, yet. He would wait. The forensic geeks would take the bullet from her head, they would know it was the work of the chosen one. The System would reveal his name to them. Only then could they come for him.

Meanwhile, he would wallow in his ecstasy, in his sense of justice, a silly smile playing over his lips.

###

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Also published in Indian SF Magazine, July-August 2013 issue. Click here to view/download the magazine.

Good Luck, Random Citizen in the July-August Issue of Indian SF Magazine.

Good Luck, Random Citizen has been featured in the July-August issue of Indian SF Magazine. There are some great stories and artwork in the issue. Go read!

Indian SF Magazine : July-August 2013

isf-issue4-jul-aug

Nine-Six : a graphic novel

This is a blurb for a graphic novel I am working on. Building on the Moonshine story.

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In the City of Breach, Ira, an ambitious young woman, is raped and left for dead by four men.
She lies in the ditch she was thrown into, counting seconds, waiting for death to claim her.
When death finally does come, she is prepared.
She finds herself in the Liminality, a place where the dead go before moving on to hell or
heaven. But she refuses to move on – instead, she asks to be sent back to the living so she
can exact revenge on the four men. The Keeper of the Liminality refuses, but tells her if she
can find a man who could do it for her, he might help her out.
DZ is a ruthless mercenary, a behind-the-scenes ally of the police, taking down targets too
sensitive for the force to handle. His job is all about big risks and bigger money. One night,
after screwing up a job real bad, DZ contemplates his actions to get out of the mess. Just as
things begin to get out of hand, Ira appears before him and offers the opportunity to go back
and do the job again, but do it right. DZ jumps at it.
After the job is done, Ira tells he can have the ability to turn back time whenever he wishes, if
he agrees to work for her and kill the four men.
DZ takes it up, but the power soon goes to his head. What follows is a battle between the
ghostly Ira and a ruthless DZ as they play on each others’ weaknesses, trying to trump each
other before finally Ira takes him down with a cunning scheme that forces DZ to give up his
powers and leave the city.
A story of betrayal – of a mercenary trying to make it big, a ghost-woman trying to avenge her
own death, a drug-lord hell-bent on becoming the biggest don of Breach and a girl fighting the
morals of a man she is in love with.

120 Seconds

Day 1, Evening
As his eyes regained focus, he saw the crow flapping away. For a moment, he thought the
crow had winked at him. He wondered how the deal would work out.
He let an assortment of cars and bikes and buses pass. Each passing vehicle sent a shudder
through the slabs that made up the bridge. He counted about 20 shudders absently, then
stopped. The bright yellow stripes of paint in the middle of the road glistene d in the waning
sun. A wall that rose chest-high on either bank of the bridge hid the dark underside from
people passing over the bridge. A few kite-eagles dived into and rose out of the murkiness,
keeping its secrets to themselves.
Naman sighed. He cast a long gaze over the trees on the far bank of the river that flowed
along the bridge, his eyes unfocused.
“Well, that’s that” he thought, and kicked his bike alive. He had to find a petrol pump.

Day 2
The alarm on the stool beside Naman’s bed buzzed and jangled like it had every day, month
after month. But today, he put it to snooze, and ten minutes later when it jangled again, he
simply pulled out the cord and went back to sleep.
By the time his mother woke him up, it was 10 AM. He should have been in office an hour
ago.
He gave her a vicious look, and without a word, set to get ready for office.
“Are you feeling alright?” she asked.
He replied with a curt grunt.
“Didn’t you have office today?” she had concern in her voice.
“Yes mom, am I not getting ready?” he spoke in an irritated voice.
She left it at that and replaced the air-starved chappatis in his Tupperware lunch box with
fresh ones.
Like everyday he smoked a cigarette at the pan shop below his office building. Even though
he was late for work, he did not seem to care.

