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


15. CHAPTER 9: Food for Thought

The next day was Sunday, and Neel sat in his house watching TV while his mother read a film magazine. A rerun of Whose Line Is It Anyway was turned on, but his mind was elsewhere. The information he had obtained yesterday was being deliberated upon by the people at Swan Labs. What the information would tell them would decide how Neel was to continue with the assignment.


        Neel sighed, thinking yet again about the night before. The entire operation had been discussed in Swan Labs and planned carefully, and it had all gone without a hitch. Now that the mission was completed successfully, he felt free to gloat over it. Fighting those criminal guards, and then later plunging through the air after the screaming Kundan. It had all been thrilling and exciting beyond anything he had done before. He couldn’t wait for his next assignment.


        At eleven, he left on his bicycle, making his way to the government building. He only had two hours to spare before Aryan came over to his house, and then they were going with Priyanka to watch a movie. Neel felt guilty about how little time he had spent with his best friends since the accident, and the excuse of resting at home because of his injuries was not going to satisfy them for much longer if they continued to see so little of him. A few minutes of waiting, and then the battered old car rolled into view. Arjun opened the window and greeted him with one of his rare smiles.


        “Congratulations on last night.” he said, as Neel grinned broadly and got into the seat beside him. “You handled the business very well.”


        “Thanks.” Neel said happily. “I was a bit nervous at first. Especially when I was moving over the city on my own and trying to stay out of sight.”


        “Did anyone see you?” Arjun asked as the car moved swiftly through the traffic.


        “No, I was really careful.” Neel hastened to assure him. “It was a pretty dark night, and I stayed in the shadows. And I stuck to the alleys and side streets in crowded places.”


        “Good. And the bodyguards?”


        “Yeah, I really didn’t know what to do about them at first.” Neel admitted. “But then Doctor Fahim told me what they were really like. After that, I didn’t have any problem. I could’ve beaten all of them at once if I’d wanted to.”  


        “Don’t get over confident.” Arjun said warningly. “This was a carefully planned and contained operation, with complete foreknowledge of the region. Conditions won’t always be so ideal. Such closed areas of operation are rare, and from now on your missions will rely much more on your presence of mind.”


        “Yeah, I know.” Neel said. But the information did not really worry him. “I’ll have you guys on link all the time. I can handle it.”


        Arjun glanced at him. But he refrained from saying anything more and returned to watching the road.


        They arrived at Swan Labs, and Arjun again took Neel to the main control room of the central building. Doctor Fahim, Divya, Negi and Premi were waiting for him. They all smiled as he entered the room with a spring in his step, grinning broadly.


        “An excellent start to your new responsibilities, Neel.” Doctor Fahim greeted him. “You have made us all very proud.”


        “Thank you, sir.” Neel said as Divya, Negi and Premi took turns shaking his hand and clapping him on his back. “I couldn’t have done it without all the planning we did.”


        “Then I hope you continue to take your training as seriously as you do now.” Doctor Fahim said. “Now let us show you what we have learned last night.”


        They moved over to the huge screen, and Negi and Premi stood next to Neel. “Your performance last night was most impressive.” Premi said with a smile. “And you sounded quite different on the link. More mature.”


        “And much more confident.” Negi agreed. “I was quite surprised too.”


        “When I wore that mask-” Neel began, shaking his head wonderingly. Then he spoke again slowly, trying to explain what it had felt like. “It’s like, you know, almost like I was watching someone else. It was like this whole other person took over. This guy who had so much power that he wasn’t scared of the guards or Kundan at all. I knew what my mission was, and now that I was finally letting him loose, this other guy was completely in control of the situation.” 


        “That feeling is understandable. This was the first time you were allowed to use your abilities fully outside of practice.” Premi nodded. “It must have been tremendously exciting. And the result was most impressive.”


        “Except at the beginning.” Negi said. “When you said at first that you couldn’t go in, I was half afraid you had frozen up like you did that night in the alley.”


        “No, it wasn’t that. I knew I could handle the guards.” Neel explained quickly. “They were fighting like they’d never had a lesson before. You know, I really think I could’ve taken on at least three of them, even if I hadn’t had these powers.”


        “Okay, easy now.” Negi said warningly. “That’s a little too much confidence. We’re all glad the mission was successful, but you can never afford to become overconfident in this type of business, Neel.”


        “Well, yeah, Of course. I didn’t mean it that way.” Neel said quickly, blushing slightly. He turned to the screen, where Divya had opened a new photo. “I’m just saying that, I’m not scared or anything.” Negi looked like he wanted to say something more, but then seemed to think better of it. They all fell silent as they turned to the computer screen.


        “This is Malik Saket.” Divya told Neel. The photograph showed a man standing outside a car, talking to some guards. He was dressed in a well cut suit, yet not even the dignified outfit or the flecks of gray in his hair could make him look completely civilized. There was a savagery in the sharp features and heavy eyebrows that hinted at a brutal nature. As Neel stared at the picture, he knew instinctively that this would be a much more dangerous opponent than Kundan. “He is a veteran of many wars, and has travelled extensively for years before returning to India. There are some rumors that he was deported due to some trouble in Iraq. He is now the chief of security of Alok Mehta’s staff. He is involved very closely with whatever Alok Mehta is planning, and he is our next lead in this business.”


        Neel nodded. “Kundan told me about him. He’s the one he’s doing business with right now.”


        “Precisely.” Doctor Fahim said. “A meeting has been arranged two weeks from now between Kundan and Mr. Saket. You will be attending that meeting, without them being aware of that fact. And there we will see what can be found.”


