Destiny

Centre N, Sector 12, Satellite Reina. Extraterrestrial addresses differed from earthly ones like House 6, Wenn Street, Merrittown, Svalbard. The same address in space terms: Earth, Svalbard, Merrittown, Wenn Street, House 6—the order reversed to specify the largest scale first because Earth was no longer the only home. Now just the First Home, it was the launching pad for the first colonists as rival entrepreneurs set off in opposite directions to establish civilisations that orbited stars other than the sun. Man-made empires with man-made foundations and man-made conditions; materials from the planets they stripped bare of resources and light energy from the stars (or “centres”) around which their cities revolved. The enterprisers vied with each other, hoarding their knowledge and technology behind walls of jealousy. They called those few who chose to remain behind on Firsthome foolish followers of the old planet-dependent order, saying that they would never get anywhere. Yet an emissary from Firsthome was going further than any Groundling had ever gone before. Centre Nagavi had only two residents. One was the two-person team of Shumneya and his daughter Reina, making machine parts for everything from spacecraft engines to scent sprayers. Their unique technique set them apart. The other was the scout squad of the star-city Koryak, headed by Commander Kronotski, nosing around in the wake of every noteworthy activity, scavenging for spoils. He was determined to sniff out a windfall somewhere, but Shumneya and Reina were as unyielding as Kronotski was resolute.

 

“Reina,” Shumneya called from the observation bay. “We have a visitor. Let him land.”

 

Silence from the control deck. He could see her eyebrows arching with surprise. “He’s giving the correct admittance signal,” he prompted. “Open the dock.”

 

As she obeyed, he saw her shaking her head at his willingness to let a complete stranger enter the ship. He smiled.

 

That was how the Groundling found the two: Shumneya smiling serenely, Reina with her features set in an uncompromising expression.

 

“Mr.?”  Shumneya asked. “Zibell,” the man replied.

 

“What brings you here, Mr. Zibell?” Shumneya inquired pleasantly. “I assume that you’re not the latest gimmick from Kronotski. You don’t look like you come from Koryak.”

 

“No, I come from Earth.” A silent mixture of surprise and disbelief was his only answer. “I used a dark tunnel in the vicinity. It opens near here. A journey of many years over in a few seconds. I came quite deliberately, with a message…for Reina.”

 

“You must be mistaken,” Reina said. “I have never been there; my father left it when he was a young man. We have no ties there.” Her father appeared startled at her finishing words.

 

“You are not right there, my dear,” he said quietly. Turning to Zibell, he said, “You come from Ragnar?”

 

“No, Advendalen.”

 

“What—?” Reina began to ask, but Shumneya silenced her, indicating that Zibell should talk.

 

Zibell spoke, addressing Reina. “Before Shumneya left Firsthome, he worked with a man called Hijau. Due to some differences in opinion, they separated and went their own ways. Shumneya got the rights to the blueprints they were working on; with them he made an advanced design for long-distance spacecraft. Hijau founded a rival organisation, Ragnar, determined to use what knowledge he had to cause Shumneya’s downfall.” Reina stiffened. Shumneya asked, “But Hijau’s fight is with me. What does this have to do with Reina?”

 

“Everything,” Zibell answered. “When your partnership with Hijau broke up, you sealed your work against him with your brand of DNA coding technology so that he could not operate it. Even now, only you two can access your experimental, cutting-edge work.” His listeners were thunderstruck to hear that he knew about that. “He can’t use you to break your code because you blocked his DNA using your own, but Reina is your daughter. She has half your DNA, therefore she could access whatever you could once you enabled her to do so, but she is not directly protected against Hijau like you are.”  

 

“How do you know all this?” Reina exclaimed suddenly. “And why are you telling us?”

 

Zibell smiled. “I know it because I am the Vitrazh. We made our way and swore to safeguard it long ago; delivering this message was a crucial part of my responsibility. As for why I am telling you—Kronotski is Hijau’s man. He follows you more deliberately and precisely than you know. You cannot stay here. You must return to Firsthome, where we can protect you.”

