Neel Dervin and The Dark Angel

He was a teenage super soldier.
There were certain questions that fourteen year old Neel Dervin had never thought to ask himself.
Like how much pain he could endure before passing out. Or how many times he could be shot and still keep running. Or how often he could lie to his friends and family without feeling remorse.
But then that one fateful day changed his life forever, and set him on a path towards immeasurable power as well as inconceivable terror.
Now the only people who can help him deal with the situation are complete strangers who are using him for their own ends. Trapped in circumstances beyond his control with abilities he barely understands, he must navigate a treacherous path mired in betrayals and difficult choices to take back control of his life

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22. CHAPTER 16: K

CHAPTER 16: K

Neel sauntered out of his room the next day and made his way down to breakfast. He had had a deep and restful sleep the previous night and felt refreshed for the first time in weeks. His mother noticed the change in him immediately.

"What is going on with you?" she asked. The transformation in his manner had been evident ever since he had returned last night in a curiously happy daze from Aryan's house with a confused, "He didn't have my copy. I forgot, I'd already submitted it."

"What?" Neel asked innocently, smiling after what seemed like years to his mother. "I had a good sleep last night, and I feel great." He stared at her for a moment, then rose and walked up to her slowly. As she stared in amazement, he wrapped his arms around her and gave her a hug. "I'm really sorry about the way I've been acting these last few days." he said quietly. "It won't happen again."

His mother stared down at him, feeling touched and intensely relieved. She cupped his face in her hands and looked at him closely. "So you're feeling better now?" she asked. "You don't feel stressed or anything?"

"No way, that problem is definitely over." Neel said confidently, grinning.

"You don't know how glad I am to hear that, sweetheart." she said fervently, giving him a tight hug and a kiss. "That medicine Doctor Fahim gave you must be working. He told me your depression was only temporary. Now relax and eat your meal."

Neel sat down and glanced around to see if the newspaper had arrived yet. He saw it lying on a chair and reached out for it.

He had returned home last night around nine to find his mother on the phone with a reporter friend and surrounded by an excited group of neighbors including Priyanka's mother and other women who lived nearby who had come to talk about the news. The TV was still tuned to the news channel, which showed in a never-ending loop the images of the miraculous foiling of the bank robbery.

"To say that his sudden appearance was a shock would be an understatement." the reporter said, and the scene of Neel throwing the bank robbers against the bank wall played again, caught on a security tape. "He neutralized a situation which would certainly have ended in a lot of innocent people getting hurt in a matter of minutes. But the news of this rescue absolutely pales in comparison to the astounding way in which the rescue was carried out." The stupidity of the reporter who had been lying in front of the car without trying to move away had earned him the most sought after recording in the country. The video showed Neel leaping over the bank wall, and then slamming into the car head on.

"Who is this masked enigma?" the reporter asked in a tense voice. "His height and build suggests a youngster. But how is it possible for him to do these incredible things? To break free of the bounds of the earth and soar to such amazing heights? To move faster than the eye can follow? To have such extraordinary strength? This mysterious person has not only stopped a robbery, he has given the world quite possibly the biggest story of the year."

And on and on along similar lines on every news channel. The Alpha soldier had become an overnight celebrity.

Now Neel opened the newspaper to the front page, and saw his photo from last night, arms raised in victory, surrounded by a screaming crowd, and underneath it, in bold captions "THE MYSTERY PHENOMENON!"

There followed a full account of what had occurred at the bank last night, with interviews from several witnesses, including the hostages and the police on the following pages.

"I won't forget that scene for as long as I live." said one of the bank employees who had been trapped inside the building. "He was like a shadow. We could barely see him move. He threw those robbers into the wall like they were made of cardboard. It's still got a mark where they hit it. He saved us all. The police was useless."

The same thought seemed to have occurred to the police. The chief of police had this to say, "I don't know who that boy was, or man, or whoever he was, but his method was entirely wrong. He risked the lives of the civilians. Any one of those bullets could've hit the hostages while he was jumping around. If he continues this type of behavior it will get him in trouble someday. If he's got some kind of special powers, he should join the police."

