“Why did you, father?” Chitra demanded with a tear-filled voice. “I never asked you for this. What were you thinking? Why didn’t you say anything to me? Why didn’t you ask?”
Vikash was taken aback by her barrage of questions. “I- I bought it for you!” he said hesitantly. “You don’t like it?
“No, I don’t!” Chitra's hair struck her face like whips as she shook her head.
Vikash stiffened. “But why? Didn’t you want to play the game.”
“NO!” A low painful growl escaped Chitra’s throat. “I never—”
“Don’t lie.” Vikash smiled, trying to calm her down. “It’s always been on your mind since that night.”
“What night?” she asked dismissively, not caring much about the answer in her irritation and anguish, but the lack of answer from Vikash raised her suspicion.
“What night are you talking about?” she doubled down on the question.
“Uh…” Vikash cursed himself mentally for the slip of the tongue as he said in a guilty voice, “the night you asked me for a job.”
Chitra fell silent. So she didn’t manage to hide her desire from him after all. Did he watch that program too? No, it didn’t matter anymore what he did.
She wiped her eyes, trying to make her voice as calm as possible. “Send it back right now.”
As Vikash had been expecting an interrogation, her words caught him by surprise. “What do you mean? Send what back?” he asked with some uneasiness.
“THE GAME!” Chitra shouted. “Send it back!”
“Chitra!” Vikash reeled from her outburst. In all these years he had never seen her act like that.
“Why?” he asked. “You could… see the world with this game. I know you want to.”
Of course, I do. Chitra clenched her fist and pushed the thought away. “That’s a misunderstanding. I have no time to waste on a stupid game. I have to study. Send it back and ask for a refund. It still isn’t too late.”
Vikash’s eyes widened. Ah! Was that it was all about? Money? She was refusing something she craved, something that could change her life, just because she wanted him not to waste money? What was the point of saving money if it can’t bring happiness to the one person he cared about the most?
“Why aren’t you saying anything? Call them. Tell them to take it back.” Chitra pushed her legs down from the capsule and let them dangle as she grasped at the air, searching for her wheelchair. She wanted to get off of this thing right now. What if they refused to take it back because of a scratch or stain? “You bought it for me, right? Well, I don't like your present. I don’t want it.”
Vikash closed his eyes. He had tried again and again, did as she wished, but she still wasn’t able to accept anything he did to make her happy?
Or was she unable to accept happiness itself?
“I can’t do that,” he said.
“Why?” Chitra asked, frowning.
“I know what you’re worried about, but leave those worries to me and just enjoy the game.”
“What do you mean enjoy—” Chitra stopped as a doubt rose.
How did he get the money to buy this in such a short amount of time? It can’t be, right?
“Did you take out a loan?” she asked.
Any words he could’ve said got caught in Vikas’s throat. How is she so perceptive all the time?
“No, I didn't!” He replied, quickly regaining himself.
“Don’t lie.” Chitra’s voice was full of disappointment. “ ‘Enjoy the game’ you say? You think I can enjoy it like that?“ she turned her face away. “Just return it.”
Vikash clenched his fist, starting to get angry himself. “I’ve always done what you wanted me to, so why can’t you just listen to me once?” he said. “I’m the one who’s earning and it’s none of your business what I do with it! Stop being so stubborn and just play the game.”
Chitra opened her mouth, feeling incredulous. Her father had never raised his voice against her like this before.
“I WON’T!” she fumed, wanting to run towards him and scream the words to his face. It was none of her concern? Did he think she was still a child? “I am NOT going to play it! Never! If you won't send it back, then send me back to grandfather’s instead.”
“You…!” Vikash glared at her. Though he pretended to be scared whenever she mentioned leaving, he knew deep down she had never been serious. He only did as she wished to make her happy.
But this time wasn’t like the other times. She had never mentioned going back to them before, not even by mistake. And by how determined she looked, she was serious.
“You want to go back to… to those people!” his voice was full of shock and disbelief. “After all they did to you? After what they did—” he swallowed heavily, grimacing at the thought. He couldn’t. Not yet. “Are you serious?”
“If you act like this, then what’s the difference?” She pointed at the capsule under her. “Either it stays here or I do. Choose!”
What’s the difference? After all the things he had done for her, she was comparing him to them?
“Fine!” Vikash’s voice rippled with cold anger. “I’ll tell you what I choose. You won’t play it? All right, it’s just going to stay here and rot then.” he pointed at Chitra’s speechless face. “And you’re going to have to stay here even if I have to tie you up!” He knew what he just said was ridiculous, but he was too angry to care about such things. “None of you are going anywhere.”
“Father!” Chitra shouted in frustration. “You can’t do this!”
“I can, and I will!”
Chitra wanted to scream, tell him how unreasonable he was, but she couldn’t utter another word. If there was one person she had never wanted to quarrel with, it was her father.
But why was he being like this?
