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Torn Threads

– Thoughtful Thestral

“There seems to be some issue of memory management. Aryan, please fix it.”

This not-so-helpful debugging message popped up on Aryan’s laptop screen, and he set out to fix the bug, taking a final gulp from his glass of ice tea. As he put the glass down beside his laptop, his fingers started dancing on the black keys of his device’s keyboard, producing the most wonderful sound that beings living in that lab, or for that matter, any lab in the world with computers, generally want to hear. It had all the elements of grace and appeal – the continuity in the discrete taps, the realization of the power of muscle memory and the occasional sweet sound that hitting the spacebar produced. But the most beautiful part was when multiple composers typed together, pressing the keys in a manner that created some wonderful music, along with stitching together modules, fixing bugs and sending messages.

There were two more people in the lab, and were both intent upon their work. The sound produced by their fingers and the keys set in motion a series of emotions in Aryan, each more intense than the previous one, that culminated in a feeling of ecstasy as the taps reached a resonance. The spike went too high for him to resist a smile.

Aryan was done with the issue, after searching for the source of the bug like a hungry dog, in about a quarter of an hour. He packed his belongings, slung his bag over his shoulder, and proceeded to leave. He’d had a productive day.  

A stream of passengers made their way out as the metro halted. They were few in number, as the hour was late and the day didn’t mark an end to the week. Most of them were returning from a rather exceptionally long day at work, but my case was different. I had been out strolling aimlessly, absorbed in thought, unobservant of my surroundings, after a boring day at college.

I made my way out of the metro station, just catching a glimpse of the signboard at the exit.

Rajiv Chowk

A sigh escaped my lips as my mind sought to entertain me by playing a slideshow of my numerous memories at this place with him. Yes, our time together had been glorious. Maybe too glorious for me to relinquish it so easily.

I remembered this particular night in winter when the two of us had been returning from a relatively lavish dinner in Hauz Khas, absorbed in conversation as we walked across the station, arm in arm. I was wearing his favorite overcoat then, and he adorned a jacket of my choice. His occasional geeky jokes were the spice of our conversation, my gossip was the crux. Yes, I had my own doubts about the longevity of our relationship, but never had I imagined how it would feel when it would finally end. That was one thought that I had consciously sought to neglect: I didn’t want to ruin the ideal notion of everlasting love in my head.

I reached home after a ten minute walk. I climbed right up to my room, changed and looked straight across at my reflection in the mirror. It had my name written on  top, “Shireen”. Adjacent to it were marks of fingernails that had scratched at the surface a month ago to erase his name. I don’t know if it would have been worse had that name remained there.

The person looking back from the mirror was a distressed girl of twenty, tall but lean. Someone who used to be agile, fascinated by automobiles, physics and philosophy, but had lately resorted to drinking, insomnia and an endless loop of toxic thoughts. Two weeks back, I had promised myself that I would get out of this emotionally turbulent zone by the next fortnight. I hadn’t made much progress.

I tried, once again in vain, to sleep. I guess tossing and turning in bed isn’t such a taxing exercise after all.

*

Three hours later, Shireen’s room’s window slid open and an intruder made his way in. An hour after that, she was nowhere to be found in her house.

Aryan parked his bicycle outside the campus cafe and ordered a cappuccino. As he set down the table number card, Ahalya, one of his friends, walked up to him and sat on the chair opposite his.

Her dressing sense was immaculate, and Aryan could hardly ever avoid feeling a sense of awe at her attention to detail, be it her clothing or her homework assignments.

She asked promptly, “Are you fine now?”

Aryan chuckled as he replied, “Yeah. Had a memory management issue in the project, but now it is fine.”

Without blinking an eye, Ahalya exclaimed, “Oh, really? How did you solve it?”

“I just swapped out one memory intensive process from the main memory of the simulator using a process scheduler with a slightly lower threshold for memory utilisation. Anyway, I think that’s not what you had in mind.”

Her lips curved from the right side, pupils slightly constricted, before she spoke, “I am glad you realised that. So, are you over her?”

