Dr Venkatesh glanced up at the shimmering strips. Turning towards him and drawing slightly apart, the seemingly weightless entities invited him to step down towards them, to stand in their midst. Sometimes there were audible sounds, such as chirps or deep groans. No actual words were said. Nevertheless, the professor found it possible to understand what was expected of him. This was believed to be a form of telepathy. If so, it was extremely subtle, not involving words or images. Whatever the method of delivery, the professor complied with the invitation without hesitation.
There was no pain involved in what followed, no discernible, quantifiable discomfort. Yet, the small man’s hair stood up on end. He sweated. His pulse was elevated. He claimed that his mind was a perfect blank. But the truth was that he emptied his consciousness of thought and thus remained stubbornly empty by sheer force of will. He hated every moment that he spent in this condition, surrounded by vast unknowable beings, refusing to think, refusing to let them enter his thoughts. After perhaps one hour, the audience was over.
When he had returned to Human Space, Dr Venkatesh was permitted two hours for recovery. He changed into fresh clothes, replenished the water he had lost from sweating and ate a substantial lunch.
Then it was time to meet the members of the PCC.
The PCC campus had been set up within the grounds and building of what had been the Ashoka Hotel in central Delhi. The meetings were always held within an underground banquet hall, a space that had once been the venue of countless weddings. Venkatesh was escorted to the chamber by helmeted, armoured guards. They opened the ornately decorated doors and immediately withdrew.
Inside, council members were seated in a cluster in the centre of the room, each one behind a desk. Three of them had cups of tea or coffee in front of them, while one had a bottle of water. The professor had a winged armchair to sit in, facing them. He had a small side table to himself and his own cup of tea. He rarely ever got around to drinking it.
There were always four council members, the same four: two men and two women.
“Good afternoon, Professor,” said the general representing the People’s Republic of China. She wore a crisp khaki uniform with medals on her chest. She spoke through an electronic interpreter. Each of the others heard her via earbuds in whatever language they preferred. “Thank you for joining us today.”
Before the general could continue, she was interrupted.
“What can you tell us?” This was the general from the European Federation. He had a thatch of unruly white-blond hair, pale blue eyes and a craggy, permanently frowning face. He wore an aggressive all-black uniform with epaulets, medals, brass studs – the works. “Anything of note?” His voice had a weary edge even via the translation device.
Dr Venkatesh cleared his throat and shifted in his seat. “Uhh...” he began, speaking into a discretely placed body mic, “that is to say...no. Nothing.” The European general groaned aloud, pinching the bridge of his nose.
Then he drew in his breath and jumped to his feet. “All right,” he said, in a low, furious voice. “I’ve had enough. I’m not going to take it any longer –”
Dr Venkatesh blinked and swallowed. He got to his feet as well. “Sir, there’s nothing I can do about the lack of a result,” he said. He tried to keep his voice calm. “Believe me, performing this task is not my choice. If anyone else could take my place, I would gladly let them do it.”
The Chinese general was about to speak again when the woman with the polished ebony skin and dense halo of orange hair, representing the combined Americas, said, “I see the general’s point.”
As all eyes turned towards her, she got to her feet, achieving a towering height in her six-inch scarlet heels, her chic, floor-length black robe with scarlet flounces at the shoulders. “We’ve been at this for...how long? Six days? Seven?” she continued.
“I agree with my European colleague. We have had enough. We need to know what lies ahead for us. For this planet. For our...species.” She looked directly at the professor now. “Come on. You have to be able to tell us something!”
“But, Madam, I –” began the professor.
She stopped him with an imperious gesture. “No! I’m sorry, Professor. This is not good enough. We need more.”
She paused and looked around before continuing. “You and you alone have been invited into the presence of these beings who have, with no warning, taken over our entire planet. How they’ve done it, we do not yet know. One day we’ve never heard of them, and the next day they’ve taken over the world. No weapons, no conflict, no mode of travel – yet there they are. Everywhere. In every country, in every small village and town. These dangling, shimmering strips, suspended in mid-air! Emitting odd sounds! Issuing mysterious wordless orders! They defeated us before we even knew we’d been invaded. We don’t know what they want, we don’t know how to oppose them, we barely know who or what they are. This is intolerable!”
