Sunlight, ch. 06: Vihaan Sengupta

Monitoring: Vihaan Sengupta
Jalandhar, Punjab, India

3:35 p.m. India Standard Time
Tuesday, December 31st, 2013
10:05 Coordinated Universal Time
Tuesday, December 31st, 2013


As was typical for the Children, Vihaan goes from revelation of his powers to experimentation in short order. Seeing as he is living on India Standard Time, he has the good opportunity to be riding the school bus when it happened, and there is someone sitting beside him, who he can test his newfound powers on.

He doesn’t need to do it more than once to get the confirmation that he is looking for, at least for the present, but as the bus comes close to his stop, Vihaan pauses to give counsel. “Just tell your parents what’s worrying you,” he says before he slips away from his seat. Vihaan had boarded the bus as a fourteen-year-old boy, and now disembarks as a saint or minor god.

Or at least that’s what how it seems, but Vihaan can’t explain what exactly is going on. He isn’t a swami or fakir or any other sort of person who might deserve supernatural powers. There has been no training or process of enlightenment, nor any kind of blessing (so far as he can tell). That may be the oddest part of it all, and the most disturbing. There is no good religious framework through which he can interpret these events, and the good old materialist understanding of the universe is clearly lacking. By the time that he goes to bed, and has had a chance to practice on his siblings, Vihaan feels as though he has actually lost knowledge, even though he has really just learned that what he thought he knew is false.

It is disappointing, He would prefer that he were the one who was mad, and not the world, but he can’t go through life with the belief that nothing that he sees is real. Just to live, he will have to accept something, so he accepts this: His name is Vihaan Sengupta, and he can read the thoughts of other people.

And he ought to do something. It is not that being in possession of this power implies that he has also been given a responsibility; Vihaan is wary of assuming too much, now that he it looks like he can trust very little of even what science has discovered. He does, however, feel that he has an obligation regardless: that he ought to do something, because he can.

That is no excuse for acting hastily and inadvertently hurting someone, however. Again, he has received no specific injunction against doing so, but if Vihaan has not been given moral instruction from whatever being or force is responsible for his empowerment then he can still make those decisions on his own, and he chooses to value caution and prudence.

A week passes, and Vihaan is no closer to deciding on a course of action than he was before. Another week after that, however, and he decides to double down on his original position. His power exists, which means that there are ninety-nine others like him, in accordance with the other part of the revelation that he received. It is too much to hope that they will all be patient, and therefore the wisest thing to do might be to wait, see what they are doing, and help those who should be helped and hinder the rest. Without coordination, plans will collide. He will be doing the world no favors by adding another plan to the pile.

The plan, then, the better plan that will hopefully not collide with anybody else’s plans, is to wait until he knows what some of the other plans are and can evaluate whether and how he can involve himself in them, and in the meantime build on his capacity to be useful.

Kolkatta, West Bengal, India

2:40 p.m. India Standard Time
Saturday, May 24th, 2014
9:10 Coordinated Universal Time
Saturday, May 24th, 2014

Fast forward—

The air is thick with incense, but not as much as Vihaan is used to. When he tried to set the proper amount, or what he said was the proper amount, it got to be too much for the man that he is sitting in front of and they had to air out the room so that he would not be disoriented. After all, he might not be able to properly evaluate Vihaan’s (purported) abilities if he were occupied with a choking fit.

“I sense that there is this decision that you have made, you are still wondering about it,” he says. “Not often, yes, not often, but sometimes you are unsure as to whether you made the right decision.

The man, Divyansh, stares back at him, nodding slightly but clearly unimpressed. Vihaan can’t blame the man for thinking that he’s a fraud, even if he is currently reading the man’s thoughts about how unexpectedly dull and formulaic this test is turning out to be. He did, after all, specifically train himself in cold reading techniques, not just to get his subject’s mind walking down the right path (as it turns out, VIhaan can only read conscious thoughts) but also to supply an easy explanation to anyone who is trying to figure him out.

“Now, I’m getting something from your grandfather,” he says. “Wait, no, your grandmother,” as soon as Divyansh thinks about how both of his grandfathers are alive. “Yes, that’s it. Samaira? No, Prishna? Pihu? No, Pari. That’s it. Pari,” he says, though Divyansh had thought of his grandmother’s name as soon as Vihaan supplied the first wrong one. “She wants you to know that she’s very proud of you, even though you’re a skeptic and you don’t believe that she’s actually trying to communicate with you or even still alive. You’re honest, and there are a lot of frauds out there. She’s glad that you’re exposing them.”

