The day was still in its infancy. I walked over to the window facing the lake and looked outside, moving the curtain ever so slightly, but that micro movement was enough to alert the RAW thugs sitting in an old beat up ambassador across the road. I glanced at the wall clock; it showed a quarter to six. I was sick of playing this game of cat and mouse, my patience was worn thin due to the continuous state of mental turmoil and anxiety that I had been subjected to over the past couple of days. I wanted to get it over with quickly. The things that were said about our intelligence agency were true- that they had eyes and ears everywhere, and that they were completely ruthless. Despite observing all precautions, and making sure that information be disseminated on a need to know basis only, the sleuths had got wind of the project. And now I was faced with this terrible choice of going along with the intelligence agencies, which would definitely provide me with much needed reprieve and make me a celebrated hero, of course within the bounds of secrecy in the annals of our intelligence history or, serve humanity as a whole by blowing the project up and probably die not a very pleasant death. The latter proposition was not too attractive. It would be a thankless job. Added to our indigenous intelligence services, some clandestine agencies from other countries were also in on the plot. It wasn't that I was considered to be a very dangerous customer or a very tricky proposition to deal with; far from it, they could have snuffed me a out in a moment if they so desired, but I had played my cards close to my chest, which in retrospect was the only intelligent thing I had done.
It all started two years ago when I was a research student at the national institute of science in Bangalore. What started off as a hobby, quite nearly turned out to be my life's greatest folly. The mesmerizing subject of time travel mystified me. It exercised an attraction much akin to that of the song of the sirens, only in my case I wasn't smart enough to have ordered myself to be tied around the mast. I was working under the guidance of Dr Parshuram Trivedi, an eminent physicist at the institute. With the help of his tutelage, the project which had been a mere dream a while ago had started taking the shape of a very distinct reality. And then, just as we had begun to test the apparatus, the IB had walked in. They wanted to completely supervise the project henceforth. Dr Trivedi was against this interference from the start; one day he gave voice to his apprehensions when I dropped by his place of an evening. He said that the time machine might really not prove to be the greatest gift to mankind, that the complications that would stem from the ability of an individual to be able to look into the future might not be too conducive to harmony and peace between nations. This statement of his struck me, as I hadn't given much thought to this aspect of our invention. To be able to forecast events in the future would be to tamper with the naturally ordained scheme of things. But , what was the naturally, or rather, supernaturally ordained scheme of things? Dr Trivedi pulled me out of this reverie by making another shocking statement. He said that he had run the trials the day before and what he found was extremely unnerving, so much so that he hesitated from telling me the outcome of this test. My repeated entreaties did not make him budge from his resolve to keep silent on the issue. This struck me as strange, more so because in all the time that we had known each other, he had confided in me the most private details of his past; he had never been cagey in sharing details, though he insisted on my being discreet when I spoke about the project to other individuals in the team. I had followed his diktat down to the letter; never had there been an occasion when I had been the cause of embarrassing questions posed to either him or the director of the project, Sunil Shrivastava, due to leakage of information.
Also, Dr Trivedi was generally an ebullient character with a cheery disposition. He was a light hearted individual, unconcerned with the world or its gold; his was a one track mind which was set on making this most awesome of discoveries: that of traveling through time. He was the Lord Emsworth of Physics, and the project, his Empress. But on that evening his sullen and foreboding countenance was a surprise to me. No matter what I did, the man just wouldn't talk. He just stared straight ahead, sitting on his rocking chair, with the glass of tomato juice on the stool by his side untouched. He was really fond of tomato juice, he said it made his insides feel young and that I should give up whisky and turn to tomato juice to experience its palliative effects.
You will take my advice and abort the project if you've got any grey between your ears Michael, he had said. But why? Why all of a sudden, when we've nurtured and cared this dream into existence? You will have to give me a convincing answer doctor, its least you owe me and you know that, I said. It's a Pandora's box in the truest sense. Believe me, you don't want to release this scourge on humanity.
Its got to do with last night's trial run, isn't it? Tell me, what did you witness that has made you abhor your life's ambition in this manner?
Do you want to know what I saw? He turned on me violently. I saw death and destruction unleashed, that would wreck havoc. It would be worse than the world wars. There would be no chance for survival of the human race once they get their hands on the time machine.
