A Wash Of Black

Ben arrived home looking haggard, as usual.

Nothing in his job routine- scanning the visitors using the bio detector, checking their bags to see if they have anything that can potentially harm the aliens or pointing the visitors with large bags to the baggage counter warranted tiredness. In fact, compared to what many of his friends do for a living in the post alien world-like Tarun his bosom bud since childhood who slaves at the Intergalactic Ammunitions Inc, working 12 to 16 hours a day every day and still barely managing to make ends meet, Ben had it good. And knew he had it good.

But that’s just the physical demands of the job. As for the rest-like the pay and the appraisals and the non-existent incentives for working over-time, everyone was in the same rut. At least, everyone in Ben’s social circle.

Waving to the security guard posted at the gate, Ben walked in, slowly as though he was walking through a field of heightened gravity. The housing complex was built during the era of the last human government. Spread across some 20 odd acres it originally had 8 building blocks, three playgrounds for children, two gyms-not quite cutting edge but still good enough and a cafeteria as well as a jogging track. Much of these things still remain but in various stages of disrepair.

Ben now walked on the jogging track, long overgrown with weed, littered with debris and painted with puke-remains of bad nights spent by unfortunate souls who couldn’t take the harshness anymore during the night, after a long day at wherever they worked, praising the alien government in a drunken stupor for not banning alcohol even though the aliens themselves didn’t understand the concept of inebriation.

The sun still hasn’t gone down completely and every blade of grass in the compound looked as if bathed in blood. Ben hesitated before taking the stairs that would lead him into his apartment- the third door on the second floor , Block B2. He gazed upon the flaking paints on the walls as the putrid smell of decaying food greeted him as he climbed up the stairs. Garbage collection was virtually non-existent.

A kid went past him down the stairs like a speeding train, with a red and yellow ball that she clutched close to her chest. Though she didn’t stop to say hello, she did look up at Ben and graced him with a smile. So alive, thought Ben. So much alive. He complemented with a smile of his own though he knew very well that it would have come across as just a faint elongation of the lips, a quasi-expression which only the most perceptive of adults could read. The child, for its part didn’t express any apprehension though, her smile broadened before she swifted out of vision.

The remaining distance to his apartment, Ben kept trying to recall the name of the child. He knew her parents-they lived in the floor above him. Satish and Karthika-that’s their names. The man worked as the Assistant Security Guard at the office of the ministry of agriculture- a body that’s essentially concerned with raising select animals that are beneficial to the aliens. Satish moved in to the complex some three years ago- just before the outer-spacers came from above. They have talked with each other innumerable times. They had even attended each others’ children’s birthday party, but for the life of him Ben couldn’t recall the name of Satish’s only daughter.

Ben did feel slightly disturbed at this failure of his memory. Only slightly though. He, like many of his fellow men were used to such scenarios. The result of exposure to the radiation that emanated from the aliens’ bodies. About 800 meters-that’s the safe distance you ought to maintain from an alien if you want to preserve your energy levels-mental and physical. Otherwise, you’ll be systematically drained. That’s what the human scientists have said in the TV-back before the aliens began to decide the content to be dispersed through the media. For men like Ben who work in buildings that are run by aliens, in which the aliens are physically present-albeit remaining behind closed doors most of the time, adhering to that distance limit was an impossibility.

An empty corridor. For some reason, people rarely got out of their apartments anymore. It was as though they didn’t trust the sun anymore. The life-giver to the planet, and it’s now also supporting the alien life forms-the enemy. Ben has long given up hoping to see a familiar face to greet him outside the door.
He knocked on the door. The calling bell wasn’t working. It’s been defunct for some three months now. He has been trying to get an electrician but such tribes are fast disappearing owing to the technology fast going obsolete and the ones that remain in the tribe, well, they charge an arm and a leg to fix a simple calling bell-enough money to pay one month’s tuition fee for little Alciia.
He had to knock twice more before the door was opened. There was no one. He looked down to see his daughter looking up at him, a dimple creasing her cheek beautifully as she smiled.

“Alicia, where’s your mother?” Ben said, lifting her up in his arms.
“Why do you lift me up, papa? I am five!” little Alicia said.

Ben’s smile faltered. This was unusual of him, he realized. And he didn’t want to give any indication that something unusual was going on. After planting a kiss on her cheek, he put his daughter down, and repeated his question, “Where’s your mother?”

