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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The Artist’s Meow (a story)

The moment was frozen in suspended animation. The inkpot hovered in the air above the map, spread out below it in all its handmade glory. Then Myu’s tail snapped forwards and the illusion dissipated; the inkpot smashed onto the table and the ink spilled all over.

Myu disappeared as quickly as the details of the map did underneath the indelible ink.

Now it was Lielle’s turn to be frozen. She was frozen with horror as she took in the damage to her beloved map. Drawn in painstaking detail over the course of half a year, under the instruction of her tutor, it was her masterpiece and her joy. She had dedicated the main table of her study to it; pinning the paper carefully to the edges of the table and making sure nobody and nothing remotely harmful came close to it.

Until now.

Now Myu, her cat, had infiltrated the study and flung a pot of black ink over it with a swish of his tail. What made it worse was that the event unfolded right in front of Lielle’s eyes. Had she come upon the disaster later, after it had already happened in her absence, she would not be eaten away by the thought that she could have prevented it. However, right there, in front of her eyes, Myu had carried out his mischief. Sinking into the beanbag in the corner of her study, Lielle dissolved into tears as she contemplated the almost deliberate malice with which Myu regarded her work of six months. He didn’t like being barred from the study, which used to be his domain before the map project started. In fact, the whole house was his domain ever since the fateful day he had appeared on her doorstep.

It was the morning of her assignment to her tutor, the revered Huoyhnhm, who did not take on any but the cream of the crop. Basking in the glory of her first lesson in the presence of this celebrated mind, she had opened the door to find a gold-flecked tan cat, sitting comfortably on the doorstep as if he owned the place. The cat looked up at her without the slightest bit of hesitation, and, taken in by his confidence, Lielle took him in. She had in her mind’s eye the perfect picture of the art student who blossomed under the watchful eye of her tutor and the inspirational company of her pet cat. How ideal, she had thought.

How disastrous, she thought now.

She finally brought herself to look at what remained of her handiwork. The intricate details lay blotted out beneath a sea of black. She wiped away her tears, unpinned the paper and folded it up. Now, instead of washing away in helpless tears, she burned with firm resolve. She clattered up the stairs into the attic, where she took out a huge roll of special paper, and, shouldering it, came back down more quietly. She unrolled the paper and pinned it to the table. Then she took out her map-making materials and arranged them on the work space.

The energy that had churned within her stilled as she considered the blank paper. She had gotten so used to continuing work already started that she had not faced the challenge of the empty page for months.

Taking out her charcoal, she began to sketch the border from memory. Golden-tan flicked past in the corner of her vision. She did not raise her head and continued working. Myu came near. He did not seem the least guilty or disturbed. On the contrary, he was alive with curiosity and watched her as she worked diligently into the wee hours of the night.

******

“What is this?” Huoyhnhm said next morning, upon seeing the new map, which was blank except for a border.

“A clean slate, sir,” Lielle answered.

“Hmm,” was Huoyhnhm’s response. He viewed the expanse of white for a minute before sitting down in his customary working position, motioning for Lielle to begin.

“But, sir,” Lielle said, slipping into her work pose and picking up her instrument, “where do I begin?”

“You have already begun,” he said, motioning towards the borders of the map. “Now you may continue.”

Lielle looked back at him inquiringly before turning back to face the blank map. She paused, put her instrument down, and said, “I must bring Myu in, sir. I want him to see me work.”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Huoyhnhm.

“But—” said Lielle.

“I said,” Huoyhnhm replied firmly, “continue your work.”

And she did.

*****

The next morning before her tutor was expected to arrive, Lielle searched far and wide for Myu in order to bring him into the study before Huoyhnhm came, but he was nowhere to be found. She usually left Myu to his own pursuits while she worked with her tutor, and had no idea what he did during those times, so she did not know where he might be. Sighing, she ambled back to her study, only to find Huoyhnhm already seated. She glanced at the clock.

“You’re late,” said Huoyhnhm.

“I’m sorry, sir,” said Lielle. “I was looking for Myu.”

Huoyhnhm looked back at her as if he were studying the page of a textbook. He cocked his head to the side in the way Myu did when he looked at her. Then he straightened up and motioned towards the map.

Gathering her materials, Lielle settled down to work.

******

A few map-making sessions later, Huoyhnhm said that he had something important to relate. Lielle perked up to listen.

“You have shown prowess in the face of adversity,” he said. “I have watched you grow under my tutelage. You have grown to the point where further instruction on my part is not required. I release you.”

Lielle stared uncomprehendingly back at him without replying.

“I will write a letter of recommendation to the university,” Huoyhnhm continued. “You may sit the exam and receive your qualification. After that, the world is yours. You may do with it as you wish.”

Lielle looked at the unfinished map, then back at Huoyhnhm.

“Ah,” he said. “That is something you may complete on your own. You no longer need my assistance. I have observed your response to a great setback, overcoming something like that is more important than advancing seamlessly from one achievement to another. You have what it takes to be an artist. I release you.”

Lielle finally spoke up. “You honour me,” she said. “You will always be my teacher.”

Huoyhnhm smiled.

“Before you go,” Lielle said, “I would like you to give me…I would…that is…will you give me an autograph?”

Huoyhnhm stared at her for a moment. Then he chuckled. “Of course.” Taking the pen from her hand, he signed the proffered piece of paper with a flourish. After he left, Lielle pinned the paper to her work table along with the map.

*****

Try as much as she could, she could not find Myu after that. She alternated between searching for him and sitting and wondering about him. In a way, Myu had been as supportive as Huoyhnhm, only Huoyhnhm had watched directly over her art, and Myu had been the overseer of the rest of her life. However, an artist’s art is not separate from the rest of his or her existence; so it seemed that between Myu and Huoyhnhm, she had been very well guided in her training.

Finally, she went back to the study, only to stop at the threshold, arrested by the sight within. There lay Myu, curled up on the map, apparently sleeping. She walked quietly over to him so as not to disturb him, tears of joy welling up in her eyes.

Myu’s eyes popped open, and he fixed her with an unwavering gaze. Lielle gulped at the intensity of his eyes. Moving slowly but deliberately, he slipped off the table and went to the door, where he looked back at her as if to ask her to follow him. She followed, and he led her to the front door. She opened the front door, and Myu went onto the doorstep, where he looked up at her, then down at the street, and meowed.

Lielle sighed. Would conquering one disaster mean that she would have to part with all her instructors, and find new ones? That was how it seemed. She looked out into the street, then down at Myu, and finally said, “I release you.”

As if he understood, Myu rubbed against her legs, purred, and then set off into the street, weaving in and out of the patches of sunlight that streamed through the dense trees.

When Lielle went back to the study, she observed something different about the autograph pinned to her table. There, in black ink, was a cat’s paw print, next to Huoyhnhm’s signature. It had not been there before.

She gazed at the piece of paper for a long time. Then she spoke into the silence of the room, “You were a humane cat, and a feline human. In my entire journey as an artist, I will never again find a teacher like you.” She closed the door of the study and left. Behind her, the human-cat instructor’s signature blended into the darkness of the room.


Published in Us Magazine, The News (Pakistan): http://magazine.thenews.com.pk/mag/detail_article.asp?id=9716#sthash.64vwqC1B.dpuf