ARC

A little bit of everything


Tag: Fiction

Bare Neck, Broken Glass

There are certain moments that you remember even years later with a terrible clarity, reliving every second of what happened as if it were happening again around you. The details are like needles poking your mind and sharpening your memory. You remember the slant of the sunlight that fell on his forehead. You remember the words of the song she was singing. You remember the sound of the wind rushing outside. You remember the sound of breaking glass. And you even remember in excruciating detail the moment that seemed to last forever as it hung before your eyes like a question for which no one had an answer.

We were traveling for the weekend. We were on our way to Freiburg. From there our plan was to head on into the Black Forest. It was winter, just after Christmas. We planned to go where the snow would be thick. I wanted to be surrounded by a blinding whiteness to wipe everything from my mind while my friends wanted to ski. It was a perfect arrangement. I could wander the whole day through the forest and photograph the snow covered landscape and trees to my heart’s content while my friends would practice their skiing skills on the slopes of Seebuck. We would be staying in a quaint little hostel in the nearby village of Feldberg.

The friends I was traveling with were German. I had met them both while couch surfing through Hamburg back in November. Frederica was 31 years old and was just starting out as an architect. Her boyfriend Klaus worked as a consultant for the state environment ministry. He was 30 years old. Unlike the popular stereotype of Germans they were anything but reserved. We had connected instantly and my stay in Hamburg was a particularly memorable one. We ate, drank and talked late into the night about everything in the world. It was during one of those endless conversations when time seems to fly by so fast that the idea to travel together was conceived. They were not big on Christmas and I as usual would be on my own doing nothing. Since they were big ski enthusiasts and I wanted to be surrounded by snow we decided to travel to the south of Germany. We arranged to meet in Frankfurt as it was a convenient place for them to pick me up as they drove down south. The day I met them again in Frankfurt was one of those rare winter days with a very bright sun, although the sun did nothing to dispel the cold. But we were warm in the car and the conversation flowed again on the long drive as if it had never stopped.

The meandering conversations helped me forget the many issues I was dealing with. It was a particularly trying time for me on the personal front. I had recently gotten out of a relationship that was going nowhere but the whole break up had turned very bitter. They were problems on the home front too. My sister had fallen in love with a Muslim boy and my conservative parents were not happy about it at all. So twice a day I had to listen to my parents rant about how my sister had shamed them in front of society. As a result of all these happenings my work got affected and I had already been subjected to two performance reviews. On more such review, I was politely but firmly told, I’d be on my way out. Naturally, I felt like running away to some far off place, away from all the seemingly silly troubles that I was unable to deal with. The trip, the warmth of my friends and the solitude of snow would give me some time to recover and recharge I thought.

I also sensed that Klaus and Frederica were having some problems of their own on the relationship front. Although they never talked about their troubles and seemed to be perfectly happy they would frequently start arguing for no reason. The arguments, on the surface, were about superficial things but I could sense that something deeper lay behind them. From the little hints that Frederica dropped from time to time I guessed that it had something to do with the question of starting a family. It seemed as if Klaus was against the idea for economic reasons while Frederica like many women of her age thought that biological time was running out for her.

But in that car our conversations cut through our troubled thoughts. We enjoyed the changing landscape around us as we passed into the scenic state of Baden-Württemberg. The sky peppered us with a light snow from time to time which immediately froze as soon as it touched the cold ground. We caught up on gossip about film stars we did not like. We argued about the US foreign policy. Frederica and I debated whether Calatrava was better than Foster. Klaus criticized our skepticism about climate change. Later, Frederica and I started singing Klaus’s favorite songs intentionally off key to irritate him. To make us stop he tried to scare us by attempting to drive erratically on the slightly slippery road. It was during that moment that it happened.

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Trimax Reloaded

I. Origins

The world slowly swam into focus. The light first dissolved into multi-colored blurs and later solidified into vague shapes. The surroundings wavered and then acquired distance. He was in a room filled with what seemed like the technological detritus of late twenty-second century. He felt lighter. His body felt smaller too. There was a tingling sensation on the back of his neck that receded slowly. Who was he? He had a name, didn’t he? The details of his surroundings floated in like a supply ship docking on a service port. He was in a store room of some sort. It looked as if the room was used by service bots to repair security clusters. There were vast stacks of unopened sub-routines and looped commands. There were piles of highly redundant firewalls. In between all this, sprinkled like dew, were the thin trails of data transmission tubes. Yes, now he knew why he was there. It all came rushing back in a streak of silent white noise.

