Alice scampered upstairs, two steps at once. I hung on from the seams of her pocket for dear life, as she stumbled on the last step. Pushing open the door, she glanced at the board above, ‘Accounts’.
The familiar coolness of the air-conditioned office enveloped me, as Alice fished me out of her pocket. I huffed and puffed as she hastily ran my nose over the dog-eared pages of the muster, ticking off entries. Placing me on the table, she hurried to the next cubicle.
“There she goes again!” said a squeaky voice.
I rolled to my side to see Lucy, a redheaded ballpoint. “She does seem to forget you often! How are you today, Peg?”
Smiling wryly, I waited without complaint. Alice returned in a moment, looking for me. She shuttled between her own cubicle and the adjacent one, misplacing me at familiar corners a couple of times.
On usual days like these, I did not have to put much thought in my work. I could have sleep-scrawled through the day, but for the whispers. The whispers of a fast spreading, unknown, contagious disease, were growing intense.
There were no reported cases on my floor, yet. Ballpoints at the reception, however, had fallen prey to the contagion. In a matter of days, around a hundred had dried out completely, forcing the clerical staff to borrow pens from the software guys. Over next couple of weeks those borrowed pens dropped dead as well. Needless to say, we doodled our days ,engulfed in a sense of doom, fearing who would go next.
I was getting impatient, as Alice smoothed out her curls. She sprayed on some perfume, locked her desk drawer and took her bike keys. As she tiptoed out of the office, to her date at the neighbourhood cafe, I whistled in relief. They would be here to receive me, any moment now. ‘They’ who, you ask? The inklings ofcourse! Inklings of Doubt.
By the way, Hello readers! I am Peg, a Roller-ball pen, a descendent of the Black Case family. And this is my firsthand account of life in times of the pendemic.
I surveyed the surroundings sceptically, as the inklings carried me on their nebulous, gleaming forms. They glided across the streets, through holes and crevices. Using the capillary action of walls, they traversed rooms at lightning speed, dismantling and moulding me at their convenience. Their translucent figures shimmered in the street-light as they transported me to my destination.
A sense of pride and belonging overwhelmed me as I read the familiar words etched with calligraphic finesse, ‘Tower of Penmancy’. The pen shaped tower of eighteen storeys, still is an architectural wonder, hidden surreptiously from mankind by the Pen-umbra.
Penmancy is the highest office of the governing council of pens. The Tower of Penmancy houses all important head-offices, namely, Administration, Accounts, Marketing, Security, Secret Services, Pen-jury, pen-stakers’ Stock market and Research. An ancient, multiaxial, gravity defying spiral staircase connects the storeys of this tower, letting pens roll down and upwards, facilitating efficient transit. The Pen-umbra, that I mentioned earlier, is a mysterious cloud-like structure shrouding the tower since times immemorial. The mist of ignorance composing the Penumbra is such, that no human eye can discern this tower, hiding in plain sight.
Coming back to our story, the inklings placed me gently in the back row of the fusiform conference hall. The heads of various departments sat in the innermost spindle, resting their shafts obliquely on the centre table. Pens of various designations sat in order of importance in concentric spindles.
Pen-tenna, the pen of a journalist, was speaking explosively. “Reliable sources say the unknown contagion affects completely healthy pens across all social strata, rendering them lifeless within a span of days. There is no known cause and no described cure. There is fear among the penfolk, mistrust towards the government evident in their sighs. Only one question plagues each mind, is this the beginning of the end?”
A collective gasp escaped each nib as all eyes riveted to the head of the spindle. Perched on the Mahogany case, draped in a shawl of the finest papyrus, sat Madame Pen-o-rama, our antique President. Unfazed by the gazes hooked on her, she motioned towards the projected screen.
Dr. Pen-dulum, the Director of Research and Innovation, jumped upright in attention. Pointing at the screen, he stammered, “We carried out a retrospective case control study of a sample population. A cross-sectional demographic study…”
Murmurs surfaced instantly, as pens strained to comprehend him. Madame Pen-o-rama interrupted, “Summarise lucidly and in brief, please.”
The scientist continued, “We studied two groups of pens, one belonging to pen-sioners and the other, to pen-shunners. The pen-sioners are oldies, finding solace in writing with a pen, and cannot think straight till they hold one. The pen-shunners, on the other hand, are the new generation tech-savvy geeks who find it easier to type out on a keypad than grip a pen.”
