They were here for the berries, but there was dust everywhere. Tiny little, almost animated particles of the stuff would coat the space under her long fingernails. Almost too often. She took meticulous care of her long fingernails, mind you. Not a millimetre too long and not a hair’s breadth too short. S, she would taper them and file them with almost everything she could get her hands on. Edgy stones. Brittle plastic. Pieces of carbon fibre that were perhaps once fingernails themselves. All artificial, of course. Fingernails scraping fingernails. Right now, a flex-fork was on the job.
But the dust would never truly leave. It could be frustrating. She wished that there was some sort of attachment like a tiny microscopic pipe that would snugly sit in the middle of that space between the fingernail and the skin underneath, periodically blowing small gusts of breeze and keeping that damned dust out for good. The God Enki made humanity from the dirt under his fingernails; what did hers do?
Dreams didn’t visit her at night anymore, despite the old adage of a girl could dream. It felt like her eyes were always open, always documenting, always stretched to the zenith of their usability, always…looking.
The flex-fork snapped. The table she sat on contained a few, scanty other things that could perhaps be utilized for the same purpose. An old laptop. A cell phone SIM pin. A faded sheet of holo-newspaper dated 21st August, 2037. The text contained within it shimmered and moved, but even those faded, eventually. Electronic key cards. But the convoy wasn’t here yet. When would they come?
Only Sakra would know. He was the reason she was sitting here. No, it was hunger that had actually bought her here. Despite her augmentations, a sparse, meagre diet was all most could afford.
She remembered the days where an ordinary meal was more than two courses, where she could have a blend of textures in her mouth at once that didn’t belong to the same goddamn thing; where a bland and insipid dinner could be absolved by the promise of sweet, sweet desserts…
She missed the essence of ripe, delicious things to eat. She missed that blend of sweet and sour which would explode in unmistakable tanginess on the palate. She missed looking at food on the plate, arranged in a bouquet of a million colours.
But this convoy would be a welcome break from the monotony. Momentary freedom from the tyranny of potatoes and soybeans. All we needed to do was take it, Sakra had told her. They were carrying a large shipment of elderberries in preservation crates. Of course, they refused to trade.
His current request to her was to keep watch in case someone happened to be scouting. Looking for occupied vantage points along the path of the convoy. Unearthing people like herself. But she’d long since stopped focusing on that. Her nails were getting dirtier.
The sun wasn’t going to go down. It would only hover like a pale orb, like a prop in an artificial sky. Since the axial tilt, seasons had become irrelevant in these parts. She didn’t have Sakra’s fancy words to explain it. Words like precession, nutation, perihelion, aphelion. Cycles and shifts drastically altered by an experiment gone wrong.
Twilight belts. Erratic tides. Two bitter winters and two scorching summers. The new so-called equator now included Antarctica. So many lost in the two great exodii. Or was it exoduses? And all for what? An experiment gone wrong.
Wasn’t all of existence just that? Someone fucking around somewhere, someone pushing their agenda on someone else, someone wanting to save humanity when humanity didn’t seem to ask for it, deserve it, appreciate it or even know about it! Who were these someones but empty names that didn’t mean much at all; someones who were inherently no-ones, until they just undertook an experiment which went horribly wrong, and voila!
The apocalypse was here. There was humour in that. Banality of evil and all that. She never liked those sciency-types that Indus seemed to mass-produce on a daily basis.
She remembered Ambika’s boyfriend whom Ambika used to affectionately call “my mad scientist.” The boyfriend who she was allegedly going to marry but who bailed at the eleventh hour; what did she really expect from a guy who insisted that ‘facts don’t have feelings’ and looked at women like inanimate lab objects waiting to be fucked? He’d let his hand frolic along her waistline once while they sat in this cramped Maruti car but Ambika was so possessive about him that she didn’t really know whether telling her would do her more harm than good. He had a penchant for wearing glares. Perhaps he knew how shifty his eyes were? Who knew?
But Ambika was dead now. She hadn’t lingered around long enough to find out how. As for herself, she ran to higher ground like the government amplifiers told her to, packed in rows upon rows of orange-clad buses, only to find an endless wait was all that awaited; lines and lines of refugees upon refugees;, bodies, cascading upon one another like a cancerous cell just waiting to metastasize…bodies wedged together more tightly than that mythical Bombay local train compartment. Even those train-goers would’ve shuddered before entering these lines to higher climes. The only person not taking sexual favours or money or both and some more was Sakra, but Sakra wasn’t really the government. His agenda was altogether quite alien.
He seemed androgynous, but to her he was always a he and he’d never really indicated otherwise. His gaze seemed to always burn through her even though he had the most ordinary brown eyes and the same old brown skin, almost a shade of lacquered dark-wood, and she’d definitely seen taller, more imposing people in her life and on webmedia.