Neel smirked as he read the last line. "Maybe he already has." He began to get ready for school with a light heart. It amazed him how changed the world seemed since last night. The colors appeared brighter, the sounds of the birds were no longer grating, but seemed lively and cheerful, and even the air seemed cleaner. For the first time in a long time, he hummed a low tune as he put on his school uniform.

Of course, even at school, there was only one topic of conversation. Everyone had seen the news about the robbery, and it was the only thing they could talk about. There were many speculations about the masked figure, from students who stated positively that he was an alien, to teachers who thought it might all have been a huge and elaborate publicity stunt for some new superhero movie.

"Pretty weird deal about the bank robbery thing, huh?" Neel said to Aryan as the class waited for first period to begin.

Aryan nodded and started rummaging around in his bag without saying anything.

"I'm sorry, man." Neel blurted out suddenly and awkwardly. "I acted like an idiot at Priyanka's party. I shouldn't have said all those things."

"Dude, we're best friends." Aryan said, finally straightening up to look at him with a slight frown. "Something is seriously bothering you, and you won't even tell me what it is. When did you start keeping things from me?"

"It's over now." Neel said quietly. "Yeah, I was dealing with some stuff, but it wasn't anything you could've helped me with, trust me. But it's really over now, and you know something? I'm feeling better today than I have for months."

"You're sure?" Aryan demanded. "You're completely all right now? Because I will rat you out to your mom if I have to."

"Absolutely fine. I promise."

They stared at each other a second. Then Aryan mutely extended his hand. They shook, and a grin appeared on both their faces. Neel sat down next to Aryan as Mrs. Khurana entered the class.

Arjun met him in the car that day. There was a smile on his face as he opened the door for him. Neel grinned back happily.

"Someone wants to talk to you." he said before Neel could say anything, extending his mobile as he climbed in beside him. Neel took the mobile. "Hello?"

"Great job, kid!" And "Congratulations!" Burst through the phone at the same time, and Neel laughed as he recognized Negi and Premi. "Thanks, guys."

"I knew you could do it." Negi said jubilantly. "Didn't I tell you, you could do it?"

"It was amazing, Neel." Premi said. "The failed bank robbery is all anyone can talk about today. I couldn't believe it when I saw the news."

"I never could've done it without the help all you guys at the lab gave me." Neel said fervently. He looked up at Arjun. "So thanks a lot."

"I'm sure this incident will make General Bakshi rethink his decision to pull you off the project." Premi said.

"Yeah, you wait, kid. They'll want you right back on the job after this." Negi said confidently.

Neel nodded. "I really hope so, too. I guess I'll find out soon enough." They congratulated him once again before wishing him luck and hanging up.

Arjun smiled and extended his hand as Neel handed him back the phone. "You've done us all proud, Neel. I wish there was a better way to celebrate your victory, but would you settle for an ice cream before we go to Swan labs?" Neel grinned as he shook Arjun's hand. "Sounds great."

When they entered the main building at swan labs, Neel saw Doctor Fahim and Divya standing at the back, huge smiles on both their faces. Neel grinned in response as he walked towards them. The doctor laughed, pleasure and satisfaction echoing in his voice, and extended his hand towards Neel.

"Well, it's obvious we were all wrong about you." he said, shaking Neel's hand warmly. "You aren't extraordinary just because of your powers. Fate gave us the right person for the project."

"Congratulations, Neel." Divya added warmly, giving him a hug. "I knew you could do it. What you achieved last night was nothing short of a miracle."

"Thanks." Neel said as they all walked towards the control room. "So does this mean I can go back on the assignment?"

"Yes, Neel, the way you overcame your fears and saved all those people at the bank showed us that you are the right person for this job, after all." Doctor Fahim said. "Now you are going to finish your assignment.'

"And the General and Mr. Rai approve of this decision?" Neel asked uncertainly.

