72 hours before launch
“What’s the update, Agent Ketura?”
“Commander,” she saluted, “The team has picked all specimens from the five zones,” Ketura hesitated before revealing to the new commander that tradition had been broken this time. The commander, however, seemed to notice her hesitation.
“What’s the problem then?” Ketura wasn’t sure how the commander was going to take the news. Nevertheless, she proceeded to brief the commander.
“There’s been a breach of protocol this time. Whitlark’s specimen does not hail from the usual lineage.”
“You mean the Meshachs have failed to produce an heir to serve the greater cause?” the commander’s brown eyes twinkled in amusement.
“Actually, the Meshachs did produce an able heir – two, in fact. But, the specimen was from the Kaazim lineage – Daniyal.”
“Tut, tut. Times are changing, Ketura. And we can’t help but drift with the flow. Whitlark’s specimens have always fascinated me. Daniyal, did you say –” Ketura nodded, “ – well, we’ll see how destiny has favoured us this time.”
Ketura saluted and was about to make her leave, when the commander cleared his throat and said, “You’ll be accompanying me on the voyage, Ketura. Make arrangements for your departure too,” Ketura’s eyes opened wide and her mouth popped open, “You may leave now.” And just like that, she was dismissed.
Ketura couldn’t believe what she had just heard. Never had agents tagged along when the crafts were deployed to the Zones. Their job was to communicate with the governors of the zones, impose new rules, attend disciplinary callings or inform the inhabitants regarding ‘the journey’. And all this was done through hi-tech digital screens and never in person.
Whitlark’s abnormality wasn’t the only broken tradition this time, Ketura thought.
Aero Locomotive Centre
It has been six months and two weeks since I started work at Gateway G at the Aero Locomotive Centre. The Academia had me chartered on to the Aero Department, and I had no complaints. I was happy with what I was offered. Although Mother was sceptical in the beginning, she didn’t have much choice than to send me off, for times were hard and money was scarce.
Now you may ask me why one of the most well-to-do families in Whitlark Zone had to accept the first employment tab without any complaints, but the fable regarding my family wealth is an outright lie. Or so I think, for the walls in the mansion whisper ‘money’ at every turn and it has been so since my birth. Mother’s great-grandfather used to tell us tales of long ago, of wealthier days when Lady Prosperity favoured us, but none of those tales is what I have for you today.
Now, everyone in Whitlark Zone knows that there are six Gateways at the Aero Locomotive Centre, one each for the five zones and then Gateway G for ‘The Greater Cause’. When my employment tab arrived, I was hoping I would be assigned to one of the five gateways for the zones, but it wasn’t until I saw the gigantic G looming towards me, as I was transported to where I was to spend the next five years, that I knew I was going to spend half a decade at one of the most boring places on Earth.
Not a single person in Whitlark, not even the warden, I’m sure, is aware of when the gateway will be opened. The last time an aero-locomotive landed in Gateway G was 5 years ago and before that, it was 13 years ago. Part of my self-assigned job was to study the data of the activity of Gateway G and predict the next landing. And that’s what I’ve been doing. Researching. Trying to work out the math.
Everyone would think I could get about doing what I do in peace, seeing as there is no distraction whatsoever to alter my schedule. But you’re wrong. There is a distraction in the form of this woman who checks in every single day at 0600 H and does not leave until the gateway is closed, at 1730H. This lady practically lives here. I have a non-working colleague for all I know! I don’t have cause to see her out since she isn’t technically breaking any rules, but I couldn’t fight my curiosity anymore. I approached her yesterday, and boy! She did have a tale to tell, which is what I am going to retell today.
5 years and 72 hours before launch
“This is absolutely ridiculous! None of the people they’ve taken have returned. Who knows what’s being done to them? I am NOT going anywhere!” My face flushed, I breathed heavily as I let my furious glare pass around my family that had gathered for our birthday.
