Jul 2 2013 11:30am
An excerpt of Turbulence, a debut superhero thriller by Samit Basu (available July 9, 2013).
Aman Sen is smart, young, ambitious and going nowhere. He thinks this is because he doesn't have the right connections—but then he gets off a plane from London to Delhi and discovers that he has turned into a communications demigod. Indeed, everyone on Aman's flight now has extraordinary abilities corresponding to their innermost desires.
Vir, a pilot, can now fly.
Uzma, an aspiring Bollywood actress, now possesses infinite charisma.
And then there's Jai, an indestructible one-man army with a good old-fashioned goal — to rule the world!
Aman wants to ensure that their new powers aren't wasted on costumed crime-fighting, celebrity endorsements, or reality television. He wants to heal the planet but with each step he takes, he finds helping some means harming others. Will it all end, as 80 years of superhero fiction suggest, in a meaningless, explosive slugfest?
Turbulence features the 21st-century Indian subcontinent in all its insane glory—F-16s, Bollywood, radical religious parties, nuclear plants, cricket, terrorists, luxury resorts, crazy TV shows — but it is essentially about two very human questions. How would you feel if you actually got what you wanted? And what would you do if you could really change the world?
In 1984, Group Captain Balwant Singh of the Indian Air Force's Western Air Command had dangled his then three-year old son Vir off the edge of the uppermost tier of the Eiffel Tower, nearly giving his gentle and hirsute wife, Santosh Kaur, a heart attack in the process. With the mixture of casual confidence and lunacy that is the hallmark of every true fighter pilot, Captain Singh had tossed his son up, caught him in mid-air and held him over the railing for a while before setting him down safely. His son's future thus secured, Balwant had turned to shut off his wife's uncanny impersonation of a police siren with the wise words, 'Nonsense, foolish woman. See, my tiger is not afraid at all. He is born for the sky, just like me. Vir, say Nabha Sparsham Deeptam.' Vir had not been in the mood for the Indian Air Force motto at that point; his exact words had been 'MAA!'
All these years later, Vir still remembers that first flight with astonishing clarity; the sudden weightlessness, the deafening sound of his own heart beating, the blur of the world tilting around him, the slow-motion appearance of first the white dome of Sacre-Couer and then a wispy white cloud shaped like Indira Gandhi's hair behind his flailing red Bata Bubble-Gummers shoes. His father had said that moment had shaped his destiny, given him wings. But his father isn't here now. Flight Lieutenant Vir Singh is all alone in the sky.
And had Balwant Singh not prepared Vir for flight, this day would probably have been a lot more difficult. As he descends from the clouds, his breath steaming from the cold, Vir looks at his shoes, ready to see a new world reveal itself slowly behind them, zooming slowly into focus from high above. Pakistan. North Pakistan. Rawalpindi district. Kahuta. He looks far beyond his shoes, to the ground, where the sprawl of the AQ Khan Research Laboratories complex lies below him like scattered Lego bricks. Vir stands several hundred feet up in the air above a highly guarded nuclear research centre, the heart of the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme, named after a man most famous for allegedly selling nuclear tech to North Korea, Libya and Iran. Not really the sort of place where Indian Air Force officers are welcome guests. And he hasn't brought his fighter jet, his trusty Jaguar, with him. It's not that he has forgotten it in his hurry to get dressed; he simply doesn't need it any more.
Vir can fly. He stands tall, legs slightly apart, a wingless angel swaying slightly in the wind, rivulets of icy water running down his body. A young man of great presence, of power and dignity only very slightly diminished by a passing migratory bird's recent use of his shoulder as a pit-stop.
The sun is harsh above the clouds; Pakistan is sweltering in the grip of summer, from the microwave that is Lahore to the steamer that is Karachi. Vir is grateful for Rawalpindi District's notoriously unpredictable weather; storm clouds are gathering around him, providing him both a degree of shade and an appropriately dramatic background, given his current circumstances. He's wearing a light-blue-grey costume, the closest approximation of sky camouflage that his commanding officer has been able to procure for him. His Squadron Leader has asked him to put a mask on as well, like Zorro or Spiderman, but Vir is flouting orders; men who can fly need to feel wind and sky-ice on their faces.
