Simulation City

Chapter 1­

The last train arrived at about a quarter past one. By then, the stragglers had cleared the station, and the few who remained didn’t have anywhere else to go. It was winter, and they were all wrapped up to their ears in rags patched together haphazardly. One of them peeked out periodically from within his little cloth-cove, and the eyes widened as the train groaned in.

A single passenger stepped out. Dressed primly in a brown trench-coat, and carrying a briefcase, he looked rather out of place in this sleepy old station. He was well built, and had a smile on his face that betrayed wonder at the world around him: he stared at everything as if he had imagined all of it into being.

The man peeking out of his makeshift blanket jumped up from the floor and cried out, in a flurry of joy. The passenger kept his briefcase down gently and threw his arms wide in a gesture of impending embrace. The man scurried up to him then. Yes, scurried, rather than walk, for outside, he revealed himself to be a rat. A rather dirty, disheveled but one very happy rat.

Bartholomew!”, cried the rat, tears in his eyes. “You’re here!”

Isaac! Dear Isaac!”, chimed Bartholomew in a metallic, hollow tone. “So this is where you live! Fascinating!”

The rat jumped away, with a sneer on his face. “Are you kidding me, you lunatic? This is the station! Who uses trains anymore, anyway?”

But Bartholomew had paced ahead, now peering deep into the eyes of a beggar, who’d been rudely interrupted in his sleep. Presently, Bartholomew was stuffing his hands with five pound notes, and patting them, which were trembling with an alcoholic’s shake. “Go buy some more drink, mister. You look like you—”

But Isaac the rat had promptly snatched away the notes and were stashing them inside his red corduroy trousers. “That’s enough of that. Here”, he flung the beggar a single note, who caught it and fled. “What, are you out of your mind?! Throwing out money like you’re a character in a Dickens novel?”

Who, or what, is a Dickens?”

A guy who wrote about poor buggers. Listen”, said Isaac, and clutched the robot’s shoulders and gazed at him in the light of the giant electronic clock standing at one lone corner. “I’m very happy to see you, you old pile of bolts!”

And I, you, dear, dear Bartholomew. Shall we embrace again?”

No! We discuss why you’re here, before you set one foot inside my city?”

Why, to meet Ursula, your daughter, and convince her that it’s okay to come back to Simulation City, now that the robots have taken over.”

And how will you do that, my boy?”

Make her fall in love with me!”

(To be Continued)

