(Book 1: Lights, Captura, Action)
There was a long silence as Madhu’s uncle motioned everyone to take a seat. Only two chairs and a stool were present, which Ravi, Subro and the uncle took, respectively. Madhu, for her part, dusted the flat top of a machine and sat herself on it.
Then the old man began with his st—
‘Hey,’ Subro suddenly said, ‘Before we get any further, can we have your name? Makes the narrator’s job easy, you know.’
‘Ah, sorry, I’m Selvarajan, nice to meet you!’
‘All right, cool,’ said Subro. ‘And the pleasure is ours!’
With that done, the elderly man, Selvarajan, beg—
‘Wait a minute,’ Subro spoke up again. ‘That’s a longish name, and we’re all on short-name basis anyway, so why don’t we shorten yours a bit too? Maybe Selva? Or, or, Uncle Silver? That sounds so cool!’
‘Well, whatever,’ Ravi groaned. ‘Can we get on with the story now?’
Uncle Silver looked amused. He smiled at them. ‘I’m assuming you boys already know quite a bit about Dr. Raman’s work, am I right?’
‘I only know what Subro’s told me,’ Ravi confessed.
‘And I’ve read every there is about him,’ Subro stated proudly.
‘Good, then I can skip to the parts that are not in the records.’
Subro’s eyes widened.
‘You’ll have noticed,’ Uncle Silver said, ‘the records thin quite a bit around when the technology was banned. Next to nothing of what happened to the prototypes is ever mentioned. Even of my great-great-grandfather, nothing much is written, save for a grossly abridged account of death.’
‘Yeah,’ Subro agreed, ‘All I’ve read is, he occupied himself with lesser experiments, and died in an accidental house-fire. One account said, the fire resulted from an out-of-control experiment.’
‘All false,’ Uncle Silver said quietly.
‘Thought as much,’ said Subro. ‘So what happened, really?’
‘It was cold-blooded murder,’ Uncle Silver answered, then corrected himself: ‘Murders.’
Ravi had felt the discussion heading this way for a while. Still, hearing it confirmed made a chill go down his spine. He saw Subro adjust himself on the chair. Meanwhile, Madhu’s eyes were on the floor. She curled a lock of hair around one ear.
‘Dr. Raman was fifty-seven years the day he died,’ Uncle Silver continued. ‘He was joined by his wife, and two of their three kids. Only the eldest son survived, my great-grandfather, Venkat, who was seventeen then. You can imagine what a huge shock it must have been for him, but his account of the day is the closest thing to the truth that we have. It has been passed down to me through three generations.’
Uncle Silver looked up at nothing in particular. He slowly stroked his beard with the back of his fingers.
‘In his recollection of the day, my great-granddad wrote that some men had come over to their house at lunchtime. They had sat down with Dr. Raman in the living room and offered him a deal regarding the Captura—something about taking it off his hands for a hefty price. They told him what they intended to do with the technology, but Dr. Raman refused them. That’s when things got very heated, and before they knew it, one of the men had pulled out a gun!
‘Dr. Raman tried to get his family out of harm’s way. He screamed at them to run away and get to the police, but the men easily rounded everyone up in the house. Well, everyone but my great-granddad, who had made for the workshop and locked the door behind himself.
‘Inside, he found the device and research papers—things he knew his father wanted to keep out of the men’s reach. He put them all in a trunk and silently slipped away through a backdoor-exit, heading for the nearest police station.
‘Once there, he got the police to go back to their house, but by the time they did, they found the fire department already at work. Nobody was rescued from that burning house, nor were the culprits ever caught.
‘At the time, Dr. Raman’s reputation had been in the gutters. He was infamous as the man who dealt with dangerous technology. The police disregarded my great-granddad’s claims of murder quite readily. The fire was labelled an accident, and that was the end of the investigation.
‘Meanwhile, my great-granddad had no house or family left. Realising that the murderers could still be after him, he used up all the money on him to get to another town. There, he hid the trunk where no one would find it.
‘He dropped his family name to attract less attention and earned his bread-and-butter doing small repair jobs. It was a life of struggle, but he gradually built a small fortune and started a family. Which is how we come to be, I guess,’ Uncle Silver ended with a small smile.
There was silence again in the dim room.
‘I don’t know what to say,’ Ravi admitted at last.
‘Me too,’ said Subro. ‘So sorry to hear about it.’
‘It’s fine,’ Uncle Silver said, pausing for some time. ‘What’s more saddening is that the tale doesn’t end there. Unfortunately, the events repeated, about ten years ago.’
‘What?’ Subro exclaimed.
‘How?’ Ravi asked.
Uncle Silver glanced at Madhu who was still twirling her hair. She gave him a slight nod.
‘I won’t go into the details here, or it will be tough on us. Madhu lost her parents that night; my brother and sister-in-law.’
Madhu’s chin lowered, and her hair hid her face completely.
Uncle Silver went on, ‘My brother and I had inherited not only the writings of our great-granddad, but also the Captura and the research papers of his father. To keep them secure, we had decided that I would keep the papers and my brother, the device.
‘Ten years ago, the Company you’ve come across figured out our ancestry and showed up at my brother’s house. They took the device by force, killing my brother and his wife when they protested. Madhu escaped, somehow. I found her crying at my door; middle of the night. Terrible, terrible night.’
Nobody spoke while he collected himself.