"They requested for you personally after watching last night's news." Dr Fahim said "Especially since we need to hurry now." His smile faded as his expression became grave. "Mehta has finished preparations to leave India tonight, and we cannot legally stop him."

"So what do I do?" Neel asked.

"You will break into the Phlicer complex, go to the heart of his building, and extract the concrete evidence that we need to stop him." Doctor Fahim paused. "I need hardly tell you it will be extremely dangerous, but I don't think that is going to stop you now, is it?"

"No, sir" Neel said, as his voice took on a grim tone. This time there would be no mistakes.

Neel paced around his room, feeling hyper. It was five in the evening. His mother was working overtime at her office on the bank robbery story, and would return after eight. In an hour he would leave for Phlicer, where Mehta had already shut down the complex and was rapidly transferring everything out of the buildings. The building they were interested in was to be evacuated last, which meant he would find what they needed more easily, but the security would be extremely alert. Twice in less than a year he had fallen apart. Yesterday, he had felt overwhelming despair. Now he was back. The whole year felt like an emotional roller coaster ride where he had had far too many turns. As if getting those powers hadn't been enough to make his life complicated already.

Neel went up to the roof of his house. Priyanka was sitting on the wall between their houses, staring into space.

"Hi." Neel said, coming to stand beside her.

"Hey." Priyanka said briefly, still looking distracted.

"Priyanka, I'm really sorry." Neel began quietly. "I know I've been acting like an idiot these last few days. I've already talked to Aryan about it. I'm fine now. I'm sorry I fought with you on your birthday and said those things."

"It's all right." Priyanka assured him, with a forgiving but somewhat absent minded smile. 'I'm just glad that you're feeling better." Then she relapsed again into thoughtful silence.

"What's the matter?" Neel asked, although he had a good idea what the matter was.

Priyanka said nothing for a few seconds, still staring into space. Finally, she looked up at him. "Did you see the news about last night?"

He nodded casually, not looking at her. "The one about the bank robbery, right?" he said. "It's all everyone at school talked about. There are so many weird talks about the guy in the black suit. What do you think that whole deal was?" he paused, waiting carefully for her reply as he watched her intently.

"Do you know what happened that night on Diwali, when I was outside?" she asked without looking at him.

"You found the kitten, right?" Neel said. "I know that."

Priyanka looked up at Neel slowly. "I didn't find it right away." she said. "The kitten went into a side alley in one of the darker areas." She hesitated, than continued, "There were a bunch of drunken men there. They were pretty scary, but before they did anything, a guy came up behind them. He knocked them out. Then he stopped a cracker bomb with his hand. Then he carried me back to Aryan's house."

"Carried you?" Neel said, his eyebrows raised. "How?"

"I'm not sure." Priyanka admitted. "I had my eyes closed the whole time. Before, I thought he was flying. I kept feeling lighter and then heavier. So now I'm thinking, what if he was jumping? Really high! Like the person on the news?"

Neel was silent as he stared at Priyanka. He was relieved to know for sure she had not recognized him that night. But he needed some answers.

"Why didn't you tell us about this that night?" he asked.

"I wasn't sure about what had happened myself. It was so dark, I could barely see anything. And I had my eyes closed most of the time. What was I supposed to say? That I had met a flying man who beat up half a dozen men on his own, and who wasn't hurt by fire? Can't you imagine what Aryan would have said?"

"Yeah, he probably would've thought you were exaggerating." Neel conceded. "Did you tell your parents?"

Priyanka shook her head guiltily. "I didn't tell them that we had gone out that night, just that we found the kitten under Aryan's bed. If I'd told them I'd gone to that area, they would never let me leave the house again."

She fell silent again. Neel was thankful he had not told the people at swan labs about that night, except Divya, who had kept his secret. It seemed there were no ill effects of helping Priyanka that night, and now they didn't have to know at all.

Priyanka gazed at him, puzzled. "You don't seem very surprised." she said, watching him sunk in thought.

