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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9. CHAPTER 5: Pushing the Limits

 

         To a certain extent, the next day followed the routine of the earlier day. Neel arrived at the pre-arranged spot in front of the government building, where the car with the tinted glasses appeared, and he was again taken to the fire station by Captain Shukla. Another ride at breakneck speed through the underground tunnels, and Neel found himself back at Swan Labs. The two made their way to the main building, and were soon standing in front of Doctor Fahim’s room.

 

         “Good afternoon, Neel.”  Doctor Fahim said, laying down the report he had been reading as Neel entered the room with the Captain behind him. “I hope I find you well?”

 

         “Yes, sir.” Neel came to stand in front of the desk.

 

       “Well, we made good progress yesterday.” Doctor Fahim said. “We now have a much more accurate idea of what you are capable of, and we can plan your training accordingly.”

 

         He gestured to the Captain. “Captain Shukla will be in charge of your training, along with Negi and Premi. They will work with you every day, and we should soon see some progress in your skills. Do you have any questions?” Neel shook his head.

 

          “Good.” Doctor Fahim said. “Then you should go to the training hall now to get started. Divya will be observing your training sessions in case you run into any problems. Best of luck, Neel.”

 

          “Thank you, sir.” Neel nodded, and left with Captain Shukla. The two made their way to the hall.

 

          “How long will my training take before I’m ready?” Neel asked the man striding silently next to him.

 

          “That will depend upon you.” Captain Shukla said. “Some people pick it up more quickly than others. If you pay attention, work hard, and keep on practicing what we teach you, you should soon see a marked difference in your skills.”

 

         “So, what exactly are you going to teach me, Captain Shukla sir?” Neel asked him. He felt that this form of address was distinctly a mouthful, but he could not think of anything better.

 

         “You can call me Arjun.” the Captain offered. Neel looked at him in surprise. The Captain saw his expression, and the corners of his lips turned up in a small smile. “I can assure you, Neel, I’m almost as much at sea in this business as you are. I’ve had experience in a wide field in my time of duty, but training a teenage Meta human is far removed from anything I’ve attempted till now.” He gazed seriously at Neel. “I’ll try to help you learn in every way I can, but I’ll need your total trust and cooperation if we are going to make this work. Can you give me that?”

 

            The dark eyes were grave and earnest, and the young boy nodded slowly. “I’ll try my best…. Arjun.”

 

            “Good.” Arjun opened the door of the gymnasium. The instruments that had been in the centre yesterday had all been pushed to one side, leaving a large space in the middle empty, on which a practice mat had been placed. Negi and Premi were waiting for them on the mat, both wearing loose exercise clothes.

 

           “Good to see you again, Neel.” Negi said with a smile, shaking his hand when they reached the two. “I hope you can handle a little vigorous exercise. Now is the time to put your abilities to work.”

 

          “But don’t let the training intimidate you.” Premi said. His manner was still reserved, but he gave Neel a small smile as he shook his hand. “This is just the beginning, and that is always the hardest part.”

 

        “Doctor Fahim and Miss Divya Nayak will be observing our training sessions from there.” Arjun told Neel, pointing towards a window at the top end of the hall. The window was painted white and Neel could not see through it. “Just to check your progress, and to see if there are any new developments in your capabilities.”

 

        “Is that likely to happen?” Neel asked, feeling slightly apprehensive. All the talk of training was making him nervous. Even with all the exciting things that had happened yesterday, he could remember that he had fallen down a lot, and though his physical prowess had been impressive, his movements had not been marked by grace or agility. The matter of fact way everyone was talking about developing his skills couldn’t hide the fact that he didn’t have any. Negi and Premi glanced at each other when he asked the question.

 

        “We’re not exactly sure.” Arjun admitted. “This is a new drug collected from the cells of apes, apparently. Not only are you the first person to have undergone this transformation, but I’ve been told that the effects of the serum on someone of your age group is different from what was being expected. So we’ll be keeping our eyes open to see what happens.”

 

        “Right.” Neel said. He had a sudden vision of himself with hair sprouting all over his body as well as a long tail, leaping around the hall and throwing exercise gadgets at his trainers. The image was not in any way helpful.   