        “The meeting is in two weeks away?” Neel asked. “What’ll I do in the meantime?”


        “You will continue your training with your coaches.” Doctor Fahim said. “In the time left to us, we will find out everything possible about the meeting and make plans accordingly.”


* * *

        It was almost a week after the meeting with Dr Fahim and the others. Neel had not had to go to Swan Labs for the last five days, giving him time to catch up on the rest of his life. His trainers had instructed him to keep practicing his exercises every night. He had told his mother that his coaching classes were closed for a few days due to renovations, and the extra time he had on his hands now allowed him to concentrate more on school and his friends.


        Neel sat in the auditorium with his classmates and the rest of the school. Several times a year their principal, Mr. Ojha, attempted to instill some life lessons into the hearts of the students and make them better human beings, and roped in some eminent personality to give a speech for the purpose. The students rarely remembered the speeches for more than an hour, the few who actually paid attention. For most of them it was a welcome break from the monotony of lessons, and the occasional performances from students varied the proceedings a little. During most of the speech from the eminent personality, however, students spent whispering to each other or staring blankly at the stage. The last such attempt had not been a success. They had had the chairman of a company speaking to them about the benefits of hard work. The speech in itself had been quite vigorous.  But the man had a singularly depressing personality. His manner throughout had suggested that he had experienced things which would make Edgar Allan Poe shudder. All through the speech he had talked in an unaccountably crushed, heartbroken sort of way about enjoying his comfortable life now knowing he had truly earned it and deserved it, so that most students remained skeptical about his claims. 


        Now the students were prepared for another mildly interesting morning outside of classrooms as they sat in the hall. Prefects and school house captains prowled around the hall, squashing the students whenever they seemed to be becoming too boisterous. Neel was trying to avoid catching the eye of Vikalp, the captain of gold house, which was the house he belonged to. Vikalp had tracked him down not long after the accident and wanted to know why he had stopped playing football, since he had stood a good chance of getting into the house team in a few years. Neel had tried his best to keep the answer vague, while laying as much blame as possible on his injuries, but he knew that Vikalp, who took the welfare of his house and his duties very seriously, was disappointed in him.


        “You, boy! Stop talking.” Neel heard Gaurav, the head boy of the school, call out sternly. He had been speaking to Pawan, who had been holding a whispered conversation with Ghazi. Pawan gave Anand a glowering stare, and then deliberately turned his back on him and continued with the conversation.


        “Pawan.” Mr. Pannikar’s voice came quietly from the back. “Stop talking at once or get out of the hall.” Pawan turned and stared insolently at Mr. Pannikar. But then he sank back slowly in his seat and became quiet. 


        Their headmaster Mr. Ojha appeared in the doorway, a small, balding man with a dry manner, who occasionally displayed a sternness that kept most of the students in line around him. Behind Mr. Ojha walked an immensely fat man with small, puffy eyes and a jovial smile. He was apparently the guest speaker, and a lot of the smaller students giggled loudly as he passed by them, nodding graciously left and right. The prefects quieted down the younger students at once. The guest waddled his way over to the guest seats after Mr. Ojha, who was staring at the older students, silently warning them to behave. The head boy and girl shook hands respectfully with their guest, and he sank himself down comfortably, the chair squeaking a little in the silent hall. He waved to some of the younger students who were standing on tip toe to look at him, apparently unaware of the stir he had caused.


        “Santa Claus is coming to town…” Aryan sang softly next to Neel, and the students around him laughed in low voices.


        The head girl, Payal, then stepped onto the stage and spoke into the microphone. “Good morning Headmaster, teachers, my dear friends, and a special welcome to Doctor Pratap Dayal, our guest for today. We are honored to have such an eminent personality with us. Mr. Dayal is an alumnus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned his PhD in aerospace engineering, and a master's degree in applied physics from Johns Hopkins University. He accepted early in his career a position at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. He was recently awarded the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal, and is the lead author of several papers on compressible flow and computational fluid dynamics. I invite him to sit back and enjoy the program our students have prepared for this occasion.”


        Listening to the long list of his achievements, Neel could not help but feel impressed. The only man he knew with a bigger list to his credit was Doctor Fahim, and Neel knew what an important figure he was in his field.


        The show began. There was singing and classical dancing. A play by the lower standards was performed about a frog, a toad and an owl. It was heavily metaphorical, and left the students with a vague impression that it had been either about communal harmony or cheating during exams. Loud applause greeted Ronak’s performance, a senior who had created a mash up of Michael Jackson and Hrithik Roshan dances. Neel had to surreptitiously stuff his fingers in his ears on several occasions when the music got too loud, and was glad he was sitting well away from the speakers.


        The performances gave time for the students to talk among themselves with less chances of being heard. Aryan nudged Neel. “So, you’re coming to the grounds for the cricket match?”


        “Yeah.” Neel affirmed. “I’ll come to watch with Priyanka. But I’m still not well enough to play.”


        “Better get better soon, dude.” Aryan said severely. “We always fall short of players at the park. Nitin’s decent enough when he’s paying attention, but half the time he’s off somewhere else in his head these days.”


        Neel looked over at Nitin four seats away. He was staring at the stage with a dreamy expression, and had clearly already drifted off. The sages of ancient times had spent years atop Himalayan Mountains, searching for a meditative state strong enough to ignore all distractions. Nitin had learned to achieve the feat in his youth while sitting in the dark and noisy auditorium.


