The Dreamer And The Wastrel
The Dreamer And The Wastrel
Gaurav was jostled awake. He opened his eyes in fright and saw a crippling blackness around him. The sensation terrified him even though it should have been entirely too familiar for him. He tried to get up but the darkness persisted around him. He could not see a thing. The terror rose up his belly and he began to scream, not in pain but in horror as the terrifying realization came knocking home. He was blind and would never be able to see anything again.
"Oh, stop it," someone in the room groaned. Gaurav instantly shut up. The memories hit him with a force that knocked out his wind. He did not become blind just now. Some two months ago, when he was working furiously on a report that his boss expected him to submit asap, the entire world had wobbled for him. He had reflected on that moment, again and again, the fateful moment that blinded all humanity in one go. He could never be truly certain of what hit him for he was too busy with his good-for-nothing report, a report that was never submitted. All he recalled was a wobble, as the floor under his feet had moved but it was not simply an earthquake. Even the air had turned frigid for a moment, the cold air making him close his eyes and kneel down. It was the exact moment when he lost his power of sight. He believed the faintness was due to the sugar level dropping in his blood and he gave it a moment to pass. Then he opened his eyes and saw the blackest of black color that he had ever seen. It was like someone threw down a huge curtain right in front of him, a curtain so black he could see nothing beyond it, a curtain so close that he could not even touch it. He had panicked and he got up suddenly from his seat and the chair rolled away from underneath him and that was the cue when everyone in the office had started to scream in unison. No one could explain it at all but all humans lost sight in one go, in one terrible moment.
Gaurav recalled how panic had made the people run and stumble towards the staircase and many of them had fallen and really hurt themselves. There were stampedes in all public places and many were trampled to death. Gaurav had stayed in his office cubicle, too afraid to move. After about two hours, the panicked voices of people died down in his office. He still stayed in his place for ten long hours. All those hours, he listened to the news on his phone. He was really thankful to Siri that day. All he had to do was speak or growl and Siri would make sense of it. All over the world, there was panic and the hospitals were flooded but the doctors had themselves gone blind so there was really no use in heading to a hospital or a nursing home. After ten long hours, he made his way out of the office, not without falling over the dead bodies of his comrades. His home was about 5 km away from the office and he walked and stumbled all the way to his apartment. The streets were full of newly blinded people but most of them had stopped screaming now albeit a scream kept ringing out now and then.
He reached his home, all bruised up but still in fighting shape. He then proceeded to lock himself in and stayed there for the next week. All through that week, he kept charging his phone and kept listening to news from all over the world. All forms of government had collapsed and chaos reigned all over the world. Many blind people committed suicide, many died in stupid mishaps and further many of them died due to no medical help. Almost one-fifth of the human population was wiped out in one week. Soon the enterprising people had begun to form self-help groups. Humanity could not be crushed by a single blow, no matter how cruel the blow was. People had begun to reach out and help each other. The blind people had suddenly become the leaders of this new movement. Humans were not going to give up so easily. Some of them had faced the crippling blackness all their lives. It was now time for all humans to learn the tricks the blind people had mastered in their lives. After one week, Gaurav moved to the newly made shelter and was allotted a bed in the dormitory over there.
Now he shook off the terror and quietened his mind by following the breathing technique taught to them. He made his way to the bathroom without running into any obstacle and got himself ready, for today was the day when it was his duty to head to the nearby shop to get milk. For some reason, the quality of the milk they were getting from the shop was exceptional. The milk was rich and creamy and it tasted sweet but the sweetness never turned cloying. They could consume as much milk as they wanted to and it was the most loved item by all the people in his center.
He made his way to the foyer and rang his five bells in the order taught to him. Every person had been taught a unique order of ringing the bells. That was how they introduced themselves to the world. There was no need to shout his name out or to keep on screaming to make way for him. The gentle ringing of the bells would inform people around him that he had come.
"Oh, hey Gaurav," Kokila at the reception greeted him. "Top of the morning to you."
Gaurav grinned and replied back. "And the rest of the day to you!"
Kokila told him to walk to the street where his team awaited him. Gaurav grabbed a stick near the door. These were specially designed for them. The ends of these sticks were glued with an iron pellet. They were supposed to knock the ground ahead of them with the stick. There were three different sounds they could expect. A heavy thud would tell them that they were on a street or a road. A soft thud would tell them that they were nearing a door or a gate. A sharp ring would tell them that they were heading to the danger zone and they should turn around and seek the comforting sound of thuds.
There were three steps that took him down to the ground and then a paved way took him to the gate and then to the street. Gaurav had walked on these paths for weeks now and he made it to the waiting group without any problem. There were seven of them and their leader was an old man Monty who had been blind since birth. He led them confidently to the neighbourhood shop and they marched towards the different aisles.
Gaurav made his way to the aisle where the milk containers were stacked. He pulled two containers towards him. He was about to pick them up when he heard running steps behind him. He was surprised for no one was ever supposed to run. He straightened himself and listened carefully to the sound of the running feet. This person was running bare feet which were certainly unexpected and bizarre. Gaurav realized that the runner was approaching him. He cried out in alarm for the runner was soon upon him.
