Ted Shanks woke up to the vibration of his alarm bracelet. His first instinct was to turn around and adjust himself into his usual left-side running position with the cushion under his bent right knee, for his post-sleep snooze. But he didn’t. He was too scared. For the last two months his snooze had been getting longer, and he, lazier. Yesterday, he had stayed dozing for six hours. He took a deep breath, unclipped the bracelet and sat up, reached for a switch on the bedpost, and pressed it to slide the blinds back. He looked through the clear vinyl-plastic of his window. Like any other day, it was completely dark. He gently touched the knob by the blind switches, and the lights came on with the brilliance of several suns, clear light but without an iota of heat. He pressed the switches again to open all the blinds of his unit; so if anyone were watching from outside, they would have gasped in wonder at the iridescence that spread into the blackness around. But then, of course, an observer would have only noticed the brightness but not have really seen anything. For the treated, high-tensile plastic allowed the lustre to radiate outwards, without compromising privacy. Clever, post-modern technology! But then, there wasn’t anyone outside, anyway. Not till Irkutsk.
Ted Shanks lived in Wonowon in what used to be Canada. He was the only resident of that part of the world. And was also the only person who hadn’t ever been to Mars. He was considered a bit of a crank and a retro, but meticulous in his work. So they let him continue there, and gave him an abode and safety jackets, food and electricity and transportation. Shanks liked to travel, and the government didn’t mind providing him the means, mainly the rocket and the heat resistant suits, needed for his jaunts. All he had to do in return was to attend to the maintenance on Earth which wasn’t much of a problem as it involved merely switching on and off knobs and pulling and pushing levers.
It was the year 2349 and the day was Friday, July 1st. Shanks looked at his old-fashioned calendar on the wall, which he had printed out himself. It wasn’t a new thought but it always made him smile when it crossed his mind: except for him, they had all moved to Mars but they still calculated time according to Earth days, even on Mars. It was partly to do with old habits and partly about not offending the clergy who held on tenaciously to the Gregorian calendar.
The only other settlement on Earth was at Irkutsk in Siberia; there were five persons there. But they were different from Shanks. They didn’t want to be there, and were just biding their time and waiting out their five years before they returned to Mars and were replaced by other government workers.
Shanks checked his hand-held device for his programme for the day – breakfast, bath, then a couple of hours of his favourite hobby – writing. He was teaching himself the Roman script. History tomes stated that writing had been abandoned in the 22nd century. Children then were sent to school and expected to master the two R’s – reading and arithmetic. After the writing practice Shanks would reward himself with chicken broth and an egg on toast, and then go out for a walk with Catatonic and Doggerel.
Shanks’ pets, Catatonic and Doggerel were the only ‘real’ company he had. Not that he missed anyone. For whenever he wanted he only had to cloudburst his friends on Mars; physical distance was irrelevant today. Sometimes he wished it weren’t. There were some persons he’d have loved to avoid…
Shanks got out of bed and walked over to an old photo hanging on the wall – it looked incongruous against the plastic and glass. He switched on a candle under the photo and bent his head in a moment of stillness. The subject of the photo, a blue-skinned, bare-chested man in a raiment of erstwhile South Asia, stood on the skin of the now extinct tiger. His knotty, black hair was tied up and a serpent (Shanks had seen pictures of these from the Martian Sanctuary) was coiled round his neck. Bowing to the picture was a daily ritual. There were times when he wondered why he did it, but he’d seen his father do it, and he felt good doing it too. His father himself hadn’t been too sure of the identity of the personage in the photo, except that he was a god from a South Asian pantheon, and more importantly, that their family name was derived from him.
Shanks retrieved a package from the freezer and micro-lasered it to prepare his favourite breakfast of paratha-dahi. He then peeped into the pet enclosure to see how Catatonic and Doggerel were. They seemed to have just finished a meal. Doggerel was busy cloudburst-chatting with his Martian dog friends. As for Catatonic, being an early riser, she was on the verge of falling into a mid-morning slumber. Shanks remembered reading, the previous day, in the History of the Earth from the Twentieth to the Twenty-second Centuries,that in those days, due to the lack of inter-species communication software, animals like Catatonic and Doggerel never liked to be together. Strange!