Do you mean to say you saw another world war being fought over our time machine?
No, what I saw was quite different. But it was potent enough to jolt me to my senses and make me realize the folly in pursuing this any further. I've already made up my mind. We'll have to destroy the equipment at the earliest. Letting it exist would be to risk it getting into the wrong hands.
I broke into a sweat. Had this man gone mad? Had he his lost his reason? Here I was, on the brink of what would certainly have been recognized as one of the most important, earth shattering, ground breaking discoveries in the history of mankind, and I was being told that the thing closest my heart, the reason for my being, would have to be destroyed.
You cannot do this to me doctor. I've sacrificed too much of my life for me to let it go so easily. The least you owe me is an opportunity to run the machine at least once. We may then destroy it, if I'm convinced, but not before that.
I'm so sorry Michael, I hate to say this, but I've already initiated the shut down. Here is the memory compartment that I know you designed with great care and involvement, and I've destroyed a part of it. I want you to have the rest of it as souvenir.
I couldn't believe it. He had really done the unthinkable; to have destroyed the most important component of the machine without my consent. At that moment I felt as if the very life was being drawn out of me by some inexplicably strong suction force. The lump in my throat prevented me from uttering a word. I just stood there, rooted to the ground, hapless. I extended my arms and took what remained of my creation, nestling it with the greatest solicitude, almost as if it were a living being. And then an uncontrollable rage took command of my senses. I looked up at the man who was the cause of all my misery and jumped at him in a savage leap. The physical manifestation of my anger surprised even me. He tried to fight me off but I had the advantage of age over him. We tumbled on to the floor; he dealt me a gusty blow which landed on my temple and made me wince. All right, if that was how he wanted to play it, so be it. I positioned one foot on his soft belly and heaved him off my chest, which sent him reeling back. He toppled the television set by the wall and it fell to the ground with a crash. This gave me enough time to get to my feet and get a second wind. Just as he was getting up, I kicked him on the chin which really did him in, literally. That was it; it was all over. His neck had snapped on account of the force of the kick. I bent over him and checked his pulse. He was quite dead. And now a feeling of remorse gripped me. I hadn't meant to kill him, but there was no help for it; I'm quite certain he would have showed no remorse in having dealt with me the same way; such was the nature of change in character that had take hold of him. Be that as it may, I couldn't help but feel sorry for the man who lay slumped on the floor, as lifeless as a sack of potatoes. I left the house in haste for the only thought which governed my mind at that moment was to somehow gain entry into the research facility in order to try and redress the problem of the damaged component. I got under the wheel and shifted the stick into driving mode. As I did this, a tap sounded at my window and upon my looking up, I saw a burly individual with the closest shave imaginable smiling at me. But the smile was not a benign one; rather, it wouldn't have been out of place on a cat's face after a long chase had come to an end. The closed clipped moustache helped him mask a grotesquely broad upper lip.
He asked me to step out of the vehicle in a controlled monotone, which was even more disconcerting. He told me that he belonged to the NIA (national investigation agency), which I was aware of as being the most clandestine intelligence agency in the country, on account of my having served in a junior capacity on the prime minister's scientific advisory board a few years ago. There were several rumors which came to my ears during my tenure in the capital which made one shudder to think of the alleged methods deployed by this agency's personnel in executing their duties. But such negative reports always surrounded clandestine organizations the world over. Stepping out of the car, I perused the identification that he held out at arm's length. His name was Ram Sharan Shukla. Holding me by the elbow, he led me to where I supposed his colleagues were standing. Taking me back into the house, they very politely offered me a seat. There were two more waiting inside. I did as I was told. A lean man in an immaculate black suit swung a chair to face me and plonked down with an air of exhaustion. My name is Rajesh Srivastava, he said. I'm sure you haven't heard of me, as secrecy is our watchword. Saying this he turned to look at his compatriots, who by their deference toward Rajesh Srivastava, struck me as being his juniors in the organization. Ram Sharan Shukla evinced the most innocent of smiles. I'm the director of the NIA. The real, true director, if you will. You see we have this policy of having de facto administrators and de jure administrators and people are usually not aware of this, he said. So why was he disclosing this fact to me. It indicated to only one fact, and that was that as soon as they got whatever they wanted from me, I would be expendable. And no prizes for guessing what it was that had attracted their attention. I tried to appear nonchalant but realized I wasn't doing a very good job of it. Rajesh Srivastava had a stubble which may have been six or seven days old.