My name is Ayat. Hosea is my twin brother. As was custom, the whole family had assembled to celebrate our birthday. The glow of the day had slowly started to fade when great uncle Miles rose up to address the gathering. Thinking it was just another boring lecture he always had for whenever our tribe gathered, I was about to slip away home, when Hosea caught me by the wrist and whispered, “Sit down. This looks serious,” I couldn’t ignore the grave look in his face so I sat down beside him, the fire blazing in our midst as Uncle Miles started talking.
“Back during the times of Rebuilding, our forefathers were brave enough to demand a place of their own so that they could settle down with their clan, build a home and start a civilization. Since the ship was already getting a little crowded, the then Commander agreed to test the waters and send different families to the different zones. However, freedom came with a price. The commander gathered all the leaders of the clans in the privacy of his floor. All the leaders were subjected to a DNA test, and the fittest of the lot were picked. By fittest, I mean those people who were resilient to the barring factors and would be able to survive The Greater Cause. None of the leaders, however, were aware of this, and they merely thought it was just protocol when they were put through the bodily checkups. Now, the commander brought the best of the lot and in the privacy of his cabin this time, put forth a proposal in return for their independence. The ship needed able-bodied crew for the greater cause and they were informed that the youngest of their children would be brought to the ship each time the Red Eclipse occurred. The leaders had no choice but to agree, and were sworn to secrecy.”
Great Uncle Miles paused for effect, sipping malt from his flask. The fire crackled while the occasional shrieks and hoots of the nocturnal creatures interrupted the unabated quiet of the night. I began to become restless. This was the first time I was hearing this side of the story. I had learnt of the ‘journey’ that several members of our family had taken, the last of which occurred when I was 10. Then it struck me! Uncle Miles had said the leaders were sworn to secrecy. How then did he know of this? Unless…
“Whitlark was founded with 27 clans, 8 of which were in on the secret,” his husky voice penetrated my drifting thoughts and I snapped back to attention. “Two of the clans were wiped out when they landed on Earth – apparently, the atmosphere was too harsh on them. The three clans that settled down in the East was wiped out when the plague broke out there, another two was swept clean when they failed to produce heirs, which left only the Meshachs to carry on the tradition. Our forefathers fought for Earth, and in return, as gratitude, we send them one of us. It has been so through the generations. The responsibility of carrying the tale has been mine; I have carried it for far too long and my time is coming to a close. The story is for you to carry on now.”
Uncle Miles now slowly edged along the crowd, walking in my direction. He circled in on us from behind and gently touched our shoulders. I wasn’t sure when I had gripped Hosea’s hands until he winced. I looked into his eyes. The horror in his eyes mirrored mine. This was wrong. This was so wrong. Hosea leapt to his feet pulling me up with him.
Circling our waists, Uncle Miles said, “The eclipse will soon be upon us, and we have to prepare to send our youngest heirs.”
That was when I screamed at Uncle Miles.
5 years and 63 hours before launch
His muddy brown eyes stared into mine, baffled and completely at a loss for words. They blinked after a while and he shook his head ever so slightly as if refusing to absorb what I had just relayed, a cowlick falling over his eyes.
I sighed wearily, and looking down at my hands, I whispered, “I’m so, so sorry, Dan.”
He got up and walked towards the gurgling stream a few yards from the rock we were sitting upon. I stood up to follow him, but then thought better of it. Perhaps he needed a little time and space.
Daniyal was from the North Western part of Whitlark. We met during the Spring festival when he had come to the capital for the celebrations. We literally clashed into each other during the procession when I lost my footing and as we tumbled over down the hill, somehow our hearts must have got interchanged too. I ended up with a broken wrist and he – with a wounded ego. Laughing at our predicament, he carried me to the closest healing station and treated me with impeccable skill.
As he absorbed himself in treating my hand, I let my gaze caress his face. He had wavy black hair that just kissed the last of his cervical vertebrae. There was a V between his eyebrows, as they creased in concentration, his muddy brown eyes downcast. A sharp nose, firm lips and rough stubble that dusted his jaws completed the picture of a handsome face.