        “I’m really sorry, man.” Neel said quietly to Aryan. “I really wish I could come by more often. Just these last few months have been really busy. But I’ll definitely come today.” Aryan nodded and leaned back in his seat.


        Then Payal returned to the stage and invited their guest to say a few words to the students.


        The guest of honor got up and waddled his way to the stage, the wide smile back on his face. Giggling and muttering broke out through the hall again. He stood in front of the mike and gazed at the audience. The students stared back, preparing to drift off. There was shuffling and shifting in the hall as children with low attention spans and too much energy moved around restlessly.


        “Thank you, Mr. Ojha,” he spoke into the microphone in a surprisingly soft voice. “For inviting me here, and for allowing me to witness the immense talent that your students have.”


        He paused for a moment to stare at the audience. “I thought long and hard about whether I should come here, and what I would say to you all if I did. But then I realized something. It doesn’t really matter what I say.” He paused again, his voice growing quieter. “Few of you will pay attention to my speech, or remember my being here after this session is over. Young people rarely feel the need to listen to advice, and even more rarely follow it.”


        “Because you are all immortals.” 


        The shuffling and shifting stopped abruptly. Students looked startled, and several of them who had already drifted off sat up and started listening.


        Mr. Dayal stared at the audience, a strangely contemplative look on his face. “When I say immortals.” he spoke finally. “I am referring to the state of mind that people of your age possess.” He smiled. “Living completely in the present, with the future nothing more than an abstract concept. The magazines you want to read today. The film you want to see at the weekend. The exam a month away that you have to study for.”


        “But getting a job?  Putting food on the table every day? Taxes, insurance, and planning the future of your family? That is all years away. The future is of no consequence to you, because the gulf that separates it from the present is far too engrossing on its own. Why worry about tomorrow when you are here right now, young and healthy and strong, and bursting with the power to change the world around you as you see fit!”


        “Childhood is often seen as the time of beautiful illusions. When you see the world as you wish it to be. Reality is a closed box that is only opened a bit at a time. And that makes the discovery all the more thrilling.”


        “But once you begin to dig deeper,” Mr. Dayal continued, his voice now very quiet. “you come into contact with the harsher realities. Some of you have to deal with abusive families. Some of you experience neglect. Some of you live in poverty. Some of you have lost a parent or a beloved family member. Some of you struggle with illnesses, a condition which separates you from your classmates, that makes you feel different and alone.” Neel sat up straighter, listening very hard. “It is a uniquely difficult time, childhood. The sense of discovery is not always a blessing, and the thrill, or the horror, of finding out just how big and complicated the world truly is, rarely occurs again. You come into contact with new experiences everywhere, and how you understand them expands the boundaries of the world as you see it.”


        “But our minds are strange things.” Mr. Dayal paused, looking at the students intently. “When we first come across something strange which we don’t understand, our curiosity compels us to examine it, and often we use humor to cope with that strangeness. For instance, when first I came here, you were all amused by my appearance. You were joking and laughing amongst yourself at the way I looked.” His eyes swept over the hall, and several of the older students dropped their gazes uncomfortably.


        Mr. Dayal spoke again. His expression had grown very somber, and his eyes were suddenly as piercing as Doctor Fahim’s. “So what would you say if I tell you that I was born with a heart condition that prevents me from exercising, and that my thyroid gland is defective, so that my body balloons up more every day without my being able to do anything about it?” The students were all staring hard at him now, each face showing various degrees of surprise and embarrassment.


        “I was like this as a child too.” Mr. Dayal continued. “All my clothes were too tight for me, and I was hopeless at playing games.” His gaze did not falter, and his voice was steady as he spoke. “Needless to say, I had a difficult time at school. You all know how cruel children can be to each other. It did not matter that I was the brightest student in my class, or that I was a good singer. It did not matter that I was lonely, and needed friendship and acceptance. For the other children, I was simply the ridiculously, grossly fat one. I felt miserable there. I felt I did not have a friend in the world, and that I was all alone.”


        “Except that I wasn’t. I was too miserable to notice it at first, but there were also some good students there. Decent people who treated me with respect, and who eventually became my friends.”


        “So how should I deal with that part of my life? Do I stay stuck forever in that phase? Do I live a life resigned to being the freak?’ Mr. Dayal paused for a long moment. “It would have been a tragedy if I did. Instead I studied, I held onto the few friends I had. And my life improved.”


        “And then I realized a very important thing. That all that I had suffered through school, miserable as it had been, was not permanent, and I need not stay wrapped up forever in those feelings and emotions.”


        “So that is what I want to say to you all today.” Mr. Dayal said, and his smile was now as wide as it had been at the beginning. “New experiences surround you at this age. I know young people feel emotions much more intensely than their elders. It is at once a gift and a curse. To handle it all sensibly, you need proper perspective.”


        “The perspective to know the difference between what is truly important, and what only appears to be. To understand the true worth of your life, and what makes it meaningful. Not money, or popularity, but whatever helps make you a more complete person. That requires introspection, and the courage to ask yourself, honestly, what you want from life.”


        “Don’t get so consumed in your emotions that you allow them to dominate your life. The person you have a crush on doesn’t like you back. The sport you wanted to excel at is too difficult. Your grades are inadequate and your parents are upset with you. Life seems overwhelming. These and other experiences suddenly become your entire world, so that they seem like life and death events. But they are not. And you should never let them become so.”


