108 – Dheepa R. Maturi


Daksha — September 1, 2040

Daksha hovered in the in-between, feeling herself distill from Oneness into her own body and mind. Emerging from her meditative state, she looked around her at the forest where her memories began, her first home before she’d wandered south as a child.
As she nestled into the nandi tree behind her, Daksha inhaled moisture and coolness, slowing her breathing to match the exhalations of the surrounding haldina plants. She reached up to touch their broad leaves and antiseptic bark. She listened, and she felt.
The forest was in pain. Its edges had been pushed and consumed and pushed again, in favor of agriculture that ignored the old ways, the sustainable ways that replenished the land. The forest’s roots, which had anchored the soil for millennia, were loosening and breaking.
“Daksha, we need you!”
She heard the call, closed her eyes, and sent her awareness southward and westward across the land, until it surfaced in a grove of axlewood trees.
Black liquid poured into the edges of her vision and spread toward her.
“Now, Daksha!”
She felt a swell of intention around her, pressing her to act, but it was too late. She wailed as the liquid pierced her flesh and bone and then cascaded like acid through her body.
She couldn’t stop it. But she could attempt to pull it into herself—to absorb, process, consume it all. She threw her arms upward and outward, opened her mouth and frame wide. She screamed as the liquid seared her nerves and tissues.
Agony. She collapsed to the ground. No, please, I can’t—I can’t bear this!
Choking, gasping, she coaxed her awareness deeper and deeper into the forest interior, still as intact as it had been in ancient times, still untouched by human hands. With gratitude, she rested in that space and drank the joy still bubbling there, whose source was the infinite heart of the earth.

