“Mukasa Bis. That’s the display name.” Kaustav said.
“Mukasa Bis! What kind of a prick would pick that name?” Piku spoke for the first time as he finished rolling his joint and reached for his laptop.
Now, I’m aware that it may not be the proper or the most original way of starting a story, making a character roll joints, much less respectable, if you’d like. But the story that came from Mukasa next, we thought, must have taken a little draught of vintage to conceive. Although, I’m not sure why Piku found that particular strain of conjecture flattering, I remember him flashing a triumphant smile. But anyway.
“That’s the question most of the members in the forum asked.” Kaustav seemed not to notice that it was one of those very rare occasions when he and Piku agreed on something, even as insignificant as a name.
These two were like two opposite poles sharing this apartment with me. Kaustav was almost my age, in fact elder to me by two years, a serious student of English literature, teaching part time in three different colleges. A budding academician, he was already quite popular amongst the circle of his students which almost worshipped him on account of his brilliant teaching abilities. He ran a successful blog. His writing skills were noteworthy, his logic clear and his language sharp. He proudly admitted to his conventional and sometimes rigidly moral predispositions.
Piku had joined us a little more than three months ago when a previous member had left with a new job. Kaustav and I had been planning to move to a smaller and cheaper apartment, but Piku took the other room for himself and saved us the pain of yet another exodus.
He was in the first year studying computer application in one of those colleges that had mushroomed with the nation-wide ‘medical/engineering’ spree during the previous two decades. Least bothered about his career, he said his studies were a status quo to keep his parents happy. Despite his ‘spoilt brat’ attitude, this kid had that touch of innocence we all regret having lost. He was past adolescent anger, but not yet giving up on the age of romance like the adult finally does with a sigh, despite oneself.
The subtler details of Piku’s character however did not draw much sympathy from Kaustav as it did from me. “A good routine flogging daily. That’s what the chap needed from his parents when he was growing up,” Kaustav once told me irritably, “and he needs that flogging now more than ever.” I did not blame Kaustav. If someone smokes weed sitting on your bed in your absence and burns a hole in your mattress, it is natural to be upset. Piku narrowly missed death that time.
“There you are,” Piku said, reading from his laptop, “Mukasa is a Ugandan name, meaning the ‘chief architect of the gods’. And Bis… Bis… OK, ‘Bis’ is a musical term used to denote repetition.”
“All hail the omniscient google.” Sarcasm permeated even the heartiest utterances from Kaustav, given that they were directed at Piku. “Fancy pseudonym for a fancy pseudo-intellectual.”
“Well, aren’t you are being a bit too harsh on the guy?” I said.
Kaustav did not reply. The reason for his silence was clear to me.
“It was the middle of August, 2013. My short trip to Bolivia had come to an end.”
“What were you doing in Bolivia? Cocoa plantations?” Came a sincere inquiry from one of the members of the bloggers’ forum.
Bitter with his previous online interactions with the person calling himself ‘Mukasa Bis’, Kaustav had ‘nominated’ him to this forum of noted bloggers for a scholarly chat. Today’s topic was ‘online data surveillance’. One blogger, quoting Michael Foucault (‘Not Foo-cawlt, Foo-co. As in dot-co-dot-in’, Kaustav corrected my educated guess) had concluded that in our times, when all our activities whether in the physical or virtual space can be monitored 24-7, even our ‘virtual’ freedoms were compromised. Because of the constant exposure to vigilance, we the ‘netizens’ were literally in the virtual prison of the cyberspace, living out imposed, fear stricken unreal identities. I read his argument twice and looked helplessly at Kaustav for explanation, who pointed me to one of the bulky volumes on his shelf, which I decided to brave through later.
The next comment was somewhat easy to understand. Another blogger, sporting a Heisenberg display picture taken from ‘Breaking Bad’, who apparently disagreed with the former blogger’s conclusions, posted a photo-comment, with the face of Jim Carrey from ‘The Truman Show’ saying, ‘But you never had a camera in my head.’
Then entered our mysterious Mukasa – “Not till now.”
And he dived straight into his story – “It was the middle of August, 2013…”
Hastily interrupted, presently Mukasa seemed to ignore the implication of the innocent question about cocoa plantations in Bolivia. He continued-
“Even before I took the cab from the Plaza Murillo just off the protected premises of the presidential palace of Bolivia, I was sure to be followed, and I was right. So I did the needful. Before exiting the cab midway unnoticed, I tipped the driver well so the car following me would end up an hour later in front of the soon-to-be-closed-down office of the U.S Agency for International Development, wondering what went wrong.
But as they say, never underestimate your enemy. Before boarding the flight, I was alone for some time at the washroom of the El Alto international airport with two fellows, probably well trained mercenaries – judging from their physique. They stood there chewing gums, weighing the odds of carrying out whatever orders they had. After all, on a foreign soil, they would have to be very, very discreet to get anything by force.