From Divyansh there is now unadulterated anger, and a bit of uncertainty about whether it’s right to be so furious with a child. Vihaan is the youngest person to apply for these tests, after all. Divyansh would prefer to believe that he’s just a kid who’s been manipulated by his parents into being a faux-mystic money ticket for them.

“Enough,” Divyansh says, as someone hands him a sealed pack of cards. “Let’s proceed with the first test.” He opens the pack, plastic wrap crinkling in his hands, and feeds it a shuffling machine on a small table to his left. It spits out a card, which he retrieves without letting Vihaan see it. A quick glance, and then he sets it down on the table.

Vihaan will be confronted with a series of twelve cards. His success, based on the rules of the test that both he and Divyansh had agreed upon, requires that he correctly call six out of the twelve to pass it.

He puts his hand over Divyansh’s. “Are you thinking of your card?” he asks, but the question is superfluous. Vihaan already knows that he is. Ace of Hearts, he reads, and “Six of Hearts,” he says.

Without saying anything, Divyansh repeats the process.

Two of Spades. “Four of Clubs.” Two of Hearts. “Queen of Diamonds.”

They go through all twelve, and Vihaan fails every one except the eleventh, which he correctly calls as the Four of Spades. Vihaan complains about the lightened incense on the fourth failure, but Divyansh will have none of it (and rightly so, Vihaan acknowledges in his head).

“You agreed to the rules. If you couldn’t perform under them, then you could have said so in the beginning.”

Fair enough, Vihaan thinks. I just need an excuse for the believers.

They run through two more tests, similar to the first, and Vihaan performs just as badly on those. That’s fine.

The Prabir Ghosh Challenge offers two and a half million rupees to anyone who can demonstrate proof of supernatural powers. That’s a decent amount of money and the biggest single payout in his short career as a psychic.

It’s not that much, though. This time next year, he’ll be making that much every two months. Maybe more, if his career really picks up steam. There’s no end to how credulous some people are, or how much they’ll pay to communicate with the dead.

He can afford to lose this contest, and that’s the point of coming here. The believers will always believe; this will not harm his potential to make money and connections to use later, when the others have revealed themselves. In the meantime, though, he’s discredited himself. After all, what bonafide supernaturalist would voluntarily take a challenge like this and fail?

One that was trying to hide.

There are ninety-nine others like him, and he can expect that at least some of those will be looking for people like themselves. Let them reveal themselves. His plan, inasmuch as it is merely a plan to assist those who deserve it, requires that he be able to locate them. Being located, though, is…not in the cards, as it were.

Vihaan and Divyansh shake hands at the end, and he makes one last excuse for his poor behavior. Divyansh doesn’t even grace this one with a response, and Vihaan doesn’t have to read the man’s mind to know how dismissive he’s feels. What Vihaan especially enjoys is the small note of confusion in the man’s mind: Divyansh can’t figure out why Vihaan is smiling.

Jalandhar, Punjab, India

1:25 p.m. India Standard Time
Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014
7:55 Coordinated Universal Time
Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

Fast forward—

Vihaan has an office now. It’s small, admittedly, and it’s just a converted room in his house, and ever since he switched to correspondence school he’s used it more for schoolwork than for business, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it exists. He feels so official that it hurts. Maybe he should get a visiting card: Vihaan Sengupta, Certified Psychic.

The certification isn’t a lie, either, even if the paperwork was from societies for paranormal research. That’s fine, though. It’s all fine. Lots of people eat that stuff up, and for everyone else it’s just one more reason to dismiss him.

Now that’s what he should really have on his card: Vihaan Sengupta, Nothing to See Here.

The best part of this office is the chair. It reclines all the way back, so his back is completely parallel with the floor. He bought it with his own money, too, which is nice.

There’s a light knock on the door, and his mother comes in. Well, there goes the illusion of being all official and business-like. “Vihaan, there’s someone to see you.”

That’s odd. He doesn’t remember setting any appointments. Still, he can always do his schoolwork later so his schedule is effectively open and it wouldn’t be polite to leave them waiting.

No sooner does he express this position than a man steps past her, pausing briefly to thank her again before he takes a seat in front of Vihaan’s desk. He’s middled-age, probably somewhere around his late forties, with a hard, rough face, like he had spent his youth smashing it against granite until his face toughened up, and bits of it had chipped off in the process.