But all of them and more, where were they now? Gone with the tilt, as the expression went. Sakra was still here and they were deader than dead.
He was also the one to insist that they get augmented. She was never pro-augmentation before this, but she didn’t have anything against it either. She’d been confusing it with implants, which she wanted nothing to do with. Instead of silicone mounds, Med-por and fat, augmentation had to do with carbon fibre, titanium and digital tattoos. Like all resourceful people, he ‘knew a guy’ – or in this case, a severe looking woman who worked on her, tut-tutting at how many favours she’d have to grant Sakra before he realized that this wasn’t how favours worked anymore.
But after they were done, she revelled in her shiny, newfound self. She could run faster than a horse. See in the dark. Pick out sounds from unearthly distances. Blades snickered snugly within her arms. She could land from two floors above without it looking like a suicide attempt, completely unscathed.
Sure, there were times when she felt like she could’ve done without her day-to-day vision looking like a smartphone screen with floating icons that indicated her mortality – but it seemed like a small price to pay. During these times, she’d take all the advantages she could possibly get.
Sakra’s motives behind this seemed benevolent enough. He never took her with him on any particularly violent outings, and always requested her help – whenever he’d need it. She’d said no to him so many times, but there was never any resentment or animosity in his expressions when that happened.
This particular outing, however, was different. When he told her that they were going to nab a shipment of elderberries for the base, she wanted to go with him. He didn’t make any moves to deny her either, but he did sit her down before they took off.
“You might have to kill. I hope you know that.”
“Do you know what it means? To take a life?”
She looked up at him. He seemed serious enough, but she also detected some kind of uncertainty.
“Something tells me you don’t know the meaning of that either.” She finally replied.
“Well, there isn’t. There isn’t any particular meaning to it, but once it’s done, things just don’t remain the same anymore. You’ll tell yourself things, make excuses to yourself. And that’s if you’re lucky and you’re still a good person because excuses reside inside the mansion built of guilt. For most of us, the moral compass rusts beyond comprehension as the brain erases the memory of what we’ve done in an attempt to help us get over it. We’ve got to live with it and yet we think it never happened. All I’m going to ask you for is forgiveness, in advance, for putting you in those circumstances that may lead to you getting your hands dirty.”
“What if I can’t do it?”
“Again, the consequences of that will rest with you alone.”
“But I might put you in danger.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when it appears.”
“If I feel horrible about it, I may not forgive you for it. I don’t know why I’m saying this right now, but I think it’s important. I want to tell you that before it happens.”
He put a hand on my shoulder and smiled wryly.
“Don’t worry about it too much. If all goes well, you won’t have to lift a finger.”
Her vision flickered briefly before her earpiece came to life.
She got up.
Sakra had it all planned out. He’d cloak and go near them, appearing right in front of their eyes. Surprise and shock would soon result in disdain; arrogance, even, when they find out that there’s only one person blocking their way. They would be motivated to let their guard down and then he’d proceed to threaten them in as imposing a manner as possible – killing them, if they didn’t comply – while all she had to do was be ready to intervene in case things didn’t quite go according to this plan.
She crossed the desk and moved toward the dilapidated balcony. The footing there was precarious, but it allowed for a clear view of the snakelike path. There were buildings to the left and buildings to the right and buildings across. A dense mesh of the developmental mandate gone wrong. Concrete and steel spires twisted and jutted out from every angle, blooming, forlorn, reaching for the sky in the pursuit of something they had altogether abandoned. The road, in effect, was shaded from the blinding sun. Stray sunbeams fluttered about.
She spotted two, three – no, five in total. All of them wore protective masks. The second and third member were carrying a box that looked extremely heavy. She noticed struts jutting out of the crooks of their elbows, and tiny streaks of pressurised air escaping from the part where the arm met the torso – augmented limbs – as they lumbered along, the box making minimalistic swaying motions with each step.
The man in the front needed both his hands to swing his weapon around like he was doing, but he didn’t seem fatigued. Definitely armed. The ones bringing up the rear snaked around, their voluminous robes covering their feet, giving off the impression that they were gliding along.
“I’m off. Don’t look away, even for a second. Okay?” He didn’t see her nod, but Sakra jumped off the building spire, invisible.
His landing caused a sizable dust cloud from the impact, but it was well timed. Right in front of the first man. The man didn’t hesitate as he levelled his weapon in Sakra’s general vicinity. The convoy stopped.
Her heartbeat indicator spiked. She kept looking. A shimmering, hazy second later, Sakra stepped into view, and began his exchange with a simple, direct question.
“What’s in the box?”
The first man was neither impressed, nor did he let his guard down. “If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t be here. Now leave before this gets ugly.” The gun hummed menacingly.
