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Aman Mathur



Aman Mathur




10 mins 12.3K 10 mins 12.3K

Sankalp and Saiyam looked at the dull rhesus monkey. 

"He seems okay, right?" asked Saiyam.

"For now." Sankalp replied coldly.

Always the pessimistic, thought Saiyam. 

The two of them carefully fed the monkey a brown sludge from a shiny silver packet. After the monkey was done with his meal, Sankalp peeled a banana and handed it over through the bars.

They weren't supposed to peel the banana, the monkey could do it himself. Saiyam ignored the gesture. It wasn't the first time Sankalp ignored the rulebook. He probably thought it was a good luck charm or a just common decency given what the monkey was going to go through. 

Once the banana was finished, Saiyam took a syringe and extracted a vial of blood from the primate, noted the time and headed back to the lab through multiple screening doors.

The decontamination process took them 25 minutes, most of which were spent in removing multiple layers of protective gear and taking a bath. The two of them completed the boring process quietly, just as they had done twice everyday for the past few months. It wasn't until both of them were seated in the laboratory that Sankalp broke the silence.

"What do we do once we have the results?"

Saiyam was amused, it was kind of a rhetorical question. Sankalp knew the answer, they were just supposed to verify everything and share the data for the theoretical scientists. Those folks who knew exactly what was in that silver packet that they had fed the monkey, but had no idea what it smelled or tasted like.

"What do you mean?" Countered Saiyam.

"What do we do if Makardhwaja makes it?" Sankalp pointed to the CCTV feed of the monkey lying bored in his cage.

It took Saiyam a while to understand the question. They weren't supposed to name the test subjects, there was a whole paragraph about the negative aspects of being emotionally attached with them in the guidelines booklet. 

"Makardhwaja? Doesn't that mean a crocodile? Why would you name a monkey after a crocodile?"

"Makardhwaja was Hanuman's son. Born when a drop of his perspiration accidentally fell into the mouth of a crocodile."

Saiyam smiled. It felt weird hearing such words from a scientist's mouth.

"Never heard of him. Why would you name the monkey that?"

"Makardhwaja grew up without parents and was rescued by Ravan's brother and grew up to hero-worship him, not knowing that there was anything better out there in the world."

Saiyam listened in silence. Sankalp had obviously given this a lot of thought.

"That was until the day Hanuman fought him while rescuing Ram-Laxman from the clutches of Ahiravan. After Ram heard the story of Makardhwaja, he was crowned the king of hell since they had killed the previous ruler, Ahiravan."

Sankalp registered the story in silence.

"We aren't supposed to name the subjects."

"I had named him the day he was born. He wasn't a test subject then. We've used his blood in a ton of experiments."

"Really? I thought subjects are assigned randomly."

"Not if you know the guys in Caretaking department. I had explicitly requested for Makardhwaja for this experiment."

Saiyam checked the monkey's real-time vitals on the display before asking, "Why?"

"He's lucky and it's a fairly important experiment, don't you think?"

"Yes, but we might be in the placebo group."

"Yeah, right." Sankalp scoffed. "They'll place their two best guys in the placebo group when testing the vaccine for a virus responsible for a global pandemic."

Always the arrogant.

But there was some truth in there too. They had been doing this for much longer than everybody else and were definitely the most experienced. They could pick up clues from slight variation in over a list of a thousand different factors to detect if something was going to go wrong. Nobody else was at their level in terms of knowledge and focus and not could anybody ever match Sankalp's intuition. 

"I still don't get the question. What do you mean by what we'll do? We'll just send the report once it's ready. It's a 5 day intensive study and then a 3-week overview of the subjects."

"If this works, and it might, judging from the buzz in the R&D department, is sailing smoothly ahead really in the best interest of everybody?"

Saiyam became a little concerned with this line of discussion. It wasn't their call to make, but it would definitely be impacted by what they do.

"You want to falsify reports and tell them that this doesn't work? Wouldn't that imply harming the monkey?"

"Makardhwaja is nothing in the grand scheme of things."

"But why wouldn't you want the cure to be discovered?" Asked Saiyam.

"I'm not saying we don't need it, but a delay would definitely help, right?"

All workers in the facility regularly took a psych-eval test to continue working here. It was mandatory, given the nature of the work they do. It helped the managers identify stressed employees and any other red flags. Saiyam was having a hard time believing Sankalp passed that exam a few days ago and was still able to casually bring up such a topic.

"Everyday we delay, millions suffer." Saiyam replied. "This is why the study is reduced to the 5 days plus 3 weeks. Even cosmetics get more time than that."

"But in the long term, won't this temporary inconvenience be beneficial?"

"You wouldn't be talking like this if somebody close to you was a victim."

"I wouldn't be here if I had somebody close to me in the first place." Sankalp noted. There was no sorrow in his tone, it was just stated matter-of-factly.

None of the workers here had people close to them, given the nature of their work. Absolute secrecy was a must because the society would collapse if they knew these things, and how the chemicals stored hardly 500 meters away from them were capable of altering humankind, way more radically than this virus.

Saiyam looked at the monkey who was taking a massive yawn now as was expected after such a meal. Saiyam noted down the time.

"Still, it's not our call, we are here to do our job. We don't know what the production and distribution plan looks like, it would still take a long time before these things are available for everyone."

"Won't be a bad idea to mix in a few drops of Inferno-beta with it, before making the formula public."