"You are one of us," The person whispered breathlessly. "You will soon be among the gifted ones. May you be blessed with the power of sight."
It was a young woman who had approached him and who was making remarks that made his skin tingle and his guts wrench. The woman then touched his forehead and snapped her fingers.
"Don't let them know that you can see!"
Having delivered that ominous warning, she sprinted away leaving a very flustered Gaurav in her wake.
The snapping of the fingers did not gift the power of sight to him. He smirked as he turned towards the two containers of milk. He chuckled to himself softly and grabbed the two containers. He then turned and took a step ahead and the world around him suddenly started to become brighter. It made him stumble a bit but he regained his composure and waited for the sensation to pass but the world kept getting brighter and brighter as if the curtain that had fallen in front of his eyes was being raised gradually.
He could see! It made his knees wobble. He placed the two containers with a thud on a nearby shelf and took a deep breath. He heard the sound of thuds approaching him from two directions. He could see! He wanted to scream it. He could see the dirty shelves and milk containers. Then his eyes fell on the graffiti on the walls and on the floor.
"Don't let them know that you can see!"
It was scrawled all around him. It was written horizontally, vertically, diagonally. It was there on the walls, on the floor, on the shelves, on the milk containers. The message was all around him. If he could see, he was not to let anyone know about it. He did not realize he was hyperventilating. When someone touched him, he gave a start and was about to look at the face of the person when he recalled the ominous warning of the girl who had touched him. He controlled himself and took a deep breath.
"Are you ok?"
It was Monty who had touched him. The other person had not spoken anything. Gaurav wondered if he was being watched closely by this other person. He wondered if this other person could see. He shook his head once to stop thinking.
"It was that person who was running," He whispered. Monty patted his hand gently.
"I suddenly remembered I could run too," Gaurav continued. "I was able to run. I was able to see."
Monty pressed Gaurav's hand gently.
"I understand," He whispered back. "We have no idea who that person was but she was pure evil. Imagine tormenting other people like this!"
Gaurav picked up his containers and his stick and closing his eyes he made himself walk the way he had recently learned to walk. It was a huge struggle for him to even make his way to the cash counter but he could not help himself by blinking now and then, just to reassure himself that he could really see. It was good that he did so for when he spotted the person at the cash counter from afar, he almost screamed. It was definitely not a blind person at the counter. It was an alien with a flattened, squashed green head with yellow eyes and tentacles coming out of his head. The alien was wearing two gloves that made his hand look like a human so that if someone touched its hand, they would think that it was just another human interacting with him. The graffiti was all around him, warning him of not letting them know that he could see. He wondered who was 'them' he was being warned about.
He took a deep breath and somehow made his way to the cash counter. The alien spoke to him cheerfully about the weather and he was able to respond without a tremor in his voice. He placed the milk containers on the counter and was shocked to see that the milk was actually black and syrupy. It was not milk they were guzzling. It was some vile liquid that tasted like milk but was nothing like the life sustainer. Gaurav felt his mouth dry at the sight of the black liquid.
"Enjoy your milk!" The alien returned the change and the receipt to him. He could only nod before grabbing the containers and heading out.
He walked out of the shop that had not been cleaned for months. The day was bright and the sky was blue. The streets were full of dry leaves and of rotting cars but there was no dead body. Someone had removed the dead bodies. Someone or some organization was concerned with human bodies but not with cars or leaves or shopping carts. He waited for Monty and others to join him and all the time he waited, he looked carefully around just as he used to do long time back when he could see. He took everything slowly and was a cautious man in general. Sometimes people called him out to be a coward but he had brought himself to accept his nature. His caution was now extreme as he looked around slowly and gently. Then his eyes fell on a group of people some distance away. The commotion was just outside another shop in the district.
A young man danced and screamed. He repeatedly screamed: "I can see again! Oh praise be! Thank God! It is a miracle!"
There were other people around him and all of them talked together and it became a babble of voices for all of them were stunned at the sudden development but the young man whose sight was recovered now could not contain his joy. He screamed and yelled and danced and then suddenly a drone appeared above the crowd. Gaurav blinked for he had never seen it approach. It simply appeared on that spot instantly, as if it had teleported. Then, in front of Gaurav's unbelieving eyes, the young man was zapped and killed. One moment he was an exuberant young man, full of vitality and the next moment found him lying on the ground, dead, bereft of all life force. The crowd of people did not even realize that the young man was killed. They kept babbling around the dead body, oblivious of the death of the young man who had just witnessed a miracle in action.
When Gaurav heard the thuds of his team members approaching him, he tore his eyes off the dead man and turned to face his team. Soon they were on their way to the shelter. Gaurav felt the air on his face and kept stealing glances of the world around him, a word simultaneously beautiful and eerie, calm and threatening, serene and sinister.