As he was butting out the cigarette, a small girl trundled up to him, one arm stretched out
carelessly, the other scratching her matted hair. She jerked the shiny steel bowl she was
clutching. The few coins in it clattered loudly.
Without a thought, Naman tossed whatever change the panwala had given him in the bowl.
It was a sum the beggar girl had never received in one go. With a twinkle in her eye that
seemed as out of place as the bright smile that livened up her emaciated features, she ran
back to her mother and siblings sitting across the road on the footpath. Their mother took
the money and hugged the little girl happily.
An even younger boy, jealous of the attention his sister was getting, grabbed a bowl and ran
towards Naman. He held out his bowl, but failed to catch Naman’s attention. He went
around and tugged at Naman’s trousers.
Instead of a firm reprimand, Naman simply slapped the little boy right across his face. The
under-nourished kid fell in a heap at Naman’s feet. Without as much as a second look, he
strode back into the office building, leaving in his wake shocked faces and the wails of the
child.

That evening, a cat had a horrible time trying to catch a crow that landed on the ground
after flying a few feet, hopped a bit, and then took off again as the cat came closer.

Day 3
The cord for the alarm clock had not been plugged in again. Naman was still in bed when the
RJ on his mother’s radio announced it was 10 AM in her best I-know-men-love-me voice.
His mother looked at him warily.
“I hope you have a good reason to be so indifferent towards your job. We don’t want any
problems just as you are getting engaged.”
Naman only stared at her, his face showing no sign of any emotion or comprehension.
“The hotel wanted an advance payment for the party right? I think you should clear the
advance today. Tell them the menu would be as we had finalized, too.”
The thought of more expenditure pinched him in the gut. He had lost his father years ago,
and so was paying out of his own pocket for his engagement. Even though Chinmayi’s father
had insisted on splitting the expenses 50/50, together with the engagement ring the
expenditure was turning out to be substantial. With the engagement just three days away,
Naman cringed at every last-minute expense that came up.

“Yes mom I will do it” he mumbled robotically and left for office.
Despite being two hours late already, he did not skip the habitual cigarette outside office.
He noticed the pan wala looking at him curiously. The beggar family looked at him from
across the road, the mother was incessantly mumbling, gesturing at him. The little boy was
prostrate in her lap, his eyes looking into zero.
As he walked into office and sat down at his desk, his boss walked over and, leaning in close,
asked if everything was fine at home. Naman nodded, with a smile.
“Guess there’s lots to do with the engagement and all coming up eh?” the boss laughed and
slapped Naman happily on the back, then walked back to his cubicle. Naman shrank into his
chair, his mind in a tumult.
At lunch that afternoon, he logged in to his banking website and transferred a meaty sum
into the hotel’s account. He quickly logged out, not wanting to see how much remained in
his account. It was depressing.
He leaned back on his chair, and out of the corner of his eye noticed the thick wallet of his
colleague lying on the table.
As he pulled out and pocketed five crisp five-hundred rupee notes from the wallet, he failed
to notice a certain somebody standing behind him had seen e verything.

As the sun began its westward descent that day, passersby on a road a few buildings away
from Naman’s office witnessed a scene that drew loud laughter from a bunch of kids playing
nearby:
A crow, as if in a daze, staggered and swayed in mid-flight as it tried to control itself. It hit a
billboard, toppled to the ground, limped up to its feet, then took off again.

Day 4
Chinmayi was in an upbeat mood in the morning. Her dad had enthusiastically applied
himself to making all the arrangements for the engagement. Her boss had happily granted
her a week’s leave, and had promised a month’s leave after her wedding, winking good
naturedly.
She sat her terminal, typing away briskly, as she ran a mad race with herself to finish all her
assignments. The report she was working on was not due for another week.
Her phone rang in her drawer, the muffled tune unmistakable. It was the tone she had set
for Naman.
She answered quickly.
“Hi! You at this hour? What’s happening?” she chirruped.
“Got leave from today.” His voice was flat on the other side.
“Wow! Really? Wasn’t boss fussing about it just a few days back? What did you do?” she
had a habit of asking a lot of questions when she was happy.
“Just. This and that. Meet up for lunch? Then a movie?”
She readily said yes. Later, as she said her goodbyes and again invited everyone to her
engagement, everybody said the glow on her face was worth a million bucks.
That afternoon, she noticed he was pre-occupied. There was still some time to go for the
movie, so they idly strolled around on the lawns in front of the mall.
Then, Naman saw a crow, sitting on the back of a park bench. Letting go of her hand, he
started walking towards it, taking long and purposeful strides.
Chinmayi freaked out the next moment when she saw Naman break into a run as the crow
flew off, shouting “Give it back! Give it back!” at the top of his voice.
As a curious and shocked group of people turned towards them, Chinmayi made a show that
he was doing it only to make her laugh, and holding his hand, firmly pulled him inside the
mall.
Once she was sure they had blended in with the crowd, she turned to him.
“What’s gotten into you?” she demanded.
Naman mumbled something she could not hear, and simply turned his back to her.

