Vivian had been fiddling with his latest toy, a remote-controlled drone, since morning. The drone that his father had gifted him recently on his ninth birthday kept him busy during the summer break from school. He had immersed himself in the painstaking process of studying its working and building an indigenous device that could function in a far superior way to this one.
Left to himself, while his parents were at work, Vivian remained in the moderate outhouse behind the main building. Here, he always found something to do – the kind of self-indulgence that kids of his age rarely found comfort in. Inside the large room, which had a high ceiling, was a complex assemblage of sundry things left behind by the house owner: stacks of books, storage drawers, stationary material, wooden planks, and carpentry tools. On the walls hung several portraits of grave-looking, bearded men that never interested him.
For the umpteenth time, Vivian refitted the electromechanical parts of his hand-built drone and watched its propellers whir into action and airlift the metal frame. In an instant, it floated up high. Vivian navigated its movement through the remote controller as it zipped back and forth across the width of the room. Now, it attained intelligence and will of its own, vibrated, accelerated, and sputtered, making vigorous plunges and sideways movements. Suddenly, the drone swooped onto the sidewalls and slammed into the row of portraits, disturbing a couple of them.
The drone dropped to the floor like a bird hit by an object. Vivian’s laborious efforts were reduced to a tangled wreck. He picked it up and tried to mend it again. No luck this time. It seemed dead. He sank into disappointment when he heard a gentle tap on the table.
‘Can I help you, kid?’
Vivian looked up at the voice. There stood the tallest, thinnest man he had ever seen. A grin appeared on his face that had light eyes and a stiff black moustache.
‘Are you my father’s friend?’ asked Vivian. The man’s face looked familiar. He exhibited such meticulous grooming that Vivian took him to be a professor.
‘Your father knows me,’ he said. ‘Let me fix this for you.’
Vivian found any social intrusion unwelcome, but it was the odd occasion when he felt a wave of energy tingle inside him. He watched the man’s big hands at work and how skilfully he brought back the drone into life again.
‘Thank you, Sir.’
‘Call me Nik.’ He had an affable smile.
They shook hands and settled into bean bags.
‘What else have you got here, boy?’
Vivian pulled out a drawer at the bottom of a large cupboard to reveal the material he had collected for his science crafts and activities – iron filings, coils, batteries, tools, balloons, ink pads, glue, tapes, scissors, and straws.
‘The coil is my favourite.’ The visitor chuckled. ‘Can you imagine a simple thing like this can create incredible technology? Like your remote control, smart phones, play stations!’
Vivian swelled with enthusiasm as he tinkered with this and that to showcase his experimentation. They were at it for a couple of hours.
‘Terrific job, my boy.’
‘My father says that the simplest of things have led to great inventions.’
‘Yes, as long as you have a great imagination.’
‘Do you imagine the future too?’
He responded with a bob of his head and said, ‘We have an eventful future ahead. Nice meeting you, boy.’ He waived Vivian goodbye and disappeared through the door as discreetly as he had appeared. Long after he left, Vivian brooded over the brief encounter with him. There was a certain magnetic charm about him.
It was evening when he heard his father’s car pull into the garage – time for him to go home for his dinner. Vivian kept his things away and rose to lock the room. Then, on a sudden instinct, he noticed a portrait on the wall. It hung diagonally, disturbed from its original position, perhaps brushed by the vagrant drone. Vivian peered at the name written at the bottom of the frame – Nikola Tesla.
Before going to bed that night, Vivian inquired his father about Tesla.
‘Where did you hear about him?’ his father asked.
‘I met him in the outhouse earlier today.’
Discarding such a prospect, his father inferred that Vivian was reading quite a few books that had fuelled his imagination. ‘I am sure you will come across many such greats,’ he patronized the boy.
‘Those books are for grownups, darling,’ said his mother. But she knew that Vivian was quite precocious for his age.
Nevertheless, his father explained in simple terms. If the world today is striving to build the best electric car out there, we owe the inspiration for this to Tesla.
That piqued Vivian’s interest. The fortuitous meeting with the great inventor was his secret to keep except his dog Bruno who was privy to the incident.
‘I will take you along today, but you must leave us alone,’ he told Bruno when they entered the room the following afternoon.
Vivian considered another opportunity to converse with the man in the painting. He stared at the portrait intently. Could he transport himself into the frame alongside the man, or would the plain-speaking scientist emerge out again? Bruno rapped at the edges with an impatient woof. Just then, the face melted away, and a rasping voice greeted them from behind.
Vivian perked up with a smile. ‘Hullo – Tesla.’ He beamed at mentioning the famed name.
‘That was a novel way to summon me,’ he joked.
‘Are you real?’
‘Well, the distinction between reality and fiction is quite bleak.’ Tesla shrugged it off and continued, ‘Don’t you have friends of your age?’
‘I like to be alone,’ replied Vivian. ‘Sometimes, Bruno keeps me quiet company.’
