Tell me what name to call you by

Tell me what name to call you by
I’ve exhausted my dictionaries, trying to find that one letter
I’ve burned my thesaurus
onto a CD
and I sent it to you, asking to know your name.
I scaled the mountains and plumbed the seas looking for you,
Yet you dismissed me with every step you took
Away
from
me.
I learned to stop chasing you,
For you have no time, to lead me on a wild goose chase
You did it for her, you did it for her. You led her on a chase through the plateau of your dreams. I didn’t even get a spark,
from the fire that you kindled.
It was all for her,
your soulmate
Yet, haven’t you heard of kindred spirits?
Did not anyone ever tell you the story,
All the stories, so many stories.
You are a born storyteller,
and so am I.
You were born with a silver spoon in your mouth,
Mine was platinum,
Hers was gold.
I never asked you for the answers, I didn’t question you after your dismissal of me,
I went on my own goose chase,
running after the white stag into the depths of the green wood. I came out on the other side, and saw a new horizon.
Was it the same one she saw, when she found you and you found her? Don’t tell me, that’s personal,
and for me,
personal information is sacred.
I return to my books,
I forgot
I can’t remember,
which ones I sent you. I feel the absence of carelessly donated volumes,
volumes upon volumes of books that were pieces of my soul.
I searched for your name in parables and riddles,
but you led me to believe that you are not a puzzle to solve. Well, neither am I.
I am not a nut to crack,
yet
you cut me open
with. every. word. you. spoke.
I tried dismissing you,
I learned,
I thought I knew how to do that
But then you returned with another face,
and I struggled all over again.
This time, I knew better than to mess with letters. I turned to numbers.
In you and I, there is a dance of numbers, and everyone wants to know the equation.
E=mc squared,
yet I found you at the end of the horizon
at the bottom of the well
at the edge of the rainbow
I jumped off a waterfall
and found a soft landing.
How many paths did you take to avoid me? I find your footprints everywhere I go.
I burned new paths into my own consciousness.
But I exhausted numbers, too.
Funny, they say numbers are infinite,
yet mix infinity with zero and you get an atomic reaction.
I stretched myself like a piece of elastic,
and found your footprint at the edge of the world.
I finally abandoned equations,
I reduced myself to a dot
a speck
I became the baby universe enclosed in a nutshell, waiting for its big bang. But this time,
instead of expanding
instead of collapsing
a wormhole opened and sucked me through to the other side.
There is light here
and open space
and birds chirping.
I never thought I would ask this question again,
but you stripped yourself of your titles,
and I discarded all frameworks that shaped my thoughts,
you are but a concept
my spirit guide running ahead of me into the woods.
I’ve been here before
but this time there are no steps
not even yours.

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.

Life Management

Dear Human,

This is to inform you that life as you know it has been binned. There were a lot of complaints regarding life as it had been, so it was decided that a new system be adopted, which will hopefully be pleasing to everyone. As of now, life is an RPG. There is no need to worry; this letter outlines everything you need to know.

 

First things first. You will not age! That does away with the whole search for everlasting youth thing. No need to bother scientists with genetic research and the like. Convenient, huh? Instead, you will gain experience points as you defeat monsters on the field, which will allow you to move up from level to level and become stronger. This will allow you to be able to kill stronger beasties and become even stronger, until you hit the roof, level 99, at which nothing will pose a challenge to you anymore. At this level, you can either choose to revisit old areas and watch adversaries shrivel up at your mere presence, or you can head towards one of the crazy-insane-ultra-mega-super challenge dungeons to pit yourself against crazy-insane-ultra-mega-super enemies to obtain useless special items and abilities, useless because there is nothing besides wimpy regular monsters to use them against. This new life will be heaven for obsessive-compulsives.

 

Ah, money! No need to worry about that anymore. No more sitting 9 to 5 at a desk working your bum off. Just go out there and kill some fiends who will hopefully drop some coins on their way to the afterlife. You’ll make a nice pretty bundle for yourself after killing a million of them, which you’ll have to spend on better equipment so you can kill a million more. Speaking of work, the word “boss” has a completely different meaning in this new world. It no longer means the red-faced guy who calls for you as you’re about to sit down to a cup of tea or the person who gives you days off from work as if they came from his personal bank account. It now means a usually large monstrosity of variable shape and appearance whose purpose of existence is to sit around filing its nails (or whatever equivalent it has) until you come along, whereupon it makes a dramatic entry and proceeds to unleash a barrage of sequenced attacks on you until you bite the dust or compel it to do the same. A good boss is that which knocks you down in two seconds flat whereas a poor boss is that which can be hack-slashed to oblivion without having to work out any strategy. Remember the system of exams you had in that old life? Well, here you have bosses. The only difference being that bosses can bite (or flash lightning or shake up an earthquake, as the case may be).

 

You will also be relieved of listening to Aunt Nono’s daily report on how her blood pressure is doing. You can only talk to certain people and that too when you approach them; they don’t initiate conversation. They will rattle off a few lines and will only change what they say after you pass a major milestone in your life. Talk about kicking MySpace, Facebook and the rest right in the teeth! And of course, that outdated device called the telephone, too.