“Why?” she murmured as the tears once again threatened to run out, “It’s not worth it, doing this for me. It’s a waste...”
Chitra’s words sank Vikash’s heart. He shot forward, wrapping his arms around her frail body as she broke out in sobs, shaking in his arms. Vikash felt troubled. How many times had he seen her cry? Once? Twice? Too little to know how to calm her down. He sighed. He shouldn’t have said those things to her. Akanksha had been right. He was an insensitive jerk.
Vikash patted her back. “There, there. Don’t cry.” He drew back, holding her cheeks in his hand and wiping her tears with a swipe of his thumb. “You are a brave girl, aren’t you? Brave girls don’t cry.”
I’m not a kid! Chitra tried to protest, but the words didn’t want to come out.
“It’s not a waste,” Vikash spoke in a low hum. “Nothing I do for you can ever be a waste.” he sighed. “After all, That’s all I could do for you. Nothing.”
He put his hand before her lips, stopping her. “Just listen, okay?”
He stared at the ceiling for a while, organizing his thoughts. “I was happy when you came to live with me three years ago. I figured I’d do everything I could for you, make you forget all your suffering. I thought I could return you to the happy girl you used to be.”
He looked down at her. “I was always waiting for you to ask me to bring you presents, to spoil you, just like you used to when I came to visit you at your grandfather’s. Throw tantrums for toys like all those other kids, but you never did; instead, you prevented me if I tried to do anything myself. And I didn't know what I could do for you.” he sighed. “I guess it’s my fault for not realizing you grew up.”
“But I did ask. I asked for books,” Chitra pointed out.
“Yeah, well, sitting down quietly and reading books wasn’t the life I wanted for you. You never made friends yourself, never showed the spirit and smile you used to have before.” He shook his head. “Anyway, that’s not the point. For once, I wanted to do something for you that really matters, but I never got the chance. This time, I know what it means for you. I know it can change your life. So please listen to me just this once. If not for yourself, do it for me.”
“But…” Chitra began.
How she wanted to agree to him right then. Sight. How long had she wanted it? Craved it? If she had it that day, then…
She placed her palm over her father’s and said, “I understand why you did this—”
Vikash’s eyes lit up. “So you’ll play then?”
“No,” she crushed those rising thoughts inside her. “I understand you, but please try to understand me too. The cost of this is too much, and I won’t even be able to use it where it matters. I won’t see the real world. So don’t be stubborn. Please return it and get a refund.”
“I see,” Vikash nodded. He smiled slightly and said, “Let's do this. Try it for six months. That’s the time limit for the refund. Play it for six months and after that, we’ll do as you say. This way, you keep your word and I keep mine. Okay?”
“No more ifs or buts. That’s as far as I’ll compromise. For once, let me indulge you like I want to.”
Chitra fell silent for a while, then she sighed. “You’re too reckless and stubborn.”
Seeing her look of acceptance, Vikash bragged, “That’s my only redeeming quality. Though I was never as smart as your mother, I won her over all her other pursuers through my stubbornness.”
Chitra quietly said. “She also left you because of that.”
Vikash hurried to help her back into the capsule. “Now off you go.”
“That was quite a show,” M looked up at the stars through the clear glass roof. “So, what did you think?”
[I certainly did not expect that to be the reason for her distress.] A hint of curiosity was clear in Minerva’s voice. [She is somewhat different from most other teenagers I have studied.]
“Yeah, I feel for the father. Having such a daughter must be a nightmare.”
[...Right.] Minerva said doubtfully.
“And rather than a father and daughter, that felt more like a fight between lovers,” M said, leaving the three AI speechless. “Anyway, looks like she’s not quitting. And since Loki isn’t having fun anymore, this time Minerva should--”
[Loki has connected with the subject’s server.] Thanatos said. [Again.]
“That was quick!”
The same uncanny comfort surrounded Chitra again. She lay in silence, all her nerves alert for what was to come, but Her heart refused to calm down. Hesitation and guilt covered the fluttering wings of hope in her heart like thick grime, refusing it true freedom.
Am I doing the right thing?
The whirring sound below her sped up as it had during her first scanning. She swallowed. Did she still have the chance to withdraw?
No. You agreed, Chitra.
Right, she did agree. More than that, she didn’t want to lie to herself. She also wanted it. She wanted to see.
|SCAN COMPLETE. WELCOME, CHITRA MUKHERJEE|
That was fast! Hadn’t it taken five minutes the first time? The rescanning barely took 10 seconds.
The feeling of slight heat once again covered her. Her body returned to the same paralyzed state as before, but this time due to her concentration, she sensed the changes to her body clearly.
The warmth was like waves of microscopic vibration spreading through her cells, keeping her muscles and blood flow normal, while her body remained static.
Must be a measure to maintain bodily functions while the players were inside the game.
So she was really doing it. Right or wrong, at this point, it didn’t really matter anymore, did it? It was only six months after all. But once she really experienced sight, would she be able to give it up when the time came? Probably not.