Aryan looked down as he collected his thoughts. Thankfully for him, his coffee arrived, and he had a few more moments to think before he answered her. The first sip from the cup wet his lips and invoked a sense of freshness as the hot liquid made its way down his throat, waking up his cells that had gone for hibernation for the past few hours. “Give a drowsy programmer a cup of coffee in the winters, and see what he can do after that,” he let out a sheepish grin as this thought skidded by the conundrums that his mind was dealing with.

He set the cup down, and prepared to face Ahalya. “Yes, you could say so.”

Aryan wasn’t an ardent believer of being truthful, and this admission was no different. He had known Shireen for too long and their relationship had been too “pure” in his head to just move on. A bug in the code for a project that he was working on was definitely not enough for him to let go of her thoughts.

“By the way, I have a project presentation tomorrow. I guess it would be better if I spent some time working on it.” Ahalya bit her lip and followed that up with a generous smile. She got up to leave, and he waved his hand, before taking another sip from his cup.

He logged into his laptop, and stared briefly at the folder titled, “shireen” on his home directory, before moving on to his presentation slides.

About 10 am the next day.

The house had been turned upside down in search of Shireen. Her mother had inquired in the neighbourhood, her father had brought the police up to speed. There were no signs of any struggle in her room. One of the residents of the street reported hearing soft movements outside her house, but she couldn’t be sure, as she had been half asleep.

The policemen began a thorough investigation, raising questions about the lost girl’s history, her lifestyle, her friends and her problems. A formal interrogation of the immediate neighbours was scheduled. Her photograph made its way to all the places in the city where it should have, and the news of her absence was circulated promptly on the radio.

Her friends had called at her home, but couldn’t furnish much that the cops already didn’t know through her parents. She had been open about her problems and desires. She couldn’t have just disappeared in thin air, they reasoned.

It was an unusually hot day. It was turning into an unusually uncertain day for Shireen’s family.

Aryan’s attempts to reduce the system usage of his running code were going in vain. He realized that If he failed to address the problem, his laptop would get overheated and shut down.

So he manually overrode his laptop’s fan settings and set it to run at maximum speed. “This should give me a window of time to think of a work around,” he mumbled as he began to try and close down any hidden application that might be running.

(Shireen)

Had my eyesight deserted me for life? I ran my right hand over my eyes but couldn’t feel any bruises sitting there. So maybe this place was actually devoid of light and the darkness didn’t stem from the inside.

I felt a little dizzy. I had clearly been sedated for a long while, I suppose. I let my hands loose, trying to find something to grope while my eyes got accustomed to the darkness.

I touched surfaces, ran my hand over objects to guide my way, and used some input from the odour as well. I couldn’t hear a thing, apart from the amplified sound of my own breathing and movement. It took a while, but my head stopped spinning.

After a couple of minutes of groping and stumbling, I came upon a turn which led to a slightly illuminated pathway. Following a fresh scent, I pursued the source of light in hope of information – my craving for information compared positively to my fear of the unknown.  

It hardly took a minute for me to reach the source, or rather the mediator, of the illumination. It was a window, shut from the outside, giving an ample view of the late afternoon sprouting in the city. I could also sense a strong wind blowing, judging by the clearly visible flying particles of dust spinning off in an orderly fashion towards my right, ready to contribute to the ordeals of the home makers and the shopkeepers. The innocent pedestrians were walking leisurely and the men and women of hurry were moving briskly, a hundred things running in their heads.

I was curious about my captor, but the window had opened the gates to my sense of security, and my curiosity gave way to the dormant thoughts of returning home. There still existed a countable number of people who cared about me, and keeping them waiting anxiously was not a part of my plans.

My visibility was limited, so I coupled my sense of touch with my sight to try and find anything strong enough to break the window shutter. As it turned out, my abductor had not let such an object lying around in the loose, at least not close to the window. Wait, did I really expect to find something like that?

Aryan went to bed with a triumphant grin decorating his face. After clamping down on an unnecessarily compute intensive background process, the code for his project was running smoothly. His roommate, Saket, played a beautiful tune on his keyboard, his fingers dancing on the short black keys and the long white ones, as Aryan drifted into dreams of sitting in front of a keyboard himself, albeit of a different nature.

“So where does this guy live, who you claim was the reason behind Shireen’s unhappiness and uncharacteristically quiet demeanour over the recent past?” a police officer was formally interrogating Shireen’s father.

