CHAPTER 8: Putting on the Mask
That evening Neel met the car outside the government building as usual. He greeted Arjun as he got in, and they were soon on their way.
Neel was aware of a change in Arjun's manner. His responses were even more laconic than usual, and he did not ask Neel any of the usual questions about the areas around them. They drove in silence for the most part until they had gotten out of the city.
"So, after last night's exhibition, it's been decided to move your participation in the project beyond the training part." Arjun spoke suddenly.
Neel stared at him, a mixture of excitement and nervousness erupting within him. "What exactly does that mean?" he asked. He had realized already that this day would come. After all, his time at Swan labs wasn't just as an experiment for Doctor Fahim. He was being trained by the army, and they would want some return on the resources they had invested in him.
"It means that you are now in a position to use your abilities in a way that could help the government and the country." Arjun said. "Doctor Fahim will tell explain everything in detail once we get to the lab." Neel nodded and settled slowly back in his seat.
When they arrived at Swan labs, Neel could almost sense a change in the atmosphere of the place. Suddenly everything seemed more brisk and businesslike. The hall gym was closed, and they made their way to the main building instead, heading for Doctor Fahim's office.
Arjun knocked on the door, and they entered the room to find Doctor Fahim, Divya, Negi and Premi inside, along with General Bakshi and Mr. Rai. Doctor Fahim rose as they entered.
"Welcome, Neel." he said with his usual warm smile as he rose and made his way towards them from behind his desk. "We have been listening to an account of how easily you defeated two of our most highly trained officers yesterday. I congratulate you."
"Allow us to add our congratulations as well." Mr. Rai added with a smile, shaking Neel's hand. "It is good to see that all that time and effort has paid off." General Bakshi said nothing, and merely nodded in Neel's direction. But his expression for once was not as severe as usual.
"Thank you, sir." Neel said, blushing slightly as he shook the Minister's hand. "I never could have done it if they hadn't trained me so well."
"And now it is time to put all that training to use." Doctor Fahim said quietly. his voice becoming grave as he looked at Neel. Everyone else in the room fell silent, listening intently. "I believe Arjun has already told you something of what is being planned for your future?"
Neel nodded. "He told me the general idea. He said I'd would be helping the country."
"That you certainly would be doing." Doctor Fahim said. "And so it is up to you, Neel. I do not want to put a false face on the matter. It will not be easy. And there will be more than a little danger involved, even with your great power. The choice is yours to make. Are you ready and willing to accept this responsibility?"
The same question was what Neel had wondered about as well, whenever he had thought about what would come after the training. And yet, did he really even have a choice in the matter at this point? He had already been working with the army for months. They had helped him keep his mind and body together. They had aided him and trained him, to the point that he could defeat Arjun and Negi without breaking a sweat. With the skills he now had, Neel felt certain he could take on any number of criminals and beat them all. He was already an Alpha soldier. It was time to put all that training to use.
Neel was nodding before Doctor Fahim had finished speaking. "I want to do this, sir." he said emphatically. "I want to help."
Doctor Fahim gazed at him thoughtfully, studying the young face for any concealed doubts or uncertainty. Then he smiled. "Spoken with admirable enthusiasm." He gestured to the door. "Then let us move onto the next stage of this project. The final stage." Neel felt a thrill run through him at the Doctor's last words.
They filed out of the room and entered the elevator. Mr. Rai and General Bakshi had not joined them. Doctor Fahim pressed the button for the sixth and topmost floor. Within seconds they reached the level, on which a single room had been built.
Doctor Fahim entered a code in the combination lock outside the door. They entered the giant chamber, and the door closed automatically behind them. Neel stared around the strange room. He could hear a low buzz permeating the area on a frequency so high only his ears were capable of picking it up. The room was almost empty except for a computer, a table and a large, intricately built vault.
"This room has been designed to ensure its complete security." Arjun informed him as they walked slowly in together. "All the vents and ducts have cameras installed which have a direct feed into the computer. The windows are made of smart glass, which can change itself from transparent to opaque on command to block long distance surveillance. The windows have vibration maskers attached to set up a counter vibration on the glass surface." Neel nodded. Arjun had explained to him once how any conversation near a window pane caused vibrations in the glass, which could be picked up by vibration detectors over large distances and converted to audio signals. As he continued to listen to the list of security measures that surrounded the room, he was conscious of the fact that he was standing in one of the most secure locations in the country.