“I was told some elderberries are doing the rounds! Elderberries, in this day and age? Come on guys, we’ve all got to share, right? You’ll spare us a few, won’t you?”
As they talked, a strange sense of urgency clouded her mind. The men dropped the box down with an ominous thud. The plan had already failed. Sakra moved, and she jumped.
Gravity took her and the landing reticule flashed in her line of sight, mapping her trajectory. Sakra had begun wrestling with the man who was now suddenly bereft of his gun – but had somehow brandished a knife instead. She landed squarely on one of the robed men. For one bizarre second, there was no impact whatsoever as the cloak deflated under her weight into nothingness, ripping in places where it was too close to the figure. Two pinpricks of light greeted her as the combat bot uncertainly sized her up. Her augmented knee shattered its face into pieces. The other one was quicker on the uptake, but Sakra fired a volley from his own, smaller firearm, blasting it clean through the midriff.
She locked arms with one of the augmented men. Sakra tried grabbing the other one, but he got punched squarely in the abdomen as the man’s arm hissed and knocked the wind out of him. He doubled over and the man booted his face, sending him flying. Sakra’s body sparked as the friction burnt his augmented exterior before he momentarily disappeared from view into a decrepit shop window.
As she grappled with the heavyset man, she heard a *pop*. One of her fingers had come off its socketed hinges as the man crushed her hands in a systematic, mechanical vice. She kneed him in the chest but he grimly held on. Another finger popped. She felt no pain but her eye-screen was flashing red. She detached her second arm to reveal a slightly curved blade, glinting wickedly in the unnatural sun, and raised it. She could sense his surprise and trepidation through the mask, even as he held on uselessly to the detached limb.
The blade came down, cutting through skin and bone. It seemed to drink deep before a welt formed on the man’s chest and leaked, filling the air with the metallic smell of blood. The man yelled. Inhumanely. She waved the blade – her arm – again, horizontally this time. Muscle, cartilage, tissue, fibre, resistance and then the blade was free. She felt exhausted. His mouth was open mid-scream as a fresher arc of red dribbled down his chest. Her detached limb shattered in his hand as he fell awkwardly on her. She felt her knees give way under his weight but she stood her ground, even as her clothes and her skin were doused with the body’s final life-throes.
And then she looked over at Sakra, who seemed like he was going to die. The other man was over him, having bested him somehow – and about to land the killing blow. A part of Sakra’s face had caved in, giving the entire moment an air of finality before she gritted her teeth and lunged toward the man.
Awakening seemed alien, so she simply kept herself in a state of fragile wakefulness – but the threshold of unconsciousness seemed to beckon, and she would be carted off, yet again. A series of synthetic and organic images smashed into each other, trying to create a gruesome whole – but ultimately failing and retreating into the domain they’d come from. Memory, sound, light and phantom movement overlapped and dissolved into nothingness. A white room. A static sun. A forgotten time. Winged descent. Sky, water and land. Textures of the surface of the sun. A slice of the moon in her mouth. Broken machines, made useless by the carcasses of newer models. The Earth, tilting and tilting till space became a cyclotron. The constellations in her eyes but only fake starlight. Each frame, stalling for a second more than it needed to, resetting, resetting. Loading screens. Bars within bars, icons within icons.
“Your circuits are pretty much fried, sweetheart.”
“It’s not just circuits, it’s not-” she attempted a feeble rebuttal in the general direction of the woman by her bedside.
“Of course, sweetheart. How do you feel?”
She didn’t close her eyes immediately, afraid. The screen wouldn’t leave. Could she sleep?
“Sakra got you back. With some box, it seems. Told me to tell you to go find him whenever you could. He hasn’t opened it yet. What’s in it?”
“What’s in it, sweetheart?”
She was enveloped again into the maddening lull.
The corridor wouldn’t straighten itself. Like a badly calibrated spirit level, the bubble that was her vision didn’t want to align between the lines. But she walked. She knew where Sakra would be.
“What’s in the box?”
Every day, someone would come and ask her that. Why did he take it away from the base? He’d have his reasons. She’d find him, and it would all make sense. She couldn’t trust the others. Humans in general had become hugely unreliable.
She slipped out at the most unlikely hour. The penumbra, hinting at the sliver of darkness to come – time played tricks on everyone here. A pale, red moor-light lengthened the shadows around buildings and people as they froze in place, their body clocks fried by uncertainty. Fatigue had become a mainstay. Only the augmented ones didn’t quite feel the same and during these trying times, their unnatural systems were nothing less than a boon. Her eye-screen was frayed along the edges, and tessellating icons kept flickering in and out of existence. But she could see. And walk. Which seemed to be more than enough for now.
A red tide periodically erupted in front of her eyes, and she could see her blade cleaving her augmented enemy, his face locked in a state of pure agony, but she drove it off. She’d let Sakra do the resolution bit of this moral nightmare.