"What? Of course I'm surprised." Neel said hastily, trying to arrange his expression to show astonishment and confusion. "I was just thinking. Who is that guy? And was he the same as the guy at the bank last night?"

"I don't know." Priyanka said, starting to pace restlessly. "The guy I met only spoke to me once. His voice was so low I could barely hear him. So if he wore a mask like the guy on TV, the low voice would make sense right?"

Neel shrugged cautiously, not trusting himself to speak.

"And when he was beating up those men in front of me, I think I saw his clothes blowing in the wind." Priyanka continued. "It looked like a jacket, like the one guy on the news was wearing."

"Maybe it was." Neel said, mentally kicking himself for not zipping up his jacket. "So what are you going to do now?"

"What can I do?" Priyanka said helplessly. "I didn't really see anything definite that night. No one might believe me. I just felt like I needed to tell someone about this." She sighed. "Even if you don't believe me, either."

"I really don't know what to think about this whole business." Neel said carefully. He hesitated, then added, "And I don't see what you can do about it. He helped you that night, and he helped the people at the bank last night. He's obviously one of the good guys, whoever he is, so it's not like you need to worry about anything."

"You're right." Priyanka said. "I guess I'll just never know for sure. I need to go help mom with dinner. Good night Neel."

"Goodnight." He watched her leave. Then he sat alone on the rooftop watching the sun go down. The light was fading, and the darkness was growing. Yet he felt hopeful. The events that had taken place since becoming the Alpha soldier seemed to play out before him. Everything he had done right. Everything he had done wrong. And all the decisions that had brought him to this point. Tonight would be a culmination of sorts. He no longer saw himself as invincible, but knew his own strengths a little better now.

It was going to be an interesting night.

Night time.

Phlicer complex was alive with activity. Watchful guards with automatic rifles, night vision goggles and guard dogs swarmed around the buildings. There orders were clear: shoot on sight, and keep shooting till the target drops. But despite the heightened security no one saw the shadowy figure till it was inside the building, when the guards were finally alerted by the barking of the dogs.

Neel kicked open the door of the main storage area, two blocks away from the target building. All the buildings in the outer area had already been cleared out. Only the main building had the lights turned on. Somewhere inside that building was Mehta's most private and closely guarded laboratory, and inside it was definitive proof of whatever Mehta was involved in.

Neel ran through the giant hall, the shouting of the guards growing louder in his ears. It was highly possible that Mehta would use the sound machine on him as he had done the first time, and so he carried with him a small pair of noise cancelling earphones. But they would not protect him completely, and the best bet was to get inside the main building and out before Mehta could employ any tricks on him.

He paused at the exit door of the hall. To the left was a two storey building, and behind it the main building which housed the underground laboratory. The shouting guards were drawing nearer.

Neel closed his eyes. The world around him slowed down to a crawl. His senses were fully alive as two guards ran towards him from the front, while three more ran at him from behind. Every minute sound from the surrounding area was magnified. Two of the guards were in excellent shape and ran swiftly. One was slightly overweight, his breath coming in short gasps as he ran. The other two were much slower than the others, and were not particularly coordinated. The three men behind him had raised their weapons and all five were attempting to form a circle around him, three feet apart from each other, roughly eight steps away.

Powering his legs, he bent down slightly and aimed for the nearest guard.

Neel blew past the guards in the main office building, heading for the elevator shaft. More guards appeared at regular intervals. None could stop him, and those who remained standing were the few lucky ones. Neel was more focused at that moment than he had ever been in his life. He refused to allow himself pride at a neatly landed punch, or worry if a guard remained standing.

His only thought was to get to the lab. He tore apart the steel doors of the elevator at the end of the office room. Jumping in, he climbed rapidly up and out of the hatch at the top of the elevator. From the small free space at the back he jumped down. The drop was sixteen stories long, and he held briefly onto the ridges fixed around the walls of the vertical tunnel as he made his way down. At the last floor, he once again tore apart the two metal doors at the front.

And finally he was there.

Phlicer laboratory. The reason behind all the training, all the horror and all the pain.

