Conquest

It was a sheer drop, fifty feet at least. He did not go easily; he had to be
dragged by the shirt collar, kicking and squealing, with a cuff and a curse
added for good measure. The bottom of the gorge was deep and dark, with
no way out save to scale the vertical walls.

He didn’t like the dark.

“I want some light around here!” he called. His voice was needle-thin. It
barely penetrated the thick, stifling air. The echoes laughed, and there was
no light.

“Light!” he repeated, beginning to grow a trifle annoyed, “I asked for light!”

“Asked?” said a voice.

“Yes, asked,” he repeated angrily.

“Asked?”

“You heard the first time! I asked!”

“You didn’t ask.”

This was an unforeseen obstacle. He tried to peer through the darkness, asthough to cleave it with his very gaze.

“I asked,” he ventured eventually; in what he thought was a winning tone.

“You didn’t ask,” the voice persisted.

He sank into thought. He had never been compelled to think before,
accustomed to having everything served up on a silver platter the moment he
lifted a finger.

“OK, I didn’t ask,” he said finally. “I’m asking now…I want light.”

“You demanded, you whined, you moaned, but you didn’t ask. You didn’t
and haven’t asked. I don’t call that asking.”

“Well, I do! I want some light and I want it now!”

The echoes laughed merrily along with the jeering voice.

“You call that asking?”

“Yes, I do, and you’d better get used to it!”

Silence.

“Light!”

Silence. Not even the echoes chuckled now.

“I—want—light!”

He was getting afraid now. Every time he spoke, his words splintered and
scattered away like slivers of glass, and the silence came rushing back in
waves.

There was something uncanny about that voice: he had heard it before. It
seemed to be a part of him, and yet…so completely alien to anything he
remembered.

“Please give me light,” he whimpered, throwing his head back, trying to
catch a glimpse of light from where the walls of the gorge fell back to admit
the sky. Even up there the darkness was complete.

He was devastated. He began to scrabble at the unyielding stone walls,
feeling along the cracks, begging, pleading.

A terrible laughter exploded in his ears, and it was not the echoes’ laughter
this time. It was the voice, laughing without mirth, enjoying the spectacle,
unfeeling, unheeding.It was the laughter that jarred his memory. The laugh ringing in his ears used to be his not long ago, not very long ago, before he had been pushed into the
gorge. How often had he laughed like that, and at how many people, he
could not remember. He had laughed at the very possibility of himself
scrabbling in the dark, believing that the eternal light was his forever. He
had laughed—scorned, even—at the very idea of himself battling that which
he had never feared before…

That voice—that voice! How often had he spoken like that, in such
unyielding tones?

Was it possible that he was facing…himself?

Himself as he had been—as he had been, and would be again, if he ever
escaped from this gorge. For human nature is like a rubber band, springing
back to its true essence when there is light, and straining to its humbler form
when bent by darkness.

Laughter again. Louder this time, threatening to drown him, envelop him,
tear out his eardrums.

“You couldn’t beat me.”

He didn’t reply.

“You never could. Your good side was always your weak one.”
“I could!” The words shot out of his mouth before he knew it.

“That’s exactly the problem, you little wimp. You could, but you never
will.”

He couldn’t answer. How could he overcome the challenge of self? The
challenge the darker side always presents to the better one. Beat me, or
submit to me. He had submitted. His heart, mind and soul.

But there was a third choice. There always is. Beat me, submit to me, or stay
quiet. And the good side replies, “Yes, I’ll stay quiet, but when the darkness
without is greater than the darkness within, let’s see which side triumphs, me
or you.”And here he was. Reduced by hardship to his meagre good side. His
willpower was in such a poor state, it couldn’t cope with his dark side, being
used to being propelled by it instead of challenged.

So he chose to remain quiet. Chose not to answer the challenge posed by the
voice, his dark side. Beat me, or submit to me. I won’t give you any external
light. You must beat me with the light within. First he had begged, pleaded
—his internal light couldn’t handle his dark side. This was what he thought.
But the flickering flame within him just needed the fuel of his will to spark
up and engulf his dark side, and swallow it forever. But he would not
provide that fuel. The fuse was inches away from the flame, but he wouldn’t
let it light.

It was a battle lost before it had even begun. It was as if the enemy had flung
aside its weapon in a bid for him to show his strength, but he, having
depended on power instead of strength all his life, couldn’t—wouldn’t—take
up the challenge.

When he ventured to look upward again, he sensed a change. Maybe it had
all washed over and the challenge was no longer standing? A light kindled at
the top of the gorge. A flickering little flame. His heart leapt at the sight.

“I am here to help you,” the light called. “I will lend you my strength. Defeat
your dark side. Then you can climb out.”

But he was already on his feet, scrambling up the wall of the gorge.

“Defeat that part of your self!” came the cry. “Don’t use my help to escape
—use it to conquer!”

He was almost there…he’d made it. He sprinted away towards the faraway
glittering lights on the horizon.

The flame nearly fluttered out with exasperation. “If he had stopped for two
seconds…but he didn’t. He thirsted for the attractions his darker side
offered, and wouldn’t defeat it.” It blinked, shivered, and winked out.The gorge waited silently. Don’t wait for your turn in there to think yourself
out—is your better side your reigning one or your suffocated one? Only you
can tell. Or the gorge will certainly teach you.

***

Originally published in Us Magazine, The News International.

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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.