Prologue X-24

November 15, 1995, Jodhpur, Rajasthan

The asylum dormitory had a pall of gloom hanging over it. The stench of urine and feces gobbled up the room as the deranged children stuck to the rat-infested corners, their eyes lifeless like barren deserts. The cobwebs, older than many of the inmates, spread their legs and squatted over the abandoned holes. ‘Water… water!’ groaned a child, words dribbling out of a parched throat seized by the claws of thirst. His eyes drooped down like overloaded gunny bags, and his visage betrayed hopelessness. The vitality of a child was all but sucked out. His frail frame, reduced to a mangled combination of bones, moved in conjunction with the blistering wind zipping through the broken glass window. The future ahead was a mirage, and hope, an unaffordable luxury.

Exasperated with the recurring pleas, an old woman started towards him with her freckled face simmering with malice. Her silvery hair flopped down on the back of her shoulder, and the skinny right hand wielded an old broomstick. Meera Chachi was wearing a white nightgown that shone like moonlight filtering through dusty curtains. The other children drew back a little as the daunting figure in the corridor lumbered towards them. A dim yellow light flickered in the otherwise eerily unlit room and illuminated her face intermittently.

She fixed her eyes, wild with rage, on the child and shouted, “You have already gulped down two glasses of water! All you dimwits do is sleep and eat every day. You suckers don’t need water! I will show you what you need!”.

Her voice sounded like two sandpapers rubbing against each other. The child stared blankly at her, drenched in fear. He knew the dire consequences that would follow if one made Meera Chachi angry. When the yellow light ceased to flicker and reached a semblance of stability, the old lady’s face came into vision.

She was now smiling, her broken teeth forming a random pattern littered with caverns. The senile worker had decided to have some fun.

The broomstick came crashing down like a thunderbolt upon the child’s head, pushing him off balance. Vicious blows rained on him like a hailstorm, carving out scars – conspicuous souvenirs of the horrors endured in this purgatory. The other children, jolted by this sudden outburst, shrieked and recoiled, overwhelmed by terror. Nikhil crawled like a lizard, pushing himself forward by extracting every bit of vitality hiding in his frail body. Meera Chachi, though, was hell-bent on purging the remaining strength out of his battered ribs. The blows were so incessant and methodical that a Soviet factory manager would’ve been proud.

He whined in pain, his eyes welling with tears. “Shouldn’t waste water! Hold back your tears! What has happened to her?” he muttered.

Well, who was he bluffing? It was, after all, a routine episode in the asylum. Screams emanating from agonizing pain were no more atypical occurrences, and both the inmates and staff had grown numb to them. His parched throat managed to squeeze out a few inaudible words, and he gasped, taking in a few deep breaths.

As his hoarse voice gradually stabilized, he cried, “I want to go home! Please! Someone get me out of this wretched place!”.

The corridor reverberated with the shrill screams. Unfortunately, they were trapped inside the confines of the dilapidated building, unable to escape into the outside world. The structure, constructed in 1885, had started to show signs of disintegration. The paint had started peeling away, like the bruised skin of the young boy. But the cement still held the bricks together, mirroring the adhesive of love that bound the boy to his family. What reason did he have to stay alive? His childhood had been snatched out of his arms, and happiness was an intangible concept beyond his comprehension. His lips had forgotten how to curve into a smile with fear and desperation gripping him. The cries of anguish gently descended into submissive silence, and Meera Chachi fielded a winning smile.

The flurry of beatings he had endured had left permanent scars on his tender skin. Blood streamed out of the various wounds scattered over his body. The rest of the lot huddled up in the corner of the room. 

Except for one youngster who sat in the corner of the room. 

He stared down at the floor in silence, his eyes unwavering. He was the outcast; the recluse who didn’t engage in conversations with anyone. Those who had tried to strike a dialogue with him had been greeted with flat stares. What really went on in that mind of his? This question intrigued many, but the inmates were too scared to go seeking for answers. The woman, meanwhile, with her anger sated, stalked off cackling hysterically.

The other boys rushed to the aid of Nikhil, who was vomiting blood. Naveen, a fellow inmate, put his hand on the young boy’s shoulder and offered a few comforting words.