        “Your life means more than the sorrows of your personal tragedies, or the helplessness you may feel sometimes. It is a beautiful, extraordinary thing, life. Made all the more precious because of its fleeting nature. Understand that a lot of the sorrow in your mind is only a product of the constraints society puts on you. There is more to life then getting good grades, or being a star. You will understand that better and better as you grow older.” 


        “And then one day,” Mr. Dayal paused for a long moment, and all the students as well the teachers leaned in closer. “You will realize you have become truly mature adults.” he smiled again, but this time there was a hint of soberness in the smile. “And you will understand what holds meaning for you. I can’t tell you what that is, because we all have very different desires from life. But on that day, you will look back on your school days and wonder why such little things had seemed so important at the time. That day you will remember what were the really important aspects of your school life. The friendship of your schoolmates, the love of your teachers and families, and the experience of life stretching out in front of you forever. Of being immortals.”   


        “And so I will leave you now with these thoughts. Don’t think your life is over because you are different, or don’t fit in, or are having problems in life that seem insurmountable. Those are all a part of growing up. When I was invited to speak at this school, I wanted to refuse. I did not believe I would have the courage to return to a place where I had been so miserable for so long. But then I realized something. I was no longer that scared little child of yesterday. I was no longer the fattest kid in the class that everyone made fun of. I was now a mature and educated young man with an unfortunate disease. And that is when I realized I was miserable no longer. I have many friends. I have a family that loves me. A job that I adore. I even got engaged.” he raised his hand to show the gold ring glinting on his finger. “To the most wonderful woman in the world, I might add.” he added with a sudden, boyish grin. “And so I was able to come here, and stand on this stage and speak to you all. That is the message I have to give to you all. Thank you so much for listening patiently, and I wish you all the best in life.” He started to step back, and then remembered something and stepped forward hastily to the mike again. “Oh, and also, work hard and study well, and all those other things.” He stepped back again, and this time gave a little bow.


        Applause and cheering broke out across the auditorium, and for the first time in memory, a guest speaker at the school got a standing ovation from the students as well as the teachers.   


        Several of the students, specially the older ones, continued cheering loudly as Mr. Dayal left the stage and made his way back to Mr. Ojha. The prefects tried half heartedly to get the students to quiet down. Mr. Dayal passed by Neel, and he felt the sudden urge to call out to him, and tell him how he was different too. But the impulse passed, and then Neel joined Aryan and his other classmates in the cheering. Mr. Dayal’s wide smile was back on his face as he nodded and waved to the students, and then he exited the hall with Mr. Ojha. 


        Neel filed out of the auditorium with his classmates. For the first time, he was actually thinking about what a guest lecturer had said to them. He was going over Mr. Dayal’s speech, and it amazed him how personal the message felt. It was as though he had been speaking directly to Neel. All those feelings of not belonging with his friends anymore, of being different…


        Then the entire school broke out into chatter, and he could hear children talking excitedly among themselves all around him.


        “God, I could totally relate to everything he was saying…”


        “You know, I’ve felt exactly the same way myself, so many times…”


        “It was like he was talking just to me…”


        “I used to be teased all the time, too. That’s when I realized Shalini was my only true friend…”


        “Well,” Aryan said, walking slowly next to him. “That was a lot more interesting than I thought it would be.”


        “I know.” Neel agreed. Under the teacher’s watchful eyes, their class formed a line and made their way back to their class in an unusually thoughtful silence. 


                                                      * * *


        Neel sat once again in the huge control room in front of the computer screen. Arjun and Negi and Premi were standing quietly to the left, looking on.


        “Form the information Kundan gave us,” Doctor Fahim was telling Neel. “Our best bet for getting answers would be spying directly on the meeting they have set up.”


        “Won’t Kundan know I’d come after them, after he told me everything?” Neel asked. “He must’ve told Malik Saket about me by now.”


        “Not if he wants to keep his business safe.” Arjun spoke up. “Kundan’s entire practice rests on his reputation for being the best when it comes to secrecy and safety. If it gets out that a child was able to enter his stronghold, assault his legion of bodyguards, and get information about his clients out of him, he’ll never get another contract again. Kundan will try his hardest to keep the matter quiet.”


        “Which means we still have the element of surprise.” Doctor Fahim said. “You have to remember that Kundan isn’t even sure which one of his contacts you were after, and why. The meeting place has been arranged by Alok Mehta, and will be heavily guarded. He will bank upon the fact that it would be impossible for anyone to fight through the army of armed men to get to him.”


        “But that is what I’ll be doing?” Neel asked, looking at Doctor Fahim and Arjun.


        “Something similar.” Doctor Fahim said. “We will go into that later.” He nodded to Divya. 


        She opened the picture of a poster onscreen. “A concert in aid of wildlife has been arranged by Phlicer, with famous singers performing in support.” she told Neel. “The concert will take place at Charkha Stadium, and we think the meeting will take place in a small cabin at the back of the grounds.”


        “It doesn’t seem like a very safe choice.” Neel commented. “He’s picked a really public spot for the meeting.”


        “On the contrary, Saket is making a very smart move.” Arjun said. “The place will be swarming with Mehta’s security personnel without anyone thinking it strange. People will be too busy with the concert to care about what happens in the hut, and a charity concert is not a place the police would suspect of being a set up for any illegal activities.”


        “Okay.” Neel nodded. “So I just jump in and start interrogating, like I did with Kundan?”


        “It’s a little more complicated than that.” Arjun said, folding his hands across his chest. “Saket is not a coward like Kundan, and your bully tactics won’t work on him. You will have to be more subtle.”