Chapter One

Bayla — September 1, 2040

The scent of jasmine caught Bayla Jeevan off guard, and she missed the Booth chair.
Serves me right, she thought, rubbing the knee that had broken her fall. She never allowed herself to think about the land where she’d grown up. Here she was, though, daydreaming of nandi trees and axlewood groves, haldina plants and, yes, jasmine. And of a woman, unfamiliar and yet…
Bayla chided herself: Stop it.
Her eyes darted across the room to the interns, gossiping while the rest of the staff filtered toward the exit through the desks that crowded the Environment Wire news agency. Most were heading to La Cantina next door before going home.
Good—no one had seen her fall. Sighing with relief, Bayla got to her feet.
“Are you okay?”  Braden Turner had stepped out of his glassed-in office and was looking at her with concern—or was it amusement?
Bayla winced. Damn. “Yes, I’m fine.” She slipped into the Booth chair.
“Booth duty again?” He frowned. “Weren’t you here overnight just a few days ago?”
“Someone needed to switch. It’s fine—really.”
“Okay, but keep an eye on the board.” He tipped his head to indicate the electronic monitor mounted nearby. Originally installed to track fire activity in Northern California, it now showed an office-evacuation prompt at least once a week.
“Yeah, sure, I—”
The overhead purifier kicked into high gear, its whir cutting her off. It sounded louder than usual as it labored to scrub the day’s accumulation of toxins from the office air.
She jerked her thumb toward the Booth’s EtherScreens and spoke loudly: “I’d better…”
Braden answered through the din. “Yep, go ahead, see you in the morning.”
She nodded and turned away, making a show of adjusting the EtherScreen projections in the Booth but watching from the corner of her eye as Braden walked toward the door. Then, looking at the clock—9:55 p.m.—she heaved a sigh of relief. For the next eight hours, she’d be working alone.
Bayla scanned the screens, which showed various sources of environmental data on rotation—as many as twenty-four at a time. Taking in so much information at once required a certain amount of concentration, but she was used to it. A few times per month, the mid-level researchers like her were tasked with Booth duty: monitoring overnight information and siphoning it to the appropriate interns. They, in turn, would push their findings up the writing and editorial chain over the course of the next few hours, and eventually all breaking news would be channeled to the agency’s clients, mostly newspapers and broadcasters.
Bayla’s hands flowed through the air in front of her—the Booth’s technology allowed her to manipulate the displays and information by gesture alone, with no physical touch required.
On one screen to her left, the Global Monitoring Lab released the latest spikes in atmospheric carbon dioxide over the Arctic Circle. That was Ethan’s area—she swept the data to him for examination.
She scanned a legal watchdog report—a delay in a Netherlands lawsuit against NG Corporation for excessive emissions. Rani could handle that. Sweep.
On her right appeared the Federal Reserve Bank’s financial impact numbers from last month’s retreat—the largest to date—of businesses and homes from the remaining South Florida coastline. Usually that information would go to Kwame, but Tara was already analyzing similar numbers along the entire East Coast. Sweep.
The same display rotated to NOAA satellite images of the latest lethal heat wave moving across South Asia. She flinched a little, then swept the information to Min Lee.
Bayla lifted her head. There it was again—a whiff of jasmine. That South Asian news must have triggered another memory. Stop it, she admonished herself, and stood up, trying to shake the daydream out of her head.
Her eyes widened and she sat down hard, almost missing the Booth chair a second time. That voice.
Craning her neck, she looked around. At the far end of the floor, the interns sat bent over their desks. One was snoring, his head buried in his arms. The only other sounds were the hum of the EtherScreen projections and the whir of the air-purifier.
“Bayla, we need you!”
Yes—it was her father’s voice. She hadn’t heard it in fifteen years. Bayla dug her fingernails into her forearm. Am I awake?
She gasped as the news agency blurred and faded and she found herself standing amid dense foliage, heavy air pressing her body. Fear gripped her belly; her breathing accelerated. What’s happening? Where am I?
Sounds-sights-smells began to populate above-below-around her. The buzz of cicadas. The trunks of banyan. The breath of jasmine.
I know this place!
She’d tried hard to forget it.
She began turning in a circle, absorbing familiar details of the land in which she’d spent the first twelve years of her life. Reaching out, she touched the bark of an axlewood tree, and then another, and another—she was in a grove.
Glancing at her hands, she gasped again. Threads of light emanated from them, connecting her to the tree she was touching, and the next tree, and the next, entwining her with the entire grove. Looking down, she realized that filaments had emerged from her entire body—arms, torso, legs, feet—and woven themselves into all of the other threads.
Yet she didn’t feel restrained. She felt…bolstered. Fortified.
As she gazed upward, the threads seemed to lengthen, then split and proliferate like vines, moving in whatever direction she looked, joining her to everything she could see.
“Bayla! Look down.”
She obeyed without thinking, peering into the dark soil, and as she did so the threads of light followed her line of sight and began to burrow, pushing through the ground and interweaving with the root structures that anchored the grove and spread outward for miles. She knelt and examined the individual roots, which seemed somehow magnified so that she could perceive the gossamer between them, lacing the whole system together.
Her fear could not coexist with the wonder of it all, this mesh of light and fiber in which she was suddenly ensconced. Agape, she marveled at the trees, their trunks and leaves extending both earthward and skyward. She smelled loam and life.
Closing her eyes, she listened. The web pulsed and reverberated, rendering its own music. Like the terrain, the music was familiar to her, and she rode the melodies like waves.