 

       “So, let’s get started.” Arjun said. “First you need to change.” He handed Neel the exercise clothes he had worn yesterday. Neel went to the room attached to the gym and changed quickly.

 

        When he returned, the three had moved to the centre of the mat and were waiting for him.

 

        “Your body is now the most powerful of its kind on the planet.” Arjun began. “You saw what you did to the punching posts yesterday. That was an untrained and unrestrained exhibition of your power. To handle that level of strength is not an easy task.” He looked at Neel shrewdly. “Have there been any accidents, these last few days?”

 

        “Well, yeah.” Neel admitted slowly. “I had a really hard time getting my brain speed under control. I still can’t control it completely. And I have to be careful how I touch things, and hold them, so I don’t break them.” He stared at Arjun and added in a burst of candor. “I’ve really scared of holding anything too hard. I’ve tried to stay away from my mom and everyone else the last few days because I’m afraid of hurting them.”

 

        Arjun was watching him closely, and a flicker of pity appeared in his eyes. “Well, our work from now on will be to help you cope with your new abilities, and turn them to your advantage.” he said gently. “We’ll teach you how to manage your strength and brain speed.”

 

        He moved over to the edge of the mat, leaving the middle of the mat empty. “You need control over your body and your movements.” he said. “You need to learn how much strength you can use, and how much you have to hold back. Train your body, and your mind will be trained in its control as well. There are actually two ways to learn that kind of physical control, through dancing and through fighting.”

 

         “Unfortunately, doing the moonwalk will not be particularly helpful in a combat situation.” Negi added. “So we’ll just focus on teaching you to fight.” Neel gave a small laugh.

       

        “You’ll be learning a composite of various fighting techniques.” Arjun continued. “They will be of invaluable use to you in learning control.”

 

        Neel nodded. He had been expecting something along these lines. But again, he felt compelled to point out a crucial point.

 

       “I’ve never done anything like this before.” he said. “And you saw what I did to the posts the other day.”

 

       “That day showed us that you have the potential.” Premi said. “It is up to us now to tap into it and see how far it can be taken.” Neel nodded.

 

       Arjun motioned to Negi. The stocky little man moved forward to stand in the centre of the mat, directly in front of Neel.

 

      “Karate is the discipline that teaches you the importance of posture and technique in combat.” Negi explained. “See my legs?” He stood with his legs positioned apart, his knees bent slightly.

 

      “Balance is the key.” he told Neel. “No matter what position you are in, you need to maintain your balance. Try it.”

 

       Neel moved to stand in front of Negi, and imitated Negi’s position, arms raised to shoulder level, legs bent and spread slightly apart.

 

       Arjun walked up behind Neel and grabbed his shoulders, pulling him back sharply in a single sudden movement. Neel wasn’t expecting it, and tumbled over backwards until Arjun steadied him.

 

       “Always be prepared for the stealth attack.” Arjun said, helping him resume his position. “Merely assuming the correct position is not enough. You have to actively stop your opponent from throwing you off balance, and that means that when I pull you towards me, you pull away from me, and do your best to maintain your position, all right?”

 

        Neel nodded, assuming the position again. Arjun paused for a moment. Then, he swiftly grabbed Neel from behind and tried to pull him back. This time Neel was ready. Any other person would have still found it hard to maintain the position, but Arjun was unable to move Neel an inch.

 

       “Good” Arjun said, releasing him and walking to his side. “Now let’s try punching. Watch Negi.” Premi came to stand on the other side of Neel.

 

       Negi curled his hands into fists and raised them halfway up to his face. His hand shot out, fast and hard, and came back almost at once to its original position. Again, Neel imitated him, moving his hand more slowly and carefully.

 

       “Always keep your fist closed tightly.” Premi said, holding Neel’s outstretched hand and closing his own hand around his fist. “And don’t bend your wrist when you’re punching. One of the biggest mistakes amateurs make is that they keep their fist and their wrist loose. When you punch like that, all the force behind the punch is misdirected. You accidently bend your hand on impact, and end up spraining your wrist. That’s unlikely in your case, but it’s still a very painful experience.”

 

         Again, Neel nodded. He repeated the punch, trying to do it exactly as Negi was showing him, first with one hand and then with the other.