That afternoon, a bus hit a divider in from of Naman’s office. The driver said he was startled
by a crow which suddenly appeared out of nowhere and hit the windscreen right in front of
him.
Some passengers claimed they saw the bird flying away erratically, losing its balance again
and again, as if it was flying under a heavy load.

Day 5
The crow could hardly get off the ground that day. The bus hit had severely damaged his leg,
but thankfully the wings were intact.
Early in the morning, with a great effort, he had flown towards a tree opposite the office
and sat down on a branch. It leaned against the stem every once in a while to take the
weight off the broken leg.
As he sat there waiting, he thought of his flock. They must have disowned him by now.
He had done something no crow had done before.
There was a time when he would get goosebumps thinking this line. Now, all he felt was the
heavy realization of his naiveté. He had set out thinking himself to be a rebel, only to end up
with a broken leg, with a cat following him everyday like a shadow. She was being a good
vulture, he thought.
He felt the weight increasing with each passing day, and all he wanted to do was find
Naman and give him back what was rightfully his.
Though he waited out the whole day, it proved fruitless.

That night, like all nights, Naman slept peacefully.
His mother stayed up late into the night, worrying about the engagement the next day.
Chinmayi couldn’t sleep. She was much too excited and worried at the same time. Naman’s
behaviour had been very odd.
Her thoughts were broken into by the shrill tone of the landline phone in their living room. A
few moments later, she heard the gruff ‘Hello’ of her father, and then she slowly drifted off
to sleep, listening to him say “Hm, hm” every few seconds.

Day 6
Naman’s mother wept profusely. So did Chinmayi. Naman stood before Chinmayi’s father,
his eyes steady, his mind confused. The colleague whose money Naman had stolen stood a
little behind them. He had called Chinmayi’s father the previous night. He had asked him to
come and meet near the office so they could talk. Chinmayi’s father had asked everyone
else to come there too.
He was speaking loudly, almost shouting.
“…he said he had got leave! Is it not, Chinmayi? Turns out he was forced to take leave for a
few days. Late to office every day, and then stealing? Where is your shame boy? What has
gotten into you that you had to do this? You think I would let Chinmayi…”

Naman heard in silence, though the voices around him had retreated to the background of
his awareness. He thought of the choice he had been given, and how he had chosen what he
thought was the best option. “Just ask, and I will give it back” the crow h ad said. He cursed
himself for not asking how he will find him. If only he could find the crow now…
A faint cawing brought him to his senses with a jolt. He whipped around and saw a tired
looking crow hobble, stagger and fly towards him, even as a big bl ack cat stalked it.
Naman ran towards it and Chinmayi felt her world collapse around her. Why was he being
like this? She ran behind him.
“Wait Naman, please! What’s wrong with you?” she shouted behind him.
As Naman got to where the crow was, it ceased its futile attempts at trying to fly and looked
up at him.
“Give it back, please, give it back to me.” Naman managed in between laboured breaths.
For a moment, Chinmayi thought Naman had lost it, but she was aghast when she heard the
crow speak back in a very strange voice.
“It’s too heavy for me now.”
The next instant was a cacophony of sounds as the crow cawed in exultation as it soared,
free of its weight, the cat screeched in frustration as it lunged at the crow in vain, and
Naman collapsed to his knees with a long, pained wail.

