When Mohenka walked into the lobby of the office building, she didn’t know that it was going to be more than just another day at work. She didn’t know how perilously close the day would come to be her final one on the earth.
Of course, she knew that this was the day they were going to make the building walk, as did everyone else who worked in the RaveRider headquarters. But she was sure that she, and Shareef would be able to finish their job way before the first of the clamps of the building’s exoskeleton uprooted itself from the ground.
“Good morning, ma’m!” The guard practically shouted, or so it sounded like given the echo that filled the empty lobby. On a regular day, the lobby would be bustling with people coming into work, rushing to one of the 15 elevators on the right side of entrance, beneath the giant fresco which showed a smiling woman inside a car, drinking a soda and chatting with a friend on the vidphone. The company’s tagline was printed in bold font just beneath the smiling woman’s face: “You smile as we ride.”
It’s the corniest line she has ever heard, so thought Mohenka, though she kept that opinion to herself. For the work that she did for them, the cab aggregator paid her extremely well, and that’s what matters the most in a commercial economy. Petty things like the quality(or lack thereof) of the company slogan needn’t be among the things that make her lose sleep.
“Good morning,” she called back to the security guard without much enthusiasm as she walked up to an escalator which she called up.
The lack of enthusiasm was deliberate.
This particular guard- a man in his thirties with chubby cheeks and thick moustache and a generally too pleasing an air about him to warrant confidence in his abilities as a security officer was just too enthusiastic whenever he greeted her. And Mohenka has seen the way he would sometimes look her up and down, letting his eyes linger on the curved parts of her body.
Nonetheless, it felt somewhat comforting that the officer was here this morning, though the only one on duty, it seems.
The security provisions of the building were more or less completely automated. So, the presence of the guard was more of a token than anything. All the same, it’s comforting to see a human in charge of these things. In the year 2045, technology may be evolved to a point where it’s more reliable than humans in most situations. However, humans still remained largely primal- and the notion of relying on human beings whom you can see, for your security rather than on unseen lines of programming code, very much a part of that primeval psyche.
As the escalator clanged, announcing its arrival at the ground floor, Mohenka felt the intense gaze of the security officer on her ass- her 26 year old body in the long skin-tight yellow robe with a floral pattern tingling with shame as she entered the escalator and brought the door closed.
Just as the door was closing on the escalator, she looked in the direction of the security desk and saw the officer quickly glancing away.
“Another day at work,” she muttered as the escalator began its ascend to the 14th floor.
The headquarters of RaveRiders was housed in a 20 storied building which was built in the first half of the 20th century.
The building used to be the main office of the Chagvomsh Daily- at one time the biggest and most esteemed newspaper of the entire Irvada. But once the Internet made old fashioned (and meaningful?)journalism all but obsolete, the newspaper had to move to a more modest building in a more humble location.(This building was situated smack at the centre of the city- the famous Chagvomsh Art Musuem right around the corner and the city’s commercial street only a block away).
The founders of RaveRiders were, predictably enough, internet savvy and saw the future as more of a technology product than anything designed by political policies .However, when they moved their headquarters from downtown to this building, they retained as much of the old building as possible, charmed by the earnest craftsmanship of the people who worked on it before the digital age when the principal design ethos was redefined as minimalism.
Intricately carved gargoyles stared down from the front of the building while inside, you wouldn’t be hard pressed to see exquisite paintings and statues which complemented the glamorous marbled lobby or the smooth curves of the pillars that made you feel diminutive. There were ruby encrusted chandeliers and stairs that looked like they were made of otherworldly objects- the kind which sparkled seductively as the sunlight fell on them.
The founders even retained the old fashioned elevators (though their internal auditors did tip them off to the fact that by using the modern ‘jet-escalators’ they could have employees reaching work faster by at least two seconds- collectively, over the year, the more than 1,200 employees who worked inside the building would contribute to substantially increased man hours that way). The founders knew that such things as golden lifts from an earlier era were associated with luxury; retaining such devices would give their employees a morale boost- an element that would subconsciously urge them to work harder.
That’s not to say that they didn’t make any significant alterations. Aside from the various security measures that they had installed in the building, many of the work floors were done in the conventional manner- rows and rows of cubicles with company bigwigs in glass cabinets like they were caged animals.
The escalator came to a stop and Mohenka stepped out onto her floor- the fourteenth.
Turning left, she had to take just a few steps before pushing open the door to her right and entering the work floor. The door to the work floor was unmarked but it could well have something like “The Room of Boredom” stenciled on it. For that’s exactly how the cavernous hall came across to her every time she entered-boring What with the gray wall paneling and beige carpet, and the cubicles which didn’t do anyone’s productivity, or mood any good. Even to her accountant’s eyes, it all looked boring.
Taking the right turn after the second bay, she walked down the length of the hall- the size of half a football field, all the way to the end where in a small glassed cubicle, a light was on. The glass on the cubicle was only partially transparent, so one couldn’t easily make out the face of the man who sat within- though his white shirt and pale green corduroys were clear enough.
But Mohenka didn’t have to see the face to know who it was.
Without knocking, she entered the cubicle. “Good morning, Shareef,” she said.
Shareef, without taking his eyes off the figures in the air in front of him, said, “Good morning.”
Taking a seat opposite to him, Mohenka looked at him, waiting for him acknowledge her with a look so that she could ask how it was going. She hoped that her senior has got to the root of the problem already, so that they could both get out of here before long. For one thing, being a non-working day, the AC was off in the entire building. Though it wasn’t stifling, she knew that it would get to be so if they spent too much time on the floor.
Then, there was also the fact that she never really liked the idea of working on off days- not even if it was on emergencies like this.
Sensing her fidgeting, as if reading her mind, Shareef said(still not looking up from the figures thrown up by the mini-computer), “Why, Mohenka, it feels like you already want to get out of here! I am such bad company, am I?”