He needed to get the cube.

The contact had been made a few months back by a mysterious caller who never gave her name. But when pressed she had asked to be referred to as Trin. In fact, he was not certain that Trin was a woman but from the beginning, for some reason, he always assumed the caller was a woman. Normally, he never took on anonymous jobs as they were too risky. He made an exception for this one as he had been intrigued. Trin had used a voice masker to hide behind a machine voice. That itself was not surprising as many who contacted him did the same thing at first. But what surprised him was her refusal to meet in person and the vast amount of money he was offered for the job. Yes, the job she wanted him to do was extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible, but the money was really good and even though he hated to admit it the money offered made the job look sweeter.

After all, giving credit where it was due, he was the best in the business. Few people could afford his services. In fact, nowadays, it was only the megacorps that contracted him. He had made his bones at the beginning of the digital age. He hid behind impenetrable barriers and searched for chinks in the primitive armors of the early cyber databases. He had learnt a lot then. He had also acquired his famous (or infamous based on the viewpoint) handle then, ‘Trimax’.

The job she gave him was curious too. She wanted a data cube copied from the main database of the Bangalore based Hive Consortium. Hive was a low profile company involved in robotics and AI. He checked up on them to find that they were heavily funded by the Indian Army and did a lot of highly secretive research into mechanized warfare using AI. He was not surprised to find that their databases were heavily guarded but not in an obvious manner. Surprisingly, no one in his circle knew anyone who had tried hacking into their database. He admired how they had managed to maintain such a low profile even in an age of high level scrutiny. Trimax remembered Trin’s highly specific instructions.

“The data cube cannot be found using ordinary search routines as it is not indexed unlike all the other data cubes in the cluster. You will have to come up with a new routine to find it.”

“Then that is impossible. I do not even know what to look for, leave alone where to look for. Hive’s database is huge. I need at least a tag.”

She paused for a few seconds and replied, “Will a third order tag be sufficient?”

It was better than nothing. He would still need to work fast but he was confident that with a third order tag he could localize the cluster the cube would be in easily. After that it was only a matter of seconds while he narrowed down the search and found the correct cube. So he had said yes and a few days later she sent by secure mail the third order tag. The tag had an innocuous label ‘matrix hive mind access’.

The next few days he spent writing a search routine to ferret out the cube. There was no way to test the routine before the hacking run. The risk of the routine being copied and spawned was too great and she had given strict instructions not to use it in a trial run. So he had to be pitch perfect. One wrong caller function or inexact algorithm and he could kiss his life goodbye. The geisha would be on him in an instant. To increase his chances of staying undetected during the run he also purchased elaborate decoys from a very reliable dealer out of Tokyo. The dealer had assured him that they never had been used and would fool any security drone in the world. The decoys would be crucial in fooling the geisha and buying him some time while his search routine got executed.

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The Point of No Return

The sudden throb of a passing truck woke him up. He opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. It was a strange dream. His dreams would often dissolve into nothingness upon waking but this was one of those rare ones which still lingered in his eyes. In the dream he had been on the roof of an old building. All he could see in front of him was a line of white sheets hung out to dry on a rope. He penetrated the first line only to find another line of similar white sheets hung to dry. Layer after layer he went in to find more of the same. Soon he was lost in a sea of soft translucent white. He did not know right from left or front from back. For a moment he had the feeling that he was in a womb of white light. It was comfortable in a strange way but underneath that feeling of comfort there was a sense of panic that was waiting to be released. It was at that moment that he had awakened.

Shruti stirred beside him and mumbled something in her sleep. He turned to look at her. She was lying on her stomach. Her right hand was splayed across his chest and gripped his trunk, as if holding onto him while buffeted by a fierce wind. Her hair tried to walk across his face when moved by the thin breeze from the fan. She looked peaceful and loved in her sleep as she always did. She never remembered her dreams either. Even now she could not help hugging him in her sleep. It was one of his little secrets as he always woke up before her.