“Are you alright, Nikhil? Look, I have stashed a few bottles of water that Ambika Chachi gave me. You can have these”, he said, pulling out a bottle hidden under a heap of blankets.

Nikhil gulped down the water in a few seconds, and as he finished drinking, tears started streaming down again.

“Do you know what is outside this place, Naveen? Do you? No! All we idiots know is survival. Today, I survived. What about tomorrow? Or the day after? One day I will be dead, deprived of food and water. I will die without seeing what lies outside these four walls,” he bawled.

Naveen shook his head in disdain. He knew they would be sitting ducks for the wardens if they harboured any thought of escape.

“We all share your curiosities, Nikhil, but what can we do about this? If we try to keep one foot outside this room without permission, we will be shot dead. Don’t you see the cameras looking at us everywhere we go? I, too, want to experience the outside world! I have heard that there are huge buildings, trees that are twenty times our height, huge mountains that give us views of whole cities, and water bodies that stretch for hundreds of miles! Food, too, will not be a worry. There are huge places called farms where they grow fruits and vegetables! They look like they have enough food to satisfy even fatso Raj’s tummy!” said Naveen chuckling.

Raj, the butt of all fat jokes, rolled his eyes and stifled a groan as the other boys fielded wan smiles.

“Where did you get all this information?” asked Nikhil, his hands getting jittery with excitement.

“Well, Mrs Ambika told me this. She is the only friendly worker here. I try to get the most fascinating features about the outside world from her. I then think of what the outside world will look like by putting together these pieces of information, like how we do while playing the Bonjo puzzle.”

“That is, ‘if’ we get out of here, right?”

“We will,” snapped someone out of nowhere. Nikhil turned towards the source of those words. The recluse regarded him with a fierce gaze and added, “We are not going to rot here for long. Take my word for it.” He was now whispering, looking to his sides to make sure no one was catching his words. The room was immersed in random gossip, helping his cause.

“You… have a plan?” asked Nikhil, hesitating to get into a conversation with him.

“Yes, but I can’t tell you about any of that right now. First, I need you to do something for me. The inmates of this dormitory will be split into groups of four and sent to smaller rooms next week. I want you to get together with me. Also, you must somehow bring Naveen and Suraj on board too.”

“Hey, hold your horses! First introduce yourself ” Nikhil asked, managing an awkward grin. The boy’s brooding presence still intimidated Nikhil, and scheming an escape strategy was the last thing he wanted to do with him. With his intentions and identity shrouded in mystery, Nikhil wanted to tread cautiously.

“My name is Arjun, at least that’s what my uncle told me when I lived with him. Don’t associate the identity of people with their names. A name is a part of the facade one is putting up to fit in the society. Look into his mind and unearth the most important facets of his identity like memories, familial relations, etc. You will learn more on the go. Right now, I want you to enlist Suraj and Naveen into our team,” he said before turning away from Nikhil and walking out of the room.

Nikhil gaped at him in stunned silence as the chatter around him continued to grow. He fumbled, attempting to acquire a firm grasp on the ideas that Arjun had just shared. “Who the hell are you?” muttered Nikhil as he made out his silhouette sludging into Meera Chachi’s room.

“It’s over, Meera Chachi. You shouldn’t have done that to Nikhil. He is my friend. Don’t you know that?” Arjun said, the calm, unsettling cadence sounding alarm-bells for the eighty-year-old warden. Her eyes filled with dread as the inevitable flitted in front of her. She clenched her teeth and tightened the grip on the arm-rest. Her breathing became heavier as each second passed on, like a sprinter nearing the end of a marathon. Arjun just smiled, relishing the moment. She tried to talk, but all she could manage was a few disjointed words that came out as a stutter.

“No… Arjun…we can talk this out, can’t we? We don’t need to do that, right now. Right, Arjun? I have treated you like my son all this while! Please don’t kill me!”. He just looked at her; his placid face sent waves of trepidation creeping up her spine.