Storms are gathering everywhere in the region. To the west, Taliban and other tribal warlords hold sway over vast tracts of land, and constantly threaten the stability of the nation. Every day, young men blow themselves up near schools, markets and embassies. In the cities, parents complain about insane vegetable prices and worry about sending their children to school. Halfway across the world, American leaders shiver at the prospect of mad-eyed Taliban fanatics seizing control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Washington sends billions of dollars to help Pakistan fight its demons; money that is not used, Pakistani leaders swear, never ever pinkie swear, for the constant expansion of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. And yet this arsenal continues to grow; and the Kahuta project is where uranium is enriched. This is where Pakistan's first 70 nuclear weapons came from. This is where thousands of centrifuges spin out missile-ready uranium, and hundreds of scientists design missiles to put it in. Clearly a destination of choice for flying Indian Air Force soldiers with destructive ambitions.
One swift, devastating strike, he has been told. The sooner the world's nuclear weapons are history, the sooner we can all stop living in fear. Vir had wanted to start with North Korea, but had understood what his Squadron Leader had explained; the moment a single attack happened, other nuclear sites would be savagely guarded. Some scientist with a Cambridge degree and an overactive social life would figure out how to defend buildings against him. When beginning a noble anti-nuclear mission, where better to start than in your own neighbourhood?
It is his moment to shine, swoop down like an avenging hawk, but Vir hesitates. He takes another look at the roofs of the Kahuta complex and pretends to think what a good point of entry would be. Then he pulls a satellite phone out of a large waterproof pouch on his belt and makes a call.
'Vir! Is it done? We haven't heard a word.'
'No. Sir...I think we should reconsider this mission.'
'You have your orders.'
'But sir, the consequences-'
'-have been computed. Your concerns have been noted. Now carry out your mission, Lieutenant. Don't report until you're done.' The line goes dead.
Vir heaves a deep breath and looks down at the factory again. The mission is simple enough. He flexes his muscles, preparing to let go, to drop like a meteorite.
The phone beeps. Vir takes the call.
'Can I interest you in buying a new credit card?'
'Kidding. Listen. Abort your mission. Fly home. '
'Who is this?' It's not the voice of anyone Vir knows. Young, male, Indian, from the accent. Vir hears 70s rock music faintly in the background.
'So, what's the plan, Vir? Bust into the nuke factory, kill a few people, fly out with some uranium? Does that sound smart to you?'
'How did you get this number?'
'On a toilet cubicle wall with Call For Good Time written beside it. What are you, stupid? You're about to make the biggest mistake of your life. Your father was sent to a needless death in an obsolete Mig-21 and now you're about to throw your own life away and start a war in the process. Abort!'
Vir disconnects the call, struggles to process the enormity of the security breach that has clearly happened, and then gives up. He tilts his body and stretches, like a diver about to make his move. The phone beeps again. Vir ignores it for a while, then takes it out and throws it away. And then flies down a little, catches it and takes the call.
'You want to take out Pakistan's nuclear weapons, right?' continues his mystery caller as if there had been no interruption in their conversation. 'You want to make things better one step at a time? Make the world a safer place for one and all? Well, going down there and re-enacting King Kong isn't going to achieve that. It looks smart, one tiny flying man going in, smashing things and getting out, but it's not possible. Not in this world, not even with your powers. Not even Chuck Norris could have pulled this off in his prime.'
'Bruce Lee?' asks a woman's voice in the background.
'Lee's dead. Jesus, don't be ridiculous. Sorry, Vir. But listen, man, this won't cause any real damage. I can tell you where to go. I know where all the nukes are. But now is not the time.'
'Pakistan's nuclear weapons are a threat to the entire region,' says Vir, distracted by a memory of the day his uncle Kulbhushan had suddenly run out into the streets of Chandigarh wearing nothing but a pair of Argyll socks, loudly proclaiming that insanity ran deep in their family. He shakes his head. Focus. ' And the Pakistan government might lose control to the Taliban soon. This is a necessary step. I am acting as an independent individual and not as a representative of any country or army.'
'Yes, and you just like to hang out at Indian Air Force secret bases. The booze discount is awesome. The problem, Vir, is that you haven't thought this through. You've been following orders, not using your head.'