He disengaged himself gently from her half embrace, taking care not to wake her up, got up and sat on the edge of the bed. He picked up his watch from the sideboard by his bed. The hands read 6:30. His day normally started at 8. He was too keyed up to go back to sleep. Dawn was just beginning to break. The room was bathed in dim light from the window by the side of the bed. He got off the bed and looked around the room. It was sparsely furnished. A frugal existence on a scholarship did not offer much opportunity to lead a luxurious lifestyle. Almost all the furniture had been bought second hand. Therefore, the room had this mismatched look to it that came from putting together furniture of differing styles and make. But it looked comfortable and cozy. Two qualities the room owed to the care and diligence of Shruti. She had worked wonders with the limited resources they had.

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The Rave

It happened at the rave. I was supposed to cover the event as an unofficial photographer. I jumped at the chance as I had never been to a rave before and hadn’t done much night photography. The rave was in an old castle on the banks of the Rhine beyond Bonn. You entered the grounds, went beyond the main walls to enter a small covered space that was enclosed by the castle walls on three sides and the outer boundary wall on one side. This gave the place the shape of an amphitheater. I saw my friend immediately. He smiled, waved and came over.

“Thanks a lot for coming. I’m very glad you could make it.”

“My pleasure. I hope I’m not too late?”

“No, not at all. We are about to start so you came at the right time. Do you need any help setting up?”

“Thank you but no. I can manage. So what is it exactly that I need to do?”

“Oh, nothing very special or particular. Just take as many photos of as many people as you can. And don’t worry, people won’t mind. If you have a problem just call me. Ok, I gotta rush now, so many things that need to be arranged, you know how it is, so have fun shooting and I’ll see you around the place.”

With that he rushed off.

It didn’t seem to be a big party. There were in fact very few people for a rave. About 100 people I’d say. There seemed to be an equal number of women and men. I was the only non-white there. From the start I felt a little out of place. I don’t like being surrounded by white people. They give me the creeps for some reason especially when I don’t understand the language spoken by them. But I was doing this for a good friend so I suppressed my uneasiness and set up my camera equipment. The light was low and since I do not like using flash I had to use fast glass.

That’s when the music hit me like a bomb blast. The sound was almost on the threshold of pain. It was like a wall of throbbing sound twisting my insides and hitting my heart with the force of a gale wind. It felt as if something was churning my insides and I was being turned inside out. I staggered and became numb for a minute as I adjusted. I did not recognize the music but it sure did slice through bone marrow and make you want to dance. It was a pity I had to concentrate on the job at hand. I was ready to dance the night away!

The music seemed to have been the signal. The lights dimmed and people started gyrating. It was fascinating to watch them. There were perfectly in step to the music. It was as if they were choreographed, which was a bit weird as I had been under the impression that a rave was all about letting go and freaking out. But their movements had a strange beauty to them, a subtle sensual quality that under the dim lighting made the dancing seem mildly erotic. I watched this for a while before I remembered the reason I was there.

I switched on the camera, cranked up the ISO and plunged into the crowd, with great hesitation I must add. I normally do not like photographing strangers as I’m too shy to approach them and being a foreigner doesn’t always help things. But my friend’s words had been reassuring and I guess the dim lighting also helped my confidence. More than anything though, the whole spectacle was too damn interesting to be not captured!

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The Lost People

“People, people, people,
listen, listen well to this song
passed on to me by our fathers.
It is about the pale men
who came to our shores
in big brown boats.

They doffed their hats and proclaimed, “Dear sirs, this land is ours”.
We laughed at their funny names and
wrinkled our noses at their peculiar fish smell.
They came up to us and said, “Give us your gold”.
We smiled and asked why.
“To protect you sirs.”
So we laughed some more and opened the temple doors.
We were children of the sun. We didn’t need gold, did we?

Years passed and their numbers increased with every boat load
while our numbers dwindled due to diseases
brought by those greedy men and women.
One day they came and put chains on our hands.
We sighed and asked why.
“To teach you civilization sirs”, they said.
So we bent our backs and tilled our/their lands.
Our sweat turned brown land into green fields.

Years passed, and our last chief
was murdered in the battle of bended knee.
Then they came and took away our children.
We cried and asked why.
“To build a new nation of equals sirs”, they said.
So we broke our hearts, sat around the fire and sang sad old songs.
What else could we do?
The laughter of our children had been swallowed by the molting moon.

