This is an ongoing story series. For the previous chapter of the story, click here.
Last issue: “I push myself off the ground and get to my feet, just as the lights in the room flicker once and then go out. The sudden silence that follows sends a chill up my spine. Then, I hear footsteps, slow, deliberate, approaching me, and a strange clicking noise accompanying them. Click, click, thud, click.
“They’re here.” Vijay whispers.”
“They?!? Who’s they?!? What do you mean ‘they’re here’?!?”
Click, click, thud, click.
“Vijay! Where are you? What is going on???”
The footsteps continue, somehow amplified by the pitch darkness.
Click. Click. Thud. Click.
Suddenly, silence. Nothing moves, even the air is deadly still. I wipe the sweat trickling down my forehead, unable to even see my hand come up to my face.
Another explosion rocks the lab, computers come crashing down to the floor. There’s a ragged gaping hole in the wall. Chunks of debris fly all around as I cower below a desk. In the light of the explosion, I catch a glimpse of Vijay jumping through the hole. A second later, he’s gone.
I’m still trying to process what just happened. My head hurts, my ears are ringing, my back is seared from the heat and my throat is parched, but worst of all, I’m alone. Vijay is gone. I stumble to the edge of the hole, looking out, but can’t make out anything. I collapse onto the ground, back to the wall, limbs in agony.
“What am I mixed up in?” I groan.
Grimacing, I start to crawl towards the exit, hands and knees scraping against the torn concrete. My hearing is just beginning to return, and I can hear my laborious breathing loud in the deathly quiet of the destroyed room. Suddenly, a shadow falls over me, stretching long and dark in the flames from the explosion.
“What on earth…”
I trail off as I hear a sound behind me. Slowly, I turn around, to face the barrel of a gun pointing straight at my head. My eyes travel up the hand holding it to the face, and I freeze.
“Me. Now get up. Slowly. C’mon, let’s move it. I haven’t got all day.”
“What is going on?!?” I burst into tears, unable to take the shock of the events of the past night. My body is shaking as I collapse on the floor again, unable to stand. “What is all this? I’m just a regular old guy, why would all this…” I look for the first time at the wreckage of what was once my Information Systems Lab. Just twelve hours ago, I was sitting here, hoping that hot girl in the second row would look at me, listening to Professor Satya talk about computer architectures… It seems like a lifetime ago.
Suddenly, I am very aware of the gun pointed at me.
“What am I going to do huh?!?” I scream wildly. “I’m just another college kid. What’re you going to do? Kill me? Get on with it then. None of this seems real! Maybe I’ll wake up then. Come on, do it you wimp, kill me” I’m tearing my own hair out now.
His eyes soften. He tucks the gun away in his waistband and pulls me up.
“You’re in shock. I wish I could tell you everything is going to be alright. Come with me, let’s get out of here.”
With that, he hoists me up on his shoulder. I feel a sudden rush of blood to my head, and then everything goes black.
When I wake up again, we are outside the campus on one of the hills. I can just make out
The Road Not Taken in the distance. There’s a campfire burning and something that smells delicious is being cooked on it. I try to sit up, and find that my arms and legs are tied. I turn my head a little and Vijay comes into view. He’s sitting on a rock, cleaning out the same gun that had been pointing at my head a few minutes ago. The shock returns with the memories, now as a numb pain in my head. I groan and shake my head, trying to clear the numbness.
Vijay looks up at that and walks over to me. He sits me up and asks “Are you alright?”
“What do you care?” I spit back at him, turning away. I cannot look him in the eye anymore.
He sighs. “I’m sorry it had to come to this, Aditya, I really am.”
“What exactly is ‘this’? First Professor Satya is murdered, then you save me from an assassin, or should I say abduct me? Then the explosions, was that a time bomb making that weird clicking noise? And after all of that, as if that weren’t enough, you try to kill me. What is going on? Who are you?” The panic starts to build up again and I am almost shouting now.
Vijay’s eyes flick back towards the campus for a moment. “Keep your voice down. We’re not far enough away for my liking. I promise I’ll explain everything to you. First tell me what you know.”
I take a deep breath, trying to calm myself. “All I know is what happened. Professor Satya said he was going to be working late yesterday night and asked me and a couple of others if we wanted to help him. I wanted to, but we politely refused because there was some stupid football match that I’d gotten talked into watching. Next thing I know; he’s hanging from the ceiling of his office. He must have called me just before it happened, but I didn’t see it for almost an hour after. That’s why I rushed to his office. When I found him, there was already a crowd there, saying it was a suicide. Tell me, why would he ask us to come help him if he was going to do that to himself? Professor was never like that, he never seemed sad or depressed. He was like a father and a brother to me.” I choke. “When I entered the room, I noticed my name and two others circled in red on his marks register, names of the people he had called to help him yesterday. I saw that, panicked and ran out of the room. Three steps later, I get shot at. That’s when I ran to the car, and you found me.”