Day 1, Evening
The light turned green and the avalanche of metal and smoke and noise moved like a giant,
hopeless monster, a few pieces broke off from it and blazed ahead. Naman purposely stayed
behind, starting slow and letting everyone pass. Soon, every car and bike behind him had
moved on ahead. He rode at a leisurely place, knowing that the next avalanche was at least
120 seconds away.
“120 seconds of peace” he thought to himself as he drifted along on the bridge.
He enjoyed this routine every day. The signal timer was set to 120 seconds. Enough time for
all the vehicles with him to move on. And as it was a one way bridge, there was never any
oncoming traffic. The river flowing along the bridge and its far banks provided pretty vistas
for Naman’s mind. He always felt peaceful when he commuted on the bridge.
But today, his thoughts were taken up by Chinmayi. He loved her so dearly. And they were
to be engaged in a week’s time.
It had taken him a long time to finally propose marriage to her; with his father dead a long
time, he was not sure he could afford all the expenses by himself. But his company had been
happy with him, and he was now doing ‘well for himself’ as people were wont to say.
He mentally ticked off the ‘to do’ he had made up; buy clothes, ring, train reservations for
some close relatives. Only the advance for the hotel was left. That was going to be a big
amount, he thought, but what the heck. I won’t get engaged again. He smiled at the
lameness of his joke.
Suddenly, faint puttering started up somewhere behind him. Before he could turn around
and try to find the source, a strange black man and biker appeared beside him.
The biker was very strange looking, dressed all in black and wearing a helmet that had a
beak like projection. The bike, or whatever it was, was all black too, with a curiously oily
looking paint job and a texture that somehow looked like crow’s feathers. The bike made a
funny puttering sound as it moved, its speed matching perfectly with Naman’s. The rider
wore a grey scarf around his neck and a large pair of shockingly red sunglasses.
“You seem to be enjoying yourself, and your leisure ride!” the rider said to Naman, while
the strange bike seemed to move on its own.
“What?” Naman looked at the stranger curiously, “And who are you?”
“I am crow” the rider said simply.
“Um, sure” Naman twisted his accelerator and tried to get away from the biker. But the
biker kept up with him effortlessly.
“I won’t push too much petrol into the engine if I was you” the biker went on, his bike was
so close, to someone looking from a distance it would have looked like the shadow of
Naman’s bike.
Naman began to panic. The biker talked on, his words were rough and somewhat drawn
out.
“You should have really tanked up on petrol after office like you were thinking then.”
Naman twisted the accelerator fully and raced ahead. The biker stuck to him, there was not
a moment he would be left behind.
“Um, if you don’t stop and pull up right now you are going to run out of fuel and a big
orange dump truck is going to run over you and kill you.” The biker made himself heard over
the sound of the wind.
Sure enough, Naman felt the engine going sluggish below him as it starved on the last drops
of fuel in the tank. He looked into the rearview, there really was an orange dumptruck a few
metres behind them.
He pulled over.
The biker smoothly came to a stop at the exact same spot.
“Alright man, who are you? I am straight so if you have any ideas I am sorry ok?” Naman
demanded.
The biker cackled.
“Oh sorry, sorry. I shouldn’t be laughing. So morbid of me, laughing like this the day you are
supposed to die.”
“What?” Naman felt a fear rise inside him. Was this guy a murderer of some sort?
“Well, as I said, I am a crow. Not just any crow, but the crow who had been saddled with the
responsibility of carrying of your soul and keeping it with me for thirteen days, after you die
under the wheels of that truck.” The man pointed at the orange truck as it passed them
harmlessly.
“Well, why am I not dead then?” Naman asked, thinking the man to be deranged. He started
contemplating stopping some passing car to help him.
“Um, don’t think about stopping anybody. It won’t help.”
Naman stared. The crow continued.
“Look, I am not kidding. You were supposed to die today, and being the chosen carrier of
your soul, I can hear your thoughts today. That’s how I found you.”
Naman thought it was all too surreal, and his mind refused to cope. But the crow had
spoken out his thought precisely. His head began to reel.
“Ok, so I am not dead. Why? And is it done then?”
“You are not dead because I did not let you. I have failed in my duties, and my flock will
definitely expel me for this. But I have always fancied myself a rebel. I never invaded a
cuckoo’s nest.” The crow said smugly, and Naman could not help but laugh at the crow’s
remark. It was very weird, but yet not alien.
“But it’s not done. I will have to take something from you though. I am bound by the laws of
nature, and though I have broken one hell of a rule, I still have to carry something of yours
with me for thirteen days as fulfilment of my duty to a greater God.”
“What part of me?” Naman was in a strange way enjoying this.
“Uhm, you have four choices. Since not your whole soul, I will need to take one of its parts:
your awareness, your conscience, your will or your intellect.”
“And what if I refuse?” Naman asked.
“Well, then you would have to die. I will make sure you will, I have connections in the right
places for that.” The crow said simply.
Naman laughed at the humor of the crow, and then at his own morbidity.
He thought long and hard. He couldn’t live like a vegetable, so awareness was out. Without
his will, he wouldn’t have what a man needs to feel alive; without his intellect, he would be
a sorry laughing stock.
Could he live without conscience? It was only a matter of right or wrong, and he won’t have
to feel guilty, for a long time!
He made up his mind.
“If you want it back, ever, just come to me and ask.” The crow said.
As the crow took his conscience from him, Naman felt his vision blurring.
He vaguely saw the black biker shape-shift into a crow.