 

“This—is—ridiculous!” Reina exclaimed. “Father, why didn’t you tell me before?”

 

“I did not want to worry you,” Shumneya replied. “Our techniques are too precious to hide, but they would be dangerous in the hands of someone like Hijau; he is disturbingly ambitious. We can only—”

 

Zwing. The sound of one of their one-man shuttles being powered up interrupted him. They both wheeled around in shock; Zibell was operating the switchboard. The controls were accessible by DNA coding only to Shumneya and Reina; it was technically impossible for anyone else to use them.

 

Reina leapt forward, but by the time she reached the switchboard, Zibell was in the cockpit.

 

“The coordinates to the dark tunnel are 89-V 40-C,” he called. “I’m going to distract Kronotski. You don’t have time to waste.” Without further ado, he shot off towards Kronotski’s headquarters, leaving two very astounded people behind him.

 

After a few moments, Shumneya turned to his daughter. “You must go in the other shuttle,” he said. “Don’t let his sacrifice go to waste.”

 

“Sacrifice?”

 

“Yes. When Kronotski discovers that you managed to get away because of Zibell, he won’t be happy.”  

 

“But…” Reina stared incredulously at her father. “What about you?”

 

“I have done my part in preserving this knowledge. Now you are destined to do the same.”

 

“You mean that I have no choice in the matter?”

 

“If our objective was destined to fail, we would never have gotten any chance to save it. This opportunity, however, lets us choose to strive for a possible outcome by acting, or resign ourselves to an inevitable outcome by not acting. The choice is there. The choice is yours.”

 

Reina stood gazing at Shumneya in silence for what seemed like a long while. Finally, she tore her eyes away from that beloved countenance and moved towards the shuttle. She knew that no matter how much she prolonged her last time with her father, it would never be enough.

 

***

 

“How can you say she isn’t from Tilago? They’ve tried to sneak in before.”

 

“A high-speed craft blasting right into the warehouses? Quite the opposite of sneaky. Besides, that shuttle isn’t of Tilago design.”

 

“Why did she go straight for the supplements storage, then? I spent months wagering that deal to get our hands on those. All gone! And you say it’s an accident!”

 

“You’re paranoid, Pervenets.”

 

“And you’re foolish, Uzon.”

 

“Are you two done arguing?” A third voice interrupted.

 

Two pairs of eyes, one alight with curiosity, the other tainted with suspicion, swivelled in the direction of the voice. Reina stood on the threshold, studying them guardedly.

 

“You must be quite disorientated,” Uzon said, “after a crash like that. You’ve been unconscious for awhile. How did you leave your room? It was locked.”

 

Animated by derision, Reina forgot her reserve. “You call that a lock?” Pervenets scowled.  

 

“You must be quite nifty with mechanisms to break out like that.” The interest in Uzon’s face sharpened. “Where did you come from?”

 

“Nagavi.”

 

“Where on Earth is that?”

 

“It’s not on…it’s in the Ustinova quadrant.”

 

“Oh.” Uzon’s eyes widened; Pervenets went pale. “You’re extraterrestrial! No wonder our locks seem feeble to you. Well, Starling, how come you’re anywhere near here?”

 

“Advendalen sent someone to fetch me,” Reina said.

 

“But…” Nonplussed, Uzon looked at Pervenets, who looked equally confused. “We’re Advendalen.”

 

“You?” It was Reina’s turn to be perplexed.

 

“Pardon me,” said Uzon; “we should introduce ourselves. I am Uzon Cronon, and this is my brother Pervenets. Together we run Advendalen, which doesn’t make as spectacular spacecraft as yours, but it’s good enough for Earth. We never called any Starling here.”

 

“Do you know about an Earth-based spacecraft company called Ragnar?”

 

“No; there isn’t any such company on Earth. If it existed, we would know,” Uzon assured her.

 

Reina was silent before venturing, “May I see my shuttle?”