Inferno-beta, named after a fictional novel by Dan Brown, was a controversial project that some team there was working on. It used to pass on infertility in a stochastic manner to progenies depending on their cardinality. In layman's terms, the more kids you had, the higher the chances of them being born infertile. For instance, if the first child had the probability x of being infertile, the next one would have it more than x, and after around 3, the chances were close to 100%. Needless to say, the project was officially "shelved" after it began showing some success in rats.

Even mentioning the project made Saiyam feel uncomfortable.

"Project Inferno-beta is quite unnatural."

"And the Industrial Revolution wasn't?" Sankalp countered. "Don't play the 'against natural order of things' card on your convenience. Humans have always toyed with nature."

Saiyam could feel a rant brewing in his colleague. All he could do was to just prepare himself to hear it out and not escalate it. That's what the guidelines booklet said.

"For probably the first time ever, human impact on environment is not growing exponentially. You've seen the reports too. There are bigger threats than this virus in the not so distant future, and this 'break' would help us prepare for them better. It's utter madness out there. Industries, fake godmen, corrupt governments waiting for us to deliver a cure so they can capitalize on that for their greed and profit from human suffering. I'm not saying we deserve credit, but at least don't protest against us and dismiss the work done by medical community and philanthropists as some insane controversy. Is this really the society we are so eager to save? Won't letting them suffer for a while longer teach them a valuable lesson? A lesson like maybe showing some more respect towards basic science? Don't look at me like I have no feelings for the victims, because frankly, nobody does. It's always been the survival of the fittest. Even right now in our country, YouTube vs TikTok was the top trending topic for the day. This pandemic is either an opportunity or a distraction for people."

Saiyam couldn't hold his silence, even though he was supposed to.

"Don't let the actions of a few speak for the entire world."

"It's not a few." Sankalp spat. "It's the majority, which is precisely the basis of how your new world chooses their government. Don't even get me started on democracy. If it's such an ideal form of governance, why doesn't our research facility follow it? Deployment of Inferno-beta would have won by a landslide if we were in a democracy. I just hate the idea that democracy considers me equal to a common criminal. Votes should get weighted by the stake you have in the government, like the income tax you pay or something."

"Woah, calm down." Saiyam pleaded. He was sure Sankalp had never even voted, just like everybody else here who weren't officially a part of any country.

"Just let me answer you scientifically," Saiyam said. "I know you would instantly dismiss the idea of positivity, optimism, hope as being too philosophical, so I'll break it down for you scientifically."

Sankalp gave him a long look, and went back to analyzing the blood oxygen level of Makardhwaj on his computer screen. 

Saiyam thought for a while and spent some time structuring his argument as he glanced at the sleepy monkey.

"Why do you think humans are at the top of the food chain?" Saiyam started.

"Because we are smart."

"Nope, we weren't always this smart. Maybe we were smarter than other species around us, but that's hardly an advantage in a confrontation or when dealing with animals in a different size, strength and speed bucket."

Sankalp was quiet for a while thinking it through before responding.

"You'll find a counter to everything I say, until you hear what you want." Sankalp noted. "So fine, what is the answer?"

"It's because we persevere. We have incredible stamina compared to others. A cheetah can definitely outrun us, but it stands no chance against us in a marathon."

Sankalp knew all that. Being bipedal, having less body hair, efficient circulation and sweat glands to regulate temperature gave humans an incredible stamina. 

"Humans could chase mammoths and bring them down when the massive creatures became too tired to do anything. Of course, teamwork, communication and all helped, but what was most important was our perseverance. Any other animal would have given up when they encountered a massive beast like a mammoth, but not us, and despite many failures and definitely some sacrifices, we succeeded in bringing it down.

Sankalp gave a blank unimpressed look to Saiyam before burying his head back in the computer. It wasn't much, but he didn't say anything, which definitely meant progress to Saiyam.

"Cool, so perseverance is one cornerstone of humanity. What's the other one?" Asked Saiyam dramatically. "It's compassion, and before you roll your eyes, let me tell you why."

"Anthropologist Margaret Mead said that the earliest sign of civilization was a femur bone which had healed after being broken. This couldn't have happened in any other animal, because a broken bone meant the animal not being able to run from predators or hunt for food. This healed bone signified that throughout the duration of the recovery, somebody else stepped up and helped the victim, got food for them, helped them run away from danger, stayed with them, with possibly no initiative because commerce had not been invented yet. Just this simple sign of goodwill and compassion became the first symbol of civilization."

Saiyam would have missed Sankalp's crooked smile if hadn't been expecting it. Anthropology was one of his favourite subjects, so there was no way that the story didn't connect with him. Besides, he could just mention the peeled banana if Sankalp was still unconvinced.

"So, in conclusion, perseverance and compassion are the cornerstones of humanity, so don't expect to save humanity by forgoing both of them. Have compassion for those who are suffering right now, and have faith in all of us that we'll persevere through this hardship. Learning lessons, dealing with bigger challenges comes later, what's important is we keep going so we can bring the mammoth down."

Both of them were quiet for a while, soaking everything up. Makardhwaj had peacefully fallen asleep, and his breathing cycle looked promising.

"Let's get to work. The world isn't gonna save itself." Sankalp declared after staring at the little monkey for a little longer than was required. "I'm so going to report depression as a side-effect of those new pills I've been beta testing for the guys on the 6th floor."

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