        “So how will I get the information from him?” Neel asked him.


        “You won’t.” Doctor Fahim said. “This time your role will be a different one. You will be the diversion while your partner does the work.”


        “I’ll remind you that the situation is much more dangerous this time.’ Arjun added. “This is not the controlled situation you faced in Kundan’s gym. There are innumerable factors to account for in these type of situations, and things can go very wrong. Planning can only get you so far. A lot will depend on your presence of mind.”


        Neel nodded. “I think I can handle it.” he said. “But who is going to come with me?”


        “Our choices are very narrow, for people with an in depth knowledge of the case as well as cybernetics.” Doctor Fahim said. “You and Divya will be going to the concert.”


        “Oh!” Neel stared in surprise at Divya, who grinned back at him.


                                * * *  


        The cool night air swept through the stadium as Divya got out of the rented car. This was a lot more field work than her job required, but she was the one who had suggested the plan in the first place when the operation was being planned, and she was the only person in the inner circle of the project who had the skills and knew enough about the case to know what to look for in the laptop. The plan was simple as long as nothing unexpected occurred. She hoped it would go as smoothly as the earlier one had. Crowds milled around her, waiting for the concert. Most of them were college level youngsters, but some older fans of the band were also present. Even though the entire concert was only a front, Mr. Mehta could not be accused of skimping on the arrangements. A vast canopy had been erected, the area inside the tent brightly lit and extensively decorated. Giant helium balloons were tied to the canopy and floated high in the air, featuring the band and wildlife aid posters. Several refreshment stalls had been set up outside which were attracting a lot of customers. It was hard to imagine the scene of cheerful revelry as a facade for criminal activities.


        After a few minutes of waiting beside her car, Divya saw Neel heading towards her. He was wearing ordinary clothes and carried a bag over his shoulders.


       “Hi.” Neel said when he reached her. “The concert won’t start for another half hour.”


       “I know.” Divya said, greeting him with a smile. “Did you get here very early?”


        “I’ve been here for half an hour, looking around, like Arjun told me to.” Neel said. “I told my mom I was coming to see the concert with some friends from class who’d managed to get the tickets, and that they’ll drop me back in their car when it’s over. It took a while but she agreed. There are four rooms spread over the grounds, but there’s only one place where the meeting can be held where no one can disturb the conference asking for the bathroom. It’s behind the stadium and away from the other rooms.”


       “Then that’s your position.” Divya said. “We’ll hang around till we see Malik leave for the meeting. You remember exactly what you have to do, don’t you?”


       “Yeah.” Neel affirmed. He had been uneasy about putting Divya in an unsafe position. But she was necessary for the mission, and as long as he did his job she shouldn’t be in any danger.


        “Then all we can do for now is wait.” Divya said. She took out her mobile and sent Doctor Fahim a message confirming their arrival. The two stood leaning against her car, watching the crowd around them.


        Neel wondered what to say. They had not talked much outside of the extensive interviews about his health and capabilities. He had developed a slight crush on Divya ever since meeting her in the hospital, although he knew it was pointless. She was very pretty, but several years older than him. She had always been nice to him, and he felt more comfortable around her than most of the others at Swan labs. She was the youngest by several years compared to the other people involved in Project Alpha and despite their age difference, nearest to his own age. Now Neel found himself wondering about her age.


        “So, how did you get involved in this Alpha thing?” he asked her. “You don’t really fit in with the whole military part of this project.”


        “I never did.” Divya said with a shrug. “I was just working on the experiments. I was studying in the college where Doctor Fahim was working on his research. They didn’t really believe he would be able to pull off what he was trying to create, but they had a lot of respect for him because of his professional reputation. He taught our batch a few classes, and I was working on a thesis for my PhD. He’d seen my work and knew I was primarily interested in research. He preferred working alone, but he was getting on in his years. He needed someone to help him with the investigational part of the experiments. After college was over, he offered me a job as his assistant.”


        “Right from the start the whole experience was absolutely fascinating. The work up to that point had been mainly experimental, but Doctor Fahim had already achieved significant results with mice. It took us a year to finally test the serum successfully on rhesus monkeys. Two years later, we were getting very close to achieving our goal. That was when the army contacted us, and took over the project. It was announced to the academic community that the serum was a failure. Doctor Fahim and I were sworn to secrecy and forbidden to tell anyone about our actual results.”


        “So you couldn’t even get your PhD?” Neel asked sympathetically.


        “Actually, I did.” Divya grinned. “I chose a much more interesting subject for my thesis. It was on the serum, and was approved through Doctor Fahim, and then locked away by the government and never mentioned again.”


        “Doctor Fahim told me how all of this is still part of an experiment.” Neel remarked.   


        “Yes, and you are the first human test subject.” Divya said.


        “Yeah, I know.” Neel said. He had heard that often enough. “But the experiment is successful so far, right?”


        “Oh yes, so far, it’s a great success.” Divya said. “There were so many factors to account for, so many uncertain outcomes. Yet here you are tonight, a fully functional Alpha Soldier!”


        “What do you mean, uncertain outcomes?” Neel asked her curiously.


        “Like we told you, you are the first human test subject.” Divya said. “It was not always possible to predict exactly what the effect of the serum would be on the human physiology. There were a lot of things that could potentially have gone wrong.”


        “Like what?” Neel asked.


        “Like the tests you went through at Swan labs.” Divya said. “The serum augments a human beings natural abilities, but that can be a handicap as well. For instance, your eyesight is improved considerably, is it not? You can see very clearly at night.”