He would have been lost in his thoughts all the way home but his thoughts were interrupted when a pebble hit him on his leg. Then another pebble hit him on his back. Another hit him on his left arm. He glanced in the direction from where the pebbles had been tossed at him and noticed the young woman standing next to a lamppost, the same person who had approached him in the shop. She was smiling impishly and had some more pebbles in her palm. She gestured towards a jeep that stood idling in the intersection ahead of him. She dropped the pebbles on the ground and put her fingers to her lips to warn him of not to alarm his teammates.
She dashed ahead to get in the driving seat and Gaurav took his chance soon. The milk containers he let go clattered to the ground and spilled its black liquid around the shoes and the sticks of his team. Monty was the first one to stop for the thud that he was accustomed to hear was replaced with a squelch. He listened to the sound of running boots and immediately took out a button and pressed it.
Gaurav managed to reach the jeep within thirty seconds. He climbed aboard and before he could even settle on his seat the jeep roared ahead.
"It takes them around 120 seconds before they can send a drone to your location. There is a chip that they must have put inside you. We will destroy it once we reach the hideout but for now, to hide yourself, use this jacket. The metal buttons of this jacket obstruct the signal that they use to track you so we should be safe."
Gaurav followed her advice and put on the heavy jacket. In the rearview mirror, he saw a drone appear on top of the confused group that he had left behind but they soon turned a corner and lost it behind them.
"So any questions?" The young woman smiled warmly at Gaurav who was now wide-eyed.
"Many," Gaurav replied in a muted voice. "But you are driving and so I decided to wait."
The young woman's smile grew deeper.
"Not even curious about the alien back there in the shop?"
"When did they come? Did they blind us all?"
"If they did so, why would they work at cash counters of shops?"
Gaurav's brows furrowed and he looked askance at her. It was enough to make her guffaw.
"There are no aliens. There never were any aliens among us. What you saw is an elaborate ruse to make the people gasp in horror at the sight of that ungainly beast. Not many people can control their disgust at the sight of an alien working at a cash counter. The slightest bit of sign on your behalf that you can see him is more than enough for them to send a signal to the command center. And then the drone is sent to kill you. That's why we put so many graffitis all over the walls and on the floor to warn people to not let them know of your sight. Still, we lose many people who simply can't control themselves."
Gaurav thought about the young man who was killed by the drone.
"So, uh, who is there in the command center?"
The young woman turned right and then glanced at him with an impish smile.
"What do you think? Who could be there?"
Gaurav was taken aback and was still recollecting his thoughts when the young woman began to speak.
"Let us first introduce ourselves, don't you think?" She did not apply brakes when she spotted a speed breaker ahead and the jeep took off for a bit and then crashed with a loud bang.
"I am Jia."
Gaurav completed the formalities.
"Listen, Gaurav, not all people lost their sights on March 22. Some of them were spared the malediction that befell humanity. These people did not think of their unfortunate brethren. No siree! All they thought of was to race among themselves to steal the treasures. Some of them went after the gold vaults and some of them went for the banks' assets. And then they started to fight among them for total dominance. They could have shared the riches but no, they had to have it all for themselves. So they fought and killed each other but then sanity prevailed. So they made a pact and divided the world among themselves. Thus was born the Confederate. However, all was not lost for people like us. There were some who were rooting for us, fighting for us. And they are not alone. More and more people are gaining their sights back and our ranks are swelling."
She then parked her jeep next to a lamp post.
"From here we walk."
She carefully examined the sky above them for any sign of any drone and then alighted quickly. Gaurav followed her in her wake. They were soon lost in the labyrinth of the streets.
"Ever come here before?" Jia asked as she avoided a pothole.
"Used to be a bustling market place before the blight hit us. Now it is only us who hide amidst the shadows and await our chance to hit back at the empire."
The use of word 'empire' made Gaurav first aware of the incongruity of his world. The hidden enemy had moved from anonymous 'them' to a 'confederate' to an 'empire'. He hesitated but Jia did not wait for him. She kept striding ahead and her words soon became a babble and when Gaurav tried to call out to her, he found that he could not even squeak. The walls and the doors around him began to merge in a bleak grayness. He was suddenly scared of a nameless, faceless fear. He looked up and found the sky to be just above his head. The world had begun to contract. He opened his mouth and screamed loudly. The world went black.
'Oh, for God's sake, someone please make him stop!" Someone groaned near him.
"He will shut up on his own," Someone else spoke.
"Yeah, cut him some slack," A young woman spoke. "He has lost his sanity and he believes he has gone blind. The doctors are quite surprised at the psychosomatic nature of his blindness."
"That's just great," The first voice said. "Don't tell me his story. I have heard it many times now and I have been here only a week. You guys should do something with your lives."
"We are all wastrels here," Someone laughed from three beds away. "For people like you, we are only wasting our lives but you know what, we are fighting demons of our own so just mind your own business."
"Well, waste your lives as much as you want to. But let me sleep."
Gaurav never heard them. He was trapped in the darkroom where neither light nor sound had the power to penetrate the inky black curtains that cut him away from the world. He only had his dreams for a company but he didn't mind it at all. In the inky blackness, he stopped screaming and closed his eyes. He fell in a stupor, waiting to wake up again.