“Bayla, we’re here.”
She spilled out of the rise and fall of sound. We?
Looking around at the web, she saw a tiny orb just a few feet away from her, a point brighter than the threads surrounding it. Then she looked down again at her own body. She too existed as one sphere of light within the web. Concentrating, she peered around and saw more bright spots, some close to her, some distant. Only ten at first, but then twenty, fifty, a hundred, maybe more. And somehow she knew: they were all people, just like her. But who were they? What did they want?
“Bayla, we need you!”
The bright spots remained still, yet she felt them unite into one intention—striving, straining together, to do…something.
Then she saw it—black liquid, thick and viscous, pouring and spreading all around her. It pooled and deepened, searing bark and trunk, and sank into the ground, corroding root and fiber. She recoiled, because she felt it too, in her own body. The black liquid beaded around the threads connecting her to everything else and then slid into her, piercing her skin, biting her bone. She writhed along with the trees and the soil.
The hiss of acid obscured the swell of song. Reeking smoke subsumed the soil’s scent. Her vision became shadowed.
The world darkened further.
“Now, Bayla!”
She drew a ragged breath, focusing on the chaos around her. And suddenly she understood: they—whoever they were—wanted to stop the liquid, and for some reason they needed her help.
But what could she do? She attempted to thrust her hands into the soil, to block the liquid and push it back, but she could no longer move. Fixed in place, Bayla could only watch as the entire sentient fabric of branch, root, and fiber shriveled, its ancient existence and incalculable wisdom disintegrating. The music gagged and sputtered.
No! she tried to shout, but her voice caught in her throat. When at last her limbs jolted into motion, it was too late. The liquid was bleeding further and further outward, hemorrhaging through swaths of land and water, gorging as it went.
She collapsed to the ground. No, please, I can’t—I can’t bear this!
Curling into a ball, she convulsed, drawing rattling breaths and gripping the scorched soil around her. Then she looked up, shocked, as the soil cooled into laminate beneath her hands. The buzz of insects became the hum of computer equipment. The threads of light had vanished. She was sitting in the Booth, surrounded again by EtherScreens.
But she remained caught in the throes of what she’d just experienced. It had felt too real to be a dream. Could she have been physically transported somehow to the forest? That makes no sense. Yet she felt sure she had been there. And if that was true…
The devastation and loss she’d witnessed flashed through her mind. Her gut lurched at the possibility—the certainty—that somehow she could have prevented it.
And why—why my father’s voice?
“Are you okay?”
Startled, Bayla blinked at the intern who was standing near the Booth, looking at her with concern. “Wha…what?” she stammered.
“I was walking by, and you were just staring at the wall.”
Bayla shot to her feet, then sat again, catching the desk as she tilted. She clutched her stomach in dread. “Something’s happened, Ethan. Something terrible. Get Min Lee—she’s on South Asia stories—and I need you too, and whatever other interns are still here.”
Ethan’s look of concern became one of confusion. “Bayla, what’s going on?”
“I’m not sure. I think there’s been some kind of accident—maybe an oil spill or a chemical leak. A bad one. In southwestern India, near Pritvi Forest. Check the news feeds for the surrounding cities and all of our sources on the ground nearby.”
“But how did you hear—”
“All of you—right now!
As Ethan dashed away, Bayla pulled up the NOAA’s real-time satellite feeds. Given the scale of what she’d witnessed, the details would surely show up there.
She double-checked the time stamps of the images. Current.
Well, other government organizations took satellite imagery, not to mention hundreds of private companies these days, and she had all of the Booth’s EtherScreens at her disposal. She began to open up feeds and data from around the world. Four interns were now searching as frantically as she was.
As the hours passed, however, she noticed their pace slowing and began to feel their questioning looks—and their frustration. It doesn’t matter, Bayla thought to herself. Some incident had occurred. She just didn’t know exactly what it was yet.
She continued searching, and looked up in surprise when the office lights brightened to daytime mode. Staff-members were filtering back into the office. An entire night had passed.
She looked across the room. The interns were talking to their teams, probably explaining what Bayla had instructed them to do. She felt more eyes resting on her and broke into a sweat. How she hated that feeling—everyone staring as though something was wrong with her. Over the years she’d learned to adapt—clothes, gestures, accent, expressions—in order to avoid looks like that.
Was it possible that she’d been mistaken? That it had been a dream? If so, she’d never before had a dream so detailed, so real—and never a dream featuring her father’s voice, just as she remembered it, clear as day.
But if it had been a dream, she was making a fool of herself.
She looked up; Ethan was standing in front of her again.
“We’re not finding anything,” he said.
“Keep looking.”
“Okay, but…”
“Text me when you find it.”
Ignoring his bafflement, Bayla stood up and moved out of the Booth—she had to go somewhere else to clear her head.
“Where are you going?” Ethan asked.
“I’ll be right back.”
At the front of the building, Bayla pushed the doors open and stepped outside. Dry heat assaulted her. She tried to take a deep breath and immediately started coughing. She’d forgotten to check the air-quality rating before rushing out of the office. She felt in her pocket: please, please, please. There. Pulling the mask out, she adjusted its disposable charcoal filter and slipped the straps over her ears. Nevertheless, she continued to cough for a full minute.