As his eyes regained focus, he saw the crow flapping away. For a moment, he thought the
crow had winked at him.

Sane and Dead

The darkness around consumes me as I ride through. Trees appear and again melt into the air…leaving behind blurry outlines of the moment of their existence. I hunt for milestones…markers to remind me of what is to come.
The city is 10 kilometres away.
It reveals its existence once very few turns, bright lights finding their way through the maze of trees, electricity poles and general rot. I ride in anticipation.
The road winds ahead of me. I agree to its path…with reluctance. Its not time yet. The engine throbs under me. Pushing it down to neutral, I engage first and jerk open the throttle, riding the wind on one wheel. I like the feeling of being in control.
She rushes into my thoughts with the wind. The whole pink-lips-pretty-smile-soft-hair-sweet-voice-warm-hugs of her. I turn around and salute with a finger what I am leaving behind.
The city approaches.
The lights claw towards me. I accelerate and rush headlong into an intersection of two highways.
I see fate rushing towards me on 18 wheels. I hope the front disc works as advertised…but decide not to use it.
Sadly, the trucker is not insane . He brakes, his machine wobbles embarrassingly for its size and takes down two cars with it.
I stop, stare, and ride on to get my fill of chilled beer for the night.

Glitter

The large diamond on her ring sparkled subtly in the waning light. Its numerous faces looked sinful…distant lights sparkling on its sharp edges.

Andrea looked at it and felt a tingle of excitement shoot through her body.

She shivered in the thin nightgown. She had put it on today only for him. People on the way had given her strange looks. She had ignored them…anything for Julian, she thought. She was going to be with him again.

The wind was playing mischief at that late hour-as gentle as a stream one moment, as wild as a gale the next. The gown flapped against her legs noisily. From a distance, her silhouette looked like a perfectly sculpted female form.

She grew impatient with each passing minute.

The week had seemed to her like an eternity. But now she couldn’t wait. She wanted to feel his arms wrapped around her. The smell of his cologne was still etched in her mind…a scent that roused her even now.

She started to pace around to calm her anxiety and anticipation. They would always meet at the place she was at now. The old, twisted tree, whom they both lovingly called ‘grandpa’, stood like an unshakeable pillar. The sight reassured her. She lighted a cigarette, but immediately stubbed it out. He had always disliked the bitter taste burnt tobacco left behind on her lips. “Not today sweetheart”.

