This story of mine was published in UnBound magazine’s inaugural issue, and earned me some new writer friends.
The complete magazine is available on SmashWords and features some wonderful stories.
Pop! The overhead TV flickers and dies. It takes a moment to return from the jungles of Animal Planet to my musty one-room office. I throw the remote into the last drawer of my desk. Might as well throw the TV in the dustbin. Repairing the old set will cost more than a new one.
The whirring sound of the ceiling fan makes itself audible. Outside, the crunch and clang of machines compete with the chug of power generators. No point peeking outside to pass the time. With high-walled factories for neighbors, not one chance of lay conversation with anyone on the street.
What else can I do to banish the uneasy silence? The computer on my right is an empty box without the internet connection. As empty as the chair opposite my desk has been for the last three days.
One more day without a client and I’ll… I turn a little. No. Don’t even look at the cabinet behind. None of the cases are ready yet. Wait it out, as sir used to say, it’s all about timing.
But waiting in this dreary place is a task without TV. I need money for a new TV. I’m about to turn towards the cabinet when something else catches my eye. Below the wooden half doors to my office, I see tall well-adorned legs of a man.
He opens the half doors. I fight down the sudden warm glow on my face.
A beaut of a client, if indeed he is a client. His aura of affluence belongs to a five-star hotel or a magazine for the tycoons and jet-set. Not in this polluted industrial area where my office stands. He looks a little lost, all signs of impending doom pull at his face. Those too are welcome. He wouldn’t be here otherwise.
He doesn’t return my smile but occupies the chair. He leans to speak.
“Someone controls me …like, with a remote control.” He clicks his fingers on an imaginary remote.
I nod. I get all sorts of clients. Some sound gibberish until they come down to specifics.
“Someone sent you to me?”
“No, or maybe yes. Maybe he makes it look like I’m in control sometimes.”
‘He.’ I rule out the wife.
“Like he made me drive to this place. And then, when I came to, I was staring at the name plate of your office.”
“Why did ‘he’ send you to me?”
“I… have no idea.”
I wait. He leans closer. Here it comes.
“It’s been over a month now. I do things I don’t want to. I do things I don’t even know how to. It just takes me by my head.”
This isn’t going anywhere. The first thing I usually hear is the name of the opposite party – vendor, partner, boss, rival, wife, friend, girlfriend, parent.
“Who do you suspect?”
“Someone mad or a genius,” he shivers a bit.
“What about enemies… like your competitors?”
“Those fools? Nah.” He dismisses the thought with a wave of his hand. “This is beyond them.” Arrogance flits across his face.
A formidable man. Someone who’s fooled many.
“What do you do?”
“I’m doctor Bansal. Heard of Bansal hospitals?”
I look impressed and he nods. The day will end well yet.
“One of your dissatisfied patients perhaps, sir. ” I struggle to continue the conversation in an even tone. A note of awe creeps in nevertheless.
“You don’t get it. I…”
The piercing siren from the factory adjacent to my office startles me; twelve years hasn’t accustomed my ear drums to the shock every lunch hour. When I turn back to the stranger, the sight doesn’t help me recover any faster.
He sits ramrod straight.
“No… oh” He whimpers.
He springs up to stand ‘at attention’. His paunch puckers in and chest puffs up. ‘Chin up’ and ‘shoulders back’ complete the military look, but there’s more.
Nervousness makes me grin like a fool. Right before my eyes, the skin on his face smoothens, blanks out all wrinkles of aggression and anxiety. Sheen appears on the skin of his face and his now hairless hands.
I have seen a few man-turns-werewolf scenes on dubbed English movies when I’m bored enough to give myself some heebie-jeebies. For the first time, I see a man turn into a robot. And it isn’t half as funny.
His breath still sucked in, he moves towards me. His glassy eyes are at the wall behind me. I turn to face my cabinets, open racks, and shelves. Neat stacks of CDs, not-so-neat dusty tapes, hard drives packed in bubble wraps, boxes of pen drives and files and files of paper documents everywhere else.
He walks in jerks and moves to the cabinets on the left side of the wall.
Wait. I dart towards him. With one swing of his right hand, he shoves me down like a ragged doll.
I try to stand. Aaargh! My right knee buckles. My knee, or a part of it, moves as I clutch it. Shit!
I turn my head to see him opening the cabinet door. The cabinet door.
I try to lift my body but I can’t. I end up rotating on my right hip towards him.
He looks inside the cabinet. He possibly can’t know, can he? He pulls out the exact drawer. His hand fumbles inside. Nothing of value there…unless. No, he can’t find the false partition, he possibly can’t.
Gotta do something. My phone is on the desk, within reach. I need help faster.
I look back at him. He’s looking at I-know-what. The safe is small but he can’t miss it. Thank god for number locks. The password is safe in my memory, nowhere else. He can’t possibly…
I hear the clicks. The small one for 2, the even smaller sound for 1, then the bigger one for 9.
