Beaming at us, the assassin descends the stairs with the help of a crutch. I can feel Aditya start to panic and I tell myself that I must remain calm. He comes close and whispers in my ear, his breath smelling of cheap alcohol – “So, we meet again.” We can do nothing as he ties us up and binds us to chairs. I open my mouth to negotiate with him, but he silences me with a snarl.
“I don’t negotiate with anyone. Just be happy that I’m not returning your favour by killing you.”
With that, he puts a bag over our heads and everything goes dark.
From the bumping around, I guess we are locked in the trunk of a car. I try desperately to untie myself, but don’t succeed. I realise they must have put Aditya in the back seat and, for some reason, hope that his resolve has not yet been broken. Apparently I care for the kid. Who knew. I fall into an uneasy sleep and am awakened when he opens the trunk. He removes both our masks and locks us up in a room for the night. From the room, I guess we are back in campus, but we are tied up securely without any hope of escape. Sleep overpowers us again as the dreaded dawn awaits.
We are rudely awakened by the sound of the door opening as the assassin walks in and unties us. He sits on a chair and says –
“We have had enough drama regarding the algorithm already, so I’m going to make you a final offer. Find me the tape within 24 hours or you die. Simple. So get to work and meet me in the Chemistry Lab in B-126 if you find it.”
Slamming the door, the assassin leaves us to act or die.
“This is all your fault. If we had never gone to Satya’s house, none of this would have happened.”
I look at Aditya in shock.
“How can you blame me for this? I didn’t know this would happen.”
“Oh, everything’s your fault. Ever since I met you, my life has been in constant danger and now I am almost certainly going to die.”
“Aditya, your mind is not right. I’ve been trying to protect you from harm and if we want to get out of this fix and save our lives, we are going to have to work together.”
“Protect me from harm? Who put me in harm in the first place?.”
Saying that, he stormed off, leaving me alone in the room.
I take a moment to compose myself and then get to work, thinking of all the places that Satya could have hidden his algorithm in.
I search in his office, the classrooms he used to teach in, and even break into his house on campus, but find nothing.
As the deadline approaches, my panic grows exponentially. There’s even a part of me that’s worried about the kid. As a last resort, I start looking for Aditya instead, hoping that he has some clue about it and would be willing to work together.
I’m filled with mixed feelings – rage at Vijay and pure unadulterated fear for my life to name two. Not knowing what to do, nor where I’m going, I keep walking until my legs are almost numb and then collapse onto my knees on the desolated 3rd Floor of B block. I finally realise that I have a few hours to live unless I manage to find that cursed algorithm. I decide not to waste my time moping around and look for the algorithm. I first go to the room where Satya and I used to meet, but I find nothing there. Then I think of all the other places I’ve seen him, but I return empty-handed. Finally, I go to his office and sit down on his chair, exhausted and out of breath.
As I lean back on his chair, I notice something which I didn’t notice before – there is a panel next to the fan. I stand up on the chair and push it aside, and to my surprise, a gun falls down. I play too many video games to not know how to reload a gun. I pick it up and see that it is loaded as well as equipped with a silencer. What on earth was Prof. Satya doing with a gun in his office? Evidently, he was expecting a situation like this, although, he probably planned to be alive for it.
This gives me an idea, though, and I approach the assassin under the pretext of finding a clue. When I enter the lab, he is sitting alone at the desk, engrossed in his phone. He looks up at me inquiringly when I enter. Trying not to quail under his look, I say –
“I have a clue regarding the location of the algorithm which I think you ought to know.”
“I’ll whisper it into your ear. Vijay….. he…..I don’t trust him. I’m working independently now”
He arches his eyebrows in surprise.
“Well, now this is news. What happened to the dream team?”
“We were no dream team!” I growl. “I hate him. He brought me into all of this. He tried to kill me, for God’s sake, and almost succeeded too! I was his captive, not his partner. I’m done playing this game. I want my boring old life back. I’m ending this with or without him. And I’d rather it be without.”
The assassin chuckled, still sitting in the shadows behind the table.
I approach him and feign to whisper into his ear with one hand while I try to use the gun with the other. He was expecting something, and the moment he heard the gibberish I was whispering in fright as I frantically tried to get my finger around the trigger, he immediately stood up and tackled me to the ground. Both of us struggle wildly, and somehow, in all the confusion, a shot is fired. I look down and see that he is shot in the thigh, but before I could react, his arms wrapped themselves around my neck in a deathly embrace.
I decide to check the Chem Lab to make sure the Assassin was really there before heading off to look for Aditya. As soon as I enter the corridor, I see someone walking into the lab. I duck into the next room and quietly peek through the windows. I see Aditya talking with the assassin. I can’t hear what they are saying, but the assassin seems to be listening intently. Suddenly, Aditya leans forward and the next thing I see is the two of them on the floor, struggling. There is a gunshot and the assassin falls back, reeling from the shock. Aditya stares at him in shock but the assassin recovers quickly and grabs Aditya by the throat..