“Hello Blackie!” So this is how it would go. One of them would bark the stock insults in your face while the other would surprise you from behind.
Front and back shifted places in a flash. One of the mirrors shattered. A lavatory door broke. While I adjusted my sleeves as I had been doing before, the gentleman who had crashed the door lay inert at his place. The one who had hit the mirror in a horizontal posture collected himself from the floor and pounced again.
“Careful, careful!” I tried to warn him, while intently and carefully folding my shirt-collars, but a heavy figure means a lot of momentum. And a stationary object like the toilet door tends to remain in its position unless broken with a loud thud by a speeding object thrown at it. He was now stirring a little, unable to get up for the second time.
“Are you alright? Did that hurt?” I asked, in a friendly tone. The current position of his head made my hand itch to press the flush, but I absolutely abhorred cheap action stunts.
His muffled voice reverberated from inside the commode, “Fuckin’ nigger! You will never get Snowbird. We will get him and make him suffer! That big mouth bitch! We will not spare you either.”
“Damn it.” I pressed the flush. So they had gotten wind of me trying to get to Snowbird Walden, the person who had blown the whistle on the world over data mining scam. But if my involvement in this could be compromised, so could be that of the others I was working with, I feared.
“Please tell your boss,” I urged the man before giving him a final sedating punch, “Not to send meat-bags next time. You see, it doesn’t work.”
The flight from Bolivia to Sheremetyevo, Russia, with a few stopovers at Portugal, Austria and Poland, takes almost twenty-four hours. I was tired to death, and despite my anxiety about the things to come, slept a sound sleep for the most part of the journey. That is until the voice of the co-passenger woke me up. Had I been sleeping like a corpse?
“Hey! I’m terribly sorry to wake you, but we land in half an hour.”
First the voice startled me, then the pronunciation with its almost imperceptible tilt of Chinese. I couldn’t suppress a cry of surprise at the sight of the man I wouldn’t count on a co-incidence to see.
“Dr. Leann Martinez!”
“Shush!” He was visibly terrified, “What are you doing?” What was the reason for this pretension of unfamiliarity?
“What are you doing in my next seat? How did you…” My surprise still not ebbing.
“Don’t ask. Just know that I know. Those who were tailing you back in Bolivia know by now that you are on this plane. And I am officially in the middle of a week-long conference in Austria right now. Now, Mukasa, I am sorry to say this, but prepare yourself for some bad news.”
I keep staring at him. Had my worst fears come true?
“I don’t know how to say this, but they are saying that fifteen hours ago last night, in an accident in our Michigan labs, we…” His face reddened, “We lost both Dr. Kalhan and his daughter.”
The middle aged Chinese-American scientist looked away. I looked out of the window at the beautiful sunset spread out red against an ocean of clouds. “Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb…” Odd moment to remember Shelley, really. Dr. Kalhan had given me copy of ‘Collected Poems’ as a present from his daughter the last time I met him. She did not speak once the whole evening. The copy was traveling with me now.
Dr. Kalhan and Dr. Martinez had been fellow scientists at the Michigan labs for over five years, developing state of the art quantum brain processing technology that very few in the world have even heard of. The Indian scientist who had lost his wife to schizophrenia years ago, had made it his life’s mission to find a cure by meticulously mapping human brain signals for years. His groundbreaking work had brought him recognition in the international platform a decade ago, and he had moved to the States a little over five years ago for better research opportunities. Together with Dr. Martinez and their assistant Linda they had been able to record and reproduce visual and auditory memories from the human brain, even get glimpses of ongoing thought processes in the brain.
Though finding a cure for schizophrenia was still a dream far-flung in the future, Dr. Kalhan’s work had introduced a new horizon to brain study. But as destiny would have it, his own daughter who stayed in India, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia two years ago, the same type that had claimed her mother’s sanity and then her life. Her mental condition steadily deteriorated through a year and then she eventually fell out with her husband, a celebrated professor of the Arts and was later brought to Michigan by Dr. Kalhan. He would save her this time, he would not let the disease win, such was the monomaniacal strife of the old scientist with destiny.
At the time, another Indian scientist, Dr. Bharadwaj, had been working in India on the same area of research and had made unprecedented progresses in the theoretical domain. Together with Dr. Kalhan’s work they could work wonders, but these were very advanced researches and were parts of the respective countries’ classified national information, carried out under military protection. A collaboration thus had to be clandestine. And that is where I became useful for these two scientists. Dr. Bharadwaj convinced me to carry out the task of facilitating secret correspondences. Dr. Kalhan’s daughter had so little time that it took little effort to persuade him.