“No, of course, not!” said Mohenka immediately. And she meant it.
Shareef Ahmed was not only one of the best senor accountants in the company- in the six months that she has been with the firm she has learnt way more than how much knowledge she has garnered over the 4 years with her previous company-thanks largely to Shareef. And the man’s mind was such that he could shed surprisingly accurate insights on even the most mundane of accountancy problems-making working with him rather exciting.
Then, there was also the fact that he was a little off- in a good way. There was a quality of introversion to him which nonetheless didn’t prevent him from coming out with criticism or advice, whenever it’s needed. And there was this general vibe of earnestness about him which Mohenka felt was missing from many people she came across- whether at work or other places.
“I am glad to know that you feel that way,” he said, looking up at her and smiling, a twinkle appearing in his eyes. “But, you still look like you really don’t want to be here at all.”
Mohenka smirked, rolled her eyes playfully. “When I moved to this city, my mother told me two things,” she said. “Never to skip a meal and never to work on off days. Advices given because she knew how given I could be to over-working.”
Shareef nodded. “Yeah, I know it sucks,” he said. “But it couldn’t be helped. I had to call you in because we were both responsible for doing the accounts in question.”
Before she could tell him that it was completely okay-she would have come even if she hadn’t worked on it, Shareef continued, rapidly briefing her about the situation- essentially a slightly more elaborate version of the briefing that he gave her on the phone last night.
There has been some tally error in the accounts that they did for one of the corporate clients. RaveRiders brought in the lion share of their revenue from individuals who hired cabs-from electric two-seaters to limos, on their platform. But they also catered to corporates who could avail their fleet for picking and dropping employees to and from work. Shareef and Mohenka were responsible for drawing up the accounts of one such client- a big one.
Upon the client’s request, the invoice was raised only quarterly and not monthly, as was the case with most other clients. But this time, the computer assessment that was done before forwarding the invoice found that the final bill amount was lesser by 20% compared to the previous bill, this when the client’s usage of their service has gone up by almost 50% during the previous quarter.
Such cross- checking was not regular with such clients-from a human perspective. You couldn’t possibly have the figures for each quarter and month for all the clients you worked for, stored in your head. Not when you catered to so many clients at a time. (Shareef and Mohenka together served the needs of 10 different clients of varied sizes.)
“Either we were fed a few wrong numbers by the Driver Catalogue, or we messed up,” Shareef had told Mohenka on the phone. The Driver Catalogue was the semi-automated mechanism by which the drivers raised their bills with the accounts department. The system has been known to make errors before- thanks to the humans involved, of course.
“Let me get some coffee,” Mohenka said once Shareef was done briefing. She thought she would need that, given how Shareef hasn’t spotted the problem yet. And from what she could surmise, they might have to go through every single figure in the chart to spot the anomaly.
Machines were rather good with numbers, but for some things, there was nothing to beat the good old human acumen. “Can I bring you a coffee too?” she said as she was exiting the cubicle.
“Espresso, two sugars,” came the prompt reply.
As she walked towards the coffee machine, she looked out of a window that she was passing by. Smog, as thick as a woolen blanket has rendered visibility almost zero. It was much better just a few minutes ago, she thought, while she was still out there.
“God, what’s this city coming to!” she muttered as she placed a plastic cup under the coffee machine’s nozzle and hit the button for ‘Espresso.’
Except for the fact that it was the third most populous country in the world, Irvada didn’t have much of a claim to fame a few decades ago. A country which resisted democracy for longer than many of her peers, riven by the successive rules of autocratic monarchs who liked filling their coffers more than spending it for the sake of the people, the country was literally in shambles by the time a people’s revolt usurped the monarch and the first democratically elected government came into power in the nation’s history.
But the rise of the country, since then has been meteoric, surprising even the most liberal of economists who saw the country’s ascent with wide and delighted eyes. The key reason for the turnaround was the prompt policy measures instated by the government under the charismatic and progressive first Prime Minister, Yankaret Toppla.
Understanding that the country’s people-who has got very little exposure to global matters thanks to the inward looking policies followed by the erstwhile monarchs, couldn’t possibly compete in a global economy with skilled labour, he made use of the country’s huge population by inviting the world’s biggest multinationals to start their manufacturing units in the nation.
In Irvada, he promised, they would get the cheapest labour anywhere in the world.
The people- oppressed for so many centuries, found the prospect of steady income for the masses, albeit lesser compared to peers from other nations, a welcome idea. The borders of Irvada thus were thrown open. Like a friend who hugged a guest, the country invited the multinationals in.
Almost all the manufacturing units that were opened in Irvanda were for microprocessors or electronic gadgets, though you could easily find production units for everything from plastic dolls to prosthetic limbs in the streets of Chagvomsh- the capital of the country and also its most populous city. Indeed, the largest concentration of factories and other companies- some home grown, like RaveRider, others foreign- is to be found in Chagvomsh.
The industrialization of Chagvomsh brought in its wake the influx of large mass of people from far corners of the country- thrice the size of America. Mammoth infrastructure projects began popping up practically every day. New roads and rails were laid in a matter of months. The streets of Chagvomsh, which once saw a traffic of few vehicles- the motorized ones belonging mostly to those in the royal family, began to proliferate with cars and bikes owned by the common man on his way to and from work.
Even the phenomenon of roads perennially clogged with traffic were seen by many as a sign of progress- and happiness was in the air.
But the air of Chagvomsh also began to get clogged- the spumes of thick roiling smog that rose from her factories starting to chock the life out of the people. It didn’t take long for Chagvomsh to pass Beijing- until then, the world’s most polluted city, to claim that title.