I stare in horror. What was the kid thinking? I run into the lab to help, but I can’t pull off the assassin. I get entangled in the struggle. A hand and two feet catch me in the abdomen and the breath is knocked out of me. Someone’s pulling my hair and I’m shocked to see it is Aditya. He really seemed to hate me. The mass of bodies somehow rolls to the edge of the lab, where i catch sight of the gun. This madness had to end now. With a huge heave, i manage to throw off both of them, then i lunge for the gun and in one motion, turn and shoot the assassin in the head. It was too close range to miss and his hands relax their grip on Aditya’s throat as the life seeps out of him.
Aditya gasps for air and i check to see if the assassin really is dead. He is.
I stand up and turn around, and Aditya freezes.
“Well, go on, then!” He says. A single tear rolls down his cheek.
I stare at him, confused, then notice his eyes fixated on my hand.
I was still holding the gun.
“No, no! Aditya, please. I’m done with that life now. The assassin is dead. I only held you captive so he wouldn’t kill me. Now he’s dead, and i’m free. I’ll disappear. I don’t need you. I….”
Tears begin to stream down my own face, now.
“I had a son, Aditya. He was your age when he… when they.. . I’m never going back to them. You’re right. I put you in danger. If i go back to my wife now, i will put her in danger too. Labrador Corp. is too powerful.”
I realize I’m still holding the gun.
“You have to believe me Akhil!”
Akhil. My son. A name i hadn’t said in years.
Slowly, i turned the gun around and handed it to him, muzzle pointed at me.
“I’m sorry Akhil. I’m sorry.”
I was sitting in front of this grown man sobbing like a baby about someone named Akhil. His son, i presume. He seemed to have completely lost all sense of what was happening around him. He thought i was his son.
Suddenly, he gave the gun to me, and involuntarily, i took it.
“Kill me, Akhil, punish me for what i did to you!”
He was sobbing uncontrollably. I brought the gun up and pointed it at him. This was the man that tried to kill me, dragged me into all of this. As long as he was alive, i would have no peace. Labrador Corp. would come after me to try and get to him. All i had to do to escape that was pull my finger back two centimeters.
But I couldn’t do it. I was no murderer, and heart of hearts, i didn’t believe Vijay was either. I saw the man as i knew him, unwillingly thrown into a situation he didn’t like, but stuck to his principles and risked his life to keep me alive. That was a debt i could not pay back. I tucked the gun gingerly into a pocket and stood up.
“I’m going to find that goddamn algorithm.”
He says nothing, still sobbing, now curled up into a ball.
I walk out of the lab, a new purpose in my eye. Prof. Satya did want me to find that algorithm. I’m sure of it. I think back to all the times i have talked to him. Suddenly I realized where it was.
“Aditya, your project will come in very useful soon.”, he had told me. At the time, i thought he was talking about my career and the applications of the project. But now, i wasn’t so sure. All our projects were kept in a file storage system on the campus servers. I booted up one of the IPC machines and logged in to it. Soon, i was looking through my project. And there it was. An extra source file of code within my own project. I had found it! I found a pen drive lying at the back of a cupboard, formatted it and copied the algorithm onto it.
I rushed back to the lab, where Vijay was still curled up. He seemed to have calmed down a little and regained his senses. He looked up as i came in.
“I’m sorry, Aditya”, he said, and somehow, i knew he meant it.
“I know” I said. “Take this. Wipe yourself off the grid. Your family too. Start over. You still can. You’re a good man, Vijay. Thank you for saving my life.”
With that, i pressed the pen drive into his hand and walked away without saying another word, without a single glance back, lest i change my mind.
One year later, Aditya is sitting for his placement interviews. He is called one day by an anonymous number, saying that the largest Cyber Security Company in the business would like to meet with him and potentially offer him a job. They said it had something to do with an algorithm he had developed that could adapt itself based on the situation.
I was excited. Prof. Satya’s algorithm had given me inspiration. I had created a program that reacted to other programs much the same way humans react to each other. It was my brainchild, but without Prof. Satya’s work and his teaching, it wouldn’t have happened. I fought to keep a tear from rolling out as i remembered the mentor that had done so much for me. The pain of the events of the previous year in getting the algorithm still resonated as i walked up to the offices, ready to prove that it wasn’t all in vain.
I wait for some time outside the door before I am called in for the interview. I open the door and enter the room, greeting everyone until my eyes fall on the Chief Interviewer. Our eyes meet and Vijay says – “Hello again, Aditya” as the door closes behind me with a bang.