 

“Why not,” Uzon said easily. “Come along.”

 

Even though it was mangled beyond repair, the shuttle still showed signs of its remarkable craftsmanship. Reina swept her gaze over the Earth-machine parts scattered among the debris of the warehouse. They were distorted, but her experienced eye could still make out their design and function. She turned one of them over with her foot.

 

“Look at that,” she said critically. “The shape! The joins! What a horrible contraption!”

 

Pervenets was in danger of bursting with indignation but Uzon was tingling with excitement. “Exactly,” he said.

 

“Excuse me?” She was surprised.

 

He indicated the shuttle. “Flawless technique.”

 

“So…?”

 

“You don’t realise the implications of wrecking a commercial warehouse, do you? Investigations, explanations—in this case, cover-up stories. It takes a lot of work.”

 

“So…?”

 

“That” (Uzon indicated the shuttle) “can compensate for this” (he indicated the destroyed warehouse).

 

“My shuttle?”

 

“Your knowledge.”

 

Reina raised her eyebrows.

 

“I’m not forcing you,” Uzon said steadily. “It’s your choice. I’m the manpower and Pervenets is the infrastructure. If you joined us, we’d have skill. The output would be colossal.” Seeing Reina glance at Pervenets, he added, “He won’t die. He’s just overly cautious.” Pervenets grimaced.

 

I’ll have somewhere to stay while I sort this out, Reina thought. “Advendalen,” she said aloud, “welcome Reina Shumneya. I’m not going to be easy on you.”

 

“That’s exactly what I want,” Uzon said.

 

Later on, when they were alone, Pervenets said to Uzon, “This is insane. The Groundling-Starling difference alone can’t account for the difference between our technology and hers. It’s unsettling.”

 

“In a good way,” Uzon countered. “Just think of where she will take Advendalen.”

 

“You were always mad,” Pervenets replied, “so it was natural for you to just start talking to her like that, but why she was crazy enough to reply so comfortably, I don’t understand.”

 

“Like responds to like,” Uzon remarked. “I fancy I see a kindred spirit in her.”

 

Pervenets just shook his head. A week later, he had more concerns to spill.

 

“All the products DNA-encoded to her!” he stormed. “No control left in our hands! All this time I’ve been watching you two gushing over this spindle and that joint, but enough is enough! This isn’t improvement, this is taking over! She’ll kick us out!”

 

Uzon smiled. “She’s committing herself to the work. Besides, her techniques don’t work any other way.”

 

Reina’s roommate, Dolina, had her own way of looking at things. When Reina came back from work at 5am one day, Dolina was waiting to ambush her.

 

“Where were you?” she squealed.

 

“Working,” Reina replied.

 

“With Uzon?” Dolina demanded. “Till 5am? Alone?”

 

Reina smiled, prolonging the suspense, watching Dolina squirm. “And Pervenets,” she added, “and Fram and Nansen.”

 

“WHAT?!” Dolina howled. “Reina, you—are—pathetic!”

 

Six months later, with many designs successfully implemented, Uzon asked Reina to be his wife and she agreed. This satisfied Dolina’s matchmaking instincts (though she had had no influence on the match) and quelled Pervenets’ anxiety (he no longer feared that Reina would take over Advendalen).

 

“Do you know what you have done?” Dolina asked Reina one day.

 

“What?” Reina asked.

 

“You have created a special bloodline. You can enable access to your kids because they have your father’s DNA, right? They’ll run Advendalen after you, and their kids after them, and so on until this pattern is disrupted. It’ll take a lot to disrupt it, though; the Vitrazh is always tough.”

 

“The…what?” Reina’s voice quavered, but Dolina did not notice it.

 

“Vitrazh. Protector related by blood; usually a sibling. Never wondered why Pervenets went berserk when you first came? He’s the Vitrazh for this generation, protecting Uzon with his own life. It’s an ancient system for large organisations like these.”