Their base, like all bases that had proved their salt over time, was underground. Twin shafts joined two distinct caverns where a meagre group of thirty something survivors eked out a semi-miserable existence. There were two reservoirs that they’d had to guard with their dear lives, and artificial farms that could only sustain potatoes and soybeans. Unbeknownst to many, there was a third, distinct shaft that Sakra often used. She knew about it.
This dilapidated, cracked pathway melted into a deep pool of nothingness at a certain point where even torchlights would be swallowed. Only a keen, night-centric augmented eye would perhaps be able to tell you that no more than 28 metres across, the pathway emerged again. It was a no brainer that an ordinary human being could not make the jump. Sakra had kept two-three of his trusted lieutenants here, just in case, and she’d been one of them. It was still alarmingly strange that she had never killed under Sakra’s regime. Till now. Till this point. For the box.
What was in the box?
The promise of sweet-sour tangy elderberries was the new frontier of her existential purpose. I must have them. Her newly reattached arm spasmed involuntarily and clenched its fingers together, seeming to agree in response.
Her eyes squinted as another wave of red obfuscated her vision. The icons drooped in a singular line, falling like overripe fruits from a non-existent tree, tessellating into nothingness. Frozen shards of memory pierced her subconscious, her left hand wanting to be set free, the naked blade within, feverishly quivering at the promise of danger. And then, she saw it.
Across the invisible chasm, there were two throbbing pulses, almost on the verge of disappearing. And then, a distinct third, like a blinding pillar of red-blue-green neon, stationary, still, lethargic, almost, in its treatment.
Her vision was temporarily working. She decided to take this chance. She moved about four to five steps backwards and coiled her body together, a high-tensile bowstring drawn to its maximum limit. Her eyes kept the other end of the chasm in full view. The tendons in her legs flexed, the fulcrum of her knees slid smoothly backward in an arc, her heels lifted off the ground, her toes entrenched in the cool soil. She maintained this taut form for a few seconds, and then, kicked off with unearthly force.
The cavern blurred with the velocity of her thrust and she flew across the twenty-eight metres of pure black. She landed, and without wasting a second, moved toward where she knew a light panel was.
A dim light flooded the secret cavern. Her vision normalized. But she saw something that she wasn’t supposed to see. Not so soon, not now. Her mind wanted to reject it.
An awkward, eight-legged mass narrated the sorry fate of the two bodyguards. Blood had mixed with the darker soil below, making it nigh-invisible. The trail snaked its way toward a door that was ajar.
She approached the door gingerly. Her left hand twitched again as she moved it aside and her senses were assaulted with a smell that her brain didn’t initially comprehend.
Elderberries. Sweet-sour, pungent and strong. Waves upon waves of wine and honeyed rot. A concentrate of thousands.
It was emanating strongly from the chair in the middle of the room, where a hunched figure sat, an opened box on the side.
Maroon syrup dribbled from his lips, leaking onto his normally pristine white clothing, soaking into it and branching out into smaller rivulets from the faded waterfall under his chin. His hands were dyed in the stuff commingling with the ferrous pigment and stench of blood. His lap and the scruff of his pants were caked with it too.
His eyes were glazed. She looked at him. Really looked at him for the first time in her life. Or she would have for a moment longer if her eye-screen didn’t choose that moment to erupt again.
The elderberries, the blood, Sakra, the dim-beam of were-light, it all swivelled in a slow, pendulous fashion, erupting in periodic shades of unnatural red. Sakra’s face became the augmented man’s, the man she had killed with such impunity, his chest and torso sliced brutally, like a gutted animal ready for the slaughter and her left hand quivered again.
“Mira…Mira, Mira, Mira…” one mumbled word turned into a thousand, and then a million. Icons upon icons. Loading screens upon loading screens. Cascading, tessellating, rebooting. The naked blade, inching to be free, to be embedded within this body on the chair, so full of hypocrisy, base greed, madness.
She vomited on the side. Violently. But even that feeling was alien, as if something else – something not belonging to her innards were gushing forth in this vile, organic display. She looked at him again and his incoherent mumbling became coherent.
“I cannot taste them, Mira. The surgery…it seems to have taken away what sweetness means to me. To us, perhaps…won’t you try some?”
She approached him slowly. The tube-light seemed to morph into a grimace above his head, smiling, laughing, mocking. She picked up a berry and bit into it. Juice spurted out and dribbled on her chin.
“For the life of me, I can’t taste it, Mira. Gone with the tilt. It’s all gone…”
Donation to LILA is eligible for tax exemption u/s 80 G (5) (VI) of the Income Tax Act 1961 vide order no. NQ CIT (E) 6139 DEL-LE25902-16032015 dated 16/03/2015