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.

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Father’s Day Cover Story for Us Magazine

“When the academic year starts,” Baba says, “I’ll get you a small car to drive to college in.”

“Really?” I ask.

“Sure,” he says.

“Over my dead body,” Mama interjects hastily. “You are not driving anywhere alone.”

I laugh at her intensity. “Don’t you trust me?”

“I trust you,” she says emphatically, “but I don’t trust the society.” It’s Baba’s turn to laugh.

“You can keep it in the driveway and polish it up,” he says, winking, “and we can take it for a spin around the neighbourhood.” I grin. I know that this scenario is as likely to turn into reality as the first one, but I appreciate his (theoretical) willingness to empower me as well as Mama’s concern for my wellbeing. Childrearing is a dual process; two different styles combine to form the whole aspect of parenting. If either element were missing, my upbringing would be incomplete. To quote Jim Plouffe, “We (men) are not part-time mothers; we’re full-time fathers, and children need both.”

Daddy may I…?

“I never dared to speak up in front of my father when I was your age.” You must have heard that at some point or other. That’s because when our parents were children, father-child relationships were defined as “me father, you child; me decide, you obey”. Period. Fathers were shown report cards; playground conquests and disappointments were for mothers’ ears—if mothers also thought that it was better to keep children at a distance, their offspring had to seek intimacy elsewhere. This style is convenient for parents because they don’t have to deal with the consequences of being flexible about where they put the full stop. If you don’t play with the baby, you don’t get puked on. If you aren’t your children’s confidante, you don’t have to listen to their problems. If you keep your child in a box, you save the mental and emotional energy needed to let it go out into the world. Your kids don’t “speak up”: no “buts”, “it’s not fair”s or endearing goo-goo eyes when they want something. Many families today still consider it the proper way of handling children, but times have changed. Schools involve parents in their child’s affairs as much as possible, putting stress on fathers’ participation; the media highlights the importance of fathers as well as mothers; factors like “child psychology”—previously unheard of—are talked about now. However, the main change is due to those fathers who decide that they want to be closer to their own children than their own fathers are to them; those men who appreciate that a child’s upbringing begins not only in the mother’s lap but also on the father’s shoulders.

Children are not the only ones who come without instruction manuals…

…fathers do, too. A father has to define himself; when he does, it combines with other factors to give the final framework of how the child is brought up. For example, the issue of getting permission for something is different in different families:

“I’ll ask my father.”

“I’ll ask my mother.”

“If my father agrees, my mother will too.”

“I have to ask my grandfather/chachoo/other important figure.”

“Have you forgotten? I never get to do anything.”

Children tend to have trouble deciphering parent-talk, and father-speak is no exception. This is compounded by the fact that male psychology is different from females’. The most common (note: common, not only) mode of male self-expression is: when they’re upset, they’re angry; when they’re depressed, they’re angry; when they’re disappointed, they’re angry; when they’re frightened, they’re angry; when they’re nervous, they’re angry; and when they’re angry, they’re angry! (Females can follow this pattern as well, though they are better known for the crying pattern than the angry one). Therefore, children are likely to misinterpret father-speak because it is essentially different from mother-speak. Fathers do express worry and concern conventionally as well, but it is more practical to sharpen your translation skills than to wait for them to talk in your language.

Being involved

Fathers who want to play an active role in their child’s life try to be involved in many ways, but it’s harder than it sounds, especially as the child gets older. It’s easy to love a small child; as John Crudele says, “Kids spell love T-I-M-E”—and they measure it by quantity, not quality. Fast forward several years, and “spending time” takes on a whole new meaning. He can arrange the most spectacular “family bonding time” in the world, but the child will resent it if it makes him miss his football match. He may or may not be open to the idea of watching it with his father. He may prefer to watch it with his friends. Or perhaps, the father decides to do something with his child that he enjoyed when he was young, thinking she will enjoy it as much as he did, but she does not have the slightest inclination towards advanced origami. The majority of children consider their parents old-fashioned and out of step with the times. That doesn’t make it any easier. To quote one parent: “When I ask my son about his day, he just says ‘fine’, but when he’s on the phone with his friends he talks for so long.” The average teen would take this comment as a criticism of his talk time, missing the point that his father just wants his child to communicate with him as well. If the child is unclear how to talk to his father, his father does not have a PhD in teen-speak either. He does, however, have a PhD in “useless comments”. They are not actually useless, but if you do not understand them, that’s what they appear to be. You know what I am talking about: those little things fathers say, most of which make sense when you think about them seriously, like Howard does in “The Kid in the Red Jacket” by Barbara Park:

My father gave me some advice. I was explaining how much I hated to eat lunch alone, and he looked right up from his dinner and said, “Horn in.”

“Er, horn in?” I repeated, confused. I guess it must be one of those old-time expressions they don’t use much anymore.

“Sure. Be a little pushy. Stand up for yourself,” he explained. “Sometimes you’ve just got to take the bull by the horns.”

“Oh geez, not more horns,” I groaned.

“Bull by the horns,” repeated Dad. “Haven’t you ever heard that before? It means you’ve got to get right in there and take charge. If you don’t want to eat alone, then just walk up there tomorrow, put your lunch on the table, and say, ‘Mind if I join you, fellas?’ That’s all there is to it.”

I didn’t say anything, but kids just don’t go around talking like that. If a kid came up to a bunch of guys eating lunch and said, “Mind if I join you, fellas?” the whole table would fall on the floor laughing.

Still, I knew what Dad was getting at. Even if you’re the shy type, you have to get a little bold if you want to make any friends. Sometimes you even have to sit down at a lunch table without being invited. You don’t have to say, “Mind if I join you, fellas?” though. I’m almost positive of that.