She looked hard at Dr Venkatesh. “According to you, the call to approach the Home Space came in the form of an absolute conviction that arose from within, apparently telepathically, to go to the New Fa clearing. You went there, you halted at the impenetrable barrier, whereupon a portal opened, through which you, and you alone, were allowed to pass.”
Biting her lips, as if attempting to control her temper, she continued, “The whole world has been waiting and wondering, waiting and watching. Yet every day you present us with exactly nothing. Surely, as a man of science, as a sentient being, you can understand that an entire planet cannot wait indefinitely? Surely you realise –”
The fourth delegate, a pale willowy man, wearing a sober, steel-grey business suit and representing United Africa leaned forward, cutting in. “Excuse me, I’m not happy with the term you used just now, Madam Americas. I do not rush to conclusions about this issue of ‘defeat’. After all, the Fa are merely amongst us. That is not the same as ‘defeat’. True, they are everywhere. True, they have the ability to move people and physical objects in ways that we cannot explain or resist. But so what? To the best of our knowledge, they have caused very little actual damage. No demands upon our resources –”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” the European general exclaimed. “Let’s just agree that earth has been invaded, okay? By a superior power.
What I find quite bizarre is that this superior power has chosen to create its headquarters...where? In INDIA! Land of inefficient plumbing and a billion contradictions. Uncertain power supply and quarrelsome people. Too many languages and too many gods. I mean, do I need to go on? In the 150 years since the end of the Second World War, the rest of the world has managed to solve these problems. Even Africa. Even the rest of South East Asia. Even, God save us, Brazil.” He waved a hand towards the relevant representatives.
He was panting now, his face red.
“But here? Noooo! Here, a state of primordial chaos reigns. Here, the traffic is jammed because of cows. The trains are late because of the rains. The streets are flooded because of the blocked drains. And yet...where do the silent Shimmerers pick as the preferred spot for their Home Base? Here! And who is their preferred interpreter? An Indian! I simply cannot accept that!”
Dr Venkatesh felt the surface of his skin heat up and grow damp with sweat once more despite the air conditioning. He hated confrontations. As a young boy he could remember physically wriggling and bending away from situations involving other people. They would get irritated because he could never give answers quick enough for them. He was highly intelligent and very good at his studies, but he had to think through his verbal responses. He liked to be precise, he liked to be accurate and truthful. It meant that he needed to take his time. It also meant that people frequently wanted to slap him – and occasionally did.
He had learned as an adult to control the reflex to fold himself in half and crawl away. But inside his head he felt a sensation exactly as if he were attempting to curl himself into a tiny ball, rolling himself into a corner.
“Ahhm,” he began. “I wish I could help you. I...I want to help you. But there’s really nothing that I can to tell you. I go to the venue, I meet with the Fa and I...”
The European general’s eyes bulged, his lips drew back in a snarl and he lunged towards the physicist. The Chinese general, who was quick on her feet, spun around and hit the military man full in the face. “No! We can’t afford to fall apart this way!” she cried, as the other two representatives squawked aloud in surprise.
At that very instant, as Dr Venkatesh inched away from the furious general, he found the space around his body stretching and ballooning outwards. It was as if he was contained within a bubble of some sort. It was a bit like an infinitely elastic cling film covering him without restricting his movements. Outside of it, he could see the rest of the room frozen in place. Within it, he could move around with ease.
Hesitantly, he took a step forward. His scalp was tingling with amazement and curiosity. He took another step. The bubble, or whatever it was, moved with him. Meanwhile, the other people in the room remained frozen. Still as statues.