 

       “Better.” Arjun nodded. “Now keep punching till we tell you to stop, and keep in mind what Premi told you.”

 

       Neel’s instructors stood watching as Neel mutely punched the air in from of him, still in the defensive position. As Neel’s confidence increased, so did the speed of his punches, until his hands became mere blurs in the eyes of those watching him. Negi shook his head in disbelief, and Premi’s dark eyes watched the young boy intently as he tried to follow the movement of Neel’s hands. Arjun glanced up at the white window, from where he knew both Doctor Fahim and Divya were watching. He returned his gaze to Neel.

 

       “Okay, that’s enough.” he said. Neel heard his voice, and stared at him uncomprehendingly. He stopped punching, and closed his eyes for several minutes. The others knew what was happening, and they stayed quiet until he opened his eyes again.

 

       “Sorry.” Neel said. “My mind started running fast again. You told me to stop, right?”

 

       “Yes, I did.” Arjun said, looking at him thoughtfully. “Your speed certainly seems to be a problem at the moment. We’ll see what we can do about it. Now it’s time to learn how to kick.”

 

       Negi moved back, and Premi took his place in front of Neel. He also placed his feet apart like Negi had done. “Balance is even more important for kicking then for punching.” He told Neel. “You’re putting all your weight on one leg. That makes your body unstable, and easy to topple. So you need to be sure how long you can keep your body in that position when you kick.” He paused for a moment, and then kicked once in the air, his foot moving smoothly above his head. He returned to his earlier position and paused, looking at Neel, who was watching intently. This time he kicked twice, his leg in the air for a longer period of time. Another pause, and this time three kicks in rapid succession, all the time his body maintaining perfect balance. Neel watched him in awe.

 

       “How far you can control the speed and force behind your kicks depends on you.” Premi said. “Let’s try a single kick for now.” Again, he showed Neel the position he needed to assume.

 

      “Right. Now try a kick.”

 

       Knowing full well he would not be able to do anything remotely similar to what Premi had done, nevertheless, Neel assumed the position. In a sudden motion, he raised his leg up, in his nervousness raising it higher than he had intended to, and exactly as yesterday, he toppled over backwards. Arjun and Negi were waiting for him, and managed to catch him before he reached the ground.

 

        “Never mind.” Negi said, grinning as he helped Neel to his feet. “It takes a little practice. But try not to raise your leg so high. You might wind up knocking yourself unconscious with your own foot.”

 

        “Try it again.” Arjun said, “Focus on doing the right movement, not the height. Stop when your foot reaches your waist.”

 

         Neel obeyed. This time he stopped his foot at his waist level, and managed to stay on his feet, although he knew his kick had little of the grace and force that Premi had exhibited.

 

        “Again, repeat the kicks until I tell you to stop.” Arjun told him, his instructors stepping away from him. Neel repeated the kicks, improving his balance as he continued the exercise. He managed to raise his foot to his chest level, and gradually, his kicks became more forceful, and much faster, until again, the men could hardly follow the movement. Once more, Arjun called for him to stop.

 

        Neel closed his eyes again, trying to regain control over his mind. Arjun stared at him, and then turned to the other two men.

 

        “I think I’ll take him out now.” he told them. “He needs to learn to control his speed before he can focus on anything else properly. Go tell Doctor Fahim that we’ll continue the combat training tomorrow.”

 

        The other two nodded. “Till tomorrow then, Neel. Take care.” Negi called out to him. Neel had regained control by now and waved back to him, a little surprised by the abrupt departure. Premi nodded to him as well as the two turned away.

 

        “Let’s go outside.” Arjun said, leading Neel out the gymnasium. “Learning to manage your speed would be a better idea right now. How often do you have trouble with it?”

 

        “It’s better now.” Neel said. “It was really hard the first few days, but I stayed up all night till I learnt that trick Doctor Fahim taught me to focus on one thing till I’ve relaxed. But I still can’t control it completely.”

 

        “We need to move beyond just slowing down your brain.” Arjun said. “Your speed can be an incredible advantage if you learn to use it well, and if you can learn to control it to speed up and slow down at will.”

 

        They arrived at the vast field they had visited the day before, with the huge open ground, and a smaller one to the far side which contained various curiously shaped bars and bluffs.

