Back To The Fold
"It's called Warworld." Bruce said. "An illegal fight club. People step into the ring. They fight, the spectators bet, and the winner walks away with a certain percent of the spoils."
"And the rest?" Arthur asked.
"Goes to Mongul." Bruce said. "He started the club. He is trouble." He stared at John, Kyle, Wally, Diana and Arthur as they sat around the cafeteria table, and decided not to trouble them with the grisly details that he had found out about the owner of Warworld.
"What does Dak Syde want with Warworld?" Wally asked.
"Think of it as a training camp." Bruce said. "Virtually every local tough has fought there at some point. The owner gets an excellent idea of how good a fighter a man is, how brutal, and how willing he is to fight dirty to win. Potential candidates are tracked down and offered further training and employment, police protection etc. It's an efficiently brutal head hunting process."
Kyle fidgeted in his seat. "What do you want us to do about it?"
"We're going to shut it down, and find out any connections to Dak Syde in the place." Bruce said. "I have a plan to get us inside the place and out."
A silence met the statement. Kyle and Wally glanced at each other. Diana and John were staring fixedly ahead. There was a slight frown on Arthur's face.
"Or maybe we let the police handle this?" Wally suggested at last. "Warworld sounds like a dangerous place. Dan Turpin and his men should have an easier time there than us."
"Mongul's paid off the police."Bruce said flatly. "No cops will be caught dead near that place." He found himself missing Clark. Trying to cajole people into working with him was not a comfortable experience, and he was aware his diplomatic skills left much to be desired.
"But you're comfortable sending all of us to a place like that?" Arthur spoke now, his frown deepening. "A place the police won't touch?"
"I'll do the dangerous work." Bruce said. "But we'll need decoys and lookouts. And as for the danger, there will be no more of it than there was when we went after Protex's gang, or Luthor."
"Look man, we did those things because they were unavoidable." Wally said. "And you have to admit we had a lot of help from luck to survive them. This mission just doesn't seem all that necessary."
Bruce had to literally bite his tongue to keep back a sharp retort. "It is if you want to stop Dak Syde." He said as evenly as possible. "I thought that was the goal."
"It is, Bruce." John spoke up. "But what you are suggesting is far removed from the help we have attempted to provide in times of need in the past, and crosses into vigilantism. It is a dangerous territory to tread, my friend."
"We can't expect to solve this matter without getting our hands dirty." Bruce said through gritted teeth. "You all know why Dak Syde is dangerous, and Mongul is almost as bad. This mission is necessary, and I repeat, I'll handle any real danger during the mission."
"We all know that's bull." Arthur said flatly. "If the plan gets screwed even slightly, everything falls apart. And once that happens we all have to face the heat."
"We won't if everybody follows their orders." Bruce growled.
"Yeah, because we're all so great at doing that." Arthur rose from his seat. "Sorry, Bruce. I think we should sit this one out." He turned and began to walk away from the table.
"Get back here, Arthur." Bruce called out sharply. "I didn't say you could leave yet."
Arthur turned around slowly. "What was that?" he walked up to Bruce until their faces were inches apart. "You didn't say I could leave? You're going to give me permission? Who the hell do you think you are?" John rose and stepped in quickly to hold Arthur back. Bruce was watching him through narrowed eyes.
"We need to work on this as a team. Every team needs a leader. I'm the most qualified." He said.
"To be a dictator maybe. But I'm not going into a den of thieves because you feel like playing the hero."
"So you're scared." Bruce stated flatly.
John grabbed Arthur's shoulders to stop him reaching for Bruce. "Because it's my decision, you jumped up little egomaniac. We're not your little toy soldiers that you can order around and tell when to charge."
"Calm down, man." Kyle said, laying a hand on Arthur's shoulder. "That's not what Bruce meant. We understand if you don't want to go, and that's totally your decision. Right, Bruce?"
Bruce nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Arthur shook off John and Kyle and strode off.
"What about you two?" Bruce asked, looking at Wally and Kyle. They both looked uncomfortable.
"I'm really sorry, man." Wally said slowly. "But I think Arthur's right. We're in over our heads. And I just don't think getting some more information about Dak Syde is worth all this risk." Kyle nodded quietly as well. The two stood up slowly, not looking at Bruce, and walked away as well.
Bruce was breathing hard as he looked at Diana. "Diana?"
Diana stared up at him and met his gaze, looking troubled. "Please let the police handle this, Bruce." She said in a low voice. "We have done enough. We need to let them do their duty, and we need to get on with ours." She rose and walked away as well.
And then there was only John left. The two stared at each other for a moment, and Bruce did not have to ask anything. John's expression was clear enough.
"Bruce-" John began in a low voice.
Bruce turned and strode silently out of the hall.
"So there aren't any other sources?" Bruce asked, a frown on his face.
"None that you'll be interested in." Eel O'Brian shrugged, staring around the campus with practiced indifference. He had just finished telling Bruce about the paucity of personal information about Mongul, and where he might keep any important documents.
"So is there anything else you can tell me?"
"Not me." Eel gestured behind Bruce, and he turned to see Selina Kyle walking towards them.
She strolled over to them, something about her air of indifference similar to Eel's. "Hey, boys." She called out. "This is a strange little tea party."
"You have information about Mongul?" Bruce asked.
Selina shrugged. "I went to warworld once with a friend of mine. Nasty sort of a place, even by my standards."
"What can you tell me about the location?" Bruce asked.
"It's a bad place to be in, even by Suicide slum's standards." Selina said. "It used to a huge gym that was taken over by the mob and then dumped, on account of it basically being made of cardboard and cello tape. It's close to collapsing in on itself anyday now, which means Mongul doesn't have to worry about anyone trying to take it from him. It's got a bunch of tenements at the back where he lives, along with some of his gang, although he's pretty protective of his house. Most of the tenement's deserted."
Bruce nodded, thinking hard. "The documents?"