'I must know who I'm speaking with. Who do you represent?'
'No one. Everyone. Look at you. You're the finest, most powerful human being India's ever produced. A born leader. You're a, and I can't believe I'm saying this out loud, superhero. Meta-human, science hero, post-human, fly-guy, deadly post-nuclear weapon, whatever. Someone who should be setting an example. Who's the greatest Indian leader ever?'
'Our survey says...Gandhi. Ask yourself this. If Gandhi had your powers, would he be flying around above a Pakistani nuclear site wiping his foggy glasses and trying to start off World War Three, or would he be doing something slightly more productive?'
'Thinking. I know. The game's changed, Vir. The world's changed. I'm not saying throwing some uranium at Uranus is a bad thing. But some people might not be pleased when they find out. And they will find out. You're currently potentially visible to about 17 satellites, including the Spacecraft Control guys in Bangalore. Bengaluru. Whatever. No one's really noticed you yet, but that's because they're not looking for you, and mostly they're looking for Taliban soldiers leaping from rock to rock.'
'They can't possibly get clear images of me with current technology - sorry, who are you?'
' But there'll be footage of your flight lying around that no one's seen as yet - not only was doing this by day monumentally dumb, you made the mistake of flying to Kahuta directly from that secret base you've got in Kashmir. People somewhere in between will have seen you as well. Bad move. It's not going to take a genius to figure out where you came from.'
'You can't be sure that anyone's observed me.'
'I've observed you, haven't I? And it's not even my job. You know what things are like. If a pimple explodes unexpectedly in Islamabad, the Pakistani government says an Indian hand squeezed it. We do the same. You want to give them actual evidence of an attack on a nuclear site? You'll go down in history as a prize moron.'
'Why should I believe any of this?'
'Don't if you don't want to. Maybe all this is a dream. What did you dream of on the plane from London, Vir? I dreamt of big shiny spaceships and aliens. Maybe that's what you should be thinking of, not pig-headed local missions.'
Vir looks at the phone as if it just bit him. When he speaks again, his voice is hoarse with rage.
'You don't know what you're getting involved with. You must tell me everything you know immediately. If you're the one who's been trying to stop us, you're in more danger than you can imagine. We will find you.'
'You won't have to try very hard. I want to meet you. But if you go into that factory today, you're not coming out. You've been sent on a suicide run.'
'No one in the Air Force top brass knows about your mission, Vir. I've been listening. No Indian military chief in his right mind would have allowed this mission anyway. Whoever sent you here wants you dead. What do you do with a stray superhero? Send him to where your enemy keeps his nukes. Either way, someone powerful dies.'
Vir struggles for a response and finds nothing. He listens, instead, to his caller, whose voice is getting more and more incoherent.
' The world needs you for more than this, Vir. I could use your help. This is bigger than India or Pakistan, no one could have planned for what happened to us on the plane. There were 403 of us when we started. There aren't now. When this is done, check your mail. Come and meet me in Mumbai. We're going to have to work together.'
'I don't believe any of this. I can't abandon my mission based on what you say.'
'Well, you shouldn't have stuck around and talked for so long then. You showed up on the KRL motion detection system a while ago. You're not big enough or giving off a large enough heat signature for them to start throwing missiles at you, but you might want to make a move before they take a much closer look. The Americans will be looking for you by now as well - they've probably told their Pakistani friends you're not one of theirs. Smile and wave, Vir.'
'Why didn't you tell me before?'
'Because, in case it wasn't clear enough, I didn't want you to waltz into AQ Khan labs and start a war. But I don't want you to die today either. Now get out before they come for you. We'll talk later.'
Vir tucks his phone into the case on his belt. He stands in mid-air, in mid-thought, and is tempted to laugh. But then he looks up, to the west, towards the flash of light, towards the shining winged metal falcon hurtling towards him, hears that familiar jet-engine scream, and he knows the time for choices is over. The Fiza'ya has arrived.
The phone beeps again. Vir picks it up on auto-pilot.
'F-16,' says his mystery caller. 'Whatever you do, don't fly back to India.'
Vir nods, hangs up, and tries to get his still-human mind to wrap itself around a course of immediate action. It's been a month since he discovered he could fly, and he still doesn't know why. But he does know how to start, and he swirls and streaks off, cutting through the air, still marvelling at the beauty of the landscape slowly turning into a blur beneath him.