She looked up at the stars and the moonlit sky. It was a beautiful night. The crescent of the moon was mesmerizing. In a surge of excitement, she slid the gown off her. Closing her eyes, she imagined him coming up and lifting her in a warm embrace.

“Be patient” she told herself and looked at the ring. Staring at the diamond, her lips unconsciously curled into a smile. She vividly remebered the day he had proposed to her. After the initial euphoric shock, she had squealed with joy looking at the beautiful diamond he had slid onto her finger.

“I cant wait any longer” she said to herself.

With one swift move, she bit the ring and swallowed the stone.

Her limp body collapsed, her head leaning against a headstone. The inscription on it read:

“Julian Wurz”

Frozen Motion

“…dont tell me to stop….tell the rain not to drop…tell the wind not to blow…”

The decades old Madonna number tinkled on on his cell phone.  Pralhad fumbled for it near his pillow, found it and pushed snooze. The red light streaming in through the bay window was too bright he felt,  but he was too lazy to pull the curtains across. Rather, there would be no point in getting out of bed, pulling the curtains and getting back in bed. He would much rather wake up in another 10 minutes.

But he could not sleep. Again. It was too hot and balmy. He lolled around in bed, picked up his phone and stared at it till the number on the screen changed from 07:03 to 07:04.  He got out of bed again and gulped down half a bottle of water in the kitchen. Then, remembering something, he came back and turned off the alarm on his cell.

He looked at the mirror. unshaved, swollen under-eyes, bored looking and boring looking, he thought. ” The day you find your face unattractive, you have done something wrong with your life.” He thought of the words a friend once had said to him.

The entire day lay ahead. The  routine passed through his mind. Bath-change-pick up keys from table-put wallet in left pocket-keys and phone in right-wear shoes-pick up bag-camera-go down 8 flights of stairs-open the cab car door-through bag on passenger seat-start the car-push out of door-head to the scheduled highway-park the cab at convenient point-pull out segway from under the tarp-putter along edge of the road and take photos of potholes and irregularities on the road-note precise location of said irregularity from read out on GPS-eat  packed cold lunch at lunch or mood-smoke a fag-then putter along on the segway again-cover the day’s 30 km stretch-get back home-pick up food and maybe beer on the way-park-drink-eat-sleep-wake up to Madonna again.

The routine had not changed for years. The alarm tone had not changed for months.

He would think of this everyday. He would leave it at that thought. He did not see a point in investing more thought and energy in this. He had a job to do.

It was 2256 AD.

As had been predicted in the centuries preceding, Earth’s population had inflated beyond hope. To save on space, buildings were built tall, straight and box-like. The pollution levels were absolute. On most days, the sunlight reached the surface through a multi-hued screen of dense smog. ‘Sunny days’ were   unknown.

A century-and-a-half ago, all ground traffic had been banned. People commuted in  electric cabs that moved on rails. Most people did not step on the surface for days, as the cabs could be accessed directly from their flats.  You just punched in your destination on the screen in your cab. And the time by which you had to get there. The Central Traffic Control System took care of the rest, maneuvering the cab smoothly through several hundred tiers of rail-bridges and a the cobweb like paths they took.

The surface roads were preserved under a program called Roots Legacy-an effort by the One Government to stay rooted to humanity’s past. The roads were preserved and kept in top-class condition. Nobody but the most elite could use the roads-it was considered a luxury because they could go wherever, however they wanted to. Not allowing some computer to decide their path for them. The offices of all the important people had shifted from the top floors in the 21st century to the bottom floors now- away from the blinding pollution.

Pralhad could also use the road. Not that he was big or important. He was small and insignificant actually. He was an employee of the Roots Legacy Surface Roads Maintenance Department. His job? To monitor the roads daily, take photos of irregularities, feed the GPS co-ordinates into the Maintenance system so that Bot Crews could go and do the repair work.

Splashing cold water on his face, he walked into the balcony and stood awestruck and staring. The sky over his city had turned red. Not the pretty twilight red. A burning, scarlet red.

“Atleast something has changed” he thought to himself.