© Arnab Chakraborty, 2015



They stood like trees in the middle of the grasslands: large, white, blind trees. Four legs, and a head, but starched white, and no eyes. There weren’t very many of them around, but, their long heads dangling on their long necks, they’d start tossing them around almost at the same time, just slightly out of loop. Arranged in a row, but a little skewed, they resembled a maze asking you to enter.
We had been at the ramparts for nearly two months now. Hammers in hand, we had made our way through five such doors: giant mahogany entrances progressively leading onto the inner courtyards. We’d passed at least four marble fountains, each providing a clue as to who the inhabitants had once been.
We never lingered on the details. But we’d be lying if we said that it didn’t break us a wee little bit every time we took the blows to them. They crumbled into so many odd pieces, each etched with a part of their strange anatomies.
“Yeah, that’ll be the last of them, if I’m countin’ right”, said Gruy, wiping off sweat. “All the other ones had only four of ’em too.”
“What do you think they mean?”, I said, hoping for something in the way of a detailed reply.
Gruy was a good man, but he was not one for talk. “Who cares anyway”, he said, moving on to the next door, in the midst of the dust hanging in the air. “Strange people who don’t live here no more. Haven’t been seen for ages.”
“But aren’t you curious?”, I asked, hoping I hadn’t used up all of his patience just yet.
“Curious?”, he sneered, theatrically. “What did curiosity ever get us, boy? Did it help you get your dying wife bread, when the plague hit? Did it get you on good terms with those who gave us these”, he held the hammer up, “and asked us to go roamin’ the country, searchin’ for these castles?” He spat on the ground furiously. “Curiosity got us nowhere, and it’ll get us nowhere. If you are gonna ask more questions, you might as well be askin’ them blind buggers at the back.”
I wasn’t one to give up. He was a good man, Gruy was, and I knew he was an old softie at heart. All his family had been hammerheads, but he had that old strain of the storyteller in him. It was dying with time, true, but you sensed it teetering on the edge of his expression. And you swooped right after.
“You suppose they were wardens?”
“Of what?”
“Of these…beasts. They did find more strange critters in the rest of the castles, didn’t they?”
“Yeah, loads. Killed every last one of ’em.”
“But why?”
“Purging the land of the old ways. Legend has it”, he sat down on the patch of grass in front of the next door, “legend has it that they were men, just like you and me, who came to this land before we did, but they studied it.”
Something kindled in me like dry wood.
“Studied it?”
“Yeah. With their graphs and charts and strange machines. Went up and down and recorded events. Where the land had cracked, what beasts, where they made their homes. How old. That kind of stuff.”
“And then?”
“And then”, his voice trailed off. “Well, some say they disappeared. Vanished. Didn’t have no children.”
Outside, the tossing of the heads had increased in their fervency. They almost seemed like they were panicking. A wind has sprung up from nowhere, and if they were trees, their leaves would be swaying to and fro now, violently, greeting the coming storm.
The coming storm…I looked at the small, gray dwellings lining the mountains in the distance. Like so many ants, but dull, uninspired concrete slums turning a painting into a lifeless realm. Here and there, the old castles stood up, remnants of a distant time, soon to be taken down.
“Boy”, Gruy called. I had drifted off in my head. “Boy, you come here now. Enough with the stories. We need to get these done by tonight. Look, sun’s almost down.”
“I’m coming”, I said, listlessly. I’d seen paintings of the courtyards in old books these strange people had left behind, on display in the so called museums we had. The beasts had been all free, roaming around as if it was their home, curious and flattered at the visitors, who were no where to be seen.
In fact, no one knew what they’d looked like. They’d hidden their traces everywhere they’d gone.
Gruy was standing in front of the door, waiting. “I know this is dull, hard work, boy, but orders are orders, and work is rare here anyway”, he said to me, a hairy arm on my shoulder, comforting. “I had questions too, when I’d started out. Roughly your age, in another parta’ the land. Why did they have to kill them beasts? Could have done with a bit more color. Variety.”
“Chin up, old man”, he continued. “If my calculations are correct, right through this one is the main castle entrance. We’ll start on that tomorra’.”
We took to the wall with the same gruff determination that we’d had for the rest. “Just be glad they din’ ask us to do away with these blind, dumb beasts”, he screamed, in between all the commotion of regular blows. “I’ve grown quite fond of ’em, in my own way.”
The wall came crashing down, easily enough. And sure as rain, there stood the main building of the Castle. But we weren’t nearly as thrilled with the discovery as we’d imagined we’d be.
Right in front of it was a blind one, giant, towering, neck wrapped around a tower fondly, like a dog guarding his master’s home.
© Arnab Chakraborty, 2015

The Nest

When winter comes, it is a bright, blue bird leeching warmth off the land. It usually finds a place to roost: somewhere nice and large, preferably in the center of a large commune of houses and factories and wharfs. A sleepy town, say, with nothing going for it except the next day, and the day after, and so on and so forth, till the sun, bloated into a giant, protuberant mess, engulfs it one unassuming night.

Till then, matters so large and so distant hardly trouble the people of this city. There is but the bird, sitting idle in the middle of it all, gathering twigs and odds and ends and dressing up its nest.

A young girl, in her early twenties, wakes up one such dreary winter morning and peers out of her window. It is cold, yet it doesn’t seem to bother her, as her attention is caught by a water body right outside her house. It is a pond that has always been there, and will be there long after she has left the city and settled elsewhere. It is, fortunately, situated inside, tucked in where the masses will not get at it. It is beautiful, and quite lovely to spend time beside when you’re impatient and cannot think of much to do. But not nearly as many come to it as you’d think.

