Neel sat once again in the huge control room in front of the computer screen. Arjun and Negi and Premi were standing quietly to the left, looking on.
"Form the information Kundan gave us," Doctor Fahim was telling Neel. "Our best bet for getting answers would be spying directly on the meeting they have set up."
"Won't Kundan know I'd come after them, after he told me everything?" Neel asked. "He must've told Malik Saket about me by now."
"Not if he wants to keep his business safe." Arjun spoke up. "Kundan's entire practice rests on his reputation for being the best when it comes to secrecy and safety. If it gets out that a child was able to enter his stronghold, assault his legion of bodyguards, and get information about his clients out of him, he'll never get another contract again. Kundan will try his hardest to keep the matter quiet."
"Which means we still have the element of surprise." Doctor Fahim said. "You have to remember that Kundan isn't even sure which one of his contacts you were after, and why. The meeting place has been arranged by Alok Mehta, and will be heavily guarded. He will bank upon the fact that it would be impossible for anyone to fight through the army of armed men to get to him."
"But that is what I'll be doing?" Neel asked, looking at Doctor Fahim and Arjun.
"Something similar." Doctor Fahim said. "We will go into that later." He nodded to Divya.
She opened the picture of a poster onscreen. "A concert in aid of wildlife has been arranged by Phlicer, with famous singers performing in support." she told Neel. "The concert will take place at Charkha Stadium, and we think the meeting will take place in a small cabin at the back of the grounds."
"It doesn't seem like a very safe choice." Neel commented. "He's picked a really public spot for the meeting."
"On the contrary, Saket is making a very smart move." Arjun said. "The place will be swarming with Mehta's security personnel without anyone thinking it strange. People will be too busy with the concert to care about what happens in the hut, and a charity concert is not a place the police would suspect of being a set up for any illegal activities."
"Okay." Neel nodded. "So I just jump in and start interrogating, like I did with Kundan?"
"It's a little more complicated than that." Arjun said, folding his hands across his chest. "Saket is not a coward like Kundan, and your bully tactics won't work on him. You will have to be more subtle."
"So how will I get the information from him?" Neel asked him.
"You won't." Doctor Fahim said. "This time your role will be a different one. You will be the diversion while your partner does the work."
"I'll remind you that the situation is much more dangerous this time.' Arjun added. "This is not the controlled situation you faced in Kundan's gym. There are innumerable factors to account for in these type of situations, and things can go very wrong. Planning can only get you so far. A lot will depend on your presence of mind."
Neel nodded. "I think I can handle it." he said. "But who is going to come with me?"
"Our choices are very narrow, for people with an in depth knowledge of the case as well as cybernetics." Doctor Fahim said. "You and Divya will be going to the concert."
"Oh!" Neel stared in surprise at Divya, who grinned back at him.
The cool night air swept through the stadium as Divya got out of the rented car. This was a lot more field work than her job required, but she was the one who had suggested the plan in the first place when the operation was being planned, and she was the only person in the inner circle of the project who had the skills and knew enough about the case to know what to look for in the laptop. The plan was simple as long as nothing unexpected occurred. She hoped it would go as smoothly as the earlier one had. Crowds milled around her, waiting for the concert. Most of them were college level youngsters, but some older fans of the band were also present. Even though the entire concert was only a front, Mr. Mehta could not be accused of skimping on the arrangements. A vast canopy had been erected, the area inside the tent brightly lit and extensively decorated. Giant helium balloons were tied to the canopy and floated high in the air, featuring the band and wildlife aid posters. Several refreshment stalls had been set up outside which were attracting a lot of customers. It was hard to imagine the scene of cheerful revelry as a facade for criminal activities.
After a few minutes of waiting beside her car, Divya saw Neel heading towards her. He was wearing ordinary clothes and carried a bag over his shoulders.
"Hi." Neel said when he reached her. "The concert won't start for another half hour."