Indeed, the pollution levels perpetuated by the uncontrolled industrialization of the city made Beijing’s air look practically clean. Diseases, hitherto fore unheard of in history began to afflict humans. Sores that covered the body which oozed puss, terrible hallucinations suffered from drinking polluted water, particulates in the air which wouldn’t be filtered out even with the most cutting edge of smog masks-all these became the daily lot of Chagvomhsians for whom the place of their habitation suddenly became a trap from which they couldn’t easily escape.
The worst of the brunt of pollution was suffered by children- the ones with the weakest constitution and the most given to impulses that made them get out and play in the open- even if the open was an always falling curtain of poison.
When a errant wind perpetuated by the effects of global climate change made the city a vortex of breathing hell for about two weeks continually, almost 400 died, most of them children under the age of eight. The incident, which gained global attention, made the Chagvomshians to demand for actions from the government to bring down the pollution.
Unfortunately, no rapid solution could be devised for the problem, unlike the rapidity with which the urbanization was launched.
Months and years passed, and the people- with their ineffective masks and their lives shortened by the very air they breathed, toiled in the factories, even as a new breed of home grown entrepreneurs began setting up internet based companies, businesses that relied more on knowledge than machines that polluted.
Meanwhile, the governments and the officials continued seeking a solution, wondering if it wasn’t too late already.
(Edited transcript of conversation between the operatives, Hydra and Scourge)
Hydra: Scourge, there is some intel. The World Heritage Mall, in south Chagvomsh has planned a move this evening. The smog is getting worse today than they predicted. In fact, it’s being said that contrary to their previous predictions, the smog is gonna stick around for at least three weeks before it abates. What do you think, should we strike?
Scourge: No. Let’s not.
Hydra: But the..so called ‘Heritage’ mall is a mockery of all the heritage which the nation possesses. The heritage was built on the shoulders of honest workers and ordinary men and women, who didn’t wake up every day with the singular aim of expanding their bank accounts!
Scourge: There is no need, Hydra for you to give me a lesson on history. I know the country’s past as well as anyone.
Hydra: I am sorry. I didn’t mean to undermine your position, Wasp. You are the leader of this operation. I just wanted to say that we might be losing a valuable opportunity to strike at a symbolic building that would send a strong message across the nation, if we let go of the mall.
Scourge: What you said is true- striking the mall would be a huge symbolic gesture- a fight against the mockery of the very concept of ‘heritage.’ However, this being a working day, you cannot expect a large number of people at the mall. Besides, given the condition of the smog, we can be sure that many companies in the city would move their building in the coming days, some may be even today. They would have a larger number of people – employees. It’s high time that the Messengers sent a strong message written in the blood of a large number of victims. It’s high time that we took the battle to the next level!
“Either I am getting old or I am getting old,” said Shareef with a weary sigh. They have been in the cubicle for almost an hour, wading through an ocean of numbers, and still there was no sign that they were getting anywhere closer to a solution.
Mohenka looked up from the figures in front of her, stifling a yawn and reaching for the cup of coffee on the table- she has lost count of the number of coffees she has already consumed- definitely more than could be considered as safe to consume within an hour.
But, like Shareef, her eyes too were drooping. It wasn’t that she didn’t like her job. On the contrary. While many people-many, even inside the profession, considered accountancy as the application of dry intellect, devoid of heart, for Mohenka, the putting together of different facts as represented by numbers, in the right order, involves a lot of skill, and requires its own share of creativity. After all, creativity was all about finding connections between the seemingly unconnected, and sometimes, you need to draw such connections, to see the missing dots to balance a ledger perfectly.
But the problem with the task at hand was that creativity, or any sort of intuition was the last thing that it demanded. It was, in fact, the dry application of intellect which was demanded. Nothing more. Nothing less.
The fact that their task wasn’t something you could do while conversing with each other made it even more drab. So, she was glad when Shareef broke the silence which existed for at least 45 minutes, filling the small cubicle like the thick smog descending on the streets outside.
“I must thank you, Shareef,” she said, “for sharing the burden with me. I know you could have handed the chore to me alone and simply chilled out. I know that’s what my boss at my previous company would have done.”
Shareef waved a hand, as though saying, ‘It’s no big deal.’
“You said you are getting old,” said Mohenka, not quite ready for the next session of silence. “The last I checked 30 years is still considered to be young- though people just 5 years younger may be living so different a life that there’s practically a generation gap.
Shareef nodded- an old man’s nod. He smiled- a sad smile.
Mohenka had noticed this aura of weary oldness in him plenty of times before.
But never has she dared breach the topic with him. In her guts, she knew that it had got to do something with his divorce.
She has heard from her colleagues how he was married once-when he was very young, just 21 or 22 years old. It was a love marriage. But the marriage lasted for just a few months. The details around the divorce were sketchy- after all, the marriage was many years before he joined RaveRiders. But if the consensus is to be trusted, the woman walked out on him- falling for another man.
Perhaps emboldened by the fact that they were alone in the office, or pushed by the need to keep the conversation going (being someone who lived alone in her one room apartment, she didn’t like the idea of silence surrounding her at work as well), she said, “Why are you..so silent sometimes? Like you are..I don’t know, like you are tired of life?”
Soon as the words left her lips, she wondered if she has been too bold in saying that.
Though he has always been friendly with her, the closest to a personal time they had spent was when they had lunch together once, that too just because Shareef didn’t bring lunch that day- He usually brings the same lunch of bread and cheese and fish salami almost every day.
When Shareef looked at her, there was nothing in his face that showed he was offended by her question. Indeed, he was smiling, a smile that creased the skin around his eyes.