After that first exhilarating dash, he swoops up, stopping, surveying the skies. He's been sighted. The F-16A, specially designed for manoeuvrability, has followed his trajectory and is speeding right at him. Vir marvels at the skill of its pilot; it was no mean feat to have spotted him. His appreciation is lessened, though, when he sees a stabbing point of white light from under the Viper's left wing. The M61 Vulcan cannon, six-barrelled, self-cooling, high-speed spinning Gatling gun of every pilot's nightmares. Vir shuts his eyes and speeds north, the world a dull grey roar, the moaning of the jet streaking behind him flattened out, punctuated by the ceaseless hammering of the Vulcan. He hasn't had the opportunity to time himself; he doesn't know how fast he can fly. He does know, though, that the F-16 flies fastest at high altitudes, so he dips sharply, lower and lower, feeling the slap of warmer air. His skin tingles and quivers. His phone beeps.
Vir shuts his eyes and begs his unknown powers for more. His clothes, not tested at this speed, are beginning to rip and tear. A lucky shot from the Vulcan grazes his back; he knows he's far stronger than normal humans; his Squadron Leader spent most of one afternoon shooting him at close range with increasingly heavy firepower to no effect. But he doesn't know exactly what the limits of his resistance are. And he wouldn't have chosen either this time, this place or this weapon in his quest for greater understanding. He's bleeding now as he takes off again, trailing a thin jet-stream of suspended red droplets.
The phone beeps until Vir reaches a point of world-ending rage. He slows down, loops, and comes to a shuddering halt; and then drops like a stone. The F-16 slows too, but shoots over his head. Vir takes the call.
'Not a good time,' he says.
'You're incredibly fast. Do you know where you are now? You're near Gilgit. That's about 260 kilometres in just more than a minute.'
Far ahead, the F-16 goes through a sharp turn, its bubble canopy gleaming in the sun.
'Make this quick,' says Vir.
'Just a heads-up. You've killed the Viper, right?'
'Well, if you don't, the Pakistanis have evidence of an act of war. Listen, he's probably seen you and has good pictures of you. You need to take him out. Think like a pilot. Don't race him. Dance with him. He's a fatty.'
'Go to hell,' snaps Vir.
The fatty is close now, Vulcan hammering away. Vir flies up, making short, sharp, diagonal dashes, flitting bat-like closer to the F-16 until he can see the pilot, who's chattering excitedly into his mouthpiece as he tries to steer his wobbling craft into position. A burst of speed, and Vir is directly above the Falcon. He drops gently on it, and hangs on. Panicking, the pilot cuts loose; Vir darts aside as the jet roars away, leaving him wobbling and coughing in its slipstream. When the roar has faded somewhat, he puts the phone to his ear.
'That was good advice,' he says.
'Hey, no problem. Excellent network on these satellite phones, huh? What is it? Thuraya? GlobalStar? My phone usually gets cut off when I walk from my bedroom to my kitchen.'
'Focus. What do I do now?'
'Oh, yeah, babbling, sorry. I do that. You should head north. Don't turn right until you reach Tajikistan. Come back through Nepal or Bhutan. Try not to provoke the Chinese.'
'Has he got pictures of me? Are our secrets out?'
'I've been trying to jam his communications, but I don't know - something might have gotten through. Why don't you ask him? He'll probably be back. Get him then. He'll have told them about you, but without pictures everyone will assume flying men are American.'
True enough, the F-16 is back, and this time it's locked in on Vir. There are two Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles on rail launchers on its wingtips - the pilot launches them both in quick succession and then comes in, cannon blazing.
Vir pauses for a second and looks around, taking in the majesty of the scene. The Karakoram mountains lie to the north, harsh cliffs and peaks cutting dagger-like shadows. No clouds here; the sun is bright, unrelenting. He breathes in, enjoying the mountain air. And then the missiles reach him. Vir darts aside politely, watches the Sidewinders shoot past, and then races towards the jet. Afraid now, the pilot swerves sharply, but Vir is faster; he joins the F-16 in flight and together they head for the hills. Ahead of them, the Sidewinders swerve and circle, sensing their target's trajectory. The pilot now sees Vir's face clearly for the first time; this is no small robot spy drone, this is another man, their skins are the same colour. His jaw drops; he stares at Vir with religious awe, unable to persuade his hands to move the controls any longer. Time stops; human and superhuman make eye contact.