 

       “This’ll do.” Arjun said, bringing them to a stop in the middle of the field. “Now you don’t have to worry about keeping your speed down. Start running around the field with as much speed as you can manage. Stop running when you feel tired.” Neel made his way to one end of the field.

 

         Arjun turned his attention to his watch, ready to time the young boy. Neel reached the end of the field and turned, assuming the running position. Arjun nodded to him and called out, “Ready…Go!

 

          Neel took off down the field. He began slowly, trying to keep his speed under control so as not to trip and fall. But his brain began to speed up, and his legs moved unconsciously to keep up. And then suddenly he was running flat out. His heart beat loudly and joyously. He had never felt so completely alive After days of having to stay cooped up in the hospital, days of having to keep his speed slow and keeping his brain under control, it felt amazing to finally be able to leave all the worry and care behind and just run as fast as his legs could carry him. The wind swirled and whipped around him in powerful waves, and he experienced the same exhilaration he had felt the day before while jumping. Arjun kept an eye on his watch even as he followed the progress of the blur around the field.

 

          Ten laps later, Neel was still running at top speed. Arjun checked the time. No slowing down at all. Most impressive. He wondered how long it would take to tire the boy out.

 

          Thirty laps later, Neel was still running.                                  

 

          After the fortieth lap, Arjun finally called for him to stop. Neel saw Arjun waving to him, and raced straight for him. He skidded to a halt fifteen feet away from Arjun, small bits of grass and roots flying behind his trail. He walked slowly towards Arjun, a big grin on his face.

 

         “Very impressive.” Arjun said with a smile. “Did you feel any fatigue at all?”

 

          “I was starting to feel something at the end.” Neel admitted “But I’m pretty sure I could’ve still gone twenty more rounds.”

 

         “Your endurance is certainly beyond anything I’d been preparing for.” Arjun remarked. He studied Neel closely. “I noticed your speed changed pretty quickly from fast to normal just now.”

 

        “Yeah, I don’t really know how that happened.” Neel said uncertainly. “One second I was going as fast as I could, and then I saw you waving, so I came to you, and then when I stopped  running, it’s like my mind stopped speeding up as well.”

 

        “That would make sense.” Arjun nodded slowly. “When you slowed down the speed of your body, your mind, which was in control of your speed, slowed down as well.” He looked at Neel thoughtfully. “It’s a useful fact to remember.” He motioned to the smaller field on the other side. “Let’s see about your reflexes now.”

 

        “How fast was I going?” Neel asked with interest as they walked towards the field.

 

        “About ninety miles an hour.” Arjun said, shaking his head in wonderment.

 

        They reached the smaller field, and Arjun took Neel to the place where the various barbells were kept.

 

        “As incredible as your running speed is, the speed of your reflexes should be faster still.” Arjun said. “It’s going to take a lot of concentration to use that speed the right way when the time comes, and you’ll have to learn some techniques to combine them all in a useful manner.”

 

        “Do I learn all of them together?” Neel asked in surprise. “Shouldn’t I just concentrate on learning to fight for now?” But Arjun shook his head.

 

        “Ideally, it takes years to become a proficient fighter.” he said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of time. That’s why the way we plan to teach you is very different from normal combat classes.” He looked thoughtfully at the young boy. “There’s also the matter of the accelerated speed of your mind, which should mean that you are able to grasp subjects much faster than the average person can. That’s why you’ll be learning several techniques at the same time.”

 

        Neel nodded. “I guess that makes sense.” he admitted, but then added awkwardly, “Although I’m not sure about the fast learning part. I still don’t feel any different that way.”

 

        “We’ll worry about that when the time comes.” Arjun said. He took Neel to the bars, and to where a wall about six feet off the ground had been built.

 

        Arjun leaned back against the wall, his hands folded against his chest. “Have you ever heard of Parkour?”

 

        Neel considered the word for a moment, then shook his head.

 

        “It’s clearly visible in a lot of areas nowadays.” Arjun said. “I’m sure you’ve seen movies where a person is shown running over buildings, over a large variety of obstacles, climbing over walls within seconds, jumping down from great heights and rolling to the ground?”

 

        “Yeah, sure.” Neel said. Stunts like those were a staple part of action films, from Casino Royale to Barrier thirteen.