“I have always known that you were very perceptive..” he said, still smiling. “I guess I do feel tired sometimes. Tired of this running in circles which is what life in a capitalist culture is always like. You feed the system, the system feeds you…a seemingly endless cycle that actually ends with your death…”
“I can see that you have a grim outlook on life…” said Mohenka, trying to keep her voice as light as possible. She didn’t wish to upset him in any manner. “But why is it that many people consider capitalism to be such an evil thing, when it has brought so much to the people around the world? For the first time in history, we are very close to solving the problem of poverty. More number of people are living more prosperously than ever before. Look at me, for instance! The cloth that I am wearing, costs eight hundred Irvadan dollars. I come from the provinces where my father had to struggle in a metal factory to send me to school. There’s no way that someone from such a background could grow up to be able to afford something like this dress at the age of 26 without the machinery of capitalism in place. That, or I must be indulging in criminal activities. Which I am not. So, wouldn’t you say capitalism is a fair system- one that allows even the lowly to rise without turning rogue?”
Shareef nodded thoughtfully. “What you say is true,” he said, looking at his own twisted reflection on the patterned glass of the cubicle’s wall. “But, the way I see it, the system took away all the magic in the world, leaving us with our own empty shells- made of numbers and dry logic, . And we can’t of course, confront our own emptiness throughout… that would be miserable. Maybe I’m just being a fool,” he added in a tone so wistful that she began to regret again breaching the topic.
She breathed a silent sigh of relief when she saw him looking at her again and smiling. “I didn’t know that you were so impassioned a proponent of capitalism,” he said.
“I am,” she said softly, “I even used to be in the college debate group- and one of our favorite topics was the essence of capitalism against the demerits of the new world order. We frequently used to win, and take a wild guess as to who lead the debates!”
Shareef’s smile broadened, sensing the touch of pride in her words. “So, let’s get back to work, shall we?” he said, waving to the figures which hovered in the air between them.
Mohenka leaned back in the chair, let out a long audible sigh and got back to work. Capitalism may be wonderful in the long run. But on a day to day basis, it was just a grind.
When the security officer knocked on the door and poked his head in, they were both deeply focused on work, equal parts frustration (at the solution evading them) and determination(to find the solution) coursing through their minds.
They both looked up simultaneously at the security officer but seeing who it was, Mohenka went right back to work.
“I just popped in to say that I am leaving now. We have just over an hour before the building would start moving. Guess you guys would be done before that?” Though he was talking to Shareef, he kept eyeing Mohenka, especially towards the parts of her body beneath the neck.
“We would probably be done before that,” said Shareef.
“Even if you aren’t, please do leave. Both of you,” said the security officer. “It’s the company policy that the building be free during the movement.”
“Yes, yes, we know, we did get the memo!,” Shareef said, a touch of impatience creeping into his voice- the security man was beginning to talk to him like he owned him or something.
The officer, sensing the slight animosity building in the man- no doubt, partly because of the way he looked at the woman, nodded politely. “If you may, please ping me as you leave. The CCTV cameras are all on, and the doors will be unlocked once you ping me. Except for the door to the lobby and one of the elevators, everything else is already locked. I would have the main entrance to the lobby also manually locked, but will remotely open it, once you ping me!”
Shareef waved him a salute- a half-mocking gesture, as though telling him that “You are the boss!”
“That man creeps me out. I feel actually glad that he is leaving the building,” Mohenka said once the security officer left the cubicle and the echoes of his footsteps faded away.
(Edited transcript of conversation between the operatives, Hydra and Scourge)
Scourge: Hydra, What’s the update on the second grid? Is it possible to take it over yet?
Hydra: Nope. At least, for now, we have to keep working towards that end. After the Shivakilta attack, they have upped the security. It’s not easy to breach and disperse Trojans….I mean, it never was easy. But now, it’s doubly hard.
Scourge: But not impossible?
Hydra: No. Nothing is impossible, with Allah’s grace! But we do need time for that. It would have been great if we had more operatives…hackers, I mean.
Scourge: With Allah’s grace, we would succeed in attracting even more number of people to the cause, Hydra! Meanwhile, you work towards taking down the second grid- that would put a lot of electricity dependent buildings out of commission- considerably weakening their security, giving us a window in which to launch strikes at multiple places. As I said before, we really need to take the fight to the next level! The last huge hit was months ago. We cannot let the bloody capitalists become too complacent!….For the time being though, let’s focus on bringing down some of those buildings! How many of them have we successfully planted our Trojans in?…Why, why do you laugh, Hydra?
Hydra: I’m sorry, Scourge, I didn’t mean to offend you, but the way you said it..planting the Trojans…you almost made it sound like we are farming…Scourge, you there?
Scourge “:Yes, yes, I am here, Hydra. I was just reflecting on what you said. It made me think- we are, after all, farmers, in a sense, aren’t we? We sow the seeds in the name of God, and we harvest the results- bring Him the offerings…Praise be to Allah!
Hydra: Praise be to Allah!
The idea of the walking buildings was literally laughed out of the first boardroom where it was presented. In fact, it was laughed out of the second, third and fourth boardrooms where it was aired. But that didn’t stop the idea’s creator- the Dutch scientist, Lars Von Ulrich from creating a prototype, with the aid of the money that he raised from the community of Ill-Nerders: an internet group that supports weird and offbeat inventions.
But that’s not to say that Ulrich’s was the only weird idea that has been proposed to counter the effects of the “impossible”(as the media often called it) effects of pollution in Chagvamsh. For instance, there was the “Sucker Plant” that was proposed by a group of Israeli scientists. The idea involved the bio-engineering of a special type of plant that would breathe in the highly toxic atmosphere and breathe out oxygen, purifying the atmosphere.
Then, there was the proposal made by a Chinese environmental conservation group for painting all buildings using a specialized coating that would absorb all the deadly particulates from the air. Yet another invention made by an Australian school student was a palm-sized torpedo like gadget which when released into the air would create a small whirlpool that would whisk the worst of the smog away to the higher tiers of the atmosphere.