"No idea." Selina shrugged again. "Might be anywhere, might not even exist. Organisational ability isn't really a valuable job skill in Suicide slum."
Bruce stood for a moment deep in thought, then came to with an abrupt start. "Tonight would be the best time to get inside. I'll need to make some arrangements first." He turned away and began to walk back to his hostel.
"It's a death trap." Selina called out suddenly. Bruce stopped. "Look, I'm not going to tell you what to do, but Mongul is not the kind of guy you mess with. Even Gotham mob bosses are scared of him. He's way too dangerous for you to take on alone."
"Selina," Bruce half turned to glance back at her. "I'm dangerous."
The man sitting at the table looked oddly like an office clerk as he sat bent over the dusty table, a log book in front of him. Until you got close and saw the tattoos and scars covering his body.
"Name?" He said without looking up as Bruce walked up to him.
"Malone." Bruce said. The man finally looked up and stared at him appraisingly.
"This ain't a fashion show, kid." He said, looking down again. "Beat it."
"I'm here to fight."
"So are these guys." The man indicated the line forming behind Bruce. "And they actually know how to put on a show. They were breaking teeth while you were in diapers. So beat it. This isn't a place for you."
"Why don't you let me decide that." Bruce said, taking out a roll of bills. "I'll be betting on myself as well."
The man stared at Bruce, then took the roll of bills and nodded. "Your life, kid."
"So when does the fight start?" Bruce asked.
The man grinned. "Well, you were kind enough to open the pool. So no time like the present."
Bruce was grabbed from behind and thrown into a wall away from the man at the table. The milling crowd open a path for him as the spectators fanned out in a circle, shouting and clapping. The others were clamouring to get their money down on the fight.
Bruce's attacker was on him again, a big heavy set man who stank of beer, raining down blows unceasingly. There was no science or method to the fight.
And then suddenly, the attacker's neck was caught in a scissor hold. Three punches, quick and hard and aimed for the eyes and nose, sent him staggering back. Bruce got to his feet and faced the man, his eyes sizing up his opponents strength and speed as he moved to shift his weight from one leg to the other.
The man rushed towards Bruce, one heavy arm raised. Bruce ducked, and the next moment his knee had risen to smash the man in his chest. Without a second's pause, his other leg slammed into his neck, leaving him gasping. Bruce's elbow shot out, and the man lay panting on the floor.
Bruce surveyed the silent room as he slowly took his jacket off. "Next."
A slow clap came from the back of the room. The crowd turned to locate the source, and Bruce saw a man standing in front of a throne like chair at the end of the hall. Almost seven feet tall. Built like a linebacker. Heavy brow jutting out over merciless eyes, Bruce knew he was looking at Mongul.
"Impressive." Mongul's deep voice rumbled. "A good start for what promises to be a night of high interest. Gentlemen, place your bets. It is time to separate the men from the boys!"
The battles raged on within warworld. Men of varying shapes and sizes hurled themselves at each other to the raucous cheers of the onlookers. Mongul sat impassive on his throne like chair, his eyes intently studying each contender. The aura of violence prevalent was in many ways reminiscent of Bludhaven.
Bruce moved discreetly through the shouting crowd. He had won every match so far, and was due to fight whoever won the present round. In the meantime, he had had ample time to study the surroundings and make his preparations. Now had come the time to make his move. He reached into his jacket pocket, his face impassive as he pressed a button.
A loud shrieking noise filled the room, jerking the shouting men out of their rounds. Once it became clear it was not a police siren, the men stared at each other in confusion. The shouting and yelling increased as the circle around the two contenders began to break up and disperse.
And then an explosion sounded from the back of the room. Everyone turned, and they saw a section of the roof fall in. That was all it took to confirm the suspicion. The badly constructed structure was finally collapsing. That was an uproar as men pushed and pulled their way to the exit, unheeding of those who had fallen and were being trampled. The mob burst out into the open, and turned to stare at the building. It was not collapsing any longer, and no more explosions sounded. The door of the gym swung shut. The men looked at each other in confusion. While nothing further happened, they all stood rooted still, uncertainly waiting for someone other than themselves to be the first one to enter the building. The seconds ticked past and still no one moved.
Inside the gym, Bruce turned away from the door and stared at Mongul, who had not run, but had risen from his chair and stood watching him.
"Hologram and sound effects." Bruce called out. "That's the most unfortunate characteristic of these kind of men." he continued as he neared Mongul. "Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot." He came to stand directly in front of the big man. "The gym seems a lot smaller without your little army around you, doesn't it?"
"Hardly." Mongul rumbled, his eyes studying Bruce curiously as he crossed his hands behind his back. "Is there a reason you had to resort to all these theatrics?"
"I want some information about Dak Syde. Evidence against him."
Mongul put his head to one side, seeming amused. "At least you have taken the trouble to ask nicely."
"Something told me that wouldn't work in a place like this." Bruce glanced around the gym.
"And why should I tell you anything?"
"I have ways of making people talk." Bruce stated calmly. "But before we have to resort to that, I could tell you I am working to bring him down, and any information you give will help speed up the process."
Mongul laughed then, a deep, rumbling laugh. "A mutually beneficial arrangement, I see. You invade my domain, and then expect to do business with me."
"Not business, no." Bruce said softly. "An interrogation. How smoothly it goes, depends on you."
Mongul cocked his head to one side again. "I have killed men for lesser insolence than yours." He murmured. "Something that I intend to do to you, too. But your attitude appeals to me, little man. So much so that I will do you the courtesy of telling you, you are deluded about your grasp on this situation. I am still in charge here. That I have allowed you to live thus far is a demonstration of my interest, not your ability." Bruce did not challenge the statement. He could feel the shift in the atmosphere of the room. The time for talk would soon be past.
"As for Dak Syde," Mongul continued. "In all honesty, I do not know anything."
"I find that hard to believe. You supply thugs to him. You control parts of suicide slum. And you have considerable influence in the underworld."
