Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Beta Story

Author's Note: This is firmly based on a very weird dream I had, and loosely based on particle physics and Bollywood drama. Yes, I clearly have a few mental issues myself.

"Beta, we have found the perfect girl for you!"

Beta the electron had always thought being proposed was a sad and unfortunate thing that hopefully only happened to other people. But now his parents, Mr. Proton and Mrs. Neutron, were shackling him to the same fate, all the while beaming as though they were giving him a brand new car.

"Really, Ba? Who is it?"

He would have preferred the car.

"She's the daughter of an old friend, and you have met her several times now! Don't you remember Sitra?"

His mother thrust a photo into his hands as his parents gathered on either side. He grudgingly looked at the heavily made up face on it.

"All your aunts and uncles also said this is a perfect match! Her parents are also completely in agreement!"

Sitra the positron, now that he was forced to recall, was actually a nice girl in her own way. She was great at dancing, had a naturally smiling face and was easy to talk to, although a bit exhausting when one was on the receiving end. The photo had been given the usual treatment, so it lent the impression that someone had killed her, sent her to a talented taxidermist and then thrown all manner of bangles and flowers on the end result.

Beta could see a problem though. He was an electron, she was a positron. Every time they met, even when it was for just a short while, he could feel himself fading away, losing himself as a strange energy started to seep through the cracks, filling him with confusion and dread. It had gotten worse during their later meetings - and yet, no one seemed to have noticed.

"I don't know, Ma, she's a nice girl, but we don't get on all that well..."

"Nonsense, Beta! You two will be fine! You just need to spend more time together, and everything will be excellent! She has a top-class degree, did you know?"

"Beta, it is normal to be nervous - this is a big step in your life! But trust me and your Ma, we know this girl and she will be a great addition to our family!"

"But Ba, she's a positron! Don't you know..."

"Enough! This will be a great union for both our families, and I will not have you sully it with your name-calling! You must trust us, Beta, haven't we always had your best interests at heart?"

"You are our son, Beta, and you will always be our little boy. Please have faith in your elders, and especially in your parents!"

With Mrs. Neutron enveloping him so passionately in her bosom, and Mr. Proton sternly looking on, Beta resigned himself to the fact that this was a battle he had lost before he even knew he was fighting it.

He couldn't remember whether the descent into madness had begun before or after the wedding. But he was definitely past the basement level of delusions at least, and probably about to enter the abandoned mining shaft of dementia.

The voices from the dreams were starting to invade his waking moments as well. He heard them whispering ominously as he brushed his teeth, although their exact words were obscure.

The toothpaste tasted so acidic he could feel it chewing away at the insides of his mouth.

He tripped down the last few stairs because they had suddenly looked much wider than usual. The voices snickered as he stumbled back onto his feet.
Something about the chapattis at breakfast pissed him off, and he took it out far too harshly on Sitra. She too was very displeased with something he had done (or was it something he was wearing? he couldn't remember), and the exchange of verbal barrages mounted in intensity until a salad bowl blew up into a fountain of twinkling ceramic bits after it was hurled against the wall.

The next few hours passed in a confused blur which may or may not have involved a few walls being punched. All Beta knew was that he soon found himself sitting on a bench at the park, nursing a heavily bruised right hand and trying for the love of God to shut up the voices in his head.

He was faintly aware that someone else just sat on the other side of the bench. He wouldn't have given it a second thought, but then something strange happened. It was as if the tap at the bottom of the keg had been opened, and all the madness and confusion started gushing out of his head. As the clouds inside his mind began to part, he jerked his head back and involuntarily took in a deep, and loud, breath of air. The figure sitting beside him jumped.

"Um, are you okay?"

Beta managed to smile - his facial muscles took a while to assume the position.

"Yeah, I am. I haven't felt so okay in a really long time."

He took a better look at the girl who was now staring at him with wide eyes (which were a beautiful mix of green and hazel). She wore a jogging outfit on a petite frame, and gave the impression of a flower trying to summon the courage to bloom.

"I think you helped me. Somehow. Thank you. Er... my name's Beta."

He moved to hold out his hand, and then withdrew it. The girl hadn't decided how to react yet.

"You're welcome, I think. My name's Trina."

And then it struck him. She was an antineutrino. He hadn't come across too many of them - they were elusive by nature. But he had heard that they had mystical characteristics; perhaps she was diverting his madness away from him somehow, redistributing the energy that was building up inside him...

"Sorry about the shock just now - let me make it up to you. Would you like to join me for paratha and chai later today? My treat."

She seemed to mull it over for a bit. Beta was unknowingly holding his breath. And then she said, "Sure, I can do that. Where do you want to meet?"

Beta felt like an anvil had just been eased off his chest.

"I know this great place, their masala chai is simply amazing..."