        “Yeah.” Neel affirmed.


        “But another effect of the serum on your eyes could have been to increase your retina’s sensitivity to such an extent that you could not open your eyes in the morning or in any a bright area without experiencing severe discomfort.” Divya said. She looked at him soberly.    “We even had a pair of glasses prepared specially for the purpose, in case it really happened. Fortunately, we never had to use them. Your corneas are thicker and stronger, and allow just enough light in to allow your retina to function properly. Although bright flashes of light in your eyes will affect you worse than normal people.”


        Neel was silent, digesting this new aspect of the serum that he had never realized before. “Anything else?” he asked.


        “Your nose.” Divya said. “Have you noticed any dramatic increase in your smelling sense?”


        Neel shook his head, surprised that he hadn’t noticed that fact before. “It’s slightly better than before, but nothing like how my eyes and ears have improved.”


        “Imagine if your sense of smell had really increased to that extent.” Divya said. “The entire world would have been a giant bouquet to you. But not a fragrant one. Perfumes and deodorants are popular because most of the world smells terrible. And you would have had to endure it all the time.”


        “So why doesn’t that happen?” Neel asked, leaning in with a frown on his face.


        Divya was silent for a long moment, and seemed to be avoiding his gaze. “Because,” she said slowly, finally looking at him. “The doctors performed a small surgery on your nose to partially numb your nasal receptors and reduce their natural smelling ability.”


        “What!” Neel stared at her in amazement.


        “Believe me, Neel, It was absolutely necessary.” Divya said earnestly. “You can’t imagine what a horrible time you would have had otherwise. You can close your eyes and shut your ears, but the sense of smell can’t be controlled so easily. You would have been completely overwhelmed and nauseated most of the time.”


         Neel stared at her. He still felt indignant at having had drastic surgery done on him and never being told. But now he was also thinking about the world her words had conjured up. “I guess it’s true.” he said slowly. “I can barely concentrate because of the noise around me, and I have to use those earphones every night when I want to get any sleep. But smell would be even harder to manage.” He shuddered as he imagined going to the restroom or standing next to his sweaty friends after a game with an acute sense of smell. At least two of them considered passing gas an amusing pastime.


        “Exactly.” Divya agreed. “The precaution was absolutely necessary to ensure your peace of mind. There was also the matter of your skin.”


        “What about my skin?” Neel asked, staring down at the back of his hand.


        “It’s much tougher than ordinary now.” Divya said. “That is why you can even punch through concrete without breaking your skin. But it could also have meant that your skin had become like a rhinoceros’s hide, and lost its feeling.”


        “I can feel things fine.” Neel said, closing his fist experimentally. “I sure felt all those rubber bullets I practiced with. So why is that?”


        “Doctor Fahim had evolved a theory when we were making the serum, and we’re fairly certain it’s the right one.” Divya said. “We believe that, along with your skin, the sensory receptors on the surface of your skin have become more active as well. Which means that the combination of your toughened skin and extra sensitive nerve endings allows you to feel like a normal human being. If you had had only sensitive cells, and not the extra tough skin, you would have felt everything much more intensely, including taste.


        Neel ran his tongue inside his mouth experimentally, a frown on his face.


        “You would never have been able to eat spices or sugar or any other strong flavor.” Divya remarked. “The sense of taste would have been too much for your mind to process. Your sensory nerves would have overloaded.”


        “You might have also noticed your appetite is the same as before the accident.” Divya continued. “Even though you lead an impossibly active life now. If an ordinary person tried to do what you do, his body’s energy would run out in half an hour.”


        “I never thought about that before.” Neel said slowly. It was true he had not felt any change in his appetite since the accident. “I guess I should be eating more if I need more energy. But I don’t get any more hungry than usual. Doctor Fahim told me to eat a lot of glucose, but that’s it.”


        “The serum is responsible for that, too.” Divya said. “Ordinarily, our bodies are able to extract sixty percent of the total energy from the food we eat. Carbohydrates and fats are normally very hard to digest. But your biological functions have become much more efficient, so that your body can extract as much as ninety nine percent, which means that you receive much more energy from a meal than an ordinary person. If not for that efficiency, you would have literally dropped dead from exhaustion long ago.”


        “Wow.” Neel stared in front of him. “I never realized there were so many things that could have gone wrong with me.”


        “The likelihood was always very less.” Divya hastened to assure him. “We were quite sure the serum was fit for human use before we gave it to the army. I’m just trying to make you understand that your own case had served to confirm our theories in the real world. It required high precision work in a completely new field, and it took Doctor Fahim three decades of extremely demanding research to bring it to where it is now. He’s had to travel all over the world, consulting with other experts and experimenting all the time to finally achieve his goals.”     


        “He must’ve been really dedicated to the work.” Neel said, impressed. “I can’t imagine working on something for so long, without friends or family or anything. I’d go insane. It must’ve been so lonely.”


        “He had a family.” Divya said.


        Neel stared at her in surprise. “Doctor Fahim is married?” Somehow he found it hard to imagine the doctor as a family man. He seemed to belong in a research lab.


        “He was once.” Divya said, her voice becoming quieter. “A long time ago.” Her tone had changed and suddenly become very sober.


        “So what happened?” Neel asked


        “I’m not sure.” Divya said with a slight shrug. “He doesn’t like to talk about it too much. But we spent a lot of time together in the last three years, and I found out some things about his past in that time. He had a wife and a son once.”


        “When was that?” Neel asked with interest.