“Meera Chachi, you know there is something much worse than immediate death,” Arjun said, the words sounding like a sedate stream trundling down the mountains. She knew what he meant. Fear and panic seized her mind in a vice-like grip, like a hungry lion catching its prey after an exhausting chase. It was time for her to evaluate her escape routes. She eyed the door, but Arjun was standing in front of it. Not a viable escape option. The window adjacent to her cupboard was wide open but was a few steps too far for her senile legs. Also, she would plummet 3 floors before crashing to her death if she tried to force her way through it. But at the moment, even death looked a victory snatched from the vicious pangs of torture. She stopped thinking and took a few deep breaths. She was losing her sanity. The idea of a 12-year-old boy mastering one of the most complex torture mechanisms in a few months baffled her.

‘Is he going to unleash that? That’s impossible! It takes even the greatest specialists at least 5 years to master that! This child has been here for only 3 months!’ she thought as his precocious abilities evinced a feeling of awe mixed with desperation.

“You can’t run away from this. I shouldn’t put physical barriers in front of my enemies, right? Weren’t you the one who taught me that, Meera Chachi?” Arjun said with a wry smile lighting up his face. “They should rot from within. They should despise their parents for bringing them into this world. Isn’t that what you said? As a devoted ‘son’ I am following your instructions, Meera Chachi,” Arjun quipped and started sauntering back to his room, leaving the veteran worker sweating with terror.

He stopped in his tracks while walking back and gently closed his eyes. The empathic link with Meera Chachi was as strong as ever. ‘Fear has now made her memories all the more vulnerable,’ Arjun mused, licking his lips in fulfilment.

A few seconds later, he opened his eyes and continued.

Nikhil greeted him with a warm smile as he walked back into the room. “Where were you all this while, Arjun? Why did you go to Meera Chachi’s room?”

“I will tell you later. Did you talk with the two guys?” Arjun asked.

“Not yet, but I will talk to them soon. Before that, I need to know what this is all about. What are we going to do together? If I need to spend years with you, I need to know more about…”

“Agreed. I will demonstrate to you live. Meera Chachi is our specimen here. I induced a sense of fear in her mind when I went there. This makes her primary memory vulnerable. I will hack into this part of the memory and detect the impulses she feels when recalling these memories. I will then rid her mind of all the incidents that induced a pleasant feeling in her. This will leave her primary memory strewn with all the traumatic, harrowing, and depressing instances which will, in turn, lead her down the path of insanity. Simple, right?”

Nikhil gasped in bewilderment. He looked incredulously at Arjun with clueless eyes, and as though he wasn’t already insecure about the whole situation, these convoluted terms served to add to his misery. “What do you mean by ‘hacking into her memory’? I don’t understand any of this!”.

“You just have to put your faith in me, pal. There is a lot to learn about yourself and this place. This is much more than an asylum,” Arjun said, looking straight ahead apparently expecting something inevitable. His deadpan countenance masked the flurry of emotions bolting up and down his mind. He felt like he was opening a gift box for an excited birthday kid. What drew him towards Nikhil? He didn’t know. He knew it was unbecoming of someone whose sole purpose in life was to sever all emotional attachments. There was a sense of fear encroaching his thoughts – that of becoming vulnerable to the emotional uncertainties plaguing the lives of the outside world. Flowing along with this tide could divert him from his path and deem his goal nothing but a figment of his imagination. He closed his eyes to calm the inferno raging within him. As these thoughts swayed like a loosely hinged pendulum in his head, Arjun turned towards Nikhil. He looked at the teenager, whose face was beaming with alacrity, and murmured, ‘my whole life hinges on you, my friend. I have ditched some of my core principles for you. You better satisfy my expectations’.

A few days later…

A feeble lady lay sprawled out on her desk, with her lifeless eyes looking at the cupboard to the right. She weakly grasped a small medicine box that had been left open with a few sleeping pills scattered on the table. The room was in a state of a complete mess. Her silvery hair enveloped the edges of the table and reflected the sunlight streaming through the windows. Random papers were strewn all over the place, and drawers had been hastily scoured. The aftermath of the clock’s deadly collision with the floor had left pieces of wood and metal as the only memories of its once beautiful form.