It had been a good night. After what had become a regular stopover at the chai shop, Trina had suggested a walk by the bay. With the waves crashing against the rocks below, and the wind briskly weaving about them, Beta couldn't remember when he had last felt so at peace. When he opened the front door though, the scene that awaited him shattered the inner peace in an instant. He felt as though someone had thrown him headfirst into the bay itself.

His parents were there. Sitra was there. Her parents were there. With the exception of Sitra, whose face was buried in her hands, the daggers that were being eyed at him nearly drew blood.

"Ba? Ma? Um... what's happening?"

The silence was so tense it could have killed a man if it was wrapped around his neck. And then Mr. Proton snapped it.

"We know about the girl you've been fooling around with, Beta. How could you do this to poor Sitra! To our families!?"

"Our poor girl has been so distressed at home, and we were so worried. Now we know the source of all her sorrow! Where is your shame?"

Beta took a while to find his voice.

"No, it's not like that! Look, Sitra's a positron, and..."

"Again with the name-calling! How dare you stand there and insult your wife, and act as if you have done nothing wrong!"

"Please, Beta, don't behave so rashly - can't you see how much trouble you are causing? How much pain poor Sitra is in?"

"That's what I'm trying to tell you Ma, we drive each other mad! She wears me down, affects me just as much as I affect her!"

"Nonsense! Our darling has never had this problem before - you are the first person who has brought her such stress!"

"And instead of supporting her through this tough time, you are out gallivanting with some other girl! Alfie said the two of you were in each other's arms like a couple! Where is your dignity?"

"Trina helps me deal with my own distress! I wouldn't have to do this if you hadn't rushed me into this marriage in the first place!"

"ENOUGH! I did not raise you to be such an uncouth, disrespectful brat! You will apologise to Sitra, and you will look after her like the proper husband you are supposed to be!"

"And what about myself, Ba? Should I just sit and wait as my body and soul crumble into dust? I thought you cared about me!"

The veins on Mr. Proton's temples were so swollen with rage they would have exploded if a mosquito so much as grazed them.

"And I thought you cared about our family! About our honour, our standing! After everything we have done for you! If this is how you repay us, then I have no choice!"

Mrs. Neutron grasped his clenched fist, possibly in an attempt to placate him. He abruptly shrugged her off.

"If you will not honour your marriage vows, then you are no longer a son of mine! You are no longer fit to bear our family name! Whatever disgrace you wish to heap on us you can have yourself! You and that flimsy girl of yours!"

Beta would have retorted with equally thoughtless words fueled with rage, but one glance at his mother stopped him somehow. Tears were streaming down her pleading eyes. At the back of his mind, a voice much calmer than the usual ones convinced him that breaking up his family over this wasn't worth the ensuing social ruckus.

He slumped into an armchair, his parents still glaring at him. And then hollowly intoned, "Fine. I'm sorry, Sitra. I'm sorry Ba, Ma, Uncle and Aunty. I will not go out with Trina again. I will stay at home more often and be a proper husband to Sitra."

As the blood pressure in the room subsided to normal levels, Beta thought to himself, this is going to kill me. Or Sitra. Maybe then this family will finally get it into their stubborn heads.

Trina had about fifteen minutes to go before her shift at the hospital ended. About a week ago, she would have looked forward to it. Things had changed though.

As she absently twirled a pencil in front of her files, her mind briefly flittered over to Beta. She missed him. She missed being so special to someone. Sure, she helped plenty of people as a nurse at the hospital, but so did everyone else. With Beta, it was all her, and his overwhelming gratitude along with their mutual affection was worth every second. At least, it had been. Until he broke the news about his family to her, and had dropped all contact with her since.

A conversation managed to sneak into her ears unnoticed.

"The mind can be such a strange place..."

"You're telling me. Are you coming from the ward with the mental woman who just came in?"

"No, I was in her husband Beta's ward. I really can't tell who's lost more marbles."

"Probably him. Women have more mental fortitude, my Ma always said - "

"Excuse me, did you just say Beta?" This was Trina, who had whipped over to the two nurses the moment the name had snapped her out of her reverie.

"Yes, he's in the mental illness section. Name of Beta Electron - both he and his wife were admitted about an hour ago. It was a real scene, they both needed to be heavily sedated - "

"Which ward number is he in?" Trina tried to hide the colour running from her face.

"Number 1619. Doctor Tau is there with him..."

Trina was off in a flurry. The nurse's voice trailed off as her racing heart took over, the thuds resonating in her ears. She grabbed a cart as she neared the ward, and then tried to nonchalantly wheel it along, her grip on the cart trembling slightly.

Doctor Tau was in front of the ward, and confronting him were Mr. Proton, Mrs. Neutron and Sitra's parents, a strong mix of anxiety and confusion swirling about them. Doctor Tau was so preoccupied with trying to explain the situation to them that he didn't even register the nurse with the cartful of medical supplies who wheeled herself into the ward.