"And all of that means nothing to Dak Syde." Mongul said, a thoughtful frown now appearing on his face. "Dak Syde is far removed from the typical Metropolis mobster, in the sense that he does not consider himself one of us. It is no secret that he wants to control Metropolis, but even aside from the considerable personal gain such an undertaking would involve, deep down, I believe he truly considers it his birthright to rule. In that sense, he sees himself as royalty. Better not just than us criminals, but better than the other citizens as well."
"And so he will make use of my services, but he will not associate himself with me beyond that. All the communications are through the usual channels, which would hardly be worth looking into for evidence. Even if I wanted to provide you information about him, I simply do not have any to give."
Bruce stared at him, his mind racing. He realised Mongul was telling the truth. He had miscalculated in believing he would find information here. The mission had been in vain, and it seemed the others had been right not to come.
"Then it seems I will have to be disappointed in my plans." Bruce said calmly.
"Not a good plan." Mongul remarked, taking a slow step forward. "Tell me, as a point of idle curiosity, did it ever occur to you to make some plan other than barging into the very epicentre of my kingdom, demanding answers?"
"I prefer the direct approach." Bruce remarked.
"Even if doing so gets you killed?" Mongul's voice was very soft.
The two stared at each other for a moment, and Bruce hardly dared to breathe. Any second now...
And then Mongul was bounding towards him with shocking speed. Bruce barely had time to brace himself before the other man was on him. Mongul picked him up and threw him into the wall, Bruce's punches flying futilely past his head. He was incredibly strong. He grabbed Bruce around his neck and began to squeeze, the small eyes narrowed with malice.
Three elbow jabs to Mongul's arm, and his grasp released. Bruce pushed hard with both his legs, and sent his opponent lumbering back. Without pausing for a second, he jumped to his feet and ran forward to continue his assault in a flurry of punches.
A part of Bruce was surprised by his own savagery as his leg smashed into Mongul's kneecap. He had never fought like this before, always preferring to incapacitate his victims instead. But the atmosphere of Warworld had done something to him. The air of mindless violence had had a deeper effect on his mind than he was prepared to admit, and unleashed some primal, instinctual aggression within.
And still it wasn't enough. Mongul was still on his feet, still sending brutal punches to Bruce's head that sent him reeling back every time. Not for nothing was he the head of warworld.
The fight was drawing out for too long. Bruce felt himself tiring while Mongul showed no sign of slowing down. But Mongul wasn't interested in a victory so much as escape.
Bruce was sent crashing violently into the wall, and once again got to his feet, his reflexes a little slower now. Mongul had turned and was making his way to the exit of the gym. Bruce knew he was heading towards the back of suicide slum where he lived within the tenement, possibly to get back up. He followed as quickly as he could.
He came out of the gym exit to find Mongul standing rooted in the middle of the lot in front of the tenement. Bruce followed the direction of his gaze.
Arthur, Diana , John, Wally and Kyle stood at the end of the lot. In Arthur's hand was a gun that belonged to his father, the same gun they had used to scare away Mongul's men, the ones they had found in the tenement. Bruce stared at them, and then stared back at Mongul as he walked slowly up to him.
Mongul's eyes were narrowed as he sized up the situation. Finally, a mean little smile played across his lips as he stared at Bruce.
"Amusing to think you sought to defeat me on your own." He rumbled. "With the added advantage of your henchmen, you might just be able to give me a proper match."
"I don't need any help to beat you." Bruce replied. He turned to face the others. "Nobody interferes-" He began to say, and just then Mongul's elbow smashed into his back, sending him sprawling to the ground.
Bruce got to his feet quickly, cursing his competitive nature. Mongul was running at full speed, and by the time Bruce was on his feet, he had disappeared inside the tenement house.
Suddenly the house was full of noise, as the seven ran towards the doorway. From inside came the sound of heavy bodies falling, furniture upturning, and Mongul yelling.
And then suddenly a deeper crash was heard, more absolute than the others. The doors were blasted open, and Mongul's heavy body was sent staggering out before collapsing onto the ground, where he lay breathing feebly. The dust flying from inside settled, and Clark Kent stepped out of the house and into the open.
"Clark!" Wally and Kyle roared in delight as they ran over to him. Arthur and John were grinning broadly as they walked over to him, and even Bruce could not stop a grin from forming on his face. Clark grinned back just as broadly as they reached him, and he hugged Wally and Kyle and Arthur and John before clapping Bruce on his back. "Looks like I got here right at the end."
"Close to the end." John smiled. "I take it my message reached you, then?"
"Just in time for me to head to college and have Eel tell me you're all here." Clark said. "I wasn't sure if you guys had a plan in place for this little excursion, and I didn't want to do anything to upset it. So I decided to stay hidden until I was needed." He grinned at Bruce. "Didn't know you'd send this guy straight into my arms."
"I could have taken him." Bruce remarked.
"I know, but I needed some practice too." Clark grinned again.
And then they all realised Diana was still standing at the back of the lot, watching them. The laughter died away as they all looked at the Clark and Diana uncertainly. Clark was staring at her, who stared back, her eyes very bright. No one else dared make a move.
"Diana..." Clark called out quietly, taking a hesitant step towards her.
Diana turned abruptly and strode away, her back very straight.
Clark watched her leave. He stared down at the prone body of Mongul on the ground, and then turned to stare at the others. "We should call the police." He muttered, feeling the excitement he had felt at seeing them all fizzle out. The others nodded in silence, as they took another look at the swiftly departing figure.
My novel, Neel Dervin and the Dark Angel, is available for free on Amazon this Saturday and Sunday. Below is the first chapter of the novel:
CHAPTER 1: The Best Laid Plans
Doctor Fahim turned away from the screen of the projector to face the two men who were watching him intently.