"Mr. Hector", Rajesh Srivastava Said, "Do not get surprised when I tell you that we've had our eyes on you for a very long time now. You see, the project that you are working on is of paramount importance to us. It is imperative for us to be the only and true custodians of the time machine. Unfortunately, Dr. Parshuram Trivedi is no longer in our midst, thanks to the savage you keep hidden under that veneer of innocuous respectability. Oh no, there is absolutely no need for you to be surprised. Yes, we witnessed everything, right from the heated discussion to the scuffle that broke out between the two of you. Michael, may I take the liberty of calling you by your first name?"
I nodded in acquiescence.
" So kind of you. Michael, you must really cease to get surprised henceforth. To cut a long story short, we probably know more about you than the folks who brought you into this world." He said.
The burly Ram Sharan Shukla Brought me a glass of cold water. He held it in front of my face. I took one look at his huge, hairy apish arms and took the glass from him. I didn't want to get into a scuffle with him if I could help it. I sipped from the glass but found it hard to force the water down my throat. The situation was really tense. I waited for Rajesh Srivastava to reopen the conversation. Apparently, he was in no hurry to do so. Looking upward and contorting his face into a grimace, he ran his fingers through his stubble and grimaced some more.
"Do you have any idea of how hard we work Michael? I mean, ordinary folks find the job of an intelligence agent really appealing in a romantic sort of way, but nobody wants to take into account the long hours spent waiting in a car on a dusty by lane, or the back breaking scrutiny of reams and reams of documents, some with absolutely no relevance to the case being investigated at all?" He said.
This kind of talk didn't appeal to me at all. From the trend the conversation had taken thus far, I could see there was more to come along the same querulous lines.
"You are not paying attention, now, are you Mr. Hector? Perhaps I bore you. Well, in that case let me cut through the chase and get right to the point. Arul?" At his summons, the third character who until now hadn't had a great role to play other than taking up space, answered.
Stepping forward, he bent down to catch the words which Ram Sharan Shukla spoke. I couldn't hear any of it. Having received the message, he looked at me and smiled. Ram Sharan Shukla walked out with Rajesh Srivastava close on his heels.
"Michael", he said, "I have been assigned the task of extracting all the information we need that you might be reluctant to disclose regarding the time machine. You can make it really easy for yourself by cooperating with us. Let me also inform you that we have our own methods to extract information from obstinate individuals, people who think they are brave enough or strong enough to bear the physical and psychological stress that we are capable of applying. Also, you may have noticed in countless movies how the protagonist reminds the antagonist in such situations that to kill him would be useless since the secret would die with him, but let me assure you Michael, it's quite different in reality. Tough nuts crack within seconds. So do yourself a favour by being clear, succinct and accurate in your answers."
I had no intention to put his claims to the test. But I also realized that the operation of the time machine involved complex jargon and scientific terminology, which I'm sure these men interrogating me would know nothing about. So I decided to cooperate, but only just. I wanted to see for myself the events that Dr. Parshuram Trivedi spoke about.
'All right', I said, 'i'm going to share everything I know about the time machine with you, provided you take me to our research institute right away. I want to evaluate the damage caused and assess if it would be reversible.'
'Will do. But keep one thing in mind, henceforth I'm going to stick to you closer than your own shadow. If you dare try anything funny, well, I'll let you be the judge of the consequences.' He said.
Whipping out his phone he punched in some numbers, and having connected with the recipient of his words, barked out orders which comprised a clean up job at Dr.Trivedi's residence.
'What are you going to do with him?' I asked, pointing to my late friend's body which lay quite limp at the opposite corner.
'Well, well. You let us worry about that Michael. You need have no worries on this account. We'll fix it up like it never happened, and after you've handed over the entire detail regarding the project; you can pick up the threads of your life where you left off.