"I know." Divya said, greeting him with a smile. "Did you get here very early?"
"I've been here for half an hour, looking around, like Arjun told me to." Neel said. "I told my mom I was coming to see the concert with some friends from class who'd managed to get the tickets, and that they'll drop me back in their car when it's over. It took a while but she agreed. There are four rooms spread over the grounds, but there's only one place where the meeting can be held where no one can disturb the conference asking for the bathroom. It's behind the stadium and away from the other rooms."
"Then that's your position." Divya said. "We'll hang around till we see Malik leave for the meeting. You remember exactly what you have to do, don't you?"
"Yeah." Neel affirmed. He had been uneasy about putting Divya in an unsafe position. But she was necessary for the mission, and as long as he did his job she shouldn't be in any danger.
"Then all we can do for now is wait." Divya said. She took out her mobile and sent Doctor Fahim a message confirming their arrival. The two stood leaning against her car, watching the crowd around them.
Neel wondered what to say. They had not talked much outside of the extensive interviews about his health and capabilities. He had developed a slight crush on Divya ever since meeting her in the hospital, although he knew it was pointless. She was very pretty, but several years older than him. She had always been nice to him, and he felt more comfortable around her than most of the others at Swan labs. She was the youngest by several years compared to the other people involved in Project Alpha and despite their age difference, nearest to his own age. Now Neel found himself wondering about her age.
"So, how did you get involved in this Alpha thing?" he asked her. "You don't really fit in with the whole military part of this project."
"I never did." Divya said with a shrug. "I was just working on the experiments. I was studying in the college where Doctor Fahim was working on his research. They didn't really believe he would be able to pull off what he was trying to create, but they had a lot of respect for him because of his professional reputation. He taught our batch a few classes, and I was working on a thesis for my PhD. He'd seen my work and knew I was primarily interested in research. He preferred working alone, but he was getting on in his years. He needed someone to help him with the investigational part of the experiments. After college was over, he offered me a job as his assistant."
"Right from the start the whole experience was absolutely fascinating. The work up to that point had been mainly experimental, but Doctor Fahim had already achieved significant results with mice. It took us a year to finally test the serum successfully on rhesus monkeys. Two years later, we were getting very close to achieving our goal. That was when the army contacted us, and took over the project. It was announced to the academic community that the serum was a failure. Doctor Fahim and I were sworn to secrecy and forbidden to tell anyone about our actual results."
"So you couldn't even get your PhD?" Neel asked sympathetically.
"Actually, I did." Divya grinned. "I chose a much more interesting subject for my thesis. It was on the serum, and was approved through Doctor Fahim, and then locked away by the government and never mentioned again."
"Doctor Fahim told me how all of this is still part of an experiment." Neel remarked.
"Yes, and you are the first human test subject." Divya said.
"Yeah, I know." Neel said. He had heard that often enough. "But the experiment is successful so far, right?"
"Oh yes, so far, it's a great success." Divya said. "There were so many factors to account for, so many uncertain outcomes. Yet here you are tonight, a fully functional Alpha Soldier!"
"What do you mean, uncertain outcomes?" Neel asked her curiously.
"Like we told you, you are the first human test subject." Divya said. "It was not always possible to predict exactly what the effect of the serum would be on the human physiology. There were a lot of things that could potentially have gone wrong."
"Like what?" Neel asked.
"Like the tests you went through at Swan labs." Divya said. "The serum augments a human beings natural abilities, but that can be a handicap as well. For instance, your eyesight is improved considerably, is it not? You can see very clearly at night."
"Yeah." Neel affirmed.
"But another effect of the serum on your eyes could have been to increase your retina's sensitivity to such an extent that you could not open your eyes in the morning or in any a bright area without experiencing severe discomfort." Divya said. She looked at him soberly. "We even had a pair of glasses prepared specially for the purpose, in case it really happened. Fortunately, we never had to use them. Your corneas are thicker and stronger, and allow just enough light in to allow your retina to function properly. Although bright flashes of light in your eyes will affect you worse than normal people."