“Are you trying to make a point here?” The Chief of the secret services snapped.
“Yes, Mr Pen-sieve,” nodded the scientist enthusiastically. “Of the 1000 pens studied, 498 belonged…”
“In less than Hun-de-red words, Pen-dulum.” The President thundered.
“ALL the affected pens belonged to the Pen-shunners. Most had a history of reduced work assignments and altered behaviour pattern in the month preceding the infliction. The incriminated cause, hence, is not a biological infectious disease. Rather it is behavioural infliction, contagious in spread because of its influence on the mind and on the environment. All affected pens experienced a profound feeling of worthlessness that took complete charge over their minds and rendered them lifeless. No change of refills worked on the ball points. Even the fountain pens could not be resuscitated with infusion of vital ink.”
“What do the healers say?” Madame Pen-o-rama demanded.
“The native healers, the Pen-chanters, can stoke a dying fire. But they haven’t been able to rekindle a spark that has died out. Their chants seem to incite no emotion in the patients.”
A fresh wave of dismay swept across the room.
Madame Pen-o-rama addressed us. “My dear pens, these are trying times. I urge you to minimise your interactions with your fellows, keep a safe distance. But stay glued to our common purpose, of saving our race, and salvaging for ourselves, a meaningful existence. Stay alert, and report any suspicious activity to us at the earliest.”
As the penfolk dispersed, I saw the President’s core committee gather around her. My boss clicked his cap, gesturing me to join.
On our way to the lab, Dr. Pen-dulum rattled on, “We have tried everything to reclaim the lost power of the pen. Auto erasing, voice command sensors, Bluetoothed pens, the works! But nothing seems to divert the attention of humans from their screens. They do not accept us anymore, as we are. Nor do they notice us transform ourselves into what they like, because they already have smartphones and laptops serving the purpose.
As the doors sealed behind us, the scientist whispered feverishly, “So we must bring to the table, something they would desire.”
Raising a matte finish pen case, he opened the lid with a flourish. “Ladies and gentlemen, presenting to you, Pen –tuition.”
We marvelled at the wonder in-front of us, as the scientist beamed, “It can read the mind of the beholder.”
“Holder.” A familiar deep voice corrected him from behind.
Madame Pen-o-rama nodded slightly at Penny, my twin sister, as I winced in anticipation of her pungent remarks.
“And how exactly will this know-it-all pen help us ordinary pens?” The President sounded cynical.
“How would it, indeed?” Pen-dulum suddenly seemed teary eyed.
“Why does your opinion sway so much, Pen-dulum?” Major Pen-sieve admonished.
Turning to the President, he said, “We have reliable reports that Jamie McNaughty is trying to hack into our system. Someone tipped him off.”
“The social media GIANT?” Madame Pen-o-rama exclaimed.
“Yes. He is fast deploying his resources to hunt for the Pen-tuition software. For him, it is a magic potion to conquer the world.”
“How do you know?” The President still was not convinced.
“Because my two most trusted agents are planted in his head-office.” Pen-sieve continued, “Meet my undercover agents, Peg and Penny RollerBall.”
“I am Jamie McNaughty’s favourite signing pen. Contracts, cheques, legalities…He never closes a deal without my tip scribbling the papers. He literally thinks if he loses me, he’d be rendered penniless!” My twin laughed aloud at her own pun. “I have myself autographed a contract hiring a top notch hacker to crack the formula for Pen-Tuition.”
“I have been pegging all his departments, thanks to my forgetful human, Alice. I have firsthand information, that he is building a social media platform incorporating mind-reading software.” I added.
“We must train our fellow pens in operating this software, fast. It will take some time, then there will be trials, calibration…”Pen-dulum’s voice trailed off.
“But with this ongoing Pendemic…” Pen-seive sounded dubious.
“Let’s run away.” The President said resolutely. “Till we figure out a cure and train our people, let’s go into hiding. I know just the right place.”
Plan ‘Pen-elope’, as my eccentric twin named it, was put into action expeditiously. The scientists busied themselves in assembling the transport vehicle. We, at the secret services, busied ourselves in a stage-wise international rescue operation to recall all susceptible pens to base. For decades, we had been planting and switching pens, across the world, unnoticed by humans. While they blamed their ‘forgetfulness’, we made incognito entries and exits from human lives from time to time!