Arul Das, as I later learnt his name was, wasn't a good liar. He wasn't even an average liar. He was pathetic. I knew that he knew that I knew that I wasn't going to remain alive for long after they had what they were after. I had to play my cards right. I also knew that they were aware of the fact that I could lead them astray or adopt a more circuitous root.
After an hour's drive in the heavy evening traffic, we reached the National Institute of Science, which was situated a little way out of the recognized city limits. But what with the rapid pace of development these days, the city limit was being extended by the day. Once we had escaped the maddening rush of the office goers getting back home, it didn't take us much time at all to the reach the research institute.
Arul Das proved to be a skilled driver, steering the car through the packed roads with insouciance. He swung the car into the slot that I pointed out to him, which had been designated to me. I got out of the car and with Arul Das close on my heels, made my way to the testing laboratory. I swiped my card and the door opened, and on entering I turned around to apprise Arul Das of the fact that no unauthorized person could enter the precincts of the laboratory. He gave me wry smile and took his own card out of his pocket.
' Mr.Michael Hector, it won't do for you to underestimate the folks at the NIA in this fashion. We know more about the security arrangements of this facility than all of you put together.' He said.
I gave him a resigned look and bade him follow me. I walked to the sanctum sanctorum with faltering steps, anxious to discover the extent of the damage wrought by Dr.Parshuram Trivedi. Relief surged through me when I realized that the damage done wasn't irreparable. In fact, for some reason, inexplicable even to me, I had made a spare of the component which, Dr.Trivedi, in his blessed naivety thought if destroyed would render the time machine ineffective. Unlocking the cupboard the keys to which no one else possessed, I took out the extra memory accessory and inserted it in the slot meant for it, upon the completion of which with bated breath I moved toward the main housing chamber to set the machine in action.
'Hey Michael, do you really mean this complicated looking machine can transport us through time? I mean, how can it be possible? Can I revisit my childhood, my youth? Relive the joy that once engulfed me?' Arul Das inquired of me.
Though he asked me this question with deliberate ennui, I could easily detect the feeling of awe and anticipation in his voice. I realized that if I could befriend this bloke, things might prove to be a little easy for me in the long run. So I launched off into an explanation which was watered down to the level of the layman's intellect.
'Well you see, Mr. Das, it would be quite impossible for you travel back into time, simply because the time machine didn't exist back then. In fact, to give you the exact date that our time machine came into existence, we ran the first trial successfully on May 12, 2011, which happened to be last Thursday.'
He seemed exasperated with this seemingly puerile explanation. 'But whatever has that got do with travelling back in time?' he said.
I realized that I would have to tone it down further for him to understand the working of the time machine. His impatience and disappointment at not being able to go back in time were definite obstacles in my bid to make him understand this concept.
'Mr. Das, what I mean to say is that since the time machine didn't exist back when you were a child, or up until last Thursday for that matter, it would be quite impossible for anyone to travel back into time further than May 12, 2011. This Thursday last happens to be the earliest day that anyone can travel back to. Think of it this way: you can only call a person up if they have a phone. Wanting to travel back in time further than the date that I just mentioned would be akin to being desirous of talking to a person on the phone, the only catch being, that person's not having a phone. The time machine can only operate between definite portals, and one of these portals is fixed, that is day the time machine came into existence.'
Arul Das seemed to be crestfallen. His life's greatest ambition at this moment seemed to be to go back in time so as to revisit coveted memories. But perhaps it was more that this mere pleasure at being able relive the past, the extreme ecstasy and disappointment which seemed to form the crest and trough of his behavior during the past few minutes bespoke of a forlorn desire to change something which was deeply regretted by him.
'So, what then is the use of this machine? What good is it to us?' he said.
'Though we cannot travel back in time, we certainly can travel into the future. I personally haven't had the pleasure of doing so, but I certainly intend to try.' I said to him.
'So would you mind my coming along with you for your trial run? I'd be greatly obliged you know.' He said.