Of late, the authorities had grown suspicious of Dr. Kalhan. They first isolated Dr. Martinez from him, reassigning him at another research facility. Linda however stayed with Dr. Kalhan. Over a week ago, when I had last seen Dr. Kalhan I had almost reason to believe that he was losing it too. All his mails were being intercepted, all his activities monitored. I had to be extremely cautious to meet him. That evening I had waited outside Dr. Kalhan’s residence until Linda left from visiting her old mentor.
“Cure? What cure?” he had snarled at me, “That’s still a long way to go. All my life’s study of science is still just an infant’s mumbling.” He looked at his daughter seated silently in a chair by the garden, wearing a look that I just saw in her father’s face for a second. “She has shown me so much…I am still to make sense of it all in the language of science.” He had conceded desperately, “I have so little time, and so much to understand! I’m losing all hope, Mukasa! Time is clouding my destiny.”
Destiny, he had said. I had looked at him in amazement.
“Destiny, Mukasa. Not predestination. I’m just beginning to believe that free will is not the antitheses of fate. It is the quantum of all fate, the building blocks of all determinism, all systems! All my life I thought I was fighting on the side of an army not knowing who I was fighting on the other side. One glimpse into her reality,” he looked at his daughter blankly, “and I realized I was fighting against none but myself. Although I’m not very sure if I’m winning or losing.”
Looking at the sublime sunset clouds outside the window, I remembered his last words “But all that is immaterial now Mukasa. Before this level of brain mapping goes in the hands of the military, I will see it all go up in smoke, rest assured.”
Why did it feel now that he and Dr. Bharadwaj, both scientists shared not only their science but their fates as well?
“The rules of their power-play, become the burden of scientist.” Dr. Martinez spoke after a prolonged silence.
“Are you sure no other parties were involved?” I asked.
“Not that we’re aware of. Forensics suggest that a short circuit triggered a huge chemical explosion.”
“You were reassigned elsewhere. Why are you here?” I asked.
“For the same reason that you are.” He dropped his voice even lower, “Snowbird Walden.”
“What do you want with him now? He has already exposed your data surveillance.” I had to ask.
“Our data surveillance!” A sad smile crossed his face. “I don’t know how to make you believe that I am not one of ‘them’. Snowbird’s citizenship has already been revoked. They are looking out for him all over the world. And I have invited the same fate upon myself by stealing away from that conference to see you, because I know you are the only one who can really find him.”
“Suppose I believed you, what do you want with him? The poor man is stuck for five weeks in the transit zone of the Airport where we would land, neither able to enter Russia nor able to leave. Of what more interest can he be now to you?”
What Martinez said in reply appeared fairly believable to me. He was sure Snowbird was privy to much more information than he had leaked – information surrounding the Michigan Lab research.
“Do you know what a psychon-signature is?” He asked.
I kept silent.
“It is the unique signature of each individual’s flow of thought in the brain, something Dr. Kalhan and I discovered. Once you figure out a person’s psychon-signature, with the aid of a little technology that we invented, you can keep track of that person’s thoughts from across the Atlantic now.”
“You and Dr. Kalhan worked together on that one?” Evidently, I knew very little about Dr. Kalhan’s work history at Michigan.
“Seeing that you are surprised at that part, I don’t have to guess you already knew what a psychon-signature was.” Dr. Martinez’s face turned even more serious.
“I believe you can understand that we are talking about the next era of data surveillance here. If you can map one’s thoughts from afar, before long you would want to control it. Then how long before you get the whole of humanity chained to a new form of slavery again?” He let his words sink in. This potential of their work had occurred to the authorities who had funded the research, Dr. Kalhan had not been worrying for nothing. Although, he had officially revealed only so much of his progress as not to raise suspicion, the authorities were quick to figure out the implications of his work in martial affairs. Brainwashing, for one would be revolutionized. Raising an army of zombies whose minds can be controlled from afar, would be just a matter of entrepreneurship and investment. The outcome would indeed be regrettable for all mankind.
“I intend to convince Snowbird,” said Dr. Martinez after a pause, “with what little hope I have, not to reveal that part to an external party, to anyone. All that work has been destroyed for good anyway. What if anyone is able to piece together the scrapes that Snowbird might still have?”
The plane would land at Sheremetyevo international airport shortly. The sleep had done me some good. My head felt lighter. Looking down through the window at the illuminated cityscape below, I made up my mind about the next chapter in Russia.”
“So are you saying that you found out Snowbird Walden and smuggled him to Bolivia in the Bolivian President’s plane? Is that your story?”
“Mr. Mukasa Bis, get your facts straight first. Snowbird was not found inside that plane. It was all on the news. Apparently that’s what your ‘visit’ to Bolivia was about, I suppose?”
“What happened then?”
“Who are you? James Bond??”
“A spy fiction writer?”
A series of such questions queued the forum’s page thereafter. But Mukasa Bis had gone offline. It was quite late in the night. As Piku rolled his last joint of the day Kaustav looked up from his laptop and shot him a nasty look. He turned to me and said grimly – “To be continued.”