Her father was quite unnerved by the absence of his only child, even though it had just been slightly longer than half a day. He replied in the most stable voice he could muster, “I have told you before. He is a Delhi boy only. He studies in Kanpur, if I am not mistaken.” The questions went on for another half an hour, as all the relevant, and mostly irrelevant (at least according to Shireen’s father, who was getting more irritated by the minute) details were sucked out of the old man.

The series of interrogations continued with family members, relatives and friends. And neighbors. Basically with everyone who had nothing to do with the actual crime.

Aryan readied himself for the presentation. He had had a breakfast after a fortnight, and had bathed after three days. He connected a comb to his hair, many strands  sticking to his head like those of a school kid. He didn’t know why he did that, except for the belief that special occasions demanded special measures, and that day definitely marked a special occasion.

He entered a ground floor room of the Computer Science department building, dropped his bag on a chair in the front row, and began setting up his laptop for the screen to be displayed on the projector. That was usually the tough part, but  since most of his friends in the department were bad at getting a computer screen to mirror on a projector, he didn’t mind that.

In about a quarter of an hour, his project supervisor, Prof Gupta, arrived, along with a few other faculty members from the department working in the area of computational modelling of real world systems. They took their seats, and so did a couple of other students working on their theses in related areas, and Aryan began the show, sliding the projector screen down.

(Shireen)

I was quite close to my home, sprinting in excitement. How did I manage to get out? I broke the window with a doorknob, that I had wrestled out with some force.

Wait, let that sink in. Yeah, the window wasn’t as strong as I had imagined.

The ground shook, and I trembled. The tremors lasted for about ten seconds, and I thankfully wasn’t hurt. The earth most certainly was.

Aryan cleared his throat and began,

“Good evening everyone. I am here to present before you a model of a world inhabited by a species much like our own, but with some salient differences. I have developed it over the course of this semester. I hope that this turns out to be useful in realising how capable we are of damaging the world we live in, and how such a terrible situation can be potentially avoided.”

His audience nodded, and he went on,

“This is a self contained program running on my machine, much like an operating system simulation. Each thread that runs on this simulation is one entity of the species that I am talking about. At any point of time, the simulated memory can accommodate only a certain number of threads, which is usually around half of them. The rest are swapped out and remain in a sleeping state.”

He switched to the next slide, “Each thread believes that it has a unique purpose to fulfill, but that’s not really the case. As I said, I just set up the system and let it evolve the way it wants to. Which brings me to a crucial point. How are new threads created?”

“Here is where you would notice a striking similarity with our species. The threads come in two variants, or genders. The difference is, unlike us, a new thread can be forked, or given birth to, only by a pair of threads with different genders. This makes for interesting observations, as population growth was a metric I was quite interested in analyzing over the course of time.”

“Are these entities intelligent in any way?” one of the PhD students interjected.

Aryan replied, “You could say so. I have been generous in writing code that exploits machine learning in many aspects of these entities’ existence. It has taken a few hundred generations of threads running on the system, and now they have matured enough to be called intelligent. But that could just be me overstating their capabilities.”

“An interesting dimension to this system is that the simulated world is affected by the external conditions of the machine that it is running on. So, my laptop’s environment plays a vital role in determining the weather conditions and natural phenomena occurring in the simulation. I can, for example, induce strong winds by turning on the fan of my machine.”

The last point was met with gentle applause. Aryan let out a chuckle escape his lips as he moved on.

“As for exiting, I ha programmed the initial set of entities to exit once their lifetime had exceeded a certain time span. Eventually, some of the threads learnt how to kill themselves and others by modifying their code segments to meet their needs. This looked peculiar to me, but it seems that this behavior is crucial to the system’s existence and flourishing. Some of the threads take on the role of master codes and start altering the code segments of others to achieve some goal that they have learnt to be of value for them through timely reinforcements generated internally by the state of the system. But as one would expect, multiple threads can come to this understanding, and that leads to conflicts and killings, or murders, if I may extend the usage of the term to this model.”