'Sorry,' says Vir. He streaks upwards as the Sidewinders close in on him and miss, smashing into the F-16's canopy instead.
The blast hits Vir hard; a flying wing from the shattered F-16 hits him even harder. Vir rolls and tumbles in mid-air, losing all control, and hurtles flailing towards the mountainside, seeing serious pain await him at rainbow's end. Burning debris races with him. His mind begins to drift away in a torrent of fire and wind; snapping to attention, he spots, in the shadow of a rock-face, a dark hole in the centre of a ring of flaming debris, a crack in the mountain; a cave. Using the very last of his strength, he aligns his body to the cave-mouth, swims into the right parabola and manages to rocket into the darkness as the broken jet smashes thunderously into the mountainside.
Vir slides toboggan-like through the cave, the sudden coolness strangely relaxing even as his body screams with pain. He dimly hears the sound of men shouting; turning his head as he slides he sees bearded, robe-clad, gun-wielding men up ahead, in front of a lantern-lit door. He smashes through the door, taking the men with him, on to a metal platform, through a crude iron gate, and suddenly the world is well lit again, and he's back in mid-air inside the mountain, the gunmen falling by his side, screaming. And then he crashes into the cavern floor, slides a little more for good measure and, thankfully, stops.
Flat on his back, breathing raggedly, he takes in the scenery. A huge cavern that's been converted into a bunker. Well-lit, generators humming, crude electrical wiring everywhere. To his right, rows of tables, some covered with guns and ammunition, others with food and supplies, others with computers. Platforms, tunnel openings and ammunition racks line the cavern walls. Sirens wail. Gun-wielding men in boots thunder down metal steps and out of inner caves, shouting. Vir sighs. To his left, a white-robed man sits unperturbed, typing at a computer. Vir squints and peers at the screen, expecting blueprints, war plans; instead he sees a Facebook homepage. The man rises, turns slowly and looks at Vir. And as Vir sees, through the red and green worms of pain floating across his vision, the man's face, sees the long salt-and-pepper beard, the deep, sad eyes, the straight, proud nose, the famous white turban, he closes his own eyes and starts laughing uncontrollably as he drifts into unconsciousness.
When he opens his eyes again, there are about thirty AK-47s pointed at his face. A man is trying, unsuccessfully, to stab him in the chest; as Vir looks at him, he leaps backwards, muttering sheepishly. Someone has tied his hands and feet together. He snaps the ropes without discernible effort and rises to his feet slowly, looking for the white-robed man; he has disappeared, though there are several lookalikes among the gunmen around him. On a high platform to his left, a few woman who look like belly-dancers squeal, giggle and point; Vir realizes, suddenly, that he has been naked for a while. His belt, the only surviving article of his clothing, lies around the smoking ruins of his shoes. A sound comes from it. It's his phone, beeping.
One of the gunmen picks up the phone and takes the call. Vir doesn't know whether it's his mysterious new ally or his Squadron Leader; he snatches the phone from the gunman and puts it to his ear. Static, mostly. Satellite phones are useless indoors, especially burnt ones. Seeing their protests ignored, the gunmen begin to shoot him; bullets fly off his skin. He was once caught in a hailstorm; this doesn't feel very different. His muscles creak to life, one by one. Acupuncture by AK-47. More people scream, howl, fall to their feet in prayer, throw things; he's not particularly bothered any more.
'We'll talk later,' he says into the phone, and crushes it with his fist. He heaves a huge and weary sigh, and stretches, looking curiously at the men emptying their guns in his unyielding flesh. Some have gone to get grenade-launchers, others just stand around uselessly. Something in their faces moves him to pity; their fight was a dark one before, but it is hopeless now.
He politely asks a nearby cowering man for his robe, and gets it. And then he flies off, out of the cavern and into the sky.
Copyright © 2013 by Samit Basu.
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Samit Basu is one of India's most talented and prolific young writers with an existing and impressive profile in comics culture, science fiction and fantasy.