'And so, gentlemen,' he concluded with a smile, walking towards the table on which his laptop was kept next to a steel container. 'I can say with full confidence that we have at last met with success in our endeavors. The idea that had seemed little more than idle fantasy three decades ago has finally become a reality. I thank you both, as well as the government, for your invaluable support of the project.' The two men leaned forward in their chairs as Doctor Fahim opened the container and carefully drew out a test tube from its casing, holding it up for the others to see.
His guests gazed in silence at the transparent liquid contained in the glass tube. It looked exactly like ordinary water, yet in the glow of the light coming from the projector on the screen, the liquid glistened silver. The men continued to stare spellbound at the contents of the tube for several moments. Both of Doctor Fahim's guests counted among the most powerful men in the country, experienced in matters of national importance for many years. Yet at that moment both their eyes mirrored a look of amazement and child like wonder at the marvel they beheld.
Doctor Fahim held the tube raised in his hand for a few seconds more, sharing in the moment of collective triumph with the other two men. Then he carefully placed the tube back in its casing, leaving the lid of the container open.
The spell of silence that had fallen over the company broke, and the Minister of Defense rose to his feet.
'Our heartiest congratulations.' he said, smiling broadly as he strode forwards to shake Doctor Fahim's hand. 'We were sure that you were the only man in the country who could have succeeded in this endeavor. You have fully justified Doctor Thompson's faith in your ability.'
The doctor returned the smile, the glow from the projector lighting up his profile. He had a very tall and lean figure, with a neatly trimmed beard and moustache. His face was lined and wrinkled with age. But there was no frailty there. The deep, alert eyes indicated the presence of a powerful mind, and the wisdom of experiences vast and numerous which only a lengthy and eventful life could provide. Experiences which today had made him into one of the world's foremost authorities on biotechnology. Yet the exhaustively scholarly life he had led had not dimmed the twinkle in those shrewd eyes. Doctor Fahim laughed quietly as he shook the Minister's hand. 'It was indeed a formidable challenge, Mr. Rai, but it was extremely interesting working in a new field.'
'And the end result was certainly well worth the effort.' the Minister said, beaming. 'I take it that the serum is now ready to be used on human beings, or is there still some work left to be done?'
'The work is complete from your point of interest, gentlemen.' Doctor Fahim said, his voice becoming grave again. He turned to his laptop and selected the final slide from the presentation. 'From a scientific viewpoint, however, an experiment is only considered completely successful when its applications have been tested in real world conditions.' He glanced up reassuringly at the Minister. 'Nevertheless, the results we have obtained up to this point are undeniably conclusive. The effect of the serum on the physiology of the test subject is nothing short of miraculous.' Doctor Fahim turned to the image on the projector screen.
The slide showed the bone and muscle density of a rhesus monkey and a mouse in two stages, one before intake of the serum, and one after. Doctor Fahim pointed to the images. 'As you can see, the entire composition of the subject's bodies have been radically enhanced,' Doctor Fahim turned once again to the two men. 'In practical terms, the intake of this serum would turn a normal person into a being of a much higher mental and physical capacity, with all the benefits of the increased biological efficiency, not the least of which is an enhanced metabolism, and the ability to heal at increased rates. A godsend in times of war.'
The third and final occupant of the room rose as well. In his non-descript civilian clothes, it would have been difficult to identify the man immediately as General Bakshi, the chief of army staff of the Indian military. Only the General's erect and disciplined carriage hinted at the fact that the man was in fact the leader of the largest army in the world. The general's stern and forbidding demeanor was for once relaxed into a smile.
'This is a great day for the Indian Army.' General Bakshi said, coming forward to shake Doctor Fahim's hand as well. 'The effect of this discovery on our armed forces can hardly be underestimated.' The General studied Doctor Fahim intently. 'And considering the importance of this discovery, I must ask you again, before this business is carried over to the next stage; is there any other information, any side effects or the like, that you would like to share with us about the serum, before we begin using it on our soldiers?'
Doctor Fahim glanced at the only partially open window of the small room they were in. The meeting was taking place in a conference room in the south block of the Central Secretariat in Delhi. He remembered passing by several prominent politicians on his way to the meeting. Standing there reminded him now more than ever of the monumental nature of what they were attempting.
The doctor turned slowly to face General Bakshi, a thoughtful expression on his face. He seemed to be debating something in his mind. 'I am glad you brought up the matter.' he said finally in a quiet voice. 'Gentlemen, please take your seats again. There are some concerns of mine regarding this project that I would like to share with you.'
The Defense Minister and the General resumed their seats and turned to face Doctor Fahim, their expressions showing a mixture of curiosity and wariness at the Doctor's grave tone. When the doctor spoke, his voice was very quiet, but it was still clearly audible across the silent room.
'I can think of no better use of this discovery than applying its uses to the defense of our country.' He stared at the General, who was watching him with a slight frown. 'And yet, sir, I cannot help but wonder whether it would be judicious to put such a vast amount of power in the hands of one person.'
The General's eyes narrowed dangerously as he sat up straighter in his chair. 'Doctor, we are grateful for your contribution, but kindly understand your boundaries. How we use the serum is for us to decide. Rest assured that the power of the serum will not be misused in our hands.'
'And what will happen, General, if those who hold that power in their hands no longer feel the need to follow your orders?' Doctor Fahim did not look away, but met the General Bakshi's gaze squarely.
'A soldier is taught to be responsible and logical in all his decisions.' the General said. His voice had grown sharper. It was the voice of a man not used to having his directives questioned. 'Serving the country is every soldier‟s passion, Doctor Fahim, a passion that an ordinary civilian can never truly understand.'
'I am sure that is what you teach your troops.' the doctor countered. 'But you cannot deny that many people who become soldiers have other, less honorable reasons. There have been cases in history when soldiers rebelled, and their mutiny caused great damage. How can we be sure-'
'We understand your concerns, doctor.' the Minister interrupted in a gentle voice, even as the General opened his mouth angrily. 'That possibility has already occurred to us. We intend in the beginning to use the serum on an extremely select group of candidates who have excelled in every field of the defense service, and whose loyalty is beyond question. And even then we will be starting with a single test subject for now. That person will be the first agent under the project, our first Alpha Soldier.'