I spot a pile of bricks, stacked one top the other against the wall on my left. I lift one up.
I hear the door of the safe open. I’m about to aim the brick to his head when it happens again. In reverse.
Like air going off a balloon, his shoulders slump. His head falls a little sideways as if asleep. His empty hands fall back to his sides. Good, as long as they are out of my safe.
I put the brick down. He turns around and blinks. I lift my body up, with support from the desk and the other wall.
“Why are you limping?” he asks.
“You did it.” What an actor.
“Ahh, yeah I remember. Do you believe me now? Can you help me be free of whoever is toying with me?”
I glare at him and then limp to the cabinet, refusing his help on the way.
“Let me see. I’m a doc, you know.”
I change the password on the number lock, put the partition back in, push the drawer and shut the cabinet door. I need a new hiding place now.
His eyes are still on my knee.
He bends down and touches the sides of the knee.
“Patellar dislocation” he mumbles. He touches for a few seconds more and then, without a warning, clicks the knee sideways into place.
I scream, more from my idiocy at not turning this Dr. Jekyll out right away.
“Try to walk.”
Surprising that I can and I do.
“You are lucky,” he says and wheels the chair beneath me. “No ligament tear as far as I can tell. Do you have ibuprofen or acetaminophen with you?”
When I nod in the negative, he says, “I have some medication in my car. Come.”
“No, thanks. I’ll get them later.”
“And do ice packs.”
“I will and I can’t help you.”
He pauses and then sighs. “It’s time for my rounds. I just hope whoever’s controlling me gets bored soon.”
I can’t imagine this doctor in a place full of patients.
He waits for a few seconds, then turns and walks away.
He knew my password. I’m too freaked out to find how or why. What if he knows what’s inside the safe? I’m a goner. All that work of more than 10 years, the risks I took, my dreams, and the danger. How can I forget the danger? If it goes out there before it’s time.
I hear a car start. Ask for his card, quick. I start from my seat and try to walk. I reach the door, just in time to see the back of the car speed away from my view.
An eerie numbness settles in the room. Did it really happen? The biggest proof is the pain in my knee.
I sit for a while and replay the events. I had never seen a robot before. In movies, yes, but not in real life. Not even in school, unless you count the paper and Thermocol models.
There has to be a reason why this android-man walked into the room, opened those half doors, pretended to look lost.
Below the half doors, I see his tall legs walking towards me again. I blink rapidly. His legs are real.
I start as the wooden doors swing open. I expect to see the dreaded robot face. But the face is still human. No more lost or hesitant as before. This time no warm glow spreads to my face.
“Something happened.” He says.
I rise from my seat.
“I checked my messages and calls on my phone at the crossing. This morning I took out 50 Lakhs from my home safe, for no reason at all!”
“Sometimes the memory of what I did when remote-controlled, doesn’t come immediately. I saw an alert triggered by the safe and remembered.”
How can one forget 50 Lakhs!
“Is the money still in your car?” I find my voice.
“No, I…” His hand rubs his temple. “Come quick. Let’s see if it’s still there.”
This time I don’t hesitate.
We drive, without a word between us, for around half an hour till we reach the outskirts of the city. A vast forest area serves as the boundary between our city and the next town.
Leaving the car parked at the road side, we venture into the forest through a snaking path. In about ten minutes, the path disappears into a thick bed of bugs, twigs, gnarled roots, and dead bark. We duck sharp criss-crossed boughs from trees at each step.
I smell smoke. Perhaps the place isn’t as un-traversed as it looks. The doc quickens his steps to hit, fall, and crawl in his trek.
It strikes me then. The smell of burning paper.
Cinders fly in the air as we close in to a still burning pile on scorched ground.
He stamps with his feet, then throws a sack hung on the tree to quell the flames.
Half-burnt, quarter-burnt, and almost full burnt thousand-rupee notes lie scattered by the wind away. Not a single note of those 50 Lakhs is intact.
A colossal waste. What wouldn’t I have done with that kind of money?
He makes a tiny sound and squats in front of the pile, head in hands.
A long moment passes. I finally speak my mind, “Are you sure it isn’t some kind of schizophrenia?”
He lifts his head up. “Yes, I’m sure. No disorder makes you look like an android.”
I can’t argue with a doctor about that.
“What’s your diagnosis?”
“A foreign or external thing inside me. Someone’s put a chip inside my head.”
“You are the only one who’s seen it. You have to believe me. I won’t burn my own money, would I?”
A lunatic can do anything.
“And the chip knows everything.”
Good enough reason for me, actually, but I better not show.
“How much do you want?” Now he talks.
I speak. “What do you want me to do?”