These were only a very few among the overwhelming number of proposals that the Chagvamsh Pollution Control Board received after a public appeal for viable solutions went from the government.
But even the most viable of solutions has to be rejected for reasons ranging from being too expensive(like the “Sucker plant” concept- creating a single plant would cost more than what it took for maintaining the life of 3 Changvamshian citizens for an year) to the aesthetic(using the conservation group’s paint would end up making the house look like it’s pasted with soot- and there was no assurance that it would attract particulates sufficiently enough to have a meaningful impact).
Even so, no one cared about Lars Von Ulrich’s idea of walking buildings- not even after he went back to the boardrooms from which he was thrown out(almost literally), this time with a miniature prototype.
But when a business magnate who owns half of the world’s media properties, who was also known to be a backer of flamboyant ideas, gave Ulrich the go ahead to implement his idea in one of his company buildings- in the 12 storied building out of which functioned a recording company, the world took notice. In fact, it became one of the most widely carried stories of the twenty first century.
Ulrich was confident enough that he exhorted the businessman to let the employees in the building remain in during the walk. The elderly businessman, who rose from his poor immigrant childhood in Chagvomsh to become one of its most successful businessman, knew well enough what bad publicity could do, and didn’t want to risk it. However, the title of “the first man ever to be in the belly of a walking building” was too much for the flamboyant 70 year to resist. So, even though he wouldn’t allow any of his employees- or anyone else, for that matter- to be in the walking building, he himself was there, waving out of a window as the building moved from one point to another like a giant in slow motion.
Ulrich’s idea of having an exoskeleton that was padded with the most sophisticated shock absorbers suddenly became more than just a joke.
At an age when children were dying from breathing-related problems left and right, and doctors were busy naming the new types of diseases which cropped up with an alarming rapidity, Ulrich’s idea became a lifeline. Sure, it didn’t do anything to solve the root problem of pollution. Indeed, it was running away from the trouble in the most literal sense. But data existed which showed how a difference of just a few miles- sometimes as low as 10, could bring a huge difference to the quality of the air that you breathed. None of the air filtering systems used inside buildings- both commercial and residential- were successful to really cleaning up the air.
Running away, or to be more precise, letting the building walk to another location, seemed like a good idea in that context. The fact that you could find free spaces only in the outskirts of the city meant the walk would be of more than 10 miles though.
Special freeways for the buildings to walk were constructed in a private-public partnership which saw the projects being finished in record time. Ulrich’s idea was expensive to implement- prohibitively so for many companies.
But the ones that could afford it, did so- like RaveRiders.
Finally, they have found the problem and now they could fix it!
Mohenka felt a weight lift off her shoulders. They had to raise the invoice today itself since the client wouldn’t accept any afterwards given the financial year was coming to an end. That’s why they came to the office on an off-day, so that they could access the sensitive client data which could only be accessed from the office system. So they could fix the problem and send the invoice(after getting the go through from the computer system, of course).
Now that the problem has been identified, they could proceed to fix it.
The anomaly was in one of the data pieces submitted by a fleet commandant- a fancy term given to one of the drivers who was put in charge of a particular number of cars. The commandant, mistakenly marked a fleet-run as red(indicating a cancelled run) instead of green. This meant that the amount for that run-which was for an entire month- got debited instead of being factored into the invoice. Hence, when the final tally came, it was lesser than the figure for the last quarter.
“I think we should get some more coffee,” said Shareef. “We have a pathetic count of cups so far,” he added jokingly. The desk was practically filled with cups that have been emptied in the past few hours.
“I will get the coffee,” saying so, Mohenka was about to get up from her chair when Shareef gestured her to sit down. Standing up, he said, “I need to go to the loo. I will get the coffee on my way back.”
When he got back with the coffee, she said, “Do you think we would be done making the corrections before the movement?” She indicated the clock on the wall.
“I wasn’t even aware that so much time has passed!” Shareef exclaimed. Looking at his colleague, he added, “We probably won’t finish in time. Even if we do, we will still need to verify with the computer for which we would need access permission from the tech team.”
They both knew from previous experiences that contacting the tech team-who sit out of an office in Singapore- and getting anything done by them would take some time. Not that they were inefficient, just that they were busy with a multitude of similar requests from around the world at all times- for the tech team wasn’t in-house and served many clients simultaneously. In fact, Shareef himself had filed a complaint with the higher authorities regarding the situation. Nothing has come of it so far.
“I think I better call the boss and tell him that we would need some more time,” said Shareef. “I’m pretty sure he could get the client to give us one more day.”
He was lifting up the phone from the cradle- the old fashioned design was on devices that came with a higher price tag, when Mohenka said, “Or we can just finish the job and send the invoices today itself.”
He looked at her.
“We have spent this much time on this already. Might as well see it through. I don’t want to come back to the office tomorrow and do this the first. I think half a day’s worth of boredom is all that this chore demands!” she added.
“But by then, the building would begin to move..” said Shareef, still holding the phone in hand.
“Well, so what..?” said Mohenka.
There has never been a known case of someone within a building being in peril while a building was in motion.
In fact, the only time someone was injured due to a walking building was when a man got in the way of one- and that time, the man in question turned out to be drunk. He, in fact, was challenging the building for a fight, mistaking the latter for a giant that has been sent by his ex-wife who still held a grudge at him.
Seeing the still-apprehensive look on Shareef’s face, Mohenka added, “I have been in one of these things before, you know. I my previous office, they moved the building once. And they didn’t bother giving the employees an off day or anything..In fact, what they say is true, you hardly feel any difference. They would dim the windows and you won’t be able to see the shifting sceneries outside- apparently, looking out at a shifting landscape while are stationary makes you nauseous. I guess we can ask the security to dim the windows on this floor..”
After thinking for a few seconds, Shareef said, “The security may not be authorized to do that. Let me call the boss and maybe he could interfere. If he couldn’t, I would request for one more day and we would get out.”