His room was littered with DVD cases…a guilty pleasure he had kept secret. Nobody watched movies on DVD anymore. But he loved the simplicity of the whole thing. And he loved the movies. Women in short clothes, men driving around in vests, dancing in clubs…he wished he was born in the 21st century.

Change. “I want change” he thought.

The thought began to nag him. The word. Change. He had wanted a change desperately. The thought ate into his brain as he drove down to his designated stretch of road.

He wasn’t leading a wholesome life. His girlfriend, who worked in the Surface Pollution Control office, was not really that fond of him anymore, he thought. And he would get annoyed with himself over the thought. Why do I need her to be happy he would think. They fought each time they talked.

Getting down from his cab, he trained the lens of the camera on a ditch in the road. He adjusted the focus, zoomed in, set the markers which showed the depth of the depression and was about to press the ‘Click’ button when he stopped.

“Not today. Not again.” he thought. He flung the camera on the road, ripped out the location transmitter from the hood of his cab, pushed the throttle and shot out towards wherever the road would lead him.

After travelling a few miles, after the adrenaline had settled, his actions registered to him. He always had a knack for doing things out of the blue. But this was totally pushing it. What he had done had instantly made him a criminal. Absconding From Duty. Disagreeing To Register Location To System.

So what now? Run! So he pushed down again on the accelerator.

Rooks And Ravens – Part Two

The King picked up the bundle of sticks and tied it around his wrist. Turning around, he swallowed the vast vista of an empire that once belonged to him alone. The high towers of the empires of his three sons rose above him. A magnificent bridge of vine stretched between the terraces of the three towers. In the past, violet flowers bloomed ceaselessly over the length of the vines…spreading their fragrance all over the kingdom beneath. The townsfolk called them the Bridges of Myrrh.

The King, when apportioning the kingdom between his sons, was concerned about infighting between them. With the desire to keep an eye without being meddlesome, he had employed his best wizards to ‘grow’ the bridge, adding his own little secret to it. At the slightest discord between two brothers, the violets on the bridge between their towers would wither and wilt. Thus, the King would always be forewarned, and with wit and wisdom, he would unravel and settle the affair before it was too late.

Now, the three bridges wore a dry and brown shadow. The King had employed reason, authority, even force, but the dissent between the three brothers was unnaturally stubborn. Shocked at the sudden lack of understanding and common sense in his sons, he had investigated, and his worst fears had come true.

It was with this thought in mind that the King had ascended the Thousand Steps of Tribulation to see Ferow, the King of All Fliers.

With a shake of his head, the King started walking towards the Inner Halls.

The Temple was carved out of magnificent black stone. The roughness of the walls and ceiling together with the reflective floor added a distinct elegance to it. Cleverly positioned vents in the roof and walls maintained a steady breeze and pleasing brightness in the Halls. A heady scent of Sandalwood, the same as from the Eagle’s nest, permeated the Halls. The King felt at peace and even joyous, though he was painfully aware it was only the sandalwood playing games with his mind.

A mysteriously lit bend led to a winding flight of stairs. Forgetting his fatigue, the King ascended the stairs and was led into an enormous open gallery, at the tip of the mountain. Looking down, he could see numerous smaller galleries every few feet down.

Ferow stood large and brilliant  in the middle of the gallery, his golden feathers reflecting sunlight over the cliffs and precipices around them.

The King bowed low.

Ferow cocked his neck, almost haughtily, but nevertheless. returned the gesture.

“Greetings, The Great Golden, and accept my apologies for coming here so without prior consent.” The King volunteered.

“Is not the sandeltræ armbånd around your wrist enough proof of the consent you so worry about, O King? But come now, lets not waste time in needless greetings. You have not taken the Steps of Tribulation to come and exchange pleasantries with me! Though I claim to be quite aware of the cause of your disquiet, having been witness to the slow decay of your wondrous bridges, the broer af myrra, I would rather hear it from you, lest any misunderstanding cloud my reason.”