Alicia pointed to the door of the bedroom- “She’s lying down. Think she’s come down with a fever.”

Ben proceeded to the bedroom while Alicia returned to watching the cartoon show on the television-an old episode of the Tom and Jerry show.
“Hey, are you okay?”
His wife was lying awake on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. She looked somewhat groggy, red-rimmed eyes and dry lips. Upon hearing his voice, she looked to him but didn’t get up, not immediately. She beckoned to him with her arm.

“Govind passed away today,” she said. He was seated beside her on the bed and she took a firm hold of his hand, as though holding on for dear life. “I got the message in the evening, about an hour ago.”
Ben remained silent as he watched a tear drop slowly slide down the face of his wife.

Govind was her cousin’s eldest son. He must be eight years old now, if Ben isn’t mistaken. Her cousin and her children once stayed with them for a few months. That woman’s husband was one of the first casualties in the short lived war between the aliens and humans. A soldier whose dead body was actually just ashes.

“Malnutrition,” his wife was saying. “That’s cited as the cause of death.”
Strictly speaking, the aliens weren’t in need of a large number of humans. They needed blood, or rather the heamogoblin in the blood. While that element is to be found in animal blood as well, it’s human blood which appealed the most to the alien palate. But compared to the total number of humans in the world, the aliens were too few and once an alien has fed, they could go without blood for a couple of months. And the older they got, their frequency of feeding became lesser. Which means that the entire enterprise of a human civilization wasn’t really worth maintaining from the alien’s perspective.

Then, why haven’t they killed the bulk of the human population?
One theory was that the aliens are keeping the humans because bigger fleet of the creatures are gonna come soon-there’s even a religion based on that coming.

But the strongest speculation-which actually isn’t a speculation came from one of the top level human aides in the Minstry of Crime- the same ministry in the office of which Ben worked as a security officer. The aliens needed someone who understands human psychology as a consultant in the ministry. They chose a woman psychologist for the job. She worked closely with the aliens for a few months which drove her insane before killing her due to the recurrent draining of energy from her body.

It was due to her bout of insanity towards the finals months of her life that many considered her theory-which she first posted in the Deep Web, as just wild speculation. But those like Ben who has the opportunity to see the aliens- at least from a distance was convinced that what the woman said was the truth. According to the psychologist, the aliens were planning to rebuild the earth-infrastructure and programs to suit their own lifestyle rather than ours. And humans though better adapted to the earth’s habitat than the aliens, were still inefficient creatures. So, the aliens want to build better beings using the relevant elements in the human physiognomy and behavior as the template. While learning about the former turned out to be straightforward, the latter proved hard for them. Even the wealth of human research in to human psyche fell short for their requirement. So the high council of the alien government decided that they should conduct social experiments with humans until they have gathered enough information regarding human behavior. Hence civilization, or a pale imitation of it. Schools still ran but the lessons were slacky, the entertainment industry still functioned, providing livelihood for many but the kind of information they spread was deeply scrutinized by the Ministry of Culture-they even succeeded in breaching into the Dark Web and now decided what goes on in there-sometimes they permitted arms dealers and pedophiles to live their dream there, sometimes they don’t. all depended on how much they learned about humans at any given point and how much they wished to learn yet. Hospitals functioned but unless a medical condition piqued the curiosity of the aliens, chances are you will die of a disease-even if it’s something as mundane(once-mundane) as malaria.

If the dead psychologist’s idea was right, humans were living in the last phase of the social experiment. Things like giving proper appraisals for people such as Ben-security guards who worked in the different government offices, or the upkeep of their government sponsored living quarters were a moot point.
And kids of parents who couldn’t earn anymore-well, they died of malnutrition all the time.

“Let me make some tea for you,” Ben said to his wife. She immediately got off the bed and said, “No, let me.”
Without another word, she went to the kitchen. Ben could hear the sound of the pan being washed and put on the stove from the bedroom.
When the tea was ready, she called out to Ben. Ben called Alicia.
“But, Papa, I’m watching the cartoon!” Alicia’s voice came like a shrill cry from the living room. Ben didn’t have to call more than once again before Alicia turned off the television and joined her parents at the kitchen-where a simple round table served as the dining table. The three of them had tea and biscuits in silence. Ben wished that someone would say something-anything to break the silence. A couple of times he opened his mouth but shut it as fast, unable to think of anything to say.