‘I knew they would be coming for me as soon as they realised the papers were missing. We left town that night itself, moved in here. We’ve been wary of the Company ever since, following their moves without getting too close. Just enough to know if we’re safe; whether they’re on to us.’
‘At least,’ Madhu said, speaking for the first time since they’d sat down, ‘until out of nowhere, I came across you guys. Employees of the company, heading suspiciously out of the building.’
She managed a smile, then went on, ‘Your ice-cream cart plan may have fooled others, but I knew what you were up to from the very first day. I decided to kept an eye out, waiting till the time was right to approach you. Couldn’t draw too much attention to myself, you see. Finally, we settled upon a plan. More or less what you witnessed today.’
‘So, the Captura is safe?’ Ravi asked.
‘Definitely,’ Uncle Silver assured. ‘My son should be here any moment.’
When he checked the clock again, though, he looked a tad bit worried. It was about eleven now.
‘Okay,’ said Ravi, ‘I get your side of the story. But what does this Company want with the Captura?’
‘Ah, hmm,’ Uncle Silver mumbled, thinking for a few seconds. ‘Well, for starters, they don’t have as much interest in the science of it, nor in the artistic side of things, either. No, what they want—’
He was forced to pause as they heard a pair of footsteps outside. Moments later, a sequence of knocks sounded on the shutters, the very same as Madhu’s half-an-hour back.
While her uncle relaxed, Madhu hurried to the entrance and began rolling a lever to raise the shutters. When they were a foot raised, the person outside pushed something in through the gap. Ravi recognised it as the Captura. The person then lay down and rolled himself in, and Madhu lowered the shutters again.
Uncle Silver’s son was at best a few years older than Madhu. The first thing Ravi noticed was the naked chest. Then he realised the boy’s shirt was tied around one arm, like a makeshift bandage. The shirt was black, but there was no mistaking that it was wet with blood.
‘Anurag! Are you all right?’ Madhu asked, panic clear in her tone.
‘A-okay,’ the boy replied, getting to his feet. ‘Just a scratch.’
‘That’s definitely not a scratch,’ Uncle Silver said in a serious tone. ‘Lie down, let us see.’
‘Oh, all right,’ Anurag groaned, walking to where Madhu had been sitting. He lay down on the flat top of the machine.
His father untied the shirt and looked at the damage while Madhu retrieved a first-aid kit.
‘Hmm, this will need some stitching,’ Uncle Silver remarked.
Anurag ignored the man and went on speaking. ‘So I got rid of the Company agents. Kind of underestimated their persistence a little. One of them got a throwing knife in my arm and I had to improvise to get away. I sacrificed the cart as a distraction. Sorry you guys.’ He nodded to Ravi and Subro. ‘But good thing is, it worked. Ouch!’
Uncle Silver had begun stitching the wound. Madhu helped him.
‘That’s fine,’ Ravi told Anurag.
‘Umm,’ Subro seemed to disagree, ‘By sacrifice, you mean…’
‘I mean pushed it down one alley with a little timed-detonation device inside for good measure. Meanwhile I scrambled through the opposite alley.’
‘Oh no!’ Subro moaned. ‘My InstaCopies!’
‘Ah, I’m really sorry, I didn’t have much choice.’
‘Don’t apologise,’ Ravi told him. ‘Good riddance, actually!’
‘I agree,’ Madhu joined in, looking up at Subro, ‘Next time, get the ears, nose or ankles of women to appear more appealing than the chest or buttocks.’
‘That’s not the problem here!’ Ravi and Subro yelled together.
‘It is!’ Madhu retorted.
The three of them realised Uncle Silver and Anurag were laughing at them, amused.
‘You three make good friends…’ Uncle Silver remarked, laughing.
‘No we don’t!’ all three barked back, leading only to the other two chuckling some more.
But when the laughter subsided, Uncle Silver regained some seriousness as he finished stitching Anurag’s arm.
‘Jokes apart,’ he said, ‘We’ll need to be extra cautious from here on. Now that we’ve shown ourselves, aggressively at that, the Company is going to leave no stones upturned in tracking us down. This town is no longer safe. I think it’s safest to relocate to another, as early as possible. In the morning, I dare say.’
‘What about you two?’ Madhu asked Ravi and Subro.
‘I guess we can come with you,’ Subro said.
‘Are you sure?’ Uncle Silver questioned him immediately. ‘I don’t want to drag you two in this. You might still be able to go back, you know, if you throw the blame on us. It will be an easier life. Joining us would mean you go up against the Company. You’ll be choosing a life of hiding. It will never be safe.’
‘There is no question,’ Ravi said. ‘We’re coming with you. I cannot ally myself with the Company, not after what you’ve told us about them. Besides, I finally have an idea of how to put the Captura to some good use. I want to use it to tell the story of your family. Bring the truth out. If that’s all right with you.’
Uncle Silver nodded. ‘I don’t know how you’re planning to do that, but sure, I have no objection. I would even be willing to help. I think we all would.’
‘And we’ll need it. Madhu must have told you we’re out of the photosensitive plates?’
‘Ah yes, I do have more of those for you. In fact, I have something better. With Dr. Raman’s plans in my possession and good equipment at my disposal, I’ve been able to take his project further.’
He winked at Ravi and Subro, then went to the back of the shop to retrieve something.
‘Let me show you,’ he called out from there.
Ravi noticed Subro was at the edge of his seat with excitement. He had to admit, he felt thrilled too.