I wake up to the first rays of the mercilessly bright morning sun, and the smell of my reeking moist coat beside me. I bunch it up and dump it in the trunk of the car along with my sports shoes and a cell phone charger. A sudden realization hits me: Aditya’s cellphone! I shake him roughly, and he stirs briefly.
He mumbles something, eyes still closed, and goes back to sleep. I don’t have time for this.
“Wake up right now before I decide to drag you along the road tied to the back of the car!!”
His eyes shoot open all of a sudden. He seems dazed for a moment, and I yank his arm to help him up.
“Give me your cellphone” I demand as we walk towards the car.
“Why do you need my cellphone?” he asks, still shaking off the sleepiness.
“To make sure they don’t use that to track our location. Otherwise our desperate attempts to get them off our tail would be for nothing!” I retort, rolling my eyes. Aditya was a bright kid, but these incessant questions were a little bothersome.
My mind wanders back to the questions he had asked me the previous night and I suddenly grow uneasy. What will I do with the kid after he has done my work for me? I don’t think I can bring myself to kill him; that would be too extreme.
My thoughts are interrupted by Aditya fishing out the cellphone from his pocket and reluctantly handing it to me. I drop the phone to the ground and simply proceed to smash it with a big rock. Aditya’s eyes widen with horror but I cut off his attempts to yell at me with a deathly glare. I am not about to take any nonsense, not today, not any day now.
We proceed towards the car, Aditya at my heels. The faint shuffle of Aditya’s feet behind me suddenly stops and I turn around. He’s two feet behind me and quickly assessing his surroundings. He’s trying to escape.
I bolt in his direction and before he even notices, I’ve pinned him to the ground. Poor boy didn’t know who he’s messing with. Oh well, now he’s learnt.
I motion him to get into the car and tie him up. I make him lie down at the back of the car and proceed to cover most of him with bags and some clothes of mine, leaving his face uncovered with sufficient breathing space. It is going to be a long drive.
Around an hour after we’ve driven on the ORR, I turn on the radio and tune into a news channel to see how big the news of the suicide, explosions and kidnapping had gone, or if BITS had managed to keep it under wraps somehow.
To my dismay, the news had gotten out.
I stopped a small distance away from a dhaba to use their payphone. I began to dial a number I hadn’t called in years. A buddy of mine who had helped me get my stuff together before I could get a job at the damned corporation which is now after my life.
“Hello, V-J! Great to hear from you after so long! How have you been?”
“I can’t really explain what is going on right now but I need you to open up your grandmother’s old villa, I need a place to stay for the night, and if it’s possible, some food, too. For two people, not including you. It’s really urgent and you cannot tell anyone about this.”
“Wow, ummmm okay, I will set up the place for you. I’ve actually already been staying here for a while myself because I needed some alone time to work on my new novel. I am a writer now.“
I didn’t have much time for small talk.
“Really? That’s wonderful!” I reply with a forced excitement. “We have already come halfway, Sri. I will see you soon. I owe you big time.”
Two hours later, we’re at the villa and Sri is excitedly waving to me from the top floor. I quickly untie Aditya, rush him into a room upstairs and lock him inside. Srikanth looks at me very confused and slightly horrified that I had a tied person in the back of my car.
Over a few drinks, I catch Sri up to speed with the ‘situation’.
Silent and skeptical at first, he mulls over it for a while. “Alright Vijay. I believe you and trust that the man I know is a good one. Be careful and make it out of this difficulty safely. I will be waiting to hear that you are in the clear. For now, you never came here, and we never had this conversation. I’m going back to working on my novel in a few minutes; you go ahead and rest upstairs.” I heave a sigh of relief as I make my way up the stairs.
At the corner of my eye, Srikanth sits back in his chair and finishes his drink, a pensive look on his face. How could he be so calm about this? I wish I could tell what was going through his mind.
I enter the room I had locked Aditya in. “Hey kid, here is some food, eat it quickly and sleep. We have to leave tomorrow”, I say, sitting across him in the corner of the room. He is curled up on the bed, tears welling up in his eyes. “What’s wrong?” I ask, my heart softening for the poor lad. He doesn’t deserve to be dragged along like this.
“What’s wrong? WHAT’S WRONG? You have the audacity to ask me ‘What’s wrong’ after literally treating me like a ragdoll for the past couple of hours. Everything is wrong! No matter how much I break my head, I do not see how I am, in any way, going to be able to get you to that algorithm! I want to go back to campus! Hell I want to go back home!”