I nodded my head in acquiescence and in we went into the main housing of the time machine. I initiated the process which filled me with a strange feeling of wanting to get out and run, because my life would never be the same again if took this step into the unknown. Banishing these negative thoughts from my mind I went ahead with my decision. I entered the date in the future that I wanted to travel to and a few other parameters which wouldn't interest the reader, and lo and behold, we were on our way. I had fed the destination date as the 29th of June, 2013. The selection of this particular date was quite random. We got there all right, but enroute to the 29th of June 2013, a most pleasantly astonishing and inexplicable thing happened; Arul Das, who was standing by my side all this while, vanished, into thin air as it were. Poof! Just like a puff of mist would do when seemingly admonished by a gentle breeze. But it was more a sense of relief than a feeling of being spooked that was experienced by me at that moment. It meant I hadn't to worry about handling Arul Das for the time being, which was just as well, because my mind had seized to function by this time.
So the time machine stopped and I got off. The laboratory hadn't changed much in two years, perhaps a little reorientation of the furniture, but that was about all. Having reached my destination on the time line, I really didn't know what to do next. I tried to think of a reason for my having chosen this particular date, but failed. There was no apparent reason at all. I got out of the lab and made my way to my chamber. I tried the handle and it gave way, so I swung the door open and entered. The scene that confronted me filled me with consternation. Seated at my desk was myself, as in Michael Hector, and facing him, or myself rather was Dr. Parshuram Trivedi.
'Do come inside Michael, and lock the door behind you please.' Michael Hector from the future said to me.
I did as I was told and moved further into the room and looked at Dr. Trivedi with undisguised astonishment. I looked from one to the other, both images had me flummoxed, one depicted my future self and the other, a man I had done to death not too long ago. Dr. Trivedi gave me jovial smile and asked me to take a seat.
'Don't you worry about what happened back there Michael. It was all in the script, the script as written by destiny. There was simply no help for it. You did what you had to do but it was just as well that I happened to have run the first trial which enabled me to take precautions.' Dr. Trivedi said.
'You see Michael', Michael from the future said, 'you see at this very point in time, looking at our time line from a third perspective, you or I, or whoever it may be, are repeatedly going through the same events that is in our lot to do. You simply cannot change it. It took a long time for DR. Trivedi to convince me on this point. We do understand the feelings of remorse that you are filled with, but if you view this event pragmatically, you will begin to appreciate the role that destiny plays in our life. It might seem surprising to you to hear me speak these words, because I know I was a staunch believer in free will, but that was up until now.'
'It all seems so hard for me to believe.' I said, 'how could this have happened? Dr. Trivedi, I'm so sorry at having done what I did do. But I just couldn't help myself. This project was so close to my heart that I just couldn't let you destroy it.'
'We also know that the secret service boys are after you, us I mean. We need to keep this away from them at any cost. They must not get their hands on the time machine. So we've devise a plan. Here's a procedure that we have worked out over the past two years. You go back and assemble the machine as we point it out to you, and anyone who is unfortunate enough to run the machine will be lost to obscurity. You give this to the secret agents and the time machine is safe.' Michael from the future said to me.
I glanced at the booklet comprising hand written notes and found nothing that I would have any trouble in understanding. Besides, the notes and diagrams were self explanatory. Needless to say, they asked me to destroy the manuscript when I was through with it. Dr. Trivedi brought out three glasses from the closet and produced a bottle of tomato juice. 'Your counterpart in the future has turned to tomato juice, its time you did too.' He said.
We drank up our juice and I bidding them adieu made my way back to the time machine. I punched in the date and suddenly the time machine started rattling violently. I was shaken to the core. I screamed and shouted for help, my arms flailing, but to no avail. The voice didn't issue forth from my throat, and my arms felt as heavy as lead.
'Michael! Is this what I pay you for, you good for nothing insolent? So you can catch up on your sleep? Where are your call records for today? And you've been drooling all over the keyboard you idiot! Wipe that spittle off your mouth. I want to see you in my chamber in five minutes, you hear? Who the hell hires these people?'
Thus spoke Rajesh Srivastava, the man who owned this two time startup company that would never get anywhere and remain a perpetual startup. He fancied himself to be the next business tycoon who would top the forbes list. Arul Das, the chap who had referred me to this company, came over and gave me a call sheet which he had been working on so that I could save myself from getting sacked.
And so it was back to making meaningless calls, to try and sell some software that no one wanted, calls that killed your soul day by day, little by little, which left you hollow; a gaping vacuum that could never be filled. It was back to the world of Plethoric Emptiness.