The girl’s attention however, is held taut by something shining on the surface of the water. It is not the winter sun falling a certain way on the waves. It is not an animal drifting, and nor is it a bauble someone has thrown over from one of the windows dotting the periphery of the lake. I do not know whether the girl herself knew what it was, but it seemed enough to have her dress hurriedly into a rather crumpled shirt and jeans and rush off to see.

As she ran (and she did run), the neighbourhood came alive around her. The noises and the murmurs grew and grew till they became an angry, garrulous creature, quite out of sorts with the redolent winter cold. It didn’t bother her; it didn’t bother her when one of the two old mainstays of the lake shouted out to her, “Where do you go in such a hurry, young Margaret?”, and it didn’t bother her when someone splashed a bucket of dirty water on a peacefully slumbering dog on the pavement, and it didn’t matter when the newspaper boy amost crashed his cycle into a rambling drunkard, but it did seem to her, in hindsight, that all these things happened at once and the same time. When something of import happens, everything else falls in line, or even better, overlaps. Such was the case today.

She reached the lake and waded in, and kept wading right in till she realized that she’d better stop, since she can’t swim. But that thing, that shine, leapt off the water and kept calling. It lay deeper, deeper inside, and not on the surface, as she’d thought. The light and the sun played round and round it creating a brilliant whirlpool of bright white, and blue. She stood enraptured, and it was only when someone inquired “What is it?” that her spell broke open, and she replied “I think I saw my father down there.”

Nonsense”, cried Miss Rudolph, an elderly inhabitant of this illustrious town. “I have known your father since he was but a child, and I remember the day he left this town and never set foot on it again.”

He died, Miss Rudolph. He died making a name for himself out there.”

Such as it may be, it couldn’t be your father down there. It could be another town, though: I seem to see spires, and little broken fences, overgrown with shrubbery.”

The newspaper boy and the drunkard and the old man and the dog had joined them by then. The boy said, “I think I see the most wonderful red cycle I have ever laid my eyes on”, and the drunkard drawled, “I think that’s a rather fancy little piano in the middle of that golden paved street. I have half a mind to play some mad tunes on it”, and the old man said, “Well, I’ll be, if that isn’t the most darndest sight ever! My old, lost jacket, and I’m wearing it too, but I’m from my War days!” All of them seemed to find new things to marvel at inside that white, bright spot. Their faces lit up with something akin to a madness, but a madness as close to joy as possible.

As if oblivious to all this, the girl kept speaking as if there was only Miss Rudolph there behind her, “My father was an inventor, Miss Rudolph. He was tired of this city. He was tired of you, and that old man, and this boy. He was rarely tired of animals though. So he left one day to make a name for himself in the world where he wouldn’t be as sure as any of you are. Less sure, less certain, but far happier”, she said, with contempt rife in her voice, “than any one of you.”

This stopped everyone’s bluster short, and some time followed before anyone dared move. The stupor was broken by the dog, who had swam right into the lake, waddling like a duck till he reached the middle where the whirlpool now had become more intense with the passage of the day. He seemed to bite hold of something and carry it back with him. He laid it, dripping, in Margaret’s hands.

It’s my father’s cap”, Margaret said, and wept for joy.

The dog, however, had leapt back into the water, to bring back more such things to everyone else standing behind her.

© Arnab Chakraborty, 2015

The Fold

The first time they entered the fold, he was all of sixteen, and she was frightened.

The fold was the least frightening place in the world, if you thought about it for a second. Well, technically, it wasn’t in the world, and time kind of stood still, and you never really aged, but you get the drift; you’ve read your science fiction. No, the fold was a peaceful, green land, with acre upon acre of grassland and large stretches of river meandering their way across the plains. The sky there was always blue, the clouds always wispy, and the air always fresh.