He sighs. “First, let’s start with the police. Tell them what you saw. I doubt they can do anything. But that’s the right channel to get to the resources I need. You’ll have to be with me all through.”
“What will I get?” I speak in the forthright manner I use to bargain on my cuts.
I don’t gape but I’m sure my eyes are about to pop out.
I nod through my speechlessness.
The walk back to the car is slower on legs drunk with anticipation. I can kill for one Crore. I take my seat in the car with thoughts of the massacre this money might entail.
Five minutes into the drive, he asks, “Do you believe me enough to testify with confidence?”
With a hand in my trouser pockets, I click a few buttons on my phone. I don’t need to see the phone to put it on sound recorder. I have enough practice.
“I’ll tell them what I saw, but it might sound better if we have a suspect.”
“I’ve no idea who would do this. It’s someone powerful. Around these parts, I can think only as far as the government of India.”
“Think hard. You must’ve wronged someone real deep.”
“I’ve never wronged any one person. Some jealous ones call me unethical. If making money is a crime, then I’m a criminal.” He sounds gruff.
“No point being defensive if you want to be free of this problem. Tell me every little unethical thing people say you do.”
Very casually, I shift the phone from my trousers to my chest pocket for a clearer audio.
After a pause, he mentions hypochondriacs. “You know how they are. No matter how many times you tell them they are fine, they don’t believe you. They think you aren’t good enough to detect their problem. So I make skin incisions, stitch them up in the name of appendectomy or do deeper, full surgeries if that satisfies them, charge the price they can afford, anywhere between Rs. 2000 – 20,000. And they leave, feeling fine and happy.”
I chuckle. His eyes twinkle as they meet mine. I bet not all were hypochondriacs.
“What else? Taxes? Name one person who doesn’t dodge tax.”
“Only the smart ones do it well,” I nod some empathy into my smile.
“By jove, yes! You know what I do. I split a hospital into different setups and sub setups, in reality just divide the number of beds. When one gets dis-empanelled, I re-launch in another name.”
He leans back relaxed. I stop my hand from patting my chest pocket.
“Hospitals are empanelled with central government health schemes, right?”
“Yes, cGHS and ECHS schemes. Just the schemes for a mind like ours.” He slaps my thigh with a laugh.
“I have agents everywhere, from rickshaw-pullers to quacks to DMs, Commissioners, Judges, IGs, and DIGs. They get me all kinds of patients – ex-servicemen, senior citizens, rich, poor – anytime, for any length of time. I have an entire department for cooking up bills. I pay the fake patients a percent to list their names and stay in the hospital. Sometimes I admit patients who…” His voice goes hoarse as it lowers in pitch, “exist only on paper.”
He slows down. The turning to my office will take five minutes more. We’ll skip that. The police station will be two turnings after. The road is deserted. The day shift for the factory workers end late in the evening.
“Real patients are a gold mine too. You need this,” He taps his head. “…to weave gold outta them. I have all the equipment and services for any sort of medical investigation under my roof. But how do you justify a CT scan for a cardiac patient, eh? Sample this – put the blame on blood thinners, record a symptom of drowsiness, and there you are – a need for CT scan to rule out bleed or brain hemorrhage. Creative, eh? Know why my bills come to Rs. 1.5 lakhs when an ordinary doctor would charge just Rs. 30,000.”
“And you get away with it every time?”
He guffaws. “Bills are passed by government but who sits there? Mere humans. They have a system for physical verification, scrutiny of bills; they pose queries, and only then allow the bills. But not for me.” He thumbs his chest, “Why? Because I feed the hands that sanction the bills.”
Sounds exciting and magical – to be in a place like that, to create an acquiescent empire and build a treasury out of nothing.
“I didn’t build the biggest private setup in the city overnight. It takes a lifetime of planning, learning the ropes and the loopholes. At one time I was the president of the city’s medical association. The making of the Bansals group started there. Name anything related to medical, we are there. Wanna be a nurse or a technician? Come to our training programs. You need learn nothing. Our certificate is enough. Just show me the money.” He rubs his thumb over his finger tips.
You need horizontal growth along with vertical growth. Networking is important. – Sir’s exact words.
“Let me touch your toes, you god of cuts and commissions.” I bend to reach.
He laughs with his mouth wide open. I join and catch a glimpse of steel on his teeth. Before I can choke on my laughter, his hand snatches the phone from my pocket and throws it out of the window by my side. I see it smash into two as it hits the ground.
“Stop the car!” I scream.
I look back to stare into the whites of the eyes that have lost their pupils, his head at an odd right angles to his torso, his mouth ajar in a frozen laugh.
I open the door, jump out, and roll over surfaces that tear, pierce, and bump. The last thing I hear is a loud crash.