The wall at one end was lined with memory banks of computers, with a vast screen fitted next to it. The huge vault was kept to one side. A solid wooden table was kept opposite to the computer screen, along with a few swivel chairs. The room had a strangely airless quality. Neel noticed the walls were built of the same soundproof material used in radio rooms. There was very little echo of their footsteps as they walked on the floor.
Divya went to the monitor along with Doctor Fahim. She started the computer and brought a file onscreen while the others gathered around the table.
"Everything we know about the serum, all the effects we have observed in you, is kept in this computer." Doctor Fahim told Neel. "It only remains to put all this knowledge to practical use. Divya, if you will bring up the file."
Divya pulled up another file, and brought an image onscreen. It was a long range photograph taken at an airport, and showed a man walking away from a private plane. He was a slim man, dressed in a beautifully and perfectly fitting dress, and was deep in a conversation on the phone. The face was calm and rather unusually pale. The eyes had a strangely empty quality, and seemed devoid of any emotion. Studying the face, Neel was conscious of feeling slightly unsettled without really understanding why.
"This is Mr. Alok Mehta." Divya said. "Do you know who he is?"
Neel nodded slowly. "I'd never seen him before. But I've heard about him." he said. "He's that man who owns that company Phlicer, right? They have that weird logo, and that motto in their ads; 'A name that truly represents the people'."
"Yes, it's quite a popular tag." Divya nodded. "Alok Mehta is one of the richest men in the country, and his company is estimated to be worth eleven point four billion dollars in the global market. He started out as a research scientist before forming his own company. He's patented over seventy eight new designs and inventions, and the products his company manufactures are used worldwide, from air ports and nuclear plants to everyday products which we all use."
Neel nodded. "So what's wrong with him?"
"Over the last few years, the government has been growing increasingly uneasy about Mr. Mehta's finances." Doctor Fahim said. "Tax matters that did not quite add up. Some international ties in with untrustworthy characters. Dubious policies regarding land and infrastructural laws. Nothing they can arrest him for, but disturbing nonetheless."
"Until last year, when some terrorists were caught with stealth technology that incorporated certain ideas which had only been found in a prototype for a new engine that belongs to Mehta." Arjun said. "That technology was inaccessible to the general public, and should have been under strict lock and key. It seems too big a coincidence that, if the terrorists had succeeded, the resulting blast would have cleared the area around a village which is on a spot that he wants to build a dam on. That was when it was decided to look more deeply into his activities."
"And the Government found out something bad about him?" Neel guessed.
"Bad in the most unequivocal sense." Doctor Fahim said gravely. "For the past two years Alok Mehta has been buying certain kinds of strange and potentially dangerous equipment, from fissile materials to fourth generation nuclear reactor equipment. The purchases were made from far flung corners of the world, making it hard to trace them all. There was a recent theft of a batch of thorium at a military facility in Rajasthan which he is believed to be responsible for. He has also transferred all his money to a foreign bank account and has sold vast shares of his corporation and his houses in India. That means he plans to dissolve his company soon, and might possibly mean that he plans to go into hiding as well. But why would he need such dangerous equipment when he will no longer have a company to make use of it? And why does he feel the need to leave for a secret, external location? We need to know what all his preparations are for."
"Okay, so what's the plan?" Neel asked. "How can I help find out the truth about him?"
"In normal circumstances, we would keep an eye on Mehta." Arjun said. "Keep tabs on his dealings. Wait for him to make a slip and then catch him. However, Mr. Mehta is a very careful man, and it's doubtful he will make any mistakes this close to the end of his plans."
"There also isn't enough time to send anyone inside his company undercover." he continued. "What is required in this case is an agent who can strike hard and fast. Who can enter into the most strongly protected areas, and get the information we need. Someone who can attack swiftly and disappear before Mehta's army of bodyguards can react."
Neel nodded. "I can do that." he said confidently.