 

No life is free from duty. Many responsibilities will fall on your shoulders. Not the old fetch-the-milk and take-out-the-garbage, however. All the residents of the communities you visit will entrust you with the solutions of their worries and mishaps. You will have to find lost pets, recover and deliver letters, parcels and keys, carry messages (we scrapped that annoyance called the Internet, remember), kill any beasties they want removed, and, in short, act as a messenger, exterminator, matchmaker and agony helpline all rolled into one. Lots of patience is required, as every single person will unload their sad life story to you. Saving the world from grave peril, tyrannical domination and global warming will all fall to your lot. Of course, not a single soul besides you will be capable, worthy or just plain unlucky to have the job handed to them.

 

What if the slings and arrows of fortune prove to be too much for you? Have no fear, just pocket some restorative items to use when you’re feeling run down. If you need more than a boost, just drag yourself to the nearest save crystal/ring/emblem/thingy—a whole new you! (Let the anti-wrinkle advertisements beat that!) We ditched illness; too much trouble. Afflictions with a cure just one potion-drink away is the way to go. Don’t worry about not being able to carry enough stuff; even if all you have is a utility belt, you can carry a caravan’s worth of things easily. Now that we touch upon the subject of clothing, it really must be mentioned that females aren’t allowed to wear more than 500cm2 of cloth. They can think of imaginative ways to make getups that give the appearance of being clothed, but on no account must they exceed the limit. It’s detrimental to the environment. We don’t want people getting bored, now, do we? Don’t worry, it’ll have absolutely no practical effect. You’ll be able to move around snow-capped peaks and bug-filled forests and go head-to-head with slime-spewing lizards and flame-breathing dragons just as easily as you could have done wearing the appropriate garb.

 

It is hoped that these guidelines will be useful. Wishing you a cyclic, explorative and successful life,

The Management

 

Dear Troubled,

It has come to our notice that you have not found the current mode of life suitable. To facilitate your desires, we have done away with the RPG system and have set up a new system in its place: the Platformer system. As before, we will discuss the implications of this change to make adjusting easier for you.

 

Life is now much more streamlined and linear. The walk of life is clearly set out before you in a continuous path with well-defined obstacles (canyons to jump across, levers to pull, high ground to jump up to, to name a few. Talk about problem-solving made simple!). You will no longer face the hassle of making choices. The challenges to be faced will be promptly sent your way for you to handle them one by one. No more strife for energy and wealth; both are laid out along your path for you to collect. You don’t have to juggle a caravan of items now, either. Just remember to keep an eye out for life tokens along the way; as failure to pass most obstacles results in instant death by falling on a wall of spikes, being crushed between two walls coming together, drowning in a swamp or other interesting methods. The use of a life token brings you right back on the field, though.  To break up the pattern there are mini-tasks where you assist the incapable inhabitants of the world with menial jobs. You can also get new abilities that will allow you to pass new obstacles and help more of the populace. Of course, you must vanquish evil in this world, too, by spending 95% of the time getting to the evil and 5% defeating it. Your life will not be devoid of purpose once you have done this, as the evil (or its twin brother) will crop up once more for you to handle.

 

Here’s to a repetitive, fulfilling and bouncy life,

The Management

 

Dear Discontent,

You have complained about the Platformer life, so we bring you a life without bosses, creepy-crawlies and limitless regeneration: The Sims! Here’s how this life is going to be like:

 

You get to choose what you’ll be like from a selection of custom-made options. You also get to choose who you’ll live with and what they’ll look like. Such flexibility and choice was unheard of in the past lives, including your original one. Your main aim is to make sure the meters meant to be high remain high and the meters meant to be low remain low, keeping your hunger, mood and energy etc in balance. You can also design where you’ll live however you want—once you get enough money for it, that is. To get money, you send yourself off to work and sit around waiting for yourself to come back so you can deal with the meters again. You have the choice between free will and no will. With free will, you will automatically deal with the meter that needs the most attention; with no will, when you are unattended to you will simply stand and scream at the heavens for days on end, urinating on the spot, having fits, until (due to lack of attention) you ultimately die, vanishing to leave a gravestone where you once were. No matter, you can always make a new you. Making friends is essential. Just invite people over, command yourself to give them compliment after compliment, and after awhile they’ll open up enough for you to do other actions. If a fire breaks out in your house, simply cancel the action of panicking and hollering that you are carrying out at the moment and direct yourself to get the fire extinguisher. When you put food in the microwave, it is compulsory for you to stand with your face in the microwave window. While dancing, simply follow repetitive, angular, jerky movements; your fellow dancers don’t know how to dance any better than you do. Best of all, time is in your hands. You can make it flow at a normal pace, or, if you’re engaged in an activity you know will take some hours, set it to fast forward so you can get to the next activity quicker. If life gets monotonous, just get an expansion pack to get more activities to do.

 

Quite simple and non-threatening. We hope this will satisfy you at last.

The Management

 

Dear Hopeless,

You fail to like anything we set up for you; obviously, you don’t have the neurons to appreciate complexity. Therefore, the best thing for you is to live as Pacman. Your whole life is on a single screen. Just eat all the food there is (the best, and possibly only, source of motivation there is) while avoiding the ghosts. If you can figure it out, eating the special food lets you eat the ghosts too. If you manage to complete one level, go to the next. Nothing new to do, just a new maze to negotiate; hopefully the novelty of this will not overwhelm you.

 

The sheer challenge of this will be enough to keep you occupied for eternity.

The Management


 

Originally published in SPIDER Magazine.