Aayat looked at the roof with half-sleepy eyes, wondering if the day had dawned. Sucking in a sharp breath, she traced the bed to find her mobile phone to check the time. She was not ready to wake up yet. The fabric felt peculiar as she swept her fingers over it. Her skin sent an alien sensation to her brain. She had never touched something like that before.
Aayat snatched her hand in repulsion.
It banged against the frame of the bed.
She bolted upright; her bed didn’t have a frame. The sudden rush of blood to her head made her dizzy. Sleep vanished from her charcoal black eyes in an instant. She blinked them repeatedly to adjust to the prevailing semi-darkness and peered around.
She was in a wide cavity-like room with no windows. Countless devices sat around her. Some of them beeped and blinked, their monitors displaying indecipherable content. The absence of proper light made it look like she was in an ill-maintained hospital, but it didn’t smell like one – no pungent smell of chorine or bleach or blood. In fact, the room seemed neutral in that respect, no smell at all. Aayat focused her concentration on listening to the noises in her vicinity, but there were none – no distant chatter, no click-clack of shoes, no sound of any movement whatsoever.
The air around her felt strange – listless – as if she was suspended in a vacuum.
Goosebumps protruded from her skin as panic rose in her throat; where exactly was she?
Shaking the fear that had engulfed her being, calming her fiercely thumping heart, Aayat gathered her wits. She had to get out of there. With trembling legs, she got up from the bed and leaped towards the entrance, but weak as she was, she stumbled and fell on the floor. Somewhere an alarm blared loudly and someone ran in.
Strong hands picked her up and placed her on the bed again. “Don’t try to move,” a robotic voice boomed across the room.
Aayat raised her head. A tall girlish looking creature with a slightly crooked nose and long cylindrical limbs smiled back at her. “Hello, I am Feedaa.”
It has a name?
“Are you alright? You look like you have seen a ghost,” the creature inquired. The concern underlying its robotic voice confused Aayat further.
She kept silent, looking at the creature with narrowed eyes.
“Say something.” The creature prodded, “can you speak? I hope you speak.”
“What are you?” Aayat moved to the edge of the bed.
“Who, the correct word is who.” The creature corrected Aayat in the manner of a grammar teacher teaching her pupil different parts of speech.
“Huh?” Aayat looked at it, bewildered. Her breath became shallower. She swallowed with great difficulty, the dryness in her throat becoming imminent.
“You should ask who are you and not what... And I already told you I am Feedaa.” The creature placed its hands on its hips and tilted its head.
“Not your name, I am asking what are you – robot? Humanoid? Or a new invention by some crazy scientist?” Aayat eyed the bizarre creature with suspicion. It was tall - about six feet, with turquoise-coloured eyes, full lips, skin that resembled that of humans, and no hair on its head. It smiled at her with what looked like genuine affection.
“What’s a humanoid?” the creature came closer and asked.
“Where am I?” Aayat inched further away, maintaining a distance of few feet between them.
“In my cousin’s lab.”
“Because we brought you here,” the robotic creature shrugged its broad shoulders.
“How can you have a cousin?” Aayat squinted her eyes.
“Why can’t I?” Its words sounded more like banter than a response to someone’s question.
The urge to hit that strange thing swelled in Aayat’s mind. “I need to leave,” she placed her feet on the floor in urgency.
“No, no, no, you can’t,” the creature placed its hands on Aayat’s shoulders, applying great pressure to keep her seated.
“Why?” Aayat widened her eyes, crushed under its weight. Was she being held hostage? This cannot be. She was no one important – just a regular scholar who had shifted to Dehradun a few weeks back. She hadn’t completed any worthwhile research yet, neither was her mentor working on a secret project that she knew of. She was no rich man’s daughter either.
Absentmindedly Aayat lifted her hand to scratch her head, when the creature shouted, “don’t. The detectors attached to your scalp will fall off. As it is, we had a lot of trouble attaching them because of the outgrowth.”
“Why would you do that? Why? And what, what are you trying to achieve?” Aayat ran her long fingers through her hair frantically, trying to dislodge the detectors. They cannot experiment on her without consent. She was not a lab rat.
“Hold, hold. What are you trying to do? You cannot do that.” The creature grabbed her hands in one swift motion and tugged them away.
Aayat struggled to reclaim her hands, she twisted and twirled with all her might, but was no match to the creature’s strength. The dimly lit room turned darker before her eyes. Her brain stopped responding for a few seconds, directing all its effort to prevent her system from collapsing.
Gradually the creature loosened its grip and brought a chair near Aayat’s bed.
“Breathe… Breathe... Why are you so scared? I am not going to harm you,” it said, trying to soothe her.
What’s happening? Where am I? Why am I here? Who are you? What do you want? Aayat’s mind swirled with questions.
An annoyed expression passed the creature’s eyes. “I am Feedaa. This is my cousin’s lab. He and I were hiking in the woods when we saw you lying unconscious near the stream. We tried waking you up, but you wouldn’t budge. There was no identification card on you, so we were left with no other choice but to bring you here. Leaving you to become animal fodder didn’t feel kind.”
“Where is here? I mean, which place?”
“Faejenda, you are in Faejenda.”
“This isn’t Dehradun? Did the stream carry me somewhere far away?” Alarmed, Aayat stiffened in her place. The vein near her temple pulsed vigorously. “I should get back, I need to get back. Can you please help me get back?” she pleaded in a soft voice.
“Where do you live?”
“National Centre for Research in Artificial Intelligence campus.”
“National Centre for Research in Artificial Intelligence?” Feedaa repeated the words and narrowed its eyes. It then blinked repeatedly as if trying to remember something.
“You can, right? You can help me get there. Just call them and ask if any Aayat Athar works there. They will tell you all about me. Please, just help me out.”
“Why don’t you rest a bit first? As soon as you can walk, we will take you there,” Feedaa replied and stood up.
As the creature neared the entrance of the cavity, Aayat called from behind, “why didn’t you take me to a hospital? You could have left me there. The authorities could have easily traced my address. Why bring me here?”
“Rest up. We will talk more when you feel better.” Feedaa walked out of the room, leaving Aayat to ponder over her words.
The place turned colder, as if the temperature dropped by several degrees right after Feedaa left.
Aayat sat on the bed motionless, bracing herself tight, racking her brain, trying to recall the events of the day. One minute she was walking by the stream, the other, she was lying in this alien place. She tried hard to remember what happened in between, but nothing came to her mind.
Her body felt tired, dragged down by the weight of overthinking. She lay back on the pillow and drifted off to a dreamless sleep.