"Good." Doctor Fahim turned to Divya, who went over to the large vault. "Then we will get started."
Divya opened the vault and brought out a suit of clothes in a plastic casing. She spread the casing out on the table and opened the zipper.
"This," Doctor Fahim said, as the others gathered closer around the table. "Is the suit you will be wearing during the mission. It has been designed to provide the maximum protection possible, without compromising your speed or flexibility."
"Your shirt and pants." Divya said, passing both out to Neel. The pants were similar in design to cargo pants, with multiple pockets along the legs and a roomy design which would allow him to run and jump comfortably. The shirt was full length and contained two pockets as well. The texture of both the items was strange and yet familiar as Neel ran a hand over them. They were both colored completely black.
"Both are made of nanofibre materials." Divya said. "Like the cloth I showed you on your first day here. It'll be able to suffer a fair amount of wear and tear without breaking, and dirt won't stick on its surface for long."
"Your jacket." Arjun said, passing it out to Neel as well. It was again jet black in color. "It's made of sheets of carbon nanotubes. It's going to be of great help in case someone shoots at you."
Neel took the jacket. It was quite thin, and although strangely bulky, it did not seem anywhere near as strong as the bulletproof vests he had seen policemen wear. "Are you sure it'll work?" he asked dubiously.
"Don't let its appearance fool you." Divya smiled, taking the jacket and holding up it's surface to show to Neel. "Carbon nanotubes are made entirely of carbon and are approximately twenty times stronger than steel, and seventeen times stronger than Kevlar." Neel looked up at her in amazement. "This jacket can take multiple bullet shots without breaking its surface once, as long as there is a small interval between the shots. The blunt force of the bullet will be removed as well because the cone structure of the nanotube will bounce the bullet off after impact. It's much more efficient than any other material used in bulletproof vests."
"It's also extremely resistant to fire." Arjun added. "It's a vitally important part of your uniform. Always keep it zipped up to your neck so it can provide maximum protection."
"Your shoes." Divya said, bringing out a pair of black, unmarked shoes of the type that marathon runners wore, except that they had straps instead of laces. "They'll be replaced as you wear them out."
Neel nodded, still running a hand over the jacket. He noticed a final piece of cloth lying in the casing. "What's that?" he asked.
"The most important part of your outfit." Doctor Fahim said, drawing the small piece of cloth out. "Your mask."
Neel took the mask from Doctor Fahim and drew it up. It was the same black mask that Divya had shown him on his first day at Swan Labs. The cloth was still stretchable, but it was no longer shapeless. It had been molded into the proper shape to cover his face without having to be fixed repeatedly. Only a single slit with narrowed ends was kept open for his eyes. It reminded Neel of a ninja's mask, except that this was more stretchable. Tiny holes had been cut in to help him breath. The inside of the mask felt different from the exterior.
"What's it made of?" Neel asked, caressing the fabric.
"It's a new type of clothing known as E-textiles, or wearable electronics." Divya said. She showed him the inside of the mask. "They're clothes that have built in electrical properties. The mask has a patch antenna woven into it, and a wireless sensor receiver has been sewn in front of the mouth to help you speak properly through the cloth. They're both connected to your mobile. Everything that is said near the mask will be relayed to the phone. It will keep you in constant communication with Swan labs, and we can advise you on how to proceed with the assignment."
Neel nodded, staring in wonder at the mask as he examined it. And despite the confidence he felt, he was also relieved that he wasn't going to go into the missions completely alone.
"You must wear the mask at all times, Neel." Doctor Fahim said very seriously. "No one can ever know who you really are. Secrecy is the key. That is why your outfit is completely black. Most of your work will be done at night. You must go in and get out in the minimum amount of time, and leave as little trace of your presence as possible." Neel nodded again.
Divya was now bringing out a black mobile phone with silver edgings. "This is going to be your new mobile." she said, handing it over to Neel.
Neel took the unusually thick smartphone and examined it closely, admiring the elegant design and polished, jet black cover designed to protect it from bumps and falls. He had never owned a cell phone before, even though most of his friends had them. "So I don't suppose I can use this for calling my friends?" he asked half jokingly.