As our massive submarine, Pen-drive, left shore, I waved at my annoying sister with a heavy heart. While we cruised on our escapade, Penny stayed back to monitor the humans.
Our destination, Pen-insula, basked in the soft morning sun, revelling in the vibrant reflections of the azure clear skies on the turquoise sea. This tiny piece of earth had miraculously been cordoned off from the havoc in the rest of the world. As we rolled through the cobbled streets, I realized the humans all around seemed happy, an endearing twinkle of gratefulness, mingled with innocent mischief in their eyes. The pens scribbled on merrily, in school books and cash registers, in manuscripts and love letters. They joked among themselves and with the adjoining laptops! The smartphones blinked into peals of laughter.
In the evening, as we all gathered for dinner, a mellow golden light streamed from the door. A quill-pen, majestic in her simplicity, walked in. Her vibrant shaft, resplendent in pastel shades of peach and mauve was frayed. She smiled like the sun, meeting each of us in the eye.
“Hello, my dear Pen-gels. Welcome to our world. I am Taraaki, the guardian Mother. As you live with us for the next few days, please feel free to go about your lives as you normally would. We will do our best to make you feel at home.”
The humble natives went about their business as usual, with us peaking over their shoulders. What transpired next was life changing. Events of immense historic importance have been documented in several memoirs. What I intend to document here, is how my life changed during this time.
The localites made and stored their own ink. While their inkpots were never overflowing, they always seemed to have enough ink to run. The baby pens were allowed to experiment with all types of dyes, oil, water and gel- based, before they decided what worked for themselves.
In our Pendom, pens were divided into classes like ball-points, rollerballs and felt-tips, each designed to function only on a particular kind of ink. Here, on the contrary, the localites had evolved to adapt their bodies to run on the ink they enjoyed, and altered when they wanted. The regular pens co-existed with the differently able minorities like glass markers, charcoal pencils and marker pens. They seemed to enjoy their differences, filling in for each other, whenever they could.
One fine day, Taraaki walked up to me, bowing gently. As she patted my head, she said, “While it does sound fun to be able to read others’ minds, would it not be wonderful if we could read our own?”
I paused thoughtfully. She continued, “What seems to bother you, young man?”
“If we are so worried of humans stealing our software, is it worth it?” I was surprised I had voiced aloud a question that I refused to accept myself.
“But why do you need software? What about practicing mind reading as an art?” She laughed at my flabbergasted expression, “Your software uses pre-fed data to anticipate probable thoughts. And it learns as it reinforces its database, like all artificial intelligence, right?”
Pen-dulum was now by my side, nodding his tip frantically. “But it errs on one basic premise, that the human mind is capable of changing randomly, without logic. Reading the mind based on the spiritual experiences and aspirations of a subject; although abstract, is a lot more accurate. And art can never be stolen, isn’t it?”
As my mind drifted from the technical jargon, I saw Madam Pen-o-rama approaching. Inhaling deeply, she said, “We grew up writing in whatever ink they dipped our nibs in. Now, we speak about freedom of choice, Phew! I guess, its time.”
I looked on in disbelief, as she delicately removed the ring of jewels encircling her cap, and slid it on mine. “May you lead the Ink-dependence movement with integrity and courage, Mr President!”
Amidst thunderous clicking, I bowed my head in acceptance. We parted, singing the Pen-ance song.
We bleed, we smudge, we leak in turns.
We do what we love, and
We love what we do!
We returned to our Pendom , recuperated, self assured and enlightened. To our pleasant surprise, as we trickled into the lives of our humans inconspicuously, we realized they had missed us. They had been plagued with issues of eye strain, headaches and backaches owing to extended screen times. Importantly, they had missed the tangible thrill in writing.
We and our humans now share a beautiful relationship based on sharing life experiences through the written word, unlike the master and subordinate arrangement of yore. The electronic writing devices co-exist, ofcourse.
The first rays of sun are now casting their pink glow over the horizon. I must hurry; soon I will have to rest again, stoically witnessing the everyday conundrum in the office. So, why am I writing all of this?
Because the parting words of Taraaki still ring in my plunger. “Writing is a luxury. And penning down your own thoughts is an ability only the fortunate are blessed with.”
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