Once the tea was finished, Alicia didn’t lose any time to go back to the television.
Ben looked up at the kitchen clock. 7’O clock.
If I’m going there, I must go there now, he thought. They shut down at 8.
Besides, he was sure that if he waited for another day, he may never go there at all.
“I’ll just go to Tarun’s and be back,” he said, pushing himself off from the table.
His wife, who was at the sink, washing the cups turned around, a mild look of surprise in her face.
Even though she didn’t say anything, Ben added, “He said he’s feeling down. Thought I’d go and see what it’s all about.”
She nodded, still didn’t say anything. Only when he has reached the front door did she ask, “When will you be back?”
Soon, he wanted to say but the words that came out were different: “I’ll be back.”
One last look at his daughter who was still immersed in the cat and mouse show on television and Benjamin Patroda closed the door behind him.
****
He didn’t have any intention of meeting Tarun, of course but as he was walking towards the front gate, to make an exit from this compound forever, he did run into him. If anything, Tarun looked more tired than usual. The sweat on his face glistened under the harsh yellow street lamps.

But his demeanour, once his eyes fell on Benjamin was cheerful as ever.
“Hey, Benny, where’re you off to?” he asked, and before Ben could answer, added, “If it’s to the grocery store or something, I’ll join you.”

Tarun is someone who disliked spending time inside his apartment. Having never married, he lives alone. As for his parents and siblings, the former died long back and as for the latter, he had none. Ben knew that he would do anything to spend time away from the apartment which is a lonely coffin for him-even go to the grocery store with a friend.

“Na, I’m not going to the grocery store,” Ben hesitated, not sure how to proceed. Tarun brought out a pack of beedis, pulled one stick out and lit it. Ben declined the offer of a smoke.

“So, where are you going?”
“I’m just going for a walk.”
From Tarun’s arched eyebrow Ben figured that the answer came out sounding wackier than he thought. Nobody in these circles went out for a walk in the evening. People were darned tired to begin with.

To his credit, Tarun didn’t comment on it except saying, “You must be really feeling under the weather.”

Ben couldn’t help but laugh.
“What ? Why are you laughing?,” said Tarun, a smile on his lips.
“Nothing,” said Ben, thinking how it was the same excuse that he made to his wife just a few minutes ago to get out of the house- that Tarun was feeling depressed. “Nothing,” he repeated.
They stood not far from the main gate and the security guard’s cabin. Tarun sent a sideways glance towards the guards’ direction. “Don’t you think it’s funny that they have a security guard appointed for the living quarters of the government security guards?” he said in a low whisper.
“Why is it funny?,” said Ben. “You know bad shit still happens-theft, rape, whatever. And it’s not like being a guard gives you immunity from shit happening to you.”

“No,” Tarun said and kept shaking his head as though Ben couldn’t understand what he was attempting to say. “No,” he repeated, this time more vehemently, “They wouldn’t give us any help in keeping the buildings from falling apart. You know that some blocks have their sewage systems all fucked up. And the government leaves us to live in the stanching hell, we barely have enough money to feed and educate our kids, but they appoint a security guard for us. I find that quite funny. And I think-no, I am convinced that the man is spying for the government, informing them about our movements.”

“Movements?” said Ben, “What movements?” If it were anyone but Tarun who said it, he would have laughed. Once upon a time Tarun used to be actively involved in politics. And when the alien government took control, the party of which he was a part was one of the first to try and form a union to fight for the workers’ rights. Only, unlike the human governments, the aliens were not just capable of immense evil, they also lacked the ability to empathize. Their way of reasoning was always directed at their own advantages, not anyone else’s.
Besides, they turned out to be just too powerful to fight against.

Lowering his voice a notch Tarun said in a conspiratorial tone, “You want to come to my place?” and moving closer towards Ben, “We are planning on an uprising. Even though the party doesn’t officially exist anymore, there are many members whose limbs tremble in rage thinking about all the atrocities.”
Indeed, Tarun’s face trembled slightly as he said this.

Ben wanted to tell him the obvious- that such ‘uprisings’ were dreams fit for people like Tarun- those without the burden of a family. The dreams could manifest in actions- they might actually take up arms against the aliens, but they will only perish. And people like Tarun-they don’t mind perishing even if no one gains anything from it.