"No, this is to be used for your assignments only." Arjun said in a rebuking voice. "It has a lot of specially designed apps which will be useful to you. We'll go over them today."
"It also has a 4G speed broadband access." Divya added. "The lithium ion battery needs fifteen minutes to charge fully and will store enough power to work for more than a week. It also has a GPS tracking software installed so you'll always know exactly where you are, and if you ever forget the map you've memorized you can check your exact position on the phone. It uses frequency hopping to provide a secure connection without worrying about interception or jamming."
"Right." Neel nodded, fairly confident that he had understood most of it. He placed the mobile back on the table and looked at Divya and Doctor Fahim. "Is that all?"
"Hopefully, that is all you will need." Doctor Fahim said, stepping back from the table. "Your main advantage during these missions will be your superior abilities, which should be more than enough. Now it is time for the mission briefing."
They turned back to the screen, and Divya opened photos of a greasy little man driving on a bike, sunlight glinting off the multiple gold chains around his neck and the rings on his fingers. "This is Kundan Mishra." she said. "He runs his gym on Baadal Street, which was handed down to him from his father. But his real business is arranging contacts between criminals and supplying them with weapons. He works on a very big scale. A lot of the men who come to his gym provide him with security in case of trouble. He is part of a large network of middle men and illegal traders, and is the top person in his field. He has an interest in almost every business of that type in Delhi. If anyone can give us information about where Alok Mehta is getting supplies from, that man is Kundan Mishra."
"Okay." Neel said. "So I just find him and force him to tell us everything?"
"Let's hope it'll be that easy." Arjun said. "He operates from his gym. It would be the best place to catch him with the goods on him. He doesn't use computers, so the paper documents about his transactions should be there with him. The place will be guarded, and you will need to be careful getting to the place without anyone outside the gym seeing you. Your existence is still a secret, and we'll keep it that way as long as possible."
For the rest of the time left, the six went over every part of the plan, from which Neel path would take to get to the gym, to what information he was to look for, and how he would handle any opposition.
"Intimidation would be your best weapon." Arjun said. "Kundan is a complete coward. Scare him sufficiently, and he'll tell you everything you need to know without your having to resort to extreme measures.
Neel nodded, "I'll try my best." he said. "When do I do this?"
"Tomorrow night." Doctor Fahim said. "The sooner we begin, the quicker we will find the answers we need."
"Mom?" Neel said to his mother the next night. "I have to go to a friend's house tonight. There's a project we have to do together and he has some ideas he wants to share." he had planned the night carefully, and already told Aryan and Priyanka that he was going to take some medication and rest the whole night in his room, in case they wanted to call him.
His mother stared at him, then out the window at the darkening sky. It was seven thirty in the evening. "You want to go at this time? Who is this boy?"
"You don't know him; but his house is only a few blocks away. Please mom, it's really urgent. It'll only take a couple of hours."
His mother sighed. "Very well, but call me when you get to his house and get back as soon as you can."
"Thanks, mom." Neel said, going to get his bag quickly in case she changed her mind.
Wearing the backpack on his shoulder, Neel rode a few blocks away from his house and looked around to see if anyone was watching. There was an old abandoned building nearby with an overgrown hedge surrounding it. Carefully, he hid his bike in the bushes and walked over to the two storey house, adjusting the bag on his shoulders. He felt guilty about lying to his mother. But he had realized that if he intended to use his abilities to help, some small white lies would by necessity have to be told.
Neel looked around once to make sure no one was watching, and then in a single fluid motion he jumped. He caught onto the ledge outside a window. Pushing his legs against the wall he jumped again, this time landing on the roof of the house. There was open field all around the building, and the other buildings were far off. He was virtually invisible under the dark blue sky in the gloomy surroundings. He stared at the land around him as he pulled off the bag and unzipped it. Inside were the clothes that Divya had given him. Feeling a shiver of excitement run through him, he put them on.
The clothes were a perfect fit. The shirt was light and snug. The pants were roomy and comfortable, and the jacket fit well over his frame. Finally, Neel pulled on the mask.