 

Reina recalled Zibell’s words: “We made our way and swore to safeguard it long ago.” Our way…the way of exclusive control in the hands of Shumneya’s descendants. Long ago…When? In the future of the present, but the past of the future. Pervenets would put the baton in one of her children’s hands, where it would ultimately pass on to Zibell, who, by discharging his duty, would ensure that it passed back to Pervenets again…a chain of choices, united because every link made the right one. That is destiny.

***

Originally published in Us Magazine, The News International.

Note: Forgive me for being so verbose in this story. As one of my English teachers used to say, “Avoid pomposity and verbosity”, and nobody pointed out to my face exactly how pompous and verbose my writing was at the time of writing this story, so here it is, in all its immaturely worded glory. Forgive a teen for being a teen, eh? I get embarrassed reading stuff from my teenage now that I know better.

Oh, and the names are mostly from a National Geographic article about volcanoes and geology. Go figure! I took a leaf out of J.K. Rowling’s book; she used maps for names, I used a single Nat Geo article. *grins*

This story is set in the universe of my novel, so consider it a backstory that sets the stage for the rest of it. Wish me luck. Rather, pray that I get to write down my novel successfully one day. I have a physical ache from carrying it around, unwritten, all these years. For those non-writers among you who don’t get what it means, think of it as an unborn baby in the third trimester. You’re tired of carrying it around everywhere and you just wanna get that sucker out! Only, there is no automatic natural process to birth it; you have to extract that novel from your self with tweezers and tongs, changing yourself irreversibly in the process.

Writing is hard. Never assume otherwise.

–Iqra Asad.

A traditional occasion

The Abdul household did not have many distinctive customs, and if it wasn’t for Saliha Abdul, they might not have had the few they did. As it was, she was the most involved in keeping them alive, sometimes to the extent of annoyance and always to the extent of the tradition being dubbed a “Salihan” one. A few days before Eid-ul-Azha she brought her latest case to the study table, where her brother Anas was grappling with algebra.

“I’m totally uninspired,” she announced as she slipped into a seat, diary in hand. Anas momentarily stopped doodling on his textbook to shoot her a quizzical look.

“I’m trying to record the upcoming Eid in Abdulian history, but the material just kills imagination,” she explained. Anas knew she was referring to her practice of dedicating a single line to every major event of the year in her diary; she had it open at the page for 2008 already. Drawing the wheels of the unfinished car zooming across “exercise 10”, he replied, “How can you record something that hasn’t happened yet?”

“By writing it down,” Saliha grinned.

“No, I mean–“

“I know what you mean,” she interrupted. “It’s just that I already know each and every thing that’s going to happen. There’s no chance of something noteworthy occurring this time.”

“Why?”

“Don’t you know?” Saliha made a face. “We’re getting some shares in a cow this year. No animal market. No calling the butcher over. No watching the meat being prepared, even. The only way anything different can happen is if the meat flops out of the package and does the bhangra.”

Anas paused before replying. “You know, some people would like being spared all that trouble.”

“But ‘all that trouble’ — that’s the whole point!” Saliha answered impatiently. “If we didn’t have to go out of our way to do something we don’t usually do, it wouldn’t be special.There’s no fun in waiting for a packet of meat to arrive on the kitchen counter. That’s the end result of bringing an animal home, I know, but it’s the process itself that’s interesting, don’t you think?”

“Easy for you to say,” Anas remarked. “You don’t have to do the work of getting the animal and everything. You’re just the spectator.”

“Just as you don’t have to cook it to the satisfaction of the extended family,” Saliha countered. “You’re just the diner.”

“OK, OK,” Anas said hastily. “My objection is overruled.”

Saliha kept her eyes on him for a few moments to make sure he was serious before she spoke again. “Anyway, seeing an animal being sacrificed is good. Not entertainment-wise, but education-wise.”