 

        “That is parkour.” Arjun said. “For a long time its various techniques were scattered in different disciplines, which have only recently been incorporated into a single activity by a man called David Belle. Parkour is defined as the ability to move from place A to B with minimum effort, no matter how many obstacles are placed in you path. If you can master that technique, you will be able to travel over any terrain and any part of the city with ease.”

 

        Neel nodded, excitement surging up within him. “So let’s get started.”

 

        “Not just yet.” Arjun said with a smile. “Useful as it is, parkour is also very, very dangerous. It deals with movement over highly unusual terrain at very high speeds. That type of activity needs constant, completely focused attention. Even a single slip can lead to serious accidents. There have been cases of broken collarbones and shattered ribs as well as spinal injuries. So I need your undivided attention for this.”

 

        Arjun indicated the bars around them. “First we’ll be learning the basic movements. Then we’ll practice them till you feel you can do them in your sleep. Let’s go.” There was a high bluff constructed at the end with steps leading to the top.

 

        Arjun went up the bluff and looked down at Neel from the height. “This is a technique that soldiers use as well.” He said. “Learning to jump down from a height is one of the most fundamental disciplines of parkour. Its how you protect your body from the force of impact when you jump from a great height.”

 

        Arjun stood up to his full height, and then bent forward slightly. For a moment he hung there, seconds away from falling down. Then he jumped neatly and landed on the ground. At the moment that his feet touched the ground, he tucked his legs in and rolled over his shoulders on the ground.

 

        “You see?”  he said, looking at Neel. “The landing room is spread over a large area instead of a single point, which reduces the force of impact of the fall.”

 

        “Yeah, I see how this works.” Neel nodded slowly. “But Doctor Fahim told me my bodies really strong now. Will it really matter if I don’t roll like that?”

 

        “It’s not just a matter of your safety.” Arjun said. “Do you remember what happened when you jumped yesterday? When you landed back on the ground, you left a huge hole on its surface. Imagine jumping like that all the time. You’ll cause a large amount of damage to the surrounding area.”

 

        “Oh, right.” Neel nodded. “So how should I do this?”

 

        Arjun showed him the correct method to roll on the ground. Neel rolled slowly over and over again, taking care to keep his head safely tucked in. His back proved uncooperative with his neck, and he found it hard to roll on his back like Arjun had, who made him repeat the movement until he had grasped the rudiments of the technique.

 

        “Now repeat the roll until I tell you to stop.” Arjun said as he stepped back.

 

        “I knew you were going to say that.” Neel remarked. He repeated the roll, taking a round of the small field. This time his speed was much slower as he was concentrating on the technique, and he had to keep checking and rechecking his posture whenever his head or arms started to get in the way of his smooth rolling.

 

        Then Arjun led Neel to an empty spot on the field, and sat down cross legged on the floor, motioning for Neel to do the same. Neel sat down in front of him.

 

        “Before we continue, you need to understand your brain more thoroughly.” Arjun said. “People use two brain modes to view the world. The analytical-rational mode is slow and logical, and the intuitive experiential is fast and emotionally driven. The second mode is largely instinctive, and it comes into play when we are in a potentially dangerous situation. Its response cannot be completely controlled by our conscious mind. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

 

        Neel nodded. “I think so.” he said slowly. “When my brain runs faster, it’s in that second mode, and then I can’t control it because my instincts take over.”

 

        “Exactly.” Arjun said, leaning forward. “But it doesn’t have to be so. An increased brain speed is not as unmanageable as it sounds. We can dream about months and years in a few hours of sleep. That’s because our mind compiles the information from the dream environment at a much faster speed, and we don’t even realize it’s happening. Hyperactive people have the same problem; their brain often works faster than they can control it.”

 

        “So that’s what my brain does in real life now?” Neel asked.

 

        “It absorbs information at a much faster rate because your brain works much more quickly now, and it wants to receive the information as quickly as possible.” Arjun said. “But your mind is designed to help you, not work against you. So if you want it to slow down, you can get it to do so.”

 

        “It’s really hard to manage.” Neel said. “Ever since waking up I’ve felt like I’ll go back to my fast brain speed if I don’t hold onto it every second. And that’s when everything is calm and peaceful!”