‘Be alone,’ said Tesla, ‘that is the secret of invention. That is when ideas are born.’
Ignited by that thought, Vivian pulled out his scrapbook that had illustrations of the various things he had conjured up in his mind. There was a distinct mark of irreverence and madness to everything that young Vivian had sketched; his observations about nature and physical things around him mingled with visions of what he perceived.
‘The last time I showed these to my mother, she dismissed them as fanciful. After that, I have never shared anything with my parents again.’
‘What do your parents do?’ asked Tesla.
‘Both of them are professors at the University.’
Tesla laughed out loud and said, ‘In that case, stay away from them. You need me.’
Encouraged by those words, Vivian showed him another of his treasured creations.
‘I designed this comic book.’
Tesla flipped through the pages. It was an endearing story of a young boy and his dog and their adventures with parts of electrical and mechanical machinery that could wirelessly communicate with each other. The story ended with the protagonist building an electric vehicle that could read his mind and travel to the place he wished.
The manifestation of Vivian’s dreams of such a fantastic world in the form of a comic book captivated Tesla. ‘You are a remarkable kid!’ He said in admiration.
‘Will you get back into that frame?’ asked Vivian at the end of a day that was filled with highly engaging conversations.
‘Well – I need a resting place too. But I will be with you whenever you wish.’
Vivian spent an entire summer in the company of his friend and mentor, who enlightened him to appreciate the intrinsic beauty of nature with mathematical computations. Having learnt a great deal about Tesla from the Internet, he was delighted at the privilege of understanding concepts directly from the genius.
‘I read that you can predict the future. How do you do it?’ Vivian once asked Tesla about his prescient abilities.
‘If you can describe the world as an intricate pattern of frequencies and vibrations and connect with those elements, it is possible to tune into those frequencies and decode the future. But, of course, it cannot be taught. You can only train your mind to achieve this.’
‘My friend Mark is playing his first football match, and he badly wants to win. Will he?’
Tesla gave him an amused look and said, ‘I am not much into games, boy.’
‘I want to see how you perceive what is going to unfold,’ insisted Vivian. ‘I will take you along.’
On a bright sunny day that is characteristic of Boston during the season, Vivian sat in an isolated corner of the stadium to witness the football game. It was his second year at the school since his parents moved here from Mumbai to pursue teaching careers, and the only boy he had befriended was Mark from the senior school. None other than him could draw Vivian out of his reclusive realm. So, it was only natural that an invitation from Mark to cheer his team for the game was something that Vivian could not decline.
The place buzzed with activity as both teams took to the ground. Vivian tugged at the portrait he had been guarding next to him. As the crowd roared when the action started, Tesla turned up again and made sharp observations about the game.
‘I read up everything about the rules and regulations and the history of the game last night,’ he said with immense satisfaction. ‘This team has never made it to the big-league stage so far.’
‘Don’t you understand I got you here to show me how you can predict the game?’ remarked Vivian irritably.
They watched the game quietly for the first two quarters. Then, during the break, Tesla said, ‘Ask Mark not to play quarterback in the third quarter lest he wants a cut on his cheek. Instead, he can conserve his energy for the last one and score the winning points.’ Vivian nodded.
So, the third quarter went by without Mark on the field. The game had a dramatic end as Mark advanced ten yards on the final down, tackling the opponent defenders who tried to block his way. After much struggle, he lunged forward to score the final touchdown and take his team to a winning finish of 38-24. Their supporters erupted into a riotous celebration.
Vivian screamed in excitement – ‘That was amazing. Did you see that?’ He turned towards Tesla, whose right cheek was reddened with an abrasive cut.
‘What happened? Where did you get that from?’
Tesla gave a wry smile and said, ‘Time for me to get back, boy. It has been tiring.’ Then, without offering any further explanation, he dissolved into the wooden frame.
Tesla never brought up the matter later. Since that day, he made brief sojourns into the real world only to conduct newer experiments in the field of wireless electricity – with the young boy as his willing medium for execution, the dog as the curious observer and the outhouse turned into his laboratory.
‘I won’t be around for the weekend,’ Vivian told him around Thanksgiving. ‘Dad is taking us on holiday. We are going to the Mystic Lakes and spend some time swimming, sailing, and fishing.’
‘Sounds like an exciting prospect, boy,’ said Tesla. ‘Is Bruno going with you?’
Tesla shook his head disapprovingly.
‘What’s the matter with you?’ Vivian asked.
‘Be careful with him. Don’t let him get into the water.’ In an understated way, Tesla seemed affectionate towards Bruno.
‘I will be with him. Last year he had loads of fun. Why should he miss out this time?’
‘Listen to me,’ asserted Tesla. ‘Keep him away from water.’
Never before had Tesla confronted Vivian with such authority and a sense of foreboding.
‘I will keep him safe,’ Vivian promised.