Anas smiled. “Yeah, if it doesn’t go overboard. Remember last year?” Reaching out for Saliha’s diary, he flipped the page back. At the head of the page was written, “2007, The Year of…” followed by a list of continuations. His finger came to rest on “…The Two-day Vegetarian”. Saliha chuckled. Their six-year-old cousin had freaked out upon seeing the goat being slaughtered. He had vowed never to eat any kind of animal’s meat. He faltered in his undertaking when he discovered that this included biryani, chicken nuggets and other favourite foods. In a few days, he had reverted to his old diet, the only exception being goat. A dish of meat on the dining table would always be met with the inquiry, “Is it goat?” On being invariably (and often untruthfully) being informed that it was beef, he would happily consume it.

“Zain is a funny little thing,” Saliha said, “but people more than twice his age act even funnier. You should see the way some of my friends react.” She began an exaggerated mimicry of disgust in a high, peevish voice. “I really can’t stand the smell of all that meat of sacrifice on Eid-ul-Azha…phee-yew! I can’t eat it, either.”

“Hey, some folks are sensitive,” Anas interjected.

Saliha giggled abruptly, as if struck by a sudden thought. “Too sensitive,” she said, flipping back several pages of her diary. “2001, The Year of the Pre-Eid Goat,” she read out.

“Aw, man.” Anas grimaced. “You don’t have to remind me of that.”

“Why not?” inquired Saliha mischievously. “The heartless parting of Lala and Anas. A tragedy to rival Shakespeare.” She was talking about the time the Abduls had bought a goat two months in advance in a bout of misplaced enthusiasm. They had arranged for its food and water, even set up a goat stall to protect it from the elements, but having taken all inputs into account, failed to consider the goat’s output. The maid refused to clean up after Lala, and Mrs. Abdul did not last long as head of maintenance. Consequently, the Abdul children came home from school one day to find Lala on the menu. Anas, who had developed a strong attachment to his four-legged friend and had spent many afternoons feeding it from his own hand, not only refused to eat Lala, but spent many days in mourning in his room. Saliha, on the contrary, was quite amused by the whole business. “I’ve always said that was movie material. In the usual animal film, the protagonist ends up releasing the creature back to where it really belongs, in the wild. This film could have you releasing Lala to his true destiny…the dining table!”

“Ha-ha, very funny,” Anas said in a flat voice. Then he perked up suddenly, as if he remembered something the same way Saliha had. Turning over a few pages of the diary, he jabbed a finger at an entry and smirked. “The Year of the Rampaging Cow,” he said. “You couldn’t stop screaming.”

“I wasn’t screaming, exactly,” Saliha said defensively. “I was simply exhibiting a perfectly human reaction.”

“Known as screaming,” Anas added smugly.

“Known as alarm,” Saliha contradicted.

“An external sign of which is screaming,” Anas persisted.

“I merely yelped,” Saliha conceded, “which is a very natural thing to do when a thing that big charges past you.”

Anas put his hand up to break the swift exchange of rebuttals. “Two things,” he said. “One, whether it was natural or unnatural doesn’t matter. Two, it kicked the butcher and rushed off in the opposite direction to you. I think the shock registers better in your memory than the actual scheme of things.”

“Whatever the ‘scheme of things’ was,” Saliha bypassed the point, “it made a real mess out of the car.”

“Yeah,” Anas agreed, remembering the dented side doors and shattered windows. “But it was really funny about Sameer.” Sameer was their elder brother.

“Funny?” Saliha raised her eyebrows. “It’s a mercy he was in the right side of the car and the cow rammed into the left. What was he doing in there, anyway?”

“Um, fetching an extra coil of rope for the butcher, I think. But he came out crying.” Anas rolled his eyes. “Big, independent Sameer, too good to mingle with us small fry, bawling like a baby!”

“He didn’t have any warning,” Saliha said seriously. “Having a few hundred pounds of angry cow smash into the side door from nowhere isn’t exactly a pleasant experience.”

“I would have thought your natural emergency siren was enough warning,” Anas chortled, swinging back to the subject.

Saliha sighed in response and began flicking through her diary. “Here’s another one — The Year of the Camel Buffet.”

“When did we have a buffet of camels?” Anas frowned.

