Short Story – The Better to See You With (By Midu Hadi)
The Better to See You With
By Midu Hadi
The ophthalmologist plucked the nictitating membrane off the petri dish with a pair of forceps. Syd moved it around a bit until she found the right place for it in Jab’s right eye. A few days before this surgery, Jab’s plica semilunaris had been removed. Jab had received the call from his superior a week ago. When he had filled in the paperwork required for the transformative surgery, the procedure also mentioned that the plica semilunaris would be extended to form a complete nictitating membrane. Jab had looked at the word plica and thought it had something to do with his hair. As always, Ghan had been his source of information. The boy had been reading to him about bacteriospheres. The leviathan organisms had these hair-like structures on the surface. Jab had erroneously recalled those structures were called plica. Therefore, he had thought the ophthalmologist meant to pluck out a hair or two.
It turned out they wanted to extract the vestigial plica semilunaris and grow it into a whole new nictitating membrane. From Jab’s eyes! “Do I have to be blind for this new bacteriosphere?” he had asked Ghan on reaching home. His son had looked up from the book he had been reading. Jab could not help but smooth away the strands of hair falling across the boy’s forehead. “No, Dad,” Ghan said as he shook his head. “They are doing the exact opposite. They are helping you see underwater.” Needless to say, Jab had continued to look as skeptical as he felt. “By pulling out things from my eyes? Things that probably help me see!” Ghan had sighed at that. “Actually, the part they took out is pretty useless to us. They are going to take your useless one…” Ghan had given a small smile when Jab had looked a bit affronted at his use of useless “…and graft it with a functioning one from an animal, Calabar angwantibo. Then you will be able to see underwater, too. Well, until the modification wears off.”
Syd, the surgeon-of-all-trades, continued working her magic when Jab saw her again. “Try to get Ghan to take risks,” she said as she started suturing the membrane. Her deft hands moved with a beautiful blend of skill and science.
“You know you must push him to get out of his comfort zone,” she insisted. Ever the polite Lucknowi, she had left out the or he won’t survive Jab’s death. She didn’t need to say it, because Jab already knew it. He did not only know it, he lived in fear of it every second of his life. There was never a guarantee that Jab would be coming back once he left on a vetting job. Countless things could go wrong and most vetters didn’t have a healthy life span. What if something happened to him? Would Ghan be able to move on or would he confine the limits of his life even more? “I know you mean well, Syd. But I know Ghan, too. My kid doesn’t even wanna use another brand of cologne. He has been using the same one ever since his mother, bless her soul, started him on it. It has been twenty years now. She died when he was seven, but he just won’t let go.”
Syd had yet to meet Ghan. Calling her just an ophthalmologist was technically wrong. Countless surgeons claimed they could ready a person for the next novel bacteriosphere. They could, too, but Syd was the transformative surgeon you went to if you also wanted to survive the operation. At the moment, she was fixing Jab’s eyes. He needed these eyes if he was going to be a part of the vetting team for the new bacteriosphere colony that had been sighted by the scouts.
That was another reason why Ghan loathed change so much — the poor boy saw so much of it! After the first time that Jab had undergone transformative surgery, he was only as good as how well his transformed organs worked in the next colony. It wasn’t always necessary for Jab to have to get major transformative surgeries while hopping from one colony to the other. Nevertheless, after the Spinosaurus incident, he only returned to Ghan after the modifications had worn off. While that had made it possible for him to have a lucrative career as a colony-vetter, it had also complicated their lives. While Jab was out vetting colonies, Ghan had to stay behind on the bacteriosphere proper.
Ghan’s home was the only stable bacteriosphere discovered to date. The new ones that were found lived long enough to entertain the adrenaline-junkies and vacationing rich. Soon, however, they senesced or a newer, more exotic colony came into vogue.
A new colony had just been sighted and that meant there was work to be done. Not so fortunate was the fact that the internal conditions of this new colony seemed to mimic an underwater environment. Hence, a functional nictitating membrane was just the first item of many on Jab’s list. He had no worries on that score. Syd was an old hand at this. She would think of everything he would need to survive. Even if she did miss something, Ghan was sure to catch it. Jab remembered when a year or two before, when he had been about to vet a new photosynthetic bacteriosphere, Syd had forgotten to check out whether the end product of photosynthesis would be water or Hydrogen Sulfide. It turned out to be the latter and if Ghan hadn’t thought of it in time, Jab wouldn’t have survived.