But Ben didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to have a skirmish with Tarun, not now, not ever-not when Tarun could possibly be the last person whom he know personally who would see him alive. He shook his head, “I’ll come to your place after the walk.”
Tarun looked at him, held his gaze for a couple of seconds. He rubbed the two days worth of stubble on his chin. It was apparent that he still couldn’t wrap his head around this whole evening walk thing. Ben prayed that he wouldn’t press about it, and he didn’t. Tarun nodded instead, “I have some coffee at home. Will prepare some when you come. “

That, more than anything made Ben want to go toTarun’s. Coffee- it’s been ages since he has had some. But, of course it’d be ridiculous now to change his mind. Waving goodbye to his friend and then to the security man, he walked out of the compound.
*****
THE WASH- read the neon lights in front of the building which was eight storeys high and painted black. The only building which Ben had ever seen painted the colorless colour.

He pushed through the revolving doors to enter a lobby as spacious as it was claustrophobic. He had to take at least some twenty strides to reach the reception desk at the far end of the lobby but there was a certain angularity to the place- slanted walls and alien art pieces which jutted out of the walls like projectiles which gave one the impression that you are being cowered inside a very small area. Not that Ben has ever expected THE WASH to be warm and welcoming. But still, the eerie sensation which has been building up inside him gained momentum as soon as he stepped in.

Behind the reception desk sat a human- a man who looked to be in his early thirties. A thin moustache and dark piercing eyes gave his face the aura of intelligence. He glanced up at the sound of footsteps. He didn’t look surprised but a smile on the edge of his mouth gave the impression that he was amused.
He looked at his watch, “It’s almost closing time. “

Ben spoke as he kept walking, in a voice that was soft yet confident: “Are you going to tell me to come back tomorrow?”

The receptionist smiled, shook his head. “No. I guess not.” He tapped on the keyboard, gazed at the computer screen. “You must be Mister Benjamin Patroda, age: 29, Occupation: Security Officer at the Ministry of Crime?”
“Yup. That’ll be me.”

“Good,” said the receptionist before he took a ring of keys from the desk.
“Why is it good?” said Ben in a tired voice. He was looking at the receptionist, looking him up and down for any sign that this man wasn’t a man but an alien.
The man- if a man it was was on his way to a door adjacent to the reception desk when Ben asked the question. Looking back at Ben he merely shrugged. “Follow me, please”

Without moving from where he stood, Ben said, “You have got the details about my wife correct? The money will go to her in two days as per procedure?”
With every word that he said Benjamin felt himself weakening, not in the body or the mind, but in the spirit.

The other man didn’t seem to notice this. He simply said, “Why shouldn’t it be?”
He opened the door using one of the keys on the ring. Beyond was utter darkness.

He looked back at Benjamin. “Are you ready , sir?”
Sir. That convinced Ben that this was no alien. Whether the aliens could assume a human shape or not was largely a matter of speculation-like many things about them. But when Ben heard rumours that all the employees of THE WASH are humans, he thought that they were all actually aliens in human guise. For what human could ever work in such a place and remain sane? But this man was proving him wrong, for he looked incredibly calm, composed and all his actions had the clinical precision which none but the most focused of individuals could do. He was very much in the moment, aware of what he was doing, but not being judgmental.

Ben took a deep breath before following the man inside the door. The man turned on the lights. Ben couldn’t register what he was looking at, not until a few seconds passed. The steel machine, endless rows of them, each with two thick and long needles on either end like limbs, a circular orifice-inverted-for the sake of fitting over your head. Ben had seen these things once before- in a television program meant to entertain and educate. But seeing them in the real- that was something else. They didn’t look menacing, just efficient. But the sheer scale amazed Benjamin.

Seeing the look on his face, the receptionist said, “They were ambitious with it. Every floor in this building has one such gigantic floor demarcated for the blood-suckers. These machines- the aliens had a human design the prototype. That was also a part of their social experiment- to see if the person would relish seeing his creation being put to use. “

A man about to die is not supposed to have any curiosity except for what’s to come and maybe regarding how those he leave behind will live. But Benjamin Patroda, in the last minutes of his life was seized by a curiosity strong enough to be considered mad about this place-THE WASH.

“I heard that everyone who works here is human?” he asked the man.
He looked at Ben, the smile of amusement still on his face. “That’s just a rumour. No one works here except for this one human,” he pointed towards himself, and Ben could detect a faint but unmistakable pride in the man’s voice. “It’s been like that since the beginning-since this place started over two years ago. No one but me. The aliens were ambitious as I said. They thought people would come flocking through the revolving door to give up their life so that their surviving family members would get money. People did come-they do, but not as many as the aliens thought.”