Neel was silent, digesting this new aspect of the serum that he had never realized before. "Anything else?" he asked.
"Your nose." Divya said. "Have you noticed any dramatic increase in your smelling sense?"
Neel shook his head, surprised that he hadn't noticed that fact before. "It's slightly better than before, but nothing like how my eyes and ears have improved."
"Imagine if your sense of smell had really increased to that extent." Divya said. "The entire world would have been a giant bouquet to you. But not a fragrant one. Perfumes and deodorants are popular because most of the world smells terrible. And you would have had to endure it all the time."
"So why doesn't that happen?" Neel asked, leaning in with a frown on his face.
Divya was silent for a long moment, and seemed to be avoiding his gaze. "Because," she said slowly, finally looking at him. "The doctors performed a small surgery on your nose to partially numb your nasal receptors and reduce their natural smelling ability."
"What!" Neel stared at her in amazement.
"Believe me, Neel, It was absolutely necessary." Divya said earnestly. "You can't imagine what a horrible time you would have had otherwise. You can close your eyes and shut your ears, but the sense of smell can't be controlled so easily. You would have been completely overwhelmed and nauseated most of the time."
Neel stared at her. He still felt indignant at having had drastic surgery done on him and never being told. But now he was also thinking about the world her words had conjured up. "I guess it's true." he said slowly. "I can barely concentrate because of the noise around me, and I have to use those earphones every night when I want to get any sleep. But smell would be even harder to manage." He shuddered as he imagined going to the restroom or standing next to his sweaty friends after a game with an acute sense of smell. At least two of them considered passing gas an amusing pastime.
"Exactly." Divya agreed. "The precaution was absolutely necessary to ensure your peace of mind. There was also the matter of your skin."
"What about my skin?" Neel asked, staring down at the back of his hand.
"It's much tougher than ordinary now." Divya said. "That is why you can even punch through concrete without breaking your skin. But it could also have meant that your skin had become like a rhinoceros's hide, and lost its feeling."
"I can feel things fine." Neel said, closing his fist experimentally. "I sure felt all those rubber bullets I practiced with. So why is that?"
"Doctor Fahim had evolved a theory when we were making the serum, and we're fairly certain it's the right one." Divya said. "We believe that, along with your skin, the sensory receptors on the surface of your skin have become more active as well. Which means that the combination of your toughened skin and extra sensitive nerve endings allows you to feel like a normal human being. If you had had only sensitive cells, and not the extra tough skin, you would have felt everything much more intensely, including taste.
Neel ran his tongue inside his mouth experimentally, a frown on his face.
"You would never have been able to eat spices or sugar or any other strong flavor." Divya remarked. "The sense of taste would have been too much for your mind to process. Your sensory nerves would have overloaded."
"You might have also noticed your appetite is the same as before the accident." Divya continued. "Even though you lead an impossibly active life now. If an ordinary person tried to do what you do, his body's energy would run out in half an hour."
"I never thought about that before." Neel said slowly. It was true he had not felt any change in his appetite since the accident. "I guess I should be eating more if I need more energy. But I don't get any more hungry than usual. Doctor Fahim told me to eat a lot of glucose, but that's it."
"The serum is responsible for that, too." Divya said. "Ordinarily, our bodies are able to extract sixty percent of the total energy from the food we eat. Carbohydrates and fats are normally very hard to digest. But your biological functions have become much more efficient, so that your body can extract as much as ninety nine percent, which means that you receive much more energy from a meal than an ordinary person. If not for that efficiency, you would have literally dropped dead from exhaustion long ago."
"Wow." Neel stared in front of him. "I never realized there were so many things that could have gone wrong with me."