She smiled. Father probably duped me into it.
But there was no point arguing about it anymore. The horrible feeling she had during their quarrel, she never wanted to experience that again.
|WOULD YOU LIKE TO PROCEED TO DISABILITY NORMALIZING?|
Chitra strained her ears but couldn’t identify the source of the voice. It was elusive like it came directly from her mind.
She couldn’t be sure, but hadn’t there been the voice of a little girl talking to her before? Where did it go?
|WOULD YOU LIKE TO PROCEED TO DISABILITY NORMALIZING?|
The question came again. It seemed to repeat if she remained unresponsive for more than ten seconds.
Her breathing sped up. Of course, she wanted to answer yes, but at the same time, deep inside her, her heart cowered from the answer.
What lay ahead of her if she made this choice?
|WOULD YOU LIKE TO PROCEED—|
“YES!” she blurted out before she had the time to think. Saying the same thing again and again, what an annoying feature.
|BEGINNING SCAN OF DISABILITIES|
|ANOMALY NO. 1: MILD NERVE AND MUSCLE ATROPHY|
That must be her legs.
Although her other caretaker Joti made her do some regular exercise on them every day, she still hadn’t used them normally for three years, so them being atrophied wouldn’t be that unusual.
|REQUESTING ACCESS TO MEMORY FOR SENSORY REPLACEMENT. PLEASE COMPLY|
Hm?” Chitra couldn’t keep the surprise out of her voice. Replacing a sensation from memory?
I see! that makes sense.
Unease sprouted in her heart. Some of the programs she listened to had discussed this topic extensively. It was at the centre of the controversy surrounding Finitum. Or to be more specific the Cortech capsule.
Although Desirecraft Productions claimed they kept to a strict code of ethics, and the facts and data until now showed nothing to counter that claim, humans were ever distrustful creatures.
Until now, Chitra had never really thought about it that much. But now…
Did she really want to give it access to her memories? Wouldn’t that be like messing with her mind?
She had wanted to see for so long. But could she really sacrifice her privacy for it?
She took a deep breath to calm her nerves and opened her mouth.
|SEARCHING FOR REPLACEABLE SENSATION|
A warm ripple seeped into her head as if the sun was directly shining on her brain. A strange feeling that lasted no more than thirty seconds.
|REPLACEMENT FOUND. ATTEMPTING INTEGRATION|
Come to think of it, sight!
|DISABILITY NO. 2: DYSFUNCTIONAL OPTICAL NERVOUS SYSTEM|
She had no memory of it. She didn’t even understand it. How were they going to give her the ability to see?
Chitra’s heart sped up as the sensation covered her mind again. What would it be?
|ERROR: REPLACEMENT NOT FOUND|
Chitra bit down on her lips hard. “So it’s fut—”
|ACCESSING SERVER DATA. REPLACEMENT FOUND. ATTEMPTING INTEGRATION|
So it was like the equivalent of giving her the eyes of someone else.
Of course, how could she forget? Two more people like her were playing the game. That wouldn’t be possible if it really was futile, would it?
“It’s successful!” A shiver ran up Chitra’s spine. Her heart fluttered like a little kid that got her favourite toy.
|COMMENCE SYNCHRONIZATION OF MIND WITH AVATAR?|
“Yes!” Chitra whispered, quick and shallow breaths spoke of her rising agitation.
The seconds were like hours as Chitra waited anxiously.
[Synchronization complete. Your avatar is ready.]
The sudden change of voice hardly had the time to alert Chitra, when new sensations covering every inch of her snatched her attention away. She felt her body clearly, but it was a distant, sort of alien feeling.
The strangest she ever felt.
She twitched her fingers almost involuntarily. A natural, fluid movement! And her legs, they never felt this strong in more than two years!
But something was off. Where were the four senses she was used to?
She clenched the fingers of her virtual body.
Did something go wrong? Wasn’t she supposed to regain her sight? How did she end up losing everything else instead?
[All your senses are set to start with your sight. You can experience them when you open your eyes.] Loki’s voice was kind, her tone much more mature than the little girl she sounded like.
But she brimmed with excitement inside. Forget the generic character creation field, for Chitra's first experience, Loki had painstakingly prepared a stage.
And she couldn’t wait for Chitra to see it!
[Now, you may open your eyes.]
Chitra’s heart started beating faster with those words. Her new body shivered, but only a part of it was anticipation.
Did she really want to?
This dark world was as much a part of her life as breathing. It always had been. Although she craved sight, the darkness surrounding her made her feel safe somehow.
But sight… it was an entirely new horizon!
And what if that sight wasn’t even there? What if all she found was darkness again?
Ok, none of that thought now!
She took deep, long breaths and blew them out a few times, calming her mind with each gust of air. She braced herself, and with a sudden, violent force of will, shot her eyes open! And then...
Chitra forgot to breathe!