'Then I have your word, gentlemen, that my work will not be misused in any way?' The doctor looked at the two men seriously.
'You have our word.' the defense Minister replied, his eyes unwavering as they looked into Doctor Fahim's. The General said nothing, but his gaze did not falter either.
Doctor Fahim nodded, and the lines around his eyes seemed to lighten. 'Then I can rest easy in my mind. Forgive me if I offended you, General, but I needed to make sure.'
'And now that we have assuaged your conscience,' General Bakshi said as he rose, not attempting to conceal the impatience in his voice. 'Perhaps we can move onto the next phase of the project. Our work is far from over, Doctor Fahim. In fact, for all intents and purpose, it is just beginning. We can count on your total cooperation?'
Doctor Fahim inclined his head. 'Yes, General. We continue on.'
'Excellent.' Mr. Rai rose as well. 'Then we will say goodbye for now. We will see you tomorrow when we start the next phase of Project Alpha.' Doctor Fahim nodded quietly.
'You have the remainder of the day to clear out your laboratory.' the General spoke somewhat brusquely, his voice indicating that he had not forgotten their argument. 'All physical evidence of the experiments you conducted for Project Alpha must be destroyed. All the chemicals removed, and the test subjects readied for transfer. A team will come to the lab at twenty two hundred hours tonight to wipe down the area and replace the memory banks from your computer. Good day.' The General turned away without another word and strode out the room. Mr. Rai shook Doctor Fahim's hand one last time and left as well.
The doctor let out a low sigh as he turned off the projector and switched on the lights. The meeting had been a success, all things considered. Yet he could not summon any enthusiasm for the moment. He pressed his temple, staving off the headache that had been building up since the morning. There were too many things to think about, and not enough time to deliberate upon them all. The General and the Defense Minister were both good men, each in their own way. But the three of them working side by side was not going to be an easy task. The other two were both leaders of men, and he had the distinct feeling that his role in the project from this point onwards was going to be drastically curtailed.
Doctor Fahim left the conference room carrying the steel safe at his side. It was not very heavy, and it was not something that could be trusted to an unknown person's care. As he came out of the conference room, his assistant Divya Nayak rose from her chair and came forward to meet him. At a height of five feet and nine inches, with fine, even features, a delicate figure and long black hair, she looked more like a model than a scientist. This was a misleading appearance, since she had proven herself to be a worthy student to the doctor, and had been working with him for three years on the project. She looked at the doctor expectantly as he came up to her.
'The meeting was as fraught with interest as we were expecting it to be.' Doctor Fahim said with a smile. 'I‟m afraid my standing has gone down somewhat in General Bakshi‟s estimate. But we are nearing the end of this stage of the project. They want us to tie up the loose ends of our work and finish up the research by tonight to have the serum ready for transport to the army lab. Unfortunately, if we are to have everything ready by tomorrow, I will need to have a talk with Doctor Mathur as soon as possible to prepare for the cognitive training of the subject. So I need you to get the serum to my office.'
Divya nodded, conscious of the enormous responsibility that Doctor Fahim was entrusting her with. Aside from the doctor, she was the only civilian who was aware of the existence of Project Alpha, and his trust meant a great deal to her. 'Of course, sir.' she said, 'I'll get it to the lab immediately.'
Divya sat in her car at the four way intersection, waiting for the signal to change. Traffic in Delhi is consistently rated among the worst in the world, with extremely aggressive drivers and frequent flouting of the road rules. Accidents happen frequently, and the congestion on the road means frequent delays at stop signals, something that Divya had been forced to become used to. As she waited, her mind wandered over the events of the day. She sighed, feeling like a small paper boat caught up in a tidal wave, vast and relentless in its progress. They had now reached a point of no return in their research. The project was a day away from being converted into a top secret military operation. Stepping back from the business was now impossible, as was walking away from the whole thing.
Divya wondered what kind of a future the use of the serum would lead them to. In her mind's eye an army of Alpha soldiers rose up before her. They would be unstoppable. Indestructible. The balance of power would shift in India‟s favor at the global level, with the most powerful army in the world under its command.
A shiver ran down Divya's spine, even as the sun beat down mercilessly outside. She could not help but feel uneasy about the image that her mind had conjured up. So much power in the hands of a select few, with someone like General Bakshi at the helm. Divya knew the general was a decorated war hero, acknowledged to be one of the ablest generals in the history of the Indian army. But he was also known to be completely ruthless in his dealings with people, even his own troops. Friends and foes were not very different for the General, and everyone was suspect until proven innocent. A man like that leading an army of super soldiers…
Divya shook her head slightly, breaking out of her dark reverie. She was being paranoid. The project was supposed to help the world. That had always been the primary motivation, right back to all those years ago in Africa, when Doctor Fahim had worked with Doctor Thompson, alone and without any sponsors. There they had laid the seeds of their work, and now it had come to fruition. The serum would make the world a better place, a safer place. She took her minds off the involvement of the army and focused on the serum instead. She glanced to her right at the container lying innocently on the seat beside her. Inside the container lay the key to more power than anything the world had seen before. She checked the lock again. Tomorrow, the serum would be in the hands of the military, and then they would see exactly what the serum could do for mankind.
Divya looked out of the window, watching the people waiting with her at the stop. Some were on motorcycles, some were inside cars like her. There was also a young boy sitting on his bicycle, his eyes on the traffic light. He had a schoolbag strapped to his shoulders. Divya guessed he was on his way to tuitions.
Seeing the boy opened a new train of thought, as it brought to Divya‟s mind the remarkable effect the serum had on youngsters. Divya studied the boy. He had a thin frame. Not in a starved way, but in the awkward, pubescent stage way. There was a slightly childish quality to his face, with soft features that were not yet fully formed. The cycle was slightly too big for him, and he was resting the tip of one foot on the ground as he waited. She guessed his age to be around twelve or thirteen.