Well there was no use in dwelling on what might have happened, Jab thought. He looked at Syd who was moving her head this way and that, meticulously checking her handiwork. She seemed determined not to make another mistake. The kid may have not met Syd, but he never let her forget what that failure might have cost him. With every surgery, Syd and Ghan both drew up a list. Roughly the same age, it was as if they were both in a silent competition. The list would mention all the transformations that would need to be made, based on the bacteriosphere that was scouted. So far, this time, both lists had matched.
When Ghan was just a kid, his life had been exciting. Some days, he would wake up to find a human-sized vole in bed next to him. When the vole would wake up, it would insist on making pancakes for him. To an eight-year-old, it felt funny to see his vole-dad flip flapjacks. Now, not so much. If he only woke up to a vole, Ghan considered it a good day. That was because there had been other not-so-good moments. Those included the one when Jab had returned home from a vetting assignment as a Spinosaurus. The teenage Ghan had not found it amusing when his dad munched on his pancakes, all the while eyeing him. Dino-dad had looked as if he would have preferred Ghan-cakes instead!
While Ghan’s mom was alive, she had been the family breadwinner. Unlike her, Jab did not have the smarts to design dresses for the affluent. Her boutique had become history just a week after her cremation. After her death, Jab had had to find a way to survive. Ghan continued his musings uninterrupted as he walked to the school he taught at. I was the reason Dad had to go under the knife the first time. If only I had been able to hold a job. He knew it was unfair for him to expect that from his seven-year-old self. However, Ghan hated the long periods of absence that sprang up when his dad was on an assignment. At grade school, his friends thought Ghan’s life was so cool. What did they know? They never had to wake up next to a jigsaw of borrowed transformations that loosely resembled their dad!
It was not only the transformations and the continuously expiring organs that meant more transformations that angered Ghan. That I could have handled. It is the fact that he riskshis life every time he vets a new bacteriosphere. Who knew what the scouts might have missed! Nobody could predict that everything was accounted for and supported by a transformed ability. All the scouts did was make deductions from outside of a newly sighted colony. Jab and his team were the first ones to venture into the alien environment. That was why Ghan had studied hard and earned several degrees on various subjects. The ten-year-old Ghan had called it knowing everything about everything. The adult Ghan called it saving his dad’s life!
As Ghan walked into the school’s building, his communicator beeped. “Ghan”, he answered simply.
“Dr. Ghan, I am a big fan. It is such an honor to be talking to you!” The person on the other end sounded excited.
Thinking that this was another groupie, Ghan responded curtly, “I am guessing there is a reason behind this call.”
Undeterred, the man continued, “Of course! I know you must be very busy but I needed some help. My dissertation on the Anthropocene is almost complete. I have almost all the information…thanks to your many books and articles on the subject.” The man paused to breathe and Ghan felt he needed to interject a thank you somewhere.
“Uh…I am glad that my work has been of help.” He had even managed to get his tone to warm up a degree or two.
Maybe I am able to have a human conversation, after all, wondered Ghan. The next sentence brought that train of thought to a screeching halt. The still-unnamed speaker requested, “I was thinking that we could maybe meet.”
“I see. We can always video-conference, Mr.…” Ghan relented after a few seconds of silence.
“Wick. Ed Wick. Sir, I know you are very busy. I just need to ask a few questions. I won’t take too much of your time. You see, I have been fascinated by corals ever since I was a kid!”
Oh no, why did he have to use the C-word. Ghan panicked. The possibility of having a conversation loomed ever closer now.
“I want to talk about how corals…things that were not even completely alive… could bring about the end of the world!” Wick said.
Goddamn it! swore Ghan internally. That was his favorite subject. Moreover, Ghan could not let an opportunity to educate like this pass. It was his job as a scientist and a teacher. “When would you like to meet, Mr. Ed Wick?” Ghan found himself saying.
A few minutes later, Ghan hung up and walked into the class after he had exchanged the necessary information. “Good morning!” he greeted his junior school students.