Aryan waited for what he had said to sink in. If the faces of the spectators were to be taken as evidence, he figured that he wasn’t doing too badly. He cleared his throat again, and went ahead,

“There are a couple of serious problems that I faced while trying to build the system, and to get it to a working state. Firstly, right in the initial stages, my computer was infected by a virus that liked to call itself Shireen for some reason. It was one hell of a stubborn piece of code. I spent an entire week trying to remove it and restore my system, but my eventual success emerged from one bright idea. I guess I am digressing too far, as this didn’t take birth from my model. Anyway, just in case any of you gets hit by this malicious wretch, look up my blog post on this issue. It turns out that I got pretty attached to this piece of malware, simply because of the challenges that it posed.”

(Shireen)

I was horrified when I reached home. People were vanishing into thin air without a warning. I watched the police, who were there to investigate my disappearance, disappear. Then my family members, one by one. Then my pet. I screamed, but to no avail. I tried to get hold of someone, anyone, but that didn’t stop them from going.

What was happe-

“As unlikely as it may seem, Shireen troubled me again yesterday. Not the same one, no. One of the running threads was consuming too much memory, blocking resources for other threads, and it was coincidentally named the same. I changed my process scheduler’s per process memory limits, which forced another process to swap out this heavy thread for a while.”

Switching to the next slide, Aryan continued with an air of finality, “There were other issues as well, but were easier to catch and debug. So coming back to the population thing, yes, the threads have grown in number exponentially, and that has led to an astronomically quick depletion of system resources. If this rate continues, my laptop would run out of them in a few days and the project would have to be terminated. Or else, the entities, or “humans”, as they call themselves, will find a way to destroy their own species before time runs out. The latter case would be heartbreaking, but interesting to witness nonetheless.”

He ended the slideshow. Prof. Gupta spoke up this time, “if we allow your model to be run on a more powerful machine in our lab, would you have to start it from scratch? And if so, how much do the initial conditions matter?”

Aryan didn’t try to hide his smile. This smelled of success. “Yes, I would have to start it from scratch on the new system, and that shouldn’t take a lot of time to set up. Since the initial conditions depend on a pseudo random process, they won’t be the same, and it would be interesting to see how that affects how the system develops.”

After a few more questions, the presentation ended and Aryan stopped the system. It was time to free his laptop’s resources and use the department lab computers for further observations. Humans would have to start all over again.

 

 

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TaleSpin Entry #8

[Link to TaleSpin]

A Story

 – Thoughtful Thestral

I am a story, and this is my first sentence.

“Four double-­three”, the worker shouted, and TT held up his hand. He received his coffee, and started sipping with lines of worry clearly visible on his forehead. He was sitting opposite Govan, who was having his regular evening samosa.

TT started the conversation, “I am trying to write a story for Talespin, you know, the writing competition in the LitFest, but I’m running short of ideas. Would be a great help if you could suggest some.”

Govan asked, “How much have you written already? Care to share a few lines?”

TT replied, “It’s just about 8-­9 lines so far. I am a story, and this is my first sentence. “Four double -three”,… 

When TT had finished, Govan looked him in the eye and reprimanded him, “Why are you being so bland? He said this, he replied, and everything. Make it interesting. Include details. At least create a proper setting for your readers to relate to.”

So I am dull. I guess I just insulted myself.

TT took a sip and looked around. He was in his Hall canteen, having his evening coffee and snack. I shouldn’t be repetitive, it’s a bad practice. The canteen was bustling with activity. Cliches demonstrate a lack of original construction. It was close to sunset: mellow rays of the departing sun provided an accessory illumination to the place. Plagiarism is a condemnable offense.

The walls were painted with a dull yellow interspersed with orange and blue areas. A television set was mounted on one of the walls, playing a Bollywood music channel at that moment. Residents of the hall, some having just returned from classes, some having just woken up, and some who wanted a place for thoughtful conversations, like TT, were seated in chunks around black circular tables. Freshly prepared samosas and wada­pavs filled the air with a delicious aroma. Pastries and cookies were available for the sweet­toothed, sandwiches and “Little Hearts” for those in a hurry. Conversations on varied topics ranging from cricket to the budget were being carried out, Mid­semester exam marks discussed, and Techkriti pranks were being planned.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, TT was searching for inspiration. A worker shouted, “Four two nine”, and came to Govan upon his hand­waving to deliver his grilled sandwich. TT looked at his friend in exasperation, hoping for more comments and suggestions.