It didn’t have much in the way of animals, to be fair. In that sense it was a little dull. But tell that to two young kids from the suburbs in love, growing up in a filthy, choked city.

The first time they entered the fold, he was all of sixteen: full of the hopes, aspirations and energy that age brings with it, but none of the angst. And she found her orderly, usual life shattered by something a shy, lanky boy unassumingly introduced to the both of them.

She — we’ll call her Nina — was remarkably mature for her age, as most sensible girls of sixteen are, compared to their guy counterparts. She was a romantic, but didn’t have her head in the clouds like Gustav. It’s why she fell in love with him; it’s as things go. He meant for her everything she’d always wanted to be but couldn’t, while she, for him, was the bedrock in a world brimming with misguided energy. The two had a stormy, unusual friendship: a self-perpetuating motion machine always threatening to grind to a halt, but never quite getting there. They were in love.

Things started changing in the fold. You could blame time. Time, endless swathes of abandoned, sweet time — does things to a human being. Not so to an animal, mind. An animal is capable of infinite boredom, a profound laxness in the face of endless tedium. A human needs to keep moving. It needs to talk, make love, dance. If nothing else works, at least think.

Gustav and Nina, like most youngsters their age faced with an incredible luxury, opted for the most obvious route. They made love all day.

They frolicked, they gamboled, they kissed. It was never night, and they would much rather it was night at times, with deep purple skies and twin moons and all of that. It’s strange how typical the most perceptive, the most intelligent humans can be. Maybe there is some truth to stereotypes after all, they thought simultaneously, as they licked each others’ skin, and explored one another for the first time, in ways adults can only try for.

All of that lasted a good 6 months. Well, in earth time, that is. It could have been years there, for all you know.

It was then that they came across a dead end in their friendship. For once, back on Earth, things were calm too, almost peaceful. School had gotten over in the meantime, college had begun. Both of them had, predictably enough, landed in the same place. Both of them read like crazy. Both of them made new friends, but different friends. Their graphs approached each other for the first time, and attained a dull equilibrium. It’s the kind of thing that makes or breaks friendship, the kind of time when you need a jolt to the system, a crisis, to need each other again.

Well, there wasn’t any in the real world, and there sure wasn’t any in the fold.

Nowadays, their visits, while in no way infrequent, had become things of unease. What a strange turn of events! Imagine this little, peaceful heaven of space and quiet, become a testing ground for conversation.

Nothing came to their lips, however. The talk was strained, the thought behind it restless with a need to escape. They were recapitulating everything they did in real life, in here as well.

Then one day, as they were sitting together, idly murmuring about dull events back in college, idly brushing at the shrubbery and grass, Gustav’s fingers felt something hard underneath him. “That’s odd”, he thought. In all this time, they’d never come across anything remotely strange, or unfamiliar, in the fold.

He took to brushing away the soil, the feeling of anticipation mounting in him. She helped too, although she didn’t know to what end. They scrambled and dug and brushed, almost feverishly, trying to get at some truth. It was almost as if all the pent up energies of theirs in the fold was now manifesting itself in a useless gesture.

They found a finger. Then a hand attached to the finger. Then a limb, and a body.

Then several bodies.

Several bodies of two sixteen year old kids, who looked suspiciously like Gustav and Nina.

All the memories came flooding back then, caught in a moment of profound unease. There was no smell, the bodies showed no signs of decomposition. They could almost have been sleeping, but they knew they were really quite dead.

Their faces, however, were all smiling. An innocent something they suddenly remembered, memories suddenly flooding back inexorably.

Gustav and Nina fled the fold that day, but what they felt wasn’t fear. Not quite. I don’t think I can quite put in words what it was that they felt, because a place as incongruous and as illogical as the fold brings with it sensations even more incongruous and illogical. Emotions entirely unique.

They never returned. But they needed each other, suddenly, and they wanted to build something together again. Anything.

As long as it didn’t involve escape.

© Arnab Chakraborty, 2015