“Good morning, sir!” they greeted him back.
“What did we study the last time?” he queried.
A dark-haired kid raised his hand.
“Yes, Aown?” Ghan prompted him.
“We were talking about acidification of the seas, sir.”
It was good to instill awareness in them while young. That way, when they grew up, it gave them a sense of responsibility.
Ghan sat opposite Wick who seemed like a cross between a fan girl and a gawky boy at their first date. No, that isn’t completely true. I should also add the eager student into the mix. Although, he does seem to really want to learn. Wick resembled a piece of taffy that had survived the hands of a naughty four-year- old. Not only was he tall but he seemed to turn pink every time Ghan talked to him. Since there were only the two of them in the room, that meant Wick’s complexion had stuck at pink for most of the conversation.
Excited to talk about a topic that had always been close to his heart, Ghan could not stop himself had he tried. They had been at it for more than three hours now. He had begun with how Captain James Cook had not found the Great Barrier Reef in 1770 so much as rammed into it. Then he had moved on to Darwin’s visit to Moorea, Tahiti in 1835, just to arrive on the most fascinating part i.e. the reef’s nature. “Are you with me so far?” Ghan asked the man.
Wick nodded. “I think so, Mr. Ghan. We now know that reefs are organic paradoxes composed of gelatinous creatures that are plant, animal, and mineral in parts. The paradoxical part comes from their being mostly dead! It still amazes me how those organisms all came together to form the calcified masterpieces that supported whole ecosystems!”
Ghan knew that he and Wick would get along fine when his tone added yet another exclamation mark at the end of yet another sentence. Ghan sobered up as he related this next part, “The co-evolutionary existence encouraged by the reefs did not survive the Anthropocene. Excessive CO2 production ensured that by acidifying the oceans. The coral could not find enough calcium to keep building their megalithic structures and by 2100, nature’s construction workers had thrown the towel in.” If he was any good at reading facial expressions, Wick looked as heartbroken as Ghan always felt when discussing these oceanic rainforests.
Shaking his head sadly, Wick posed his next question. “That still does not explain how we got from acidified oceans to…” he waved his arms indicating their surroundings. Ghan suppressed a smile as his new student did his best stork impersonation.
“Climate change”, began Ghan, “took care of the rest. I read the notes that you sent to me after I had agreed to this meeting. I know how extensively you have researched that subject so I don’t think I need to go into details about the havoc that changing global climates wreaked on the previously inhabitable planet” Ghan smiled.
Wick, of course, started stammering, but his complexion turned a beautiful amaranth pink answering for him. “I am sorry. I have been dying to meet you the moment I began writing my dissertation. Although, it hasn’t been easy finding you and getting in touch with you. With technology being what it is, it would take a tech-god to stay hidden the way you do. This isn’t my first attempt or even trip, by the way. When I called you, I wasn’t sure if I had the right number or if you’d pick up. My dissertation had everything in it but for your opinion. What did you think?”
Ghan allowed himself a little smile at Wick’s confession and then extended a hand towards the man. “Like I said, I could see the effort that went into it. It was an enjoyable read and…” Ghan glanced at his communicator for the time, “…it was nice meeting you, Mr. Wick. I look forward to more future discussions such as this one.”
Ghan could not stop chuckling as he exited the room. His parting words had made poor Wick’s blush go a pink that was so pink that it looked as if it were radioactive. However, his rare jovial mood vanished as soon as he remembered that his dad would be vetting a new colony – another aquatic one — today. Wonder how he is doing, he thought as he made his way back home. He knew that he would be spending the next couple of days glued to his communicator’s screen. There would be no time to cook, bathe, or even leave his room. Ghan had already stocked up on eatables that would sustain him while he waited for news of his father. This vigil had become a ritual ever since Jab took on his job as a colony-vetter. Ghan would feel as if his body was caught in a vise that kept squeezing it tighter and tighter with each passing day. Once his father had come home, then, Ghan would be able to breathe!
Jab checked the harness again, tugging at every rope to see if he needed to redo any knots. Then he went back to what he was doing. “Son, I’m getting too old for this,” Jab said, before he pressed the refresh button on his communicator. The action deleted the previous message and overwrote it with this new one. Jab looked up just as Sabi started walking towards him.