The boy was staring into the distance. Divya followed his gaze to one of the buildings with a billboard on the side with some advertisement. It seemed a bland enough piece of work. For a moment, she thought she saw a flutter of dark cloth over the edge of the building, but in the time it took to blink it had disappeared. She stared at the road again, her mind back on the task at hand.
When the light changed to green, she put her car in gear and prepared to move forward. Suddenly her phone began to ring. She took her foot off the accelerator and opened her purse.
Taking out her phone, she saw that the number was an unknown one. She turned on the loudspeaker on her mobile and waited, but no sound came. 'Hello?' she said into the speaker, but a sudden burst of static was all she heard before the line went dead.
Puzzled, she switched her phone off and again started her car, but the boy had now moved in front of her and she paused to let him pass. She bent down to replace her phone in her purse.
Which was why she missed witnessing the accident.
The whole incident was over so quickly that for a moment passersby could only stare in shock. The boy moved forward to the middle of the road, and a giant black sumo raced up the road to his left. The boy had barely time to turn his head before the car had crashed into him. The impact of metal against metal and the squeal of rubber tires produced an ugly, high pitched screech. Before anyone could react, the sumo was gone, racing on down the road at an even faster speed.
The boy was thrown into the air from the impact, landing ten feet away, and lay there unmoving. The rest of the onlookers were too horrified to do anything but stare. Divya got out of her car and ran to the inert form stretched out on the road. She knelt beside him, and for a moment all she could do was stare in horror as well. His arm had been totally mangled. There was blood pouring out of his skull and the right side of his ribcage had caved in.
'You! Help me get him inside my car.' Divya shouted to one of the onlookers, a man in a blue shirt who looked thoroughly unnerved. A crowd had begun to gather rapidly on the spot. Between the two of them they managed to get the boy inside her car, away from the blistering sun. 'Call a hospital. Tell them to bring an ambulance.' She told the man. He walked off quickly, fumbling for his mobile, the front of his blue shirt now stained with dark red blood.
As he disappeared, Divya knew it would be too late. The boy‟s condition was critical. Even without a stethoscope she could almost hear his heartbeat slowing. She shook off the helplessness she felt and grabbed the box containing the serum, placing it under the front passenger seat. No one should see the container when the ambulance came-
Divya stopped, her hand still on the container. For a long moment she stared at the handle of the container. Slowly, she placed the box back on the seat.
Now that the shock was wearing off, her mind was beginning to function normally again. The analytical side of her brain was computing the chances of the boy living till the ambulance arrived, while a separate part of her mind was replaying flashes of a conversation she had had with Doctor Fahim months ago. 'This serum is going to be particularly helpful in times of war.' He had said.'The recovery speed from wounds and the healing rate for the subject is phenomenal.' He had laughed then, the pride of the creator in his voice. 'I'm almost tempted to put it on the market as medicine.'
Divya stood frozen, bent over her car seat, feeling oddly detached from the scene around her. Her mind was wrestling with the implications of what she was contemplating doing, and the repercussions her actions might bring. And yet it was the only way, the only hope there was for saving the boy‟s life. Thoughts blew a whirlwind in Divya‟s mind. Arguments and counter arguments. The work and effort that had gone into making the serum. The importance it held for the entire nation. Her duty towards the project. Towards her country.
However, after all had been said and done, there was only one reality. The image of the boy taking his last breath in front of her. Divya knew she had no choice.
Her fingers flew over the combination lock. Within seconds, she had taken the serum out of the container, raised the boy‟s head from the seat and was helping him gulp down the liquid.
Divya was pacing the floor of a private room in the hospital. Twenty minutes ago, the ambulance had rushed the injured boy to the emergency room, and he was currently being operated upon. Divya had called Doctor Fahim, who was still at the secretariat. She had given him a brief account of what had happened and where she was. After the initial shock and subsequent inquiries, Doctor Fahim had instructed her to stay at the hospital, and was now on his way over with Mr. Rai and General Bakshi.
Divya paced the room, waiting. A part of her was still reeling in shock at what she had done. The other part was wondering what they were going to do to her. Her decision had been mainly instinctive, and now that she had time to think beyond that decision, the future looked very bleak. She had been trusted with a literally priceless piece of government property, and had managed to lose it in less than an hour. Even worse, she had involved a civilian, a teenage boy, in a top secret government project. She knew offenders had been executed for lesser crimes before.
'Miss!' A frightened voice came from the door. Divya turned. A nurse was peeping at her from behind the half opened door.
'Some men are looking for you, Miss.' the nurse said in a whisper. 'They‟re turning the hospital upside down. One of them seems to be a military man of some sort. He was insisting that they be allowed to see the injured boy you brought in, even though the doctors tried to tell him that the boy was being operated on. But then the other two men managed to persuade him to wait. And now they‟re asking for you.'
Divya nodded. 'They are friends of mine.' she said. It was an odd way of referring to the three men, two of whom would quite possibly want to have her jailed, but it was better than revealing their true identity. 'Could you tell them that I am waiting for them here? We will need some privacy.'
The nurse nodded and scurried off. Divya resumed her pacing, her hands feeling clammy with sweat. In the past few years she had matured a lot, and had become used to fending for herself, yet her heart quailed at the thought of meeting General Bakshi now.
A minute later she heard a series of rapid footsteps outside, and upraised voices. She turned to face the door, inwardly steeling herself.
The door burst open, and three deeply disturbed men entered the room. The Defense Minister was in the lead. Lines of worry creased his forehead. The General was right behind him, his mouth tightened into a line of fury. Doctor Fahim came in last. He shot a look of inquiry at Divya, his eyes full of concern. The sight of Doctor Fahim was reassuring, and Divya felt slightly more confident. Doctor Fahim turned and locked the door, sealing the room behind them.
'What have you done?' the General shouted without preamble, his face a deep shade of red. 'What monumental stupidity possessed you to behave in this manner? Answer me, Miss Nayak!'