“You are wise, Golden One, for it is indeed what you fathom it is, though there is nothing of suspicion in the things you have keenly witnessed. My ever wise, honest and noble sons have lost all reason, and I know what has befallen them. As your keen eyes must have long observed, the Grey Legion has awakened beyond the seas, and they seek followers, armies of the dead, to lay siege upon the Emperor. It is with this intent that the Lord of the Grey Legion, Mustvari, has let loose his shadowy spies who fill the minds of sane humans with thoughts of unwarranted and unjustified malice towards his fellows. As the hatred turns into all out war, the followers of the Shadow, the Vari Järgijaid, watch gleefully from the sidelines as fathers kill sons, brothers behead brothers, till one side emerges victorious, only to be ambushed by the waiting Järgijaid, killing swiftly as the victors celebrate. Then the shamans, Vari šamaanid, are summoned, to resurrect the headless, limbless bodies and lead them to the Trenches of the Shadow Lord, to join the other dismembered soldiers of his ever growing army of decay.”

“Indeed, this is true Wise King, and it pains me to know that such fate awaits your sons. Is there nothing that can be done to save your sons and your kingdom?”

“I am old now, King of the Skies, and it is only because of my timely intervention that the Three Kingdoms have managed to survive for so long, even when there was no threat from the Shadow. My sons, though noble and wise, have blinding ambition and a craving for more land and glories of battle. Even if I manage to stave off the threat this time, I would be helpless the next time, knowing that days are few. Sooner than later, the Vari Järgijaid will return, and my beloved Kingdom will be a dominion of rotting bodies. I shall not let that come to pass. I come to you with a certain machination in mind, and I wish you to help me with it, knowing very well that on hearing it, you will be wont to throw me off this high abode of yours to die in a manner fit for a cruel and selfish man.”

Rooks And Ravens – Part One

The King walked up the stone steps of the Temple, hewn out of rock in the summit of a huge mountain.  Each step he took sent a pain through his legs… each step and each stab reminding him of all that he had to sacrifice, put on the line, risk-to win the land now surrounding him.

He looked up at the many stone steps he had to climb.

He had a strange sense of foreboding as he climbed, for even though the mountain was on land that belonged to him, the mountain itself was not his to claim. He had visited the Temple on top just once, alone, and whatever had transpired there was a mystery to all. The King had forbade everyone from attempting to ascend the mountain thereafter.

A great white Eagle soared high above him…its golden beak shone brilliantly in the  sunlight. It was Ferow the Golden. The great Eagle swooped and threw itself into a dive and hovered a few feet above the tiring King. It looked at the King with a  mocking sorrow in its eyes.

The look in the Eagle’s eyes shook the King into a defiance…and angry with his depleting strength, he threw himself up and up, relentlessly, breathlessly, carelessly..not stopping for a breath or drink, the sorrowful eyes of the Eagle an insulting shove upwards.

Sweat pooled in and around the King’s argentine mane…streams of salty liquid flowed down his eyebrows, over the strong nose and around his thin, firm lips and under his strong jaw. The weight of the mighty, double-bladed, diamond gilded Thorn of Triund bore down at his belt.

The ancient hard black stone steps fell behind…the summit drawing ever closer. The Eagle soared higher and higher. Circled. Swooped down. Shot up. And circled. Like a hungry vulture waiting for its tired carcass to give up its soul.

With a final defiance of his frail health, and a mighty push from his pride, the King ascended the last step and stood facing the sanctum. Permitting himself the luxury of rest, he unsheathed the Thorn of Triund and got down on his knees. The trusted sword was his support even now…its keen point fast against the black rock.

The great Eagle sat on its perch above the stone temple, and swooped down to greet the King.

It landed at a respectable distance, and the King laid down pieces of white meat on a cloth of a golden velvet. Taking a bow, the King stood up and walked back a few steps. Both of them knew they were Kings of their domains and treated each other as such.

The Eagle glided forward and accepted the offering.

Finishing the last piece, he flew off towards his perch. Moments later, a bundle of sweet-smelling sticks landed at the King’s feet. The sticks belonged to the Eagle’s nest-a sign that the King could now enter the sanctum.