        “Three decades ago.” Divya said, and nodded slowly as Neel looked at her in surprise. “Yes, Doctor Fahim’s hard work on the serum was more than just scientific curiosity. He was a professor in a college a long time ago. He was married to a girl called Noor whom his parents had arranged for him to wed.”


        “So what happened? They didn’t get along?”


        “Yes, they did.” Divya said. “He loved her dearly. Doctor Fahim said they were the first year of marriage was the happiest time of his life.” She took a deep breath. “Unfortunately, Noor passed away while giving birth to their son Asif. Doctor Fahim tells me that to this day he feels guilty because, even with all his knowledge and work on the human body, he wasn’t able to help her. After her death, he raised his son alone.”


        “Then one day he got the message from Doctor Thompson inviting him to Africa.”


        “Did he leave his son back at home?” Neel asked quietly. He was remembering his own father, who had gone to Africa, leaving behind his pregnant wife, and then never returned…


        “His son went with him.” Divya said. “And that was their biggest mistake. The work was very hard and the conditions very poor. The local people were unfriendly, and only willing to help in exchange for money. There was a viral infection sweeping across the area, and the jungles they were working in were prime breeding grounds for it.”


        “Doctor Fahim’s son died there. There wasn’t even anyone of his family left to send the body back to, and he was cremated in Africa.” Divya shifted in her seat, her eyes sad. “Doctor Fahim tells me that he went into depression from that day on. He says that the research saved his life at that point, since the only reason he had to get up in the morning from them on was to study the serum. He felt that the only way to make up for not being able to save his wife or his son was to use the discovery to help mankind.”


        Divya fell silent, studying the ground, and Neel stood staring at her in shock. He could never have imagined that the twinkling eyes of the doctor held such a miserable past locked away.


        “And that’s why he fought with General Bakshi to keep you safe, and a part of Project Alpha.” Divya said, looking at him with a small smile. “It’s why he is so proud of you. Through you, the serum is being used to help the country like he’d always wanted it to.”


        Neel did not know how to respond, and again, he could only stare at her. “He never made it seem like a big deal.” he said finally. “He didn’t try to pressure me like the General did or anything. I never realized this meant so much to him.”


        “Doctor Fahim told me once that you when you reach a certain age you realize your own desires mean very little in the grand scheme of things.” Divya said slowly, a faraway look on her face. She was thinking about her parents, and what they would say if they were to see her now. “You just deal with whatever life gives you and try to fit your personal needs to it as best as you can. He’s thinking about what’s best for the project now, not his own dreams. And whatever way we prepared you, it is what has brought you to this point.” Neel nodded slowly.


        The crowd had begun to move in the direction of the stage. Divya looked at her watch. “Ten minutes to the start of the concert.” she said. “We’ll stay here until Saket arrives, and then follow him in.”      


        “We won’t have to wait long.” Neel said, pointing towards the entrance gate. A black Tata Sumo had entered the stadium. Mr. Malik Saket stepped out and peered at the concert banner. His harsh, brutal face held a look of complete authority as he surveyed the grounds. Neel was surprised to see only a couple of body guards with him. But then he noticed that many tough looking men in the crowd nodded to the guards and Saket and realized most of the guards were undercover.


        “Let’s go in.” Divya said. “The concert starts in five minute. Try to look normal.”


        “What do you mean, try?” Neel asked indignantly.


        Twelve minutes later, the entire stadium was filled with a deafening roar as Euphoria took the stage. They waved to the crowd, smiling broadly, and then immediately launched into one of their most popular songs. Neel hastily took out the noise cancelling headphones he had brought with him and put them on, ignoring the people in his vicinity who were looking at him strangely. The crowd grew even more loud and boisterous as the toe tapping music of Phir Dhoom filled the stadium. Ten minutes later, Neel saw Malik leave the stadium with a seedy looking man.


        “It’s time.” he said to Divya.


                                                                    * * *


        Mr. Malik Saket walked towards the solitary empty room behind the stage. His guards fanned out in all directions. It wasn’t really necessary to have so much security for this meeting, but he wanted to impress Kundan’s assistant with a sense of his power. However, the assistant seemed almost glad to see so many bodyguards.


        “Pleasure to meet you, sir.” he said in a high, slightly nasal voice, shaking Malik’s hand. “Mr. Kundan is sorry he could not come to meet you personally, but a small security matter has come up. You understand how dangerous his work is.”


         “I don’t care who I deal with as long as the job gets done.” Malik said curtly, switching on his laptop. “Let’s talk. Our business with Kundan is almost over but there are a few more things we need. See these blueprints?” he turned the laptop to face the assistant. “It’s a molten salt reactor which has been developed at the B.A.R.C. by Doctor Rajesh Sinha. It was personally designed by Sinha and is under lock and key most of the time. We need it within two weeks.”


         The assistant looked astonished. “That’s a very short time…” he began to say.


         But suddenly the roof of the room trembled, and then a fist punched through it. Before either of the men could react, the hole was made bigger by hands tearing out chunks of cement, and in the next second, a black clad figure had leapt into the room.


          Malik backed up rapidly against a wall. Kundan’s assistant was frozen in fear. All he could do was whimper, “Don’t hurt me.” The figure knocked him unconscious with a punch and turned towards Malik. Malik could hear his men coming to the door. He reached for his gun. But before he could even raise it, the figure had grabbed the gun and crushed the barrel close.   Malik stared at him in amazement, and noticed the intruder was too small to be an adult.