Divya took a deep breath. 'I did what I thought was right, sir.' she spoke as evenly as she could. 'The boy was dying in front of my eyes. The serum was the only thing that could have saved him. It seemed to be the only course to pursue.'
'The only course?' the General spluttered. His face was growing steadily redder. 'And who gave you the right to decide how to make use of a piece of government property? Who said you could involve in a private matter technology intended specifically for the use of the Indian army?'
'Calm down, General.' Doctor Fahim said, coming to stand next to the Minister and the general.
'Don‟t tell me to calm down, Doctor Fahim.' the General turned to glare at the doctor. 'Do you realize what she has done? In less than an hour we have lost the single greatest tactical advantage in the history of the armed forces, something that could have single handedly turned the rules of modern warfare on its head. And instead we have gotten a massive casualty on our hands in the form of a child with the power of a demon. And even that is provided he survives the operation, which does not at all seem likely at the moment, in which case the power of the serum will be lost forever. I want to know what she has to say for herself. Why was she even given the serum? You were the one who was supposed to get the serum to the lab.'
'Which is what I would have done if your plans for getting the project ready by tomorrow had not forced me to change my plans regarding the training program of the subject.' Doctor Fahim said calmly. 'I had to talk to Doctor Mathur about the therapy techniques we intend to use on the Alpha Soldiers. I therefore instructed Divya to take the serum to the lab.'
'And how did she know the combination for opening the safe containing the serum?' the General growled, his eyes narrowing. 'Do you routinely share critical information of that sort with your subordinates?'
'She knew because I had told her.' Doctor Fahim said, his voice becoming sharper. 'Kindly do not make unfounded and damaging insinuations against Miss Nayak, General. This accident was not a private matter, as you called it just now. This serum was designed to help people, which is what she did. Divya has worked on this project with me for the last four years, and I trust her implicitly.'
'But I'm afraid I do not trust her, Doctor Fahim.' the General said, breathing hard as he stared at the doctor. 'And I do not trust you either. This is why I was against using civilians in the project in the first place. They can never be trusted to follow orders.'
'Calm down, General.' the defense Minister now spoke up, putting a hand on the General's shoulder. 'We cannot change the past. What has already happened is beyond our control. We need to decide how to deal with this new situation. Miss Nayak, will you tell us exactly what happened? We only know the barest details.'
Divya took a deep breath and began to tell them what had happened at the intersection; the accident, the boy‟s broken body landing on the road, his life ending in front of her, and then the serum. The three men listened in silence.
'I didn‟t think I had a choice.' Divya said. She looked at Doctor Fahim almost pleadingly. 'The boy was dying in front of me.'
'It was the only course to pursue, Divya.' Doctor Fahim said quietly. 'You did what any decent human being would have done. We cannot blame you for it.' The General shot a look at the doctor, but did not say anything. Doctor Fahim ignored him.
'I called the police on the way over.' the General said. 'The man who was driving the car was caught two miles later. Some idiot with too much alcohol in his body. He will be jailed, of course, but the damage has been done.'
'The question now is, what do we do with the boy?' the Minister said. He stared abstractedly at a nearby table, his forehead still creased with worry. 'Provided he even survives the operation.' He turned to Doctor Fahim. 'Do you think he will survive, Doctor Fahim?'
'It would depend on how long he can be kept alive for the serum to take effect on his body.' Doctor Fahim said slowly. 'I have already mentioned how remarkable the effect of the serum is on the healing ability of the subject. I believe there is an excellent chance that he will survive the operation.'
'So after all our preparations for an Alpha Soldier, instead we are stuck with an Alpha child?' General Bakshi was no longer shouting, but the frown was still in place.
'I‟m afraid you do not fully understand, General.' Doctor Fahim said quietly, a strange expression on his face. He glanced at Divya. 'There is a side to this new situation that you are not aware of.'
'What do you mean?' the defense Minister was looking at Doctor Fahim warily.
'There is a curious property of the serum that I have not yet shared with either of you.' Doctor Fahim said slowly.
'At the secretariat, you said that you had told us everything.' the Minister said, his voice less calm than before.
'Everything that had a bearing on Project Alpha.' Doctor Fahim said. 'But there was a host of additional information related to our experiments that would have taken too long to relate.'
'So what part of that information has suddenly become relevant to the project?' General Bakshi stared hard at Doctor Fahim.
Divya watched the three men, hardly daring to breathe. The information that Doctor Fahim was about to give the other two men would show them how the situation had become much more complicated then they believed.
'The serum was tested on fully grown chimps, and the increased muscular and neural capacity they exhibited was entirely satisfactory.' Doctor Fahim said. 'But a curious fact was
noticed when the chimp in question was younger. The effect of the serum seemed to be compounded in their case.'
Doctor Fahim looked at the two men significantly, but from their expressions it was clear that they did not understand the implications of this discovery.
'It seems that the reason behind this augmentation is that the serum directly affects the glands which are responsible for the growth of the body during adolescence.' Doctor Fahim continued.
'At this stage of the operation, I believe the behavior of test monkeys might be considered superfluous, Doctor Fahim.' the General said impatiently. 'How would this detail affect humans?'
Doctor Fahim stared at the door for a second. He turned towards the General and spoke slowly.
'Provided that the effect of the serum is the same on humans as on the monkeys, the serum will increase the abilities of a normal man roughly five-fold.' He paused. 'However, it will increase the abilities of someone whose body is already developing by natural processes by ten-fold or perhaps even twenty-fold.'
There was complete silence in the room as the two men realized what Doctor Fahim meant.
'By „someone‟,' the defense Minister said slowly, 'You mean youngsters?'
'A youngster like the one who has suffered the accident?' the General‟s voice was rising again rapidly.
Doctor Fahim inclined his head. 'According to Divya, he is a teenager. That means, if he survives, all the physical and mental enhancements we were expecting in the case of the soldiers will be much greater in his case.'