“It means that the camel had a buffet,” Saliha replied.

“Oh, that.” Anas shook his head at the memory. In their excitement over getting a camel, they quite forgot to consider the reach of its long neck, and tied it near the wall, moreover, the wall bordering the neighbour’s fruit and vegetable garden. The creature had a nice night sampling everything within range, and Mr. Abdul ended up paying for the damage from his own pocket.

“That was the time Papa perfected his money-worried look,” Saliha said thoughtfully, referring to the partly anxious, partly peeved look their father wore when financially challenged. “That’s why it doesn’t take him a second to whip it out now.”

“Like today,” Anas reflected. “Only I thought it was because Mama was hankering after the Eid sale at Rose Boutique.”

“Not this time.” Saliha opened her diary at the section for 2008 again. “Everything’s already so expensive that this year is going to be The Year of the 2/7ths of Cow…which is the flattest line I’ve ever thought of. Some help, please?”

Anas knew it was no use telling her not to give so much time and thought to the idea. Instead, he said, “Look at it this way. Focus on what we’re getting, not what we’re not. It’s still a lot compared to what many people have.”

Saliha raised her eyes to the ceiling. “The moral lecture doesn’t exactly answer my–“

“Try considering what I just said,” Anas cut across her. “This Eid may not be so predictable after all.”

“How?” Saliha was skeptical.

“Why don’t you consider this case study…Experimental little cousins. Generous adults. Put the two together, and what do you get?”

“The Year of the Car Key Stew.” Saliha rolled her eyes. “If Chachoo knew his keys would end up in the cooking pot, he would have thought differently about giving it to the kids to play with.”

“And we were dumb enough to think the poor cow had somehow eaten the keys, until someone pointed out that the dish from which we found it was brain masala.” Anas chuckled. “The fact that no digestive tube goes up there killed that theory.” He spoke more forcefully then, about to drive his point home. “Tell me, could you have foreseen that?”

“No,” Saliha replied immediately, with a half-smile.

“Are the factors that governed that particular outcome absent from the equation this time?”

“No…” Saliha drew out the word slowly, as if she was busy considering the meaning.

“Then there’s no reason to lose hope,” Anas declared confidently. “If it’s not the kids, it’ll be some grownup. If not one of them, the neighbours will do something. As long as you have the human element, you can’t be bored.” He smiled. Saliha had to smile back. “I’ll take your word for that,” she said.

“You won’t be disappointed,” Anas replied. “If nothing happens, I’ll do something.” His sister rolled her eyes at this pronouncement. “Don’t worry, Salihaa-aa.” He said her name in a goat’s voice. Saliha burst out laughing. Anas, who had expected her to be irritated, frowned slightly.

“Wow, you’ve done something already. Thanks,” she said gleefully. “It seems you’re possessed by Lala’s spirit. I’ll have to make this year The Year of the Haunting Goat.”

“Not unless you want to make it The Year of the Shredded Diary,” Anas replied silkily.

“In that case, it would be The Year of the Mangled Gameboy,” Saliha returned just as smoothly.

“At this rate, it will be The Year of the Failed Mid-terms,” Mrs. Abdul said, coming up to them. There was a touch of severity in her voice. “You’re never going to let each other study, are you? It’s talk, talk, talk the moment I turn my back. I’ll check back on you in a minute; you two should be doing something useful by then.” She turned on her heel and started to walk away.

“Sorry, Mama,” Saliha got up from the table. “I was just wishing Anas Eid Mubaa-aa-rak.” She grinned. Anas scowled. Their mother was already out of earshot. When she returned, she saw Anas alone at the study table, seemingly engrossed in simultaneous equations. She didn’t see what he was really doing: drawing torn diary pages under the wheels of the sports car sketch. Whether that actually turned out to be the fate of Saliha’s prized possession is, of course, another story.


Originally published in Us Magazine on 5. 12. 2008. Original link:

http://jang.com.pk/thenews/dec2008-weekly/us-05-12-2008/p22.htm#1