“Those bastards!” said Ben, surprising himself as much as the other person, as sudden anger at the aliens and the devastation they brought to life on earth gripped him. “This is their ultimate experiment. To see how long we will cling to hope.” He looked at the receptionist, “You know, I don’t know if the money that my wife will get-a decent amount as it is, will be of any help for my family. I don’t know how long they will allow my child to continue her education. And I don’t know..don’t know if they are going to wipe off all of humanity tomorrow. But still…I must do this. For what else can I do?”

The receptionist understood that he was seeking affirmation-that Ben was beginning to slide down a whirlpool of darkness and was reaching out for someone to pull him out, on to this level field-this playground of death.
And the receptionist did that with just one word, “Yes.”
Ben nodded, ever so slightly, feeling grateful, but the rage against the aliens, impotent as it is, still didn’t leave him.

“They have blood banks where people donate blood,” he said. “That’s more than enough for them. And yet, they have built this place-where they suck all a man’s blood in one go. Just to see to what depths hope can drive us!”
The receptionist remained silent, a sign of wisdom as Ben understood it. A few seconds passed. “Do you wish to rest for a while?”

“You sound like a doctor,” said Ben, issuing a half-laugh.
The other person smiled, “Not quite. Though I’d have liked to become one. I think it’s real cool if you can help people heal. You know, a mechanism gone wrong, you put it right back together. There’s a playfulness to the whole enterprise which many miss, I believe.”

“You don’t talk like a receptionist, either.” Said Ben, watching the man closely.
At this the man stopped talking. The silence that now pervaded the floor was heavy- as though it was the voice of the dormant blood-suckers in the room, beckoning.
“Are you ready?” the receptionist said.

Ben didn’t hesitate this time. He was led to one of the blood-suckers. He was seated on a chair-much like a barber’s chair only without an extra head rest. The receptionist clamped his arms with leather thongs fitted in the chair. He pulled the blood-sucker down and clamped the orifice over Ben’s head.

And while he was doing all this, with a deftness that was like a conductor leading an orchestra, he was speaking in a mild, almost hypnotic tone, “You know why they call this place THE WASH?” he said. Ben wasn’t expected to talk, Ben knew. “It’s because,” continued the receptionist, “I know there are speculations-as with anything these days, one of the most common being because the building has a wash of black paint. But, Ben, dear Ben, before you leave this earth, you must know this: that you final place of departure is named so because the aliens consider this place sacred. This is a place where they wash away your sin of existence. You see, our masters have a different take on many concepts compared to us. And sin, I believe they encountered the idea first when they read about it in a human book. But according to them- the sin of humans is in existing, and this place is where the sin is washed away once and for all, by providing your blood for the greater beings.” The man halted, sucking in breath slowly, ever so slowly as if fascinated by the romanticism of it all. And lowering his face, looking directly into Ben’s eyes, “Did you understand?”

Ben tried to shake his head but the head-clamp prevented him from doing so. “Not really….You created these machines for them, didn’t you?”
The man pulled back, pressed his lips together, tilted his head up and smiled at Ben. “You are more perceptive than you look,” he said.
“Why?” said Ben.

“If it wasn’t me, someone else would have,”
“No, “ said Ben, “I meant why do you work here? To see you creation being put to use?”
“Nonsense!” said the man immediately, and laughed. The laugh reverberated inside the chamber. Ben imagined all the thousands of machines in the cavernous room laughing.

Once the laughter subsided, the man leaned towards Ben’s chair. He whispered in Ben’s ear, “They pay me well. That’s all. And also, I know how to guide people to their willful demise.” Straighteing up, he added, “I am the new breed, Ben. The kind of people the alien government wants. You can say I’m an early prototype of what’s to come.” One more intake of breath- the sound of something like a knife cutting through the air, an ode to flamboyant ideas. “Now, are you ready?”

Ben blinked his assent bust asked, “What is your name?”
The man, who had his finger hovering above a round red button on the side of Ben’s chair looked up. “You are not gonna believe, but they call me Ben. Benjamin, that’s my name.”
Ben on the chair smiled. A sad, weak smile, faint as clouds fading from the summer sky. “Is it true that the machine sucks your marrow too in addition to the blood. Or is that just another rumour?”
“It’s just a rumour,” Ben whispered, though Ben couldn’t be sure if he was telling the truth or not.

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