As for the other comments which do not make sense, they are comprehensible when you consider the sentiment behind them. For example, if my father calls the screech made by a car when it suddenly brakes “drifting”, he’s not being ridiculous, he’s just trying to sound relevant to his children, who may or may not take it as an opportunity to explain what drifting really is. Remember, one day you will be the one using some term and your kids will be the ones rolling their eyes. Give him a break. He’s only trying to reach out to your world.

Fathers appreciate attention. If yours has a mobile phone/an email account, send him a text/email (a forward message, “hey there” message, anything). It’s a compliment to someone who has the impression that you leave him out of your technological pursuits.

I have this mental image in my mind of the child jumping into a sea of friends, pastimes and academic work, with the father standing on the shore, alone, watching. We talk about finding ourselves, our soulmate, the meaning of life, and stuff like that—what about helping a man find the little child he used to bounce on his knee once upon a time? That child has transformed into something that challenges his understanding. The child just needs to realise this in order to recognise his father’s efforts, stop rebuffing them and bridge the gap, but it doesn’t stop at that; he must get a two-way traffic of talking and listening flowing. It’s easy enough when you accept that there will be foibles and fumbles on both sides, instead of expecting smooth sailing all the way and getting frustrated with every bump and jolt. When the father gets to actually know his child, he stops looking for his lost toddler because he no longer needs him; he has his grown child to enjoy.

They say “mother knows best”. I say mother knows best about some things, father knows best about others, and those things they don’t know, others know best. Grandparents, for instance. My parents are convinced that they are the only ones experiencing bumps on the road while raising their teenage son; once Baba said to Dada Abu to talk to my brother about it. Dada Abu said, “Jaisey tum sudhar gaey they, is tarhan ye bhi sudhar jae ga.” (“The way you turned out right, he’ll turn out right too.”) Whoever says expertise comes from experience sure was right.


Originally published in Us Magazine, The News.

Parenting Facebook with Facebooking parents

Give someone a fish, and they will eat for a day. Teach someone to fish, and they will eat for a lifetime. You don’t want to be bothered by anyone ever again? Teach them how to use Facebook.

When our mother wanted to join this popular social networking site, her innocent offspring never dreamed that

–they would have a third contender for Internet time on the laptop

–drama serials would no longer vie for space with football matches on the TV

–their mother would learn to employ the phrase “two minutes” in the same flexible manner that youngsters use.

It’s not that she didn’t use the Internet before. In fact, she was the first one to start using it in the days when its chief social service was email, becoming electronically connected before her children did. It’s just that learning the ropes of social networking is a totally different ball game from email, especially when you’re the type of person who never, ever clicks without knowing beforehand what it will do. (I think that is the factor that distinguishes youngsters’ learning curves from their parents’. The former learn how to get around websites on their own but the latter are reluctant to venture into the unknown. And before net-savvy parents blast me into oblivion, let me add that this is not a universal rule.) Due to this reason, I made a habit to take something to do as I took up my post as chief advisor alongside my mother as she made her debut on Facebook. I must say, her excitement level was much higher than that of her been-there-done-that kids:

Brother (in a matter-of-fact tone): “I thinned out my friends list recently, and I still have 400 Facebook contacts.”

Me (dully): “I have around 250.”

Mama (her face glowing with enthusiasm): “I have three!”

Every person who has travelled with their parents along their Facebook learning curves has had one feature in particular which turns out to be tricky. With my friend, it was the “notifications” feature, where you get alerts whenever someone interacts with you. Her mother, an official personal assistant who uses the Internet every day, was disturbed by this:

“But why do they tell me about it? I didn’t ask them to tell me.”

Ammi, it’s so you know what they’re doing.”

“But I don’t want to know what they’re doing!”

My “tricky” bit came along one day when I saw my mother get up from the laptop and head towards the phone, instinct told me to ask what she was doing; usually nothing short of an earthquake  could interrupt a session of her favourite online game. My gut feeling turned out to be right:

Mama: “I’m calling our Internet service provider.”

Me: “Why?”

Mama: “The Internet isn’t working.”

Me: “What in the Internet isn’t working?”

Mama: “FarmVille.”

Notice that I knew what question to ask and did not take her assessment of the status of the Internet to be final (that’s chief advisor experience talking). I stopped her from making the call by explaining how a faulty Internet connection was different from a website being down and how a website was hosted on different servers from the third-party applications featured on it. Chief advisor Iqra saves the day! Or, well, one call centre employee’s day, anyway.

A usual day goes like this:

Me: “When the load shedding is over and the electricity comes back at 6pm, I’ll go write that on Facebook.”

Mama: “Sure you will, but at 6:10pm. My game crops are going to wither otherwise.”

Me: “All right.”

Mama (later): “Hmm, Anam’s crops are all withered and she’s been neglecting her other games, too. She usually keeps up with her games. I wonder what has happened. I’ll have to ask when I meet her tomorrow.” (Later, reading aloud): “Support us in the fight against…but why are they sending me this? How did this get into my inbox?”

Me (coming over): “See, over there, it says ‘sent to all members of…’. You’re a member of this group.”

Mama: “I never signed up for this group!”

Me (clicking over to the group): “See here? ‘Remove as member’. Why would it say that if you hadn’t already joined?”

Mama: “But I didn’t join this!” (Pointing at an affiliated group): “I meant to join that one!”

Me: “…”

I may have lost online time but I got a friendly Internet presence who gets genuinely excited over virtual roses sent to her by her daughter—a fair exchange any day. I like seeing her around. And the best thing is that she no longer wonders why on earth we spend so much time on Facebook because she clocks in regular hours herself!