Few other people were outside. The sky was red with haze from the latest outbreak of wildfires to the north. She missed the grasses and linden trees that had lined the sidewalks until a few years ago. Watering into the ground was now forbidden, and everything green had shriveled. In the past she’d walked four blocks to MacLaren Park when she needed a break from work, but now there was no point; the last time she’d been there, it had been as brown and gray as the rest of the city.
Her phone buzzed. It was a text from Braden: Please come to my office.
Bayla tensed. She was regretting her behavior now. In the light of day and as the minutes passed, her experience no longer carried the weight and heft of reality. She looked at her hands. Threads of light—really? Why hadn’t she calmed herself, slowed down, and verified the incident before involving the interns? She’d always tried to live up to E-Wire’s commitment to accuracy in the face of the misinformation permeating the media.
Turning on her heel, Bayla retraced her steps. When she stepped out onto the agency floor, she tried not to notice her co-workers’ mystified looks. Not that she could blame them—she’d caught a glimpse of herself on the glass entry doors, and she looked like a crazy person, her expression bewildered, her hair disheveled. As she made her way to Braden’s office, she pulled her long curls out of their elastic band and twisted them back into a neat bun.
In front of his door she stopped, touching it lightly. What would he say to her? She liked him more than she cared to admit—the kindness in his eyes, the humor. She respected his dedication and competence too. He was only four years her senior, but already he’d ascended to second-in-line to the bureau chief, overseeing most agency operations. And ever since his promotion, he had tried to transfer her from E-Wire’s research team to its journalism department whenever she submitted written analysis. This is excellent, Bayla. What are you still doing in research?
Bayla sighed. He’d stop asking after this.
At last she knocked.
“Come in.”
Braden turned toward her from the window as she entered, and she winced at the seriousness of his expression. He gestured toward the overstuffed sofa, indented from the many nights when he’d slept in his office to meet deadlines, and waited for her to take a seat.
“Looks like you had a rough overnight. Want to tell me what happened?”
Bayla was tongue-tied. She pressed her index finger into the sofa arm where she saw a rip beginning.
When she didn’t answer, Braden continued. “The interns tell me you saw documentation of a spill in South Asia, but they haven’t been able to corroborate it. At all.”
Bayla cringed. There hadn’t been any documentation. She had acted from impulse, convinced that whatever she’d experienced had been real. What had gotten into her?
She wrapped her arms around herself. “I’m sorry, Braden. I really believed it happened.”
Braden looked at her intently. “You know, the overnight shift can mess with people’s heads.” He consulted his laptop. “And it looks like you’ve done…eight this month alone.”
Her face reddened, and she lifted her chin. “I’m not sleep-deprived, or crazy. I just…I just made a mistake.”
Braden’s lips pressed into a line. “Yes, you did—and not one I would have expected from someone at your level, with your experience. Obviously we all have to react fast to push information out before our competitors, but this was a rookie mistake, and…” His voice trailed off. He looked at her as though waiting for her to speak, but she couldn’t. At last he sighed. “Bayla, what convinced you?”
Digging her nails into her forearm, she blurted out, “Because I saw it happen!”
“What do you mean?”
She closed her eyes and remembered being sprawled across the soil, the pain and heat emanating from it.
Wait a minute. Heat. She took in a breath and opened her eyes. “Braden, I need to check the infrared heat-sensor readings from Alsa Corp’s close-orbit satellites. Maybe Ethan could…” She stopped, seeing the skepticism in his gray eyes.
“I’m going to get the interns started on something else,” he said. “For now, why don’t you head home?”
She nodded miserably, then stood and turned toward the door.
She turned back.
“Do you need some help, or…?”
“No!” Then she added, “Sorry. I’ll be fine. Thanks, though.” Despite her shame, despite everything, she did appreciate his concern.
Back on the agency floor, she saw staff-members looking her way with varying degrees of surreptitiousness. She scooted to the Booth, grabbed her messenger bag, and dashed out of the agency.
As she walked toward the train station Bayla took deep breaths, but regretted them immediately as she began choking. The city air was thickening into soup. She dug into her pocket again for her mask. Where had it gone?
An incoming train rumbled toward her, and she ran the length of the platform. Scurrying inside just before the doors closed, she swung into a seat, then leaned over her knees, coughing and gagging from her sprint through the haze without a mask. Fortunately the train’s air-purifier was working, and her spasms soon quieted.
Despite her disgust at the sticky seat, she felt lucky that she’d caught this train—if three compartments deserved the name. With the departure of so many people and companies from the city, far fewer trains were running, and many were canceled at the last minute for maintenance. Often they never made it back onto the schedule.
All of these small changes, she thought, impacting more and more aspects of life. She glanced at the oxygen tanks in the corner, now required in every train-car due to the steep escalation of breathing difficulties in the population.
For years E-Wire had been reporting these changes, both the everyday details and the large-scale events. All of them had initially shocked and horrified Bayla, but now her reaction manifested merely as a constant, low-level hopelessness, kept at bay and at a distance because she witnessed events mostly through the computer displays of E-Wire, where she spent the majority of her days, even on weekends.
Was that why her experience the night before had felt so real? Nothing had separated her from what was transpiring. Instead, she’d existed right in the middle of it, touching soil-trees-earth, watching a many-layered and irreversible destruction occurring before her eyes. She’d felt everything in her own body—felt the burn of that strange liquid sinking deep into her cells—as though she were a microcosm of something much larger than herself.