Govan said, after stuffing some bread in his mouth, “Create proper characters. Sketch them with the passion of a dramatist, but with the flow of a poet. Let them make an impression.” He proceeded to chew his meal slowly, relishing the mayo and the tomatoes. Govan had always been a gourmet. I think TT wrote the previous sentence only for aesthetic purposes.

“Ask rhetorical questions. Make the reader think and reflect.” Govan was never short of suggestions.

TT got up and walked out to get some fresh air. Nature might inspire him, he hoped. He was on an edge of a properly cut out rectangle of greenery in the centre of the hall, popularly known as the “Quad”. He sat down on the grass, legs folded, elbows resting on his thighs, his hands supporting his chin. He tried to probe his mind for instances that could be penned down in an interesting manner.

Soon, he got distracted, absorbed in the worries of the impending quizzes and assignments. TT was that kind of a person ­ he always had things on his mind that might be more fruitful than his present preoccupation, and the worries would drive him to reconsider spending time on all things creative. He speculated that majority of his energy must be wasted in thinking of doing things and their consequences, rather than actually getting things done. The thought made him feel sad and exhausted. If he couldn’t achieve a clear stream of thought, he wouldn’t be able to produce a coherent piece of writing.

Govan appeared in a while, and sat beside TT. He put his arm around the latter’s shoulder, and convinced him, “Come on, man. You have the ability to write a meaningful story with relatable characters, exciting twists and a language that leaves the readers spellbound. Just invoke your creative genius and start writing. What’s the topic by the way?”

TT took out his phone, opened Evernote and read out the topic, “But one can also choose to consider this entire composition as a topic in itself.”

“Sounds cool. But in writing about yourself trying to write something, aren’t you taking inspiration from a movie you watched recently? I can’t remember the name…”

“Yeah. It was called Adaptation. Kind of, yeah. But isn’t all writing just a reflection of reality, viewed through the author’s set of mirrors?” TT replied.

Govan lifted his chin and nodded. “You’re probably right.” The two of them started walking across the Quad, heading towards their rooms. TT was still lost in thought when Govan started speaking again, “Another point ­ your story has a very plain start. I think an impactful story must have abrupt beginnings and endings. That makes it all the more effective.”

 

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“So, you claim that you are nothing but a character in a drab little storybook?”

-Thoughtful Thestral

[Note: The normal, italicized and the bold text are three separate accounts, not necessarily in the same time frame.]

The bell rang and I was called in for counselling. I stood up straight, adjusted my tie, tried to put a smile on my face, and walked towards the door. My heart beat heavily against my chest. My throat was dry, and beads of sweat populated my arms. It was getting unbearable. I was in serious doubt, whether I would be able to convince the therapist of my problems. But one thing was certain – this was the only way out. So, I pulled open the door.

The story seems to be going nowhere. Why am I even reading this book? Anyway, I know I have to go on, because the Ibek never recommends a book that I eventually don’t end up liking. The protagonist of this story is a self-centred duffer, who knows nothing better than to seal foolish business deals, dwelling deeper into his own mountain of debt and taking his company down with him. I hope the plot will have more to offer than this cliched narrative, in the pages to come. I do flip through some pages and start reading bits of random chapters on my own at times. It helps to make me feel a bit interested. Now, I guess, I must go and write my diary, before I become too drowsy to pick my pen.

The room was spacious and well illuminated. The temperature was optimum. There was a wooden table at the centre, with a chair on either side of it. The one facing me was occupied by an old man in his fifties, sitting purposefully, but with a broad smile on his face. He asked me to take the other seat, and I readily accepted the offer. There was a soothing air about this man. My nerves relaxed a bit for the first time since last night, as I gave my introduction, and began describing to him the problem that I was facing.

Hmm… this has been a good day so far. Although I have hardly done anything productive, but the story is taking a turn for the better. The build up of this character, Mr. Badger, is taking hold of my senses, and I’m beginning to fall into the book. It’s catching up. Fast. I wonder how the first part of this series must have been, although there seems little connection between the two, because I’m able to understand the events of this sequel very well. I’d like to read it once I get my hands on it.