A young woman, in her mid-20s, was sobbing profusely and sneezed into her handkerchief intermittently. She was wearing a white shirt and a black waistcoat over it. Her pencil skirt was smeared with milk that had dropped from the broken porcelain cup lying on the floor. Two men in checked shirts and brown jeans stood near her, listening intently. One was tall with a french beard and a mole on his forehead. His greying hair was neatly combed, and his pensive eyes kept oscillating between the scene of the crime and the woman. The other man was much younger, possibly in his 30s, and had sleekly trimmed auburn hair. His clean-shaven face complimented his pale complexion well. He was lost in deep contemplation and didn’t speak much.

“Ma’am, you need to be calm. Every single detail is worth its weight in gold. Did you see any signs of depression in Meera Chachi during the last few days?” inquired the man with the French beard.

“Yes, sir. I supply food to her every day, and she was not at her sprightly best for the last few days. There is a picture of her deceased son on the floor. I think her loneliness, combined with the extreme anguish over the untimely death of her son, could have led her to such a drastic step. She was such a gentle soul who was endearing to the children. May God bless her!” the woman said with her face flushed with grief.

Meera Chachi was known to have transient melancholy phases that got her withdrawn from the daily activities, but no one expected her to sever her mortal coils out of desperation.

“How did her son die?” asked the clean-shaven man with blue eyes.

“I don’t know, sir. She didn’t like to talk about it much. I also didn’t prod her about that topic much, to not exacerbate her sorrow.”

“Ok, Ma’am. We will be foraging this place for clues in a few hours. You might be called regularly in the next few days for some more interrogation. We take the death of our staff very seriously, as you might already know.”

The woman gave a docile smile. “Of course, sir. I will try to help you to the best of my abilities.”.

“That would be very much appreciated, ma’am. Thank you,” said the older man before signing off with the auburn-haired man. They tucked their notepads in their underarms and strode off in a hurry. The slaps of their leather boots echoed in the corridor, drowning out the animated whispers of the children clustered in their rooms. The woman slowly trailed off, still weeping copiously.

Arjun, who had been observing in silence, crossed over to the room along with Nikhil.

“Come inside with me,” he said, pulling Nikhil along with him into the cabin.

Nikhil gasped in horror as he looked around the room. The open cupboards reeked of fungus stench, which had thrived in the damp conditions. Rats started scurrying out of the room as Arjun and Nikhil carefully made their way through the clutter on the floor. Uneaten rice cakes, burgers lined the periphery of her table, and porridge stains had left permanent marks on the carpet near her chair. Nikhil struggled to breathe with the smell choking him and kept coughing.

Arjun had his eyes clearly set on the papers near Meera chachi’s chair. “Look here, Nikhil. Meera Chachi has attempted to resurrect her secondary memory with these but in vain. Some of these are family photos, and some are her academic certificates. She forgot who she really was and in desperation, searched for documents that could shed some light on her identity and her life before this asylum. Unfortunately for her, her depressive mind was way too overwhelming to be offset by the revival of her past. She was just a warden and was not trained to combat even the mildest forms of memory hacking. We couldn’t have applied this technique for the next level on the hierarchy though, the food suppliers. They are pretty adept at handling such basic hacks. But she was, anyway, a pretty good test subject to illustrate the basics of this technique to you,” Arjun said, without turning back to look at Nikhil who was now puking on the floor.

“Arjun…err… I can’t stay here any longer. Let’s go!” he cried before barging out of the room. Arjun heaved a sigh of annoyance and followed him.

‘He is succumbing to his sensory organs, oh god! I have a long road ahead before I start teaching him the basics of hacking,’ he thought before checking the scene for any disturbances he might have caused. As the two boys walked shoulder-to-shoulder on the hallway, their fellow inmates gawked in amazement.

Arjun had indeed earned a name for his incredible grasping powers, and his cold-blooded stolidity. The asylum workers always felt like standing on the edge of a blade when dealing with him. It was as if he lacked the primary emotions that facilitated the workings of a human mind. Arjun, on the other hand, believed that emotions pulled him back and impeded his progress. So far, his impassive outlook on life had only propelled him up further, and this served to satisfy the purpose of the asylum. For the chief doctors, the waters still appeared to be calm, and Arjun was considered to be an asset to the organization. A storm was brewing, though, and an agent of anarchy was on the rise.

mm

Swaminathan R

A writer by choice and an engineering student due to circumstances. An avid lover of music and sports too!

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