        “Mr. Saket, we need to have a little talk.” the figure said, and Malik realized he was indeed very young, maybe a teenager. He grabbed Malik by the waist and broke through the door. The bodyguards, who had drawn their guns, now froze, unable to get a clear shot at the assassin.


        “Take out the magazines from your guns and throw them away.” the assassin said. The guards hesitated, but at a nod from Malik they obeyed, the stage hiding the strange little drama from the eyes of the audience. “Good.” the assassin said. “Now don’t stop to pick up your guns before following us, I may have already killed him by then.”


         With that, the assassin bent and leapt fifteen into feet into the air, landing twenty feet away. He leapt again, this time moving thirty feet ahead.


         The guards were too stunned to react at first. But then they quickly scrambled after the diminishing figure of the assassin.


         Several feet ahead of them, Malik was sailing through the air. Nothing in his vast experience had happened to prepare him for this, and he had no idea how to handle the situation. “What do you want from me?” he shouted at his assailant.


        The kid came to a stop outside the grounds and dropped him. He lay on the floor, staring at the figure in the dim light.


        “You’re a famous man, Mr. Saket.” the kid said. “Lots of people you’ve double crossed. Maybe one of them sent me to kill you.”


        Malik had regained his poise by now. He sat up slowly on the ground. “If you’d wanted to kill me, you could’ve done it in that room. But apparently you want to threaten me instead. Since you seem to know a lot about me, you should know who I work for, so it’s impossible that you’d think one little boy could scare me.”


        “You just saw me punch through the roof, do you really want to talk about what’s possible and what’s impossible?” the kid said quietly.


         Malik stared at him, remembering the giant leaps. “What’s your name? Who do you work for?” he asked.




        “Than what do you want from me?” Malik yelled.


        “To show you I’m keeping an eye on you.” the figure turned to leave, then turned back and added, “Say hi to Kundan from me.” With that he jumped into the air, disappearing from sight, just as the bodyguards came running to Malik.


        Back in the small room behind the stage, Divya stood in front of Malik Saket’s laptop. Kundan’s assistant still lay unconscious on the floor. The first part of the mission had gone smoothly. All the guards had gone after Saket and Neel, but there was no guarantee for how long they would stay away.


        She inserted a pen drive into the laptop. The laptop was heavily encrypted and protected by innumerable security measures. It would have been virtually impossible to access under normal circumstances. She had been given the assignment because of the possibility that the unprotected laptop might still have been some security measures left to hack through. But now it all lay open in front of her. She swiftly sifted through the data on the laptop, copying everything that seemed important. List of security personnel. People visiting the company. Various machines and equipment dealt with recently.


        Finally, Divya was satisfied that she had everything of importance. She took out the pen drive and exited the room swiftly. She was making her way back to the stadium when a voice came to her ears.


        “Hey, you!” the alarmed voice shouted. One of the guards had come back to check on the laptop, and seen her suspiciously near the room. Divya did not turn, but continued to walk swiftly towards the stadium. The guard hesitated, wondering whether he should follow her. But then he made his way to the cabin to check whether the laptop was safe.


        Divya made her way through the roaring crowd and out of the concert hall. She checked her watch. Neel should be leaving Saket and returning to his house. She made her way to her car, sending another message to Doctor Fahim confirming the success of the mission. She hoped the information on the pen drive would be worth letting the enemy finally see the Alpha soldier.


                                                           * * *


         Half an hour later, Malik stood in front of Mr. Mehta in his office at Phlicer.


        “… He threw me down and got away before the guards could get there. Srivastav said he saw a girl near the room when he went back. But the laptop was safe, and he can’t be absolutely sure if she’d actually gone into the room. Our men searched the area but the kid had disappeared. I don’t know who would use such type of an agent.”


         Mr. Mehta leant forward, his expressionless face showing nothing of what he felt. “And what did you say the boy did?” he asked.


        “He could punch through walls, move faster than I could see and jump thirty feet in the air.” Malik said, anger struggling with awe in his voice. “I wouldn’t have believed it was possible if I hadn’t seen it myself. And when I asked Kundan’s assistant, he admitted the kid had trashed Kundan’s gym and security guards a few days ago. Single handed.”


        Mr. Mehta nodded, staring silently ahead. Malik waited for him to speak, but he remained in his reverie.


        “What does this whole business mean?” Malik finally growled. He was filled with a cold fury. Everything about the intruder had been a mystery. And Malik hated mysteries. He hated not knowing the enemy and not being able to prepare an attack against them.


        Mr. Mehta leaned back in his chair. “It means,” he said slowly. “That Project Alpha is a success.” He stared at the opposite wall, still lost in thought. “How very interesting.” he murmured.


        “Project Alpha?” Malik frowned at him in confusion. His employer knew of his dislike for working in the dark. But Mr. Mehta very rarely shared all of his thoughts with anyone. “What is that?”


        “The distant cousin of Kumbhkaran.” Mr. Mehta said quietly. Malik gazed at him in shock as he rose to his feet.


        “Very well, Malik.” he said calmly. Even the news of the botched meeting had not elicited any emotion from those curiously impassive eyes. “We won’t need Kundan anymore. We will find another way to finish the deal with Fuji Yama. Reschedule our appointment with them for next week and triple the security around the complex. Give guns to all the guards. Send Joshi to me with the head of the engineering department. I need them to make something for me.”


         As Malik left, Mr. Mehta walked over to the window, watching all the workers beneath the size of ants toiling away. This little incident opened up vast possibilities but...


         A little more caution would now be required.

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