"The likelihood was always very less." Divya hastened to assure him. "We were quite sure the serum was fit for human use before we gave it to the army. I'm just trying to make you understand that your own case had served to confirm our theories in the real world. It required high precision work in a completely new field, and it took Doctor Fahim three decades of extremely demanding research to bring it to where it is now. He's had to travel all over the world, consulting with other experts and experimenting all the time to finally achieve his goals."
"He must've been really dedicated to the work." Neel said, impressed. "I can't imagine working on something for so long, without friends or family or anything. I'd go insane. It must've been so lonely."
"He had a family." Divya said.
Neel stared at her in surprise. "Doctor Fahim is married?" Somehow he found it hard to imagine the doctor as a family man. He seemed to belong in a research lab.
"He was once." Divya said, her voice becoming quieter. "A long time ago." Her tone had changed and suddenly become very sober.
"So what happened?" Neel asked
"I'm not sure." Divya said with a slight shrug. "He doesn't like to talk about it too much. But we spent a lot of time together in the last three years, and I found out some things about his past in that time. He had a wife and a son once."
"When was that?" Neel asked with interest.
"Three decades ago." Divya said, and nodded slowly as Neel looked at her in surprise. "Yes, Doctor Fahim's hard work on the serum was more than just scientific curiosity. He was a professor in a college a long time ago. He was married to a girl called Noor whom his parents had arranged for him to wed."
"So what happened? They didn't get along?"
"Yes, they did." Divya said. "He loved her dearly. Doctor Fahim said they were the first year of marriage was the happiest time of his life." She took a deep breath. "Unfortunately, Noor passed away while giving birth to their son Asif. Doctor Fahim tells me that to this day he feels guilty because, even with all his knowledge and work on the human body, he wasn't able to help her. After her death, he raised his son alone."
"Then one day he got the message from Doctor Thompson inviting him to Africa."
"Did he leave his son back at home?" Neel asked quietly. He was remembering his own father, who had gone to Africa, leaving behind his pregnant wife, and then never returned…
"His son went with him." Divya said. "And that was their biggest mistake. The work was very hard and the conditions very poor. The local people were unfriendly, and only willing to help in exchange for money. There was a viral infection sweeping across the area, and the jungles they were working in were prime breeding grounds for it."
"Doctor Fahim's son died there. There wasn't even anyone of his family left to send the body back to, and he was cremated in Africa." Divya shifted in her seat, her eyes sad. "Doctor Fahim tells me that he went into depression from that day on. He says that the research saved his life at that point, since the only reason he had to get up in the morning from them on was to study the serum. He felt that the only way to make up for not being able to save his wife or his son was to use the discovery to help mankind."
Divya fell silent, studying the ground, and Neel stood staring at her in shock. He could never have imagined that the twinkling eyes of the doctor held such a miserable past locked away.
"And that's why he fought with General Bakshi to keep you safe, and a part of Project Alpha." Divya said, looking at him with a small smile. "It's why he is so proud of you. Through you, the serum is being used to help the country like he'd always wanted it to."
Neel did not know how to respond, and again, he could only stare at her. "He never made it seem like a big deal." he said finally. "He didn't try to pressure me like the General did or anything. I never realized this meant so much to him."
"Doctor Fahim told me once that you when you reach a certain age you realize your own desires mean very little in the grand scheme of things." Divya said slowly, a faraway look on her face. She was thinking about her parents, and what they would say if they were to see her now. "You just deal with whatever life gives you and try to fit your personal needs to it as best as you can. He's thinking about what's best for the project now, not his own dreams. And whatever way we prepared you, it is what has brought you to this point." Neel nodded slowly.
The crowd had begun to move in the direction of the stage. Divya looked at her watch. "Ten minutes to the start of the concert." she said. "We'll stay here until Saket arrives, and then follow him in."