He stood breathing quietly on the rooftop, stretching his hands slowly. Something strange was happening within him. All the training he had undergone at Swan Labs came to the forefront of his mind. Now more than ever, he felt a part a team, part of something important. He no longer had to worry about keeping his abilities a secret. Power seemed to flow inside him, like a flood held barely in check by a dam, just waiting to be unleashed. His body language changed without his realizing it, becoming more confident. The land stretched out before him like a giant replica of the map he had memorized. He knew exactly where he was and where he needed to go. The shadowy ground lay two stories beneath him, yet the dim moonlight was enough for him to make out the terrain clearly. He ran swiftly to the edge of the terrace, and at the last moment jumped into the air.
Neel leapt onto the top of the building in front of Lion Gym. It would have taken a car twenty five minutes to get to the gym. It had taken him ten. He had moved in a straight line from his colony to the gym by travelling quickly over rooftops, the night sky making his swiftly moving figure seem barely more than a shadow. Arjun had warned him that, while his black uniform would be excellent for hiding in the shadows of buildings in urban areas, it would also mean that his black silhouette would be clearly visible against the dark blue night sky in open areas. So for the well lighted areas, he had travelled more cautiously through back alleys and empty lots and fields. The top of lampposts, billboards and shops gave him a solid foot hold for that split second he needed to leap over the areas from one point to another.
He had found Baadal Street easily enough. He now stood on the rooftop watching the gym, his open jacket blowing in the strong wind. He found it helped keep his movements free and flexible if he left the jacket unzipped. He brought out the mobile given to him at Swan Labs. He had already called his mother, and now selected the only number saved in it.
"Alpha? Report." Premi's voice appeared on the other end. In his mind, Neel saw the entire team standing in the giant room at Swan Labs, listening to him.
"I'm outside the gym."
"Excellent." Premi said. "Did anyone see you on the way?"
"No, I kept to the shadows."
"What can you see?" Premi asked
"Two guards on every floor, I think." Neel said, slowly scanning the building through the windows. "The roof is unguarded and has a skylight."
"Can you see the rope?" Premi asked him.
"Yeah." Neel confirmed. "It's on the building next to the gym. I'll pick it up on the way over."
"Good." Premi paused. "You know what to do. We'll be listening to everything that goes on at your end. All clear?"
Neel nodded slowly, his mind suddenly troubled. He did not reply, and made no attempt to move. Now that the time had come, he was conscious of a strange reluctance as he thought about what he was about to do. It was not like the panic he had felt in the dark alley the other day. He was not afraid, but he still did not want to approach the gym.
"Neel?" Doctor Fahim's voice appeared in his ear. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, I…" He hesitated. "Doctor Fahim?"
"I can't do this, sir." He knew it sounded like he was scared, and he turned away towards the shaded area of the roof he was on, quickly trying to explain the conflicting emotions he was experiencing. "I mean, I can't attack those men. I've never even seen them before. That night in the street, I fought back against Arjun and Negi because I thought they were trying to kill us. I… but these men… they haven't done anything to me. I can't just jump in and beat them all up, I-"
"Neel?" Doctor Fahim's voice broke quietly through his stammering. "Can you see those men?"
"Yeah." Neel turned to stare at the gym again.
"Why do you think Kundan selected them to work for him?" Doctor Fahim asked. "They are paid heavily to do his dirty work for him. They assault his rivals, force them to shut down their shops, and terrorize the entire district. They are also loaned to drug dealers and gangsters. They are among the group responsible for the recent kidnapping of the MLA's children. If the Minister hadn't paid the money, he would never have seen his children again." Doctor Fahim paused, letting the words sink in. Neel was still staring at the men, but now his gaze had hardened.
"Training is over, Neel." Premi spoke up in a grim voice. "You are not dealing with honorable individuals or punching bags anymore. These men are parasites who will murder you without a thought if they find it profitable. And you have been sent there to help stop them. Do you understand?"
"Yeah, I get it." Neel said quietly, walking slowly over to the edge of the roof. "Forget what I said before."
"So can you go through with the mission?" Premi asked him, an edge in his voice.
"I'm going in." Neel said, already moving. Bracing his legs under him, he jumped clear of the roof he had been standing on.