“All done, my friend?” Sabi asked, putting a comforting hand on his long-time friend and fellow-vetter’s shoulder. Jab nodded and started to seal the communicator in a Volvox mucilaginous sheath. Like most things, the sheath that used to cover the microbe-sized Volvox had also undergone modification. As the Volvox had started making leviathan colonies, the sheath that used to protect them had hardened. It was now counted amongst the hardest substances on the planet and was used to keep things safe–things like the communicator, which would deliver the recorded message if Jab did not make this vetting.
“What did you record this time?” Sabi wanted to know, as he hooked his harness in, right next to his friend’s. Since Sabi had watched Ghan grow up and had been around during the recording of many such messages, Jab didn’t mind telling him. “I told him to take care of himself…” said Jab, but Sabi interrupted with a smirk. “Yeah, like you haven’t told him that in every previous message. You know that Syd is the best there is, right? Why record a message for your son before we vet a colony?” Jab shook his head. “His mother left him…us so unexpectedly. I don’t want my last words to the kid to be, I made pancakes. With real blueberries. No matter how delicious they were!” Sabi smiled before joking, “It is a hell of a lot better than what I said to my wife before I left this morning.” Before Jab could ask what those golden words had been, Az slipped down the tethered rope and was standing next to them.
Taking off his diving gear, Az shook his head, increasing the disarray that were his dreads. “Everything is as we found it during the initial scouting mission. It is an aquatic colony, which means you sea-studs should do fine”. The last part was Az’s way of making fun of their nictitating membranes. Sabi scratched his ear with a belying nonchalance. The action exposed the gill slits that Syd had given him in preparation for the vetting. Az swallowed while his face sported a broccoli green shade. Being a scout, he didn’t have to undergo such frankensurgeries as the vetters did and they understandably freaked him out. Jab had to look down at his feet so he wouldn’t burst out laughing.
“Well, I’ll be off, then. The others will be sliding down in a minute or two,” Az said and started walking away from them. When they were finished guffawing like two pre-teens and all the other scouts had come down, Jab, Sabi, and two other vetters made their way upwards to the colony. One of the scouts had taken Jab’s communicator with her and had been instructed to mail it to Ghan, if the occasion demanded.
It might have been hanging in the air like it was another moon, but the colony contained nothing that resembled land. Its insides were filled with a liquid much as if a naughty kid was going to drop it on unsuspecting passersby. Of course, the kid would have to be as big as a mountain and the balloon’s skin wouldn’t be diamond hard. The miniscule Volvox had been algae green in color. This one had decided it was going to be the same shade of pink as shag carpets of yore. Every now and then, though, a gleam of emerald would catch their eye only to disappear later. Jab was close enough to slip inside the colony, and he paused to look at how his team members were doing. Sabi, he didn’t need to look for since he had been climbing with Jab. When Sabi was about to vet a new colony, he got nervous and a nervous Sabi sang. At that precise moment, he was belting out Aguilera’s Moulin Rouge as loudly as he could. Sabi was a traditional and nothing could convince him that the new songs could actually be called music.
“Hey sistah…”, sang Sabi while Jab watched the other vetter pair reach within touching distance of the colony. “Ready!” Jab shouted and activated his gene signal. Once on, it made the vetters seem like a part of the colony itself. The scouts had another important job on the initial scouting mission. They brought back samples of the new colony. The geneticists at Jab’s firm would extract DNA from the samples to make these signals. Unfortunately, the signals burned out too quickly, which is why they waited until they were close enough to the colony to switch them on. “Voulez-vouscoucher avec moicesoir”, was Sabi’s response as he too switched the signal on and slid inside the colony. Making sure that they were all in, Jab was about to stick his head in too when Sabi’s head popped out briefly. “I asked my wife, where’s my good underwear, before coming here!” and with that, he was gone.
Jab laughed out loud as he made his way inside. The mucilaginous sheath’s hard exterior parted like butter because of the gene signal. Jab touched it with gloved hands and it felt rough and grainy. As he proceeded to the inner layer, the sheath softened and became the gooey substance that it was supposed to be. Sticky and gelid, the sheath gave way to a liquid-filled, hollowed-out cavity that was the actual colony. Inside the colony were smaller rotund spheres of emerald green. These were the daughter colonies that floated in the liquid sea that were the colony’s innards. As always, delicate fibers, this time as pink as the exterior, crisscrossed the interior. One end of the fibers was attached to the poles of the giant colony. The other end of each fiber anchored a daughter colony in place, but with a lot of give.