 

        “It’s a new skill.” Arjun said. “That’s why it seems so hard now. As controlling it becomes a habit, it’ll get easier. You saw how easily you slowed down after running at full speed. That was an instinctive reaction. You need to turn that instinct into something you can control. We’ll go through meditation and breathing techniques to help your mind and body work together again.”

 

        Neel nodded and stared down at the ground for a moment without saying anything. Arjun remained silent as well, sensing his hesitancy. “So…” Neel spoke up finally. He stared up at Arjun doubtfully. “What do you think? Can I learn all this in a few months like Doctor Fahim said I have to?”

 

        Arjun stared at him dispassionately. “Do you know what will happen a week from now? Can you control any part of time except the present?”

 

        Neel stared back. “I… no.”

 

        “Then why worry about something that is still months away?” Arjun said. “I told you, how well you learn all of this depends on how committed you are to working on it. After that, all the speculation in the world is pointless, and all the expert opinions are, in the end, just opinions. Just remember, one step at a time.” 

 

 

                                                                  *  * *

 

        Arjun dropped Neel back at the spot from where he had picked him up earlier that day. It was five in the afternoon, and the day was still quite bright and sunny.

 

        “I’ll see you here tomorrow, then.” Arjun said as Neel got out of the car. “Take care, Neel.”

 

        “Thanks. You too.” Neel said.

 

        He watched the car disappear from view, and then walked over to his cycle, swinging his bag over his shoulder. Soon he was on his way back home.

 

        Upon reaching his house, he saw that his mother was back. He opened the front gate and parked his cycle inside, calling out to his mother.

 

        “Were you all right at the coaching?” his mother asked after greeting him.

 

        “Yeah, I felt fine.” Neel said. “Were you going somewhere?” His mother was dressed up and looked ready to depart.

 

        “There’s a sale on at Meena Bazaar.” she explained. “I’ve called Bhim. He’ll be along any minute.”

 

        “Should I come too?” Neel offered. Sales were important events that saved them considerable expenses for the rest of the month, and his mother was usually laden with good by the end of each trip.

 

        His mother hesitated. “I don’t know, dear.” she said dubiously. “You shouldn’t over exert yourself. And you’ve just come back from your coaching.”

 

        “Mom, I’m completely fine now.” Neel assured her yet again. “And I don’t feel tired at all. I can help you carry the grocery and things.”

 

        His mother hesitated for a second more. But he did look completely healthy, and they both knew how hard it was to carry everything alone. Finally she nodded, “Very well. You’ll get some fresh air. But don’t carry too much, and we’ll come back as quickly as we can manage.”

 

        “Okay.” Neel said. Their doorbell rang. “That’s probably Bhim.” his mother said. “Let me get the bag and then we can go.”

 

        She brought out their bag, a very large affair with an extremely bright and lurid pink color. Neel always felt slightly embarrassed carrying it. But it was very useful when there were a lot of things to hold, and had never split open or become frayed from use.

 

        They came out of their house to see an ancient man smiling at them toothlessly through the bars of the main gate. He was lean and tiny, his skin rough and blackened from over exposure to the sun. He drove a rickshaw as old as himself, and had taken Neel to school on it when he had been too young to go on the cycle. Bhim’s hard profession had never managed to dampen his cheerful disposition, and as long as Neel could remember he had had a grin on his face.

 

        “Evening, Ma’am.” he said to Neel’s mother. “All set to go?”

 

        “Yes, Bhim.” Neel’s mother said, locking the door behind her. “We’ll just go to bazaar and back as quickly as we can.”

 

        “And how are you, young sir?” Bhim asked cordially, when Neel had taken his seat on the rickshaw. “I heard you’d had an accident?”

 

        “It wasn’t anything serious.” Neel shrugged. Then he grinned. “I don’t have to go to school for a week.”

 

        “Ar, it’s always best to focus on the positive.” Bhim chuckled as Neel’s mother sat next to Neel. “Everyone seated all right? Let’s go then.”

 

        He gripped the handle of the rickshaw and the seat on which he sat, and slowly wheeled the vehicle forward. When it had gained sufficient momentum, he leapt neatly onto the seat and started work on the pedals. Soon the rickshaw had achieved a smooth, leisurely pace.