“Likin’ what you see, lady?” he asked, trying not to grin. Attempting to hide my embarrassment, I quickly remarked that I had never seen him in the capital before.
“That’s because I’m from the North. Just got my employment tab. I’m a healer, by the way,” he said matter-of-factly.
Life had (literally) thrown us at each other, and we didn’t see why we shouldn’t give ourselves a shot.
A fortnight ago, Daniyal got me to this very spot where we had tumbled down that first time and sat on this very rock and proposed to me. Well, he didn’t actually say the magic words, but he removed his hands from inside his jacket, and gave me a canary. In Whitlark, yellow was the equivalent of a proposal to spend the rest of your lives together.
I immediately wrapped my hands around his neck, fighting to hold back my happy tears.
That was a fortnight ago, when we thought we would be happily married after my birthday.
But now, I was going to be deported to heaven knew where. And Daniyal was not happy about it.
3 days and 13 hours after launching
The commander crossed the airfield as the aero-locomotive hovered above, closely followed by Agent Ketura and behind them, security. The Warden was at the gates, his arms wide open, welcoming them.
“Agent! What a pleasant surprise! I wasn’t expecting you would take my invitation seriously,” the warden commented joyfully.
“Invitation?” the commander frowned.
“I was telling the Agent the other day, how I was getting lonely over here and the only company I had was her, though she only spoke through a digital screen. I playfully invited her over to spend a few days with me. If I had thought she would accept my invitation, I would have gone into the daffodil meadows, so that I could ensure she stayed back forever,” the warden rambled on gaily.
“She is here on business, Warden. And I would prefer if you keep your thoughts to yourself,” the commander snapped. Ketura raised her eyebrows. It was apparent that the lonely warden was merely flirting. Why had the commander thrown a snide remark at him?
The warden, realizing that he had crossed a line, bowed and swept them forward. “The heirs have been brought, commander. Boy! What a ruckus they made though. The boy came in without a protest, but the girl fought like a possessed woman,” he took them to the airfield where the twins, bound hand and foot, sat back to back on the floor. As soon as she saw the group, Ayat kicked and babbled nonsense through the gag.
“There’s been a change of plans, warden. We aren’t here to take the Meshachs. Untie them. Set them free.”
The warden gaped. “You’re not taking them on the journey? Whitlark is not going to be a part of the greater cause anymore?” he asked, his voice breaking.
Ketura had already loomed down on the twins and was hastily untying the knots that were biting into their hands and feet.
“I said, we aren’t here to take the Meshachs! I didn’t say I’m not taking anyone else.”
Ayat, Hosea and the warden exchanged baffled looks. Hosea slowly held Ayat’s hands and took a step behind and edged along to the gateway. Ayat broke into a run and as they crossed the last of the runway lights, they saw security wheeling in someone in a stretcher.
Hosea slowed to a halt. Ayat kept moving, not breaking her sprint.
“Ayat, wait!!! It’s Daniyal! They’ve got Daniyal!” Hosea screamed.
Time stopped. The world stopped moving. Ayat stopped breathing. She turned behind in slow motion and saw Hosea running back, trying to catch up with the stretcher. The commander signaled the aero-locomotive and it had begun to descend.
Ayat knew she had to do something. She had to stop them. She had to help Daniyal. But before she was even halfway down the runway, she knew it was useless. The aero craft had landed and the commander, seeing her gaining on them, pushed the stretcher in first.
And before she could even shout ‘Daniyal’, the commander stepped in.
She had to do something! She was a foot away from the plane. Ketura was climbing in. Ayat lunged and caught hold of Ketura’s ankle. She tumbled, and fell behind, one leg still on the craft as the doors snapped shut.
The commander’s scream was louder than Ketura’s as the craft took flight with Daniyal and Ketura’s right leg.
Is Agent Ketura worth another flight to Whitlark by the commander? It has already been five years past… Will they ever come back? Why was Daniyal taken?
The greater cause shall be unravelled. . .