While Jab had been taking in the scenery, the others had completed their reconnaissance and converged from different areas of the colony. “Well, it is your regular aquatic volvo-giant. Nothing special!” said Carl, one of the others while the other two nodded in agreement. “My daughter wants a new communicator for her birthday. The one that transforms into a robot when you need it to do your homework for you. I promised her I’d buy one, too”, said Carl, wistfully. When his teammates shook their heads at him, Carl had the grace to look embarrassed. “What, she’s a kid! I want her to be happy,” he said defensively.
“No, Carl. You want her to stay busy while you go do the nasty with your new wife. Which one is she, the 13th?” Sabi jabbed his colleague with an accusatory finger.
“5th, okay? My marital frequency aside, we won’t get paid much if this colony turns out to be a dud.”
Jab’s ears might have been tuned into the conversation, but his eyes had been busy scanning their surroundings. He was grinning now. “Gentlemen, I don’t think that is going to be an issue,” he said, making the trio look at him.
“What is it?” Sabi asked, and in answer, Jab pointed to the fibers that were holding the daughter colonies together. Even though their heads swiveled in the right direction, none of them found anything out of the ordinary. “Spit it out, man! Number 5 doesn’t like me to be late on Manimal Bedroom Nights,” Carl exclaimed.
Jab’s eyes widened and he put up a finger. “One, gross! I am never going to invite you to my home again. You might end up corrupting my sweet innocent son.”
“He’s a grown man, Jab. Stop being such an over-mothering er…motherer”, Carl interrupted.
“Two”, Jab went on, as if he hadn’t heard a word Carl had said, “the ends of the fibers towards the daughters has turned green. The other end is still pink. I think these ladies are ready to be emancipated. In fact, if I am right, this might be the first time anyone has ever seen the daughter colonies getting it on!” As if to prove him right, the smaller spheres started bumping against each other.
“Whoa! No communicator is worth this much,” said Carl as he hurried to extract himself from amidst the suddenly active colonies. The others followed.
Ghan had invited Wick to finalize his thesis over a cup of coffee. They were busy canceling out paragraphs from the manuscript and adding new ones when the communicator was delivered to him. Ghan had felt something was wrong even before he saw the device. The feeling had crawled down his esophagus as soon as his father had left and refused to leave. Unable to stop himself, he had used the gene signaler Jab got him for his birthday to extract the thing from the sheath. Then, not caring that Ed was right there with him in the room, Ghan had pressed play.
“I love you, son! I have never been prouder of the man you have become. I wish I could always stick around and make you blueberry pancakes. If you are listening to this message, then I might not be coming home. Either that, or Nina has mailed the communicator to you by mistake. In that case, I am going to kill her. Anyway, if we do meet on the other side of the veil, try not to kick me too hard. My heavenly nuts won’t survive it! I worry for you. The thing is, I understand why you hate change so much. Yes, I have noticed that each book on your nightstand is facing the same way it has faced for the past many years. I have also observed that you use the same cologne that your mother bought you before her death. I think it is time for you to move on. At least, give it a try for my sake.”
Ghan didn’t know how to feel. What he had tried to prevent all his life had finally come true. His dad had not come out of this new colony. Not this time. The message broke his heart with each sentence, delivered in his father’s voice. It ended with an abrupt, “Son, I’m getting too old for this.” Just like his father to leave Ghan hanging like that.
Since this was their third meeting, Ghan was sure that Ed wouldn’t spontaneously combust. Nevertheless, he couldn’t make himself meet Ed’s eyes. Pain was raging inside him and he didn’t know how to stop it. Then, his father’s words echoed in his mind and he knew how to slow it down, if not stop it. He needed to change for his dad’s sake, the same dad who thought of nothing but supporting his son. Jab had had no education or skill that he might have used to earn a living. He did the only thing he could have by taking the riskiest job in the world. The job of a colony vetter! Ghan decided, if he had never disappointed his dad before, he wasn’t going to start now. He made the first small change that was in his power. He started to talk.
