(Book 2: Hello, Can You Fear Me?)
The commotion inside the auditorium continued, although Ravi and the others were eerily silent — some of them physically compromised and the others in a state of emotional overload.
Most of the people in the auditorium who’d been able, had already evacuated. The guards were busy tending to those who were left behind.
The door through which Sharmila’s brother had gone out from stayed shut, and those inside now had to rely on the three other exits at different ends of the auditorium.
Ravi observed the scene through his weary eyes, half kneeling, half sitting on the floor beside Uncle Silver’s seat. There was so much he wanted to do, so many things in his mind, that he couldn’t bring himself to settle on just one.
Should I look after Subro? Or Madhu? Or Anurag? All three of them are passed out. Or should I stay by Uncle Silver? He must be in such a huge shock! Should I reach out to Sharmila? Is she even to be trusted? Does it matter right now? Subro’s condition is probably more urgent…
The thoughts circled on and on in his head. He knew precious moments were being wasted, but he couldn’t bring himself to beat the indecisiveness.
Or perhaps the indecision is a symptom of my trauma…
‘Oh, get on with it already!’ A voice yelled. It was Subro! He was still lying on the floor in the awkward pose, but his eyes were open. ‘I’ve been up for a minute now!’
‘Su — Subro? Are you — are you okay?’ Ravi asked, his voice shaking.
‘Body hurts all over. Not too much, but not too little either. And man, did I have a crazy, crazy dream! But wait, that’s not the point! I’m upset! You should have struggled your way to me and cried and cursed till I made an unexpected recovery! How impactful would that have been?! We could have credited it to the power of our friendship or something… But no, you have to be as useless as ever!’ He sat up as he spoke, looking a lot better than he had been just moments back. The gash on his face was still slowly bleeding, though.
‘THE HELL?!’ Ravi yelled, all his fatigue forgotten. As if through magic, his mind had un-muddled completely; his focus returned, and sentences began to flow lucidly out of his mouth. ‘Is this supposed to be funny?! I’ve been so worried! I thought we’d lost you… You lunatic! I’m so done working with you!’
Subro merely shrugged. ‘It was kinda funny, I think. Unless you wanted my story to end here, like you had predicted…’
‘Might as well have. I’m so tired of your nonsense!’
‘Yeah, there’s no way the most popular character is being killed off so soon. It would seem, the ill fate I had waiting for me was limited to a fainting spell and a weird nightmare. And a really ugly bandage on the face, I guess. So cheer up, will you?’
‘I can’t. Do you have any idea what we just watched happen?!’
‘Umm, duh, no… I was passed out, remember? But yeah, things do seem to be in a mess. Maybe I need to crack some more jokes to lighten the mood?’
‘This isn’t the time. Madhu and Anurag, they’re…’
‘What?! No! They’re injured!’
‘Oh, come on! Not even a smile? You have the worst sense of humour.’
‘And you find the worst time to employ yours.’
‘Fine… so what is up here?’
‘Well, for starters, we were attacked by Sharmila’s crazy big brother.’
‘Oh, you’re getting to know her family already? That’s quick!’
‘And for the main course?’
‘You said “for starters”… ugh, never mind, bad joke, my head’s not right.’
‘When is it ever? Well, this guy — Sharmila’s brother — he was unbelievable! You should’ve seen him. He was shooting lightning out of his hands, for god’s sake! A practitioner of black magic, I tell you!’
‘Okay… and I’m guessing this Mister Strange was the one who attacked the Captura?’
‘Ahh yeah, I’m sorry, the device is—’
‘Destroyed,’ Subro finished for him, getting up. ‘Yeah, I know. I see the pieces… I’m trying to ignore them…’ He brushed off his kurta. ‘Anyway, I got the gist of things. Now let’s help Anurag and Madhu. You said they were injured? Poor Madhu. That girl is going to be crying buckets for weeks over this.’
‘WHO DO YOU TAKE TO BE THAT WEAK?!’ Madhu’s voice tore through the chaos. She flew out of the seating area and literally ran over the backrests of the seats to get to where Ravi and Subro were.