Mohenka sat back and sipped coffee while he talked with his boss on the phone. The idea of the two of them being the only ones in this building while it moved struck her fancy. It would be like the two of them going on an adventure, she thought.
And adventure was what she came in search of in the city from the village.
She smiled as Shareef told her that the boss would call the security and ask the windows to be dimmed. “They know it’s a hundred percent safe for people to be in a walking building,” Shareef said. “They just took the precaution because it’s the first time they are doing this.”
The way he said it, it sounded to Mohenka like he was trying to assure himself. Realizing that he was somewhat nervous about what’s to happen, she patted him on the back of his hand and said, “You chill out. It’s going to be alright.”
Shareef nodded, but looked at her and said, “He said we would get a document that we need to sign and send it back.” Answering her look of enquiry, he added, “It would be us saying that we are staying back at our own volition, even though the company has asked us not to.”
His tone implied that he didn’t like the idea. “We should have asked them to ask for one more day,” he added softly.
“Hey,it’s gonna be alright…” she said.
But he looked like he didn’t hear. Instead, he said, “This is what happens in a capitalist system. Even if you are doing the company a service, they just treat you like-“
Before he could finish, the documents arrived through the doc-portal: a machine the size of a textbook that was more powerful than most of the machines in existence half a century ago.
After signing the documents, they sent them back. Some five minutes later, they got conformation call from the boss, giving them the go ahead and saying that the security would dim the windows soon enough.
After the call, Shareef went down to the parking lot in front of the building and moved his car to one of the parking utilities in the basement, which would strap in the car in the event of the building walking.
Mohenka noted how he looked tense even after he returned.
“It’s hard to imagine that you could be so angry at the system,” she said, half-smiling. When he looked up, she added, “After all, the system is somewhat abstract- and it’s hard to stay angry at something with that level of abstraction.”
Her phrasings were manipulative. She eyed him for a response. She hoped that he would open up about the real reason why he retreated into a shell at times, why he became angry when you least expected it. Though she has never told him about the special feeling she had for him, it was there all the same- at the centre of her heart. She didn’t know if it was love or not, for she has never fallen in love before.
But she certainly knew, from previous experience, that whatever it was, it was more than mere infatuation.
Shareef looked at her, smiled. A smile which nonetheless conveyed very little emotion. ‘The kind of smile only Shareef could pull off,’ thought Mohenka.
When he spoke again, it was in a much lower tone. “As I said before, you are very perceptive. And yes, it’s hard to stay mad at something abstract for long. Especially true when there are very little emotions involved.” He halted to take a sip of coffee before continuing, “I am sure that you must have heard about how I used to be married once…Some eight years back, but in hindsight it seems like so much longer than that. I was just 21, fresh out of college. We met at a beach where we were holidaying with our friends. We knew each other for just three days before we had sex for the first time. Three days later, we were married, completely sure that we were madly in love and were meant to be with each other forever.
“She was a painter. Her career was only beginning, but one of her paintings-which was in fact, a view out of the window of the bedroom in our rented apartment, became widely appreciated. It took her places, literally- making her in the span of a few months a globally appreciated painter, a prodigy whom the world looked at eagerly. Our relationship lasted just over an year when she told me that she has fallen in love with someone- the curator of a show in Milan. She told me how we both made a mistake by getting married so soon, mistaking our simple mutual affection for love. Asked me if it wouldn’t be a good idea to divorce on mutual agreement, so that both of us could save money and time that would otherwise be spent in the courts. She said all of that as though the absence of love was also mutual.
“It was all I could do to keep myself from killing her. The pain of both loving and hating someone equally—it’s terrible. And that pain was just about the only thing that I could perceive in the next couple of years. It took me more than two years to come out of it- a time largely spent drinking in a futile fight against the pain.
“By the time I was out of it- as much as one could come out of something like that, a large part of my mind was already numb. And I guess it remained numb ever since.”
He remained silent for almost a minute, staring into space, before bringing the cup of coffee up to his lips. He drained the rest of the espresso in a single gulp. He placed the empty cup on the table and looked at Mohenka. “Having said that, I must say that I really do dislike the capitalistic system- one that commodifies everything, reducing everything down to a number- including feelings.”
Mohenka remained silent. After a few seconds she found that she couldn’t meet his gaze anymore.
The change in the quality of light was subtle inside the cubicle since the cubicle was lit with its own artificial source of light. But both of them did feel the change, particularly the minor but perceptible way in which the shadows of all the cups on the desk dimmed.
“They are dimming the windows,” Mohenka said.
“The show hits the road!” Shareef said, forcing a smile onto his face.
(Edited transcript of conversation between operatives, Hydra and Scourge)
Hydra: Scourge, we have registered a building in movement.
Scourge: Are the Trojans active?
Hydra: Coming alive…
Scrouge: Which building is it?
Hydra: It’s the RaveRiders HQ…
Scourge:. You shut down all the doors. Let the Trojans take over, and then, hand me what’s left of the control.
Hydra: Okay, Scourge. Praise be to Allah!
Scourge: Praise be to Allah!
Once the building began walking, Shareef felt that what Mohenka had said- about you hardly feeling out of the ordinary was indeed true. They have been in motion for about fifteen minutes and except for the first few seconds when the building upped and moved for the first time in its century spanning existence, he experienced not even the slightest of disturbances.
“Amazing piece of engineering,” he muttered. “That Danish inventor- I can’t remember his name, but he was one incredible fellow for doing something like this. A visionary.”
Mohenka nodded. But she remained silent, looking at Shareef, who appeared to become childlike as he marveled at Lars Vann Ulricch’s incredible invention. A smile appeared on her own lips, seeing Shareef’s transformation from being a man bearing pains of the past to a child who could delight at things that many people would take for granted.