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Shanghai Nights

First Sleep – Cliff Martinez

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A phone rang in the background. People trying to reach others on the edge. I observed her from the other side of the room. Her polite smile. Her naughty laugh. The way she drank a shot, so elegant and sexy. It was raining outside. The whispers of so many strangers mingled with the drumming of the raindrops on the roof. I wandered through the crowd to get a better look at her. The seat next to her was empty. She turned and glanced at me with a half smile around her lips. I slid my shot across and ordered a fresh one. We drank.

“Can you resist an impulse?”

“I don’t know. It depends.”

“On what?”

“On what I’ll gain out of the impulse. Will it give instant gratification or do I need to persevere? What about you?”

“Oh yes! I always give in to my every impulse. You know that is why I’m talking to you, based on such an impulse.”

We went out to sit on the porch and watch the rain. In the distance, landing lights flashed. Planes took off and landed at regular intervals. The warning lights on the airport radar blinked cryptic messages. There was that special smell of wet earth.

She went in to get some food. It was a Chinese dinner. She came back with two bowls filled with lightly spiced egg noodles and two pairs of metal chopsticks.

“I do not know how to eat with chopsticks.”

“Neither do I but I like the way chopsticks feel in my hands, especially these metal ones. Let’s keep them as souvenirs.”

She smiled and started picking up noodles with her fingers. She was quite good at it. It was not messy at all. I tried to emulate her as best as I could.

“You know, I lived in Shanghai with my parents when I was a child. It was a different city back then. No high rises. No glitz. No sleek highways. I remember this old fisherman in the fish market from whom we always bought our fish. He taught me how to eat noodles without chopsticks. It was funny how I ended up talking to him. He spoke very good English…”

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Dark Places

We met at one of those dark places. The silence between us had stretched. She was inhaling the new liquid. I was on the one with three letters. Twice our lips touched across the divide. A bridge of tongues. A stream of saliva. The mixture of lips.

“Do you believe in coincidence?”

“Do you believe in chance?”

The music swirled and swooned. Through our levitating bodies. Our fingers touched forbidden places. A moist sensation. A fluid emotion. Sudden laughter behind our eyes. Tears carved new pathways on her cheeks. I leaned forward and licked them off.

“How weird is that?”

“Yes, a midget and a transvestite having sex on the dance floor.”

“I saw you yesterday, in my last dream before I woke up.”

People swayed around us, drunk on this and that. There was something in the air. A flash? A streak? A swoosh? I inhaled her smell. Pheromones called out in a primitive language. Glasses tinkled beside us. Multi-colored liquids sloshed in perfectly shaped receptacles.

“I see you in my eyes.”

“Perhaps we should dance in our minds?”

The light faded. Conversation muted suddenly like a TV heard across a hotel wall. Where were we? Did you recognize us? Inside all was bright and innocent light. Outside was a kaleidoscope of sensation.

“I want to kiss your eyelids.”

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The Hotel

“I’m telling you it was her man!”

“Boy, you must have been dreaming. How can it be her? She is thousands of miles away.”

“No, dude, I’m pretty sure it was her. I even followed her a little just to make sure. She is here. I’m willing to bet on that.”

We were on our way to a party neither of us wanted to go to when he dropped this bombshell. The thought that she was right here, in this city, made my heart race without my realizing it. It had been what, five years I think. We had said our goodbyes under difficult circumstances. I had never expected to hear from or about her again. But the world is small and in this era of connectedness any person from the past can pop up anywhere.

“So are you going to meet her?”

That question had been hanging in the air between us ever since he had said that she was here.

“I don’t know. Too much baggage still to be cleared on that front. So where did you see her?”

“At that hotel you guys used to frequent, you know.”

Yes, I knew the place. It was our adda so to speak. We were there practically everyday, so much so that the people working there knew us by our first names. In fact, we could get a room at a moments notice, a convenience which we often availed of frequently.

The street lights flashed by outside. The traffic lights blinked like owls. Traffic was sparse in this part of the town. It was a beautiful night. The wind flowing in through the window was cool on the skin. It was like drinking a glass of fresh water from a matka on a hot summer day.