"We won't have to wait long." Neel said, pointing towards the entrance gate. A black Tata Sumo had entered the stadium. Mr. Malik Saket stepped out and peered at the concert banner. His harsh, brutal face held a look of complete authority as he surveyed the grounds. Neel was surprised to see only a couple of body guards with him. But then he noticed that many tough looking men in the crowd nodded to the guards and Saket and realized most of the guards were undercover.
"Let's go in." Divya said. "The concert starts in five minute. Try to look normal."
"What do you mean, try?" Neel asked indignantly.
Twelve minutes later, the entire stadium was filled with a deafening roar as Euphoria took the stage. They waved to the crowd, smiling broadly, and then immediately launched into one of their most popular songs. Neel hastily took out the noise cancelling headphones he had brought with him and put them on, ignoring the people in his vicinity who were looking at him strangely. The crowd grew even more loud and boisterous as the toe tapping music of Phir Dhoom filled the stadium. Ten minutes later, Neel saw Malik leave the stadium with a seedy looking man.
"It's time." he said to Divya.
Mr. Malik Saket walked towards the solitary empty room behind the stage. His guards fanned out in all directions. It wasn't really necessary to have so much security for this meeting, but he wanted to impress Kundan's assistant with a sense of his power. However, the assistant seemed almost glad to see so many bodyguards.
"Pleasure to meet you, sir." he said in a high, slightly nasal voice, shaking Malik's hand. "Mr. Kundan is sorry he could not come to meet you personally, but a small security matter has come up. You understand how dangerous his work is."
"I don't care who I deal with as long as the job gets done." Malik said curtly, switching on his laptop. "Let's talk. Our business with Kundan is almost over but there are a few more things we need. See these blueprints?" he turned the laptop to face the assistant. "It's a molten salt reactor which has been developed at the B.A.R.C. by Doctor Rajesh Sinha. It was personally designed by Sinha and is under lock and key most of the time. We need it within two weeks."
The assistant looked astonished. "That's a very short time…" he began to say.
But suddenly the roof of the room trembled, and then a fist punched through it. Before either of the men could react, the hole was made bigger by hands tearing out chunks of cement, and in the next second, a black clad figure had leapt into the room.
Malik backed up rapidly against a wall. Kundan's assistant was frozen in fear. All he could do was whimper, "Don't hurt me." The figure knocked him unconscious with a punch and turned towards Malik. Malik could hear his men coming to the door. He reached for his gun. But before he could even raise it, the figure had grabbed the gun and crushed the barrel close. Malik stared at him in amazement, and noticed the intruder was too small to be an adult.
"Mr. Saket, we need to have a little talk." the figure said, and Malik realized he was indeed very young, maybe a teenager. He grabbed Malik by the waist and broke through the door. The bodyguards, who had drawn their guns, now froze, unable to get a clear shot at the assassin.
"Take out the magazines from your guns and throw them away." the assassin said. The guards hesitated, but at a nod from Malik they obeyed, the stage hiding the strange little drama from the eyes of the audience. "Good." the assassin said. "Now don't stop to pick up your guns before following us, I may have already killed him by then."
With that, the assassin bent and leapt fifteen into feet into the air, landing twenty feet away. He leapt again, this time moving thirty feet ahead.
The guards were too stunned to react at first. But then they quickly scrambled after the diminishing figure of the assassin.
Several feet ahead of them, Malik was sailing through the air. Nothing in his vast experience had happened to prepare him for this, and he had no idea how to handle the situation. "What do you want from me?" he shouted at his assailant.
The kid came to a stop outside the grounds and dropped him. He lay on the floor, staring at the figure in the dim light.
"You're a famous man, Mr. Saket." the kid said. "Lots of people you've double crossed. Maybe one of them sent me to kill you."
Malik had regained his poise by now. He sat up slowly on the ground. "If you'd wanted to kill me, you could've done it in that room. But apparently you want to threaten me instead. Since you seem to know a lot about me, you should know who I work for, so it's impossible that you'd think one little boy could scare me."
"You just saw me punch through the roof, do you really want to talk about what's possible and what's impossible?" the kid said quietly.