Dr Venkatesh walked slowly and wonderingly over to the Chinese general’s desk. He picked up the bottle of water that was there, still unopened. Then he returned to where he’d been standing, beside his chair. None of the four PCC members had so much as twitched an eyelid. A sense of sparkling enlightenment began to dawn within the professor’s head.
So, he thought. So!
He opened the bottle of water, drank from it and capped it once more. All the while, the invisible bubble kept him contained. He looked around the room thoughtfully. He could take his time, he realised. This was like his childhood habit of trying to escape physically from torment but transformed into a temporal bolthole: a bubble of time where he could not be reached. He had let his guard down in that moment of panic when the general came at him. His mind had curled in upon itself, rather like a turtle pulling in its limbs and head. In that instant, he had slipped into the bubble.
How will I get out of it, he wondered, even as the answer appeared in his head. Just reverse the turtle act. Unfold yourself.
Immediately, the room filled with sound. The two generals righted themselves. Madam Americas was staring strangely at Venkatesh. The African representative looked slightly ill.
“What?” asked Venkatesh, looking at the others as if they had said something to him.
“You...” began Madam Americas. She stopped and began again. “Something happened to you. I saw it. Just a blink. But I saw it.”
“Thinned out,” said the African rep, in a strangled tone of voice, as if he’d swallowed a toad. “I saw it too. Weird. I can’t explain it.”
Venkatesh’s mind was wonderfully calm. “I’m thinking, he said, as he twirled the water bottle slowly in his hands, “that perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I do have some news to share after all.”
“Come on, come on!” said the European general, waving his hands in the air, as belligerent as before. “Get on with it!” The Chinese general, though, stared at the water bottle. She recognised it as hers.
The physicist smiled. Perhaps for the first time since the assignment had begun, he was feeling happy.
“You know, General, what you were saying earlier? About the thousand ways in which India has resisted the modern world? I can well appreciate how irritating it is for you – all of you who transitioned to the digitised era with your perfect regularity, your punctuality, your precision! Yes, India is annoying. Yes, we appear dysfunctional. Yes, we lag behind in so many sectors that we seem to belong to an older, quieter time altogether. We move at our own pace. And that drives people like you mad, General.”
The general snarled and bristled, but his Chinese counterpart grabbed his arm. She was frowning, her gaze still on the bottle in the professor’s hand.
Venkatesh paused, holding up the water bottle. “You’ve noticed the bottle, Madam General? Yes, it’s from your desk. I walked over and picked it up. While the two of you were assaulting each other.” He glanced at the other two council members. They were staring at him with their mouths hanging open. “What you saw of me was a sliver of myself as I moved around in a bubble of expanded time. That’s why I looked weird.”
He took another sip from the bottle now. “So, here’s what I’m thinking: I don’t know why the Fa came to our planet, I don’t know what their plans for us are. All I am certain of is that they are benign. And the reason they chose India? Maybe it’s because of that quality the rest of you complain about when you come to this country: an altered sense of time. Not wrong, not late, not lazy, not stupid. Just...altered. Different from the rest of you speedy-needy types elsewhere on the planet.
“Maybe that’s what the Fa saw in us Indians: a fondness for stretching time. Maybe it’s an ability, not a liability. Maybe it’s a talent, not a defect. Of course, we’ve not been able to do what they do, which is flex the boundaries of the fleeting minute. But maybe they knew that Indians, more than any other humans, would be more receptive to learning their so-called ‘chronological otherness’? Maybe we have a natural talent for learning their techniques of time-bending and chrono-stretching? Moulding it to suit our needs, rather than being imprisoned by it? Maybe that’s what they’ve been passing on to me during my time with them.”
He put the bottle down on the table next to him. “And now, if you don’t mind, I’ll take your leave and return to the Fa. I believe I have finally understood how to receive their instructions.”
The four members of the council watched in silence as Venkatesh thinned out before their eyes. They heard a few indistinct chirps and clicks. A moment later, he was gone.
Excerpted with from The Gollanncz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, edited by Tarun K Saint, Hachette.