“So, you claim that you are nothing but a character in a drab little storybook?”
“Yes.” Actually, I was pretty sure of the fact.
It all began a few weeks ago, when I had stopped abruptly in the middle of a board meeting, realising that I had been in that exact situation before. I could not bring up my mind to recollect exactly when, and I thought it was an absurd idea then, because half the members of the board were attending their first meeting. Maybe it was just a random thought that had captured my imagination. At least, that is what I had convinced myself.
But this only got worse. When I was watering my little garden four days back, I had the same memories of recollection. How could I be having visions of my future? It seemed scientifically impossible, so I discarded the idea right away. But this happened again. The next day, when I nearly escaped a car accident, it was because I realized that I had had a vision of that car approaching me and me just avoiding an accident. This made my mind blank, and I absently drove right in front of that car. But the driver of that vehicle made it stop at the right moment, just as my vision had predicted.
So, I started reading up on these sort of visions. And I came to the conclusion that I was nothing but the character of a story. So was this therapist.
“And how does that explain your visions?” he asked me.

Today, I didn’t get any time to read the book till the evening. So, I haven’t read much today, but the story is still moving at a good pace. Badger has finally found love and is planning to propose to the girl. His company has stopped crashing, and there seems to be a chance for steady growth. The way all this has been portrayed is quite cool. It somehow reminds me of the way I like writing, though I seem to have lost my flair for some time.
I have started flipping through future chapters more often now, as I want to heighten my excitement by reading glimpses of scenes from the later chapters. Oh, it’s getting late. Time to write my diary for the day!

I explained the theory of storyception. Actually, whenever the reader of my story gave way to his curiosity and started reading a page from the part of the book he hadn’t read till then, I received a vision of my future. The reader and I were connected, as if by strings. When he saw a glimpse of my future, I saw it too. And this had been making me paranoid since the last few days. I wanted to get out of the story, as quickly as I could. I don’t know why I thought that this therapist must have a solution to my problem.
After listening to me, he instructed me to take a few pills that he gave me, wrote me a bill of a few hundred dollars, and took my signature on some record. I could hardly call my name my own. Mr. Harvill Badger sounded so familiar, yet so unfamiliar. It felt as if this was just the kind of name a crazy author would give me. I took the pills and walked downstairs.

I have grown affectionate towards this guy Badger now. Maybe the long, first person narrative is what makes me connect to him so well. By the way, I am excited right now because I have started my own venture with my friends. The legal formalities were completed today and the investors think our business plan makes a lot of sense, and has the potential to transform lives in the coming days. I hope I make it big, and make my Dad feel proud of me. “Well done, Harvill!” Yes, that’s what he will say.
I think I’ll finish the book in a couple of days, as I set out on serious operations for my company.

I went to the local pub and had a drink to soothe my nerves. I also swallowed the pills, and prepared to leave for my house, hoping that they would have a positive effect on my trauma.

I haven’t been reading much since some time now. The business has had a slow start, but I hope it will pick up in the blissful times to come. The stock market is expected to rise soon. I hope my diary helps me feel proud of myself when I’m successful, maybe a few years down the line, when I read about my present struggles.

The drive calmed my senses further. It’s funny how routine activities can help you relax in times of utter chaos. I was driving up the City Bridge.
That was when I had the vision of my death.

Okay. This is getting weirder by the day. The company has registered heavy losses for the first month of its operations. My co-founders seem ready to desert me. I don’t know how the future will turn out.
The only good thing about the present is that the book is going nicely. I flipped through a few pages again, and guess what? The next chapter will have an account of Badger’s close shave with death on the road! I wish I hadn’t read that now.

The reader put the book down, smirking as he did. He pitied the protagonist of this collection of diary entries for being completely indifferent to the fact that his diary was to be the first part of the story to which the book he was reading was the sequel.
The phone rang. The reader picked it up. He hung up ten minutes later, satisfied as he now had another book to read before his vacations ended. And he was sure it was going to be an exciting read, as none other than his friend The Ibek had recommended it.

[Editor’s Note: This was the best entry in the creative writing competition conducted during the summers. The entry is on topic #2]

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