Neel punched through the door, and then he was inside. He strode into the room, seeing shocked scientists staring at him, open mouthed. There was no sign of Mehta.

"You all have five minutes to get out, or else." Neel shouted at the scientists. He did not finish the threat, mainly because he had no idea what he would do if they did not obey. It seemed distinctly unsporting to hit regular scientists who just seemed to be going about their jobs.

Fortunately, the fact that he had broken down the steel door with his bare hands seemed to have made an impression on them. They scrambled towards the exit staircase. Neel seized a heavy storage cupboard and rammed it into the entryway, sealing the entrance. The guards who been guarding the outer area of the laboratory were alerted too late to his presence in the inner chamber. The shouts outside the chamber grew louder as Neel stared around the vast space filled with a puzzling mix of machines, from thermal cyclers and PCR machines to computers constructing Feynman diagrams.

"I'm in." Neel spoke into the receiver in his mask as he walked towards the centre of the room.

"Good" Doctor Fahim said, his voice growing urgent. "Look for a storage area, where something human sized could be stored. You'll have to break in and -"

"I won't have to." Neel said, his voice growing quiet. "I've found it."

He stared at the strange object in the middle of the room, and walked over to it.

"It looks like a… a coffin." He said. But it was also very different. For one thing it was extremely large in size. The object was cuboidal in shape, with rounded edges. It was about six foot thick and four foot tall. It was also at least ten feet long. It lay in the center of the lab, surrounded on all sides by raised platforms with computer boards.

Neel took out his cell phone and selected video. Aiming the lens at the coffin, he started recording the coffin and its surroundings. The video had a direct feed to the computer at Swan Labs.

Neel was beginning to feel uneasy.

"You know, this room is a little creepy but it doesn't look like Mehta's doing anything illegal." he said, praying he hadn't wasted all that effort on a false alarm. "Maybe he's thinking of a new way of making beds or…" he stopped abruptly.

He had walked up close to the coffin, and he could see the top now. The upper portion of the front had a type of window with see through glass in it. The window was about four by four feet wide. The inside was filled with a kind of fog, making it difficult to look within. But it was just possible to make out the general shape of what was inside.

"It's… it looks like a…" Divya's voice sounded stunned over the microphone.

"It's a man." Neel said, his voice coming out strangely.

The body inside looked human, but it was huge. Bigger than anyone Neel had seen before, bigger than he had thought it was possible to be. Its skin was of a dark hue, but its features were hidden behind the fog.

"Mehta's doing experiments on human beings. And look at this guy. This is definitely illegal. What do I do now?" Neel asked into the microphone.

In the control room, Doctor Fahim seemed to be having difficulty speaking as well, his gaze concentrated on the figure in the container. General Bakshi took over.

"We have the video and the police are on its way." he said. "Start looking for anything which might tell you what this experiment is all about. Check the computers, get the information and get out of there ASAP."

Neel switched off his mobile and turned to the computers. Most of them were still on. The one kept closest to the container was showing the heart rate and various brain activities of the subject inside the container. He followed the cable from behind the computer to the main control node. From there he followed the trail of wires to the central database. Among the documents taken from Malik Saket's laptop had been mention of the fact that the lab employed grid computing techniques, where multiple computers were used to carry out different parts of the same experiment. A number of hard disk drives were stacked together in cabinets. He made his way swiftly through them. All had different numbering labels on top. Only one had writing on it.

He reached in and pulled out the disk drive attached to the cable. Stepping back, he held up the drive and read the label.

PROJECT KUMBHKARAN

Neel stared at the words. He finally seemed to have found Project K. He stowed the hard drive in his pant pocket. It was the most important piece of evidence. Everything else could be handled by the police.

He sighed, feeling the responsibility roll off his shoulders. His work was over. He turned to take one last look at the coffin, glinting in the fluorescent light like a crystal. Then he jumped off the platform and punched his way out of the lab walls, in the direction opposite to the one the guards were trying to come through.

By the time the police arrived, he was gone.

 
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