Vijay is sitting by the fire now, stirring the pot.
“I owe you an explanation now, don’t I?” He seems unsure of where to begin. “What do you know about Satya’s work?”
“Yes, the research he was doing, what do you know about it?”
“I know it had something to do with machine learning. He was trying to make decision making algorithms that…did…something, I didn’t really understand what he was saying, he was speaking too fast. Why? Does that have something to do with this?”
“It has everything to do with this. You asked who I was? I used to be Satya’s classmate in college. The work he was doing… It’s based on an algorithm he and I developed in our second year. We made it as a joke, a dating service bot that responded to chat messages…. Inappropriately. It learnt what each user liked to hear and replied along those lines. It was just something we made as a prank.
But Satya got obsessed with it. He saw the future there was for a decision making algorithm like that and never gave up on it.”
“What’s that got to do with assassins? And you told me who you were, but not who you are.”
“I’m getting to that. You’re right, though, I am no longer the man Satya knew. After college, we parted ways. Satya went off to get his masters, while I looked for a job. All I wanted was to start earning loads of money. It wasn’t long before I got hired by a cyber security agency called Labrador Corp. At least that’s what I thought they were when I was hired. Turns out that they are just a bunch of crackers.”
“Crackers? You mean like biscuits?”
He mutters something that sounds suspiciously like ‘Kids these days’.
“Not biscuits. You call them hackers now. The people because of whom cyber security is necessary?”
“Oh right. Why didn’t you just say hacker before?”
“Never mind!” He growls. “Point is these guys created both the supply and the demand for their services. They’d hack into servers of multi-billion dollar corporations, tell the world they hacked in and say “we can fix you up so that you’ll never get hacked again”, then charge billions to do it. It seemed a noble, if opportunistic thing to do until I realized what was happening behind the scenes. The hacks they publicised were mere advertisements of their power. The real customers were governments. They were paying hundreds of billions of dollars to hack other countries’ intelligence servers. Well, one country, I don’t want to take names, made some crazy demands for some crazy money. They wanted to create bionic spies. They already had the hardware prototyped, they just needed the software. But they didn’t want a mere remote control dummy, they wanted a robot that could think for itself.”
“Professor Satya’s algorithm!”
“Yes. It was perfect, he had already developed the core of it, all that remained was to adapt it.”
“But how did they even know about it? I mean you said it yourself, it was just a prank when it started out, and he hasn’t published his work yet.”
Vijay hangs his head.
“You have to understand, I was so focused on raising my rank and reputation that I didn’t see what I was rising towards.”
I take in a sharp breath. “You told them!”
“It was too late by the time I realized what was happening. I was made in charge of retrieving the algorithm, given a top position, a position that one does not walk away from alive. I know too much for that.”
My head is reeling. “Vijay… did you order Professor Satya to be killed?” I can barely manage a whisper.
His body begins to shiver and he hangs his head even lower. Slowly, he shakes his head.
Lines of horror grow across my face as it dawns on me. “How could you? He was your friend. How could you?!? WITH YOUR OWN HANDS!” I scream, no longer caring who hears.
“I asked him nicely but he kept saying no! Again and again, no matter how much I asked! What could I have done? My job was on the line, my career. I did what I had to.” He is sobbing uncontrollably. If you’ve ever heard a grown man wail and cry out loud, you’d know how pathetic and helpless it sounds.
“Your career? What about your friend’s life?”
“I murdered someone, Aditya, I murdered a man. A friend!”
“Are you only just realizing this? What about the sniper? Was that you?”
“The company must have sent someone else after me. To make sure I did it right. I missed the first shot on you, but I couldn’t bring myself to take another. That’s when the other guy must have stepped in. When I saved you from that bullet in the car, I painted a target on my back. They were after both of us.”
“Both of us? Why me?”
“Because you are the only one who can still help them retrieve the algorithm.”
“What? I can’t do that! I didn’t even know it existed until you told me! And that doesn’t explain why I’m tied up here with you.”
“I took you prisoner because you’re my ticket out of here. You’re the one thing that can keep me safe. I want out. I want to lead a normal life, but I told you, they won’t let me. So you are going to find me that algorithm, and I am going to sell it to whichever country grants me asylum, a new identity and protection, and I’m going to live the rest of my life in comfort.”
“Even if I could give you the algorithm, where does that leave me?”
Vijay stops stirring. Slowly, he pours the food into two bowls and hands one to me.
“Eat. Tomorrow, you find the algorithm for me.” He says. Then he takes his bowl and walks away out of sight.
“Where does that leave me, Vijay? Answer me, damn you! What are you going to do with me?” I scream after him.
Only the wind answers my calls.
Click here to go to the next part.
By Adarsh Salagame