Malik stared at him, remembering the giant leaps. "What's your name? Who do you work for?" he asked.
"Than what do you want from me?" Malik yelled.
"To show you I'm keeping an eye on you." the figure turned to leave, then turned back and added, "Say hi to Kundan from me." With that he jumped into the air, disappearing from sight, just as the bodyguards came running to Malik.
Back in the small room behind the stage, Divya stood in front of Malik Saket's laptop. Kundan's assistant still lay unconscious on the floor. The first part of the mission had gone smoothly. All the guards had gone after Saket and Neel, but there was no guarantee for how long they would stay away.
She inserted a pen drive into the laptop. The laptop was heavily encrypted and protected by innumerable security measures. It would have been virtually impossible to access under normal circumstances. She had been given the assignment because of the possibility that the unprotected laptop might still have been some security measures left to hack through. But now it all lay open in front of her. She swiftly sifted through the data on the laptop, copying everything that seemed important. List of security personnel. People visiting the company. Various machines and equipment dealt with recently.
Finally, Divya was satisfied that she had everything of importance. She took out the pen drive and exited the room swiftly. She was making her way back to the stadium when a voice came to her ears.
"Hey, you!" the alarmed voice shouted. One of the guards had come back to check on the laptop, and seen her suspiciously near the room. Divya did not turn, but continued to walk swiftly towards the stadium. The guard hesitated, wondering whether he should follow her. But then he made his way to the cabin to check whether the laptop was safe.
Divya made her way through the roaring crowd and out of the concert hall. She checked her watch. Neel should be leaving Saket and returning to his house. She made her way to her car, sending another message to Doctor Fahim confirming the success of the mission. She hoped the information on the pen drive would be worth letting the enemy finally see the Alpha soldier.
Half an hour later, Malik stood in front of Mr. Mehta in his office at Phlicer.
"… He threw me down and got away before the guards could get there. Srivastav said he saw a girl near the room when he went back. But the laptop was safe, and he can't be absolutely sure if she'd actually gone into the room. Our men searched the area but the kid had disappeared. I don't know who would use such type of an agent."
Mr. Mehta leant forward, his expressionless face showing nothing of what he felt. "And what did you say the boy did?" he asked.
"He could punch through walls, move faster than I could see and jump thirty feet in the air." Malik said, anger struggling with awe in his voice. "I wouldn't have believed it was possible if I hadn't seen it myself. And when I asked Kundan's assistant, he admitted the kid had trashed Kundan's gym and security guards a few days ago. Single handed."
Mr. Mehta nodded, staring silently ahead. Malik waited for him to speak, but he remained in his reverie.
"What does this whole business mean?" Malik finally growled. He was filled with a cold fury. Everything about the intruder had been a mystery. And Malik hated mysteries. He hated not knowing the enemy and not being able to prepare an attack against them.
Mr. Mehta leaned back in his chair. "It means," he said slowly. "That Project Alpha is a success." He stared at the opposite wall, still lost in thought. "How very interesting." he murmured.
"Project Alpha?" Malik frowned at him in confusion. His employer knew of his dislike for working in the dark. But Mr. Mehta very rarely shared all his thoughts with anyone. "What is that?"
"The distant cousin of Kumbhkaran." Mr. Mehta said quietly. Malik gazed at him in shock as he rose to his feet.
"Very well, Malik." he said calmly. Even the news of the botched meeting had not elicited any emotion from those curiously impassive eyes. "We won't need Kundan anymore. We will find another way to finish the deal with Fuji Yama. Reschedule our appointment with them for next week and triple the security around the Phlicer complex. Give guns to all the guards. Send Joshi to me with the head of the engineering department. I need them to make something for me."
As Malik left, Mr. Mehta walked over to the window, watching all the workers beneath the size of ants toiling away. This little incident opened up vast possibilities but...
A little more caution would now be required.