Author’s Statement

As news about environmental distress and destruction proliferates, I’ve found myself closing my eyes and turning away, overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem, fearful that the time for action has passed. However, that’s not how I wish to exist in this world—hopeless, despairing, unable to act. 108 was born of my desire to move through my fear toward inspiration, empowerment, and the energy to do what is needed. The novel does not preach, lecture, or require any action from readers, but rather invites them to join the protagonist on an exciting, page-turning adventure.
During a night shift at a San Francisco news agency, Bayla Jeevan is riveted by the voice of her father, presumed dead for the last fifteen years. Moments later, she is swept mysteriously into a rainforest, where she witnesses a noxious liquid infiltrate and kill the soil. Again her father speaks: “Bayla, we need you!” When she emerges from the experience, she finds herself back at the news agency but is convinced that she’s witnessed an actual event.
Later, when an attempted kidnapping lands her across the globe, Bayla learns that she possesses an ancient ability to tune into the ecological web of life—an ability powerful enough to thwart the vengeful enemy who has threatened her family for decades and whose actions will now launch a global environmental catastrophe. Bayla must come to terms with her past, uncover her family’s secrets, and harness her ability before time runs out.
Woven through the story is the enigmatic number 108, carved into abandoned temples across the world, the key to saving humanity from itself. By the end of her journey, Bayla understands that the earth isn’t a mere backdrop to her life and that human beings are not disconnected entities. Rather, the earth, humanity, and indeed the entire cosmos are all organized according to the same principles, and anything that affects one affects the others. 108 is purposely set in a time when action by committed individuals can still reverse the course of environmental destruction, and Bayla becomes a leader in that cause.
Long-time environmentalist Joanna Macy has claimed that, on the other side of our fear and grief, we will find our profound love for the world. After Bayla travels through darkness both internal and external, she finds a love for the world so powerful that it impels her to do battle for the planet and for humanity. While writing 108, I too struggled to push past my existential fears—not only about the environment but also about the world’s divided communities and divisive rhetoric. 108 showed me a path to the other side, where I found my heart wide open and my voice ready to be of service.

Dheepa R. Maturi writes fiction, poetry, and essays that celebrate nature and connection during this time of ecological grief. Her work has appeared in a variety of literary journals, including Literary Hub, PANK, New York Quarterly, The Fourth River, Tiferet, Dear America, and The Indianapolis Review. Her prize-winning essay “We Are Trees” will soon appear in an anthology featuring the writing of Thich Nhat Hanh and a foreword by Pope Francis. 108 is her first novel. Dheepa lives with her family in Indianapolis.

Embark, Issue 17, October 2022