She has witnessed such malleability in him before- when his eyes would light up as he solved some particularly tough problem in an accounts sheet that one of his juniors or associates had brought up to him.
And that’s one aspect of him which made her feel at times that maybe, just maybe she was falling in love with this divorced man who was frequently given to lengthy sessions of silent self-reflection, disregarding the people around him.
“Maybe we should get back to work.”
Mohenka thought that the reason he said so was the way she has been looking at him. She blushed, lowering her eyes once again to the figures on the sheet.
But they were unable to focus on their work for too long. For some five minutes after they started working again, the building stalled. For a couple of seconds, Mohenka thought that they must have reached their destination.
But then, it began to move again. The way the maneuvering happened, they could tell that the building was making a major change in its direction- not because of any resultant vibrations- the shock absorbers on the exoskeleton worked too well for that. But the quality of the sound that was made as the clamps of the exoskeleton stepped ahead changed.
Whereas before, the sound was a dull thud- like someone beating on a pillow, now each step sounded more like a mountainous gong being beat, as though the structure now walked through roads on which buildings were not supposed to walk.
Mohenka and Shareef looked up from their calculations at the same moment. Their eyes locked, they could read the same question in each other’s eyes: “What the hell is going on?”
In another few seconds, the building began to stir, more a vibration like mobile phones used to do in an olden time, than any dramatic stirring. But it was enough to send shivers up both their spines.
(Edited transcript of conversation between operatives, Hydra and Scourge)
Hydra: Scourge, are you watching the video feeds from the building?
Scourge: No, why, should I? Wait- don’t answer that. Let me pull up the feed….Yes, so, what am I looking at here..There seems to be no one in the lobby..?
Hydra: It’s the same everywhere, from top to bottom. I think they evacuated all the people before the movement. Shit! Why don’t our intel give us such inputs?!
Scourge: Don’t swear, Hydra! You know as a warrior of the Holy Messengers you are not allowed to swear.
Hydra: I am sorry, Scourge, but how can you be so…collected at a time like this?
Scourge: The casualties maybe zero this time, but we are still bringing the building to the Graveyard…and that surely will send a strong message.
Hydra: The casualties won’t be zero. There are two people in the building, as far as I could make out.
Scourge: Wait, are those the ones on floor…let me see…fourteen? The ones who are running out of a cubicle- a man and a woman?
The image that the CCTV camera fed to Scourge’s console was clear enough- the televisual technologies having come ahead quite a lot in the past few decades. But the camera was placed far on a wall rendering it impossible to make out the facial features of the man or the woman.
Nonetheless, the man’s body language was enough to make her take a closer look. And when the two on the screen ran out of the floor and entered the corridor outside, she switched to the feed from the corridor.
The building shook now, which kept jarring the feed that she watched. But now, thanks to the closer vantage point the camera in the corridor afforded, she watched the panic stricken face of her ex-husband as clearly as she did the fingers of her hand hovering just above the controls.
Even as she watched them trying to ring up the escalator, she knew that it wouldn’t yield result- for hasn’t she disabled the systems herself? All the doors in the building were locked. Thanks to restructuring after takeover by RaveRiders, there existed no more stairs in the building.
The two were essentially trapped.
Scrouge watched as Shareef led the woman by the hand towards the small bridge that connected the building’s east and west wings. They soon found out that the situation was much the same in the other wing as well- Scourge saw them coming right back. She watched with a clinical dispassion as the two figures, in their desperation, tried ringing up the escalators again.
And when the effects didn’t change from the previous time, Shareef ran back into the floor where they were working, even as the building-now walking at a pace it was not meant to be walking, on terrain which it was not supposed to be treading, moved closer to its new destination- the place they called the Graveyard, far beyond the city’s perimeters, where the tons of waste- both industrial and domestic- that were dumped there made the streams, the soil and the air poisonous and which drove the few poor folks who used to live there for decades into the city, where they became part of a large number of the homeless.
Using a high backed chair and significant muscle strength built in the hours spent in the gym drenched in sweat, Shareef managed to break one of the windows. But the view outside was not just nausea-inducing, it also induced fear- a greater fear than he has ever known. For looking down at the ground from this height felt like looking at the face of death. He looked at the various structural pieces that made up the building’s exoskeleton, hoping that there might be a way for him and Mohenka to climb down.
But to his dismay, he found that the Dutch scientists’ design didn’t afford any such luxury.
Scourge saw Shareef lean forward, planting a foot on the broken glass of the window, holding on to the side of the window where the jagged edge of the broken glass bit into his flesh, he looked out, leaning as much out as he dared.
For a second, she felt convinced that he was going to fall into his death. She wondered which would be a better death from him- jumping out of the window now, or going down with the entire building as it toppled into the large swatch of wasteland that was the Graveyard?
There were rumours that even the gentle birds like the sparrows that lived in the Graveyard had long since mutated into furious flesh eaters. Would Shareef’s carcass be shared by flocks of such sparrows?, she wondered.
Her earpiece crackled to life. “Scourge, did you just swear?” She heard Hydra’s voice as though it was coming from the end of a long tunnel.
“No,” she said simply. The next few moments, she let her body, more particularly the hands on the controls go through the necessary motions as her mind wandered into her past.
As the building came to a stop, Shareef and Mohenka looked at each other, somewhat baffled, not knowing quite what to expect next. Is it going to topple now?. It was evident that the building was now in the control of some rogue element- probably a terrorist outfit. And he had seen out of the broken window the Graveyard getting closer and closer.
That was where they were talking the building, he thought.
But then, why did it stop now?
Even as he thought so, he heard the sound of the escalator door opening out in the corridor. Mohenka too heard the sound at the same moment as she turned around and taking hold of Shareef’s hand, they both ran out.