It was a promise that saved Bruno’s life. Since the day when Vivian and his family went sailing at the Upper Mystic Lake, leaving behind Bruno at the shore, their boat capsized into the waters after a collision with a speeding motorboat whose engine had malfunctioned. Though everyone survived, it took the rescue team a great deal of effort to pull out those trapped underneath the boats. Vivian realized that if Bruno were with them, he would have been the last thing on the minds of the rescuers.
When Vivian returned home, he was aghast to find the portrait half immersed in a water tank in the backyard. He rushed to extricate it and prevent further damage to the heavily soaked frame.
‘Thank you, my boy,’ said Tesla, as he materialized from behind. ‘You saved me from drowning.’ He appeared drenched and profusely wheezed while talking.
‘I have a question,’ Vivian said, putting his hands on his waist.
‘As long as it is not about Bruno,’ Tesla chuckled.
‘Well, you know it is!’ cried Vivian. ‘Tell me, did your vision of the future also contain the bit where you warned me about Bruno?’
The gravity of the question took Tesla by surprise.
‘I could say yes. Or no.’
‘You are not going to answer me? But this makes me very confused.’ Vivian sighed.
‘Eventually, you will find your answers,’ said Tesla, playfully. ‘Or you may not. But the key is asking the right questions.’ Vivian grinned despite his disappointment.
Suddenly, Tesla grew grim as though struck by a flash of light.
‘My boy, this flitting in and out of the margins of time has made me all exhausted,’ he said.’ We will not discuss the future and the secrets of time for a while now. Is that clear?’
Vivian nodded in agreement.
A few weeks passed since that incident. Tesla continued to show steady signs of decline in his energy and buoyance. Vivian continued to demonstrate his ideas, but Tesla only smiled and spoke lesser by the day.
It was a beautiful December afternoon with its clear, crisp air and sparkling snow on the ground. But there was little to cheer about for Vivian.
‘You are no longer as much fun as earlier,’ he told Tesla.
‘I have reasons which you may not comprehend.’
‘Oh! Come on, the same old story? Secrets of the universe and all that! Look, I don’t want to know anything, but I want you, my friend, to be cheerful. We were having such a great time. I want everything to be just like that again,’ Vivian spoke in a single breath.
‘Nothing will be as it was,’ said Tesla and went into deep contemplation.
’Enough of your vague replies. Here is why I don’t make friends. They all fade away soon,’ he said, tears welling up in his eyes.
A deathly silence filled the room before Tesla broke into a nervous admission.
‘Come here, my boy. I am going to tell you something I would rather not tell. But I believe I am left with no choice now.’ He almost choked at his words.
‘As long it lasted, our friendship has been fructuous. I am extremely grateful to you for having given me a new lease of life, delighted to get a peek into the modern world of technology and its marvels, some of which I had predicted many years ago. But I must confess that any activity that involves intelligence and clairvoyance can be quite arduous. Of late, recurring sights of an impending disaster has distressed me.’
Vivian met his intense gaze with puzzlement. Even before he could grasp what he heard, Tesla sounded the warning bell.
‘Get out of here, my boy. There is going to be a massive fire here in the next few minutes. This room will burn down and reduce to nothing. I can see it happening.’
Vivian was too dumbfounded to react.
‘You have learnt not to ignore what I say.’ He thundered – ‘Stay away. And don’t come back here.’
No sooner had he said those words, he vanished into the frame without turning back.
Vivian collapsed into sobs at the thought of never meeting his friend again. Yet, neither could he undermine what the man had said. He exited the room with a heavy heart, only to re-enter quickly, take the portrait off the wall, and carry it with him. He stood outside clutching at its solid frame, thinking to himself – I will treasure this forever, for Tesla will return to me like he always did.
The fear of an end was brought to reckoning within swift time. A strong gust of the evening breeze was accompanied by a loud burst inside the circuit room, and a massive ball of fire enveloped the outhouse instantly. Soon, Vivian heard the faint voices of his parents rushing towards the location.
Overwhelmed by the prediction that manifested itself with such ruthlessness, he retracted farther from the fire. Suddenly, he felt an intense heat emanating from the frame that almost burnt his fingers and involuntarily flung it away. Little tongues of flame swallowed the portrait ravenously, tearing apart the structure. The thin face that had established an intimate connection with him submitted itself to incineration, along with all the secrets.
Vivian stood transfixed for a while before his father drew him into a hug. He wept inconsolably in his arms.
Note from the Authors:
This fictional work is inspired from the life and times of Nikola Tesla, the Serbian born American inventor, engineer, and futurist best known for his contributions to the design of alternating current (AC) and whose work led the path to several significant innovations in the 21st century. Tesla is rumoured to have possessed the power of prophecy. For instance, he is said to have convinced JP Morgan to give up his voyage on the Titanic. Morgan believed in Tesla’s intuition, listened to his advice and returned the ticket.
Team: Blue Flames by Ratnakar Baggi and Sowrabha Karinje