Finishing his bath, Shanks sat down to his writing. He practised by choosing something from one of the ancient texts and copied it down meticulously. He surfed his cloudomatic randomly. He’d do poetry today. That was more challenging because he had to break lines. He had learned all the twenty-six symbols of the Roman alphabet, but still had trouble with some. He found it difficult to distinguish between a capital E and an F. Likewise he had trouble with P and R. His tablet threw out a verse, and Shanks meticulously started to transcribe
April is the cruellest month…
Shanks had been writing for two hours his brow furrowed in deep concentration and beads of sweat shining on his upper lip with the effort, when he heard the barking and the mewing. He realised that Doggerel and Catatonic were standing by his table trying to catch his attention. ‘All right, amigos,’ he laughed. ’I didn’t realise it was so late... I’ll complete this tomorrow. I think I’m finally getting the hang of stylus-writing!’
Shanks got ready to go out; he put on his protective clothes and helmet and strapped on his oxygen mask. He went over to the pet enclosure and retrieved the animal suits. The pets cheerfully let themselves be helped into their suits and were soon securely zipped up. All their suits had torchlight fixtures that automatically illuminated their way. Nowadays, Shanks did not bother to keep the animals on a leash when they went out, because they knew the protocol. They would frolic and run around, with the light from the torches on their suits enabling them to be sure-footed and safe. Nowadays, Doggerel and Catatonic disappeared the instant they were out, but they were dutifully back within the hour. As for Shanks, he walked for a while and then sat on one of the rocks close to his unit and read by the clear light of his torched suit. He enjoyed reading. And when he was out, he liked to pretend that he was back in the twentieth century; he pretended that his cloudomatic was a real book with leaves, and delighted in turning them back and forth…
Now, in the last six months, Shanks had noticed a strange phenomenon; it was scary. The outside wasn’t as dark as he had been used to – the velvety blackness was being replaced with a lighter shade. He noticed that he was actually able to see the forms of the rocks and the pets even without the help of his torched suit. He had informed the Martian HQ. Their reply had reassured him. The black haze which surrounded Earth for two-hundred years was dissipating, they informed him. In another fifty years, it was possible that direct sun-light would reach the planet, but without the ozone layer, that could create new problems. The Department of Science and Technology was working on it and would come up with suitable remedies … Shanks was nervous as well as excited to hear this. He couldn’t even imagine how it would feel to have a source of light over which he had no control!
Today, as usual, Catatonic and Doggerel sped away as soon as they were outside. Shanks watched them as they ran. He then deliberately covered the torchlight on his suit and looked into the distance. He noticed that he could make out the figures of the animals, though not clearly. He looked vaguely into the distance. Sunlight would seep in here one day.
Shanks sat down to read. Today, it was The Waste Land. He continued from where he had stopped his transcription practice.
Here there is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink…
Shanks found something stirring within him, as he read. But he couldn’t understand what it was. He knew what rocks were, what a mountain was, yes, and even what water was. But mountains of rock without water? Were there mountains of rock WITH water? Strange this poetry of his forbears…
As he sat pondering over the inscrutable he heard a commotion. It was Catatonic and Doggerel. They were running back to him in excitement. It was not their usual ambling run; there was an urgency to it. Doggerel had in his mouth – in his mouth cavity covered by the flexible plastic of his suit – a strange thing. It was thin and long and seemed to shimmer palely in the combined torchlight of the three beings. At one end it tapered off into tiny hair-like structures in a darker colour, with some of the rocky-mud adhering to the hairs. On the length of it, it had small, plate-like structures that opened like the flat of Shanks’ hands. He was not sure whether any of them should touch it. He got Doggerel to put it down, then examined it closely. He remembered something he had read from Principia Botanica the previous week—it looked like a plant. He could check up… But… it definitely was a PLANT. He had read that if these plants were around, then people wouldn’t need protection suits! He needed to find out. He would inform the Government HQ. ’Come on, Doggerel,’ he said. ’Where did you find this?’ Doggerel wagged his tail under his flexible plastic lining and scampered with Catatonic at his side, followed by Shanks. After a hundred yards he stopped and looked down. Shanks saw five more of these … these … plants…. It was a new word and it rolled awkwardly from his tongue. It was strange to think that something new could come into being without having been put there by someone. Could that be possible? He would find out. He would read the books of his ancestors. He needed to know.
Devika Rajan was a banker for twenty-five years before she left to do what pleases her, which includes travelling, and writing travelogues, poetry and short stories. She can spend hours working out crosswords or sudoku. She believes that we should try our hand at whatever we enjoy doing. And if we enjoy something sufficiently, we are bound to become good at it. Multi-tasking is something she abhors; she believes it diffuses our attention. She also teaches English, part-time, at an institute that trains youngsters for competitive exams like the GMat/CAT and Bank probationary officer entrance tests. She has an interest in reiki and yoga, as well as in Bharatanatyam. She lives in Bangalore with her husband and her books, the kids having left the nest some years back.