 

        Neel sat holding the large pink bag and stared at the surroundings. He always enjoyed the gently rocking motion of the rickshaw, even though it was a source of wonder that the rickety and creaking vehicle, which looked like a strong gust of wind would reduce it to splinters, could battle on gallantly for years under Bhim’s guidance without breaking down. While his mother asked Bhim about the shortest way to the bazaar, his thoughts drifted over to all he had seen that day at Swan lab.

 

        They reached the bazaar to find a large crowd milling around the shops. News of the sale had reached households fast, and on every side Neel saw women young and old haggling with shop keepers, or waving their bag menacingly at anyone who got in their way or looked like they might be reaching for the item they wanted.

 

        “We need some detergent first.” Neel’s mothers said to him once they had gotten off the rickshaw and were standing in the middle of the busy market. Neel held the bag ready as he followed his mother around the shops. He knew the drill on these occasions. He was to hold the bag open for his mother while she deposited various things in it, and once the bag became too heavy to lift, to stand guard over it while his mother brought yet more items to place inside.

 

        The sale was highly satisfactory, and the bag filled rapidly. The familiar scene of the marketplace was made disconcerting by the blaring crescendo of sound that assaulted Neel’s sensitive ears from every direction, emanating from enthusiastic shop owners proclaiming the superiority and high value of their wares, and cynical housewives who were stoutly refusing to pay the marked price.

 

        “Madam, I can’t sell you the shirt for one third the price.” Neel heard an exasperated shop keeper shout over the din. “I’ll go broke in a day if I sell at such prices.”

 

        “What’s the point of calling it a sale, then?” came the irate reply. “I might as well just buy it from the shop. Get better quality too, no doubt!”

 

         “World’s best spices!” another voice caroled blithely. “Brought in special from Hong Kong and China and Malaysia and…” The voice trailed away vaguely, the owner’s knowledge of South Asian countries apparently exhausted. “With special ingredients from America and France and Germany!” he burst out again in sudden inspiration, his voice being drowned abruptly by the powerful engine of a car on the road.

 

        “Always the same riff raffs come here setting up there nasty little shops on the street.” Neel heard a fat woman sniff several feet away, while her perspiring daughter-in-law carried two enormous bags filled with merchandise at her side. “You’d think it’d kill them to sell some quality goods at these sales.”

 

        Neel blinked rapidly as he turned his head slightly, absorbing the sounds coming at him from every corner of the road. There was a buzzing at the back of his head that Doctor Fahim had told him was the sound of some electric signals of a higher frequency that his ears were now capable of picking up. It was all highly distracting, and he knew it would be just as bad when he returned to school. If he could just learn to block out the unnecessary sounds… 

 

        “Neel!” His mother’s voice broke through his preoccupation.

 

        He looked up at her, puzzled. She was staring in horror at his arm, holding two cans of milk motionless in her hands. Neel followed the direction of her gaze. The bag he was holding was filled very nearly to its huge capacity, and was bulging on all sides. Even a fully grown man would have had difficulty holding the bag up with both hands. Neel had it wrapped casually around an arm by the strap.

 

        “Sorry” he said, dropping the bag hastily. “I didn’t notice…”

 

        “Have you gone mad?” his mother cried, rushing forward to examine his hand. “You could have dislocated your shoulder all over again!”

 

        “Sorry.” Neel repeated. “I was thinking of something else.”

 

        “Neel, please try to understand, even if you feel as strong as before, you are not completely all right yet.” his mother said to him anxiously, cupping his face in her hands as she stared at him earnestly. “You don’t just magically recover in a few days from having a dislocated shoulder and surgery. You still have to very, very careful.”

 

        “I’m sorry.” Neel said in a low voice as he saw the fear in her eyes. “It won’t happen again.”

 

        “I think we’ve got quite a lot for now.” His mother sighed, stepping back and looking at the bulging bag. “Let’s get it back to the rickshaw. No, you stay here.” she added sharply, as Neel made to pick up the bag. “I’ll get Bhim, and then we’ll get it on the rickshaw together.”

 

        Neel nodded, and waited while his mother disappeared. She returned soon with Bhim, who had brought his rickshaw along, and parked it on the sidewalk near to where Neel was standing.