Mr. Rai was staring at Doctor Fahim in blank shock. The General turned and walked away slowly, breathing hard. Perhaps it was the thought that they were in a public area that made the General attempt to deal with his agitation through movement rather than more yelling.
'So this boy…' the General spoke, and Divya was surprised at how calm he sounded. 'This teenager. He will be even stronger than we had anticipated?'
Doctor Fahim nodded somberly. 'His power will be greater than anything the world has ever seen before.'
The four occupants of the room gazed at each other in silence.
The Defense Minister closed his eyes, composing himself as he tried to process all the information. His shoulders slumped as the full extent of the situation was borne upon him.
'We need to talk about this to the Prime Minister.' he said finally, rubbing his eyes tiredly. 'Please excuse us.'
The General and the Minister left the room. Only Doctor Fahim was left with Divya. He looked at her in silence for several seconds. Then he smiled a rueful smile. 'The best laid plans washed down the drain by a single unfortunate occurrence, right, Divya?'
'I‟m so sorry, sir.' Divya whispered. Her voice was tight with anxiety. 'I wasn‟t thinking about the consequences of my actions. And now I‟ve cost the army the project, and I‟ve cost you all the research you did.'
'Don‟t let the General‟s harangue scare you.' Doctor Fahim said gently. 'Given the circumstances, you did the right thing. That is all anyone can ask for. This situation is the product of an accident, so stop blaming yourself.'
'What will happen now, sir?' Divya asked soberly.
'Well, given the unusual circumstances that this project had fallen upon, I think we will need an unusual solution.' Doctor Fahim said thoughtfully. 'Now, we will have the opportunity to observe a very interesting part of the experiment'
'A teenage meta human.' Divya nodded.
'Actually, I was referring to how apoplectic the general will become before he has a heart attack and expires.' the doctor said, his eyes twinkling.
Despite the gravity of the situation Divya could not help but laugh in a low voice.
'I cannot predict how this new situation will affect the overall plan anymore than you can, Divya.' Doctor Fahim said, his voice serious again. 'But rest assured, this is not the end of the project. The General is too determined a man to be stopped by stumbling blocks, and the Minister is no less tenacious. The project will continue forward, one way or the other. The child now….' Doctor Fahim frowned thoughtfully and shrugged his shoulders. 'The child I am not so sure about. I believe he will survive, but you can never be completely sure. We will simply have to wait and see.'
Nurse Arti sat nervously in the private ward. She was only a few months into this job, and it was the first time she had been assigned to this particular ward. The room was small but comfortably furnished, with more amenities than the usual private hospital room provided. It was kept separate from the other rooms, and was used for patients who required peace and quiet to recover, or when someone well known or important was in the hospital and wished to keep a low profile. On the single bed in front of her slept a young boy. It was the same boy who had been admitted to the hospital two days ago. He had been heavily sedated following the surgery, and had slept for an uninterrupted twelve hours. He had woken up briefly in a half delirious state yesterday and fallen asleep again immediately. After the surgery the doctors had not been very hopeful that he would survive such a serious accident, although they admitted that his vital signs were very strong for someone who had suffered such grave injuries. The boy‟s mother had arrived in a haze of panic the day before. She had
been calmed down and assured that her son was in the best possible care. The mother had since been visiting the hospital regularly, if only to check on her still sleeping son.
The nurse wondered who the boy was. He had to be related to someone very important, judging by the number of important people who seemed to be concerned about his welfare. It was remarkable how quickly the usual red tape had been dealt with, and the boy transferred to the most privileged room in the hospital. There were rumors among the hospital staff that someone very high up in the government was interested in the boy‟s well being, and it was speculated whether he was a Minister‟s son. But the security around the boy‟s identity was air tight, and it was said that even the doctors who were treating him knew almost nothing about his civilian identity. Even the rumor grapevine of the hospital had been unable to extract any details.
The boy suddenly stirred. Arti was startled out of her musings. She looked at the young patient. He was waking up, and much earlier than the doctors had hoped for. At these times it was usual to bring in the doctor in charge of the patient and the patient‟s relatives. This time, however, nurse Arti had different orders.
She went out of the door and hurried down the corridor. Turning around a corner, she knocked on the door to her left. A voice called, 'Come in.'
Arti opened the door and stepped halfway through. Inside the room sat a white haired old man with a neat beard and moustache, and a girl who seemed to be in her early twenties. They were both poring over some biometric data sheets spread out in front of them. They looked up as the nurse‟s head appeared.
'Yes?' the old man said.
'Please, sir.' Nurse Arti said, her voice slightly breathless. 'The boy is waking up.'
Both the occupants of the room immediately became alert. The old man stood up and nodded. 'Thank you, nurse. Kindly go and inform a man named Mr. Bakshi about this. You will find him in the head doctor‟s office downstairs. He will then tell you what to do.' The nurse nodded and disappeared.
'The recovery was even faster than we had anticipated.' Doctor Fahim said softly, putting the sheets which the two had been studying back in their folder. He reached inside the small drawer in the desk and extracted a special mobile phone General Bakshi had given him. Turning it on, he placed it carefully in his shirt pocket. 'Do you have the recorder, Divya?'
'Yes, sir.' Divya said. She reached inside her handbag lying on the table and pulled out a tiny tape recorder, placing it in her pocket.
'Good.' Doctor Fahim said. He gazed at Divya for a moment, both aware of the magnitude of that moment. 'Are you ready?' Divya nodded mutely.
'Let‟s go.' The two walked out of the door, retracing the path the nurse had taken to call them. They stood outside the room 449. Doctor Fahim paused at the door for a moment, his hand on the knob. No sounds came from inside. He pushed open the door and the two entered the room.
Inside the small, cozy room, they found the young boy sitting up straight in his bed, his eyes closed tightly. He froze at the sound of the door opening, and slowly opened his eyes.
'Hello, Neel.' Doctor Fahim said softly, his gaze intent as he stared at the young boy.