CHAPTER 4: New Limits

Swan Laboratories was a 200 acre complex located outside the city. Every inch of the complex had been used in military research projects. Now, the innermost part was being remodeled for a new use.

The man took Neel through the tiny supply room they had entered, and out into the open ground. As they walked across the complex, Neel noticed that the huge area seemed entirely deserted.

"Are the people working on the project the only ones who come here?" he asked.

"The buildings are cleaned and restocked at night by army personnel." the man said, not slowing down the speed of his rapid strides for an instant. "During the day, only those who are intimately connected to the project are allowed inside. All other visitors are stopped outside by the guards. Officially, this place has been reassigned for the storing and research of medicine supplied to the army." He took Neel to the central building, a white, six storey structure that looked as commonplace as the rest of the complex. They stepped inside a large lobby that looked a little like the waiting room of a hospital. Making their way up the stairs to the second floor, Neel saw a room marked DOCTOR A. FAHIM at the end of the corridor. They reached the room and the man opened the door, ushering Neel in. A chill ran through Neel that had nothing to do with the cold air coming from the air conditioner as he stepped inside.

The room was large and airy, with a desk and chair in the centre, and a shelf full of thick and richly bound volumes in a corner. There were four people in the room. Doctor Fahim sat behind the large desk. Divya was seated in the chair opposite him. There was a sofa arranged at the side on which sat two men who looked at Neel with great interest as he entered the room. Doctor Fahim rose from his seat.

"Good afternoon, Neel." he said with a smile. "And welcome to Swan Labs." Divya rose and smiled at him as well. The other two men in the room did not rise but continued to stare at him. Neel heard the door close behind him, and turned to see that the man who had brought him there was gone. Neel walked over to Doctor Fahim and shook his hand.

"You have already met Divya." Doctor Fahim said. He turned and introduced him to the two men. "This is General Arihant Bakshi, the Chief of Army Staff of the Indian army. And this is Mr. Subroto Rai, the defense Minister of India. They are the sponsors for this project."

Mr. Rai shook Neel's hand politely. Neel had seen him on the news several times, and tried to hide the shock he had felt upon seeing him. The Minister was clean shaven, and had a kind, alert face, although he looked tired at the moment. General Bakshi's face held a sternness that reminded Neel unpleasantly of his math teacher, Ticolo. He merely nodded, a slight frown on his face as he said, "I hope you understand what a big responsibility you have now that you are a part of this project."

Neel was taken aback by the abrupt remark, but before he could answer, Mr. Rai broke in.

"Calm down, General, don't make him more nervous than he already is." He smiled at the young boy. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Neelanchan. On behalf of the government of India, and the indian army, we wish you the best of luck with the program."

"Thank you, sir." Neel said awkwardly, feeling extremely self conscious. "I'll, er… try to justify your trust."

"Divya, please take Neel to the gym." Doctor Fahim said. Divya nodded and moved to the door. She beckoned to Neel, who followed her quickly out of the room. Before the door closed, he distinctly heard General Bakshi say, "Remember our agreement, Doctor Fahim…"

As they walked down the corridor, Neel asked "General Bakshi didn't look very happy with me. Have I done something wrong already?"

"Don't worry about him". Divya said with a reassuring smile. "He's feeling sore. He has very definite ideas about how things should be done, and he doesn't like how your accident has changed the army's plans for the serum."

"Oh." Neel said, feeling the excitement that had been building up inside him since the morning fizzle out as though someone had thrown cold water on him. "I suppose he chose the passwords for today?"

"Well… yes, he did." Divya said, smiling apologetically.

"Great." Neel sighed. "Two minutes in and already they don't like me."

"It's nothing personal against you, Neel." Divya said. "He's just having trouble with the idea of a teenage soldier."

"One thing he and I have in common." Neel muttered.

"Well, don't worry about any of that, you don't have to deal with the General right now." Divya said comfortingly. "Just focus on the training. Take this whole experience one step at a time, and you'll be fine." Neel nodded silently. Perhaps it was only his imagination that Divya did not sound very confident.

"Do you know what this is?" Divya asked as they passed by a table in the lobby, trying to take his mind off the General's behavior. Neel had noticed the table when he had first entered the building. It had a jug of water and a packet of plastic glasses in a corner, and the middle was filled with packaged boxes which seemed to have arrived recently. "These are some of the things you will be using over the course of your time spent here. We need to confirm their proper dimensions and quality before they can be put to use. This material is quite interesting."

She took out a curious piece of black cloth and handed it to Neel. He unfolded it and ran his hand over it, and saw that it was in the shape of a full face mask. It looked like ordinary cloth but there was something different about it. "It feels strange." he said as he felt the texture.

"Its surface is covered with hydrophobic polymers." Divya said. She took the mask from him and held it out on her palm. "Watch this." She took the jug of water in her other hand and poured it over the cloth, soaking it completely.

Placing the jug back, she handed the cloth to Neel. "Notice anything strange?"

Neel examined the cloth. It was completely dry. Not a trace remained of the water it had been drenched in seconds ago. "How did you do that?"

"They're called nanofibres." Divya said, smiling at his look of amazement. "They're a new type of clothes that uses nanotechnology to create a special surface on the clothes. No amount of dirt or fluid or oil can stick on its surface. It all rolls away, leaving the clothes completely clean. Quite interesting, isn't it?"

"I never knew these kind of clothes existed." Neel said, examining the cloth closely. But even his superior vision could not trace the tiny metallic spikes embedded on its surface.

"The world is a lot bigger and stranger than you realize, Neel." Divya said quietly. "You're scared right now, but think about all the new things you'll be discovering while you're here."

Neel nodded, the smile fading from his face as Divya's words brought his mind back to why he was there. "I know. I'm just a little nervous. But I'm not really scared or anything." His voice did not sound entirely convincing, even to his own ears.

"You certainly look scared." Divya remarked. She took out her mobile and turned on the camera. "Say cheese." She clicked the picture and flipped the mobile to show it to Neel. He stared at his picture. He looked completely bemused and lost, holding the mask and staring at the camera with a frozen expression. "Now does that seem like the face of a soldier?"

"I guess not." Neel admitted with a small grin, putting the cloth back on the table.

"So just stand up straight, be confident, and give the rest of the day a chance before you start feeling depressed, okay?" Divya said with an encouraging smile. Neel nodded, and the two continued on their way out of the building.

They arrived outside a large hall a hundred yards away from the main building, where the driver from the morning was standing waiting for them.

"This is Captain Arjun Shukla. He will be your trainer." Divya said, introducing Neel to the driver.

"Nice to meet you, Neel." the Captain said, shaking Neel's hand. For the first time since meeting him the man smiled. It was a slow, careful smile, as though he was unused to the gesture, but it was unexpectedly warm and comforting. "It seems you're capable of some amazing things. I'm glad we're working together."

"Yeah, me too." Neel said, shaking his hand. "Although I don't exactly know what I can do…" It was a point that had been preying on his mind a lot.

"We'll worry about that later." Captain Shukla said. He studied Neel for a moment, then spoke quietly, "I understand that this must all be new and intimidating for you. Just remember that we're all here to help you deal with your situation."

Neel nodded to him gratefully. He still remembered the sickening, panicked emotions he had experienced yesterday in his room. Those feelings were still present within him somewhere, but now he was also aware of one more thing. No matter what situation he found himself in now, he was glad he had people like Doctor Fahim and Divya and Captain Shukla to help him get through it.