 

        “Trying to lift it all on your own?” Bhim called out. “That won’t do, young man. You’ll only get hurt. Come on, now. We’ll all get this bag into the rickshaw together.”

 

        He seized one end of the bag, while Neel’s mother seized the other. There was no place left for Neel to hold onto except the top.

 

        Slowly, huddled awkwardly around the bag, the three maneuvered it over to the rickshaw, with many grumbling from the crowd milling around them, and Bhim’s constant instructions, “Easy now, Ma’am. Steady does it. A little more to the left. That’s it.” The bag wobbled dangerously, and threatened to spill out its contents at every shake.

 

        They reached the rickshaw, and with much panting from Bhim and Neel’s mother, and many more instructions from the rickshaw puller, they raised the bag slowly, trying to get it onto the vehicle safely, and Neel trying not to roll his eyes. He seized the bag more firmly and, in a sudden swift motion, tipped it onto the bottom of the rickshaw.

 

        “There now, see?” Bhim panted, wiping his forehead on his ragged scarf. “Nothing to it. Get on then, and we’ll go as soon as I catch my breath.”

 

        As Neel climbed once again onto the rickshaw and they made their way back slowly home, there was one thought foremost in his mind. He needed to learn to gain complete control over his strength quickly, and to use it without drawing too much attention to it.

 

                              * * *

        “Well?” General Bakshi said.

 

        He stood in front of Arjun in one of the empty rooms in the main building at Swan labs. Doctor Fahim stood quietly to the side, not taking part in the conversation. He was simply there to listen. Neel had gone home, and the Captain had come back to make his report.

 

        “He has potential.” Arjun said. “And he seems eager to learn. I think he can be of use to the project, given enough time.”

 

        The General nodded. “And it is your job to make sure that happens. Doctor Fahim is treating this whole business like one of his college experiments. He does not understand that this is a military operation now. I need you to get the maximum output from the boy in the least amount of time possible.” The General did not bother trying to be tactful in his speech. He wanted the doctor to understand that this was the military’s business now, and he was in charge. Doctor Fahim did not say anything. A frown was beginning to form on his forehead, but he remained silent.

 

        “I’ll try my best, sir.” Arjun nodded. “The boy is feeling insecure, so it might take some time to earn his complete trust.”

 

        The General let out an irritated snort. “Why is everyone obsessed with earning the boy’s trust? He is a part of the project. He needs to understand what the discipline of the army means. He has agreed to work with us. We are the only people who can help him deal with his abilities. That is enough for our purpose.”

 

        “It’s not enough for me.” Arjun said evenly. “He’s not a soldier, sir. He’s a scared young boy. He needs to be able to trust us.” A small smile had replaced the frown on Doctor Fahim’s face. Seeing it aggravated the General even more.

 

        “This is not why I brought you in.” he said, staring at Arjun coldly. “You have special skills which can help the boy use his powers properly. You were not brought on board to play child psychologist for him. The boy will be fine. Stop worrying about him and focus on helping project Alpha.”

 

        “If that is how you feel, then I must step away from the project, sir.” Arjun said. “This is not a part of my duties. In fact, this is so far removed from my experience that I was tempted to decline the offer at the start. Now if I have to train the boy, I will do it my way. And I refuse to treat him as a lab rat for Alpha. If my method is unacceptable to you, sir, I will leave this project immediately.”

 

        There was a ringing silence in the room following Arjun’s speech. Doctor Fahim was gazing dreamily into the distance and humming a quiet tune. General Bakshi shot him a foul look, and then turned to glare at Arjun, who met his gaze steadily. They had worked together before, but this was the first time they had had an argument over their duties. The General was wishing fervently at the moment that he could remove Arjun from the project. But the fact remained that his skills were irreplaceable, and needed for the project.

 

        “Do you know what the worst part of this business is?” General Bakshi asked him coldly. “It is that I am surrounded by sentimental fools.”

 

        He turned and strode out of the room, leaving Arjun staring at the wall opposite him. Doctor Fahim looked at him, his piercing eyes intent. “I’m glad to see some army men occasionally listen to their conscience instead of their orders, Captain.” he remarked quietly. 

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