His smile is unexpectedly bright and inviting, as if he had stolen it off of somebody else, a person with softer features than his own.

“I know that I already sat down, but we should shake hands,” he says, reaching over the desk. Vihaan reciprocates without unthinking, and just as reflexively exercises his power.

Found you, the man thinks, and Vihaan recoils violently, slipping away from the man’s hand and out of his chair, onto the floor.

“W-What? You can’t—you c-couldn’t… “ Vihaan pauses, hand pressed against his chest, and tries to not hyperventilate. “Who are you? How?”

There are too many questions. He can’t do this. What’s going to happen to him?

“I’m a friend,” the man says, and Vihaan forces himself to calm down. Whether or not it’s a lie, Vihaan can’t do anything about it. Not for the first time, but definitely more strongly than ever before, Vihaan wishes that his power came with a truth-detecting component, but unfortunately that aspect only functioned insofar as somebody consciously thought about the fact that they were lying. Someone who was good at it could conceivably lie without thinking. In fact, Vihaan is pretty sure he had read an article about how some people are just able to convince themselves that anything is the truth, on command, like they’d walked out of Nineteen-Eighty-Four.

Or something. He had read it awhile ago.

The man waits for Vihaan to return to his seat, and then for Vihaan to speak. “Okay. So. First question: Who are you?”

“Colonel Rachit Sharma. I’m here as a representative of the government,” he says, and Vihaan feels like he’s in danger of falling out of his seat again.

He isn’t dead yet, though, and this is even more evidence that Vihaan’s options are, well, limited to say the least, so he might as well stay where he is, at least until he gets more information and he gets more options.

After another minute of silence, which Colonel Sharma again does not interrupt, Vihaan finds his next question. “How?” A pause. “I mean, why? I-I mean, I failed the tests. You should have passed me by. I’m not the only kid who’s done tests, not even the only one to get some of the endorsements that I have.”

Vihaan had wondered how long he should wait, and whether his age would be too much of a tip-off for him to successfully obscure it. The other ninety-nine were children too, after all. After much deliberation, he had decided that the risk was reasonable, compared to the opportunity cost that he would have to pay by waiting for a year or three before he started to exercise his power.

Maybe he made the wrong decision. Vihaan isn’t sure, though. Colonel Sharma’s reply makes everything very doubtful.

“Everyone that we’ve found like you has been born on December 31st,” he says. “Also, you’re prone to more academic success than average, although that isn’t a surefire sign because there can be confounding factors and reasons why even a bright child would receive poor grades. Really, it comes down to your birthdate. Someone who is doing extremely well in school is certainly noteworthy, but for other reasons, and there are lots of babies born on any day of the year, and plenty of fourteen-year-olds in this country, and you are correct that it is not unheard of for a teenager to evince supernatural powers, but all of these things combined? It makes us suspicious.”

Vihaan nods glumly, but does not say anything.

“Be more cheerful, Vihaan,” the colonel says. “What you did was very clever. You couldn’t have known that your birthday would betray you, and as far as that goes, you would have to have literally done nothing in order for us to overlook you. That would have been a waste of a good gift, just as much as if you didn’t apply your intelligence.”

“What now?” asks Vihaan.

“We talk for a little bit more, and then I give you my contact information and leave you to think about it.”

“You’re trying to recruit me?”

“We would have to stretch to find a combat utility for your powers, and thankfully enough, it isn’t hard to come up with other applications.” Colonel Sharma sounds like he’s genuinely grateful for that. “You would be put in a strictly non-combat role, then, assisting your government through other means. In addition, you would be put in contact with others like yourself, which I’m sure is an interesting prospect.”

“What can the others do?”

“A variety of things,” says the colonel. “A variety that is classified unless you agree to work with us.”

“How long? What will it be like?” asks Vihaan, and Sharma pulls out some sort of brochure and sets it on the desk. It’s about life in the armed forces.

“Sort of like that, with equivalent pay and a little less physical training, to be renegotiated when you reach your age of majority. I can’t tell you more unless you accept, and then we’ll talk with your parents and make sure that they accept. Since they seem to believe that you have supernatural abilities, what we tell them will be reasonable close to the truth.”

Vihaan picks up the brochure. “I don’t have to make a decision now?”

“No. But we’d appreciate getting one within a week. It would be nice to know where we stand with respect to each other.”

He nods, then looks down at the brochure again. It might be time to do some research on what military life is like. “I’ll think about it,” he says. “I’ll let you know.”