The world glides by, clouds, trees, buildings. A bit too fast. I’ve never been carried on a stretcher before. Feels like flying on a magic carpet. A hospital I haven’t seen before stands tall. The sun glints off the glass walls to make them shine. As the stretcher moves inside, I see walls tiled with mirrors. Funny, I don’t see any reflections in them, neither mine nor of those who carry me on the stretcher.
Wait. Did I just see purple vapor rising out of a mirror?
More of it ahead. Vapor turns to molten lava, purple turns to steely grey. Lava molds to robotic faces before turning back to vapor.
Please no more robots. I cannot take it anymore. A nightmare. That’s what this is.
It goes on. Like genies, robots pop out of mirrors, expressionless but curious to check me out, and then vaporize back into the mirrors.
The stretcher stops in a room. I don’t feel it, or anything else, beneath me anymore. I fold into a seated position, facing a mirrored wall. No reflections again.
Tiny bubbles sprout on the mirror I face. Like someone’s breathing behind the silver. A voice speaks, making the bubbles grow and spread.
“Welcome to Maker’s Universal Soul Services. You may call us MUSS. We will now implant a soul inside your head.”
My brain freezes at the thought of a chip in my head, even if it’s called something as inane as ‘soul’.
“I object to any sort of implant in my body.” My voice is firm, though the prospect of turning into a robot scares the shit out of me.
“This is not a courtroom, lawyer. We are here to rectify a fundamental error inside you.”
“What error?” I know of no health issues.
“The error was from our side. We sent a number of soulless mortals to Earth. To rectify, we decided to put the soul back into those mortals.”
I try to make sense of the words that race miles above my mind, construct legal arguments in a language I understand. ‘The error was from our side’ – incriminating evidence.
Nothing is conclusive without evidence.
“What proof do you have of my so-called error?”
A torrent of bubbles gushes forth and scatters to all corners of the mirror. The mirror laughs.
Robots from side walls lean forward like cuckoos from a row of cuckoo clocks. Though expressionless, the way they rock up and down, I know they laugh.
“As a lawyer, you made a mockery of justice. What more evidence do we need? You live on your clients, but work in favor of the opposite parties. You do sting operations on almost everyone you meet, with the sole intent of blackmail.”
“Ethics! You talk about bookish ethics. What do you know of the life of lawyers? We live hand-to-mouth. We have to employ all means to earn money. If professional ethics is your concern, catch the rich ones. Like Dr. Bansal.”
“We have Dr. Bansal too with us for soul implantation.” The mirror shows him.
He lies inert and submerged in a liquid light.
I swallow. The image of the doctor disappears.
“We do not understand money. We work for universal happiness. Dr. Bansal takes government’s resources from those who are needy and starving. You betray your client’s trust. The likes of you make it impossible for poor people to fight injustice.”
Change the line of defense. The incriminating evidence, yes.
“You admit error from your side. Why should I pay for your mistake?”
The robots stop rocking, and disappear back into their mirrors. The mirror in front is still.
“We did what we could to compensate. For the doctor, we tried to replace his body. New souls need fresh bodies, no memories, no experiences, to begin from scratch. Babies work best. Our enBots that you see here aren’t equipped to handle adult bodies. The results were robotic caricatures, as you saw in Dr. Bansal. A wiser way is to bring the bodies here and implant the soul. It’s your turn now…”
“But wait, you can’t…No” I shout.
Mirrors turn to pools of silver light, whirl, and suck me in, head first. My thick mop of hair is caught in the ripples. When the last strand unravels, I slip down. My head pounds and heart hammers against my ribs. I thrash and kick and then lay still. Lay still, don’t breath, don’t give in. I exhale.
I can hear the whirlpool roaring beside my ears. A hand turns me over, feels my temple and other sides of my head.
I open my eyes to see Dr. Bansal leaning over me.
“No serious injuries, thank God!” He says.
I’m lying at the edge of the city’s wide open drain. Water gushes through it oblivious to the danger it poses.
I sit up and pat down the dirt and bits stuck on my hands and hair.
“How about you?”
“I feel great. It’s a miracle we escaped that.” He points to his car crashed against a lamppost. “and that.” He points to the drain. “Help will be here soon, but I guess we’ll be okay.”
“Yup. This isn’t a police job at all.”
“Not at all and I feel free anyway,” he meets my eyes. I nod. “No more sleepless nights, jealousy, fear of rivals, distance from friends. All I want is peace.” He sighs.
“Me too. Free from the scheming, the racing. All I need to do is build trust with clients, prove my intelligence and honesty. Cases will come.”
“Makes perfect sense. Now if only my past wasn’t such a mess. From where do I start to undo?”
“I know where I’ll start. All those videos and audios in my safe. I’m going to reveal them at the right places, get the truth out in the open…”
“Good. I’ll need your help when I do the U-turns with my previous policies. It’ll be tough, but not as tough as death would’ve been, right?”
“Nope, and not as bad as being soulless either.” I say.