Scourge felt the tear drops like soft burns on the back of her hand where they fell.
“Scourge, what the hell happened?” her compatriot asked.
“Nothing, Hydra,” she said, wiping the teardrops even as they kept coming profusely. “I guess some bugs,” she added.
The senior members of the Islamic Messengers for a New World would review this session, going through the transcripts over and over again, this she knew. They would also find that it was no bug which brought the building to a halt, it was her direct intervention which overrode the Trojans- at least for a little while, long enough for the two people in the building to get out.
The Trojans were planted in the building’s core movement software. They were coded in such a way that once the movement sequence was initiated, they would gain the control of the walk and guide the building to a predetermined destination. There was no confusion among the higher-ups of the ISMNW regarding the destination. RaveRiders was one of the few home-grown companies that had gone multi-national: a success story which the pro-capitalists of the country loved to repeat. By putting the building with the heap of waste, they would be spitting on the Capitalist’s face.
Still trying hard to suppress the tears which came in profusion, Scourge wondered what Aslam would say when he found out that she let two sacrifices escape.
Aslam was the one who brought her to the group. Once an art curator who channeled immense wealth from the art world to the underground for the ISMNW, he soon rose in the ranks, enough to become a full time activist within the underground, heading significant operations for the rogue group. She fell in love with him, and vice versa. He felt confident enough in her to tell her about who he really was, about his activities with the group “that would help establish the kingdom of heaven on earth again.”
Guided by him, she made the transition from being a secular artist who found many things wrong in the world to an activist with the ISNW, fighting to change the world order. The fact that she was proficient in coding- she used to incorporate her skills as a programmer sometimes in creating artworks, was made use of by the Messengers, making her one of the leaders in the group’s Virtual department.
Her breath, which had become shallow once the tears sprung, began to normalize again, even as she thought how the sight of Shareef brought the guilt back again, just like that. It made her wonder if the things that she has been telling herself since joining the Messengers- about the death of her old self, about the life of a terrorist being one without emotions…where they all just fantasies which she has been feeding herself?
She has had plenty of time to realise that what she did to Shareef all those years ago was wrong.
Once they got out of the building, the building began moving again. The movement, now that it was on rough terrain instead of artificial ground especially made for it, was far from smooth, making Shareef wonder for a second if the building was going to topple and bury them amidst a heap of debris, crushing their flesh and bones to a pulpy mass unrecognizable from the reddish brown mud one found in the areas near the graveyard.
But the building continued walking towards the graveyard, on shaky legs like a drunk giant.
“What the hell was that?” Mohenka, whose voice still trembled with fear, said. “It’s like they stopped the building just so that we could get out!”
“Maybe, killing anyone wasn’t in their agenda.” Even as he said it, Shareef felt hollow it rang. Terrorist actions were rarely meant to spare human lives. “But maybe we should ponder that mystery later. Right now, we should focus on putting as much distance as possible between us and that building. What do you say?”
“I couldn’t agree more,” said Mohenka.
He took her hand. They turned around and began walking towards the city. They could hear the sound of drones flying towards them. Hopefully, at least one of them would have space for them both, sparing them the walk all the way to the city some ten to twelve miles away.
Even as they walked, Shareef could feel the tremor from Mohenka’s unstill body course through his bones, like a slight tingle of electricity.
Looking at her, he spoke in the gentlest of tones, “Can I give you a piece of advice?”
“From now on,” he said, “You should try to follow your mother’s advice like a religious dictum.” Seeing the look on her face, he added, “The one about never overworking, about never going to work on an off-day.”
Seeing a beautiful smile blossoming on her face, Shareef gripped her hand somewhat harder. As they walked on to the accompaniment of the thud! sounds that the walking building made behind them and the bee-like buzz made by the incoming drones, Shareef had a sudden vision of him and her in a province somewhere far from the city, a place under-developed but still untainted by the fury of capitalism. In his vision, they stood in front of a small house-their house-holding hands, chatting about something, maybe about the wonderful manner in which the birds made nests in the trees in the yard, or maybe about the future of their kids, about having to send them to the city when the time comes..
Shareef smiled, thinking how Mohenka- someone who took to the hustle and bustle of the city like a dog to a bone – wouldn’t probably like the idea of a life in the provinces.
But he felt her complementing his grip by applying a slight pressure on his palm. Wondering if she could read his mind, he took it as a sign of a brave new future- a personal future for the two of them.
Waiting for the inquisitor to arrive, who would interrogate her on the day’s events, Scourge’s mind kept going back to the events of the day- particularly the one involving her aiding the escape of the two people.
Though they haven’t said who the inquisitor was going to be, Scourge was pretty sure that it would be Aslam- the one who loved her. In their terrain of operation filled always with blood and destruction, love rarely had a place but loved her he did, and vice versa. So, it has to be him who would come to ask her the question-why did she let the two go? Why spare their lives when it didn’t add any meaning to the cause.
“Meaning is what we should always seek.” She remembered him telling her once, in his deep and sonorous tone, in the early days of their relationship when she was still undecided about joining the Messengers.
“Meaning,” he had said, “is the first casualty of commodification. And doing anything with meaning- and remember, I use the word meaning and not value- is an act of rebellion!”
He was the one who gave her new name- Scourge. “For the devilish ones who ruin the world, you would be like a scourge!”, he had said. A name filled with meaning.
Sitting in the brick walled room with nothing but a small table with two chairs on either side, she could hear footsteps nearing the closed door. It should be the inquisitor, she thought.
As she took a deep breath, readying to face her questioner, her lover, she wondered something: If she were to tell him that what she did that day- letting those two get away with their lives from the doomed building was an act of meaning, would he understand her?
Or would that be too broad a definition of meaning, not in keeping with the Messenger’s vision of their own brave new future?
She sighed as the door opened. For some reason, there was no fear in her heart.