‘Whom,’ Ravi quietly corrected but he was ignored by Subro proudly claiming, ‘Got you to wake up, didn’t it?’
‘Hmph,’ Madhu expressed, looking away.
‘Now for Anurag,’ Subro continued, ‘umm, he doesn’t have any defined quirks I can use… Well, whatever, do we really need him?’
‘I heard that!’ Anurag’s groan reached them from the stage, where he too was picking himself up.
‘Ah, that worked? Excellent! Though this makes last chapter’s cliff-hanger kinda pointless. Hell, whatever. Now that we’re all up, what’s next? Ravi?’
Before Ravi could, Sharmila answered the question, still facing the closed exit. ‘We need to find my brother!’
‘We?’ Madhu challenged, folding her arms in front of her.
‘Yes, we.’ Sharmila enunciated her words more than necessary. She got up from the ground and turned to face the others. Her posture looked defeated, but there was a glint of determination in her eyes. ‘I’ve been looking for him for weeks. I’m not abandoning the quest now. You people need to find him too, so how about we work together?’
‘Yeah, right,’ Madhu scoffed. ‘First of all, who the hell are you? I thought you were the crazy guy’s sister. Why on earth would we trust you?’
‘Umm, she’s Ravi’s new assistant,’ Subro supplied.
‘She joined today,’ Ravi explained. Then he cursed, ‘I’m so stupid. I should have done a proper background check. This is all your fault for hassling me, Subro!’
‘As I thought,’ Madhu continued, ‘not the least bit worthy of trust. Moving on, why should we go after your brother? To get back our stuff? No, thanks!’
‘Really?’ Ravi asked her.
‘I’m quite confident Uncle has a copy of all the plans or designs or whatever was in the bag. A mental copy, at the very least. Even if it will be an awful waste of time, he can build the stuff again.’ Madhu looked to Sharmila and added, ‘I’d rather not deal with that psychotic brother of yours. You’re on your own.’
‘My brother’s not psychotic,’ Sharmila said, sounding very convincingly unconvincing. ‘His anger is justified, to an extent. That article you guys came out with has destroyed our family.’
‘Your family was one of the evil ones we helped expose?’ Anurag asked. ‘It was well deserved then, wasn’t it?’
‘Deserved, probably,’ Sharmila said, ‘but the whole affair could have been executed better. Did you even pause to consider that other people, innocent people, also got caught up in it? It was a sudden shock for us! The police came one day and locked up our parents. We didn’t know what to do.’
She took a moment to compose herself.
‘Still,’ she continued, ‘this isn’t just about Dada taking your stuff. It’s about what he intends to do with it! If you’re not careful, he can hurt you!’
‘With his freaky lightning show?’ Madhu retorted.
Sharmila flinched at the mention. She clutched her injured arm with the other hand.
‘What’s up with that anyway,’ Ravi asked. ‘How does he do it?’
‘I don’t know how,’ Shamila said. ‘There are secrets in our family that are passed down to the male children. This ability must be one of them. I’ve never seen it before, though. Girls aren’t allowed in these traditions.’
Madhu cleared her throat derisively but kept from commenting otherwise.
‘Okay,’ Anurag voiced, ‘so he has this crazy ability, and you still want us to go after him? If I’m getting this straight, you’re implying that his plans are so dangerous, they outweigh the risk of being electrocuted again?’
Sharmila responded with one curt nod. Her eyes bore into the floor.
‘What is it he took anyway?’ Anurag looked to his father as he asked, ‘Papa?’
When he spoke, Uncle Silver’s voice was heavy. ‘It is a project I have been working on over the past couple of months. You see, in Dr. Raman’s notes, there are random thoughts often jotted down in the margins. Ideas he would come up with from time to time. He might have expanded upon them later, had he gotten the chance…’
There was a pause.
‘Well, I’m sure he’d be happy that it’s happening now,’ Ravi offered.
‘Maybe. Maybe not. It could have happened sooner, you know. I haven’t exactly worked on his notes much in all the time that I’ve had them.’
‘You did what you had to,’ said Madhu. ‘You had our safety to worry about.’