The silence between us had stretched into a comfortable vacuum. Any thought was possible.

“Do you think she will look you up, you know, for old times sake?”

When lines converge life looks different. Ideas of fate take on an entirely different meaning. Yeah, that was indeed a million dollar question.

“I doubt it. If I know her she won’t. She is much stronger than me in that way.”

“What will you do if she called?”

“I’ll say hello.”

“Very funny. Seriously man, what will you do if she called up and said she wanted to meet you?”

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Mouse Trap

I know three ways to kill a mouse. Squeamish already? Then stop reading right now, the going will get even worse. Reading on? Then don’t bitch later that I didn’t warn you! So let me start again. I know three ways to kill a mouse.

1. Hold the mouse down by pressing the first three fingers of your left hand on its neck and with your right hand pull on its tail until you hear the crunchy sound of a bone snapping. This is called cervical dislocation.

2. Take dry ice in a tall jar. Put a cloth on top of the dry ice. Then drop the mice, one after the other, into the beaker and cover it with a lid. If you are of the perverse kind you can take immense pleasure in watching them twist and jump, suffocating inside the death jar. I’ve seen some mice jump 10 times their height. Teach them pole vault and Sergei Bubka will develop an inferiority complex. Dry ice is frozen carbon-dioxide, all of minus twenty degrees cold. The mice die for lack of oxygen. The CO2 fills up their brain and starves it of oxygen. The cloth is to collect the involuntary discharge of pee and poo.

3. Inject Avertin, twice the body weight of the mouse. It goes into a coma. Now comes the moment of truth. Open it up and have a bloody ball. Cut out its liver, dissect the muscle and take out fat. You can have the brain for free, only, you will have to cut the head off and open the skull up. Avertin is a muscle relaxant sending the mouse on a ride to rodent heaven or hell. I don’t know.

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The Shot

There are certain shots that develop in your head, day after day, like…like the verses of a new poem. Frame after frame, you peel away different compositions and angles until something clicks and you attain that flawless frame, where everything is balanced and the light is perfect. And then you go out and actually capture that shot as it is in your head.

Like the photo she posed for me the other day. The place was an old abandoned factory. She was in the middle, lying face down, curved around an old oil drum, her ass pointing towards my camera and two of her fingers inside her dry vagina. I chose an aperture small enough to get everything of her in focus, from the tips of her fingernails on her sex to the look of wide-eyed innocence in her eyes. There was no flash or artificial light. The available light came from huge glass windows from either side of her in the distance, diffused and soft. I shot off a few hundred shots as her cunt became progressively wetter.

It was a shot that had been popping up in my dreams and then later seeped into my every conscious thought. I never thought I could actually get the shot in reality. But it happened.

She was doing this only for me. I didn’t ask her. She asked me. Why? I’ve no idea and am not interested in finding out. But that didn’t stop me from speculating. She always had this thing for voyeurs. In fact, that is how I got to know her in the first place. I used to observe her all the time. She lived opposite my house, only a narrow space separating our homes. The line of sight from my bedroom window dropped directly into her bedroom. Each evening, I used to wait for her to come home and go through her characteristic languid yet very erotic process of shedding her clothes one by one. Actually, I found out much later that it was all a show for me. She had realized from the beginning that I was observing her. I still don’t know how. So she would go through the exact same motions, day after day. She derived as much pleasure from it as me, perhaps even more. It helped that her bathroom was attached to the bedroom. Both the observer and the object of observation were influencing each other.

The silence in the vast empty space sounded natural as we did not need to communicate. A short wave of my hand and she would adjust her legs as I wanted them. An eyebrow raised and her eyes would speak the language my heart wanted. Click…click…click…the cameras clacked, capturing her for eternity. A funny thought suddenly flitted through my mind. What if there were a nuclear holocaust and these photos would be all that survived; a last testament for humanity’s existence? I laugh inside myself. How many schools of thought/theories would arise over these pictures in some distant future? I laugh some more.

We took frequent breaks as she couldn’t hold that pose for long. But I think there was another reason. I think she was getting off over the whole setup. So she cooled off a little during the break, sustaining the excitement but not peaking. Later, as if to prove my point, she fingered herself to a violent orgasm, off camera of course.

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