His voice abruptly breaks and I can tell there’s that little lump in his throat – the one you get just before you cry. I‘m taken aback, unable to respond to his outburst. Collecting myself, I answer in a low, quiet voice. “Please, please just bear with me for a few more days. Once I get this algorithm I will try my hardest to get you back home. So cooperate with me, don’t run away and I won’t be forced to tie you up. Unfortunately I do have to lock this room, so no compromise on that. Eat and rest properly, we have a lot of things to figure out tomorrow.”
I’d drugged his food. An hour after his meal, he was knocked out cold. I go downstairs, only to find Srikanth just disappearing at the edge of the corridor, probably to his room to resume the work on his novel. I pour myself another drink at the bar, rubbing my temples and wondering how it had all come down to this. I begin to recall the time I first met Satya…
First day of engineering college, I see myself , a dorky young boy entering my dorm room for the first time. My roommate was a lanky, doltish looking chap I vaguely remember seeing in the CS department. He had adjusted his glasses clumsily and waved awkwardly. “Hello, I’m Satya. I’m going to be your roommate for the four years ahead. And you are?”
“Vijay. Vijay Kumar. You’re in CS too, right? I saw you earlier today.”, I had smirked inwardly thinking that there was no way someone could miss that guy with the frail personality, tripping and falling flat on his face after exiting a teachers room.
An hour and a half later, we knew each other inside out.
A year passed by and soon Satya and I had become inseparable.
“Do you think you’ll have a girlfriend in the near future?” he asked me one night. I always got uncomfortable around these kind of conversations.
“With this gender ratio? Very unlikely.” I responded with a chuckle.
Satya, who was sympathetic for a moment had suddenly lit up with an idea.
“Call me crazy, but we could actually create a program that could flirt with us! It’ll improve our coding skills and we will get more insight into the field of artificial intelligence!” aah, those were the days when raging young-adult hormones would get the most our young nerdy brains.
Looking at that excited chap, I sighed. Of course Satya of all people would find some strange learning possibility even in the most ridiculous scenarios! “I guess it would be a ‘useful’ waste of time”, I had conceded. And hence we had begun to write the program.
“Hey, Vijay! You have got to see this! Come on!”. An excited Satya, lankier than before, thanks to his constant hibernation in his room, dragged me enthusiastically to his laptop. He connected a pen drive. One with a Batman symbol on it, this limited edition one that he had received from some uncle of his whose name I can’t remember.
The program was brilliant! By that time, Satya had already decided to pursue his masters to increase his knowledge base and further develop his “baby”. All I ever wanted was a job, and I wanted to be making good money, fast.
After college we grew apart until one day Satya called me, telling me to meet him, wanting to catch up. I met him, and I saw that he still had his Batman pen drive, and he told me he had made our little joke project into an artificial intelligence core, one with great potential. I smiled, while underneath I began to think of telling my employers of this program, just to get a quicker promotion and get more money. No harm done.
I wake with a start, realizing I had dozed off during my reminiscing. Ugh. I stand up with a newfound sense of purpose, walk upstairs, unlock Aditya’s room, and say, “Get ready. We need to move right away”.
“But where?” he asks, perplexed.
“You’ll see”, I smirk.
For a moment he looks like he wants to resist but he just sighs and stands slowly. I leave a note for Srikanth on the dinner table, he’s probably asleep and there’s no time to explain anyway. It’s still dark out with a faint glow in the distance.
“We should be there in an hour,” I whisper, mostly to myself.
I let Aditya sit in the passenger seat and begin to explain to him where and how we will find the algorithm. He listens quietly, a hard look on his face. I try to make out what he must think of my plan but his expression is hard to read. He neither moves nor says anything throughout our drive.
As the sun begins to rise, I run the events of that day over and over in my head, remembering every single detail. Though Satya was provided accommodation on campus, he preferred to come back to his own house every weekend where, he had told Vijay, he spent all his time improving and further developing the algorithm.
I turn into Satya’s driveway and already know that something is wrong. I park a few feet away from the door and step out gingerly, examining the area. Beside me, Aditya also alights and walks towards the entrance.
“Let me go first,” I say. I notice that an upper story window is open. Satya never liked to open the windows. There is no lock on the door. Nothing feels right. For a second I wonder if I have come to the wrong house. I push the door and swings inward. Slowly, we step into the dark living room. The door closes with a bang behind us.
“Ah, Vijay! Surely you didn’t think we’d forget to pay a visit to your dear friend Satya’s house, did you?”
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– Nirupama Honnugar and Nikita Mandapati