‘I guess I did.’ Uncle Silver nodded slowly. ‘That’s changed now, thankfully. After we got rid of the Company’s threat, I found myself truly returning to the pages. And somehow, among so many well-descriptive notes, it was one of the abstract scribbles that resounded with me the most. I’ve been creating some basic prototypes around the concept. The latest was in the bag…’
‘And what does it do, Papa?’ Anurag asked. ‘Why does the lunatic want it?’
‘I’m not sure what he wants it for, but I can tell you its function. You know how the Captura records a live moment as an InstaCopy?’
There were nods all around.
‘Well, that’s not where Dr. Raman’s dreams of recording live moments ended. One of his ideas talked about a machine that could copy sounds and reproduce them for later listening.’
‘Umm, what?’ Subro mumbled.
‘It’s a little difficult to imagine, but think about how absurd the Captura had seemed at first. Now the world has accepted it, hasn’t it?’
‘I know, I know,’ said Subro. ‘I’m only trying to imagine how it could work.’
‘It had seemed impossible to me too, until I actively started to look for a solution. For my research, I studied how our ears capture sounds, how our vocal cords produce them and how the documents are stored on a MorsePage.’ He waved at the device lying in the seat Ravi had occupied. ‘By combining these three studies, I was finally able to come up with an answer — a device — I call it the Echorder!’
‘Wow!’ said Subro wide-eyed. ‘That’s amazing! Damn it, why did it have to get stolen? I would love to see it in action!’
‘Wow, indeed,’ Madhu said, ‘but, I still don’t see why we need to chase the madman. It doesn’t sound like he can do much with it!’
‘No,’ Sharmila said and everyone turned to her, ‘it doesn’t sound like a dangerous device at all. Because I don’t think that’s all it does.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Uncle Silver was clearly offended. ‘I built the device, I know its function.’
‘Sure, but tell me, why did you call it a prototype?’
‘What? Because it’s not quite finished yet. There are some glitches I need to iron out. I made it in my small workspace, after all. Once I get my hands on some better material—’
‘Sound familiar?’ Sharmila asked, looking around to see if anyone would agree.
‘What?’ Uncle Silver merely managed.
‘Yes, it does,’ said Ravi.
‘Sounds a lot like the problem with the Captura,’ Subro noted. ‘Problems that were attributed to the use of lower-grade materials.’
‘It has to be that,’ Uncle Silver quickly countered. ‘I’ve triple checked all my equations. The device functions otherwise. There’s no mistake. I must try better materials.’
‘That’s what Dr. Raman had thought as well,’ Sharmila continued. ‘And let me guess, these glitches you speak of, they’re extra sounds, aren’t they? Noises that weren’t present during the capture?’
‘Only some clicks and hisses! It’s really nothing much!’
‘If you remember, the ghosting in the first InstaCopies had also resembled harmless patches. As you develop the technology, I’m sure, the sounds will get clearer.’
‘And — and what are these sounds?’ Ravi voiced his concern.
‘Well,’ Subro thought aloud, ‘if the Captura shows us images of ghosts that we aren’t normally able to see, then this — this, Echorder, was it?’
Uncle Silver nodded.
‘Yes, the Echorder. It probably allows us to listen to sounds we can’t normally hear, doesn’t it?’
‘Not just any sound,’ Sharmila said, ‘I believe it lets us listen to the ghosts. I think that’s what Dada is after, though I can’t imagine what he hopes to achieve.’
A silence followed. Everyone seemed to be considering the suggestion, even Sharmila herself.
Ravi thought about it. What would we hear through such a device? Sounds of ghosts whooshing past? Sounds of howling, moaning, something like that? Or voices? Can the ghosts speak? Can we communicate with them through this device? Isn’t that what Ms. Dixit had been planning?
Minutes passed in silence, until Ravi finally broke it:
‘How did your brother know that he would find the device here? I mean, Uncle doesn’t seem to have told a soul about it. Not even his own son and niece.’
‘My brother knows things,’ Sharmila explained lamely. ‘He has this skill, a sort of intuition, it guides his actions.’
‘Are we really supposed to believe that?’ Subro asked.
‘Yes, you probably should, because you yourself possess the same ability!’