Trina gasped when she saw Beta. He wasn't just sedated, but strapped onto the bed with very imposing leather buckles. His wife wasn't in the room - they had probably put her in one of the wards nearby. There were so many tubes and wires sticking out of him that he looked like he'd entangled himself in a very strange fisherman's net.

Trina glanced at the EEG next to him. Even with the sedatives currently surging into Beta's veins, it looked like a toddler had tried to draw a porcupine on it. All his other vitals looked very erratic too.

Instinct took over, and Trina gently took a hold of his hand. It felt surprisingly cold.

" I must advise you, please try to restrain your emotions in front of the patient, he really needs peace and - what's going on here!?"

Doctor Tau had walked in, with Mr. Proton and Mrs. Neutron trailing behind him. Trina wasn't the reason for his exclamation though.

The chaos in the monitors was being drained away by some mysterious force. The jagged edges that formerly criss-crossed across the EEG screen gave way to much smoother scribbles. The rapid beeps and pulses reduced their frenetic tempo to what could have passed for a gentle melody. Beta's vitals were returning to normal as if all they had done was take a short walk to the grocery store and back.

As the three newcomers tried to register what was going on, Beta's eyelids fluttered open. When he saw Trina's anxious face looking down on him, a faint smile slowly crept upon his face.


A wave of recognition spread gently across the room. It broke across Mrs. Neutron first.

"You are Trina? The girl he was seeing?"

Trina tried to edge away from the eyes on her and found herself trapped against Beta's bed.

"Ah, you are an antineutrino, yes?" Doctor Tau's voice was refreshingly free of strain and bordering on fascination. "That explains it. Antineutrinos and electrons are often able to distribute energy among themselves - she must be absorbing and relieving him of all the disorder that was pent up inside his mind all this time."

Mrs. Neutron advanced. Trina's grip on Beta's hand stiffened a bit.

"She was helping me, Ma," said Beta feebly, "I tried to tell you..."

"...and we should have listened, Beta," replied Ma, as she softly embraced Trina, who couldn't think of a proper response and decided to awkwardly pat Mrs. Neutron's shoulders.

Mr. Proton's expression was the result of a mix of several emotions in a heated debate across his face. His features were twisted into what could have been attributed to a particularly potent lemon in his mouth.

"Proton, you have to admit we were wrong. Look at how peaceful he is. Think about how much we had to suffer when he went mad."

The lemon looked like it was eating away at his teeth now.

"Ba, please... I forgive you. But please, don't make me go through this again."

Something cracked inside that steel mind. He walked over and rested his palm on Beta's shoulder.

"I'm sorry, Beta. I let my pride blind me to what really matters. Although you have forgiven me, I don't know if I can forgive myself. But I will not put you through this again, I promise you that."

He turned to face Trina, who involuntarily shrunk away from him.

"Thank you, my dear girl. You were there for my Beta when we should have been. The two of you have my blessing, and my humblest apologies."

Trina smiled, and a small tear took the opportunity to slip down her face. It was rudely jerked off her face though when Mrs. Neutron wrapped her and Mr. Proton into a big group hug. Beta tried to get up to join them, but then...

"Doctor Tau? Um... can I get these leather straps removed? Please?"

The Tax Man

"We're here, Rax."

Rakesh took one more look at the sheaf of papers in his hands, the notes neatly scrawled across them like a trail of inky black ants, and took his first step out of the car. He immediately felt his shoe withering from the dust and grime that splattered itself across these streets.

If the city was a fish tank, this neighbourhood would be one of the bits in the corner where all the fish poop and discarded scales collected. Every city has at least one of them - the poor, shabby part, the black sheep of the districts that never gets invited to their birthday parties. These were the slums; the nurseries of crime and neglect.

Rakesh stood in front of the building for a while, his weathered, off-colour clothes wishing they could flutter in a gentle breeze but having to do with flapping at the occasional swirl of dust. The building itself looked like it really didn't want to exist - on a scale of 1 to 10, it would be too embarrassed to show up at the judges' table for a score. It managed to have not just paint, but even pieces of cement peeling off the walls. Tiny windows and cramped balconies lined with dust broke up its mostly worn out, pock-marked facade.

"The faster we get this done, the better, Omar," said Rakesh.

"Just finishing, Rax," came the gruff reply.

Omar was Rakesh's right-hand man, officially; he was really more of an overgrown minion. Omar had the built and durability of a brick wall, built with much better bricks than the ones inside the building in front. Omar wasn't stupid, but he was more at ease with someone else calling the shots for him, and preferred to flex his considerable muscles more than his brain. He finished his slightly drooping cigarette, stomped in into the ground and joined Rax as they both entered the building.