Mr. Kundan Mishra sat in his office in Lion Gym on the third floor of the building. It was technically closing time, but this was when he attended to his real business. Twenty muscled bodyguards stood guard all through the building. They were expensive security, but usually one look at them was enough to make his enemies stop bothering him. And since they all used his gym, he paid a lot less than their real salaries.
He was feeling excited. His latest client was not like the usual businessman looking to cut corners on his taxes. This client was interested in obtaining strange bits of information and equipment, and obviously had someone very powerful behind him. Mr. Mishra was the best man in his line of work, so it was natural for the man to come to him, but even he was having trouble procuring some of the items on the list.
Suddenly, from outside the room came sounds of struggling and fighting. The two guards in the room looked up, startled, and got ready to go investigate. But then the noises stopped abruptly.
The guards stood rooted, listening for any new noise.
Then all the lights went out in the room.
One of the guards ran to the emergency light switch and turned on three CFC bulbs. In the light, they saw that they weren't alone anymore.
A strange figure dressed in black pants and jacket and a black mask was sitting cross legged on top of Kundan's table, staring at him. He had a slight build and was only a little more than five foot tall, and almost looked like a kid. The startled guards, who had tensed up on seeing him, hung back uncertainly, confused by the size and appearance of the newcomer.
"What do you think you're doing?" Kundan demanded, wondering how he had got inside the building. Thick steel doors protected every entrance of the building, not to mention his guards.
The masked person spoke up, and Kundan realized he really was a kid. "I'm looking for information on the person you're supplying resources to right now," the kid said. "And you're going to give me that information. Right now."
Kundan scowled. "Listen, you punk." he said. "You have no idea who you're playing this stupid little prank on, but my men are going to throw you out, and if I ever see you here again, I'll send you home in little pieces."
He reached for the phone, but the boy spoke again. "Don't bother. None of your guards outside are in any shape to hear your call."
Kundan stared at him in shock. The boy gazed back at him calmly. Kundan swung around to the two body guards with him. "Get him, and teach him a lesson."
The guards strode forward. The kid got off the table. One of the guards grabbed his hand and tried to pull him towards the door.
But he couldn't move the kid an inch.
The other guard reached for his collar, but the kid grabbed his hand and held on to both the guards. They stood struggling helplessly. Then, he swung his leg in a sweeping kick, knocking them both unconscious.
Kundan was used to acting quickly. When he saw his guards pinned helplessly, he ran out of the room, noticing with growing horror that all his guards were lying on the floor unconscious. The windows had steel grills fixed on. The door leading out of the weight lifting room had a heavy almirah blocking its path. Too late, he remembered the gun he kept locked in his desk drawer, which he had been too panicked to grab when he had seen the kid manhandling his guards.
Kundan heard footsteps behind him, and turned to see the masked figure coming towards him, casually throwing up and catching a forty kilogram dumb bell with one hand.
"Let's try this again." he said. He ripped open the steel grill on the window and shoved Kundan out, dangling him outside the window with one hand. Kundan stared down at the empty parking lot behind his gym. The concrete below suddenly seemed much more threatening than any of the mob bosses.
"You want to tell me who you're working for?" the kid asked. "I want names, contacts and the nature of the business you're doing with them."
"I… can't..." Kundan gasped for breath. "They'll kill me if I say anything."
The kid brought his lips close to Kundan's ear. "What do you think I've been sent to do?" The next second, he had dropped him.
Kundan fell screaming through the air, watching helplessly as the ground rushed closer. Seconds before smashing into the concrete below, a hand caught him around the waist, and he twisted around to see the kid above him. He was holding onto Kundan with one hand and a rope with the other, which was tied to the roof of the building.
"I may not be fast enough to catch you next time." the kid said. "Still think it'll be healthier for you not to cooperate?"
Kundan shook his head, his breath coming in short gasps. He wasn't sure if that had conveyed the right message, so he also nodded vigorously. "I'll tell you everything." he gasped.
Five minutes later, the people at Swan Labs heard Kundan give Neel the full details of his recent dealings.
"Very good" Doctor Fahim said over the communicator.
The complete novel, Neel Dervin and the Dark Angel, is available for free on amazon this Saturday and Sunday.