“My dad worries…worried too much. When he’d leave me for days while vetting a colony or recovering from yet another transplant, it used to drive me insane. I had inherited the worrying gene, you see?” He gave Ed a sad smile, finally looking at his friend. Ghan realized that Ed knew he wasn’t supposed to respond. This was catharsis and he was just going to be there for Ghan. “The cologne wasn’t just the one that my mom had bought for me. I mean, that wasn’t the only reason I used it. I used it because Dad used it too. When I smelled the perfume, it made me think that he was close by. That he was going to be alright! I see it now that it is I who needs to be alright. Will you help me get things ready for Dad’s funeral?” Ghan asked his new friend.
“Do I look okay?” Wick knew he was asking Ghan this question for the third time in under seven minutes.
Ghan looked as if he wanted to shove the turban down the groom’s throat. “Yes, Ed. You look dashing,” he answered with forced patience. An hour more of this and Ghan would run out of adjectives. “Maybe I could fashion a noose out of the turban for myself,” said Ghan.
Ed grinned at his friend who didn’t seem to realize he had said the last part aloud. Ghan had come a long way in these past three years. He left his house to visit places that were not work or let’s see, yeah work. They saw each other twice a week at least. He had even expressed an interest in a colleague but most importantly, he had showed up at the wedding. Ghan had even dressed the part and Ed could not have been more grateful to his friend. “Mate, you look quite dashing in sherwani yourself,” Ed teased him. Once, long ago, when there were such things as countries and cities, the bride-to-be’s ancestors had been Pakistanis. There was no way that Ed could have gotten out of wearing the traditional groom attire. Pakistanis took their weddings very seriously as occasions to have as much fun as could be had. They dressed with extravagance and they celebrated with a legendary luxuriance. He might have tried harder had he wanted to, but the festivities that he had witnessed so far confirmed that he had made the right decision.
Ed stood at the end of the huge ballroom that had been rented for the wedding. His family and friends were arrayed behind him. They all waited to welcome the bride. At the entrance stood a gaggle of the bride’s cousins. Wick observed that the male relatives had decided to dress up in sherwanis, just as Ghan had. The ladies were attired in vibrant colors. Their shararas ended in voluminous skirts that made one think of petals. As they advanced, the bride took delicate steps with them, still hidden from the groom’s eyes. Halfway down the aisle, the crowd of her loved ones parted and the groom saw his bride for the first time that day.
Syd had chosen to highlight her Lucknowi ancestry by the choice of her wedding dress. Her petite frame was encased in a gharara the color of pixie dust. Trying to keep her eyes downcast, Ed grinned when Syd raised her head for the briefest of seconds to wink at him. She was the picture of Eastern demureness in the next instant. Ever on opposing sides, Syd & Ghan had come closer to each other after Jab’s passing. His bride had claimed the right to invite Ghan because she had known Jab & Ghan far longer than she had known Ed. Syd had won, too, which was why his best man was sporting the clothes picked by the bride’s relatives. He is the reason I met Syd, thought Ed, And the bastard does make the sherwani look good! he accepted grudgingly.
When the religious rituals had been observed and done with, both sides settled down to a typical Western wedding dinner. He and Syd had agreed that would include the best man’s speech. Wick sat next to his wife, unable to take his gaze off her for too long. When Ghan stood up and cleared his throat, the groom had to wrench his eyes off his bride. Ghan surveyed the ballroom in an affected manner before beginning, “The bacteriosphere proper looks so much more beautiful and radiant today. Just like the bride.” He smiled at Syd who beamed at him. “So much so that it makes up for our being on the wrong end of the Endosymbiont Theory!” Most of the guests smiled out of politeness while the groom let out a guffaw at his friend’s joke. Before Ghan could begin to be completely embarrassed, the bride’s laughter had joined the groom’s. Maybe Dad was right, maybe I can change! Ghan thought before resuming the rest of his much less-funnier best man’s speech.
Midu Hadi is currently pursuing a PhD in Botany and having a hard time catching it. She has also written other stories, which can be found on Smashwords. You can also follow her on WordPress, LinkedIn, or Twitter.