They were here to see a man by the name of Sanjay, on behalf of the fearsome Devkandh Basu, a respected industrialist to the public, and a businessman of a far darker nature to those who worked within dark alleys and inside shady cafes. Very few crimes, large or small, were carried out in the city without the touch of Devkandh's ring-laden fingers.

As is common practice with rulers of a criminal empire, Devkandh was a firm believer in the system of what he liked to call 'insurance' - when he found unsavoury characters with a source of sizeable income that probably wasn't a great idea to put in a form under "occupation", he asked them nicely for a regular donation of a share of the profits - and in return, he promised security and freedom to operate without worrying about trivial issues like the law and the police (which left the non-trivial issues to worry about, like Devkandh). If the people under his grip didn't pay up, he stopped being nice. And then made those people briefly reminisce about the days when he was nice before the memories were violently knocked out of them.

Rakesh started banging on the door to Sanjay's apartment as Omar stood beside him, every blow carefully aimed so as to avoid getting splinters, and carefully controlled so as to not unwittingly fling a hinge off. As he waited, he wondered why people like Sanjay, who made the kind of money that could fill a small room if it was in cash on a monthly basis, lived in places like these where even the electricity and water had to be persuaded to show up on a regular basis. He saw the need for privacy, especially for someone in Sanjay's line of work, but there weren't many worse places to find it in than this.

The door slowly shuffled open. A set of wide, bloodshot eyes looked out from the crack.

"Time to pay up, Sanjay," said Rakesh with the blunt abruptness of a steel bat to the face.

In that instant, from the moment the words left his lips, Rakesh knew from the shifting gaze of those sleepless eyes that Sanjay didn't have the money ready - or worse, he wasn't willing to part with it. Omar sped off to go around the back and Rakesh kicked the door down even as Sanjay began dashing madly for the fire exit.

Rakesh wasn't guilty. With the right defence attorney and against the right prosecution, he should have been found innocent, and should have continued his burgeoning career as a financial consultant. But Lady Luck seemed to have driven headlong into a car crash and been hospitalised on her way to the courtroom, and he was wrongly accused of a money laundering scam and sentenced to 6 years in prison.

When he finally got out again, he had tried to get back into the financial sector, but a prison sentence can do wonders for career advancement. When he had finally had it with the faces that went pale and the voices that went frigid every time his criminal record came up, he had turned to a friend of a fellow inmate - and thus taken his first steps into the world of crime, organized and otherwise.

His knack for crunching numbers and his reasonably maintained athleticism had helped make him a favourite of the emperor of the shadow world in these parts, Devkandh Basu. One day, over a drink of spirits so strong they could knock out a fly if it buzzed too close, Devkandh uttered words that would define his life for years to come.

"I want you to keep track of my investments, Rakesh, and I want to make sure they pay their dues on time. You will become... the Tax Man."

As Rakesh clambered down the fire escape platforms, they vibrated uneasily as they bore the impact of his footfalls. These were just as shoddily made as the rest of the building, and it was a miracle that they didn't collapse on a weekly basis. Somewhere below him, Sanjay was making good use of the wings that fear can provide, and was almost at the bottom.

Then came the drawn out sound of metal tearing itself apart (which, given the structural integrity of the platforms, was probably destined), followed by the kind of echoing crunch that would get shushed into oblivion at a theatre and a strangled yell that could be mistaken for a hungry cat loitering in a dark, lonely alleyway.

Sanjay was trying to crawl his way out with the madness of a pack of hyenas condensed into one shivering body when Rakesh landed softly onto the ground. He didn't get far before Rakesh picked him up by the collar, knocked the wind out of him with a knee to the stomach and slammed him against the wall, dislodging a few bits of plaster in the process.

"I'll have the money by tomorrow night, Tax Man," blurted Sanjay tearfully as Rakesh pinned him against the wall, "please, give me one more day - I promise - "

"Your promises have no meaning after that little stunt you just pulled, Sanjay," said Rakesh, as Omar briskly walked up to them, "you know what happens when The Big D is not paid his dues. Your punishment awaits."

Omar cracked his knuckles with the wide grin of a boy about to receive a big fluffy teddy bear after winning it at a carnival. Sanjay whimpered as he slumped to the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust as he hit the dirt.

Rakesh walked away as the punches started flying. He didn't like violence, and the constant presence of it in his livelihood hadn't neutered his distaste for it. Omar had been an excellent resolution to the issue - Rakesh could trust those meaty fists to be flung with glee when the occasion called for it. And in this line of work, the occasion called very often.

When Omar had delivered just enough punishment for Sanjay's memories to be permanently scarred by it, Rakesh dialled the number to a hospital not too far away. The place was one of Devkandh's top picks - they never asked about the before of their patients, and were very good at ensuring an after for them. After giving them the location, Rakesh and Omar strode back to the car.

The Tax Man had many more people to meet.